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Dr. Gridlock
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Posted at 11:29 AM ET, 06/21/2011

HOT lanes traffic shift fouls morning traffic

Traffic on the Capital Beltway’s outer loop near Tysons Corner was just ghastly this morning. I was hoping to see whether the Virginia Department of Transportation’s adjustments on the Dulles Toll Road have made it easier for drivers to find their way onto the Beltway.

But it was impossible to sort out which aspect of the high-occupancy toll lanes project was the main source of the morning congestion there.

The new problem began overnight as workers opened up the two new outside lanes on southbound Interstate 495 (the outer loop) between Route 7 and the new W&OD Trail bridge, just north of Interstate 66. WTOP reported that drivers were confused as they shifted lanes in this area this morning because it lacks pavement markings to guide them.

Steve Titunik, spokesman for VDOT’s Megaprojects office, which helps manage traffic through the big Northern Virginia work zones, said this in an e-mail: During night work on HOT Lanes, rains came in and washed away temporary lane markings. This happened just as the crews working on the lane shift were getting ready to open the new lanes.

Lane markings can’t be applied while the pavement is wet. But VDOT decided that shutting down the lanes just as the morning rush was beginning would only have worsened the situation.

Right now, he said, a mobile crew is out putting down fresh lane markings and will remain at work until about 3 p.m.

Between 7:30 and 8 a.m., the time I spent on the outer loop, traffic was backed up from that HOT lanes work zone in Tysons Corner to the American Legion Bridge.

This is an extraordinary delay for a lane shift. One of the prime concepts behind the traffic management plan for the lengthy HOT lanes construction project was to minimize the impact on commuters by first building the four new lanes on the outer sides of the Beltway before shutting down the inner lanes and converting them to HOT lanes.

The impact on Beltway traffic this morning was anything but minimal. And when there’s congestion like that on the Washington region’s main street, the effects ripple out.

So at about 8:45 a.m., traffic was backed up for at least five miles on the eastbound Dulles Toll Road before the interchange with the Beltway. This is the HOT lanes work zone that I had intended to check out, because of the many complaints from drivers about the delays caused by the reconfiguration of the Beltway ramps.

During the past week and a half, VDOT has taken a series of steps to help drivers get oriented to the new traffic pattern and adjust the configuration that is causing the extra delays at what has long been a problematic interchange.

I could see this morning that drivers are taking advantage of the new E-ZPass only lane on the right side of the toll plaza. That’s likely to provide some relief for drivers trying to reach the right lanes that will take them to the outer loop. Until now, only the left lanes at the toll plaza had E-ZPass only lanes, and those drivers would have to move right very quickly across several lanes of heavy traffic to reach their Beltway ramps.

Even some drivers leaving the toll plaza and trying to reach the center lane that leads to the inner loop may find this new E-ZPass lane useful, since it’s a bit easier to merge left than it is to merge right.

But this morning, it was impossible to judge any of these potentially positive effects, because of the unusually heavy traffic on the outer loop. At the toll plaza this morning, the lanes with the worst backups were the E-ZPass lanes, both the original two on the left side and the new one on the right side. The backup was much less severe in the middle, at the lanes that accept cash as well as E-ZPass.

I’ll try again to judge the effect, but I hope the new lane stripes on the outer loop will reduce this to just one problem zone.

By  |  11:29 AM ET, 06/21/2011

Categories:  Capital Beltway, Congestion, Virginia

 
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