Opening HOV lanes to all after crash not so quick and easy

By Robert Thomson
Sunday, April 18, 2010; C02

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Who makes the decision on opening the HOV lanes when all mainline lanes are blocked due to a serious accident? Why do they delay so long?

I am referring to the senseless 45-minute delay in opening the HOV lanes to all traffic after the Interstate 95 pileup on Tuesday. While the main line was at a standstill for three-quarters of an hour, HOV lanes were vacant because car and van pools were blocked from reaching them.

The first responders must have seen within seconds that some serious backups were going to be happening pretty quickly if they did not act. Instead, they simply allowed traffic that is already heavy to pile up for the better part of an hour. I appreciate that HOV is reserved for pools, and rules are rules. But who is empowered to decide that the situation is insane and can go out on a limb to make the call?

-- Connie Wiley, Fredericksburg

The crash early Tuesday morning involved a dump truck and several cars on I-95 north at the Prince William Parkway. Here's the sequence of events and decisions, according to Virginia State Police records:

About 6:15, police and the Northern Virginia Transportation Operations Center were alerted to the crash.

Emergency responders were on the scene in minutes, and the operations center had the incident on its TV monitors. By 6:21, all regular northbound lanes were closed and traffic was diverted from the highway.

By 6:35, the operations center had adjusted the signal-light timing on nearby routes that would now have to handle more traffic diverting from I-95. By 6:47 a.m., the state police had declared this a major incident and were requesting that the HOV lane restrictions be lifted.

By 6:50 a.m., the Virginia Department of Transportation and the police were conferring on this, aware that lifting the restriction would slow the carpoolers for the rest of the rush. HOV restrictions aren't lifted just because the regular traffic is crawling. People form carpools based on the understanding that they're going to get a faster trip in the HOV lanes.

But this was a major incident, with the interstate blocked. At 6:54 a.m., VDOT lifted the restrictions for the entire length of the HOV lanes along I-95/395 for the morning and updated the highway information signs.

According to the police timeline, the cleanup operations continued at the accident scene until shortly before 8 a.m., when all the lanes were reopened. During that time, delays in the HOV lanes increased, as they were bound to. The nearby alternative routes were saturated but moving, and police and VDOT continued to divert traffic near the crash scene.

To a commuter stuck in a car, the pace would seem glacial, but there was a lot to manage.

Consider the traffic volume: Between 6 and 9 a.m. on a typical weekday, I-95 north at Newington carries about 8,800 vehicles in the two HOV lanes and 18,300 vehicles in the three regular lanes. (VDOT spokeswoman Joan Morris notes the advantage of the HOV lanes: By VDOT's count, they are moving 23,100 people in those 8,800 vehicles, while the regular lanes are moving 19,800 people in 18,300 vehicles.)

Do you think changes are needed in the traffic managers' policy or practice?

Good Samaritan

Thank-you letters from one traveler to another have become rare. I hope that's not a sign of the times.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

On April 1, my car broke down at 5:30 p.m. on the Interstate 270 spur near the Capital Beltway. My cellphone wouldn't work, either. This was not my idea of a good April Fools' joke -- I was terrified.

I waved a white shirt out of my car window, and after a while, a young man pulled up and told me he would try to help. He was able to start my car, and I was able to drive home. He wouldn't accept any monetary thanks, so I am writing to you in hopes of giving him a public acknowledgement of my gratitude. All I know is that he is a paramedic named Mark, and he drives a black Nissan.

Mark, thank you so much for helping an older woman who was in the midst of one of her worst fears: a broken-down car in rush-hour traffic.

-- Carole Sullivan, Falls Church

Had a similar experience? Tell me about it.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer's name and home community. Personal responses are not always possible.

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