Beltway drivers to encounter new phase of construction in Virginia

The work crews building Virginia’s high-occupancy toll lanes have spent the past few years tearing up the Capital Beltway. In 2011, they will start putting it back together.

But first, they’ve got to move drivers out of the way.

During the spring and summer, project managers plan to open sections of the new lanes workers have been constructing on the outer sides of the highway. Traffic will shift to those lanes, creating room for a work zone in the middle of the Beltway. There, they will set up the HOT lanes.

If only that were as simple as putting down lane stripes and setting up toll signs. Workers need to install electronics for detectors, which will determine who’s paying a toll and who’s carpooling, while setting them at a level that keeps everyone moving. Ramps need to be built so that traffic can get to and from HOT lanes at access points between Springfield and the Dulles Toll Road.

Other crews will continue to rebuild the Beltway’s bridges and overpasses. The Idylwood Road bridge, an important link for communities straddling the highway, was reopened last month.

That mini-project was simple compared with the reconstruction of interchanges at Route 7, Route 123 and Interstate 66. Some of that work will continue until near the end of the project, in late 2012. The complexity of interchange rebuilding is a key reason the new outer lanes won’t open at once.

Instead, they will open segment by segment. Drivers will have to get accustomed to new lane shifts this year. One advantage is the pavement will be better within these shifts.

At the northern end of the project, where the eastbound Dulles Toll Road meets the Beltway, drivers who have been squeezed on ramps should find relief when the old configuration is restored by early summer.

But learning experiences await drivers farther south. On westbound Braddock Road, the right-lane ramp to southbound I-495 will disappear this spring. Beltway-bound drivers will instead make a left turn at a traffic signal onto a new ramp.

A similar reconfiguration will affect eastbound drivers on Leesburg Pike this spring or summer. The right-lane ramp to northbound I-495 will disappear and be replaced by a left turn at a light, onto a new ramp.

Overall, said Larry Cloyed, the Virginia Department of Transportation’s manager for the HOT lanes project, the work’s impact on traffic should be about as intense as it was last year — only it should be in some new places.

Despite the shifting of work zones, Tysons Corner remains at the heart of the disruptions. Northern Virginia business leaders gathered Thursday at Capital One for their third annual briefing on construction managers’ plans to “Keep Tysons Moving,” as the event is titled.

Sharon Bulova (D), chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, sympathized with the thousands of affected commuters.

To them, she said, “It must seem like an endless construction zone. And, actually, it is.”

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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