What caused the grueling morning traffic delays on the Beltway — and how it could happen again

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Traffic was at a near standstill throughout the D.C. region Wednesday morning after construction work closed lanes on the Capital Beltway. Commuters clogged alternatives routes and backups stretched for miles.

The construction Wednesday morning was spillover from roadwork scheduled to take place overnight that look longer than expected to complete.

Michelle Holland, a communications manager at the Virginia Department of Transportation, told WTOP workers were securing new steel girders that will support a future bridge over Interstate 495 when the construction ran behind schedule.

“Once the crews get started with those girder lifts, they have to make sure the beams are secured and tied off safely before they can reopen traffic,” Holland said. “They ran into some issues during overnight periods and had to complete that, make sure everything was bolted and secured before they can reopen the lanes, and it took longer than expected.”

WTOP Traffic reporter Rob Stallworth said it’s likely similar morning delays could happen again as the overnight road work continues through next week.

“Is it probable? Yeah,” Stallworth said.

He’s encouraging commuters who travel on the Beltway in the early morning to plan alternative routes and listen to WTOP Traffic for the latest on roadway conditions.

Perfect storm

Wednesday morning’s nightmare commute was a bit of a perfect storm.

Southbound delays grew early Wednesday when scheduled overnight closures turned into emergency roadwork near the American Legion Bridge because of the girder issue. That slowed down traffic across the D.C. area as drivers looked for a way to avoid the Beltway.

Many southbound lanes on I-495 remained closed until construction crews began moving out of the area at around 7 a.m.

But the obstacles for Beltway commuters continued even as construction wrapped up — a tractor-trailer was stuck in the center of the American Legion Bridge. Drivers were being redirected around the stalled vehicle until about 10:45 a.m.

All of those closures caused regionwide delays as commuters sought for alternative routes around I-495.

What these scheduled closures entail

Drivers can expect more overnight road closures this week and next week as crews work to build the new bridge. Overnight bridge work and lane closures on I-495 were cancelled for Wednesday night but more information for Thursday night road work won’t be announced until later in the day.

Overnight triple lane closures both ways and periodic traffic stops on I-495 were scheduled months in advance for April 15-20.

Closures start each night with one lane closed in both directions at 9:30 p.m., two lanes closed by 10:30 p.m. and triple lane closures from 11 p.m. through 5 a.m., according to VDOT’s website. There will also be 30-minute total traffic stops intermittently from midnight to 5 a.m., then all lanes are scheduled to reopen for morning commuters.

During the nightly closures, northbound lanes are shutdown overnight between the Dulles Toll Road and north of the Live Oak Drive bridge. Southbound lanes will be shutdown throughout the night between the American Legion Bridge and Georgetown Pike. The on-ramp from the collector-distributor road to southbound I-495 will also close from 9:30 p.m. to 5 a.m. for bridge beam placement at the Live Oak Drive bridge.

Holland recognized that construction workers did not meet their construction deadline early Wednesday morning and delayed morning traffic, but stressed that safety is VDOT’s priority.

“We recognize that it has caused quite a delay for motorists,” she said. “We appreciate everyone’s patience. But they had to take that extra time to make sure it was safe before they could reopen traffic.”

Holland confirmed that the scheduled work on the bridge will continue throughout the week, and that there will be similar overnight closures on “several other bridges throughout the project corridor where they need to lift the steel beams into place.”

The new bridge being built over the interstate will be replacing the Live Oak Drive bridge, and is part of a controversial plan to expand express lanes on I-495 in Virginia

WTOP’s Jessica Kronzer contributed to this report.

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Emily Venezky

Emily Venezky is a digital writer/editor at WTOP. Emily grew up listening to and reading local news in Los Angeles, and she’s excited to cover stories in her chosen home of the DMV. She recently graduated from The George Washington University, where she studied political science and journalism.

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