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Beltway Speed Controls Tonight

Late-night drivers on the Capital Beltway in Virginia are likely to see the new Variable Speed Limit system in action around midnight as utility crews replace power lines across the highway.

Both the inner and outer loops will be stopped for about 15 minutes between the Telegraph Road interchange and the Eisenhower Connector so the crews can work safely. (Project map)

When the speed-control system, operated by the Wilson Bridge project, detects that traffic is slowing and stopping, the speed limits approaching the work zone will be lowered. Watch the new electronic speed limit signs. The intention is to reduce the likelihood that drivers will slam on the brakes when they see the tail lights ahead.

When the power-line work is done, all lanes will reopen. Once the traffic backup has cleared, the speed limits will revert to normal.

The speed control system is in place along the seven miles between the Springfield interchange and the Maryland side of the Wilson Bridge. The operators intend to use it only at night to start. But in addition to regulating speeds, the system also provides drivers with travel time estimates on the variable message boards along the route.

Before leaving, drivers can check the project's Web site to see a display of travel times and levels of congestion on a color-coded map of the area.

By Robert Thomson  |  July 30, 2008; 4:56 PM ET
Categories:  Advisories , Congestion , Construction , Driving , Wilson Bridge  
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I just got back from a two-week vacation and saw these signs in operation for the first time last night around 8:00 PM, just as the sun was setting, as I was driving on the Outer Loop coming around from I-270 towards the Wilson Bridge.

I found the signs a bit hard to read until you're right on top of them. I had assumed they'd be similar to the variable speed limit signs on I-495 in Delaware: yellow lighting on a black background. Instead, Virginia opted for a style that I found harder to read at a quick glance. I'm not 100% certain of the color scheme after a brief encounter last night (I had just driven over 600 miles, so my failure to note all details is understandable!), but I found myself thinking that Virginia has tried to be too fancy with the signs. A good highway sign is one that quickly communicates the required information without requiring the driver to remove his focus from the road. Based on my first experience, these signs seem not to do that, but I'll have to wait to see whether that was due in part to glare from the setting sun.

Incidentally, I should follow up on a prior thread we had here. I was the person who asked for advice on driving up to Maine. We drove from Alexandria to Portland and then took the Cat Ferry to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, two weeks ago, then reversed the trip this week.

On the way up, I took the conventional I-95/New Jersey Turnpike route. Used the truck lanes on the Turnpike and was glad I did due to a crash in the car lanes that slowed it down. Traffic was light, so I decided to stay on the Turnpike to the end and then decide how to go. My sat-nav wanted me to take the GW Bridge, go across the Bronx, then go up I-95 to New Haven and I-91 to Hartford, then the conventional I-84/Massachusetts Turnpike/I-495 route back to I-95. I was a bit skeptical, but I hadn't been over the GW Bridge since 1995, so I decided to give it a try. Surprisingly light traffic in New York (did hit a huge pothole under the Apartments, but thankfully no damage). The Connecticut Turnpike moved for a while, but I was quickly reminded why I hadn't used it since 1985--too much traffic packed in too tightly with too many interchanges. Ultimately we hit a traffic jam near Milford, so I got off and took the Wilbur Cross Parkway to I-91. Rest of the way was fine except for a jam caused by a wreck on I-91.

When we got to Portland I followed advice from "Woodley Park" and avoided the "Tourist Exit." Saving 60 cents is no big deal, but when the detour is only half a mile out of the way and when the toll is clearly there to sucker tourists, I'm all for avoiding it.

Coming home yesterday I did it differently: From I-91 I followed the Wilbur Cross and Merritt Parkways down to I-287. Very pleasant drive with the cruise control set at 65 mph, one backup where a truck driver (who was on the road illegally in the first place) had stopped because he couldn't fit under an overpass. Hideous traffic on I-287 near White Plains due to construction. Garden State Parkway moved well, but was a very stressful drive due to traffic volume, so I took I-78 west. Never used that road before. The New Jersey stretch wasn't great since the road is old, but the Pennsylvania stretch was OK. Lot of truck traffic, though, and a lot of the other drivers didn't seem to use common sense (like getting out of the way of trucks barreling downhill). Followed I-78 to the end and picked up I-81, which reminded me of why I hate I-81. Major amounts of truck traffic, and finally it slowed to 15 mph because the cops were blocking both lanes for an allegedly oversized load (it looked like cars, at least, could have easily passed it). So I got off at PA-34 and went across to US-15, then down that to I-270.

Not a bad drive (although obviously longer mileage-wise), but on the whole I found the truck traffic on I-78 and I-81 to be more annoying than the volume on the New Jersey Turnpike and I-95 through Maryland. On a weekend, or near a holiday, I'd probably opt for the I-78 route to the New York area; otherwise, in the future I think I'll stick to the I-95/Turnpike way. I suppose the fact that I know those roads so well makes that drive seem shorter, too.

Posted by: Rich | August 1, 2008 11:37 AM | Report abuse

Follow up: The signs were a lot easier to read at 9:15 last night. I suspect the sun was the problem the first time I encountered these.

Posted by: Rich | August 4, 2008 8:31 AM | Report abuse

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