Fred Ex got the royal treatment Wednesday.

State and local officials crowded together under a tent at the Stafford Regional Airport to kick off the second, and longer, Interstate 95 express lanes extension, also known as Fred Ex, heaping effusive praise on the project for its expected boost to traffic flow and the state’s economy.

“You all know how to draw a crowd,” Gov. Ralph Northam, who flew in to the airport for the event, told the crowd of about 100, who enjoyed barbecue and other goodies under a tent on the warm, breezy afternoon.

“This is a big day for Fredericksburg, for Stafford and surrounding communities,” the governor continued, adding that the express lanes project is the kind of work that could return Virginia to the top of the list of best states, a perch the commonwealth regularly contended for prior to the 2008 recession. “This is a big, big deal.”

The project, he said, will improve safety and “quality of life.”

The I–95 corridor between Fredericksburg and Washington, D.C., is known as one of the most congested stretches in the country. A section in Stafford County was tabbed the worst hotspot in the U.S. in 2017.

The combination of the toll lane extension and a pair of projects that will add three lanes each way in the interstate median and across the Rappahannock River south of the express lanes is expected to alleviate the persistent congestion problems.

Preliminary work has already started on the $500 million project, but Wednesday’s event gave officials a chance to tout its expected positive impacts and to toss a little dirt with ceremonial shovels.

Virginia Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine called the extension “one of the most significant infrastructure projects in the history of our commonwealth, for this region and throughout Virginia.”

Jennifer Aument, the president of the express-lanes operator Transurban North America, said she has driven I–95 for decades and spent a lot of time “sitting in the queue.” The extension, she said, will be “giving time back” to travelers of the interstate.

Aument added that since the express lanes opened five years ago, drivers have saved 15 million hours traveling the corridor.

The express lanes extension will cover about 10 miles from North Stafford to U.S. 17 in southern Stafford, adding two reversible lanes in the median of I–95. The extension will include additional access points near the U.S. 17 and Courthouse Road interchanges, as well as the Russell Road interchange at the Quantico Marine Corps Base in Prince William County.

The extended lanes are scheduled to open in 2022.

The express lanes extension will connect to the Rappahannock River crossing projects, which will add three lanes in each direction in the median of I–95 from U.S. 17 to State Route 3.

The aim of the crossing projects is to separate local from through traffic. Work has started on the southbound crossing project, which is expected to be completed in May 2022. A northbound project is set to start in 2020 and be finished in 2023.

Transurban is helping pay for the northbound crossing as part of an agreement with the state to pump $277 million into other work along the interstate corridor.

Congressman Rob Wittman was one of the speakers who praised the project at Wednesday’s event, saying it “highlights the need for us all to work together.” The 1st District Republican called on the federal government to approve a transportation infrastructure plan so state and local governments can do what is needed.

“We can do even more,” he said, adding that new lanes should “go to the 126 exit” at Massaponax.

The original plans for the express lanes called for running the toll lanes to that Massaponax exit. But that didn’t happen.

Instead, the location for the southern end of the express lanes, which converted the former HOV lanes to electronically tolled lanes, reached only as far as State Route 610 in Stafford.

After the toll lanes opened in 2014, congestion problems plagued the merge area. Those problems led to a call to extend the lanes south.

The first extension, a $50 million project taking the lanes about two miles farther down the interstate, opened in late 2017. After the extension, there were modest improvements to traffic flow in the corridor and lower toll prices, according to Transurban’s figures.

The second extension is a $500 million project, which is expected to add 66 percent more capacity in the corridor, according to Transurban. The company also says the extension will allow 30 percent more people (in 23 percent more vehicles) to use the interstate during peak periods.

Bill Howell, retired speaker of the House of Delegates and Stafford resident, attended the event, saying he has been involved since the beginning and was glad to see the extension.

Fredericksburg Councilman Matt Kelly and Stafford Supervisor Cindy Shelton were also present, along with many of their colleagues. Kelly and Shelton agreed that the extension is a good thing.

Kelly said he was glad to hear Wittman call for more lanes reaching into Spotsylvania. “That was the original plan,” he said.

Shelton called it an “exciting day.” But she added that the project won’t help people in her Aquia District navigate U.S. 1, which has its own congestion problems.

To that end, Shelton said she is talking to local and state officials about adding another option—the old Outer Connector bypass.

“It’s not popular,” she said, but explained that she can’t think of a better option and that local officials need to start talking about it again. “I personally think it’s the only answer.”

After the event, Northam agreed that adding more lanes to the interstate is a good idea.

“All of 95 needs to be opened up,” he said. “But as we say in Richmond, one step at a time. And this is a big step.”

Scott Shenk: 540/374-5436 sshenk@freelancestar.com

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