The year ahead for D.C. region’s commuters

January 1, 2012

It’s never enough, unless it’s too much. In 2012, commuters in the D.C. region will renew their love-hate relationship with transportation projects and programs, including some scheduled for completion and others just getting started. Here are 10 efforts likely to get attention.

HOT lanes

The high-occupancy toll lanes on the western side of the Capital Beltway are scheduled to open late in 2012. The D.C. region hasn’t seen anything like them. Will they become the way of the future?

Travelers still ask about — and complain about — what’s going on in the 14-mile work zone between Springfield and the Dulles Toll Road interchange. But they’ve also begun to ask how the lanes will function when they finally open.

The HOT lanes managers will spend months preparing drivers to use them. And even before the lanes open, drivers will experience some improvements at the interchanges being rebuilt to accommodate the new lanes.

Intercounty Connector

After a half century of discussion and debate, opening 18 miles of the Intercounty Connector was a top transportation story of 2011. But it opened in segments, and the biggest part didn’t open till the end-of-the-year holidays were upon us.

This year, we should see whether drivers really take to the new toll road or decide they will stick with the congestion and delay on the old routes. Many drivers probably will test out the connector and pick the portions of it that work for them under particular circumstances. Most times, it won’t be a question of paying $4 to use the entire highway at rush hour, but rather a choice to pay 70 cents to travel from southbound Interstate 95 to southbound Route 29, cutting a corner off the Capital Beltway when traffic reports say it’s especially congested.

Beltway/Telegraph Road

The repeated rounds of heavy rain this fall pushed back the Woodrow Wilson Bridge project’s goal of opening new lanes on the Capital Beltway near Telegraph Road in Virginia. Important parts of the remaining work on the Beltway require warmer weather, so expect to see the lanes in their current configuration through the winter.

Then in late spring or early summer, a new portion of the THRU lanes will open in the zone between west of Route 1 and west of Telegraph Road. During the summer, the LOCAL lane segment also will be completed. This work will eliminate the three-lane bottleneck on the Beltway west of the Wilson Bridge, the obstacle that has prevented many drivers from enjoying the full benefits of the new, wider bridge.

Federal base realignment

More employees are scheduled to arrive at the Mark Center, off Interstate 395 in Alexandria. Some changes have been made in the signal timings and lane markings nearby, but the main planned improvement is a new HOV ramp at I-395 and Seminary Road. The Virginia Department of Transportation has scheduled a public meeting on that project for Jan. 25.

Meanwhile, the Maryland State Highway Administration will begin to upgrade intersections near the newly consolidated Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Rockville Pike in Bethesda. Several projects are scheduled to start this spring.

11th Street Bridge

This D.C. project also made the list of 2011’s top transportation stories, but several of the new 11th Street Bridge’s most important and beneficial elements aren’t scheduled to open till later this year. The new span taking traffic away from downtown and over the Anacostia River is scheduled to open this month, following December’s opening of the new inbound span.

That will clear the way for completion of the ramps that will link the highways on either side of the river. Also scheduled for this year is completion of the third new span, which will provide a new link for local traffic between neighborhoods on both sides of the river.

Metro map makeover

At mid-year, Metrorail riders will have to pay a lot more attention to the transit maps and the destination signs on the trains. To make room for the future Silver Line trains and to accommodate the increased number of people heading toward the eastern side of downtown D.C., Metro will modify service on the Blue, Yellow and Orange lines during rush hours.

Orange Line trains will be sent to Largo Town Center as well as Landover. Some Blue Line trains will be redesignated as Yellow Line trains, and they will travel between Franconia-Springfield and Greenbelt. Look for the old lines going to new places on a revised version of the Metro map.

Metro maintenance

After the holiday lull, the transit authority will resume its aggressive maintenance program on the rail system. During the last three weekends of January, for example, some stations on the Orange, Blue and Red lines are scheduled to be closed, and Metro will shift riders to shuttle buses to get around the closings.

Metro will finish off the fixes to the Foggy Bottom station entrance by opening the stairway and installing a protective canopy, and in February, it also will begin replacement of the escalators at the south entrance to the Dupont Circle station, closing that entrance for much of 2012.

Metro fare increase?

All the maintenance disruptions should put riders in a swell mood to hear about potential fare increases. Metro General Manager Richard Sarles will propose his next budget this month. But his chief financial officer, Carol Kissal, said in December that a fare increase would likely be part of the package.

The transit staff also will look at simplifying the complex fare structure, which is based on distance traveled and time of day. I hope that will include eliminating the “peak-of-the-peak” rate for the height of rush hour. Advocates envisioned that in part as a congestion management technique, but it’s been just one more way of baffling tourists.

More road work

Many transportation efforts fall below the ribbon-cutting scale in grandeur but still have a big impact on daily commuting, both as work zones and as completed projects. For 2012, they will include continued lane shifts and lane narrowings for Northwest Branch bridge rehabilitation on the Beltway, resurfacing of the Beltway between Arena Drive and D’Arcy Road, resurfacing of I-66 between the Beltway and Route 50, the beginning of the Washington Boulevard bridge over Columbia Pike, construction on the Linton Hall Road overpass at Route 29 in Gainesville, and a “Great Streets” safety and beautification project on Minnesota Avenue in D.C.

Riders, walkers, bikers

There are plenty of transit and pathway projects that will benefit travelers. They include additional bus routes using the Intercounty Connector; the planned expansion of the Capital Bikeshare rental program, adding 50 stations and 500 bikes; construction of a pedestrian bridge over the railroad tracks to the Rhode Island Avenue Metro station; construction of a pedestrian bridge between the Minnesota Avenue Metro station and Kenilworth Avenue to the Parkside community; and construction of the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail’s Kenilworth Gardens segment.

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