Maryland may be friendly to transit projects, but Virginia is falling in love

Columnist November 20, 2013

I sense there’s a stereotype in thinking about the Washington region’s transportation plans. I say “Virginia,” some people respond “roads.” I say “Maryland,” some people respond “transit.” It’s as though the Potomac River divided planners’ philosophies on how to improve travel conditions.

Reality is much more complicated, as it needs to be in any metropolitan area. Planners in both states are working on a variety of projects, but the main event for transit is in Virginia.

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

I vented on this last week at a forum held in Silver Spring by the Action Committee for Transit on the role transit issues could play in Maryland’s 2014 elections.

Fellow panelists were Josh Kurtz, a longtime political reporter who writes for the Center Maryland blog, and Ari Ashe, who covers transportation issues for WTOP radio. Our moderator was Kytja Weir, former transit reporter for the Examiner and now with the Center for Public Integrity.

While Ashe was discussing transportation projects in the two states, I blurted out my sense that Virginia isn’t just about big highway projects, like the Capital Beltway and Interstate 95 express lanes. It doesn’t get enough credit among transit advocates for being on the verge of opening one of the biggest transit projects in the nation, the first phase of the $6 billion Silver Line.

A portion of the Wiehle-Reston East Metro station is seen in early November in Fairfax County. The station is part of the anticipated Silver Line. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Meanwhile, what’s Maryland got? Maryland’s biggest transportation project in recent years for the region is the Intercounty Connector, scheduled to open its last link to Route 1 next year. Statewide, there’s also the Express Toll Lanes project north of Baltimore.

What’s the biggest thing actually happening in Maryland transit? It’s probably the planned start in December of weekend service on MARC. That’s not exactly a Silver Line. Anything else? The Purple Line light rail, the Corridor Cities Transitway and bus rapid transit are important programs, but they’re years away from operating. In fact, they’re so far in the future that the Silver Spring Transit Center might be open first.

Virginia is on the verge of having five new Metrorail stations, including four that are the gemstones in an ambitious makeover for auto-dominated Tysons Corner. Those stations have no Metro park-and-rides. To support them, the Fairfax Connector and Metrobus are undertaking a large-scale revamp of bus routes.

And what serves as one of the best models on the planet for transit-oriented development in Tysons? Transit-oriented development in Arlington County.

And don’t get me started on the D.C. “war on cars.” The District certainly has important programs to advance transit, biking and walking, but its biggest transportation project so far this century is the rebuilding of the 11th Street Bridge, opening up new freeway links across the Anacostia River.

Roundabout learning

A traveler wrote in response to my description of changes the Virginia Department of Transportation is making in the design of the Route 15/50 roundabout, where the two major roads come together in Loudoun County.

The $300,000 in modifications this fall will bring drivers to a single lane on all approaches to the roundabout. VDOT officials hope the reduction in lanes will reduce speeds and driver confusion in the roundabout, where there have been more crashes than VDOT engineers anticipated when they replaced traffic signals with the configuration in 2008.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Americans do not yet know how to use roundabouts. Certainly speed is one issue, if drivers do not slow down for the circle. Another is roundabout etiquette, which demands that everyone use turn signals. Otherwise, the other cars that are waiting to enter the circle do not know whether you are coming around and they need to wait for you.

It is time to raise the standards for driving a car in the United States.

Meanwhile, it is probably a good idea to change the Route 15/50 circle to a single lane. But there is more to the story. The old intersection has been replaced by a group of three separate roundabouts, and there is also a fourth to the east of the main intersection.

Splitting the traffic by using three closely spaced roundabouts is a clever idea, and with a fourth nearby, it helps the drivers’ learning curve.

Regarding the speeding issue, these roundabouts are marked at 25 mph, which is reasonable since they are quite small circles. However, what is not reasonable is that the straight sections between the circles are also marked at 25 mph. No wonder people are speeding. 25 mph is a ridiculous speed for a one-mile section of Route 50 from Route 15 to Watson Road and a half-mile section of Route 15 between two circles.

I hope part of the $300,000 goes to replacing the speed limit signs to something reasonable, like 35 or 40 mph, on the road sections between the roundabouts.

Graham Long, Fairfax County

DG: Randy Dittberner, VDOT’s regional traffic engineer, said quite a few travelers have suggested the speed limit be raised in the sections Long mentioned. “We agree that 25 mph is a low speed limit for primary highways such as routes 15 and 50,” he wrote in an e-mail.

“It has been difficult to justify raising the speed limit so far because of the unexpectedly high number of crashes at the main roundabout. However, if the modifications are successful in reducing crashes, we would be glad to take a closer look at whether a change in speed limit would be appropriate, considering the impacts on delay and safety.”

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