- The Washington Times - Monday, September 2, 2002

Brendan Marr had his escape route set.
The Baltimorean could do little about his daily commute into the District he took the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and endured the extra 45 minutes that congestion and construction added to his drive.
On his way home, though, Mr. Marr was able to take 16th Street up to Route 29 to Interstate 495 and then I-95. But the District began work on 16th Street in July, and Mr. Marr, managing director of Qorvis Communications, said he might now have to find an alternate route .
He estimates he spends 2 hours round trip on his daily commute from Baltimore to Washington, 90 minutes of it the result of congestion. And if it rains as it did last Wednesday it can take him that long just to make the trip one way.
Mr. Marr is hardly alone driving around metropolitan Washington typically means idling in stop-and-go traffic.
For officials who must fix the problem, it's a Catch-22: Easing gridlock means constructing roads, but construction creates more delays.
"This is the nature of progress people clamor and scream for these projects and then when we start, they clamor and scream for us to stop because of the congestion," said Dave Buck, spokesman for the Maryland State Highway Administration. "We are damned if we do and damned if we don't."
More than two dozen construction projects in and around the District are supposed to eventually make travel easier, but some of these projects are not expected to be complete until 2011.
"Area commuters are trying to use too little roadway with too much capacity," said Justin McNaull, public affairs manager for AAA Mid-Atlantic. "They don't even mention on the radio anymore that there are backups on the Outer Loop of the Beltway because it is backed up for several miles every day, and it is just assumed that a large part of that drive is going to be done at 10 to 15 miles per hour."
The region's traffic was ranked third worst in the nation in a study released this summer by the Texas Transportation Institute, a research agency that reviews traffic congestion nationwide. Area commuters spend on average 84 hours a year in their cars, according to the study, which found only Los Angeles and the San Francisco-Oakland area were worse for getting around.
"You have several million people trying to get to work in the heart of a city where you have rivers that serve as natural bottlenecks, and because of that, it is just going to take a while for people to get in and out," said David Schrank, the researcher at the Texas Transportation Institute who focused on the District for the study.


No longer a scenic alternative
Commuters coming from Maryland into the District have four major arteries they can travel: Interstate 95, the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, Route 29 and Route 1. But only Route 1 which has a steady stream of traffic lights is not currently under construction.
Fred Cunningham, the former BW Parkway manager for the National Park Service, which administers and maintains the road, said drivers face long commutes and congestion because the parkway was not meant for such heavy volume.
"When we built the [BW] Parkway, it was not intended to be a commuter route. Instead, it was intended to be a scenic route," said Mr. Cunningham, who now works as the park service's acting chief of interpretation and visitor services.
"We have pictures of people out in Greenbelt having picnics along the side of the road. The roadway was not supposed to have 250,000 people on it a day," he said.
The BW Parkway cost about $18 million and opened in October 1954 as a scenic alternative to Interstate 95 about 18,000 vehicles traveled it daily in the first year, according to Federal Highway Administration documents. Currently 60,000 vehicles travel the parkway each day.
The project around the Route 197 interchange upgrade began in July 1999 and the total cost, once it is finished by early October, should be approximately $22 million.
Mr. Marr, who listens to talk radio and regularly searches for traffic updates to see what he can do to avoid the congestion, was raised in Baltimore and said he remembers construction on the BW Parkway as far as back as when he got his driver's license.
"I've been commuting from Baltimore to D.C. for five years, and there has always been construction on the road in one section or another the entire time it's very frustrating," said Mr. Marr, 29.


'A huge priority'
Sometimes when roads are widened, the solution offers only temporary relief.
Mr. Schrank said initially roads clear of congestion once the projects are completed, but in time the traffic worsens because more people are using the roads.
"The price you will pay is that you will see in the short term the situation will improve, but gradually the congestion will return," he said.
Route 29 between Interstate 70 and Silver Spring is undergoing a major reconstruction that began last year and is projected to continue until at least 2008. Maryland highway officials do not expect a delay, but funding for the project will be re-evaluated each year.
The $200 million project will create wider lanes and make the road a thruway with exit ramps instead of traffic lights, Mr. Buck said.
"We have seen a lot of people move into Howard and Montgomery counties," he said. "This is a huge investment over a long period of time because so many people are going in and out of D.C., and this project is a huge priority."
Several of the exit ramps and lane expansions have already been completed, whereas others, including the interchange at Maryland Route 198 in Montgomery County will not be completed until 2005.
Sophie Furr, a teacher in Baltimore County who commutes regularly to the District to visit friends, said the construction projects are worth the delays because Route 29 is a more enjoyable drive than the other alternatives leading into the city.
"I hate I-95. The traffic, the drivers, everything," said Miss Furr, 27. "Route 29 is almost a secret passage, and if they are making it even easier, that is fine with me. The minor delays with construction are not a problem."
The $6.7 million construction along I-95 between Baltimore and Washington is expected to be completed this fall. The Maryland Highway Administration is redecking 10 bridges along the corridor.


A decades-old debate
One of the longest-running debates over easing traffic congestion is the Inter-County Connector, which would link I-270 and I-95 above the Capital Beltway.
Opponents of the 20-mile road say it would cut through environmentally sensitive areas. They also say the estimated time it would trim from the average commute does not justify the cost.
Those who support the Inter-County Connector say it's a solution that has been delayed too long.
"This is the missing link in the implementation of our master plans for the region since 1964," said Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, a Democrat. "We've spent 38 years trying to construct a road between [the two arteries] and the problem is we have allowed all this development to take place but without the roads."
Last month, Mr. Duncan criticized the Montgomery County Council for not allocating funds for the project and has vowed to help elect pro-ICC candidates to the County Council in November.
Mr. McNaull of AAA Mid-Atlantic said it just makes sense to build the road.
"It's like having 50 people in a room with only one door that lets them get out," he said. "If you would add another door, the people will be able to get in and out more quickly and smoothly. The same thing goes for the ICC."
A recent poll conducted by Gonzales/Arscott Communications and Research found that 67 percent of Democrats who would be more likely to oppose its construction in the first place because of environmental concerns support construction of the ICC.
The final cost estimates are well over a billion dollars, but motorists say it would be well worth the money.
"I'd be willing to help pay for the proposed Inter-County Connector plan in Maryland," said Virginia resident Michael Hudson, 27, who commutes by various routes around the Beltway as a software consultant for Vienna, Va.-based Blueprint Technologies Inc.
"It would go a long way in helping the awful traffic around the Dulles Corridor and Tysons Corner simply by reducing the traffic of those moving north from there into Maryland," he said.


16th Street
In the District, motorists driving into Northwest along 16th Street, which Route 29 feeds into, were welcomed in July with jersey barriers and construction crews as the city began its redevelopment and expansion of a one-mile stretch of this major artery. The work is not scheduled to be completed until November 2003.
"This is the only portion of 16th Street that had not been upgraded in the past," said Mohammed Khalid, project manager for the D.C. Department of Transportation for the 16th Street construction.
The improvements are necessary, Mr. Khalid said, to ensure the road can handle the large volume of vehicles that travel it daily. On average, he estimated 42,000 vehicles travel the road daily in and out of the District.
The project stretches from Alaska Avenue to Eastern Avenue and has an estimated cost of $9.5 million. During rush hour, traffic will be limited to two lanes heading in the direction of traffic, and one in the opposite direction.
Some commuters weary of the time and expense of driving into the city have opted for the "slug lines," pickup points around the area where they can catch rides from people traveling to and from work. It saves them the hassle and allows the driver to use high-occupancy-vehicle lanes.
"It takes me 27 minutes to get to work, as opposed to an hour-and-a-half," said Mike Pickett, 34, of Woodbridge, Va. "It saves me $200 a month on parking and $60 month on gas, not to mention all the wear-and-tear on the car."


Northern Virginia
In Northern Virginia, commuters deal with congestion from ambitious road projects, most notably the Springfield Interchange. The interchange, or Mixing Bowl, merges motorists from I-95, I-395 and I-495; the Virginia Department of Transportation estimates that 430,000 cars use the interchange daily.
The Mixing Bowl project, which was begun in 1996 and is expected to be completed in 2007, consists of building more than 50 bridges and widening I-95 to 24 lanes between the Beltway and Franconia Road.
VDOT has suffered harsh criticism because the project has ballooned well over its initial $350 million budget: The current cost for the project is estimated at $700 million and the overruns are being reviewed by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
"The mistake that VDOT made was not communicating with our elected officials as we realized things were changing," VDOT spokeswoman Joan Morris said. "Back [when the project was just an idea] the projected cost was $350 million; that doesn't mean it is going to stay that way. But by the time we started telling people it had changed it was up to $500 million."
In addition to cost overruns, the site has been plagued with on-the-job fatalities. Since October 2001 three workers have died of work-related injuries.
"Its unfortunate in an industry where injury and accidents are a part of it, that sometimes deaths occur," said Steve Titunik, VDOT spokesman for the Mixing Bowl project.
Despite the problems, some lawmakers are praising VDOT's efforts.
"When you build a project of this magnitude, its like trying to paint your car while going 55 miles per hour," said Delegate John A. "Jack" Rollison III, Prince William Republican and chairman of the House Transportation Committee. "They have significant challenges, but are doing a good job."
When the project first began, VDOT worked with Metro officials to get discounted Metro rates for commuters for both rail and buses for certain routes, as well as to increase bus routes in and around the Springfield area.
VDOT also opened a store in Springfield Mall next to the Department of Motor Vehicles office that provides large-scale diagrams of both the Mixing Bowl project and pictures and updates on construction projects, including the Wilson Bridge. The store is open from Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
The Wilson Bridge project is another years-long project that has contributed to congestion.
Construction to replace the mile-long bridge, as well as nearly seven miles of roadway leading to the river on both the Maryland and Virginia sides, began in 1998.
When finished, the bridge will have 12 lanes and be 20 feet higher than the current bridge. The increased height is expected to decrease bridge openings by 70 percent, according to project estimates. The new bridge will better handle the more than 200,000 cars that travel the route daily, which is 125,000 more cars daily than when the bridge first opened in 1961.
The initial cost of the construction and the anticipated completion date back in 1997 was $1.89 billion by 2006. The final cost is anticipated at or around $2.44 billion with a 2011 completion date.
The worst of the congestion, which will include interchange repair and draw-bridge construction, is expected to hit drivers in late summer 2003, said John Underland, public affairs manager for the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project.

Harder times
When many of these construction projects were being considered, both Maryland and Virginia were in the black, with big surpluses to devote to new road work. Since then, each state has seen a drastic change in its financial picture.
Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner announced last month that the state has a $1.5 billion budget shortfall and that many state agencies and departments will have to be eliminated.
In Maryland, the new governor elected in November will confront a nearly $1 billion budget deficit.
The funding exists for the projects under way, and spokesmen for the projects are confident they will have the money to complete them.
Voters in nine Northern Virginia jurisdictions will have the chance in November to raise the sales tax by a half-cent to fund transportation initiatives in the region through a ballot referendum.
Mr. Rollison, the leading supporter of the referendum in the General Assembly, warned that because of the current budget crisis, the region is likely to receive less money in the future for its projects particularly once the Mixing Bowl and Wilson Bridge projects are completed.
"I am not confident that we can retain [our current level of funding] from statewide revenue," Mr. Rollison said. "When these projects wind down, we won't get as much revenue as we are getting now."

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