MCLEAN, Va. - Virginia's Department of Transportation hopes to open the left shoulder on a 1.5-mile stretch of the Inner Loop of the Capital Beltway during both rush hours starting late next year.
The 11-foot shoulder from the end of the 495 Express Lanes to the George Washington Parkway would look similar to the shoulder lane currently used in rush hours on Interstate 66, except it will be on the left side. Overhead signs will have a red X or green arrow to tell drivers when the shoulder is open. The lanes will be painted gray, similar to the red color of the shoulder on I-66.
"This project is going to provide safety improvements by making the merge longer and allowing traffic more time to merge down to the four lanes," says Susan Shaw,rmassimo with VDOT's Megaprojects.
"Ultimately it's not a capacity improvement; it will not be a dramatic improvement as far as congestion, but it will become a little bit better."
Shaw says the current 12-foot lanes will be narrowed to 11 feet. The right shoulder will be narrowed to create the necessary room for the 11-foot left shoulder.
VDOT will reach out for proposals this winter. Work could begin next summer and cost about $20 million; VDOT believes the lane could open in December 2014.
But drivers in the McLean area aren't convinced this project will do much to fix the overall problem of congestion near the American Legion Bridge.
"I think it's just a Band-Aid," Martin McGurn says. "The problem is people are commuting farther from Virginia back home to Maryland to places like Germantown and Frederick. So I think it may work for a little while, but eventually we're going to end up back right into the same place."
McGurn says he avoids the American Legion Bridge, instead taking Virginia Route 123 from the Capital Beltway to the Chain Bridge, crossing into D.C., then taking the Clara Barton Parkway back to the Capital Beltway in Montgomery County. He calls the Inner Loop a "parking lot" any weekday after 3 p.m.
Some drivers agree.
"I just don't think adding a short lane adds anything," says Sydney Duberstein. "I think $20 million sounds like an awful waste. There are better ways to spend the money than adding a shoulder lane for a short distance."
Marshall Hyman used to live in Rockville, Md.; his wife still commutes there every day. "If it just moves the bottleneck down the road a little bit," he says, "they might not help.
"What we really need is an outer Beltway," he says. "When I visit my family in Rockville, I just try to visit in off-hours or on the weekends, because I don't want to deal with the traffic."
Maggie Shea commutes every day from Annapolis, Md., to McLean, and has other concerns about the project.
"I think the problem is merging over. It's a safety concern. I deal with it every night crossing the bridge. It may be better, but I think the dangers are still going to be there," she says.
Shaw admits the project won't be a cure-all, but she hopes this project makes things a little better.
"It may push the problem farther north, but it still will help roads like 123, the Dulles Toll Road (Va. 267), and Georgetown Pike. For Maryland drivers, this will make your trip safer, but the length of their commute probably won't change too much," she says.
Virginia State Police also play an important role in these discussions because using the shoulder lane during rush hours will affect their ability to pull drivers over.
It's a problem police face when combating HOV violators on I-66 during rush hours. On the Capital Beltway, police will get an emergency pull-off near Georgetown Pike for law enforcement and any vehicle breakdowns. But VDOT admits that the police wanted more.
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