The Washington Post

Many Beltway drivers aren’t lucky enough to have choice about travel time savings


I recently told readers the sad story about the evening on the Capital Beltway when I needed to get from Tysons to Silver Spring for a wedding anniversary dinner with my spouse and encountered my first traffic jam on the 495 Express Lanes.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region. View Archive

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I am not astonished that you ran into congestion on the inner loop at 6:20 p.m. on a Thursday. Traffic from Virginia to Maryland over the American Legion Memorial Bridge was congested in the evening peak before the express lanes were built, and the backup has continued.

It’s caused by heavy traffic from Tysons, the merge of traffic from the Dulles Toll Road, the merge of traffic from the George Washington Memorial Parkway, the merge of traffic from the express lanes and the slowing of all traffic climbing the grade on the Maryland side of the bridge.

Motorists on southbound Interstate 495 toward Tysons Corner on the debut day of the express toll lanes, on the left, last fall. There are two main reasons to pay to use the lanes, which also get congested: They should be more reliable than regular lanes, and, in some spots, they allow a better shot at your target. (Dayna Smith/For the Washington Post)

You appear to have been disappointed that the express lanes did not save you time or that you would have made another choice had you known of the congestion.

But what choice did you really have? For your trip, there was no other reasonable choice than the Beltway. Because you were leaving from the Gannett building, you chose to use the Jones Branch Drive express lanes’ entrance to the Beltway.

Your other choice, to return to Chain Bridge Road and then enter the Beltway, would have taken even longer. Your choice did save you time, and the choice you made exists only because of the express lanes project.

Whether it was worth $1.70 is another question, but one that each driver will have to make based on his experience and his best estimate of the comparative travel times. There really is no way that signs could be provided to convey all the information that each motorist would want to have before making a choice.

Frank Spielberg, Falls Church

DG: My spouse was more understanding. But indeed, traffic congestion on the inner loop north of Tysons during the evening rush is hardly astonishing. For years, that has been one of the worst sectors of the Beltway for commuters, for all the reasons that Spielberg described — plus some others.

Was the express lanes segment worth the $1.70 toll?

There are two main reasons a driver would pay for using the express lanes: They should provide a more reliable trip than the regular lanes, and in some spots — Tysons, in particular — they offer a better shot at your target.

On that Thursday night, I got one out of two. I did not get the reliable trip. Instead, I was stuck in the same gooey mess of traffic that I would have experienced in the regular lanes. This is because I entered the express lanes so close to their merge point with the regular lanes.

But, as Spielberg highlighted, my choice did save me time. Without the new Jones Branch Drive access point that the express lanes created on the north side of Tysons, I would have gone the old way: south to go north. Bad as the traffic was, it would have been a great deal worse if my route had included Chain Bridge Road to the Beltway entrance.

I didn’t tell you the oddest part, thinking that no one who commutes on that part of the Beltway would believe me. I got to dinner in the nick of time. Granted, it did take 60 minutes to go 14 miles on the Beltway.

Did you notice I said there are other problems with the inner loop besides those Spielberg named? One is the point where some Beltway lanes split off to Interstate 270. Those lanes are almost always jammed, so some drivers game the system by running up a less congested lane — clearly not going their way — then pushing their way into the I-270 lane at the last moment. Because these drivers sometimes must come to a complete stop to accomplish this, they further back up Beltway traffic.

Another notorious trouble spot farther along this trail of agony develops near Rockville Pike, where the Beltway gets real skinny, and drivers merge.

Ulysses had to do his trip only once. Beltway commuters do theirs five evenings a week — and each time, they know what’s coming.

But on this one night, the traffic angel was on my shoulder, in a virtual carpool.

Once I reached the Legion Bridge leaving Virginia, none of the other bad stuff happened. I had a smooth trip around to Silver Spring.

Spielberg’s letter and my response contain all the excuses about traffic that — for once — I didn’t have to deploy.

But one fortune-blessed night is no excuse for Maryland and Virginia. The two states need to get together on solving the continuing problem on the west side of the Beltway north of Tysons that tens of thousands of commuters face each day.

Lengthening a merge lane or opening a shoulder lane to travel here and there won’t do it. This is a big problem that deserves a big solution, and thanks to the new transportation taxes in both states, they should have the resources to ease this commute.



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