Neighbors debate impact of opening Beltway shoulder

November 20, 2013

VDOT map shows the location of shoulder project on the Beltway’s inner loop.

I just can’t see this traffic issue the way April Georgelas does, though she patiently explained her view four times as we looked over maps of the Capital Beltway in McLean on Tuesday night.

We were at Cooper Middle School near the Beltway’s interchange with Georgetown Pike for a Virginia Department of Transportation information session on the plan to open the inner loop’s shoulder to traffic when demand is heaviest.

Georgelas, who lives west of the Beltway, is very worried about this plan, which would affect the left-side shoulder of the inner loop between Old Dominion Drive and the George Washington Parkway, just south of the American Legion Bridge. She fears that expanding the inner loop to five lanes will increase traffic density, as well as the noise and air pollution generated by the traffic. An already difficult situation for drivers heading to the Beltway from nearby roads will get much worse, she said.

I don’t see it that way, and of course, neither did Virginia Department of Transportation officials who sponsored the meeting. But some of the project’s other neighbors expressed hope that the shoulder opening will bring relief not only to a very congested part of the Beltway but also to the local roads that feed into it.

What Georgelas sees is today’s four lanes on the inner loop going to five lanes at peak periods by the end of 2014. That’s five cars across instead of four cars, so the traffic density increases, before drivers have to narrow back to four lanes before the Legion Bridge.

Susan N. Shaw, VDOT’s regional transportation program director, said the shoulder opening is not a grand solution to the traffic congestion north of Tysons, but it should make commuting easier than it is now. VDOT is working with the space available, rather than widening the footprint of the Beltway.

The shoulder program will expand the capacity of the 1.8-mile zone, but not the capacity of the roadways feeding traffic into it. Today’s traffic — about 95,000 vehicles a day — will just have more room to spread out, at least for 1.8 miles.

Georgelas also sees the shoulder opening as a gift to drivers on the 495 Express Lanes. Those drivers merge back into the regular lanes of the Beltway around Old Dominion Drive. If VDOT wants to do something for them, she said, why not just lengthen the left-side merge to make that easier?

Lengthening the area for the merge and thereby making it less difficult is one of VDOT’s goals for this project. Focusing solely on that would reduce the $20 million cost. But doing the full job would benefit all drivers, including those on the side streets, like Balls Hill Road, where traffic was crawling Tuesday night near the Georgetown Pike interchange. If drivers can spread out more going past the interchange, everyone should benefit. So do the whole job.

Is it safe to open the left shoulder? This is a good question, one that was raised in a Twitter message by @bikepedantic after my Tuesday posting that previewed the VDOT meeting.

VDOT’s plan is to use green and red lane markings similar to those that designate when the Interstate 66 right shoulders are open and closed to traffic. To do this project within the existing footprint of the Beltway, the four regular lanes will be narrowed from 12 feet to 11 feet. But the left shoulder lane also would become 11 feet wide, with at least a 2.5-foot clearance from the median barrier. At off-peak times, when the shoulder reverts to a breakdown lane, that’s roomier than what’s available now for drivers in emergencies.

The shoulder lane will be a shade of gray distinctive from the coloring of the regular travel lanes, Shaw said.

Commuters who get caught in this zone probably are worried about the impact of the construction, which would start next summer. Shaw said the plan is to work off-peak and at night in what’s a fairly tight construction scheduled for an end of 2014 opening.

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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Robert Thomson · November 20, 2013