Virginia DOT Improves Route 7 Corridor in Preparation for Future Area Growth
Making the Public a Partner: Virginia DOT Makes Citizen Collaboration a Top Priority on Route 7 Corridor Improvements
There’s a regular buzz in the news about the need to improve infrastructure in the United States. Although the need to do so is nearly unanimous, the how is much less so. The need for improvements along the Route 7 corridor in Fairfax County, Virginia, was clear to all. The exact how took a group effort and has led to the Route 7 Corridor Improvements project.
Located 15 to 20 miles outside of Washington, D.C., the section of Route 7 being worked on is highly trafficked, and average daily traffic is projected to rise dramatically from 52,000 to 86,000 by 2040. The traffic along the road is primarily commuter with many people traveling from points west to Tysons, Virginia, and to Washington, DC.
Route 7 throughout the area is a six-lane highway except for where the project is taking place. There’s nearly 7 miles where the route is just four lanes. This project will widen the road so that it is also six lanes. In addition, 10-foot-wide shared-use paths are being added on both sides of the route, and there will be major intersection improvements along the corridor.
Other aspects to the project include the construction of noise walls and improved stormwater management.
Challenges and Complexities
The density and the historical nature of the area are making this project more complicated.
For example, widening the road is not so simple. “This segment of the road is mostly residential,” says Christiana Briganti-Dunn, Design-Build Program Manager for the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT). “These residences are million-dollar homes.”
With people so invested in the area, it’s no surprise that they wanted to have input into the changes being made around their homes. The area includes 48 homeowner associations. In order to build consensus, the Route 7 Widening Working Group was created. The collaborative effort – which includes VDOT, the Fairfax County Department of Transportation, District Supervisors’ staff, other agencies, and community representatives – focused on the scope and design of Route 7.
“It’s been a long-term discussion to understand what the public wants to see happen and what they care about,” says Jenni McCord, Communications Manager for VDOT. McCord notes the group has been meeting for 10 years. Ultimately, the public was a partner and the Working Group fostered open communication between them and the design team.
Because of the activity in the area, acquiring right of way has been difficult. “Right of way acquisition has been our biggest challenge,” says Arif Rahman, Project Manager for VDOT. Rahman, whose responsibilities include dealing with the contractor and designer as well as public outreach noted, “We’ve had to acquire portions of 230 parcels of land.”
Currently, the area is set up to handle a two-year event. “Rainstorms that are common in this area leave water on the roadway, and flooding is often an issue,” says Briganti-Dunn. As part of the project, the area will be able to handle a 25-year event.
In order to improve the stormwater management, a bridge that is along the project is being made taller and longer to allow more water to flow underneath. Another challenge involved a 54-inch water line that runs parallel to a power line. The water line had to be relocated.
Noise walls were added to the project after VDOT conducted a preliminary noise analysis and found that they were necessary.
The exact placement and type of noise wall is being determined by the responses of surveyed property owners. “Based on the public outreach, area residents are not pleased with a big noise wall,” says Rahman. “While people want a wall, they don’t necessarily want it on their property. We’ll communicate with the public to determine how to best get the noise wall built.”
A Multimodal Route
There are other improvements beyond adding the 10-foot-wide shared-use paths on both sides of the route to enhance mobility for cyclists and pedestrians.
Part of the 40-mile-long Gerry Connolly Cross County Trail, which spans all of Fairfax County, runs along Route 7 where the project is taking place. The private trail system connects neighborhoods on both the north and south of Route 7. “We’re making some improvements on the connectivity of the trail,” says Briganti-Dunn. “To do this, we had to relocate portions of a stream.”
Another park, Colvin Run Mill Park, is on the north side of Route 7. As part of the project, VDOT is putting in a pedestrian tunnel to connect the two spans of the park. There is a historical aspect of the park as George Washington spent time there. “Due to environmental concerns, we had to agree to make as little impact as possible on the park and ensure the impact is beneficial,” says Briganti-Dunn. The park will also be getting some additional signage and reforestation to make up for what had to be removed to make room for the extra lane.
According to Rahman, the project is impacting wetlands. Therefore, the team needs to find ways to minimize that impact. “We’re putting articulated concrete block at the bottom of the steam channel,” says Rahman. “This way, grass can grow up and into the block and protect the wetlands.”
The team is also using an innovative erosion-controlled dome. They’re custom made to fit into the specific environment they are being used. The domes fit over drainage or yard inlet and are reusable. “They allow water to get into the drainage, but keep dirt out of the water,” says Briganti-Dunn. “They keep clean water in and dirty water out.” This is the first time the erosion-controlled domes are being used by VDOT.
Schedule and Budget
The estimated cost of the project is a shade under $314 million. A few parties – including the federal government, the state of Virginia, the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority and Fairfax County – are funding the project.
While the project is in its early stages with completion not expected till the summer of 2024, Briganti-Dunn says it is on budget so far. The threat to keeping the project on budget is the right of ways costs. “Right of way is the singularly biggest risk,” says Briganti-Dunn, “as the budget is based on the current market.” The goal is to purchase the land at a fair market value.
VDOT decided to go design-build because they found construction of the project would take 10 years if done in the traditional manner. “This project allows for concurrency of phases,” says Rahman. “We are still acquiring right of way, yet we’re working where we have it or purchase is not necessary.”
“By its very nature, design-build allows for innovation, as design can be flexible,” says Briganti-Dunn. Theses reasons, as well as the design-build team (“one of the premier design-build companies in the country with a high success rate”), make Briganti-Dunn confident the timeline of the project will be met.
When this project is complete, commuters in Fairfax County will see a host of improvements. Route 7 will have increased capacity, be safer (reduction in median cross overs and a displaced left intersection), increased drainage capacity, reduction in noise impact, and greater connectivity to the surrounding area. Cyclists and pedestrians will also recognize improvements.
All the improvements for each group of people (residents, drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists) are a result of a good communication. Infrastructure works for all when the area residents are considered.