By 2040, traffic on the bridge could be 19 percent above its 2007 volume, according to a study cited by Kirby. With the bridge’s capacity limited, the extra traffic will mean even longer rush hours. Speeds in the peak direction could be 10 mph or less.
Since the Beltway fully opened in 1964, Maryland and Virginia have been adding capacity by adding more lanes. Virginia’s 495 Express Lanes project will add four lanes but with a twist: Drivers in the new lanes will use their E-ZPasses to pay a toll that rises and falls with the level of congestion, unless there are at least three people in the car, which qualifies them for a free ride if they have an E-ZPass Flex transponder.
Lane management looks like the way of the future, but lanes can be managed in different ways.
Long-term options outlined in a Maryland State Highway Administration study include widening the bridge to make it part of a managed-lane system that could stretch west up I-270 and link up with the Virginia express lanes to the south, but there’s no financing in place for any such construction. The Maryland study, completed in 2009, estimated that widening the Beltway and the bridge would cost at least $800 million.
Would the managed lanes, if built on the Maryland side, be consistent with the Virginia style? For now, the two states are going with different systems. Maryland’s express toll lanes program does not provide free passage for those who meet the carpool rules, as Virginia’s high-occupancy toll lanes will.
In a shorter time frame, Maryland could attack specific points of congestion along the west side of the Beltway. Options include extending acceleration and deceleration lanes at interchanges or altering lane configurations.
Meanwhile, commuter bus service across the bridge is under discussion. The problem with commuter buses in the regular lanes is that they get stuck along with everyone else. “ ‘Why take this? I could be listening to my own music’ in a car,” Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon S. Bulova (D) imagined a rider thinking.
The buses also would have problems sticking to schedules, so a better plan would include bus service in a managed lane system.
All options but the short-term traffic improvements will require cooperation and coordination across the river. The July meeting among the county leaders boosted hopes for that, but it was just the start of the bridge-building between local governments.