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Commuter Page: A history of traffic problems in the Washington area

By Robert Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 4, 2010; C02

The Washington region might have the second-worst congestion in the nation, but individual experiences vary depending on how you travel, where you're coming from and where you're headed. Recently, The Post surveyed travelers to gauge how much better or worse their trips through the Washington area have gotten since 2005, and whether their problems with driving, transit use, biking and walking have changed. The first article about the results is featured today on Page One. You can look forward to more articles in the days and weeks ahead about how you and your fellow travelers responded. (We collected a lot of information.) Here on the Commuter page, let's review some of the transportation developments from 2005 to the present that could have influenced people's views.

-- May 2005: A study by the Texas Transportation Institute, based on 2003 statistics, ranked Washington area traffic third-worst in the nation behind that of Los Angeles and San Francisco. By last year, the institute had boosted Washington to number two, based on 2007 statistics. But a regional report released last spring and based on data from spring 2008, showed that congestion had eased somewhat since 2005.

-- August 2005: Widening the ramp from the Capital Beltway to the Dulles Toll Road eased a major chokepoint for commuters. In May 2005, ramp lanes were added for drivers heading east on the Toll Road to the Beltway.

-- June 2006: The first of two new six-lane spans for the Woodrow Wilson Bridge opened, fulfilling a dream of two decades to replace the aging structure. The second span opened in June 2008. In spring 2009, a bike trail opened on the bridge. The project also involves reconstruction of four interchanges. The last of them, Telegraph Road, continues to slow traffic in the work zone. It is scheduled to be finished in 2013. Planners have not resolved how they will use the two bridge lanes set aside for transit.

-- November 2006: Four new lanes opened on Interstate 66, the first half of a widening designed to relieve a bottleneck between Manassas and Gainesville. The project, adding a carpool lane and a regular lane in each direction, is split into segments because Virginia can't afford to do it all at once. The second segment, to Gainesville, should be completed by this summer.

-- February 2007: The first part of the four-lane, 3.2-mile Hughesville Bypass opened, breaking a longtime bottleneck on Route 5.

-- July 2007: The Springfield Interchange, with its 50 bridges and ramps, was finished, completing a project to ease traffic flow through one of the busiest crossroads on the East Coast. The Wilson Bridge and the Springfield Interchange have shown the potential for easing traffic during construction by encouraging people to share rides, choose alternative routes and travel outside of peak times. In March 2008, an ice storm paralyzed the interchange, forcing the Virginia Department of Transportation to rethink its approach to winter road clearing.

-- August 2007: The District Department of Transportation reopened the Douglass Bridge after a two-month shutdown for repairs that included raising the northern end. Temporarily closing a popular commuter route is a very unusual approach but was generally successful because of the summertime lull in traffic and a campaign to publicize the closing and suggest alternatives.

-- September 2007: Metro added enough new rail cars to eliminate four-car trains during daily peaks.

-- September 2007: The interchange was completed at Route 29 and Briggs Chaney Road, adding to a string of interchange projects that have eliminated traffic lights and eased traffic on Route 29 north of White Oak, but southern bottlenecks remain.

-- November 2007: Construction began on the Intercounty Connector. The first phase of the long-debated highway is scheduled to open late this year. Some drivers look forward to the new east-west route, but others have complained about the high tolls. Residents near the interchanges worry about new traffic.

-- January 2008: The Metrorail rush-hour base fare increased 30 cents, to $1.65 a trip, with a maximum fare of $4.50. Daily parking fees rose 75 cents.

-- July 2008: Major work began on construction of four High Occupancy Toll lanes on the west side of the Beltway in Virginia.

-- August 2008: SmartBike stations opened in the District. They're one of several city programs, including new bike lanes and a biking terminal at Union Station, that have improved mobility for cyclists.

-- January 2009: Metro eliminated paper transfers. SmarTrip card use has expanded to include most suburban bus systems.

-- January 2009: Metro provided more than 1.5 million rides on Inauguration Day, its busiest day ever.

-- March 2009: The federal government committed $900 million to the first phase of a Metrorail extension through Tysons Corner and west to Dulles International Airport, bringing the project back from the dead and allowing construction to begin.

-- June 2009: A Red Line crash killed nine. Metro has yet to recover. Trains operate on manual, rather than automatic control, slowing service and creating more wear on train equipment and passengers. Metro has never delivered on its promise that half of rush-hour trains will be eight cars long.

-- September 2009: The Maryland State Highway Administration opened the Arena Drive interchange on the Beltway for full-time use after widening the highway in that area to improve safety. This is one of several recent interchange reconstructions on the Maryland side of the Beltway intended to improve safety and traffic flow. Others include Georgia Avenue, University Boulevard and Wisconsin Avenue.

-- January 2010: Metro corrected its budget shortfall by approving a 10-cent surcharge as it began considering bigger fare increases and service cuts to deal with a $189 million shortfall projected in the next budget.

Did we leave out changes that were important to you? Write to us at transportation@washpost.com.

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