Planners Fear That HOT Lanes Will Tread On Beltway Advances

By Steven Ginsberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 26, 2006

The mother of all the region's traffic-congested highways, the ring road around Washington that has become a symbol of gridlocked misery, is actually clearing up a bit.

Parts of the notorious Capital Beltway are no longer "I'd rather walk 50 miles on my knees" bad but somewhere in the ballpark of "Maybe I'll actually be on time today" bad.

According to a study by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, the improvements can be traced to two construction projects: an interchange in Springfield that connects motorists from the inner loop to the southbound lanes of Interstate 95, and a widened ramp that takes drivers from the outer loop to the Dulles Toll Road.

The construction has enabled drivers to leave the Beltway more easily, clearing lanes for everyone else.

In an area where traffic fixes are few and fleeting, they provide evidence that engineering can ease congestion on the most difficult of highways. If the Beltway can be unclogged, surely there is hope for others.

But just as engineering has improved travel on the Beltway, it also has the potential to slow it right back down -- a prospect that has caused some to question plans to add four high-occupancy toll lanes to the part of the Beltway where traffic has improved.

What has made the highway work better is not additional lanes but the ability of drivers to get on and off the existing ones faster. HOT lanes would make this more difficult, transportation planners said, by adding more cars to the Beltway. And, because they would be built in the middle of the highway, there is the issue of how to get out of the lanes.

Drivers would exit into the regular lanes before leaving the Beltway or exit directly onto ramps to connecting roads, potentially creating a mess of merges rivaling the bottlenecks that the improvements eased.

"You have to watch for this when you add these HOT lanes," said Ronald F. Kirby, transportation planning director for the council.

"It's not enough to put capacity on the main barrel; you have to get people on and off," Kirby said. "It's very, very critical that they have those things under control."

The study, done every three years, measured congestion on every major highway in the region by analyzing 80,000 aerial photographs taken during morning and evening rush hours.

Virginia is working with a private consortium to build HOT lanes between Springfield and the American Legion Bridge. The companies that will build the lanes, Fluor Enterprises Inc. and Transurban Inc., will pay for the $900 million project, scheduled to be completed in 2010, in exchange for charging drivers tolls.

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