New Beltway express lanes lead to crashes and changes

November 19, 2012

The Capital Beltway’s new lanes have been open to the public for just a few days, but it’s already time for a bit of a makeover.

A spate of accidents at the entrance to the northbound 495 express lanes, all stemming from last-minute maneuvers to avoid the new lanes, has transportation authorities scrambling to make changes.

On Sunday night, electronic signs were changed to warn drivers about the new pattern and extra colored reflectors were added to the barriers that separate the high-occupancy toll lanes from the regular lanes.

Even after the changes, two crashes occurred Monday morning, raising the three-day total to six.

So on Tuesday morning, drivers will wake up to newly extended lane markings intended to minimize unsafe lane changes.


(Gene Thorp/The Washington Post)

In the coming days, crews will add markers to the pavement more than a mile before the express lanes to remind commuters that they need an E-ZPass in the left lanes.

The high-occupancy toll lanes represent a new way to manage traffic and build new highways at a time of increasing congestion and stagnant transportation funding. Tolls rise to control demand for the lanes and ensure a predictable trip over the 14-mile route.

Virginia worked with private companies, Transurban and Fluor, to build the lanes. Now, both the state and Transurban, which has a contract to operate the lanes, are working to address the problems highlighted by the six crashes, which occurred in just under 72 hours.

Every crash has occurred near the entrance to the northbound express lanes between the Springfield interchange and Braddock Road on the inner loop of the Capital Beltway.

“Considering the change in the traffic pattern, it’s nothing that I’d say is too out of the ordinary,” said Corinne Geller, spokeswoman for the Virginia State Police. “The unique part about it is that they’re all in the same place.”

Transurban is working with the Virginia Department of Transportation and the state police to alert travelers that they’re approaching toll lanes.

“As expected, this has been a big transition for Beltway drivers,” said Jennifer Aument, a spokeswoman for Transurban. “What we’re seeing out there is what you’d expect with a traffic shift of this magnitude.”

Officials were ready for issues stemming from a major traffic shift, Geller said. The state police had additional troopers assigned to the area so they could quickly respond to incidents.

“We anticipated that there would be some growing pains and that there would be a learning curve for motorists driving out there,” Geller said.

Area drivers know all too well that accidents happen on the Beltway. Still, six crashes in one spot is not typical, particularly in such a short stretch of time.

During a similar span of time earlier this month, seven accidents were reported on I-495 between the Springfield Interchange and the American Legion Bridge, according to the state police.

Some Beltway drivers said every­one using the highway needs to be aware of the new lanes, even if they’re not using them. “It does concern me that someone could swerve and lose control,” said Richard B. Rogers, 39, a lawyer in Northern Virginia. “If I were using the general purpose lanes on the Beltway, I think I would make a point of staying all the way to the right.”

Rogers, who is interested in transportation issues and had read up on the lanes, traveled in them Saturday and twice early Monday afternoon.

“I didn’t want to go through there [at] peak time when there was more risk of being in a wreck,” he said.

Traffic was very light in the new lanes during Monday’s morning commute. Some drivers are concerned about problems cropping up as more and more traffic flows into the express lanes.

“I think the biggest confusion is going to be at the exit points,” said Vivek Ramgopal, 34, of Fairfax. “The exits aren’t aligned with every exit on 495, and I think that might be the expectation.”

It should take a few weeks to determine whether these lanes are working at reducing congestion, said Peter Samuel, editor of Tollroadsnews, a Web site that monitors transportation policy.

“Most important will be people getting the hang of it,” Samuel said. “It is an area with a lot of commuters who do those things on a regular basis. . . . People need to try and plan it out a bit.”

The new lanes opened Saturday at 2 a.m. after weeks of media attention and a ribbon-cutting and balloon drop presided over by Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R).

The first crash came just before 7 a.m. Saturday. A 19-year-old driver approaching the express lane entrance swerved to the right to avoid it, overcorrected to the left and hit the Jersey wall. She and an 18-year-old passenger were taken to a hospital with injuries that were not thought to be life-threatening.

An hour later, just as the first crash was being cleared from the road, two vehicles caught in the backup collided.

The third accident came shortly after 2:15 p.m Saturday. A driver trying to avoid the lanes swerved, and the car spun out and came to a stop in the roadway. The fourth incident occurred on Sunday at 8:04 a.m., when another vehicle trying to avoid the toll swerved, spun and struck the Jersey wall.

On Monday, the first accident took place after 6 a.m. Two vehicles collided when trying to avoid the toll lanes. It was quickly followed by another pair of cars colliding while trying to avoid the first accident.

Lori Aratani contributed to this story.

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