Top 10 Washington transportation stories from 2013: Metro, hot lanes, gas taxes and more

Robert Thomson/The Washington Post - The many lanes of traffic through Tysons, with both the HOT lanes and the regular lanes of the Capital Beltway. Virginia commuters went through a “getting to know you” year with the region’s first high-occupancy vehicle lanes on the Capital Beltway, which opened in late 2012.

Measuring progress is always difficult for commuters in a congestion region, but 2013 proved particularly challenging. Many potential benefits seemed to hold more potential than immediate benefit.

The Washington area’s biggest road and rail programs add the good stuff in stages, even as work continues on the next phase of an improvement. These are the 10 developments that had the highest impact on travelers. The impact is not always visible right away, and sometimes it’s not positive.

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We’re No. 1. The Texas A&M Transportation Institute, which issues widely cited reports on how bad travel is in urban areas, launched the year with a new way to measure misery in the nation’s capital. It’s called the Planning Time Index, and the Washington region ranked No. 1, which isn’t good.

The index calculates the amount of time people must build into their schedules to be late no more than one workday a month. The more things that can go wrong with your trip, the more travel time you must add to avoid arriving late. We beat Los Angeles and New York in this measure of unreliable commuting. Beat them by a lot.

New spending ahead. After decades of inaction, Maryland and Virginia approved plans to raise more money for transportation projects. Maryland increased its gas tax, while Virginia abolished its gas tax in favor of a broader sales tax.

This was a bright spot. Leaders in both states announced big plans to spend the extra money in the years ahead — on the Purple Line light-rail line, for example — but the effects on commuters in 2013 were largely invisible. One notable exception: the start-up this month of weekend MARC train service between Washington and Baltimore.

Transportation Authority. The most visible effect of the new law in Virginia was the empowerment of the decade-old Northern Virginia Transportation Authority and the ensuing battle over how to spend the money it began receiving through the legislation.

The legislation instructed the authority to focus on regional congestion relief. In the outer suburbs, that tends to mean road projects. Inner suburbs see more value in projects that encourage transit use, biking and walking.

Debates involving the board’s members, interest groups and ordinary travelers showed the many ways one person’s congestion-buster could be another person’s frill. The first year’s result was approval for a mix of projects and widespread praise for the civil manner in which the debate was conducted.

Wilson Bridge done. The two new spans that take Interstate 95 over the Potomac River were completed in 2008, but the scope of the project was so vast that work related to improving nearby interchanges and widening the Capital Beltway wasn’t fully completed until this year.

It’s an amazing accomplishment, but there’s one thing left: Two lanes in the middle of the bridge are reserved for a transitway that has yet to materialize.

Metro service. Halfway through its aggressive rebuilding program, the transit authority cited many improvements in service during 2013, including better lighting, signs and escalators at some stations. Metro’s quarterly reports about itself showed rail and bus performance improving. “We had a very good year,” General Manager Richard Sarles said.

Riders can’t always share the euphoria.

Their memories of 2013 include the evacuation of Green Line trains during an evening rush in January and several days of lengthy delays on the Red Line in November. All of those incidents drew apologies from Sarles and pledges of better service to come.

HOT lanes’ first year. Virginia commuters went through a “getting to know you” year with the region’s first high-occupancy vehicle lanes on the Capital Beltway, which opened in late 2012.

Drivers complained they didn’t know how to make cost-effective decisions at the access points to the toll lanes because they couldn’t see how bad the traffic would be in the free lanes. Use of the lanes fell below the private operator’s original expectations but increased throughout the year.

Meanwhile, several commuter bus routes to Tysons Corner were created to take advantage of the more reliably timed trip in the 495 Express Lanes.

I-95 construction. Interstate 95 drivers endured trips through one of the longest highway work zones in the nation.

The 29-mile construction area for the 95 Express Lanes south of Springfield was particularly challenging in the summer and fall. While the express lanes aren’t scheduled to open until early 2015, project managers said drivers probably experienced the most severe construction impacts during 2013.

Silver Line preparations. If the Silver Line launches successfully in early 2014, part of the credit will go to Fairfax County and Metro planners, who this year redesigned many bus routes to bring travelers to the new stations. In addition to redesigning bus lines, Metro also decided to keep the popular Metrobus 5A service between the District and Dulles International Airport after toying with the idea of ending curtailing it.

Metro, realizing that many potential riders had no idea that a new rail line was coming, began a marketing campaign to highlight the five new stations in Fairfax County.

This also was the year when many county residents realized that the four new stations in Tysons Corner come without commuter parking garages.

11th Street Bridge. If anybody says the District is anti-driver, just point out the new bridge over the Anacostia River. In September, the District Department of Transportation celebrated completion of the bridge, the biggest project it has undertaken. The bridge now consists of three spans, two primarily to serve long-distance travelers and a third for neighborhood-to-neighborhood traffic.

Although the spans are open, the work isn’t done. Crews still are working on the freeway connection on the Navy Yard/Capitol Hill side. When that is done, traffic during the morning rush should ease.

Gainesville improvement. The biggest brand-new benefit for commuters this year was the opening of the bridge separating Route 29 drivers from the Norfolk Southern tracks in Gainesville, just southwest of the Interstate 66 interchange.

The Virginia Department of Transportation is continuing to work on this congestion-easing project, one of the state’s biggest, as it tries to remove a traffic bottleneck that has slowed travelers for many years.

Next week: The year ahead.

 
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