D.C. area’s top transportation stories of 2011

Robert Thomson
Columnist December 22, 2011

What was the top of the top 10 for 2011? My two candidates were the opening of Maryland’s Intercounty Connector and the Jan. 26 commute-stopping snowstorm. But I finally tilted toward the storm, which resulted in a clear victory for Mother Nature in a throw-down with 21st-century civilization.

This is the second consecutive year in which the weather has dominated the review, but there are more transportation projects on this year’s list, despite all of our discussions about dwindling financial resources. Look at my picks, and see what you think I’ve omitted.

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
The storm

And it was “the” storm, the only serious one we had during the winter of 2010-11, but it left a mark on commuters, transportation agencies and the federal government.

The heavy snow that arrived just as the afternoon commute began had been discussed for several days beforehand. The Capital Weather Gang’s Jason Samenow began an online chat at noon Jan. 26, saying, “Snow will fall very heavily between 4 and 8 p.m. tonight with dangerous travel conditions.” But many people remained at their desks until falling snow made believers out of them. Then they joined the snowplows stuck in one of the worst-ever regionwide traffic jams.

Lessons learned: Looking out the window isn’t always the best forecasting technique. The federal Office of Personnel Management revised its alert system to include a “staggered early departure with a final departure time.” But the best way to skip another Jan. 26 debacle is to a avoid bringing in so many workers in the first place when a rush-hour storm threatens.

Intercounty Connector

The D.C. region’s first new highway in a generation opened in two phases, with a western portion available in February and an eastern side in November. Drivers are still figuring out what to do with the 18 miles.

They chafe at the maximum rush-hour toll of $4 from end to end. Although traffic moves easily, some think the 55 mph speed limit is too low. They routinely ignore it, unless they spot police cars. They think there are too many police cars.

HOT lanes work

This isn’t an event. It’s an evolution. The high-occupancy toll lanes project, one of the biggest highway construction programs in the nation, opened several new bridges and ramps this year along the 14-mile work zone on the western side of the Capital Beltway in Virginia.

At the same time, the project created one of the most complained-about work areas in the region, on the eastbound Dulles Toll Road at the Beltway interchange. Drivers have been confused and annoyed for many months, but project managers have sped up the work and restored several lanes and ramps to their pre-project condition.

Metrorail rehab

The transit authority got much more aggressive with its maintenance program this year. On many weekends, entire sections of rail lines were shut down and riders had to get off the trains to board buses, bridging the gap between open segments.

Meanwhile, trains continued to share tracks around work zones, creating delays that vexed weekend riders. And more escalators were out of service for rehabilitation. Near year’s end, there was a bright spot: Metro celebrated the replacement of the three escalators at the Foggy Bottom station entrance, a perennial bottleneck.

Map makeover

Metro brought back graphic artist Lance Wyman to redo his original map of the Metrorail system to account for several coming changes. The transit authority needs to add the new stations for the Silver Line, which will go through Tysons Corner, out to Dulles International Airport and into Loudoun County, and it needs to indicate a new rush-hour pattern for Blue, Yellow and Orange Line trains.

Although the process was quite complex, no element was as tortured as the Metro board’s lengthy review of station names, in which business interests exerted their political clout to win free naming rights in public spaces.

11th Street Bridge

The D.C. Department of Transportation this month opened the first of three replacement spans for the 11th Street Bridge over the Anacostia River. But several important benefits of the project must wait until next year. Construction of new ramps will allow commuters to go from one highway to another without using local streets, something they have dreamed of for decades.

BRAC moves

The federal base realignment is a regional transportation trauma that began this fall and will linger for at least a few years. A congressionally mandated review concluded that local governments need at least a decade to plan, finance and build the traffic and transit improvements needed to cope with the dispersal of federal employees.

Because the locals didn’t have the time or the money after the dispersals were announced, they still are working on road projects and transit plans to catch up with the influx to the Mark Center, the Bethesda medical center, Fort Belvoir and Fort Meade.

Silver Line blues

My nomination for worst transportation decision of 2011: The airports authority board caved to political pressure and agreed to locate the Dulles Airport Metrorail station far enough from the terminal so that air travelers won’t use it.

14th Street Bridge

The repairs on the northbound road surface of the 14th Street Bridge required drivers to navigate around blocked lanes over several years; those repairs finally ended this summer.

Like the repair of Chain Bridge, this job was one of those things that had to be done to preserve the structure. But the drivers who endured the congestion and the closings didn’t wind up with new lanes or ramps, just with pavement that is smoother and a structure that won’t fall into the Potomac.

Beltway speed camera

For the first time, drivers on the Beltway encountered speed enforcement cameras. It was part of a Maryland program that allows the use of speed cameras in highway work zones.

The camera zone was set up this summer to protect workers and travelers at the Northwest Branch bridge in Silver Spring, which is undergoing an extensive rehabilitation. Although speed limits can be reduced in Maryland work zones, this one remains at the standard 55 mph for the Beltway. Drivers must be going at least 12 mph over the speed limit to receive a $40 citation. In four months, the state issued 27,331 citations.

Staff writer Dana Hedgpeth contributed to this report.

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