The tortured roadscape of Northern Virginia will be smoother by the end of 2012, say managers of the megaprojects that dominate the region’s construction program. They look forward especially to significant improvements along the Capital Beltway.
For many drivers, though, there’s still the purgatory of daily commutes between them and the heaven of new lanes. To attend a briefing about this future last week, I drove all around the Beltway. The inner loop was a congealed mass of sluggish traffic from south of Tysons Corner to the Eisenhower Connector.
On the outer loop south of Tysons, traffic flowed freely toward the end of the morning rush. But that still meant a jostling, bendy ride through a distracting work zone where drivers must be very focused on the pavement and the white lines, where they can see them.
In coming weeks, we’ll review individual projects in the District suburbs from a driver’s perspective, but let’s start with an overview of the construction scene as it emerges from a mild winter into a busy spring and summer.
For their disruptiveness during construction and their potential for traffic relief when done, the highest-impact projects in the suburbs are the Interstate 495 express lanes, the final phase of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge project at the Beltway’s Telegraph Road interchange, the Dulles Metro Silver Line and the work to ease the traffic impact of the federal base realignments.
One of the region’s big projects wrapped up last year. The Virginia Department of Transportation estimates that the widening of Interstate 95 for six miles between Route 123 and the Fairfax County Parkway saves drivers 10 to 20 minutes on rush-hour trips.
Another is about to begin. During the next few weeks, drivers will notice test work along the I-95 high-occupancy vehicle lanes, where VDOT is preparing to launch the next high-occupancy toll lanes project.
“We’re closing in on the end,” John Lynch, VDOT’s regional transportation program director, said last week. VDOT and its private partners have an aggressive schedule of road work to complete the 14-mile-long project by the end of the year.
Just this weekend, drivers experienced big overnight disruptions for construction at the Beltway’s Braddock Road and Interstate 66 interchanges. The work at I-66 means a new flyover ramp will be open for Monday’s commuters going from the westbound lanes of I-66 to the Beltway’s outer loop. The new exit will be on the right side.
While some pieces of the project, such as the new flyover ramp, have been opening gradually, the express lanes — those four lanes behind construction barriers in the middle of the Beltway — will open all at once when the entire project is finished.
The completed express lanes will be divided from the general purpose lanes by four feet of white paint topped by bollards. Meanwhile, there are some traffic shifts to come as work around the highway bridges and interchanges advances toward completion.
“As construction ramps down, education will ramp up,” said Tim Steinhilber, general manager for the 495 express lanes. Part of the education program means getting potential carpoolers familiar with a new type of transponder called an E-ZPass Flex, which will become available this summer at E-ZPass service centers in Virginia and Maryland.
A regular E-ZPass will work fine for toll payers. But motorists who might gather a carpool one day, to ride free, and pay the toll to drive solo on another will want to have the new style transponder. It has a switch that signals their intentions to the toll takers and police.
Drivers sometimes ask why the Telegraph Road interchange and the expansion of the nearby Beltway fell behind the rest of the Wilson Bridge project. It didn’t. The work now underway was designed to be the last phase, and it should be substantially completed by the fall.
Motorists tell me they’re eyeing portions that look just about ready to use, but they’ll need to be patient a while longer. This summer, traffic will be disrupted for a final paving of the Beltway lanes and ramps. Some work on Telegraph Road is likely to stretch into next year, but everything, down to the final punch list, should be done by the end of June 2013.
Tom W. Fahrney, VDOT’s coordinator dealing with traffic effects of the federal Base Realignment and Closure program, said work is scheduled to begin this summer on an HOV ramp connecting Fort Belvoir North with I-95.
Farther north, at the Mark Center on Seminary Road off I-395 in Alexandria, work will get underway this summer to ease traffic at Seminary Road intersections and to expand the capacity of the ramp by the Mark Center that connects Seminary Road with southbound I-395.
One major project, a reversible HOV/transit ramp from I-395 to Seminary Road, isn’t scheduled to begin till next year and won’t be done till late 2015.
Considering its cost, length and high visibility, the new Metrorail line through Tysons Corner and west to Wiehle Avenue will have relatively little impact on the region’s traffic in 2012 compared with some of the other construction projects. This part of the line is two-thirds done.
The bridges near the Beltway are in place. Work continues on the four stations in Tysons and the one at Wiehle Avenue. The main action, as far as drivers are concerned, is along Route 7 on the west side of Tysons, where the elevated railway leads out to its connection with the Dulles Access Highway. The Route 7 work should diminish by late summer.
Construction is scheduled for completion in mid-2013, with service starting by the end of that year.