Commuters drive through a tunnel on Beach Road in Rock Creek Park on June 5 in Washington. The road will be closed for three years for repairs and improvements. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

The Washington region is used to horrible traffic. We’re used to traffic stalled by motorcades, weather and construction projects. But long-term full road closures? Those are rare.

That’s what’s coming to Beach Drive, the busy commuter thoroughfare that runs through Rock Creek Park in Northwest Washington. The 6  1 /2-mile road is about to undergo a three-year rehabilitation project that promises to deliver a new roadway when complete. But it will be a painful process getting there beginning Thursday, when the work is to start.

If this is on your commuting route and you haven’t worked out an alternative already, now is the time. If you don’t use Beach Drive but your travels take you to any of the District’s north-south arteries in Upper Northwest, you should be prepared for more congestion than normal, because Beach Drive traffic will be rerouted to some of the city’s major commuting corridors, such as Connecticut Avenue and 16th Street NW.

The stretch between Rock Creek Parkway and Tilden Street — the busiest portion of Beach Drive — will close to vehicular traffic Thursday and not reopen until the spring. This is the first of four phases of the project, each expected to last between six and eight months.

“It is going to be a mess,” predicts Jim Stockmal, a Dupont Circle resident who uses Beach Drive daily to get his children to school at St. John’s College High School on Military Road.


His 15-minute morning drive northbound to the Chevy Chase school could easily double. And his trip south to his downtown office could suffer even more. That’s likely to be the case for thousands of other drivers, too.

The National Park Service, which owns the road, says that despite traffic control measures, there’s no way around the construction. Drivers should expect major traffic tie-ups and heavier traffic from Wisconsin Avenue NW to Georgia Avenue NW.

“The best thing that drivers can do is plan alternative routes,” said Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles, a spokeswoman for the National Park Service. “Telework if that is something that you have the ability to do. Look at other transit options. Bike to work. This is going to create delays and backups.”

That’s to be expected for a road traveled by more than 12 million vehicles a year and which about 40,000 people use for recreation activities on the weekends.

The project will give the region a taste of what it’s like to have a full road closure for months at a time. Transportation officials know they could speed completion of many projects and save money by completely shutting down roadways, but they do so only as a last resort.

“They avoid full shutdowns on busy routes because they know even a temporary shutdown will have an unacceptably high impact on that corridor — both on the roadway where the work is being done and on any parallel routes,” said The Washington Post’s Dr. Gridlock, a.k.a. Robert Thomson.

Last year’s reconstruction of the 16th Street Bridge, for example, could have been completed faster with a complete shutdown, “but that would have imposed an unacceptable burden on the travel corridor,” Thomson said. The same for other projects, such as the rebuilding of the Humpback Bridge on the George Washington Parkway and the reconstruction of the 11th Street Bridge over the Anacostia River.

“The biggest project that I can recall involving a full shutdown was the rehabilitation of the Frederick Douglass Bridge over the Anacostia,” Thomson said. “The bridge was shut in summer 2007 after a great deal of planning and outreach by the D.C. government. The rehab involved cranking up the entire span to a new height. It couldn’t be safely done while maintaining any flow of traffic over it. So the District’s transportation officials chose to close the bridge entirely during the season when traffic would be lightest.

“A big effort was made to make commuters aware of the shutdown and get them to divert their trips, carpool or take transit,” Thomson said. “Even so, the shutdown had a big effect on routes like the 11th Street Bridge, the Suitland Parkway and Pennsylvania Avenue.”

Officials say the decision to close Beach Drive wasn’t made lightly. It was necessary, they said, because the road isn’t wide enough to allow for work to be done on one half first and the other half later. The space is needed to accommodate construction, staging and equipment, they added.

Although the Park Service spends $75,000 annually on maintaining the road, the temporary repairs — such as filling potholes and patching cracks — were no longer cost-effective, officials said.

Those who use the road, like Stockmal, say they understand why the work is needed: The road continues to deteriorate, and the trail running parallel to it isn’t much better. But knowing that doesn’t make the prospect of a shutdown any easier, he said.

“You need to prepare and add additional travel time,” Stockmal said. He has been planning his new commute for a week but isn’t set on a route yet. He will try 16th Street and Connecticut Avenue and may explore some back roads until he finds the best option, he said.

The work was supposed to start Monday, but officials said engineers ran into challenges with the underground cables that support traffic signals along Tilden Street, where the construction will begin. The start date was moved to Thursday to allow extra time to put traffic- and detour-mitigation measures in place.

Transportation officials predict that this first segment will be the most painful because it involves the portion of the road that has the most traffic volume — as many as 20,000 vehicles a day.

“We know it is going to be tough, there is no doubt about it,” said Anzelmo-Sarles.

Project highlights and tips

Project details: Beach Drive, which is narrow with curvy sections, will get a complete facelift. Crews will excavate the entire area and put in a new gravel base before laying new asphalt. All seven bridges will be rehabbed and parking areas rebuilt. New traffic safety features — such as guardrails and centerline rumble strips to keep drivers from drifting into oncoming traffic — will be added. Storm drainage will also be improved.

The adjacent trail, used for commuting and recreation by hundreds of cyclists, joggers and pedestrians, will be widened to 10 feet in some areas. There will be new trail construction between Porter Street and Piney Branch Parkway and a new crosswalk on Beach Drive at Blagden Avenue.

The $32.9 million project will be the first complete reconstruction of Beach Drive in 25 years. It promises to deliver a new roadway after decades of deterioration, years of complaints about gaps and cracks in the road, and a trail that has become rough, root-laden and uneven.

Timing: Construction is set to start this week — most likely Thursday — and is expected to last about three years. It will be done in four segments, with each segment taking between six and eight months.

The first phase, which starts this week, covers the stretch between Rock Creek Parkway and Tilden Street, an area used by National Zoo traffic and many commuters that connects to Rock Creek Parkway.

The second phase will close the portion of the road between Tilden Street and Broad Branch Road and could start as early as next spring. After repairs on that section of road, crews will work in the area between Broad Branch and Joyce roads. They’ll then move to the final section, between Joyce Road and the Maryland border.

Non-vehicular access: Cyclists and pedestrians will be able to use Beach Drive during the rehabilitation project, although it will close at night. People will also still be able to run on the trail during the roadwork, and when the trail is being reconstructed, they can run on a protected space on the road, officials said.

National Zoo traffic: The National Zoo driveway and the Harvard Street ramp from Beach Drive will be closed during the first segment of the project. Zoo traffic will be able to enter and exit on Connecticut Avenue or Harvard Street NW.

Driving across Rock Creek Park: Traffic on Tilden Street will be able to get across Rock Creek Park, but there may be more delays in that area. If you plan to drive on the part of Beach Drive that will remain open, avoid driving all the way to Tilden, where the closures begin. The other east-west access point, a stretch between Porter Street and Piney Branch Parkway, will remain open for a portion of this phase but will close at some point.

Traffic-mitigation efforts: Besides encouraging commuters to find alternative routes and ways to get around, city transportation officials are taking measures to improve traffic flow in corridors including Connecticut Avenue and 16th Street NW. Officials said they are making minor adjustments to traffic signals’ timing and eliminating some stop signs on the southern end of the project. The D.C. Department of Transportation will deploy traffic-control officers to key intersections near the project.

For more information: The Park Service will have construction updates on the project’s website (go.nps.gov/beachdrive). Commuters are also urged to sign up for updates through Nixle, a free tool that allows information to be sent through text, email, social media and the Nixle mobile app. To receive alerts, text BEACHDRIVE to 888777. You can also check the project’s prerecorded phone line, 202-895-6232, for information on road closures.

Project highlights and tips

Project details: Beach Drive, which is narrow with curvy sections, will get a complete facelift. Crews will excavate the entire area and put in a new gravel base before laying new asphalt. All seven bridges will be rehabilitated and parking areas rebuilt. New traffic safety features will be added such as guardrails and centerline rumble strips to keep drivers from drifting into oncoming traffic. The work also includes improved storm drainage.

The adjacent trail, used for commuting and recreation by hundreds of cyclists, joggers and pedestrians, will be widened to 10 feet in some areas. There will be new trail construction between Porter Street and Piney Branch Parkway and a new crosswalk on Beach Drive at Blagden Avenue NW.

The $32.9-million project will be the first complete reconstruction of Beach Drive in 25 years. It promises to deliver a new roadway after decades of deterioration, and years of complaints about gaps and cracks in the road and a trail that has become rough, root-laden and uneven.

Timing: Construction is set to start this week — most likely Thursday — and is expected to last about three years. It will be done in four segments, with each segment taking between six and eight months.

The first phase, which starts this week, covers the stretch between Rock Creek Parkway and Tilden Street, an area used by National Zoo traffic and many commuters that connect to Rock Creek Parkway.

The second phase will close the portion of the road between Tilden Street and Broad Branch Road, and that work could begin as early as next spring. After repairs are completed on that section of road, crews will work in the area between Broad Branch and Joyce roads. After that, they will move to the final section, between Joyce Road and the Maryland border.

Non-vehicular access: Cyclists and pedestrians will be able to use Beach Drive during the construction, though the road will close at night. When work is being done on the roadway, people can run on the trail, and when the trail is being constructed they can run on a protected space on the roadway, officials said.

National Zoo traffic: The National Zoo driveway and Harvard Street ramp from Beach Drive will be closed during the first segment of the project. Zoo traffic will be able to enter and exit on Connecticut Avenue or Harvard Street NW.

Driving across Rock Creek Park: Traffic on Tilden Street N.W. will be able to get across Rock Creek Park, but there may be more delays in that area. If you choose to drive on the part of Beach Drive that will remain open, avoid driving all the way to Tilden, where the closures begin. The other east-west access point, a stretch between Porter Street and Piney Branch Parkway, will remain open for a portion of this phase, but will close at some point.

Traffic-mitigation efforts: Besides encouraging commuters to find alternate routes and modes of getting around, city transportation officials are taking measures to improve traffic flow in corridors such as Connecticut Avenue and 16th Street NW. Officials said they area making minor adjustments to traffic signal timing and are eliminating some stop signs on the southern end of the project. The District Department of Transportation will deploy traffic control officers to key intersections near the project.

More information: The Park Service will have construction updates on the project’s website (go.nps.gov/beachdrive). Commuters are also urged to sign up for updates through Nixle, a free tool that allows information through text, email, social media, and the Nixle mobile app. To receive alerts you can text BEACHDRIVE to 888777. You can also check the project’s prerecorded phone line, 202-895-6232, for road closure information.