Maryland Beltway bridge getting a makeover

When community groups surround highway department staffers who are planning to disrupt their neighborhoods, they rarely take prisoners. But at one such community meeting last week, Maryland transportation officials got a break, because they had the right answer to at least one of the neighbors’ questions, and were willing to talk about the rest.

The Maryland State Highway Administration team is working on a plan to renovate a Capital Beltway bridge in Silver Spring. They know what they need to do to upgrade the bridge. But the bridge fixers and the traffic managers still are talking among themselves, as well as with the neighbors and travelers affected by the work, to find the safest and most efficient way to get the job done.

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A review of that process shows how complicated it can be to repair one bit of aging infrastructure.

Long, winding road

The bridge takes University Boulevard (Route 193) over the Beltway. Route 193 is among the many unsung strings of asphalt that knit together the D.C. region’s transportation system.

It’s a southeast/northwest connector that’s known as Watkins Park Drive where it meets Largo Road a few miles north of Upper Marlboro, becomes Enterprise Road and Glenn Dale Boulevard, then Greenbelt Road and finally University Boulevard as it moves from Prince George’s into Montgomery County and eventually joins Connecticut Avenue.

For many thousands of Maryland drivers, Route 193 is part of the east-west commute, but its role gets especially complicated around the Beltway. There, as the roadway passes along a ridge between tributaries of the Anacostia River, it’s lined with schools, churches, single-family homes and a fire station, all with driveways facing the road.

At the bridge, drivers pour on and off both loops of the Beltway. Some connect with roads heading to and from downtown Silver Spring and the District. Others leave the Beltway to join a sluggish westward migration across Montgomery County.

The neighbors

All that activity swirls around several communities hugging the Beltway. These neighbors had received a brochure from the SHA inviting them to last week’s meeting at nearby Montgomery Blair High School to hear about the project and ask questions.

The brochure explained that the bridge will be reduced from three lanes to two lanes in each direction to create the work zone for the two-year reconstruction. The portion of the outer loop ramp that takes traffic toward the bridge will be closed, and traffic detoured.

To the horror of many who live in the Indian Spring community near the bridge, the brochure showed a proposed two-mile detour that took outer loop drivers one exit west to Colesville Road (Route 29), then brought them back east to University via Franklin Avenue, a route the neighbors say is already overburdened and would annoy the commuters as well as the communities.

But by the time the meeting got underway, the SHA already had heard enough to decide against marking that detour. That was the right answer as far as the neighbors were concerned, though they still have questions about how much traffic will divert itself into their streets, how safe the sidewalks will be, and how much traffic they will have to fight to get out of their own driveways.

Beltway traffic

The SHA still is considering other detour routes for outer loop drivers who will need to reach eastbound University Boulevard. They could get off one exit earlier, at New Hampshire Avenue, drive south and make a right onto Piney Branch Road, which connects with University.

The neighbors like that, but it’s unlikely to please commuters, because New Hampshire Avenue already is so congested at peak periods.

Another alternative is to send drivers two exits farther down, to Georgia Avenue, then have them loop around the interchange and come back to eastbound University via the inner loop. That’s a long way.

Some neighbors suggest the SHA should temporarily reopen a ramp from the outer loop to eastbound University that was closed a few years ago when the interchange was partially rebuilt. The SHA says it will consider that, among other options. But I see issues: The ramp was removed to reduce dangerous weaving between vehicles entering and exiting the outer loop; reopening the ramp could add to the backup where the eastbound lanes of University constrict for the bridge project; if heavy enough, ramp congestion could back up onto the inner loop, which backs up to College Park during the height of the morning rush.

Meanwhile, elsewhere . . .

There’s rarely just one disruptive thing going on around the Beltway.

Another bridge renovation affects traffic in the same area. This bridge takes Beltway traffic over the Northwest Branch. The reconstruction, which began last year, is about 45 percent done, and has benefited from a mild winter. It should be complete by late fall.

In early spring, the SHA also plans to begin replacing the deck of the inner loop bridge over the northbound lanes of New Hampshire Avenue. To hasten the work, the SHA plans to close the inner loop ramp to the northbound lanes. A detour will take drivers farther east on the inner loop to the park and ride area in the Beltway/I-95 interchange, then bring them back on the outer loop to the exit for northbound New Hampshire Avenue.

The schedule

The University Boulevard bridge project will be advertised to potential contractors this summer, the SHA says. Once the contract is awarded, the SHA and the contractor will decide what they can do before winter sets in. “The last thing we want to do is get to a point where we start the project only to have to stop because of weather issues and inconvenience motorists,” said Chuck Gischlar, an SHA spokesman.

There are things that could be accomplished early on, such as setting up a field office, installing construction signs and relocating utilities, if that’s necessary.

Whenever lane constrictions start, a certain portion of drivers will be taken completely by surprise. Drivers will do weird things to escape the new congestion. It will be an ugly scene.

In the following weeks, drivers will figure out how to deal with the lane reductions and the detours, and some will choose alternative routes. But traffic officials and police will need to watch for surprises and egregious problems that require further adjustments.

 
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