Beltway change helps some, hurts others

Robert Thomson
Columnist February 10, 2012

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

As you reported, the Virginia Department of Transportation has modified Exit 49 on the Capital Beltway’s outer loop, reducing the exit ramp to one lane from two lanes. This modification has created a huge bottleneck that has caused horrible nightly traffic back-ups that extend to the American Legion Bridge and beyond.

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

I understand that the modification was made to alleviate another problem. However, the new problem surely is significantly worse than the problem it solved. VDOT needs to understand the magnitude of the new problem and provide relief earlier.

— Clay Carney, Falls Church

I hope that, at a minimum, VDOT will find ways to speed up the work at the Interstate 66 interchange, just as it did farther north at the Dulles Toll Road interchange when changes in that construction zone generated complaints.

The situation Carney describes began last year when VDOT and its partners on the I-495 Express Lanes (high-occupancy toll) project closed a left-side exit from the inner loop to I-66 west for construction of the HOT lanes. The engineers modified the right-side exit to I-66, but that wasn’t enough to accommodate the extra traffic, since drivers now had one less exit.

So last weekend, they made another modification, creating more space for drivers going from the inner loop onto I-66 west. But this enormous project often involves adding room in one place while taking it away in another. In this case, the other was the outer loop ramp to I-66 west.

Even though the loss of space is temporary, while the interchange reconstruction progresses, I doubt that outer loop drivers are going to be appeased knowing that they’ve made more room for their brethren on the inner loop.

VDOT crews have been monitoring the impact and looking at possible adjustments or advances in the construction schedule. But the current schedule calls for the ramp lane reduction to continue until summer.

On a lighter note

My colleague Dana Hedgpeth, also known as PostMetroGirl, shed some light on the meaning of a Metrobus sign that baffled some travelers. The sign’s “Alight Only” message indicates that riders can exit but not enter when the bus stops. But her story led to this protest.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

The article in Wednesday’s Post prompted me to write. “Alight” is a very old word, circa 1000, that means to dismount, to descend, to finish a ride. There is nothing new or unusual about either the word or the use of it on the sign.

Metro has been misusing the language by referring to the people who use the transit system as “customers” when the more appropriate word is “passengers.” A “customer” is a person who purchases a product or service, while a “passenger” is a person who travels in a public conveyance.

If we are going to become sensitive to the use (or misuse) or words, then there are other words that also need attention.

— John Baker, McLean

I was okay with Metro using “alight.” Made our transit system sound classy — British, even. But many people who added comments to the online version of Hedgpeth’s story took it as a sign of the apocalypse that Metro would use such a term.

One writer using the handle Mike-Klein said: “The fact that the Metro uses words like ‘alight’ is indicative of their total disregard for the public they serve.”

I’m more sensitive about “customer,” but for a different reason. Transit officials adopted the term to convey the meaning Baker cites: The rider has paid for a service.

My beef is that Metro never fully accepted the implications. “Customers” think they’re always right and expect to get the ride they paid for.

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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