Test-drive alternatives to main commute home before getting caught in a jam

Robert Thomson
Columnist May 1, 2013

This traveler contributed to a discussion last month about the traffic bottleneck where Virginia’s George Washington Parkway meets the 14th Street bridge into the District. He also offered some valuable insights into some of the region’s most common commuting problems.

But he wanted to elaborate on another common problem: what happens when Commuter Plan A won’t work because of an accident ahead.

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

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Your March 28 column covered many bases, but not backup plans. [On April 2], both of my backup plans failed, and because I have to cross a river with too few bridges for contingencies, all I had was frustration and a wish that my specific job skills were in demand in Arlington County.

My commute is Spout Run Parkway to the George Washington Parkway, the 14th Street bridge and Navy Yard, then the reverse in the afternoon.

Walking to my car, I saw that traffic on the Southeast/Southwest Freeway heading to Virginia was barely moving, and the on-ramp at Third Street SE was very backed up.

When this happens, my backup plan is to take M Street SE to Maine Avenue SW to bypass the Case Bridge [on Interstate 395]. But that route, which typically doubles my commute because of traffic and lights on M, was backed up more than usual, which led me to believe the delay was on the bridge itself.

So I took my second backup plan, Seventh SE to Independence to Constitution Avenue via the 12th Street Tunnel. I don’t know whether I would have done better dealing with the 14th Street bridge. Constitution [which continues west to the Roosevelt Bridge] was total gridlock from 12th to 18th, taking nearly 20 minutes to go six blocks. I endured six or seven light cycles at 14th and not much better than that through 17th. All in all, my usual eight- to 10-minute commute home took about four times as long.

Just one accident totally messed up my normally easy commute. But even at nearly 40 minutes to go a little more than six miles, it was still 33 percent faster than if I had taken Metro.

Dennis Coyle,
Arlington County

DG: Coyle’s first letter opened up topics that included the ripple effects of traffic congestion, the flexibility of driving vs. transit and the commuting problems created by job changes. Now we can add the selection of alternative routes.

Coyle went through an unpleasant afternoon commute trying to reach his Potomac River crossing, but it could have been much worse if he hadn’t known his options. Many commuters — whether they drive or take transit — don’t know their alternatives. Or they learn about them only through a difficult trial-and-error process that occurs when they confront a major problem on their route.

Radio traffic reporters might offer alternative routes around a traffic blockage they are describing, but if you haven’t studied a map beforehand, you might not know what they’re talking about.

We have few river crossings, but in the Washington region’s core, we do have a grid pattern of streets that offers some options on how to reach those crossings. Test some alternatives to your main route when you’re not under the stress of a major traffic jam.

It’s possible to do an armchair version of this test by using online mapping programs. Both Google Maps and MapQuest, for example, allow you to request directions, then drag the Point A to Point B line around to visualize alternatives. I also find Google’s street view helpful in planning what to do when approaching key intersections or highway ramps.

Another crossing?

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I commute from northern Germantown to Northern Virginia about three days a week, and I am convinced that one solution to help with the congestion on the Capital Beltway would be to have another bridge on the Potomac River, between the American Legion Memorial Bridge and White’s Ferry.

There has been a lot of talk about when and if this is going to happen. Given the daily grind in traffic on the Beltway, I think it is time to look into this option again.

Akwasi Oppong, Germantown

DG: There’s no active plan to create a new Potomac River crossing to the northwest of the Legion Bridge. (The Gen. Jubal A. Early ferry boat, hauled across the Potomac via a cable at White’s Ferry, probably serves about as many commuters as it’s ever going to.)

The Maryland and Virginia governments just decided to raise more tax revenue for transportation projects. That’s going to launch a competition among them. So supporters of another bridge should make themselves heard now.

The Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, an advocacy group for regional transportation improvements, thinks a new crossing is just about the most important upgrade we could undertake.

By 2020, the alliance says, nearly two-thirds of the region’s population will live outside the Capital Beltway, and half the region’s jobs also will be outside the hub. But eight of the region’s 10 Potomac River bridges are inside the Beltway.

However, money for such an enormously expensive project — a bridge and its approach highways — is only one obstacle. Governments on both sides of the river would have to believe it’s a good solution for our transportation problems, and the Maryland side continues to show no enthusiasm. Maryland is more likely to pump new revenue into two transitways, the Purple Line in the Washington suburbs and the Red Line in Baltimore.

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