Capital Beltway construction zone exacts series of tolls on some drivers

Robert Thomson
Columnist July 21, 2011

When the wave of complaints from Dulles Toll Road drivers about the Capital Beltway work zone started to ebb this month, I asked readers whether that meant the adjustments made by the Virginia Department of Transportation did the trick; summer vacations had removed enough drivers; or commuters had just given up on getting it fixed.

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. View Archive

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Lest you think we beleaguered toll road commuters are happy, I am writing to say “not.” This is now my typical commute (for which I pay a toll) from Reston to Ballston in my hybrid car:

3 Merge onto the toll road and cross four lanes of heavy traffic to get into the HOV lane, which is now slower than other lanes.

3 Get my meditation CDs set up.

3 Consider changing lanes, but stay put only to find it was my first wrong decision.

3 Begin an agonizingly slow approach to the main toll plaza, but first take a couple of deep breaths.

3 Start the meditation CD and move to the inside E-ZPass lane, another wrong decision.

3 Move quickly to the cash-only lane because cars in the two E-ZPass lanes on the left are moving like turtles.

3 Get behind three people paying cash and become unreasonably irritated at them (Get an E-ZPass!). Meditation not working.

3 Once through the toll plaza, begin merging to the right and pretend I am going south on Interstate 495.

3 Navigate this new “mixing bowl” with everyone jockeying for position and very angry.

3 Continue charade, because that lane moves faster, but watch middle lanes for movement.

3 Chant along with meditation CD while mentally cursing VDOT. Chew some Tums.

3 Leap into a middle lane and now pretend I am going to northbound I-495.

3 Give up on meditation.

3 Leap left at the last possible minute and make a break for Interstate 66.

Total time to this point: From 30 to 40 minutes, but never the same. Maddening. And I am not even at work yet. And I paid for this.

I’ve driven this route for five years, and I have never been so frustrated and unhappy about a commute as now. VDOT officials should not be satisfied with the minor fixes they made; things are only better some days because of vacations. It will be Toll Roadamageddon the day after Labor Day.

Beth McNally, Reston

DG: That captures the spirit of the commute well. It’s not just the anxiety of maneuvering through lanes of heavy traffic; commuters think about it beforehand, and they think about it afterward. It doesn’t matter whether they’re entitled to use the HOV lanes. Doesn’t matter that they’ve got an E-ZPass. They’re still stuck. And as McNally points out, they’re paying one of the region’s few tolls for the privilege of driving through this mess.

Summer vacations and VDOT adjustments in the work zone for the high-occupancy toll lanes have had some effect. But drivers such as McNally say it’s not enough, and they fear what the commute will be like come September. The project isn’t scheduled to be done until next year.

Practical parking

Judging by the many responses to our discussions about how to park in lots and garages [Dr. Gridlock, May 12], the topic is almost as popular among drivers as the debate about how to merge in traffic — and there are almost as many viewpoints. This letter picks up on the themes of delay, convenience and safety in parking techniques.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

It is not necessary to back out if you begin with a drive-through parking maneuver. Of course, you might not end up right in front of the door when you park, but we can all use a little more exercise.

I, too, became frustrated with people and traffic going behind me when they could see I was backing out and have been doing drive-throughs for many years. It works more than 95 percent of the time.

Carole Sippel, Calverton

We’ll see in September

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Rush-hour traffic along Wisconsin and Connecticut avenues NW and Old Georgetown Road is a mess. As the federal Base Realignment and Closure plan kicks in, it will be a disaster with complete gridlock in all directions.

I once thought that BRAC was a useful concept. It removed the decision process from Congress, which would have closed nothing. It seems to me, however, that the closing of Walter Reed Army Medical Center and consolidation at [the National Naval Medical Center in] Bethesda and Fort Belvoir have been ill-considered and worse executed.

Correcting the traffic patterns in the areas will be enormously costly, and the corrections are still in the planning stages.

This is not one of BRAC’s commendable performances. With this kind of thinking, analysis and execution, I wonder how we wage wars.

Edward Barnes, Bethesda

DG: Because it takes local governments many years to plan for major changes in traffic patterns, the commuting disruptions caused by roadwork to ease the disruptions caused by the military relocations will continue long after the relocations have occurred.

This craziness will be readily apparent in Bethesda’s Wisconsin Avenue corridor, around the Mark Center on Interstate 395 at Seminary Road in Alexandria and around Fort Belvoir. The military transfers are scheduled to be completed in September, just as summer vacation season ends.

Bethesda, at least, has a Red Line Metro station and a bus hub right in the middle of the action. This summer, Metro is planning to enhance its bus routes serving the Mark Center and Fort Belvoir. “Everybody is making an effort to provide the most service possible,” said Jack Requa, Metro’s assistant general manager of bus services.

But this still amounts to a last-minute scramble with an unknown impact on the September commute.

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