Mazed and confused at the Beltway interchange

The Virginia Department of Transportation plans to modify the temporary lane setup that has baffled drivers on the eastbound Dulles Toll Road as they head for the Capital Beltway. The changes, intended to ease the congestion at the Beltway interchange, should be in place in time for Monday morning’s commute.

That interchange has been trouble for travelers for many years. It’s especially difficult for the drivers who want to take advantage of the dedicated E-ZPass lanes to the left of the toll plaza but then must quickly move over several lanes to the right to reach the Beltway ramps. Many drivers coming off the Dulles Airport access highway are trying to make a similar maneuver.

But the high-occupancy toll lanes project compounded such issues. Changes in the ramps to accommodate the construction program pushed the morning congestion back farther west than what commuters were used to. And they’re pretty sensitive about that.

During my online chat Monday, a commenter bemoaned the latest problem:

“The new configuration that started last week is a poorly designed and dangerous disaster.” Part of the problem is the lane and ramp configuration and part is the guidance on the signs and lane markings.

The commenter described it this way: “ ‘Beltway North — Left Lanes.’ Huh? Followed by ‘Beltway North — Center Lane,’ which is where lanes add/drop so good luck figuring out the center. Traffic is backing up on the [Dulles Toll Road] for miles each and every morning now. One poorly marked lane for the Beltway North, at rush hour? Seriously?”

I drove into this twice Wednesday. My first pass was about 10:20 a.m., long after the morning rush, but traffic still slowed to a crawl well west of the toll plaza.

Past the plaza, the problems reveal themselves, and it’s pretty much as the commenter put it. Many drivers aren’t where they need to be. Many drivers on the left want to reach two right lanes that will take them onto the southbound Beltway for Tysons Corner, Springfield and Richmond. Many drivers on the right want to reach the left lanes for Interstate 66 toward Arlington and the District.

In between is a slow-rolling barrier of traffic formed by drivers creeping along a center lane that they hope will take them onto a one-lane ramp to the northbound Beltway.

But I’m putting this too simply.

In a vast area of merging traffic where lanes come and go quickly, many Beltway-bound drivers clearly had no idea which lane was the “center lane” foretold by the signs. I know this, because I was one of them. In two tries, I couldn’t identify the center lane until I had almost reached the northbound ramp. Traffic tie-ups like this don’t usually bring out the best in drivers, but it was only through the courtesy of fellow motorists that I finally reached the correct lane.

When presented with a new traffic maze, drivers normally adjust to the pattern after a few weeks, even without a cheese incentive at the end. But in this case, I think they’re going to need a little extra help.

I hope that will be the result of the modifications VDOT is planning. If you’re out driving tonight, watch for this setup work: Starting at 9:30 p.m., one lane will close on Route 267 east at the Beltway, progressing to a full closing of the eastbound lanes after 11 p.m. During that time, motorists will be directed to I-495 south, to Exit 46B, then to Route 123 north, then to a left turn onto I-495 north.

Meanwhile, workers will be adjusting signs and pavement markings. All exit ramp lanes and the new lane configuration will reopen by 5 a.m. Monday.

VDOT says the new traffic pattern will adjust the interchange from six lanes to five lanes, closing the far left lane and shifting traffic to maintain two left lanes onto eastbound I-66, one center lane to I-495 north (the Beltway inner loop) and two right lanes to I-495 south (the outer loop).

This won’t add capacity at the interchange. But the lane modifications will pull back the point where the lanes separate, and project managers hope this will allow drivers more time to sort themselves into the correct lanes.

Overall, the HOT lanes construction has gone quite well, given the complexity of adding four lanes along 14 miles of one of the nation’s most congested highways.

This traffic pattern at the toll road interchange is meant to be temporary, but temporary means it’s what drivers will experience into 2012. Steve Titunik, spokesman for VDOT’s Megaprojects office, said the project managers will watch the impact of the changes and “continue to try to tweak anything we can to ease motoring stress through this tight area.”

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 .

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.
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