The Capital Weather Gang describes today’s travel weather as balmy and Tuesday’s as blustery. The Cherry Blossom Festival continues all week, bringing extra crowding to roads near the Tidal Basin and to many Metro trains in downtown Washington. Several construction projects have made changes in highway patterns and a major commuter lot has closed.
Blossom festival tips
Metro has converted five rush-hour trains on the Red and Orange lines to eight-car trains. The extra service, providing 640 more seats, will remain after the festival. There will be no track work this weekend.
Smithsonian Station is closest to the Tidal Basin and many events, so it handles huge crowds at blossom time. Sarles said transit police may designate the Independence Avenue side or the National Mall side as exit-only or entry-only for safety. Consider using other stops near the Mall, including Federal Triangle, L’Enfant Plaza, Gallery Place and Metro Center. Changing trains at Metro Center, Gallery Place and L’Enfant Plaza can be daunting at crowded times. Skip the transfer, exit the station and add the walk to your sightseeing.
Tourists should avoid traveling on Metrorail during the peak commuting times of 5:30 to 9:30 a.m. and 3 to 7 p.m. It’s also cheaper to ride Metrorail off-peak.
Two warnings about Metrorail for tourists: The car doors are very sensitive, so don’t try to prop them open and don’t lean against them. On escalators, Washingtonians stand to the right and walk to the left.
Get a SmarTrip card to pay for rail and bus rides and Metro parking. At many stations, it’s the only way to pay for parking, and it can save money on bus and rail fares.
During the festival, drivers can park along East Potomac Park and take a free shuttle from the Hains Point parking area to the Tidal Basin. Shuttles will run every 30 to 40 minutes from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.
The Cherry Blossom Parade, one of Washington’s biggest tourist events, starts at 10 a.m. Saturday, at Constitution Avenue and Seventh Street NW, and ends at noon, at Constitution Avenue and 17th Street. The nearest Metro stations are Smithsonian, Federal Triangle, Archives.
Intercounty Connector toll charges
Starting at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday, vehicle owners who drive Maryland’s Intercounty Connector without a valid E-ZPass account will get toll bills that add a $3 service charge per one-way trip in addition to the amount of the toll owed. Since toll collection began March 7, the $3 charge has been waived to give motorists without E-ZPass the opportunity to use the new highway and to sign up for E-ZPass.
Drivers can shop around among the two dozen agencies that issue E-ZPass accounts. Many say they don’t want to pay the $1.50 monthly charge for the Maryland account. But if that’s not a factor in your financial calculations, you can go to an E-ZPass Stop-in Center in Gaithersburg or Beltsville. They are open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays at these locations:
* Motor Vehicle Administration, Gaithersburg Branch Office, 15 Metropolitan Grove Rd.
* Motor Vehicle Administration, Beltsville Branch Office, 11760 Baltimore Ave.
Also, E-ZPass “On the Go” transponders, ready to use, are available at all MVA offices in Montgomery County, including Gaithersburg, Walnut Hill Express, Glenmont Express and White Oak.
The cost to open an individual E-ZPass account is $46. That’s $25 in pre-paid tolls and a $21 charge for the transponder. The $1.50 service charge is applied monthly to all E-ZPass accounts.
14th Street Bridge
Commuters on the northbound span of the 14th Street Bridge will find part of the left center lane blocked off near the span’s north end. The travel lanes will split around this new island of construction. Drivers heading for northbound 14th Street into downtown Washington should stay left, while those heading for the Southeast-Southwest Freeway should stay right.
Until drivers get used to this new pattern, be alert for some slow going, heavy braking and maybe a little trick driving. This new phase, the sixth of eight construction phases, is scheduled to last six to eight weeks. All the reconstruction work on the bridge deck surface is scheduled to be done this fall.
Drivers should watch for a new traffic pattern on the Capital Beltway’s outer loop near the Telegraph Road interchange in Virginia. It will require drivers who use the center lane to take the local lanes. They will no longer have the option to choose between LOCAL and THRU lanes.
Wilson Bridge project managers say this configuration will be safer. At the same time, it will provide easier full-time access for work on the inner loop’s THRU lanes, eliminating the need for daytime left- lane closures in the three-lane area of the outer loop.
This THRU/LOCAL lane split configuration will be in place until the summer, the project management says. In the next construction phase, the split will be shifted east onto new pavement and the middle lane of the outer loop will again split to both the THRU and LOCAL lanes.
Motorists should watch for delays merging from Route 123 south to Interstate 95 south for the next six weeks while the Virginia Department of Transportation extends the acceleration lane to create a safer highway merge.
Workers shifted and narrowed the ramp from Route 123 (Gordon Boulevard) south to I-95 south so crews can work on the acceleration lane extension. Construction will continue through May 13, when crews will close the ramp and one lane of I-95 south for an entire weekend to finish the work.
Reston lot closed
The remaining spaces at the Reston East Park and Ride on Wiehle Avenue in Fairfax County have been closed off to make way for construction of a parking garage that will serve the new Metrorail line.
As Reston East closed, the Sunset Hills Park and Ride opened. This new, temporary lot is at the corner of Sunset Hills Road and Town Center Parkway. Fairfax Connector bus Route 505 and a new Route 555 can provide service from Sunset Hills to West Falls Church Metro station.
Connector routes 505, 551, 552, 554 and 557 have changed slightly, bypassing Reston East and going directly to and from the West Falls Church Station.
What was once an 820-space lot for commuters at Reston East has been shrinking for months now, pending this final closing. The Sunset Hills lot will remain open until the 2,300-space garage for the new Wiehle Avenue rail station opens, which could be in late 2013.