The D.C. region’s transportation top 10 for 2012: Breaking through some bottlenecks


A jumble of roads and signs defines the I495 beltway looking north from Tyson's on Nov.19, 2012. (Dayna Smith/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
Robert Thomson
Columnist December 28, 2012

Commuting is a very personal thing, made good or bad by particular experiences with a car, train, bus or bike on particular days. Yet most travelers were impacted by at least one of the major events that affected the D.C. region’s transportation network in 2012.

See how many of my choices for the top events counted in your commute, for better or worse.

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
Express lanes open

Several reasons for placing the launch of the 495 Express Lanes at the top of the list: The impact would be great even if the lanes’ November opening simply ended four years of construction that disrupted travel along 14 miles on the west side of the Capital Beltway in Virginia. But the high-occupancy toll lanes are historic, bringing a new type of travel to the nation’s capital. The dynamic tolling system, in which the price of driving rises or falls with the level of congestion, could be the way of the future in managing traffic.

It will be a significant breakthrough if the lanes also prove their worth as a carpool and bus transit route.

Freeway link

Several generations of commuters had grown used to the difficulties of getting from freeway to freeway across the Anacostia River. As the District’s 11th Street Bridge project started to eliminate some of those difficulties this year, drivers would write in to ask for assurance that this meant what they thought it meant.

Many changes occurred throughout the year because of this project, but I think the two with the highest impact were the opening over the summer of the ramp from D.C. 295 South to the new bridge’s inbound freeway span and the opening this month of the ramp from the outbound span to D.C. 295 North. That eliminates several problems for drivers trying to get between the Southeast-Southwest Freeway and the Anacostia Freeway, and it should help the neighborhoods by getting commuter cars off their streets.

Beltway bottleneck gone

Drivers who loved the rebuilt Woodrow Wilson Bridge still hated the lane constriction and the resulting congestion on the Beltway’s outer loop at Telegraph Road. Until that bottleneck was uncorked, they couldn’t fully enjoy the benefits of the wider bridge.

The completion this year of the THRU and LOCAL lane system on both loops benefited both commuters and long-distance travelers on Interstate 95. Here again, ending years of disruptive construction along the Beltway was itself a significant step, but opening up the bridge-bound lanes qualifies as a breakthrough for the region’s transportation system.

Rush Plus

This was the year’s top transit event, more significant even than Metro’s fare increases, despite the new fares’ wider impact on riders. In June, Rush Plus changed the peak-period service patterns, taking some trains away from the Blue Line and adding trains on the Orange and Yellow lines.

Metro officials said this would better align service with emerging ridership patterns and prepare for the launch of the Silver Line, probably in late 2013. Many Blue Line riders had not gotten over the first cutback when Metro announced in the fall that service would have to be reduced even further once the Silver Line starts sending trains into the bottleneck at the Rosslyn tunnel to go into and out of downtown Washington.

Metro fare increases

There was an upside: Metro eliminated the “peak of the peak” surcharge, which served only to raise money from rush-hour riders and failed as a form of congestion pricing. Those commuters didn’t have much choice about their work schedules, so they couldn’t shift trips to save money.

The basic rail fare rose to $2.10 from $1.95 during the peak periods, but riders were affected in many different ways depending on the distance of their trips, the time of day and whether they parked at the station. Bus fare using a SmarTrip card rose by a dime to $1.60. The surcharge on using paper Farecards rose to $1 per trip, as Metro sought to move more riders from paper to plastic.

New bike lane

As Capital Bikeshare continued to expand its rent-a-bike service, the District expanded its network of bicycle lanes. This fall, the D.C. Department of Transportation added a one-way, bike-only route on the north side of L Street NW through much of the downtown.

These new routes test how well different types of travelers can get along. The loss of the lane and resulting congestion and confusion irks some drivers. So did the loss of parking spaces along L Street. Much of the confusion comes when drivers need to make left turns. Before they reach an intersection, they must merge — cautiously — into the bike lane and then turn. This is still a period of adjustment for the L Street drivers and bikers, but more such changes are coming.

Dupont Circle escalators

For much of the year, the south-side exit at Metro’s Dupont Circle station was shut so workers could haul out the three troublesome escalators and replace them with new ones. Having one of the station’s two exits closed was a big disruption for riders and a major test for Metrorail’s planning and execution, but the project was completed on time.

What’s really encouraging is that Metro officials are moving away from the policy of fixing old escalators that won’t stay fixed and will begin to replace more and more of them.

Silver Spring transit center

Can I count something that didn’t happen as a significant event? The train stations and bus stops in downtown Silver Spring form a major transit hub, and the idea was to provide it with a major transit center. It’s still a fine idea, but the center’s completion is several years behind schedule, and Montgomery County has not announced an opening date.

At this point, transit users don’t need the center as much as they need relief from the disruption caused by the scattering of the bus stops across the downtown streets.

ICC extension

The Maryland State Highway Administration began work on extending the Intercounty Connector toll road east from I-95 to Route 1, the project’s final segment. Most of Maryland’s other transportation projects in the D.C. suburbs involve repairing bridges and roadways so they will last longer.

That’s essential work, but from a commuter’s point of view, it means long periods of disruption, after which the roadway looks a lot like it did before the projects began. This was true of the Northwest Branch bridge rehabilitation on the Beltway in Silver Spring. Planners and workers did a good job keeping traffic moving through one of the Beltway’s most congested areas. The job is essentially done in terms of its impact on travelers.

Apple Maps

Apple, which has had so many successes, stumbled badly when it introduced its own route-mapping system to replace Google Maps on its portable devices. This skirmish in corporate warfare was important to local travelers because it highlighted how much we have come to rely on this sort of on-the-go guidance in planning routes and monitoring traffic conditions.

Apple is making progress. The D.C. map’s location for the Washington Monument now matches reality.

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