Beltway trip led through several climate zones


Message board advised caution in the 495 Express Lanes south of Tysons on Wednesday morning. (Robert Thomson – The Washington Post)

A counterclockwise trip around the Capital Beltway beginning at 9 a.m. and ending at 11:45 a.m. — including a coffee break in Tysons — took me through many of the road conditions that this snowy day has in store for drivers.

Worst traveling: the southwest quadrant between Tysons and Springfield. Least troublesome: the southeast quadrant between Springfield and the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.

Snow plows and sand trucks were visible in all sectors along the 64-mile loop. There was enough sand out there to to replenish Ocean City. I suspect the wide variety in driving conditions I encountered had more to do with pavement temperature and type of precipitation than with the road crews’ level of activity.

As I describe the trip, don’t look for specific guidance on your afternoon trips. For information on the evolving storm and its impact, turn to the Capital Weather Gang and The Post’s live blog. The Beltway’s micro-climates may have altered since I drove through them.

What I hope to show you is the range of experiences you have have throughout Wednesday.

I began the trip in Silver Spring amid light traffic — not exactly Christmas Day light, but far less than would be typical as rush hour winds down. The average speed was 45 mph. Passing Connecticut Avenue, I could see a plow train forming up behind me.

Another cluster of plows and sand trucks appeared by the Old Georgetown Road interchange, where some difficult conditions were reported. Of course, I looked for the things my readers complain about: Drivers without lights, vehicles ready to shed their snow crowns on the cars behind them.

They were all out there, but not numerous. And there wasn’t much of the fancy driving that can make bad-weather travel so treacherous. People were pretty well behaved.

Southwest

I decided to take the 495 Express Lanes into Tysons, partly because I wanted to exit at the Westpark Drive bridge and enter that mall parking garage, and partly because I wanted to see how the lanes looked during their first encounter with a snowstorm.

At that point, the regular lanes and the express lanes looked about the same. When I continued driving south later, conditions were very different. The two southbound express lanes were white except for the darker tracks made by the relative handful of cars using them.

The exit ramps at Westpark Drive and Gallows Road were snow-covered and a bit difficult to navigate. I got out of the express lanes at Gallows Road so I could switch over and test the regular lanes of the Beltway outer loop.

The ramp from Gallows onto the outer loop had to be taken very slowly because of snow cover. The regular lanes were in better shape than the express lanes at that point.

During this part of the trip, I eventually saw plows and sand trucks working in all the lanes. And the Virginia Department of Transportation has pledged to treat all the lanes the same.

My theory is that I was passing through at a time when snow was falling heavily, the plows hadn’t been through in a while, and the express lanes are lightly traveled, so tire treads have little effect in turning snow to slush.

Perhaps VDOT should not treat all the lanes the same until traffic in the express lanes picks up?

But the express lanes did not offer the worst conditions on this trip. That came just a little later as I drove through Springfield on the south side of the Beltway. A combination of heavy snow and heavy traffic created hazards. The road surface was very slushy, and when tractor trailers passed by, they kicked up streams of melting snow that spread across the windshield.

Wipers set to their highest speed could not cope with that, and the traffic ahead was invisible for a few seconds. I was glad that the windshield was warm, so the slush did not freeze on it.

Southeast

Even as this was happening, plow trucks were moving through the sector, and many of us fell in line behind them for a slower but safer trip.

Just past Springfield, the road surface and the weather changed dramatically. Snow was replaced by rain, and the pavement was merely wet. Traffic speeds picked up.Plows and sand trucks were stopped along the shoulders, apparently waiting for something to do, with the pavement merely wet.

This climate continued across the Wilson Bridge and well into Prince George’s County. But north of Branch Avenue, conditions began to change yet again. The rain mixed with sleet and snow, in about equal proportions. The mix was driven by a gusty wind.

In this zone, drivers went way too fast for the visibility and the road condition.

By the time I passed the I-95 interchange and swung back through Silver Spring, the mix had given way to wet snow, but the road surface was in good shape and traffic remained light, as it should be throughout the day.

But don’t count on any other element in the day’s travels being consistent.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region.
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