Morning commute on Beltway was a mess

Correction: Earlier versions of this story misstated the number of traffic lanes along the stretch of the inner loop between Old Georgetown Road and Rockville Pike.

October 19, 2012

The Friday morning commute is supposed to be a bit easier. Fewer people hit the road, and the asphalt arteries are a little less clogged.

That wasn’t the case on Friday, when the inner loop of the Beltway was shut down for three hours, creating delays that stretched from the Interstate 270 split back to the American Legion Bridge.

Add in the inclement weather and even the commute far from the Beltway in Bethesda was a little harder than normal.

“It was foggy, it was rainy, so you’re dealing with visibility,” said Charlie Gischlar, a spokesman for the Maryland State Highway Administration. “Rain always slows up the traffic.”

But the Beltway closure was something else. This shutdown, stemming from two accidents involving tractor-trailers and fuel spills, resulted in no injuries but took several hours to clean up. Traffic was backed up for at least six miles.

Maryland State Police reported that the first accident occurred about 1:45 a.m., when a tractor-trailer crashed into a guardrail. It appears the accident was caused by slick roadways.

Crews were making plans to move the vehicle when its tanks ruptured about 4:30 a.m., state police said. That’s when a second tractor-trailer approached the scene, jackknifed and spilled its fuel.

The inner loop was shut down until shortly after 7:40 a.m., when two of the lanes reopened. That still meant three hours of detours, three hours of waiting, three hours of misery.

“It’s a really busy part of town there, so when something happens, you really feel the impact there immediately,” Gischlar said.

Massive delays building up during the closure stretched over most of the six-plus miles from Old Georgetown Road back to the American Legion Bridge. Even when two lanes were open again, drivers approaching this spot still encountered issues. The inner loop didn’t fully reopen until just before 10 a.m.

It could have been worse, had the accidents occurred closer to the morning rush. Montgomery County schools had the day off, which reduced the number of cars and buses on the roads. And because the accidents occurred before many drivers were out of bed, some probably heard about the situation before heading out.

Drivers have more ways to find out about traffic troubles than they did a decade ago. State agencies disperse information on social media, get it on the radio, display it on overhead message systems and 511 networks. News media, including The Washington Post, have dedicated traffic pages (www.washingtonpost.com/traffic) and regular traffic reports.

Maryland drivers may have had it the worst Friday, but they weren’t the only ones encountering problems. An accident on Interstate 395 near the Third Street Tunnel closed three lanes about 7:30 a.m., according to John Lisle, spokesman for the D.C. Department of Transportation.

All lanes were open again by 8 a.m., but even half an hour resulted on backups stretching across the 14th Street Bridge and into Virginia.

Commuters in Virginia didn’t encounter any major accidents, but they did get to experience a presidential motorcade. President Obama made a campaign stop at George Mason University on Friday morning, resulting in detours and headaches all around that school’s campus.

Mark Berman is a reporter on the National staff. He anchors Post Nation, a destination for breaking news and developing stories from around the country.
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