Driver stuck in D.C. region’s traffic hot spots

Robert Thomson
Columnist December 23, 2011

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Your column [Dr. Gridlock, Dec. 15] about the new ramp from Interstate 66 to the Beltway may make many people happy, but I fear the worst for my trip home from Reston, along with a great many others who have to make their way home on the Beltway from the Dulles Toll Road.

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

Almost once a week since my 3-year-old granddaughter was born, I travel to Reston on the Beltway and toll road. An immutable fact of that trip:

Slow, stop-and-go traffic from College Park to Georgia Avenue. I can spend half an hour during the morning inching from New Hampshire Avenue to Georgia, then enjoy a generally traffic-free ride to Reston. So that snarl is almost bearable.

The trip home in the afternoon is much more unpredictable, but rarely pleasant.

Three years ago, two lanes on the toll road merged into one crawl to reach the Beltway. Then the traffic gods eliminated one of those lanes.

Last month, a sign announced a new traffic pattern was coming. I eagerly awaited what I hoped would finally ease the crawl. (After all, those going from the toll road onto the southbound Beltway had two freely flowing lanes to merge with Beltway traffic.)

Did the “new” traffic pattern do anything positive for the motorist? No. The new pattern simply reverted from one lane to two, scaring most of us with the truly unenlightened signage, causing a great deal of lane changing.

The only grace from this horror trip for me is that I do it only once a week. I feel pain for those who must do it daily.

Is there any reasonable solution in sight?

— Rene McDonald, University Park

On next Sunday’sCommuter page, I’ll preview some of the major transportation work planned for 2012 in the D.C. region, which I hope will provide some relief for McDonald and other travelers — though not a lot.

The Beltway work zone at the Northwest Branch bridge in Silver Spring will remain, but longtime commuters know that’s not the primary cause of congestion between College Park and Georgia Avenue. The volume of traffic coming around the outer loop and mingling with the southbound flow from I-95 overwhelms the Beltway lanes.

Perhaps the opening of the Intercounty Connector will offer some limited easing of congestion in that sector of the Beltway, but that’s not the sort of relief that the Maryland Department of Transportation predicted. The new toll road is more likely to offer an alternative for drivers who already bail out of I-95 onto other roads before they reach the Beltway.

On the Virginia side, the two major developments that would affect McDonald’s trip are the clearing up of the high-occupancy toll lanes work areas at the Beltway interchange followed by the opening of the HOT lanes late next year.

Drivers heading east on the toll road to the Beltway now have the lanes set up pretty much as they were before the project began. But that interchange has been a trouble spot for many years, because of the high volume of traffic and the quick weaves that drivers must make beyond the toll plaza.

The opening of the HOT lanes should improve the interchange significantly, but since it started from such a bad place, a significant improvement still will leave many drivers dissatisfied.

Metro in emergency

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I am writing in response to John Davey’s letter, and your response [Dr. Gridlock, Dec. 18], implying that passengers who failed to get off a Metro train with door problems were rewarded by continuing on their commutes while “obedient” passengers were forced to fight for spots on the next two trains.

I was a passenger on the incompletely off-loaded train.

My perception was that all passengers attempted to get off the train, but the door closed before I and a third or so of the others on my car could get off. Many of the lucky — not disobedient — third remarked on how unfair it was to those who had gotten off, but I don’t think it would have served anyone’s interests to force all passengers off, to add to the crush on the next trains, if the initial problem had been solved.

— Patti Gray, Arlington

I thought that some passengers aboard this Orange Line train might not have heard the operator’s announcement that everyone had to get off at Virginia Square because of the door problem. Gray says they heard but couldn’t comply.

The train operator walked back, got the door to close, then drove the train off without reopening the doors for passengers who had followed the instructions to disembark.

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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