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Road jam drives us to misery

September 19, 2004 1:10 am

I AM WORRIED about the upcoming holiday season, but not about what to get for whom. Getting to and from local stores, that's got me concerned.

For the first 14 holiday seasons I've lived here, traffic has been at its worst--and has gotten progressively worse each year--in the weeks before Christmas. Even before there was a Central Park, December traffic along Spotsylvania County's State Route 3 corridor was horrid. Last year, on the weekends that preceded Christmas, Carl D. Silver Parkway was a virtual parking lot from morning to night.

Of course it's not just a holiday problem, it's a constant problem. Weekdays, weekends, whenever. It is unspeakable what has been allowed to happen here. Even our guests from Northern Virginia, who should be accustomed to traffic congestion, wonder why it's so awful here. After decades of seeing the inevitable unfold before us, we have procrastinated to the point that the quality of life that brought so many people here has been squandered. It's probably still around here somewhere, you just have to drive farther and farther to find it.

I'm motivated to write this by the recent story reporter Edie Gross wrote about a new plan to relieve traffic congestion along Route 3 ["State Route 3 bypass floated in Spotsylvania," Sept. 9]. There were several telling quotes in the story that offer insight into why the problem is as bad as it is and why it will get only worse.

First, development that is designed to draw traffic occurs without concern for the traffic it will generate.

Back in 2002, for example, the Silver Cos. proposed a new Interstate 95 interchange for its Celebrate Virginia project. The idea died after the company learned that it would have to make a series of road improvements before the Federal Highway Administration would consider it.

"I think time will prove that not having an interchange is a mistake. But we've decided to move forward without it," said Jud Honaker, a top Silver Cos. executive.

Move forward without it. So the company knows that Celebrate Virginia threatens to present a traffic nightmare, just as it had to expect that Central Park traffic would overwhelm the system of roads in and around it, which it has. But that, in the end, is someone else's problem.

No matter how bad the traffic gets, the company will still make its money. No matter how many people complain or vow to boycott such developments, the company knows that enough people will endure the congestion to shop, eat, or be enter-tained as long as the businesses are appealing and well-managed.

So we sit way back from the traffic light as our cars idle away gasoline and spew exhaust. In the meantime, we blame the Virginia Department of Transportation but fight any plan to raise the revenues the agency needs to address the problem. Go figure.

One exit to the south, the Silver Cos. is planning to build a smaller version of Central Park. Another Wal-Mart Supercenter will go up nearby. Traffic attempting to exit southbound from I-95 at Massaponax already backs up onto the interstate. New roads and road improvements are planned, but will they work?

Many people, myself included, will be looking for a hand to shake if congestion at the interchange doesn't worsen due to the added development.

Even if projects such as the Cowan Boulevard extension ease congestion, or development at Massaponax draws traffic from Central Park, it won't be long before new growth makes us long for the good old days of 2004.

Second, a new western crossing of the Rappahannock has become an inevitable necessity. I can't believe I'm saying this, but it is a reality bestowed upon us by the growth that has occurred here.

We have made our bed and we must now sleep in it. If we suffer insomnia as a result, for having disturbed a pristine portion of the Rappahannock River, we have only ourselves to blame.

Spotsylvania Planning Commission chairman Hugh Montgomery Jr. has proposed a Route 3 bypass that would parallel the busy thoroughfare for several miles from I-95 to a point west of Five-Mile Fork. If it were ever approved and funded, it would be shorter, cheaper, and less invasive than the corresponding stretch of the old Outer Connector, and require no new river crossing. Maybe it's a solution.

But while any desperately needed new highway could be considered a stopgap measure, Montgomery's plan would seem a shorter-term fix than a route that a new river crossing would provide. Wouldn't it be better also to get that traffic and exhaust farther away from town?

Third, nothing happens if local and VDOT officials fail to cooperate--not that there would be any money to spend if they did. The tax increases approved for this year by the governor and General Assembly produced a budget that actually cut the allocation for the state's six-year transportation-plan funding by $1.23 billion, including more than $20 million in the Fredericksburg district.

Instead of money, we get childish exchanges between local and state officials--"It's my way or no high-way"--and little constructive dialog about what it will take to get the roads we really need.

As I write this, a group of Republican lawmakers in Northern Virginia has announced a $5 billion, 20-year transportation program and wants first dibs on the surplus millions that last session's tax increases are expected to provide. So does everyone else. But there's no solid idea for where the bulk of the money might come from or any project priority list. They have no real answers, but thank goodness they have a plan.

The Fredericksburg area has much to offer both residents and visitors. Most residents will put up with the frustration and inconvenience of sitting in traffic because they have no immediate alternative. Visitors, on the other hand, take the horror story home with them and tell their friends, who tell their friends.

Having tourists stay away is one way too help relieve traffic congestion, but probably not the smartest way.

RICHARD AMRHINE is a writer and editor with The Free Lance-Star.





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