Maryland, Virginia are launching congestion-relief projects along busy commuter routes


Traffic from the outer loop of the Beltway, left, merges with traffic from Interstate 270 during the evening rush hour. (MANUEL BALCE CENETA/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Robert Thomson
Columnist June 11

Two road projects just getting underway in Maryland and Virginia highlight today’s most common approach to traffic relief: Rather than build something brand-new, we tinker with stuff we already have.

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

Transportation planners consider this approach less disruptive and less costly. But even these less-than-grand projects cost millions of dollars and inconvenience travelers during the work phase.

A project that Maryland planners have been discussing since the 1990s has begun at Georgia Avenue and Randolph Road in the Glenmont community of Montgomery County.

By early 2017, the $74.8 million reconstruction will have pushed four through lanes of east-west Randolph Road beneath north-south Georgia Avenue, and Georgia will get an extra lane in each direction through the area.

At a groundbreaking last week, state and county officials noted that the higher fuel taxes approved last year are one factor in advancing state projects such as this one. But the tax increase was just one late entry on the long road from concept to construction. The state’s share of the cost is $17.6 million. The federal government, which faces its own issues with a diminishing Highway Trust Fund, is contributing $42.8 million. Montgomery, which for many years made this project a top priority in its transportation program, is contributing $14.4 million.

Montgomery County Council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large), a supporter of the project for a dozen years, said the county’s share comes from a transportation fund supported by county liquor store revenue and general funds. Sustained county support, through financing and political lobbying at the state level, was an important factor in keeping the project alive through some difficult economic times over the past few years.

The complexities of converting the intersection into an interchange also lengthened the project’s timeline. There were other ways of doing this. For example, Georgia Avenue could have gone under Randolph Road. But then, there was Metro’s Red Line tunnel to consider, said Brett Deane, the project manager for the Maryland State Highway Administration.

Putting Randolph Road into an underpass reduces the project’s overlap area with the Metro tunnel. Planners also sought to use the project to enhance walking and biking safety in this area just south of the Glenmont Metro station.

But the interchange project does greatly affect the nearby surface areas. The principal issue was the need to relocate the Kensington Volunteer Fire Department building on the southeast corner of the intersection.

Then there’s the need to keep traffic flowing through the intersection during more than two years of construction. Deane said plans call for keeping all lanes open in morning and evening rush hours.

Still, traffic is likely to move more slowly than normal — not that normal is fast in this area. Drivers will get a chance to gawk at the tearing down of the firehouse. Then they’ll watch as new asphalt is laid at the sides of Randolph Road to create a detour around the central work zone. Eventually, all drivers using the intersection will experience some sort of disruption for construction.

NOT NEW BUT IMPROVED

A project to improve traffic on one of the most congested sections of the Capital Beltway in Virginia started last week.

By the end of the year, the Virginia Department of Transportation hopes, the work will have made a rush-hour travel lane out of the left shoulder on the inner loop between the 495 Express Lanes merge and the George Washington Parkway. This is a heavily used section of the Beltway during both morning and afternoon commutes.

Drivers now need to watch out for shifts and reduced shoulders on the northbound side of the Beltway from just south of Old Dominion Drive to the G.W. Parkway.

Susan N. Shaw, VDOT’s regional transportation program director, said at a public meeting about the project in the fall that the shoulder opening is not a grand solution to the traffic congestion north of Tysons but that it should make commuting easier than it is now. VDOT is working with the space available rather than widening the footprint of the Beltway.

The shoulder program will expand the capacity of the 1.8-mile zone but not the capacity of the roadways feeding traffic into it. The current traffic — about 95,000 vehicles a day — will have more room to spread out, at least for 1.8 miles.

VDOT’s plan is to use green and red lane markings similar to those that designate when the Interstate 66 right shoulders are open and closed. To do this $20 million project within the existing footprint of the Beltway, the four regular lanes will be narrowed from 12 feet to 11. But the left shoulder lane also would become 11 feet wide, with at least a 21 / 2-foot clearance from the median barrier. At off-peak times, when the shoulder reverts to a breakdown lane, that’s roomier than what’s available now for drivers in emergencies.

The shoulder lane will be a shade of gray distinctive from the coloring of the regular travel lanes, Shaw said.

VDOT’s plan is to work off-peak and at night in what’s a fairly tight construction schedule for an end-of-the-year opening.

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