WASHINGTON – Washington commuters expect congestion and delays. Crashes, roadwork and police activity are part of the game.
But put all three together at the height of rush hour and the gridlock ripples across the region. These horrific traffic jams can last for hours and scar drivers for life.
Accidents that wreak havoc in a road network involve overturned trucks, large fires, hazmat responses, spills and serious injuries. They often take hours to resolve and lengthy police investigations prolong their grip on traffic. As officials block a heavily traveled road, drivers quickly overwhelm nearby arteries as they scramble to find an alternate route.
Here are WTOP’s five worst rush hours of 2013. Each featured major incidents and extreme, widespread delays that affected tens of thousands of motorists far and wide.
Tuesday, Jan. 8
Gridlock in Georgetown, Key Bridge Closes for Hours
All of the bridges that span the Potomac River near Washington are considered vital for the well-being of the traffic flow near the Nation’s Capital. Even a minor, short-lived incident on a bridge can clog lanes on other river crossings.
In 2013, an early January afternoon commute turned into a struggle in Northwest Washington and Arlington, Va., when the Metropolitan Police Department closed the Key Bridge during an apparent suicide negotiation.
The bridge was closed to all traffic for more than three hours during the heart of the afternoon commute. It didn’t take long for gridlock to build in Georgetown and Rosslyn. The extended duration of the negotiations and continued closure of the Key Bridge put tremendous strain on the other Potomac River crossings and the routes leading to them in Washington and Virginia. Unusual delays were reported on the Roosevelt Bridge, Memorial Bridge, 14th Street Bridge and Chain Bridge.
Police vehicles clog the Georgetown side of the Key Bridge the evening of Jan. 8. Police shut down the span, which connects the District to Virginia, to negotiate with a man clinging to the side of the bridge. The closure triggered gridlock throughout Northwest D.C. (WTOP/Andrew Mollenbeck)
Canal Road, the major byway connecting Georgetown and Montgomery County, was so overwhelmed by overflow traffic that some motorists were parked in place for hours. The Whitehurst Freeway was closed during the ordeal as well.
On the other side of the Potomac, the entire stretch of the George Washington Memorial Parkway was at a standstill in both directions through Arlington County. Arlington police blocked Lee Highway in Rosslyn and prohibited pedestrians from crossing the Key Bridge.
The District’s grid began seizing up in the West End and in downtown areas as delays rippled eastward along M Street. Many Metrobus lines experienced significant delays because of the bridge closure.
The evening commute was further complicated by service delays on Metrorail’s Orange and Blue lines because of a disabled train at the Rosslyn station.
Traffic was also stopped for a time on the Beltway at the American Legion Bridge, the George Washington Parkway and on I-66 at the Roosevelt Bridge to accommodate a motorcade. Delays on the Beltway caused by the roadblocks melded with delays on the outer loop in Montgomery County caused by a large brush fire near I-270.
WTOP’s Chief Traffic Reporter Bob Marbourg monitored the closure of the bridge as the hours ticked by, his 6:08 p.m. traffic report leading with: “Leaving downtown it is really complicated now with the closure of Key Bridge. It’s tied things up badly for a lot of drivers who don’t have a lot of options.”
The bridge finally reopened to traffic around 8 p.m. but many motorists were plagued by delays for several hours after police reopened the Key Bridge.
“It is unfortunate that one individual with a problem can bring much of the city to a standstill,” Marbourg said.
Even WTOP’s seasoned traffic reporters couldn’t believe the horrendous delays that developed in Maryland after a tractor trailer hauling 35 drums of methyl ethyl ketone overturned on the Outer Loop of the Capital Beltway in Montgomery County.
The Outer Loop was closed for hours during the morning rush hour north of River Road. The resulting delays swelled to nightmarish proportions. Interstate 270 South and the I-270 spur were jammed for more than 12 miles from the closure on the Beltway. The bumper-to-bumper traffic on the Outer Loop stretched well into Prince George’s County, and a rubbernecking delay formed on the Inner Loop across from the scene, soon spreading across the American Legion Bridge, through Tysons Corner and into Annandale, Va.
Delays on arterial roads were extensive. The effects from the closure of I-495 South could be felt on roads dozens of miles away and several links removed from the accident scene.
This tractor-trailer was hauling methyl ethyl ketone when it overturned, closing the Outer Loop of the Capital Beltway between the Interstate 270 spur and River Road causing major delays in March. (WTOP/Kristi King)
“This has been one of the worst traffic days we’ve seen in this area in quite some time,” WTOP Traffic Reporter Reada Kessler said as she led into a nearly three-minute traffic report during the 9 a.m. hour.
The commuter chaos caused by the truck wreck was compounded by repairs to a large water main that had ruptured underneath Connecticut Avenue the prior evening. The water main break released 60 million gallons of water from a 54-inch transmission line near Chevy Chase Lake Drive, closing Connecticut Avenue for a time.
A second water main break also blocked a portion of River Road through the rush hour that evening near Potomac Village.
The combination of these high-impact incidents and their overlapping delays made for one of the most hellish rush hours in recent memory. Many Maryland commuters gave up trying to get to work and simply abandoned their vehicles on the roadside in defeat.
WTOP’s Mary DePompa spoke with a woman on the WTOP Traffic Center tip line who had missed her dentist appointment because she was stuck in the traffic. “The caller told me, ‘I’d rather be getting my root canal than sitting in this backup.'”
Friday, July 20
Car plunges off Bay Bridge into Chesapeake
For some drivers on a muggy, summer evening in Maryland, the Friday beach getaway didn’t end until Saturday morning.
At about 8:24 p.m., a dramatic collision with a big truck on the eastbound span of the Bay Bridge sent a Chrysler Sebring over the guard rail and into the waters of the Chesapeake Bay. The rattled female driver of the car was able to swim to safety before help arrived. But the wreck and crash investigation shut down the bridge and jammed traffic for hours that Friday evening.
The wreckage, including the truck, physically blocked the eastbound span, instantly jammed traffic and stalled the ground rescue effort.
As a water and subsequent air response began and state authorities prepared for an extended investigation, Maryland State Police stopped all eastbound traffic on Route 50 at the bridge’s toll plaza to begin moving vehicles trapped behind the crash off the bridge. The operation was time-consuming because the bridge span was not wide enough for U-turns, so each vehicle, including many tractor-trailers, needed to travel in reverse all the way back to the Western Shore.
A tractor trailer hit a car sending the driver over the guardrail of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. (MSHA Bay Bridge camera)
Bridge operators briefly stopped all westbound traffic on the Eastern Shore before opening up the western span to two-way traffic. The center lane on the westbound span of the bridge was kept closed. This “buffered” contraflow is a lane configuration seldom used on the Bay Bridge.
As teams of investigators congregated near the accident on the eastern span and police boats docked on pilings below, the stage was set for massive backups. The constriction of traffic flow on the open span coupled with rubbernecking across from the accident scene, illuminated by mega-watt floodlights, led to extreme delays on Route 50 for drivers in both directions.
Callers on the WTOP Traffic Hotline expressed their misery throughout the episode. Numerous drivers reported sitting in traffic for more than three hours with very little, if any, progress. Passengers and even a few drivers were seen leaving their vehicles and walking down the skip lines of the highway through the backup.
The worst portion of the delay, according to many, was the final stretch between the toll plaza and the foot of the bridge, where 11 lanes of traffic funneled into a single-file line.
The eastern bridge span stayed closed through early Saturday morning. The magnitude of the delays and length of the traffic jams on both sides of the bridge was extraordinary.
The Baltimore-Washington Parkway was closed between Route 32 and Route 175 after a man was hit and killed at about 5 a.m. The northbound lanes were blocked for about three hours during the first phase of the police investigation. But the southbound lanes headed toward Washington remained blocked for nearly five hours, causing major backups in both directions.
A garbage truck overturned on the Outer Loop of the Capital Beltway causing delays for commuters in Prince George’s County Oct. 9. (Courtesy of News Chopper 7 cameras)
Meanwhile, a major truck wreck littered trash across part of the Outer Loop in Prince George’s County at the Baltimore-Washington Parkway interchange. The truck, carrying a full load of garbage, overturned near the on-ramp from the northbound BW Parkway about 7 a.m. The crash forced police to initially block all lanes, but officials later reopened a single lane as they cleared the debris.
At the height of the morning rush hour, drivers on the Outer Loop were, for a time, diverted at Exit 22, sending many drivers head first into the backup caused by the fatal crash investigation that closed the BW Parkway. The delays became intertwined at the I-495/Route 295 interchange, and radiated outward in all directions as desperate commuters sought escape routes.
It wasn’t until about 1 p.m. that all lanes were finally reopened on the Beltway. Light rain began falling across the region shortly thereafter, making for slick conditions during the afternoon rush hour.
It couldn’t have happened at a worse time. Hours before the Friday-afternoon rush, a truck overturned along one of the most in-demand stretches of interstate in the Washington area.
Around 12:45 p.m., the Inner Loop of the Beltway ground to a halt when a large box truck overturned on the American Legion Bridge. The truck landed on its side in the center of the five lanes that carry northbound traffic from Virginia into Maryland. That stretch of the Inner Loop (I-495 North) is considered one of the busiest stretches of road in the region, and typically reaches its highest weekly traffic volumes on Friday afternoons.
Traffic inched along the Inner Loop of the Beltway after a large box truck overturned near the American Legion Memorial Bridge and caused nearly a 10-mile backup Dec. 13. (MSHA camera)
After several complete traffic stoppages, highway crews righted the truck by 2:30 p.m. and had the accident completely cleared around 3 p.m. But delays continued to mount as an onslaught of rush-hour volume poured onto the Beltway.
Delays along the Inner Loop “began in Springfield before Braddock Road and stretched all the way into Maryland,” WTOP’s Bob Immler said. “The damage was done.”
The roads in McLean, Va., experienced “a lot of the fallout.”
The most dramatic effects of the truck wreck on the Beltway were felt not on I- 495 itself but on the routes throughout eastern Fairfax and Arlington counties.
Extreme congestion had formed as bailout volume gushed off the Beltway onto other arteries. At one point, Route 123 experienced a continuous traffic jam from Tysons Corner to Arizona Avenue in Northwest Washington – an eight-mile backup. Traffic on roads throughout eastern Fairfax County such as Old Dominion Drive, Georgetown Pike, Kirby Road, Swinks Mill Road and Lewinsville Road began locking up.
A water main break on Canal Road in Georgetown led to even bigger delays. Traffic on the Key Bridge instantly jammed, putting pressure on the Chain Bridge, already swollen with weary commuters battling bailout delays caused by the aftermath of the Beltway crash. Even the Roosevelt and Memorial Bridges became congested as a result.
It wasn’t until after 9 p.m. that the congestion finally started abating in McLean, Arlington and Georgetown.