Commuters want more help in Bethesda

Robert Thomson
Columnist August 6, 2011

The few transportation upgrades that Maryland and Montgomery County have been able to create in Bethesda on the eve of the base consolidation at the National Naval Medical Center will seem puny as traffic starts to build later this month.

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:

So far, the only evidence I have seen in traffic and transit improvements has been the widening and expansion of sidewalks on the northern side of Jones Bridge Road. Granted, I drive on Jones Bridge, Wisconsin Avenue and then into the heart of Bethesda, so I do not know what it’s like further north, But honestly, sidewalks are going to solve the transit problem?

Where’s the Purple Line? Where are extra lanes of traffic? How about pulling a Colesville Road or Connecticut Avenue and make the lanes flex depending on the morning or evening rush? And the intersection at Jones Bridge Road and Wisconsin is in horrible shape. When are they going to gut it and replace the crumbling road surface?

Further, they added a light at Jones Bridge and Spring Valley Road, close to Connecticut Avenue. This was done, I am sure, to allow people living in that neighborhood a safe way to get to eastbound Jones Bridge. I get that. But that screws up the evening rush flow pretty seriously. That road is already very congested, and that light interrupts the ability of the road to handle the traffic it already has, not even considering how horrible it will be in a few weeks.

— Thomas Jaehnigen, Laurel

This should never happen again. The local governments that must deal with future base consolidations should have the money and time to make the necessary adjustments in the road and transit network.

It’s too late for Bethesda, the commuters who use its roads, and the staffers and patients who will arrive at the medical center this month as the consolidation with Walter Reed Army Medical Center fully develops.

The county, state and medical center staff have made the initial adjustments they promised. There was some difficulty communicating with commuters about the summertime shutdown of the Cedar Lane bridge over Rock Creek. But the county now is reopening the refurbished bridge ahead of schedule.

Also, the traffic signal at North Wood Road, the north gate into the medical center from Rockville Pike, has been activated. It’s supposed to ease traffic getting in and out of the medical center without seriously degrading the already difficult commute up and down the pike and Wisconsin Avenue to the south.

I hope that works. Because of the tight schedule — tight in terms of the ability of local governments to adjust to the federally mandated moves — planners and commuters have to learn as they go. The traffic signal is typical. During some rush hours last week, I saw very heavy congestion on the southbound pike approaching the signal. Other times, traffic moved pretty freely — perhaps because the drivers turning into the medical center were ignoring the flashing red arrow.

Traffic monitors will be driving the pike to see if the signal needs adjustments. But when do they adjust and what for? It always takes a while for drivers to get used to a new signal. Then in a couple of weeks, new waves of traffic generators — school openings, the influx of medical staff and patients, and the ends of summer vacations — will have their own effects on congestion around the signal.

It will be a while before engineers know whether the signal is a success at moving the medical center traffic, or if it backs up commuters into downtown Bethesda. Or both.

Our letter writer noted his concern about another new traffic signal on Jones Bridge Road, south of the medical center. It’s another signal that traffic engineers are monitoring. On my drives last week, that intersection wasn’t a problem, perhaps because of the summer lull. But at the intersection just east of it, the double lanes to turn left onto Connecticut Avenue were backed up into the through lanes.

While plans don’t include adding through lanes — reversible or otherwise — to the main roads, they do call for rebuilding some of these intersections. The Maryland State Highway Administration wants to rebuild the one at Jones Bridge Road and Connecticut Avenue, as well as those at Rockville Pike and Cedar Lane, Rockville Pike and Jones Bridge Road, and Old Georgetown Road at Cedar Lane.

That should help considerably. But the program’s schedule stretches into 2015, and the construction itself is likely to disrupt traffic after the new staffers and patients already have arrived.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer’s name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or
e-mail drgridlock@washpost.com .

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