Looking for the best Beltway dodges between Columbia and Bethesda, Md.

Columnist August 5, 2011

The Capital Beltway at rush hour is a hot, gooey river of metal, rubber and asphalt that grips drivers in its slow-moving eddies before depositing them exhausted on its banks. Once they’ve fallen into its grasp, all they know for sure is that wherever they emerge, they’re going to be late.

So my heart went out to travelers who wrote in asking how a commuter might avoid the Beltway’s northern arc. One lives in Bethesda and works in Columbia. The other has the opposite commute. Each sought some way, any way, around the Beltway.

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

Last week, I was their test pilot. I spent rush hours driving back and forth between Bethesda and Columbia. My start and finish lines were always Route 32/Broken Land Parkway in Columbia, site of a park-and-ride lot, and the new traffic signal on Rockville Pike at North Wood Road, the one meant to ease congestion at Bethesda’s National Naval Medical Center. Here’s my report on a few of those trips:

The beastly Beltway

I needed a base line. On one afternoon crawl from Bethesda to Columbia, I saw two new words on the 55 mph speed-limit signs near the work zone at the Beltway’s Northwest Branch bridge: “Photo Enforced.” For the first time, Maryland had its mobile speed cameras on the Beltway. Not that I was a candidate for enforcement. “Your speed: 26,” the roadside monitor said.

←As we emerged from the work zone and headed for I-95, hailstones fell from a passing thunder cloud. Where were the locusts?

A morning trip using I-95 and the Beltway from Columbia to Bethesda, the one measured on the accompanying map, took 50 minutes. I-95 in the August vacation season was sluggish but tolerable until traffic stopped at the ramp for the westbound Beltway. This is always bad, but the Northwest Branch work zone constricts the heavy volume in new ways on the right side. Traffic at the exit for Rockville Pike (Route 355) was lighter than at the Connecticut Avenue exit.

Clarksville Pike

Route 32, Route 108 (Clarksville Pike-Ashton Road-Olney Sandy Spring Road), Georgia Avenue, Connecticut Avenue, Jones Bridge Road, Rockville Pike: The upper part of this trip, along Route 108, can be a pleasant way to end the workday. Or a tough way to start it. It’s a two-lane, semi-country road near a metropolis. For me, roadside trees parted for views of a horse farm. A long line of drivers in the opposite direction stared at the back of a slow-moving fuel truck.

Veteran commuters know there are alternatives within alternative routes. For example, Old Baltimore Road — another two-laner — allows drivers to bypass the center of Olney. My alternatives used Georgia and Connecticut avenues and Jones Bridge Road on the south side. Alternatives in Bethesda using Cedar Lane, a popular connector with Rockville Pike, were unavailable because the bridge over Rock Creek was closed this summer for reconstruction. Drivers should find that reopened this week.

Spencerville, Norbeck roads

Route 32, I-95, Route 198 (Sandy Spring Road-Spencerville Road), Route 28 (Norbeck Road), Georgia Avenue, Connecticut Avenue, Jones Bridge Road, Rockville Pike: This route takes advantage of I-95’s four lanes while avoiding the work zone for the Intercounty Connector, which is south of Route 198. But 198 is annoying because it widens and narrows. In some spots, it widens for big intersections, then the right lane disappears.

Between Georgia Avenue and Layhill Road, two-lane Norbeck Road meets the Intercounty Connector. There’s a link to the open part of the connector, but this is still a work zone and very slow going. As I waited in the through lane, a driver raced past on the right on the ramp into the connector.

The intersection of Norbeck and Georgia Avenue is a notoriously sluggish junction.

Fairland, Randolph roads

Route 32, Route 29 (Columbia Pike), Fairland Road, Randolph Road, Connecticut Avenue, Jones Bridge Road, Rockville Pike: This Beltway alternative offered the shortest distance and the most east-west lanes by including Randolph Road, with its three lanes each way. But Fairland Road drivers have just one lane each way, and there are plenty of crosswalks and bus stops. I was stopped behind a garbage truck.

Driving southbound on Route 29, drivers need to watch carefully for the Fairland exit amid the orange barrels of the Intercounty Connector work zone. And be careful at the end of the ramp: There’s no merge area for the right turn.

Despite its width, Randolph Road can be very congested, and the intersection with Georgia Avenue is among the worst in Montgomery County.

Conclusions

Getting to or from my test drives, I was often on the Beltway. The experience with that congestion and the alternatives taught me that I’d almost always rather be on any other road than the Beltway. I’ll take more time for less stress.

But none of these alternatives are a commuter’s paradise. Each includes zones of single-lane traffic. Small incidents — or a large fuel truck — could greatly vary daily travel times. Drivers need to stay alert for changing conditions.

Still, there are many alternatives to the Beltway. The routes I explored can be mixed and matched. And they connect with other routes along the way. It might be enough just to break out of the Beltway rut and feel like you have a little control over your commute.

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