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Rock Creek Ramp Open

The ramp that leads traffic from P Street NW down to the southbound Rock Creek Parkway was open yesterday. I may be the first one telling you that. I haven't seen any advisory on it from the National Park Service, which is in charge of the parkway reconstruction project, along with the Federal Highway Administration.

Bottleneck.jpg Single lanes pass on either side of parkway work zone. (Robert Thomson)

On Monday, I was walking along the parkway to see what's going on, since this lengthy reconstruction project between P Street and Virginia Avenue in Northwest Washington remains the primary generator of letters among my readers.

I spotted two work zones: One at the P Street ramp, but the work was confined to the grassy little island where the ramp's on-lane and -off lane split. That wasn't interfering with traffic. The other work zone was the big deal. That takes up the center of the parkway between Virginia Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue.

P Street Ramp.jpg Wide open P Street ramp on Monday afternoon. (Robert Thomson)

When I arrived at 2:30 p.m., two lanes of traffic from the north were squeezing into one right lane and two lanes from the south were squeezing into one right lane. At 4 p.m., the rush hour alignment takes over. The southbound flow through the work zone stops, and three lanes flow northbound.

Two lanes of traffic coming north past the Kennedy Center move to the left side of the work zone, while a third lane moves in from the east side of the parkway, bringing traffic from 27th Street and the Potomac River Freeway.
Those cars stay to the right of the construction island.

It's an unpleasant looking scene, and I felt lucky to be on foot. The trail beside the parkway is chewed up pretty badly -- one of the things that remains to be fixed during the project -- but Rock Creek, with its changing leaves is beautiful and so is the Potomac, visible south of Virginia Avenue. (But how would you know? In all that traffic, you're stuck admiring the license plate holder of the car in front.)

New Curbs southbound.jpg
New curbs on southbound parkway. (Robert Thomson)

Here's a link to a Federal Highway Administration traffic advisory page that I stumbled upon when I was looking to see if there was any announcement about the P Street ramp reopening. The page describes work going on this month. It's generally useful in listing the types of work you see as you drive through the construction zone, though it was a bit out of date when I checked Monday night.

The park service still says the project is scheduled to be done in the spring, about a year after it started. It certainly doesn't appear to be a rush job.

RCP-VA Ave.jpg Parkway traffic at Virginia Avenue. (Robert Thomson)

One thing I don't understand from the drivers' side, and maybe you can explain it to me: That area is just awful. The impact of construction in the middle of the road is even greater than it was in the last phase, when the work was confined to the southbound right lane. And that fishhook maneuver that connects the parkway, Virginia Avenue and the Potomac Freeway entrance can't be pleasant under any circumstances.

You must have tried some creative alternatives by now, yet there's still that dead slow line of traffic. Is there really nothing that beats the parkway, even when it's under construction?

Maybe because it's not a transportation agency with a local constituency of commuters, the park service hasn't been much help directing drivers around the parkway project. What I'm thinking of are the traffic mitigation efforts put on by Maryland, Virginia and the District transportation departments when they begin a project that clearly will disrupt thousands of trips a day.

Compare the parkway project to the major efforts made to divert drivers from the Wilson Bridge, Springfield Interchange and Douglass Bridge during their reconstructions. Think about the millions of dollars that Virginia is preparing to invest in helping drivers deal with the Dulles rail and HOT lanes construction projects.

The parkway project highlights the park service's distance from Washington commuters.

By Robert Thomson  |  October 23, 2007; 5:32 AM ET
Categories:  Construction  
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Yes, it's still faster, which says more about the traffic elsewhere in the city than it does about the Parkway. The big problem is that these projects do not have adequate signage to let people know that construction is coming. The first day of the work between VA ave and Penn, I had no idea what was going on (I take the Parkway every morning). It has gotten much better now that people know what's happening.

There is a huge sign letting Northbound drivers know that Beach Drive is closed north of the Calvert Street exit during the day, but NOTHING about the rush-hour delays, which really doesn't make any sense.

It also doesn't make any sense why this project is taking so long - Park Road was shut down, ripped up and completely repaved (a project that was critical - it was bordering on dangerous b/c of the potholes) and if I remember correctly, it took about a month. I understand they can't shut down the Parkway, but these repairs don't seem any more advanced and are taking much longer.

No wonder we're one of the worst traffic cities - the people controlling the road repairs are virtually guaranteeing that our commutes are a nightmare.

Posted by: Columbia Heights Commuter | October 23, 2007 7:58 AM | Report abuse

Columbia Heights makes a good point. I'm not sure about others but I'd be willing to sacrifice 7-10 days of hell and have NPS close down the entire road to get the job done pronto. This project is not intensive, its really peanuts compared to the WW Bridge, Springfield, and even the entire reconstruction and lowering of the Douglass Bridge that took only 6 weeks. Its mind boggling to think that mainly asthetic upgrades take nearly a year. But hey, thats the National Park Service. As Dr. Gridlock writes above, "The parkway project highlights the park service's distance from Washington commuters." Amen!

One other side note: I don't see the opening of the P Street ramp as a positive. All the opening does is allow for more cars to enter the road and (eventually) merge into the single lane of southbound traffic headed down to the next construction zone between PA and VA avenue.

Posted by: Rock Creek commuter | October 23, 2007 8:48 AM | Report abuse

I was stuck in the awful traffic the first day they closed the two middle lanes on the Parkway. The signage wasn't even correct and Beach Drive was backed up, I think, a mile. Since then I come straight down Connecticut and then cut down 21st Street. Now I'm only going as far as the State Dept so I have the option -- but it's far easier dealing with a few more stoplights than the aggravation of the Parkway right now. I do use the Parkway to go home, but I get on at Virginia Ave so my exposure to the awfulness is very limited (thank goodness). By checking out the Parkway every evening I'll know when they finish this stage and when I can safely start using the Parkway again.
I'd love to use the Metro instead, but a colleague spent 30-45 minutes (yesterday evening)trapped in a Red Line train at the Dupont Circle station. He said many people were frantic and someone finally broke (or forced) the doors open so the passengers could get out. I go straight from work to the usual soccer mom/swimming mom round of pick ups and drop offs. I can't afford to be trapped for 45 minutes -- something that only VERY rarely happens driving -- and I know I'm lucky.

Posted by: Chevy Chase | October 23, 2007 8:51 AM | Report abuse

I'd love to find a quicker, more efficient way to get from Capitol Hill to Chevy Chase at 5:30 on Thursdays (standing appt). So far, however, one has not materialized. So either pop on the SE Freeway, jump off at Maine Ave to avoid the horrendous backlog created at Maine/Ind/17th when the Park Service put in lights instead of directing traffic by hand or cut to Constitution via 14th, 15th, and the world's shortest left turn signal, then cut to Virginia Avenue (don't forget the massive, axel-snapping hole at the CVS where it goes under 23rd Street!) and either way, end up on the Parkway.

Posted by: Bob | October 23, 2007 8:52 AM | Report abuse

I have some pretty harsh words for the Park Service and their management of this harsh it is best that I not post them all here on a public forum. VDOT, MD SHA, and even DDOT could have done a far better job. My complaints fall into 3 major categories.

1) There is no sense of urgency in terms of getting this project done and over with. It took them 4 weeks to redo the northbound right lane, and 4 months to do the southbound right lane. Why was all that time wasted on the southbound side? Why was the P Street ramp delayed by a month? It was too hot they say. Well guess what, it gets hot in Washington DC in August, you should have factored that into your project schedule! Why does it take 3 months to replace some curbs?

2) Lack of a traffic management plan. The Virginia Avenue area is a joke. 4 lanes (2 from I-66, 2 from Virginia Avenue) squeezing down into 1. No signs, no orderly merging, nothing. It wasn't like that 3 weeks ago when the northbound right lane was closed...there they shut one lane from I-66, funnelled Virginia Avenue into 1 lane, and there was a nice clean crisp merge right at the parkway entrance. Why did they mess it up? Why can't accurate signs be put up? When you are headed south the signs say "Center lane closed". What center lane, there are only 2, a left lane and a right lane. Why can't they develop a new signal timing plan for the light at Virginia Avenue? Heaven forbid someone on Virginia Avenue wants to go straight into Thompson's Boat Center and no pedestrians activate the pedestrian signal...there is a 3 second green light before it goes to red/green arrow. But since there is only one lane, that person stops traffic completely instead of just 1 of 2 lanes. And the Park Service hasn't noticed that the traffic backs up way more onto the parkway under Kennedy Center than onto Virginia Avenue. Hint: the parkway needs more green time to even out the delays.

3) Communication with the public, or lack thereof. Why no toll-free hotline number that I can call for information? Why no project website showing exactly what lanes will be closed during each project phase? Why is there only general website info that is over a month old that doesn't work? Why are there no signs telling us about alternate routes?

I think the Park Service is a little behind the times. Just setting up a workzone that horribly impacts traffic without telling the public and then taking your sweet time finishing is so 1980's. VDOT, DDOT, and Maryland SHA have gotten with the times by creating project websites, public information hotlines, innovative traffic control plans (reversible lanes anyone?), and they adapt to the traffic conditions, admit when they make a mistake, and adjust the traffic management plan as needed along the way. Why can't the park service do this?

Here's a suggestion for everyone fed up with the "we're untouchable" attitude the Park Service has taken towards NW Washington residents and suburban Maryland residents...lets contact them and tell them how we feel! If you choose to do this, remember that the main people in charge of this project are actually with the Eastern Federal Lands Highway Division of FHWA, while the Park Service plays a fairly minor role. A google search will probably bring up contact info for FHWA-EFLHD.

Posted by: Woodley Park | October 23, 2007 11:11 AM | Report abuse

Can someone (DR. G. ??) just tell us when this phase of the project will end? And if the next phase will also involve closing 2 of 4 lanes?

Posted by: Glover Park | October 23, 2007 11:59 AM | Report abuse

Heres a tidbit or two just to show how ridiculous and poorly planned this whole Rock Creek project is:

(1) The last phase of the Springfield Interchange project (we all know the complexity and scale of this project) took less time to complete (10 months) than it is taking the NPS to replace curbs and fix the trail alongside Rock Creek Parkway (roughly 12 months).

(2) It took DDOT 6 weeks (albeit the road was entirely closed) to reconfigure (construct the at grade intersection at South Capitol and Potomac Ave SE) and lower the span of the Douglass Bridge.

Agreed with Woodley Park in that communication with the public alone goes along way to relieving frustrations. I was one of the outspoken critics of MD SHA during the American Legion Bridge painting project but at least MD SHA made us aware of the closures in advance (so the public could make alternative plans/adjust their schedules) AND MD SHA even responded to letters from Dr. Gridlock, myself and collegaues in my office when we asked about the logic behind the project.

The NPS, to my knowledge, has done little to none information sharing with the public. Dr. G, the website link you reference in your blog introduction above appears to be outdated and incorrect. Misinformation is just as bad, if not worse, than good information we can count on.

Posted by: xyv1027 | October 23, 2007 12:54 PM | Report abuse

To the previous poster about a route to Chevy Chase from the Hill: I have completely avoided Rock Creek since the two lane closure started a week or so ago. Instead, I've used a variety of surface streets to link up with Massachusetts Avenue through Dupont Circle and continuing northwest. My ultimate destination is up past the National Cathedral (not exactly Chevy Chase) but I sense Mass Ave could also help you for all or part of your route. Surprisingly, Mass Ave runs pretty well throughout the length of the city due in part to its location (adjacent to Rock Creek Park once north of 23rd Street). Even the route under Thomas Circle and through Dupont Circle (Mass Ave traffic through Dupont uses the inner set of lanes and is separated from alot of the other intersecting traffic.)

Posted by: Capitol Hill to Chevy Chase | October 23, 2007 12:58 PM | Report abuse

You can usually maximize the benefit of using the parkway while minimizing excessive delays if you bail off at P Street heading south (and likewise use the on-ramp at 23rd and P to get on going north).

Posted by: Anonymous | October 23, 2007 1:10 PM | Report abuse

Part of the difficulty in finding alternative routes is the contemporaneous work being done on Canal Road and Foxhall. Apparently NPS and VDOT didn't see anything wrong with several major construction projects at the same time affecting the same commuters.

Posted by: Capitol Hill to Bethesda | October 23, 2007 1:45 PM | Report abuse

You should try North Capitol to Missouri/Military Road to get up to Chevy Chase. You could also go up Georgia. Either one is better these days than the Parkway.

Posted by: Capitol Hill to Chevy Chase | October 23, 2007 3:46 PM | Report abuse

A more general question: Why is there no direct connection between the I-66/E Street underpass to Rock Creek pkwy northbound? The "fishhook" manouver is terrible even without construction. If nothing else, one should be able to go right as if headed to K Street, and then go straight across. Not sure how to fix it going the other way, but surely there's a solution there too. Is there some bizarre congressional restriction issue?

Posted by: ah | October 23, 2007 10:28 PM | Report abuse

Ah: My guess is that the "fishhook" maneuver is the most efficient way to handle the very large volume of traffic going from I-66 to the Parkway. Normally there are two yields and one traffic signal, and its typically not bad outside of rush hour. There is enough room for lots of cars to be queued up so as not to cause traffic delays for other people not going onto the parkway.

If you routed significant amounts of traffic onto the K Street entrance to the northbound parkway, that would be a disaster since it is only a single lane and there is a stop sign at the end of the ramp (with very few gaps in traffic on the parkway since those northbound lanes are continuously fed from the Kennedy Center section of the parkway or Virginia Avenue based on the way the Virginia Avenue signal operates). A real merge cannot be put in because of the close proximity of the bridge over Rock Creek and the underpasses at Pennsylvania and M Street which isn't wide enough for an extra lane of traffic. Traffic would back up much further onto I-66 since cars would have to get into single file and there is less queuing room. This is not to mention that the red light runners and box blockers would block K Street, and that re-adjusting the signal at K Street to allow for more cross traffic would rob K Street of desparately needed green time. So while the current setup isn't great (any traffic related professional familiar with the are agrees it is a major "cluster...."), its probably the best realistic option out there.

I do wonder if a traffic light at the end of the I-66 ramp at 27th Street might work better then the yield sign that is there now. Usually it is fine, but during rush hours so many cars are turning onto 27th from K to get to I-66 that there are very few gaps in traffic to allow those coming off of I-66 to get through.

Posted by: Woodley Park | October 23, 2007 11:34 PM | Report abuse

i called the Eastern Federal Lands Highway Division of FHWA and spoke to Doug Nair, the person in charge of the project. I asked why the work is going so slowly and more importantly, why work cannot continue overnight and on weekends. He said they he would 'consider' passing along to his superiors the the concept of 24 hour and weekend work schedules. his number is 703 404 6260. He also said that he had not yet driven through the construction area during rush hour! please contact him if you agree that the project should be accelerated!

Posted by: rock creek madness | October 26, 2007 9:35 AM | Report abuse

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