- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The roughly 200,000 commuters, tourists and other motorists who each day make the frequent bumper-to-bumper trip into and out of the District of Columbia on New York Avenue Northeast can soon expect their ride to take an extra 30 minutes.

D.C. road crews for the next two years will be working on a $40 million renovation to the New York Avenue Bridge, which spans freight, Amtrak and other commuter and commercial rails using Union Station.

“New York Avenue will look like New York,” said John B. Townsend II, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic.

Crews started the project in fall 2010 but will begin a full-scale operation next month on the 800-yard stretch of New York Avenue Northeast from Florida Avenue to Penn Street, according to the D.C. Department of Transportation.

New York Avenue is the major gateway from Interstate 95, which connects the District to the suburban homes of thousands of commuters as well as Baltimore, Philadelphia and other East Coast cities.

City officials said motorists can expect additional delays of 15 to 30 minutes as traffic squeezes through four lanes instead of six.

The renovation project will be paid through the Obama administration’s taxpayer-funded American Reinvestment and Recovery Act.

The roadwork is scheduled to begin April 25 on the eastbound lanes, cutting the number of inbound lanes from three to two. In the next phase, the westbound lanes will be cut from three to two. In the final work phase, east and westbound routes will be cut to two lanes.

“There’s no other way to do it,” said Mayor Vincent C. Gray. “I don’t want to understate the impact. … There will be backups and it will take you significantly longer.”

Mr. Townsend winced at the thought of more gridlock but seemed resigned to the situation, considering the bridge desperately needs repairs.

The bridge is on the federal government’s fractured critical list, which means the whole structure could topple if its underpinnings were seriously damaged. Crews will fix the road surface, underside and sidewalks.

“We knew it was coming,” Mr. Townsend said Wednesday. “But smack dab in the middle of the worst gridlock of the nation? That’s regrettable.”

The District is listed annually among U.S. cities with the worst traffic — and 2010 was no exception. Traffic information provider INRIX this month ranked D.C. traffic as the fourth worst, behind Los Angeles, New York and Chicago. The worst time to travel D.C. roads is during the Thursday evening commute, according to the group’s National Traffic Scoreboard.

“You are going to have some real headaches,” said WTOP Radio traffic reporter Adam Tuss. “All you have to do is drive down New York Avenue once during rush hour to get a feel for how congested it really is. Add this project in the mix, and it’s going to get even uglier.”

City officials have suggested several alternate routes, but more vehicles on smaller or more residential streets creates other potential problems.

The Great Mount Calvary Baptist Church and Calvary Christian Academy, in the Brentwood neighborhood, is just blocks off a stretch of Rhode Island Avenue Northeast designated as an alternative route.

Church elder Ron Allen said the students use a ramp to cross an intersection on the busy road, but he worries about other pedestrians with the potential for more traffic.

“The safety at this intersection, there have been quite a few accidents that have happened there. And that I think will increase the chances of accidents happening there,” he said.

The four alternative routes are: Montana Avenue to Rhode Island Avenue to North Capitol Street; West Virginia Avenue to Florida Avenue; South Dakota Avenue to Rhode Island Avenue to North Capitol Street; and the Benning Road and East Capitol Street exits on Interstate 295.

Transportation department spokesman John Lisle said the project was designed to minimize the impact to the rail lines underneath and that the city doesn’t want to direct people down neighborhood streets.

“We’re still trying to keep folks on major routes,” he said.

Mr. Tuss said the way motorists respond to the bridge work will help determine how much traffic flows into side streets.

“They are being encouraged to switch to transit, bus, carpool - anything that will reduce the number of cars,” he said. “That will likely happen to some degree. But what you’re more likely to find is people altering their normal routes. Ultimately, when these projects hit, we see drivers trying to figure things out for a couple of days. About a week or so after, a new traffic pattern emerges. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to be pretty.”