Columnist

As we looked over maps of the Capital Beltway at a meeting in McLean last week, April Georgelas patiently explained her fears about Virginia’s plan to let traffic into the inner loop’s shoulder, but I just couldn’t see it her way.

Georgelas, who lives on the west side of the Beltway, is worried about this plan, which will affect the left shoulder between Old Dominion Drive and the George Washington Parkway, just south of the American Legion Bridge.

She thinks that widening the inner loop to five lanes at peak travel times will increase traffic density, as well as noise and air pollution. An already difficult situation for drivers heading to the Beltway from nearby roads will get much worse, she said.

Some of the other neighbors who attended the community meeting sponsored by the Virginia Department of Transportation said they hope the shoulder opening not only will relieve a very congested part of the Beltway but also siphon traffic from their local roads.

Susan N. Shaw, VDOT’s regional transportation program director, said the shoulder opening is not a grand solution to the traffic congestion north of Tysons Corner, but it should make commuting easier than it is now.

Construction workers in the 1300 block of H Street NE work in the summer to finish the streetcar network’s trackwork and foundations. In November 2013, the District Department of Transportation was testing the much-anticipated system by using a hi-rail vehicle mimicking the movements of a streetcar along the tracks. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

The shoulder program will expand the capacity of that 1.8-mile zone of highway, but not the capacity of the roadways feeding into it. Today’s traffic — about 95,000 vehicles a day — will just have more room to spread out, at least for 1.8 miles.

Georgelas sees the shoulder opening as a gift to drivers on the 495 Express Lanes, who would have a much longer distance to merge back into the Beltway’s regular lanes north of Old Dominion Drive. If VDOT wants to do something for them, she said, why not just lengthen the left-side merge a bit to make that easier?

Lengthening the area for the merge and thereby making it less difficult is one of VDOT’s goals. Focusing solely on that would reduce the project’s $20 million cost. But doing the full job could benefit all drivers, including those on the side streets, such as Balls Hill Road, near the Beltway’s Georgetown Pike interchange. If drivers can spread out more going past the interchange, everyone should benefit. So do the whole job.

Commuters from both Maryland and Virginia who get caught in this zone probably are worried about the effects of the construction, to start in the summer. Shaw said the plan is for crews to work off-peak and at night in what’s a fairly tight construction scheduled for an opening at the end of next year.

Streetcar education

It will be months before passengers board the District’s first modern streetcar line, but travelers along the H Street/Benning Road NE corridor are beginning to get an education in accommodating these new vehicles.

The District Department of Transportation is using a hi-rail vehicle along the streetcar tracks as part of its testing program for the system. The name isn’t a reference to the height of the test vehicle but refers instead to its ability to travel on highways or rails, using either rubber tires or steel wheels.

DDOT said its tester will be simulating the movements of a streetcar, checking clearances, halting at the streetcar stops along the route and triggering the streetcar-only traffic signals. Transportation officials hope to get the first real streetcars on the line for testing next month.

This new phase is good for more than checking the equipment. It will also give drivers, bikers and pedestrians an idea of what it will be like to share the roadway with the streetcars.

The last streetcars in the District were taken out of service a half-century ago, so for most travelers there’s going to be a steep learning curve. DDOT and the Department of Public Works are engaged in an education campaign reminding drivers to obey the parking rules. You can’t double park or be sloppy about parking in a designated space when one of these big vehicles is rolling down the lane.

Metrorail’s new floors

You can’t accuse Metro of rushing into changes in its rail cars. The first time I saw a rail car with hard flooring substituted for the smelly old carpet was in April 2008, when transit officials showed off several test cars parked at the Reagan National Airport station.

Those test cars, part of the 6000 series, rolled around the Metrorail system for years before the transit authority announced that the next generation, the 7000 series now under construction, would go with a very different style of interior, including hard flooring rather than carpets.

But Metro announced last week that it will also replace the carpet on part of the current rail fleet, the 5000 and 6000 series cars. The installation of this slip-resistant flooring should happen gradually over two years, the transit authority said.

Back in the mid-1970s, when Metro opened, carpets and cushy seats seemed like a good idea. Metro was part of a new generation of rail transit systems, built at the height of the auto age. Planners thought it was important to offer commuters an attractive and familiar alternative to their cars.

As with other parts of the system, like the escalators, the early planners never considered that the equipment would get old. Metro officials say the hard flooring doesn’t absorb dirt or spills. The carpet not only absorbs them, but also resists giving them up.

General Manager Richard Sarles said the new flooring will provide a “modern look and feel” to the rail cars.