When a flash flood in 2011 made Fairfax Boulevard more closely resemble a river than a major roadway, one individual decided to take advantage of the street’s watery condition.
The resulting video of a man paddling down Route 29 while floating on a large inner tube has racked up more than 300,000 views since it first appeared on YouTube on Sept. 8, 2011, drawing unflattering but necessary attention to infrastructure issues that had been plaguing that stretch of road for years.
The City of Fairfax hopes to avoid any reoccurrences of similar hijinks with its overhaul of the Fairfax Boulevard and Chain Bridge Road intersection, a $42.7 million venture that Mayor David Meyer says ranks among the largest public works projects ever undertaken by the city.
Completed this spring with a formal ribbon-cutting on May 20, the Northfax project involved the installation of a new box culvert under land that used to host a strip mall to the north of Route 29, the widening of Route 123 to six lanes, and the addition of turn lanes and upgraded traffic signals on Fairfax Boulevard.
In addition to addressing recurring flooding issues on Route 29, the improvements aim to reduce traffic congestion and provide greater mobility to pedestrians around the intersection, potentially saving more than 450,000 hours of delay for travelers by 2040, according to Northern Virginia Transportation Authority projections.
“This is far, far more than just fixing a flooding problem,” Meyer said. “This project…is really going to make a difference in terms of congestion mitigation, and also assisting citizens to be able to get into our business areas adjacent to the road.”
The Northfax project has been in the works in some form for 20 years, though the Route 29/123 intersection has been in need of an upgrade for even longer.
NVTA Chairman Martin Nohe recalls having issues with the interchange as far back as 30 years ago when he was an undergraduate student at George Mason University’s nearby Fairfax campus.
Northfax represents the intersection of a major federal highway and a state highway, so vehicle blockages in the vicinity have an impact on traffic in any direction for miles.
Aging infrastructure and water runoff challenges indicated a reconstruction would be necessary, but as those issues accumulated, so did the estimated costs of the proposed project, according to Meyer.
An update presented to the Fairfax City Council during a work session on July 23, 2013 shows that the project was once expected to cost about $21 million.
Ultimately, the Northfax project required $15 million from the NVTA, $14 million from the Virginia Department of Transportation, $9.5 million from federal sources, and $3.5 million contributed by the City of Fairfax.
Officials say that funding was made possible in part by H.B. 2313, legislation passed by the Virginia General Assembly in April 2013 that established a dedicated revenue stream for the NVTA to allocate toward local and regional transportation projects.
Northfax is a prime example of the kind of projects that NVTA was designed to support.
“This is a truly regionally significant project and will have impact not just on people in the City of Fairfax and the neighborhoods right around here, but will really have impact on mobility throughout Northern Virginia,” Nohe said.
Right-of-way acquisitions needed to place a new culvert underground further contributed to the project’s prolonged timeline, but workers at last broke ground in 2016, about two-and-a-half years before construction finished.
Volkert Engineering provided oversight during the design and construction process. The firm Branch Construction was responsible for the construction work.
In order to cut down on the amount of traffic that becomes backed up at the intersection, Northfax expanded Chain Bridge Road to six lanes from Route 29 to Eaton Place, and a second left turn lane was added to Fairfax Boulevard for eastbound traffic seeking to get on Chain Bridge.
“If you have one turn lane at an intersection that really needs two, that one turn lane is now backing up into the through lanes,” NVTA Executive Director Monica Backmon said. “Now we're creating more of a backlog, an even worse congestion problem, so with the two turn lanes independent of the through lanes, that will help traffic flow a little easier.”
The project also brought new sidewalks and expanded crosswalks for pedestrians as well as new ramps to improve accessibility for people with disabilities.
Less visible alterations include the introduction of new LED traffic signals and a computerized system for signal phasing and operations that can use GPS to switch all of the lights to red when a truck or ambulance from the nearby Fairfax City Fire Station approaches.
Fairfax City officials hope the improvements to Northfax will pave the way for a revitalization of the commercial corridor along Fairfax Boulevard, which currently boasts a number of vacant lots between Main Street and the city limits at Pickett Road.
Six out of the seven major development projects tracked by the Fairfax City Community Development and Planning Department are located on Chain Bridge or Fairfax Boulevard, including a possible redesigned shopping center at the now-demolished Fairfax Shopping Center and a proposed mixed-use development to replace the former Paul VI High School building.
The city has committed approximately $40 million in public infrastructure improvements to support private development on Fairfax Boulevard and in Old Town Fairfax, according to the Fairfax City Economic Development Authority.
“It’s a win for the environment,” Meyer said of the Northfax project. “It’s a win for safety, for mitigation, for pedestrians, for ADA, for the fire department, and for economic development. It’s a package deal.”