Several meaningful holiday gifts are being delivered to commuters who use Virginia's I-395/I-95 corridor. State officials have announced that a key northbound ramp to the express lanes near the Pentagon will be opened permanently to all motorists, thanks in large part to the letters from many of you readers. That means the excruciating inbound backups at the 14th Street Bridge, so routine for many years, will be greatly reduced indefinitely. Also, starting the first of the year, Virginia will change from four to three the minimum number of people required to use the express lanes in the I-395/I-95 corridor, and will start a system by which motorists can report Northern Virginia express-lane violators to state authorities.
These steps should help everybody, and with around 500,000 trips over the bridges between Virginia and the city each day, that's no small impact. Some details:Ramp G. Could you believe something as obscure as a Ramp G could make the difference between a pleasant day and a miserable one? That's what a lot of readers reported. Ramp G can carry traffic through a gate from the left lane of I-395 northbound onto the two less-crowded northbound express lanes, about a mile from the 14th Street Bridge. That, in turn, naturally reduces the backup waiting to get across the bridge on the regular lanes. For many years, Ramp G was closed except for emergencies. That meant most vehicles had to queue up for a long wait to get across the 14th Street Bridge in the regular lanes, while relatively few cars crossed via the express lanes.
Then last spring, with the District government reconstruction work on the Southeast-Southwest Freeway disrupting normal commuting patterns, officials opened Ramp G "temporarily" to all traffic. Right away the delays at the 14th Street Bridge all but disappeared. People noticed that. They were saving 10 to 20 minutes on their commute. Many wrote in to bless the traffic lords who made this happen and to beg that Ramp G be kept open permanently. Some people reported a change in the quality of their lives as profound as a religious conversion. There seemed to be no voice complaining that this action interfered with express lane traffic (Ramp G is after the Pentagon exit and the Rte. 27 cutoff to Memorial Bridge). So it seemed to make sense to keep it open. However, that was not so easy. There were federal regulations regarding the use of express lanes, and federal and state officials only agreed to study the situation.
Dr. Gridlock invited readers to express themselves to the Virginia Department of Transportation, and a large number did. Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) also got involved. When federal officials recently gave operational control of the facility to Virginia, state authorities decided to open it permanently.
Said Transportation Department spokeswoman Marianne V. Pastor: "It's open in large part because of a very active campaign by citizens who wrote in. That was a major factor."
So, every now and then, the voice of the people can make a difference. Take a bow.
HOV-3. This change from HOV-4 (High Occupancy Vehicle lanes, four people minimum per vehicle) to HOV-3 comes as the result of longstanding pressure from Rep. Stan Parris (R-Va.) and others, who want to open the express lanes to more people. Starting Jan. 2, the state will try it with a minimum of three people per vehicle.
"We're hoping it will encourage more car pooling, and where there already are car pools of four and one person is sick or on vacation, the others can still use the express lanes," Pastor said. "We'll see if this works. If it impacts negatively, we'll try to look at it again."
Virginia officials are big on the concept of express lanes, although many folks would like to see them converted to regular use altogether. State officials cite figures during the morning rush hours that show the HOV lanes carrying about the same number of people as the express lanes, but in 80 percent fewer vehicles than in the regular lanes.
The new HOV-3 restrictions will apply from 6 to 9 a.m. and from 3:30 to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, between the 14th Street Bridge and Woodbridge. Outside the Capital Beltway, the two-lane express facility ends and there is one HOV lane, the far left lane, marked by diamonds. During the next several years, the state is going to build a better HOV facility over the 19-mile corridor from Springfield to Woodbridge.
HOV restrictions on I-66 will remain the same: HOV-3 only is allowed on all lanes (Dulles Airport traffic excepted) Monday through Friday between 6:30 to 9 a.m. eastbound and 4 to 6:30 p.m. westbound.
Project Hero. Starting next year, folks can report HOV lane violators to the state. This should bring comfort to the many advocates of express lanes who are exasperated that state police cannot seem to control this problem, particularly on I-66. The way to report a vehicle with fewer than the required number of occupants is to call (800) 234-HERO. (However, don't start calling until the program takes effect Jan. 3.)
Authorities will want to know the vehicle's license number and the location, date and time of the violation and how many people were observed in the vehicle. The first report of a violation will generate a letter from the Department of Motor Vehicles explaining the HOV concept. The second offense will generate another DMV letter, this one stricter in tone, noting that a HOV violation is a moving one worth three points on the driving record. A third offense will cause a letter to be written on state police letterhead, noting that the vehicle has been targeted for "special enforcement." What that means, Pastor said, "is that police will be looking for that vehicle." No one will be cited unless police themselves actually see an offense. "We hope that this will encourage voluntary compliance and a better understanding of HOV lanes," Pastor said.
Project Hero was implemented at the request of state Secretary of Transportation Vivian E. Watts, who was impressed with the way the concept worked in Seattle. "I thought it was an excellent idea," Watts said. "They were able to decrease violations by one-third without any more arrests." Give Truckers a Break Dear Dr. Gridlock:
In response to those people who complain about trucks on the Beltway: How about all those drivers who cut in front of a 30,000-pound truck in rush hour traffic? Don't they realize what could happen to them if the truck doesn't stop? Most of us truck drivers have to be extra alert for all those little compact cars that weave in and out of traffic, with little regard for safety.
Give the truck drivers a break.GARY RANDOLPH Sterling
This has been said before, but bears repeating.
After the major accidents involving trucks on the Beltway in recent months, government officials proposed a number of steps aimed at trucks/truckers: Restrict trucks from the left lane, require hazardous truck cargo to stay in the right two lanes, build more truck inspection stations, increase truck inspections. But little attention seems to have been paid to the proposal from a number of readers: Strengthen driver education programs. Do high schools and driving schools emphasize enough the dangers and unique situations on the Beltway? Are folks taught to allow for trucks? Many of us no doubt can benefit from your observation, Mr. Randolph.
Beltway Stop Signs
Recently, a reader asked why there are "No Stopping" signs on the Maryland Beltway, and wondered what to do if experiencing a flat tire or other emergency. The answer was that the signs were put up because truckers were parking on the shoulders of the Beltway to sleep, and courts ruled that police couldn't cite them unless signs were posted. Emergency stopping on the shoulders is still okay. The same applies to the Virginia Beltway. That elicited the following: Dear Dr. Gridlock:
I am a truck driver. Federal regulations require that a driver is to be fit and able when behind the wheel of a truck. A sleepy driver on the road is a far greater danger than a truck parked on the side of the road. What do the Maryland State Police want the truck driver to do? BENJAMIN F. WALKER JR. Glenarden
"We certainly don't want them to drive and fall asleep," said Capt. W.E. Brooks, Maryland State Police troop commander for the Washington suburbs. "There's a big truck stop on I-95, seven miles from the Beltway, in Laurel. That's where they should go."
Said Neill Darmstadter, senior safety engineer for the American Trucking Associations: "We share the concern that when truckers park on the shoulder to sleep, there's a fair number of accidents where people run into the back of them. Drivers shouldn't stop along the shoulders to sleep. But lots of truck stops fill up early and the driver who comes in late wouldn't have a place to stop. Rest stops have time limits of two or three hours. The truckers are up against it. Hopefully drivers will plan trips so they can find a safe place and get their rest."
The ATA is among those groups trying to obtain larger parking areas off interstate highways and seeking more flexibility for truckers to stay at interstate highway rest stops. Truckers and others can voice their feelings by writing Darmstadter at the ATA, 2200 Mill Rd., Alexandria, Va. 22314. Dear Dr. Gridlock:
Thanks for explaining about the new "No Stopping" signs. I was wondering why they have had no effect on the cars of fishermen who park with impunity along I-295 and I-95 on the Maryland side of the Wilson Bridge. W.D. BENTON Washington
Capt. Brooks, the Maryland State Police troop commander for the Washington suburbs, said he had not heard of this, and will look into it.
Out in Cold at Pentagon Dear Dr. Gridlock:
Often, while waiting for a bus at the outdoor terminal at the Pentagon, I have seen the bus I will take arrive and park some distance back. It might be 10 minutes until the scheduled departure time, but usually the bus won't pull up until just before then. Is there a policy regarding how soon the bus must take on passengers after arriving? Why can't the driver pull up to the stop right away so we can get inside and get warm? LES LEIST Alexandria
It is an understandably frustrating situation, watching your bus standing empty nearby while you wait in line, cold. Metro says its policy is for the bus to pull up to the bay and load as soon as other routes that use that bay have departed. There are 20 bays for Metrobuses at the Pentagon, but they serve 74 routes. If you see your bus in the distance, it should be waiting only for buses on other routes, departing earlier, to make pickups at your bay. The time on your schedule is the time the bus is supposed to depart, and each bus averages four minutes of loading time before that, according to Metro spokeswoman Mary Bucklew.
There is a Metrobus supervisor on duty at the Pentagon bays, and he or she should be coordinating the departures. This person wears a Metro blue blazer with the words Metrobus on a shoulder. If you see something that strikes you as wrong, ask this person about it. If there seems to be a chronic problem, note the details and call Metro's consumer assistance number, 637-1328. If the problem persists, write and we'll try to look into it.
You're no doubt tied up with holiday concerns, but it is not too soon to start thinking also about any New Year's resolutions you'd like to pass along for our local traffic czars. Things you'd like to see made better. Feel free to send along any proposed resolutions (one per short letter would be best) and we'll pass them along the first of the year.
Dr. Gridlock, by Ron Shaffer, appears in Metro 2 each Friday to explore what makes it difficult to get around on roads, from misleading signs to parking problems to chronic bottlenecks. We'll try to find out why bad situations exist and what is being done about them. You can suggest topics by writing (please don't phone) to DR. GRIDLOCK, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Please include your full name, address and day and evening phone numbers.