A New Choice At Wilson Bridge

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Drivers approaching the Woodrow Wilson Bridge along the Capital Beltway will find they have a welcome new option. Crews are wrapping up work this month on the four new "thru" lanes. When they're open, the bridge will carry 10 lanes of traffic. But the project's managers are hoping motorists will choose wisely. The thru lanes skip a couple of exits. Here's what you need to know.

Thru Vs. Local

This won't be like the lane separation at Interstate 270 in Maryland, where drivers can move out of the express lanes and into the local ones as they approach their exits. On the other hand, the bridge's thru lanes won't go on as long as the I-270 express lanes.

Decision Points: The outer loop will split into thru and local lanes just east of Telegraph Road in Virginia. The inner loop will split just east of Route 210 in Maryland. Destinations: Thru lanes should be used when the destination is beyond Route 210 on the outer loop or beyond Telegraph Road on the inner loop. Local lanes should be used when the destination is between Telegraph Road and Route 210.

Ramps: Some new ramps to both the thru and local lanes will be opening this month at Routes 1 and 210. Other ramps to the thru lanes will open later.

Beltway Signs: Big green highway signs warning of the lane divide will be placed two miles out and one mile out from the thru/local splits. Stay left for the thru lanes and right for the locals. At the split, there will be green signs overhead with white arrows pointing down to indicate the thru and local lanes. Other signs before the splits will name the upcoming exits as either thru or local exits and give the distances.

Lane Decider: The bridge project's Web site, http://www.wilsonbridge.com, has an interactive map that lets you plug in your starting point and destination and see popup maps indicating the correct choice. There's also a printable version.

Travel Advice

This is bound to be confusing at first. Some congestion is likely near the splits and the merges as drivers get used to the new pattern. The two thru lanes in each direction will be a great option, because they will take drivers away from the congestion that normally occurs around the interchanges closest to the bridge. But if unsure of themselves, longer-distance motorists are likely to take the local lanes and forfeit the time savings the new lanes offer. Watch for:

The signs. They start two miles from the lane divides. They won't start farther back, because we probably wouldn't remember them anyway.

Late deciders. Despite the signs, some people will make their decisions at the last moment and switch lanes too quickly.

Variable speed limits. If congestion develops, the project managers could adjust the speed limit signs along the Beltway to improve safety and ease the volume of traffic entering the congested area.

Merging traffic. Nobody is used to the merge either. Whether you're driving in the thru or local lanes, watch for traffic from the other set of lanes after crossing the bridge.

Construction: While opening the thru lanes this weekend and next should relieve congestion for thousands of drivers, the project still isn't done. Work on the Telegraph Road interchange will continue to squeeze traffic down to three lanes in that area through at least 2011. Also, some off-roadway work will continue on the thru lanes for several months, with the additional ramps to and from the thru lanes opening in spring 2009.

Weekend Prep Work

To open the new lanes, crews must paint white stripes and put up signs. So we're going through a weekend drill similar to what we saw when the two bridge spans were opened. This weekend on the outer loop and next weekend on the inner loop, there is likely to be extensive congestion as the number of open lanes is severely limited.

The outer loop portion tends to be the easier one to handle, because long-distance traffic can be diverted at the Springfield interchange. But that lulls some drivers into thinking things will be okay the next weekend. Plus, it's more difficult to manage traffic on that portion of the inner loop.

These are the basics.

9 p.m. Friday to about 7 p.m. Sunday: The outer loop will be reduced from three lanes to one from east of Van Dorn Street in Virginia through east of Route 210 in Maryland. At Springfield, Interstate 95 North access will be blocked off Saturday morning. Traffic will be detoured west around the Beltway toward the American Legion Bridge. The ramp from Route 1 South to the outer loop will be closed and a lane of the inner loop will be closed for storm sewer work.

9 p.m. Dec. 12 to about 10 p.m. Dec. 14: Inner loop lanes will be reduced from four lanes to one from west of Route 5 in Maryland to west of Telegraph Road in Virginia. Ramps to the inner loop from I-295 South, National Harbor and Telegraph Road will be closed. Ramps from the inner loop to National Harbor, Church Street and Route 1 in Alexandria will be closed.

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