Dear Dr. Gridlock:
It is with some amusement that I keep reading debates on whether we should create high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes to help ease traffic congestion in this region.
Despite its overwhelming success in California, I continue to read stories here bemoaning the idea as beneficial only to the rich who can afford the tolls, hence the "Lexus lane" nickname.
I laugh about this because apparently no one has noticed that we essentially have had HOT lanes here for a number of years, and they seem to work pretty well.
Commuting to work daily from Leesburg, I have a choice. I can pay the toll and ride the deserted Dulles Greenway at the 65-mph posted speed limit (actual speeds may vary upward), or I can take Route 7 toward the Beltway for free but sit snarled in traffic all the way while inhaling exhaust fumes and guzzling gas that could easily have paid for the tolls in the first place.
Is this not the same choice the proposed HOT lanes offer? Ride for free in main lanes that are usually full or pay a variable toll to ride in what is likely a lane nearly devoid of traffic?
Frankly, I don't understand the problem some people have with this. We already have it, it works, and we should support anything that moves some cars around and alleviates everyone's traffic nightmares.
I couldn't agree more. What is being studied is the construction of two extra lanes on the Beltway, in each direction, between the Springfield Interchange and near Route 193 (Georgetown Pike). These lanes would be free to HOV-2 vehicles and accessible to single-occupant vehicles for a toll, to be deducted through an electronic transponder mounted on the vehicle.
The new lanes would be built by private enterprise, with reimbursement from tolls.
Single drivers could make a choice: Stick with the conventional lanes or pay a toll to use the faster-flowing (in theory) HOT lanes. I don't see how anybody loses here.
Growth's I-66 Impact
Dear Dr. Gridlock:
I grew up in Fairfax County, so I've seen the area grow dramatically. I'm concerned about the latest growth trend along Interstate 66 west of the Beltway. Apartment buildings are going up all along I-66. Traffic on I-66 and connecting roads will be intolerable in a few years.
Is the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors calculating the impact on traffic before approving these projects?
A huge development is proposed next to I-66 and the Vienna Metro near the Beltway. Developers want to build eight high-rise buildings, ranging from 10 to 14 stories, plus smaller condominium buildings and townhouses. All told, it would add 2,350 housing units. They even want to use 10 acres of Fairfax County parkland. How will I-66 be able to handle all of this traffic?
If this new growth is approved, the junction of I-66 and the Beltway will become the next Mixing Bowl.
You're right to be concerned. Consider the traffic on I-66 now, with stop-and-go segments for five hours each morning and evening and increasing traffic on weekends. Add to that traffic from the eight high-rise apartment buildings you describe as proposed for Vienna. If we keep pouring more and more vehicles onto our clogged road system, everybody loses.
Does the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors consider traffic impact when it approves development? Apparently not. Consider that in recent years the county has approved a massive residential and commercial development bounded by I-66, Route 29 and the Fairfax County Parkway. The center of this is a spiffy, upscale commercial center called Fairfax Corner.While this pops up on the landscape, there are no significant improvements to any of the boundary roads mentioned above. The state also has no money to make improvements, now or in the foreseeable future. Yet thousands more vehicles will pour onto these roads.
At some point we will reach a saturation point, where nobody moves at all. The county supervisors seem to be in a race to get there.
Tie-Ups Near Nissan
Dear Dr. Gridlock:
I have never written to you before, but this time I've been driven over the edge. Nissan Pavilion traffic is just unbearable.
Living in Gainesville off Route 29, we know we can't expect to get home when everyone is coming for a show at Nissan, but we figured we could leave the area going in the opposite direction. Wrong!
Apparently these Nissaners get off Interstate 66 onto the Route 234 Bypass, and instead of getting into the right lane to turn onto Wellington Road, they get into the left lane (probably to get ahead of everyone else), and through traffic (left lane) is tied up in gridlock.
Why can't the police keep these concertgoers from using the through lane? Why isn't the signage better?
Those of us who live in Gainesville are tortured by Nissan traffic all summer. The powers that be need to do something -- perhaps move Nissan Pavilion to West Virginia.
It doesn't seem fair that entertainment for the few should have such a negative impact on a whole community.
No, it doesn't. But that is what is happening on scores of nights, mostly during evening rush hours. Routes 28, 29 and I-66 are backed up for miles, well into Fairfax County.
You ask why police can't keep these concertgoers from gridlocking traffic. Maybe it's because so many county police officers work for Nissan Pavilion, spending off-duty hours on traffic control and event security. Do we really think police officers will take action against motorists trying to get to a Nissan event when their off-duty jobs are to get people into the event?
That is precisely why I'm against police taking off-duty jobs with commercial concerns. It gives the appearance of conflict of interest.
You ask why the signage isn't better. I don't know about this case, but the Virginia Department of Transportation tends to do a notoriously poor job of posting adequate, accurate signs. Make a (very specific) list of what should be posted, and I'll forward it to VDOT.
You say the powers that be need to do something. The powers that be are the same ones who approved this venue in the first place, putting Nissan Pavilion right in the middle of weekday evening rush hours without an adequate road system to get concertgoers to their events. Everybody suffers.
These powers are members of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors. They are more the cause of the problem than the solution.
They put the pavilion alongside traffic-choked I-66 while approving thousands of new homes in nearby Gainesville and Bristow, a terrible disservice to poor Prince William (and Fairfax) County commuters who just want to get home.
Maybe an attorney out there should look into getting Nissan Pavilion declared a public nuisance and closed -- a casualty of gridlock.
What do you think?
Futile Hunt for Exit
Dear Dr. Gridlock:
Recently my husband and I went to the Eastern Shore using a route you suggested, which was far better than driving halfway around the Beltway. (We live in Chantilly.)
The route we took was Interstate 66 to Route 110 around the Pentagon, then picking up Interstate 395 north to Interstate 295 north. We didn't realize that I-395 divides, so we wound up going through the tunnels underneath Capitol Hill. But eventually we came to New York Avenue and headed east, so we were fine.
However, we tried to take your route home using Route 50 to I-295 south, then crossing the Sousa Bridge and picking up I-395 and Route 110 again. We obviously missed signs, an exit or something; we didn't see any exit off I-295 for Pennsylvania Avenue going west, only Pennsylvania Avenue going east.
So we remained southbound on I-295, looking for an exit to I-395, and didn't find that, either. We wound up staying on I-295 until we got to the Beltway and crossed the Wilson Bridge into Virginia.
Help! Once we're on I-295 coming south, how do we get back onto I-395 to return to Fairfax County? Is that highway not accessible when you're coming from the east? Or is this another problem with poor signage on some of the D.C. area's freeways?
What you encountered was a combination of incomplete interchanges and bad signs. There is no exit from D.C. 295 south to Pennsylvania Avenue west. So you can keep going south on 295 to one of the worst-marked exits in the city. That exit, marked "Howard Road-Downtown," will take you over the South Capitol Street Bridge and onto I-395, although neither of those is mentioned on the exit sign.
At the base of the exit ramp, turn right onto Howard Road and go one block through a seedy area, then turn right at the next light and thread your way onto the South Capitol Street Bridge. The entrance to I-395 is dead ahead.
The way you took, by the way, from I-295 south to the Beltway, avoids all that maneuvering but does run the risk of construction delays.
A Hybrid Answer
Dear Dr. Gridlock:
I don't disagree with you that a commute from Fredericksburg to the inner D.C. area is tough, but I'm surprised you didn't suggest a hybrid vehicle -- and its HOV exemption -- to the person who asked you about moving there.
A co-worker of mine lives in Fredericksburg and loves the lifestyle and cost of living. He leaves early and drives his Toyota Prius hybrid, using the HOV lanes, and gets to work in Lanham in less than an hour and 15 minutes.
Your friend can use the HOV lanes in Virginia only until June 30, 2006, when the state legislation expires that authorized an HOV exemption for vehicles powered by both gasoline and electricity, such as the Prius.
It is not at all clear that the legislation will be renewed, since the federal government is making noise that exemptions for HOV lanes (which the feds built) should not be granted for low-emission vehicles (such as the Prius), but rather only for zero-emission vehicles.
Also, please note that Maryland does not grant an HOV exemption for gas/electric hybrids such as the Prius.
That said, I'm pleased your friend has found commuting happiness and grateful he is using a vehicle that consumes far less gas (it gets about 45 or 50 miles per gallon) than conventional vehicles. Last time I checked in my neighborhood, there was an 18-month waiting list for the Toyota Prius.
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 at 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. He prefers to receive e-mail, at email@example.com, or faxes, at 703-352-3908. Include your full name, town, county and day and evening phone numbers.