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Beltway Backups Dissected

By Ann O'Hanlon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 3, 1996; Page V01

People fume about Beltway backups, curse at cramped interchanges and debate which is worse -- the inner or the outer loop. Northern Virginia commuters got a chance Monday to speak their minds about the highway and learn what state transportation officials are doing about it.

One year into its Capital Beltway Study, the Virginia Department of Transportation is focusing on five options for relieving traffic congestion. Monday evening's session at Annandale High School marked the second public information meeting, which was an opportunity for commuters to review and comment on the proposals before they are narrowed to one final recommendation by the end of next year.

"Clearly this is the time we want citizens to get involved," said VDOT spokesperson Joan Morris as she stood in the school's cafeteria, replete with maps, charts, transportation staff members and consultants eager to answer questions. "We'd much rather have people weighing in now before the decisions are getting closer to being a reality."

But there were only 70 people at the four-hour open house, and many of them were transportation consultants or Alexandria and Fairfax officials boning up in preparation for constituents' questions.

Don and Rena Bozarth were there; they live just a quarter-mile from the Gallows Road exit, so they showed up early and studied each option and whether it could make a bad situation worse.

The study focuses on the 22 miles of Capital Beltway that are in Virginia. Traffic on the eight-lane, 32-year-old road is projected to double by 2020. Initially, there were 18 proposals for alleviating traffic jams; they have now been reduced to five. The final proposal will not be simply one of these ideas, according to transportation officials, but rather some combination of two or more of them.

The proposals include:

Building two new lanes, one in each direction. Adding two lanes would require little or no property acquisition, according to Bob McDowell, a transportation consultant working on the project. Estimated cost: $1.5 billion.

Creating a local-express configuration, such as that on I-270. This option would ease traffic flow for long-distance drivers. The Beltway would be expanded by either two or four lanes for this option. Estimated cost: $2 billion.

Improving many or all of the 13 interchanges on the Virginia part of the Beltway, which are considered to be the main culprits in traffic backups. The worst of them, such as those for I-66 and near Tysons Corner, likely would undergo improvements under any scenario. Estimated cost: $1.2 billion.

Adding lanes for high-occupancy vehicles, such as those on I-395. Either two or four lanes would be added in this scenario. The question of how many people would have to be in the car for it to qualify for the lanes, what hours the lanes would operate as HOV-only, and whether the lanes would be separated by a barrier are still to be determined. Estimated cost: $2 billion.

Building a train line or having an express bus service connecting the busiest Beltway points. It would connect to all Metro stops on the Beltway, and is being touted as "the purple line." Estimated cost: Bus -- $50 million. Train -- $500 million to $750 million (Virginia part only).

The Maryland State Highway Administration is looking at the same issues for its 42 miles of Beltway, in coordination with Virginia officials. The two studies may not arrive at the same solutions, but any changes made will allow for comfortable traffic flow between the two states, according to Robert Gould, a transportation engineer with the Virginia transportation department.

"It's probably a little much to expect that Virginia and Maryland are going to have the same concepts," Gould said.

Officials in Virginia will make a recommendation by December for Beltway improvements, at which point the Commonwealth Transportation Board must stamp its approval. The $4.2 million study then would go into a detailed environmental study phase. No construction will take place for at least five years.

There is an alternative to making extensive Beltway improvements, said Steve Brooks, a consultant to the project, but it has met with little success so far. "We haven't been able to convince people to stay home," he said.

To make comments on the Beltway study, send them by Oct. 15 to: Tom Farley, district administrator, Attn: Capital Beltway MIS, VDOT Northern District, 3975 Fair Ridge Dr., Fairfax, Va. 22033 or by e-mail to: Capital Beltway MIS, DeLeuwVA@pop.erols.com.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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