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WHEN OUT-OF-TOWN com- pany arrives for a visit, it can be a special time. Laying eyes on family and friends you haven't seen in a long time should be refreshing for the soul.
But when company arrives at our house, they say things like, "How can you stand to live here?"
They're not mean or impolite by nature, they're just venting after having spent twice as long on the road as they should have.
The short answer to their question is that because we live here, we don't have to travel here. But we do have to travel away on occasion, and then travel back, so we know exactly what they're talking about.
I never thought that I would be embarrassed by where I live, but at those moments when company arrives late and frazzled, I am. Around here, the old adage works backwards: It's a nice place to live, but you wouldn't want to visit here. How's that for a tourism slogan?
But even the "nice place to live" part is becoming suspect.
Once you live here, or anywhere else for that matter, you learn to live with local traffic snarls. But other places don't seem to have intersections like State Route 3 and Carl D. Silver Parkway. How long before something really bad happens as eastbound traffic waiting to turn left into Central Park backs up into the fast lane of Route 3? The answer, the Virginia Department of Transportation acknowledges, is a pair of "flyovers" into Spotsylvania Mall and Central Park. Those would require city/county/state cooperation, and a lot of money. So they won't happen soon.
And then there's U.S. 1, U.S. 17, and Butler Road in Falmouth. Why that intersection has been ignored for so long is among the great mysteries of life here. VDOT's brand-new six-year plan sets aside money--for right-of-ways and additional study.
So we try to find our way around such choke points, or time our trips to avoid the congestion. Sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and deal with it.
A larger issue, however, is the highway that bisects our city and our region: Interstate 95. If you think it's bad now, consider 20 years or so down the road. A VDOT study projects that traffic on I-95 in the Fredericksburg region will leap 75 to 80 percent by 2025. It assumes that by then, the highway will be widened by two lanes to four lanes in each direction. In other words, 33 percent more lanes, 75 percent more traffic.
When the interstate system was being planned and built, planners may have considered the development that would spring up around its interchanges over the next half-century, but decisions about that fell into the hands of woefully unprepared local governments. Not only is I-95 the nation's primary East Coast north-south corridor, it is Main Street for every community in its path along the way.
So what's the impact on us?
In rapidly growing areas such as ours, dependence on I-95 has become a recipe for disaster. Because of inadequate planning on overburdened local arteries such as State Route 3 and U.S. 17, those interchanges have become a source of spillover congestion onto I-95. While locals may become inured to the aggravation, motorists just trying to pass through will remember the Fredericksburg region as little more than a bottleneck to avoid.
Clearly, Interstate 95 traffic is causing many of us to alter our plans and our lifestyles. If you travel at all between here and Washington, particularly on the weekends, you can assume that your trip will take you up to twice as long as it should.
It recently took my sister and her family four hours to reach Fredericksburg from Baltimore, where our mom still lives. It should be a two-hour trip. They live in northern New Jersey and often travel into New York City. They say the traffic is never nearly as bad up there as it is along the I-95 corridor in Virginia.
Have you considered the implications for our area that the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge and the improved "mixing bowl" hold? You don't need to be a plumber to figure out that if you remove the clog in one place, it will simply get hung up again at the next spot where the flow is already slow.
If you think the slowdowns between here and Springfield are bad now, wait until the nation gets word that work on the Wilson Bridge and the mixing bowl is completed. Smooth sailing? I don't think so. Not through here.
Northern Virginia has studied and feared for years the impact traffic congestion would have on its economic vitality. In the wake of the economic downturn and Virginians' preference to sit in traffic rather than pay for improvements, traffic jams have become part of the landscape. With its combination of high-tech industry, government, and military presence, Northern Virginia's economy remains the state's pillar of strength. But it's hard to believe chronic gridlock wouldn't take some toll on its economic resilience or future growth.
While the Fredericksburg area's economy may be strong, it's no Northern Virginia. Its commerce and tourism depend heavily on the ability to get around. If people choose not to visit here because of the traffic, or if locals decide to put off that shopping trip because of the traffic, the damage will become evident.
Headed to the grocery store? Don't forget your books-on-tape.
RICHARD AMRHINE is a writer and editor with The Free Lance-Star.