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Congestion Continues at Legion Bridge

This morning, after listening to a transportation expert in Tysons describe a wonderful future in which commutes would be safer and smoother thanks to smart use of technology, I plowed back into an old-fashioned traffic jam on the Capital Beltway.

parkway merge.jpg Brake lights on at parkway/Beltway merge south of Legion Bridge. (Robert Thomson)

It was that backup stemming from the painting project at the American Legion Bridge. There have been some improvements, as I said in my Sunday Dr. Gridlock column. But the Beltway traffic was backed up across four lanes from Tysons up to the bridge. And I hate to think what the drivers were experiencing on the northbound George Washington Parkway who must deal with a merge lane into the Beltway that was shortened up to create a staging area for the project's workers.

Both the Maryland State Highway Administration, which is in charge of the painting project, and the Virginia Department of Transportation are working on the traffic problems created by the job, and some of that was in evidence this morning. I saw a portable message sign south of the bridge that flashed a warning to drivers and urged them to move left.

Also, the merge area has been lengthened a bit, and it's possible that more can be done in that area. But for now, it remains the worst construction-related bottleneck I've seen across the region. The message board is a good idea, but by the time drivers see it, they're in the thick of the traffic jam, and it's difficult to change lanes. I wish at least one more could be placed farther south.

Also, I hope that engineers can continue to work on extending the parkway ramp, so that it won't remain like this until November.

There are many difficulties for drivers: For one thing, not everyone on the Beltway is going to want to get left before the bridge, because some will need to exit right at the Clara Barton Parkway on the north side of the Potomac.

merge sign.jpg Sign on Beltway's shoulder warns of "Merging Traffic Ahead." (Robert Thomson)

And for motorists using the parkway to reach jobs or homes in Montgomery County, there are few alternatives. Most bailout roads from the parkway, like Chain Bridge and Georgetown Pike are likely to be crowded and slow already.

Relatively few commuters could take advantage of transit given their starting and ending points, but it might be worth it for some to check out Metro's Trip Planner. Enter your origin and destination, hit the "submit" button and see what pops up.

If you can suggest a detour or a transit alternative, please share it here. It's a very frustrating situation for travelers.

In case your stuck in traffic and want to dream about our transportation future, Joyce Wenger, who manages a transportation team at Booz Allen Hamilton in Tysons could bring tears to your eyes describing the intelligent transportation technology that is out there right now, but has yet to cross the threshold between capability and implementation.

Someday, you won't have to rely on the traffic information you compiled from TV, radio and the computer before you leave home. Updated information displays will constantly be available on the dashboard or the windshield. You'll know a lot more about the traffic ahead and the traffic around you, so that you can drive more safely and perhaps get where you're going more quickly. Someday ...

By Robert Thomson  |  May 10, 2007; 10:16 AM ET
Categories:  Congestion  
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Next: Bridge Crash Highlights Safety Problem


The staging area for the bridge painting project is getting more and more ridiculous with each passing day. You noted on Sunday that SHA has lengthened the acceleration lane from the northbound GW Parkway somewhat, but whatever they did (I can't tell any different) has not eased the gridlock.

At 9am this morning, I drove south on I-495 entering from the Georgetown Pike to Springfield. Opposing traffic headed north on the inner loop was slow that entire trip, about 14 miles from Springfield to this absurd workzone on the Legion Bridge. The mornings are becoming just as bad as the afternoons. This simply cannot stay in place until November.

The new electronic message signs are a nice effort on the part of the SHA but it does not help.

I enter the beltway from Georgetown Pike so even if I am traveling into MD, I only have to sit in stop-and-go traffic for about a mile to get to the bridge. I feel for the folks who are stuck on the GW Parkway for 6-8 miles and for those stuck on the inner loop from Springfield. There are simply no good alternative routes. Please see that something is done to alleviate this crisis.

Posted by: xyv1027 | May 10, 2007 12:24 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for your continued coverage of this mess. I have already noticed the changes you mentioned. Unfortunately they do not seem to be alleviating any of the traffic. Outside of moving the staging area during rush hours, I do not see any easy way to resolve this problem in the short term. The long term solution is for them to expedite the parts of the project that require the lane to be closed, so this will not last until november.

Posted by: Jamming | May 10, 2007 12:27 PM | Report abuse

Why can't they do the work at night and on weekends?

Posted by: wiredog | May 10, 2007 12:28 PM | Report abuse

Every afternoon the GW Parkway is backed up from somewhere between the overlooks (a good day) and the Roosevelt Bridge (a bad day). One day last week, delays went as far back as the 14th street bridge. [Before this project, delays on the outbound GW started a mile or two before the beltway ramp to the inner loop during the average PM rush.]

As the previous poster and everyone in your Sunday column made clear, something must be done fast to alleviate this transportation crisis. (Lets hope the day never comes when the Legion Bridge is out of commission though - like the folks in San Francisco are going through right now with the approach to the SF-Oakland Bay Bridge).

I think SHA needs to find away to do the Legion Bridge roadwork overnight and on weekends; they can erect their staging area each night and then remove it by 6am in the morning.

Posted by: Jon | May 10, 2007 12:33 PM | Report abuse

I am a resident of a once fairly tranquil street (Old Dominion Drive in North Arlington) and I can no longer get in and out of my driveway in the afternoon because of the overflow and bailout traffic on Old Dominion Drive.

When traffic backs up from the Roosevelt and Key bridges on the GW Parkway, drivers bail out onto Spout Run Parkway and eventually end up on Old Dominion Drive and/or Lee Highway. I'm guessing these drivers ultimately link up with the beltway at Georgetown Pike; I do know that there are a lot of Maryland plates driving by my house now!

The MD state highway administration have no regards to the residents of VA that are adversely effected by their choice to close one lane of the American Legion Bridge permanently from now until November.

Posted by: North Arlington resident | May 10, 2007 12:37 PM | Report abuse

Are there any other bailouts across the Potomac besides going through the city? I've heard of one somewhere west of the Legion bridge but I don't know where it is!

Posted by: Anonymous | May 10, 2007 12:38 PM | Report abuse

I encourage everyone to e-mail the MD SHA District 3 office to let your voice be heard about this project. The MD SHA District 3 office e-mail address is

Thanks to Dr. Gridlock for originally posting this information during his Monday chat.

Thanks to MD SHA my commute from North Arlington to Bethesda is now 50 minutes, instead of 25 minutes.

Posted by: irate commuter | May 10, 2007 12:42 PM | Report abuse

RE: bailouts. There are NO good alternatives to bailing out and avoiding the American Legion Bridge. The next crossing west is at Point of Rocks, MD (between Leesburg and Frederick); this is completely out of the way for most commuters unless your commute takes you from say Frederick to the Dulles cooridor (or vice-versa).

The next closest bridge going east (into DC) is the Chain Bridge which is relatively small (3-lanes wide, with 2-lanes in the rushhour direction) and can not accommodate more traffic than it already has.

For those driving from VA (Rosslyn/Arlington) to anywhere in central Montgomery County, I'd try going through DC (enter using the Key, Memorial or Roosevelt Bridges) and then hook-up with the northbound Rock Creek Parkway; this ride will take you past the zoo and runs fairly well until you get up to Chevy Chase and need to get back to Connecticut Avenue (or you can take the winding Beach Drive further north through Rock Creek Park).

Posted by: irate commuter | May 10, 2007 12:45 PM | Report abuse

All that new electronic sign does is encourage all well intended drivers to move to the more congested left lanes, so all the "me first" drivers can race up the right lane or the right transition lane from Georgetown Pike.

When they first put up the electronic sign, it was actually further "back", nearer to Georgetown Pike's onramp to I-495 North. Earlier this week, it was moved to its present location just after the ramp leading from the inner loop to the southbound GW Parkway.

I don't think it makes any difference where they put their electronic signs or if they erect multiple signs, there will still be the same gridlock.

Dr. Gridlock, please help us get this situation rectified. MD SHA did not have to carry out this project as its currently set-up; there were other alternatives but they chose this one, the one that inconveniences as many VA drivers as possible.

Posted by: another irate commuter | May 10, 2007 1:09 PM | Report abuse

"Thanks to MD SHA my commute from North Arlington to Bethesda is now 50 minutes, instead of 25 minutes."

Not sure where in Arlington you are coming from (or if you are close to a metro stop), but the trip between Clarendon and Bethesda metro station takes about 35 mins. Perhaps this is an option to help ease some of your stress. While the trip (door to door) may be close to or a little bit longer than your current 50 minute commute, atleast you wouldn't be in stop and go traffic for the whole time. Just a suggestion.

Posted by: Laura | May 10, 2007 1:57 PM | Report abuse

Actually, there is one crossing between the Beltway and Point of Rocks: White's Ferry. But that's not a viable option for most people needing to get across the Potomac, as it's almost as far out of the way as Point of Rocks.

Chain Bridge is not an easy alternative because you can't turn left on the DC end of the bridge--if you want to go towards Maryland, you either make an illegal turn (tricky anyway given the traffic), or you make a right, then a left onto Arizona Avenue, and you either turn around and backtrack or you go left on MacArthur Boulevard to head out that way. For those people coming from Rosslyn and the like, it sure sounds like Key Bridge and Canal Road might be the best alternative route. But I don't commute that way, so I don't know.

Posted by: Rich | May 10, 2007 2:14 PM | Report abuse

I hate to keep hammering this issue, but a good amount of our problems come from DC's incomplete highway system. If everything was built as intended we wouldn't have a lot of the problems we face today. There would be plenty of alternate routes instead of being funneled onto the beltway. This is an excellent site that gives a lot of background. (
Also we are victims of our own poison. The American dream to have that single family house with a two car garage and lots of land means that people go further and further away from the city center to get it. In addition to that the times before and after the riots when everyone left the city only accelerated what was to come. Unfortunately now that it is 2007 building major infrastructure like another crossing from MD to VA is out of the question. It is too expensive and all political lolly gagging that happens in this region stifles construction. Moreover, California, the king of infrastructure, shows us that even with super-highways you will still have congestion. Ultimately bigger and badder freeways is not the answer, smart growth and technology is. Here is a great example. HP opted to build an office in Rockville over Reston because of Metro access. Companies need to be more conscious of this. Yes Virginia is great because taxes are low, but if your employees aren't happy because they have to sit in traffic to drive to work then there is a personnel cost to consider. Telecommuting needs to grow more. Moving closer to the city center needs to be a priority (yes moving to undesirable areas if need be). All of this being said, people have to decide what's important to them. If you love where you work and can't stand the commute, try to live close to your job. That may mean you can't have the house you want, but you will be happier. Don't put yourself in a box, truly consider the options.

Posted by: Sivad | May 10, 2007 2:14 PM | Report abuse

"All that new electronic sign does is encourage all well intended drivers to move to the more congested left lanes, so all the 'me first' drivers can race up the right lane or the right transition lane from Georgetown Pike."

Wait a minute. So you're saying that people who merge where the lane ends are jerks? Are you crazy? If everyone merges left as soon as they see the sign, you have a whole bunch of wasted pavement. If traffic is flowing freely, you should just get over when it's convenient, but if traffic is stopped, it makes NO sense to get over a mile in advance of the lane drop. Otherwise, what would be the point of having the other lane? It's people who refuse to let anyone merge who cause the traffic jams (because it forces other people to stop and wait), not the people who use the available pavement. Why not close the entire lane for the entire length of the Beltway if it's not OK to merge where the lane ends?

Posted by: Rich | May 10, 2007 2:17 PM | Report abuse

Thanks Laura for the tip. Unfortunately, taking Metro for me is not really an option. I work near MOntgomery Mall in Bethesda and the nearest Metro stop would be something like White Flint and then I'd have to take a bus to the office. I checked into this but haven't tried it out yet mainly because of the logistics. On the front end, I'd have to drive to the Metro and park as well. I live in North Arlington near Yorktown HS so the access to the beltway via the northbound GW Parkway is (or has been until 2 weeks ago) ideal.

Posted by: another irate commuter | May 10, 2007 5:32 PM | Report abuse

"If everyone merges left as soon as they see the sign, you have a whole bunch of wasted pavement. If traffic is flowing freely, you should just get over when it's convenient, but if traffic is stopped, it makes NO sense to get over a mile in advance of the lane drop. Otherwise, what would be the point of having the other lane? It's people who refuse to let anyone merge who cause the traffic jams (because it forces other people to stop and wait), not the people who use the available pavement. Why not close the entire lane for the entire length of the Beltway if it's not OK to merge where the lane ends?"

Rich, I agree with your assessment of merging in part but respectfully disagree with alot of it as well. DC area drivers fail to understand the importance of zipper merging. In my opinion, it is not OK to merge where the lane ends IF it has an impact on other traffic, e.g. forcing that traffic to brake suddenly or move lanes. The art of driving up the right-most lane until the last minute is all to common in this area and is the critical part of some daily beltway tie-ups. The inner loop right-lane only exit at Wisconsin Avenue and the outer loop right-lane only exit at Route 1 in Alexandria are prime examples of this. If drivers could safely move out of the lane that is ending/merging AHEAD of the point where the lane truncates all traffic would flow better. I do a great deal of transportation engineering that evaluates traffic flow and road capacity. I use to work in this field in Michigan and Ohio where at least 80% of drivers know how to merge effectively without delaying traffic. Taking the same methods that work in Michigan and Ohio and using them here doesn't work though for a myriad of reasons, one of the biggest of which is the "me first" (as the orignal poster put it) attitude of so many drivers in this area. If the right lane is closed for construction in 1500 feet and there is an adequate gap in traffic in the next lane over 1500 feet before the closure, the merging vehicle should move left, rather than proceed at 55mph (or more) to the end of the lane, slam on their brakes, and force their way over into what is typically slower moving lanes of traffic (compared to the median speed of all traffic lanes 1500 feet prior to the closure point).

If DC area drivers could understand the art of merging AND if local jurisdictions would promote alternating the right of way at a merge point, traffic flow would improve immensely, without one single improvement to the infrastructure. (Local jurisdictions should do their part to erect signage suggesting "alternate merge" or "alternate right of way" when two lanes merge to one, rather than current signage which suggests "left lane ends, move right" or "right lane ends, move left".

Back to the original topic, afternoon rushhour traffic has increased significantly in the west end of Georgetown to include the Whitehurst Freeway and Canal Rd past the back entrance to Georgetown since the American Legion Bridge roadwork was set-up. This is probably because folks are opting to take the Clara Barton Parkway/Canal Rd up the MD side of the Potomac, thereby avoiding beltway and GW Parkway delays on the VA side.

Posted by: Michael | May 10, 2007 5:43 PM | Report abuse

For those that are in Rosslyn or Alexandria heading to Maryland, there are other ways to get there without taking the GW pkwy. You can get off at 123 and head north over Chain Bridge but that means that you have to head inbound on Canal Road until Arizona. But heading north, crossing MacArthur to the T intersection, gets you up to Longborough (Sp?) where you can turn left or right and continue through DC to get to MD.

Or you can take 14th Street Bridge, TR Bridge, or Key Bridge to cross the Potomac and take Rock Creek Parkway to Beach Drive or Conn Ave. Or go through the city (16th Street, Reno Road, 13th Street, Georgia Ave. for examples) to get up to River Road, Mass Ave., Military Road, or the Beltway.

Yes, I know, there are already traffic on these roads but spreading out the additional cars can help alleviate the situation.

There are also other routes through DC to get to River Road to head to north and west MoCo, or to get to the Beltway at Conn or Georgia Aves. Look for them.

I used to work in Rosslyn and took the TR bridge to Rock Creek Parkway to Conn Ave or stayed on Beach Drive to East-West Hwy or Conn Ave. This route led me to the Beltway at Conn Ave or I followed Conn Ave into northern MoCo (upper GA Ave, or Route 28 to Anne Arundel County or Laurel and howard County).

Posted by: Historian | May 10, 2007 5:44 PM | Report abuse

I second what xyv and some previous posters have said. First off, THANK YOU Dr. Gridlock for continuing to cover this traffic nightmare. PLEASE PLEASE urge VA and MD to come to terms with a more effective way to complete the rehabilitation work on the bridge. There MUST be a way to do this work without doubling and tripling the area commute times of thousands of residents.

Everyone in my office has e-mailed MD SHA but we all get some generic (automatically generated?) response from someone at SHA explaining the work being done. The response makes NO attempt to address the inconvenience millions of us face each day. We need YOU to advocate for us, the lowly commuter. I also encourage folks to talk to local officials about this 7-month nightmare; talk to county board members, get anyone and everyone involved!

My commute home from Rosslyn to Herndon/Great Falls use to be 30-40 minutes even at peak times. In the past week, its taken me as long as 90 minutes to get home. The one and only culprit is the absurd decision to permanently close one lane of a major transportation artery in our area for 6+ months. That is just plain unacceptable.

Posted by: Anonymous | May 10, 2007 5:51 PM | Report abuse

Can they block the right lane a half mile before the merge-forcing Beltway traffic to travel in 3 lanes.
That would open the far right lane for the GW
merging traffic.

Posted by: lemming | May 10, 2007 5:51 PM | Report abuse

Once again, thanks to the selfish NIMBYs and moronic planners who can't stick to a master plan to save their life, we are subject to an ever-decreasing quality of life, both in terms of time away from productive measures (working) and community (volunteering, spending time with children, family, friends). That's nothing to say about the environmental degradation from idling cars, not operating efficiently, wasting fossil fuels, increasing air pollution. Besides the congestion, thousands of vehicles waste hundreds of thousands of miles driven every year by being forced to take a very indirect route via Point of Rocks or American Legion bridges. Wasteful.

Posted by: Steven | May 10, 2007 5:52 PM | Report abuse

Dr. Gridlock, to whom can we send our complaints about this long-term construction?

The delays northbound on the GW Parkway right now (its 5:50pm) begin just after I-395 to get all the way up to I-495 at the Legion Bridge. This is a distance of 10 miles or so!!

Posted by: North Arlington resident | May 10, 2007 5:55 PM | Report abuse

Sneaking down an exit-only lane is a totally different thing, IMO, and I find the people who do that to be very obnoxious too and I don't let them in. Same thing happens in the Ninth Street Tunnel--the middle lane goes straight to the Southwest Waterfront, but some people drive down and stop in that lane expecting to be allowed to get over to the right. Both of these scenarios are different from merging at the end of a lane that ends altogether, in which case taking turns allows for a much smoother merge. Ever see the dummies who come down a highway onramp and then stop at the bottom, or slow to a crawl, in their insistence to get over immediately, instead of accelerating to the speed of traffic and merging somewhere farther down the acceleration lane?

Posted by: Rich | May 11, 2007 8:04 AM | Report abuse

The planners are really the ones at fault here. Look at the wilson bridge project where major lane closures are announced and limited to nights and weekends. While that project was massive compared to this, at least some thought went into lives of daily commuters affected by the project. The argument that the we should alter our commute times or take metro is complete crap. I am sick of hearing this. Many people do not have a feasible option of taking metro. Many buses that people need to connect from the train to there offices are unreliable. Also, people have children who need to picked up at certain times of day.

Posted by: Jamming | May 11, 2007 10:09 AM | Report abuse

Jamming, I agree with you entirely. For most folks who commute across the American Legion Bridge each day in either direction, there is NO practical public transportation alternative. Taking Metro from one suburb in VA to another in MD takes HOURS, literally. There is no routine bus service across this stretch of road either.

I feel for all the other pleading folks who posted here yesterday. Unfortunately, I'm not sure The Washington Post and Dr. Gridlock can do much about this terrible situation.

Until November, we can expect delays around this project for 12 hours or so a day. Might I mention that I drove south from Rockville down to the Dulles Toll Rd on the beltway about 9pm last night, and traffic was still snarled from Tysons north to the workzone on the bridge. It looked like the middle of the afternoon rushhour... at 9pm at night.

Posted by: xyv1027 | May 11, 2007 10:46 AM | Report abuse

Rich, Yes, I am familiar with the 9th Street Tunnel as well; that is also another notable point where folks speed up the (in this case) middle lane until the last minute and then merge to the right lane to get towards 395-South.

To this day, its amazing to me the difference in driving habits in this area (its not just the DC area, but all of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast US) vs. what I was accustomed to for so many years driving in Michigan. Driving habits in this area are far worse (and have a much more negative impact on traffic flow) because of two concepts: improper merging of traffic and slower traffic's failure to move right so faster vehicles can pass.

For many years, I-75 in Michigan was under construction in central Michigan (well north of Detroit) and the road was reduced to one lane in each direction. The first signage advising of the lane closure was two miles in advance of the closure point, followed by signage at one mile, then 1500 feet prior and so forth down to the last sign advising that all traffic must merge. By the time, you passed the sign indicating "right lane closed 1500 feet", there was absolutely no traffic in the right lane. Everyone (and I mean 99.9% of the traffic) had already merged at speed from the right lane to the left lane.

Put the same or similar road project in place in this area on a similar route (say I-70 in MD between Frederick and Hagerstown) and traffic would gridlock. In part its the volume of cars on the road, but there are so many other contributing factors that hinder traffic flow. Generally speaking, speed differentials on a highway are one of the key impediments, this is the difference in speed from the fastest moving vehcile compared to the slowest moving vehicle. Speed differentials in this area are far greater (and therefore an impediment to traffic) compared to Michigan. On a semi-rural interest in Michigan with a posted speed limit of 70mph, most traffic is doing between 65-75mph. This same uniform flow of traffic is rarely, if ever, found in this area.

Posted by: Michael | May 11, 2007 11:03 AM | Report abuse

I have an incredibly tight schedule that I cannot go from Maryland to Virginia if I am not able to leave NoVA by 12 pm. This is crazy. Surely, there was some impact assessment done. (Was it ignored? -- Perhaps Dr. G. can FOIA this to find out if it was just ignored -- the whole closure thing came as a surprise to me when it started. I thought it was temporary) This is supposed to be there until November!! (I think SHA should do this drive a couple of times, while keeping in mind they have kids to be picked up at school/daycare!)

Why can't the staging area be moved up toward the next exit where they have the wider shoulder, and rearrange the exit to accommodate traffic exiting? (I think it's Clara Barton exit.)

Posted by: I'd been avoiding the bridge | May 11, 2007 11:06 AM | Report abuse

Hey all. For the first time, I took Whites Ferry home last night from Ashburn to Germantown, what a beautiful trip!

For folks not familiar with this ferry, the cost is $3 one way or $5 roundtrip and there is also an option to purchase passes in bulk at a discounted rate. This route is peaceful, serene and puts you in touch with nature... all the things that the Dulles Toll Rd, I-495 and I-270 can not do!
The ferry is not high speed nor is it overly convenient, access is via rural two lane roads from both the MD and VA sides. And might I also add that at 6pm last night, there was a wait of about 20 minutes to board the ferry... so this obviously can be a factor in travel time. The ferry operator tells me that Friday and Thursday evenings (in that order), particularly from April to October, are generally when their volume is highest, and therefore the delay to board the ferry can be quite long. But hey, its great for putting the windows down, turning on some classic music and enjoying some tranquility!

In the end though, I enjoyed the respite from traffic choked Washington and I arrived home in a good mood.

Posted by: Ellen | May 11, 2007 11:11 AM | Report abuse

The American Leion Bridge is a mess because of maintenance? No problem. Use the Techway Bridge or the Three Sisters Bridge as an alternate.

Oops! I forgot. NIMBY's and road haters had construction of those bridges cancelled.

And we let them do it.

Posted by: CEEAF | May 11, 2007 9:07 PM | Report abuse

How about since it's Warm out, they could work 24/7 and get this project done much sooner.

With gas prices at record highs it's costing people much more to commute.


Posted by: RJ | May 21, 2007 7:59 PM | Report abuse

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