In Beltway HOT lanes, where will snow go, and what if a car hits the dividing poles?

Robert Thomson
Columnist October 19, 2012

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

As the Capital Beltway high-occupancy vehicle lanes project reaches completion, it is apparent that for many miles, there is no place for plows to push more than an inch or two of snow.

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

Will snow be pushed from the HOT lanes into the regular lanes, or vice versa, or will the HOT lanes be limited to one lane? The vertical poles that separate the lanes do not appear sturdy enough to survive a plow throwing heavy snow.

Will they become a road hazard?

— Charles Kieffer, Annandale

The Virginia Department of Transportation will be responsible for removing snow from the HOT lanes, known formally as the 495 Express Lanes. The department is required to care equally about the Beltway’s regular lanes and the express ones. The express lanes aren’t supposed to be the dumping ground for snow from the regular lanes or vice versa. But that median dividing the two types of lanes is going to be an interesting space in a snowstorm.

The most distinctive features in the median are the white posts placed eight feet apart. They are what drivers can see the best while driving along on the Beltway’s regular lanes. What drivers can’t see as well until the express lanes open later this fall is the paved shoulder on the left side. A train of plows moving along the new lanes could push snow to the left, rather than to the right, where the posts are.

John Lynch, VDOT’s regional transportation program director, said that the plows will have some assistance from a truck that can spread a brine solution into the right-side median, where the posts are, to help prevent a buildup of snow.

Of course, we haven’t had a snowfall that tests these procedures. But one thing the plows are not going to do is roll their blades over those posts — at least not on purpose. And you drivers won’t want to try that experiment, either — read on:

A flexible system

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Please address what the thousands of posts separating the express lanes are made of and what will happen when a car runs into them.

— Leon Rubis, Vienna

They’re made of polyurethane, and they’re hollow in the middle. I got a close look at one last week. (in a conference room at the Express Lanes operations center, not on the Beltway.)

Pierce Coffee, an executive with Transurban, the company that will operate the lanes, held the base down and used her foot to bend the post almost flat, then crunched the upper part against a tabletop.

The post looked none the worse for that abuse, snapping back into place both times. But it’s very unlikely to fare as well in a confrontation with a snowplow’s blade mounted on a truck. However, if you engage the post with your car’s front bumper, the odds will shift in favor of the post.

A car whose driver tries to weave between the regular lanes and the express lanes with these things in the way probably will suffer quite a bit of front-end damage.

On the other hand, the setup should give emergency responders quite a bit of flexibility. A firetruck or an ambulance should be able to roll over the posts and get to a crash scene without doing serious harm to either their vehicles or the posts.

Should there be a serious emergency that significantly backs up traffic in either the regular or the express lanes, police could unpin the posts, create an emergency exit and release the vehicles that are stopped.

So at least in theory, I see some advantages with this setup. No one with any sense is going to want to cheat by weaving between lanes, the way drivers do so easily in the HOV lanes on Route 50 and I-270 in Maryland and on I-66 in Virginia. But in emergencies, drivers who aren’t near an exit ramp won’t be stranded.

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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