Construction on 495 NEXT project could begin next year, VDOT says

Plans to extend the I-495 Express Lanes three miles north from the Dulles Toll Road in Tysons to the George Washington Memorial Parkway in McLean are moving full steam ahead.

Now backed by federal approvals, the 495 Northern Extension project (495 NEXT) is on track to develop a more detailed design this fall, Virginia Department of Transportation officials told Fairfax County leaders and community members at separate meetings last week.

With a financial close on a contract projected to come this winter and the design getting finalized next year, VDOT anticipates starting the right-of-way acquisition process and construction in 2022. The new toll lanes are scheduled to open in 2025.

While the project has faced skepticism over whether its benefits will outweigh the impact of construction on the environment and neighborhoods, state transportation officials say expanding the Capital Beltway to the American Legion Bridge — and, ideally, beyond it into Maryland — will provide needed relief at one of the worst traffic bottlenecks in the D.C. region.

“I’ve never heard anyone say the American Legion Bridge is great,” VDOT Chief Deputy Commissioner Rob Cary said during a virtual public information meeting on Wednesday (Sept. 29). “It’s an issue. Everybody knows it’s an issue, and this project is going to move forward and fix that.”

The timelines for Virginia and Maryland’s projects to add toll lanes on the Capital Beltway (via VDOT)

The additional capacity created by the new express lanes will allow for transit across the Potomac River that’s currently stymied by the amount of congestion on and around the bridge, VDOT Northern Virginia Regional Transportation Program Susan Shaw told the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors’ Transportation Committee last Tuesday (Sept. 28).

VDOT has committed to introducing bus service between Tysons and Montgomery County in Maryland as recommended by a study that the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation and Maryland Department of Transportation completed in March.

VDOT will provide $5.2 million to purchase buses, and contracted Express Lanes operator Transurban has agreed to cover the transit service’s operating costs with $2.2 million per year once tolling begins, according to the presentation delivered at both of last week’s meetings.

At Fairfax County’s urging, the state has been looking at the possibility of launching the bus service before the new toll lanes open, especially since Shaw admits conditions “will be degraded some” during construction, which could last into fall 2027, when Maryland expects to open its Beltway toll lanes.

“Those years of degradation are what really concern us,” Providence District Supervisor Dalia Palchik said at the transportation committee meeting. “So, getting ahead on transit and a program to really get people on transit, out of their cars during that congestion, I think, would be very helpful to be successful.”

However, it will be difficult to provide consistent, timely bus service until the express lanes are available, Shaw says.

A planned flyover ramp from the I-495 Express Lanes to eastbound George Washington Memorial Parkway in the 495 NEXT project has been relocated (via VDOT)

Since the Board of Supervisors officially endorsed 495 NEXT in April, VDOT made the following modifications to its design in response to public input:

  • Realigned a flyover ramp from the northbound I-495 Express Lanes to eastbound George Washington Memorial Parkway with existing roadway, reducing impacts on nearby residences
  • Reconfigured the Georgetown Pike interchange ramps with a longer merge lane and an added “channelized,” free-flow right-turn lane from westbound Georgetown Pike onto I-495
  • Widened the Georgetown Pike overpass bridge with a six-foot-wide sidewalk on the north side and a connection to the nearby pedestrian trail from Scott’s Run Nature Preserve
  • Added a rectangular, rapid-flashing beacon and high-visibility crosswalk across Lewinsville Road at Timberly Lane
  • Revised the alignment of the project’s planned trail where it ends at Lewinsville Road

495 NEXT will also support stormwater management and stream restoration efforts along Scott’s Run, including work to improve the quantity and quality of water leaving the project area, improvements to plunge pools at four outfalls along the stream, and stream bank stabilization at two spots.

Transurban will also give Fairfax County nearly $1.4 million to help fund its Scott’s Run stream restoration project. The Board of Supervisors shared that they were working on an agreement to get funding for that project included in 495 NEXT in February.

While the county board expressed cautious optimism about the project, commending VDOT for the transit and stormwater commitments, there remains the question of whether Maryland will uphold its side of the so-called Capital Beltway Accord.

“We are not at a point where Maryland has received a green light to go forward with this project yet, as far as I can tell,” said Dranesville District Supervisor John Foust, who voted against endorsing 495 NEXT in April, citing the uncertainty of Maryland’s commitment. “I mean, there’s still hurdles and approvals and significant objections on the Maryland side to the project.”

Maryland’s proposal to replace the American Legion Bridge and add toll lanes on its side of the Potomac River moved forward in August when its Board of Public Works approved a pre-development contract with a private consortium called Accelerate Maryland Partners led by Transurban.

However, Maryland is still in the environmental and traffic analysis process, with the Board of Public Works not scheduled to vote on a public-private partnership agreement with Accelerate Maryland until next summer, according to MDOT’s current timeline.

In addition, opponents to the newly rebranded Maryland Op Lanes project are unlikely to be satisfied by an environmental impact study released Friday (Oct. 1) that found evening commuters in the general lanes would see no traffic benefits from the downsized express lanes.

To assuage fears that Virginia will be left with a massive, half-finished infrastructure project, Maryland Op Lanes Deputy Director Jeffrey Folden participated in the Board of Supervisors briefing and public information meeting last week alongside his VDOT counterparts.

“We’re looking to provide a new American Legion Bridge together, along with new bike and pedestrian access to connect trails on both sides of the Potomac River,” Shaw said.

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