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Md. Is Retooling I-495 Junctions to Clear Congestion

By Robert Thomson
Sunday, August 19, 2007

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Can you explain the rationale behind the changing traffic pattern at University Boulevard and the Capital Beltway?

There's a new traffic signal, and traffic exiting the outer loop onto University Boulevard will now have to make a left turn at this signal to go east on University and will have to make a full right turn rather than merge into the westbound lanes. Traffic on University will have an extra signal.

This makes little sense to me, since this light in particular would seem to impede the flow of traffic with the additional consequence of adding to the area's auto emissions, forcing cars to idle where they had not been and to accelerate from a full stop.

Todd Carton

Wheaton

Maryland is rebuilding many of its ancient interchanges along the Beltway to reduce congestion and eliminate some dangerous merges. The projects vary, but they tend to include wider ramps and new signal lights.

Nobody likes to slow or stop. In fact, that's how the interchanges got so dangerous. Drivers entering and exiting the outer loop at University Boulevard were using the same merge lane, creating a tight weaving pattern in which they had to make quick guesses about what other drivers would do.

Police recorded 11 crashes there from 2003 to 2005, said Chuck Gischlar, a spokesman for the Maryland State Highway Administration, which is in charge of the $1.6 million construction.

The new setup took effect last week. One ramp handles all exiting traffic, and the second ramp has been closed. As drivers come up the exit ramp and approach the new traffic signal, they find two lanes for left-hand turns and two for rights. Drivers in the far right lane can make a turn on red, but those in the other right lane can't.

Although the ramp's surface was rough, the traffic pattern worked well when I drove it a few times. One thing I didn't like was insufficient warning that the second ramp, the one that used to be Exit 29B, had closed. But the highway administration has put up a message board before the exit reading "MD 193 east and west -- use exit 29," and that should help.

The light on University Boulevard will favor interstate traffic and be timed to avoid backups, Gischlar said. It wouldn't hurt traffic to go slower past the three schools on that stretch of University.

Dr. Gridlock:

I try to use Interstate 495 in off-hours. The exit from the inner loop onto Georgia Avenue south now has a blinking red arrow, telling drivers to "merge" into traffic.

I know that blinking red traffic lights require the driver to come to a full stop, then proceed with caution. But this red arrow has just emerged from the fog of construction, and drivers either sit in line, waiting on the off ramp, or blow their horns rather testily.

What is the state expecting of its motorists at that site?

Ann D. Taylor

Silver Spring

When highway departments install a new signal, they usually keep it flashing for three days, partly to let drivers get used to it. Then they set the permanent pattern. Shortly after I received this letter, the signal changed to a full-color display.

Traffic still backs up. The second lane of the widened ramp isn't scheduled to open until the end of this month. The $1.5 million project should be done in the fall.

SmartBenefits Transition

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I saw it mentioned that Metro is planning to switch the Metrochek program over to SmarTrip cards.

That's all well and good for those who use Metrochek for the Metro system, but a good number of us use our Metrochek to pay for MARC tickets.

Karen Hammond

Ellicott City

By the end of the year, 60 percent of the transit benefits bought by employers for employees must be handled as electronic payments through the SmartBenefits program, says Metro, which administers it. The conversion allows the benefits' value to be placed on SmarTrip cards rather than Metrocheks, which resemble the paper fare cards. It saves administrative costs.

That's fine for most people receiving the benefits, because they use Metro transit services or travel on suburban bus systems that accept SmarTrip, such as RideOn, Dash, Cue, Loudoun County Transit and Fairfax Connector. But other transit systems, such as the MARC and VRE rail lines, have not converted to the electronic fares.

So Metro will continue to offer Metrocheks until all transit systems have a way to support SmarTrip-type payments, said Cathy Asato, a spokeswoman for the transit authority.

Dr. Gridlock appears Thursday in the Extras and Sunday in the Metro section. You can send e-mails todrgridlock@washpost.com. Include your name, home community and phone numbers.

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