Dear Dr. Gridlock:
Thanks for staying on top of things with the Woodrow Wilson Bridge/Beltway/Interstate 295/Route 210/etc. boondoggle.
As a frequent traveler along that stretch, I would claim from observation that Maryland State Highway Administration spokesman Dave Buck, whom you cite in your April 15 column, must surely be reading off a very old game plan if he says that "you should see relief as a result of new traffic patterns in a few weeks."
The so-called "S" ramp, in the letter from Rick Pike of Charles County that initiated your inquiry, seems to have been stalemated for at least the past 15 months, and I have seen no sign of active construction at that particular bottleneck during that time. I will eagerly await your promised follow-up status report!
Here it is. I met with several key officials of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge project and was told it is on schedule -- no small feat, considering that the $2.4 billion project is the second-largest public works endeavor in the country.
It encompasses 7.5 Beltway miles, two new bridges over the Potomac, the destruction of the current bridge and the rebuilding of four Beltway interchanges -- two in Virginia and two in Maryland. The Maryland interchanges will be at I-295 and Route 210.
When completed in 2008, the new bridges and Maryland interchanges should make it much easier for you to get on and off the Beltway, cross the Potomac River and travel the Route 210 corridor.
Regarding your specific complaints about the "S" curve (ramps and bridges that connect Route 210 with I-295), the northbound roadway was converted from two lanes north to one lane in each direction because project officials have closed the southbound lanes to rebuild them. Taking one lane from northbound "S" curve traffic has created significant delays on Route 210.
Both northbound lanes should reopen this month, said Scott C. Crumley, a senior project engineer. But that will move the bottleneck to the other end of the "S" curve, where two northbound lanes will merge into one. Moving the bottleneck farther north will get more motorists off Route 210. The two lanes of the northbound "S" will be opened onto I-295 in 2006.
The District government, meanwhile, is widening its share of I-295 from four lanes to six. That should be completed in August, Crumley said. The Wilson Bridge project also will widen I-295 to six lanes from the District line to the "S" curve. That should be finished in 2008.
The first of the two main bridges over the Potomac should be opened to traffic in both directions in 2006. The second main bridge, which will carry inner loop Beltway traffic, is scheduled for completion in 2008. When the project is complete, each new bridge will carry five lanes of traffic plus a sixth lane reserved for future mass transit use.
The Beltway will be widened by one lane in each direction for the entire 7.5-mile length of the project.
Please write if you have more questions. You can follow the progress of the project by logging on to www.wilsonbridge.com.
Where's the Sign?
Dear Dr. Gridlock:
Going north on I-95, I got in an open HOV lane, intending to exit eastbound on the Beltway. I never saw a sign or exit, and I had to get to New York Avenue to head for Annapolis. Is there a sign I missed at the Beltway?
There is no Beltway connection from the northbound HOV lanes on I-95/I-395 in Virginia. There is supposed to be a sign on the northbound HOV lanes that says, "Last Exit Before Pentagon." That sign is just before the Route 644 exit (Springfield-Franconia), just outside the Beltway.
If you want to use the northbound HOV lanes next time, I suggest you follow I-395 into the District, get off at the Pennsylvania Avenue exit, turn right at the top of the exit ramp onto the Pennsylvania Avenue (Sousa) Bridge, then turn left at the next light onto Kenilworth Avenue (D.C. Route 295) and take the Route 50 exit to Annapolis. That route avoids a lot of traffic lights on New York Avenue and, depending on the time, might be shorter than using the Beltway around the Prince George's side.
Dear Dr. Gridlock:
I am curious about two cameras with bright lights along Maryland highways that don't appear to be normal traffic cameras. One is attached to an overhead sign on the southbound side of I-95 just south of the Route 32 interchange. Along with the camera is a bright light that shines directly down into one of the center lanes at night.
The other camera setup is along the southbound side of Route 29 near Columbia, just south of the Route 32 interchange. It is attached to a signpost in the median and also includes a bright light that shines directly on the lanes of traffic.
The camera and light are mounted rather low, so the light is very distracting to traffic at night. There is no indication of a regular traffic camera anywhere near that vicinity. Is it possible Maryland is testing out speed cameras in those locations?
There are four cameras -- two on I-95 southbound and two on Route 29 southbound -- all taking pictures of the rear of vehicles (not designed to distract motorists). This is a $100,000 pilot project to determine how long it takes to travel a certain distance on I-95 vs. parallel Route 29, where there are three construction projects.
Eventually, the state may be able to post travel time electronically to give motorists a choice. Results are expected by the end of this year.
'Lessons' Stop Short
Dear Dr. Gridlock:
I have followed your column for years, and though I have had strong opinions about many topics, the driving school situation has prompted my first letter.
Hours of "classroom lessons" seem to bore our teenagers. I sent my new driver out for the first two of her six hours of behind-the-wheel instruction. I got back a form neatly checked off that she was doing okay, and she announced she had driven to D.C. from Montgomery County.
So I happily got into the car with her to see how well she was driving, and she could not get out of the driveway and down the street.
After the second "lesson," I got a verbal reprimand from the "instructor," who said that it was not his job to teach her how to drive (silly me), but that once I had taught her to navigate the streets safely he would teach her to parallel park and pass her test. It appears that a "two-hour driving lesson" means getting in the car and to the next student and back within two hours' time.
I have gone from letting her drive in an empty parking lot to one with a few cars and to streets with little traffic, and one day hope to get her ready for her final "driving lesson" from the school.
Each time I venture out, I wish we had a student driver sign to display to warn the other motorists to watch out for us. There are places where new and learning drivers must have such signs in the back window to warn others to be more aware and patient. I would feel a lot safer knowing others knew to be more careful. An added benefit to a displayed sign: It would be a good way to curb curfew violators. Good luck in trying to improve the driving school situation. This really could be a life-and-death matter.
You're so right. Teaching driver education is one of the most important things parents can do for their children. It can be life or death.
That is why I dismiss these driving schools. They are not going to teach anyone to drive in six hours of behind-the-wheel training. The real work will have to be done by the parents, putting their charges into every conceivable situation until the parents feel confident the teenagers are ready to drive solo.
I recommend at least 1,000 miles of interstate highway driving and 1,000 miles of city/suburban driving in our area. That can take one to two years, and probably means the student is not going to get a license on his or her 16th birthday.
New drivers need extensive training in merging, Beltway driving and what to do in a traffic circle. They also must learn how to use the mirrors, turn right or left into the correct lane, and pass a slow-moving vehicle on a two-lane road. Then there is how to correct properly when the right tires go off the roadway; overcorrecting and losing control is a leading cause of teen driving deaths.
Teens need to experience driving in the rain, at night and on snowy and icy roads. They need to know what to do about tailgaters, horn honkers or light flashers behind them. And what to do when an animal jumps in front of the vehicle, or an insect appears inside. A teen driver swatting at a bee veered into a head-on collision recently in Silver Spring.
My first daughter stampeded me into allowing her to get her license at age 161/2, without going through all of the above. That was a mistake. I took my time with my second daughter, and she got her license at 171/2, after extensive training, to the point that she was pointing out my driving mistakes.
My advice to parents is to provide the training themselves. Don't rely on a school, and don't be stampeded into allowing a license until you are comfortable your children are ready.
Dear Dr. Gridlock:
Hi, Dr. Gridlock. I'm 14, and I noticed an inappropriate license plate.
In health class at Pyle Middle School, we discussed drugs, and one of them was ecstasy.
I was in the car, and I noticed a Maryland farm license plate that had the letters XTC. I thought that might be inappropriate to some people because it might mean a drug. Thank you very much.
Thanks for being alert to possible license plate abuse, Anton. I'm impressed. Put it in your college application.
Here's what I found out from Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration spokesman Jeff Tosi:
The MVA will review and reject any vanity license plate that is flat-out offensive. However, because there are so many requests for vanity plates, there is no paper trail that tells us whether a plate has been reviewed. A reviewer told Tosi that the XTC plate probably did not raise any questions. It could be someone's initials or refer to a loved one, Tosi said.
Vanity plate applicants who fill out the required MVA form VR-164 are not asked the reason for wanting a particular plate. If a request is rejected, the applicant can ask for a hearing and explain the request, Tosi said.
To report a questionable plate, contact the MVA at 800-950-1MVA or log on to www.marylandmva.com and click on "e-mail us."
Transportation researcher Diane Mattingly contributed to this column.
Dr. Gridlock appears Sunday in the Metro section and Thursday in Extra. You can write to Dr. Gridlock, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. He prefers to receive e-mail, at firstname.lastname@example.org, or faxes, at 703-352-3908. Please include your full name, town, county and day and evening phone numbers.