By Robert Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 13, 2011; 3:26 PM
The Maryland Transportation Authority's Web site announces that "the ICC is about saving time in your day." A trip between the Shady Grove Metro station and Georgia Avenue using local roadways during rush hour takes 22 or 23 minutes, the transportation authority says. Using the first segment of the Intercounty Connector, the trip takes seven minutes.
Fair enough, but most commuters entering the new toll highway on the western side won't stop when they reach Georgia Avenue. Does the first segment of the ICC - which costs $1.45 at rush hour - really work as a commuter option? On Tuesday, Dr. Gridlock (Robert Thomson) and Mark Berman, who reports on morning traffic for the Dr. Gridlock blog, tested a commute from the Gaithersburg area to the D.C. line at Georgia Avenue.
Dr. Gridlock followed a traditional route, using Interstates 370, 270 and 495 to Georgia Avenue. Berman took his first trip on the Intercounty Connector. Time and tolls weren't the only factors in the outcome.
Dr. Gridlock's trip
My 1997 Toyota RAV-4 and I leave the parking lot in front of the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration office and wait for a green light and the chance to turn left onto MD 355. Traffic is so heavy that cars remain in the intersection as I turn, but it soon clears a bit and I get in the right lane for the ramp to westbound I-370.
Trouble already. The left-side ramp from I-370 toward I-270 is jammed. Three lines of traffic are coming together, and not all of us are trying to reach I-270. Some drivers on the left want to move right onto I-270's local lanes while the rest of us move toward the "express" lanes. (What's in a name?) Traffic crawls forward, but drivers are giving each other a break and we complete our weaving merges.
I move into third gear and reach 30 mph passing Exit 5 on I-270. I've maneuvered into the third lane from the right and am next to the high-occupancy vehicle lane, which is crowded but moving. I'm not spotting any lane violators, though it's so easy to cheat here.
I reach the I-270 split, moving into the lanes heading for the Capital Beltway's inner loop (I-495) at 50 mph. The speed is exhilarating. Moments later, I'll be back down to 20 mph, and sometimes less, near the Old Georgetown Road bridge. The radio traffic reports aren't even talking about my roads. I guess this congestion is normal.
I've reached the Beltway, at 15 mph. Apparently, no one is in the correct lane for their destination. I try to move toward the right, but a tractor-trailer moves left. Tractor-trailer wins.
After this grind on the interstates, I'm pleasantly surprised to be going 45 mph while moving into the right-lane exit for Georgia Avenue. I wait in line just one traffic-light cycle to reach southbound Georgia. I've gone 15 miles in 40 minutes, mostly on big highways. How long has Mark been waiting for me now?
I cross the D.C. line, turn right onto Kalmia Road and park. Georgia Avenue was crowded but moved well - at least, compared with the interstates. That was 17.5 miles in 51 tedious yet stressful minutes. Most other commuters on Georgia are still continuing on toward downtown. Has Mark given up on me and left? Well, at least I didn't pay $1.45.
Mark Berman's trip
While Dr. Gridlock deals with the standstill traffic on southbound I-270, I'll be cruising along the new toll road in Montgomery County. I believe I'm easily going to win this race - just as long as my terrible sense of direction and iffy knowledge of suburban Maryland roads don't cause any problems. (Should be a cakewalk, right?)
Dr. Gridlock and I leave the parking lot and head onto MD 355, almost immediately running into some traffic. Bob heads to the right lane and I-370; I move to the left lane and head for Shady Grove Road.
After waiting semi-patiently, I turn left onto Shady Grove Road. Driving up the street, I see multiple signs advertising the new ICC. I realize one problem: The signs say it's E-ZPass only, and I only have cash for the $1.45 toll. Well, I'm sure there's an attendant or somebody at the toll plaza, right? Nope. (Note: I look forward to getting that bill, and I'm glad I'm getting it before they start charging the $3 service fee on April 5.)
I turn onto the ICC for the first time. It still has that new highway smell, and not a lot else. As far as I can see, there are only two other cars joining me in the eastbound lanes. There are cars here and there heading west, but it's very, very sparse. This is a breeze. Again, cakewalk.
And it appears I missed the exit for Georgia Avenue. I passed signs for exit 9A, labeled for Olney and Wheaton. The only notice I get is a sign labeled "Georgia Avenue" right at the exit alongside the ramp, positioned way too late for me to do anything.
Dr. Gridlock later informs me that the signs say MD 97. If you're taking that exit, be advised: You won't see the words "Georgia Avenue" until it's too late.
Okay, I exit onto Norbeck Road and reroute myself. Only later do I learn that, had I just made a right at Norbeck Road, I would have hit Georgia Avenue not far from where I should have exited in the first place. But no, that would have been too easy. Instead, directed by a GPS device, I begin a series of wildly unnecessary turns that take me more than four miles out of my way (and cost me about 15 minutes) before I finally get onto Georgia Avenue.
I'm on Georgia Avenue! Success. I'm sure I can still win this thing . . . except I keep running into terrible traffic. Once I pass Aspen Hill Road a few minutes later, traffic eases a bit, but it turns out to be the only lull I get until Silver Spring.
The bad news: I'm sitting in standstill traffic as I wait to approach Randolph Road. The good news: I've got plenty of time to try to figure out where I went wrong (besides volunteering to take the road not yet on maps and sending Dr. Gridlock on the long-established route). I'm studying a map on my phone, and at least I didn't go too far out of my way. I thought I was in Delaware for a second there.
After a lot of standstill traffic in and around Wheaton, I find that downtown Silver Spring is much more passable. I meet Dr. Gridlock at the intersection. He won, but he doesn't gloat. Much.
Final tally: I drove 23.7 miles and it took me 1 hour 3 minutes. The trip would normally have been about 19 miles and taken 48 minutes. Even with my missteps, Bob's route got him there first only by a slim margin.