- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 18, 2007

It’s a common routine of frustration for motorists in the region.

Hit the gas, then brake. Then comes the occasional honk.

And, of course, idling. Lots and lots of idling.

The region has some of the worst gridlock in the country, despite costly road projects in Maryland and Virginia over the past few years.

Area motorists spend about 69 hours a year in their vehicles stuck in traffic, according to a study released in 2005 by the Texas Transportation Institute, a research agency that reviews traffic congestion nationwide. The D.C. area ranked third behind Los Angeles and San Francisco, ranked No. 1 and 2, respectively.

For motorists wondering whether relief will ever come, transportation officials say help is on the way. However, others are less optimistic.

Virginia lawmakers could agree this year to spend billions on solving transportation problems, especially in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, after two straight years of failing to reach an agreement.

Maryland lawmakers also are trying to decide what to do with a proposed highway that would connect Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and a possible new Metro rail line.

Beyond the speculation, officials have made at least two major road improvement in recent years, including the Springfield Interchange, where Interstates 95, 395 and 495 converge into a mass of traffic.

Before new construction began in 1999, the old interchange handled more than 380,000 vehicles a day and was considered among the worst bottlenecks on the East Coast.

When complete, the new interchange, known as the Mixing Bowl, will have 30 ramps, 41 miles of roadway, 50 bridges and 24 lanes at its widest point. It is expected to carry an estimated 425,000 vehicles daily.

The nearly $700 million project, which far exceeded early budgets and was the site of several construction-related deaths, is in its final stages.

About 90 percent of the project is complete, and the results already are beginning to show, said project spokesman Steve Titunik.

“Our focus was always getting those a.m. and p.m. rush hours through as quickly as possible,” he said. “You can see improvements. The traffic has flow, and you don’t really have hiccups.”

Still, Mr. Titunik warns the project will be only a piece of the gridlock puzzle.

“The Springfield Interchange project wasn’t meant to be the answer” to congestion woes, he said. “It was to help open up the arteries.”

Mr. Titunik advocates using other resources such as public transportation to help handle existing traffic and the problems expected as the region grows. The population in Northern Virginia alone has increased by about 25 percent since 1990. And the military’s Base Realignment and Closure plan is expected to bring an estimated 25,000 more households to the region.

“The trick is to keep up with development,” Mr. Titunik said. “Improving the roads is one thing, but improvements need to be made across the board. You can’t just pave Interstate 95 into 100 lanes.”

When the project was in the initial stages, Virginia transportation officials worked with Metro to offer discounted rates for rail and bus commuters and to increase the number of bus routes for riders in and around the Springfield area.

“It takes a lot to get people out of their comfy cars,” Mr. Titunik said. “But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.”

Earlier this month, the Virginia House approved a transportation package that would draw $250 million from the state’s general operating fund and increase car-registration fees, taxes on diesel fuel and heavily fine abusive drivers. The package would infuse more than $2 billion into the state’s network of roads, railways and public transit without statewide sales, income or gasoline tax increases.

It also would give localities in Northern Virginia the power to increase taxes and fees that would generate about $400 million every year locally for roads and transit.

However, a compromise must be reached with Senate lawmakers who instead want a one-time, $150 fee to register new cars and to remove the $250 million from the House plan.

The influx of residents and the shopping, homes and other development that support them has taken many Northern Virginia roads to capacity, said Ryan Hall, a spokesman for the state’s Department of Transportation.

One solution being discussed is privately built, “high-occupancy toll lanes,” that would generate revenue to pay the construction company.

“Right now, there’s not a lot of money for new transportation projects,” Mr. Hall said.

Meanwhile, crews are monitoring about 1,200 red-light intersections in Northern Virginia to “see where we can save a second here, a minute there,” he said.

New bridge

The rebuilding of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge also has helped ease gridlock.

The drawbridge opened in 1961 and was designed to handle about 75,000 vehicles a day.

The span reached that volume in eight years, and today carries almost 200,000 vehicles a day.

Right now, the eight-lane Capital Beltway narrows into the six-lane bridge, creating backups that can last for hours.

Construction began in 1998 to replace the mile-long bridge and nearly seven miles of roadway that carry motorists over the Potomac River between Maryland and Virginia.

When complete, the new bridge will have 12 lanes and will stand 20 feet higher than the old bridge, which should decrease bridge openings by 70 percent, according to project estimates.

The $2.4 billion project, which includes interchange enhancements and other road improvements, is two-thirds complete and on budget. Transportation officials expect to finish the span by 2011.

Project spokesman John Undeland said the federal government is paying $1.6 billion of the cost. Maryland and Virginia are paying for the remaining $800 million.

Area officials say lawmakers’ hesitation while the area population increases also is causing problems.

“We are in a veritable gridlock, both politically and literally,” said John B. Townsend II, a spokesman for AAA’s Mid-Atlantic motor club.

“Even the politicians can’t solve the problem, because they can’t agree on how to solve the problem. We’re a first-class city with Third World infrastructure.”

Mr. Townsend said the system is already at its breaking point, with development outpacing the region’s ability to accommodate the rapid growth.

“Our roads are over capacity,” he said. “You can’t squeeze another car onto the roads. What should be a 15-minute commute becomes 35, 45 minutes.”

In Maryland, as many as 200,000 vehicles travel daily on the 27-mile stretch of I-95 along the Beltway and that number is likely to increase within the next few years.

The military’s 2005 closure plan is expected to bring about 45,000 defense and contractor jobs to Aberdeen Proving Ground, Fort Meade and other Maryland facilities in the next eight years.

The National Naval Medical Center in Montgomery County is expected to gain about 1,400 positions under the plan. Andrews Air Force Base in Prince George’s County is expected to absorb about 400 jobs.

According to a report by the Maryland Department of Planning, more than 25,000 new households are expected to move to the state as a result of the plan.

In addition, about 22,000 D.C.-area jobs will be transferred to Fort Belvoir and the nearby Engineer Proving Ground in Fairfax County by 2011, which will create more of a burden on area roads.

Another road

Maryland officials have hoped some of the traffic would be alleviated by a proposed road that would link Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. The proposed $2.4 billion Intercounty Connector would link Interstate 270 and I-95, north of I-495.

After federal authorities approved the project in May, former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican and longtime proponent, formally broke ground on the project in October.

Opponents of the 18-mile road say it would cut through environmentally sensitive areas. As a result, federal officials are facing multiple lawsuits from environmental groups and residents whose properties are in the way.

Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat who took office last month, had said during his campaign that he supported the road. But a solution appears a long time away.

Another rail

State officials also have considered other projects to reduce congestion in the region, including a light-rail line known as the Inner Purple Line, which would be inside the Beltway and link Metro stations in Montgomery and Prince George.

The line would run east and west for 14 miles, linking stations in Bethesda, College Park, Langley Park, Long Branch, New Carrollton, Silver Spring and Takoma Park.

However, the Metro transit system, which serves the District, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and Northern Virginia, is facing budget problems severe enough to consider more fare increases and is not likely to be able to help pay for another project. Right now, the agency is working with the federal government to get money for a line to Washington Dulles International Airport through Tysons Corner by roughly 2012.

So far the existing 103 miles of rail has helped the region’s nearly 3 million residents get to work and other destinations. In fiscal 2006, about 206 million Metrorail trips were taken, marking the first time in the agency’s 31-year history that more than 200 million people rode during one fiscal year.

However, many people agree the system needs more lines, more cars and more stops.

Another bridge

The traffic problems in the region stretch all the way to land’s end, where the Chesapeake Bay Bridge connects Maryland’s western shore to its Eastern Shore and all of its summertime vacation destinations.

When the bridge was built in 1952, about 1 million vehicles crossed it annually. But the traffic quickly outgrew the bridge’s capacity and a second span was built in 1973.

Delays stretching for miles in both directions are common in the summer because the bridge and the connecting Route 50 are the only practical route to ocean getaways.

In fiscal 2005, nearly 26 million vehicles crossed the bridge, according to the Maryland Transportation Authority.

A yearlong state investigation into whether a new bridge should be built was released in August without a recommendation.

A task force of 19 state and Eastern Shore officials concluded more study is needed before a new bridge can be considered, but warned that delayed action would worsen the traffic issue.

Mr. Ehrlich appointed the task force in 2004 after state planners predicted that bridge traffic would increase 40 percent by 2025.

Distant hope

Chuck Gischlar, a spokesman for the Maryland State Highway Administration, said about 20 congestion-relief projects are under way or have been completed recently in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

“We enter into every project expecting to [provide] some sort of relief — whether it’s reducing the level of congestion or the volume of traffic,” he said.

Like the Springfield Interchange and Wilson Bridge projects, the construction sites often contribute to delays. But Mr. Gischlar said there are few complaints from motorists.

“There is some grumbling, but for the most part, people realize it’s for the larger good,” he said. “It’s a small inconvenience in the beginning, but people appreciate the results in the end.”

Chuck Jackson, president of the motorist advocacy group Citizen Advocates for Safe and Efficient Travel, also champions public transportation as an effective way to reduce traffic. He cites San Francisco as an example of city officials working with the entertainment industry to entice motorists to use mass transit.

“If we saw a little more creative thinking on how to link the public and private business sectors, maybe we’d encourage people to park the cars and take the bus,” he said.

Mr. Jackson said the heavy traffic between Baltimore and the District could be eased if motorists were more involved in the decision-making process.

“There’s no blanket, in-depth survey or poll that offers every licensed driver a chance to say what it is they want — whether it’s the ICC, a third span of the [Bay] Bridge, changing a bus schedule. Gridlock doesn’t know Democrat or Republican,” he said.

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