Navigating a Bus Path For K Street -- Again

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 30, 2009

Once again this summer, the mystery of K Street's design has bewildered and confused thousands of tourists trying to drive through the heart of downtown Washington.

Most other streets, if they have medians at all, have medians in the center that divide traffic going in one direction from traffic going in the other. K Street is different. Most of it is eight lanes across, and a pair of median strips separate the outside lane and parking lane from the four in the center. It's even confusing to describe in writing, but for real confusion, witness drivers who have become trapped in those outside lanes as they struggle to move into the center. Or those who are trapped in the inside lanes and want to make a right turn.

This happens mostly to tourists. Regular commuters know how to negotiate the street. They tend to be a bit impatient, forgetting that they are in Washington and laying on the horn as though they were in some less-civil city to the north.

The odd configuration came about 33 years ago with one purpose in mind: Create bus lanes.

This fact has largely been lost to history, even to the current generation of city engineers who plan to change the street dramatically.

They want to create bus lanes.

This time, the plan is to create two or three bus-only lanes down the center of the street. The K Street Transitway would extend from Mount Vernon Square in the east to Washington Circle in the west.

"It's never really been a well-functioning street," said Richard H. Bradley, executive director of the Downtown Washington Business Improvement District. "The current design was one of those well-intentioned but wrong-headed ideas. It has four lanes in each direction, but effectively, it only has one lane if someone is making a left turn and someone's making a delivery."

Here's the math behind his statement: one lane for parking, one lane blocked by a delivery vehicle, one lane blocked by a car waiting to turn left and voilà, traffic in three of the four lanes goes nowhere.

Bradley embraces the proposals to change all that and wants to see the major artery transformed in appearance as well as function.

"If we're intending to become a city of stature, and I think we are, we need to make this a great street," he said.

Traffic planners see it as an opportunity to allow smooth-flowing commuter bus traffic through the heart of town, linked to similar bus-only tentacles that spread across the region and ultimately lure people from their cars into faster, more efficient buses.

In other words, it's a congestion reliever in a city choking on its traffic.

The D.C. Department of Transportation is finalizing a request for $95 million in federal stimulus money to pay for the project. If its gets the funds, the schedule calls for preliminary designs to be completed by December, construction to begin by next June or July and the job to be done sometime in 2012.

A two-person crew opening a manhole in the District can cause traffic problems that ripple for blocks, so what are the prospects when it comes to a project that affects more than a dozen downtown blocks?

"The management of traffic is going to be a major concern," said Faisal Hameed, a project manager at DDOT. "At this point, honestly, I cannot say how it will proceed."

The only thing DDOT knows for certain is that K Street would not be shut down from end to end. The work would proceed a bit at a time.

There are two plans under consideration, and the decision-making is so sensitive that when almost everyone directly involved are asked which plan they favor, they react as if they've been asked which of their two children they like best.

One plan would put a pair of bus-only lanes down the center of the street, separating them from other traffic with islands that would have sheltered bus stops. That would leave three "general purpose" lanes in each direction most of the rest of the way (except where the street narrows as it passes three parks), and one of those lanes could be used for parking after rush hour.

The second plan calls for three bus-only lanes. This would be good for the buses because they could pass one another. Some commuter buses take several minutes to load, and that would back buses up during peak times, when about 200 buses roll down the street each hour. That would allow for a bike lane and two general-purpose lanes in each direction and -- this could be the hitch -- eliminate most parking on K Street.

Something would be done to accommodate delivery vans -- perhaps a curbside cutout in the sidewalk every so often -- but appeasing the 20 or so restaurants that rely on valet parking could get sticky.

Until those details are resolved, everyone seems to be treading lightly, although the body language of the traffic engineers suggests a preference for the three-lane approach.

"I think they're very much leaning to the three-lane option, but they have to wait for public feedback, so they're keeping their options open," said Ronald F. Kirby, director of transportation planning for the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board.

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