The high-occupancy toll lanes on the Capital Beltway in Virginia are three-quarters done, but the transportation project is one of the biggest in the nation. There’s a lot more work and a lot more change to come. That includes a significant change in the exit strategy at one interchange.
Managers say the overall project is on schedule to wrap up at the end of next year. Here’s a review of what’s happened this year and what’s ahead.
The project, along 14 miles between Springfield and the Dulles Toll Road, will widen the Beltway by four lanes and convert the inner lanes to HOT lanes, widen all the Beltway bridges and rebuild the interchanges — but not necessarily in that order. Some parts are more difficult than others. The interchanges at Interstate 66 and at the toll road are particularly complex and will be among the last segments finished.
Some elements are getting done just in time to clear the way for adjacent work zones. In many cases, the plan called for rebuilding bridges one span at a time. At least one bridge span has been completed at every interchange. Second spans are underway or open.
In August, second spans opened at Braddock Road, Little River Turnpike, Gallows Road and Lewinsville Road. New bridges at Idylwood Road and the W&OD Trail also have been completed. At the I-66 interchange, the new I-66 eastbound span was completed.
Along some sections of the Beltway, two inside lanes were closed off this summer for conversion to HOT lanes. In those cases, two new lanes opened on the outer edge.
More than 80 percent of the new sound walls have been installed.
Changes scheduled for the near future include completion of the new westbound span for Lee Highway late this year. Flyover ramps and other connections to link the interchanges to the HOT lanes are under construction at various locations, including the I-66 and Dulles Toll Road interchanges.
More segments of the new outer lanes will be opening. More sections of the inner lanes will become work zones to create the HOT lanes and install the toll-monitoring equipment. Drivers on the north side of Tysons Corner see the new bridge that will link Jones Branch Road with the Beltway. A little farther south, near Route 123, the Westpark Bridge has been widened and the new connecting bridge to the Beltway is well underway.
To the managers, each of these steps fits into a sequence designed to get the overall project done as quickly as possible.
To drivers just paying attention to whatever is in front of them, the road ahead can seem like a series of unfortunate events. The through lanes seem to change course continually. If drivers are not on the freshly paved segments, the pavement can be pretty rough and the lane markings hard to follow.
Many drivers ignore the solid white lines meant to keep them in their lanes as they bend along the trickiest parts of the through lanes. At the interchanges, entrances and exits have moved around, and sometimes it’s difficult to follow the routes defined by the orange cones.
A heads-up to Monday morning commuters: If weekend work goes as scheduled, they will find that traffic on the Beltway’s inner loop has shifted to the new outer lanes from Lee Highway to I-66. The left exit from the inner loop to westbound I-66 will be closed. The rebuilt exit on the right side will now provide access to both eastbound and westbound I-66, with two ramp lanes for westbound I-66 to handle the extra traffic.
The old left exit eventually will be part of the ramp connecting the HOT lanes with high-occupancy vehicle lanes on I-66.
Ten new bridges are being built at the I-66 interchange to accommodate the four new HOT lanes on the Beltway and provide smoother connectivity between these two major highways.
Since the current work zone was set up at the start of the summer, drivers on the eastbound toll road have been complaining about increased congestion and confusion. Managers say that for them, too, this is the most challenging interchange on the project. The acreage involved is huge. But within that space, they have 17 bridges under construction. So to the builders, it’s a very confining area, especially on the west side of the Beltway.
The shift on the ramp to the northbound Beltway (the inner loop) that occurred in early September was the last major adjustment in the traffic pattern, project officials said. But work zones will remain for the next year, and so will the extra congestion at the interchange, which vexed drivers long before the HOT lanes project.
Drivers should see an improvement in the spring, when the merge lane for the northbound Beltway is restored. New connections between the Dulles Airport Access Highway and the Beltway will eliminate some of the heart-stopping lane shifts that predated the HOT lanes work. A new ramp alignment from the eastbound toll road to the southbound Beltway (outer loop) is scheduled to open in May.