For Nakita Daniels and hundreds of others who drove to National Airport's main terminal yesterday, the empty right lane on the road leading into the airport took a little getting used to.

"I knew something was missing, but I couldn't figure out what it was," said Daniels, of Springfield. "Then it hit me: Where are all the taxicabs?"

Just down a hill from the barricaded lane where cabdrivers have lined up for passengers for more than 15 years, National Airport's new $5.2 million taxi garage opened yesterday, winning praise from cabdrivers who say it will improve their working conditions and from airport users who look forward to the additional traffic lane that will be created near the terminal by the cabs' absence.

The garage, a two-level structure that holds nearly 500 cabs, is the first major project to be completed in National's $735 million program to modernize the 49-year-old airport.

"Things are coming along," said James A. Wilding, general manager of the airports authority. "No longer will Washington National have a long line of taxicabs waiting for fares."

Wilding said traffic congestion near the main terminal should be eased in a few days, after the concrete barriers that block off the old taxi lane are removed. Over the next few weeks, Wilding said, sections of the lane will be resurfaced to remove grooves worn into it by taxis.

The 118,000-square-foot garage, built on the old Hangar 1 site on Thomas Avenue, is connected to the taxi lanes outside the main terminal by an uphill ramp. Because cabs are dispatched from the garage in bunches of 12 or 13, most motorists coming to the terminal can expect to see only about about two dozen cabs at any one time, rather than the half-mile-long line that was common on Smith Boulevard, the main road entering National.

Cabdrivers yesterday generally gave the new facility good reviews, though a few grumbled about garage rules outlawing two basic tenets of the old taxi line: idling engines and smoking cigarettes.

The drivers did, however, seem to enjoy the vending machines and restrooms available for them in the garage. A food concession stand will open there in a few weeks.

"It's a nice place," cabdriver Sam Yang said. "It takes getting used to. A little confusing, but nice . . . . Thank God for the restrooms."

A traffic light system guides each cab into the garage, which directs cabs bound for Virginia to one level and those bound for Maryland or the District to the other. The drivers line up their cabs in one of the 38 lanes that run the length of the garage, then wait until a red light at the end of their lane turns orange, a signal to drive out of the garage and to the main terminal. Each lane holds 13 cabs.

The lane lights are operated by traffic controllers at the garage, who are told when to release a lane of cabs by a dispatcher working at the main terminal.

Several cabbies said yesterday that the new garage will make National's taxi system, which dispatches as many as 5,000 cabs a day, more efficient.

"Separating the cabs {by destination} was a good idea," said Michael Salaam, a cabdriver who works in Virginia. "When we just had one lane, sometimes they would need a Virginia cab {at the terminal} . . . and I'm behind all these Maryland and D.C. cabs, so they would have to wait."

Before leaving the garage, each cabdriver must pay a $1 user fee -- which the driver, in turn, charges passengers. The fee pays for a card that the driver must give to a terminal dispatcher before picking up any passengers. The card system will prevent cabdrivers working at the terminal from bypassing the garage, airport officials said.