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The Thing About the Bridges

Chain Bridge Signs.jpg
Signs tell the tale on slow approach to Chain Bridge from Route 123 in Virginia. (Thomson)

Drivers are asking me if this is Inauguration Day II, with DC once again sealing off the Potomac bridges. I think that's a stretch, but the reason they're asking is that the District Department of Transportation chose to begin major rehab projects on two commuter bridges in a short stretch of time.

Compared to some other big jobs, such as the Wilson Bridge project, or the District's own rehabilitation of the Frederick Douglass Bridge, these two new ones didn't get too much of a drum roll of publicity leading up to them. Also, there wasn't much coordination with the other big player on these commuter routes, the Virginia Department of Transportation.

People at DDOT told me they thought they'd have time to adjust to traffic problems on the 14th Street Bridge project, and indeed, that one has been going pretty well for commuters in its first week.

But that's not the case with the Chain Bridge project, the sleeper part of late-spring construction launch. The closing of one lane on the three-lane bridge has rattled commuters this week. DDOT needs to adjust very quickly.

Lon Anderson, the AAA guy who speaks out on behalf of drivers, is outraged about the one-two punch the District has laid on Potomac River commuters. He noted today that there aren't that many options for getting across the river, and it's logical to expect that drivers worried about crossing at Chain Bridge or at the 14th Street Bridge are going to head for one of the alternatives in between: the Key, the Roosevelt or the Memorial.

"The bridges are all dominoes," he said. If drivers have several crossings to worry about, they're going to head for the other ones, and jam all the roads in between.

So to Anderson, the idea of doing these two bridge projects at once without some major outreach to help drivers feeds the notion of a DC war on commuters. (See Courtland Milloy's column.)

I don't believe the District has it in for suburban drivers. (Though the placement of some speed cameras and the city's inability to enforce no parking rules at rush hour makes me wonder.) But DDOT could go a long way to improving regional relations by dealing promptly with this mess at Chain Bridge and not simply telling drivers to seek alternative routes.

Ideas I've heard so far include changing the timing on the bridge's signal lights to adjust to the two rush periods, and making the bridge one way in the rush hour direction. What other ideas would you want to see considered?

By Robert Thomson  |  June 3, 2009; 12:40 PM ET
Categories:  Congestion , Construction , Driving  | Tags: 14th Street Bridge, Chain Bridge, commuter  
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Next: Va. Transportation Secretary Offers Gloomy Forecast


I'm opposed to making the bridge one way in the rush hour direction, but I'm biased. I'm live in DC and work in McLean. My alternate commute route (Clara Barton, Memorial Bridge, Georgtown Pike) runs more smoothly in the morning.

So, what about adjusting the construction hours so that it affects only the morning rush hour?

Posted by: bergamot | June 3, 2009 1:59 PM | Report abuse

One-way only during rush hour is a complete nonstarter; it's a thoroughly terrible idea. The Chain Bridge reverse commute is no picnic in rush hour as it is since reverse drivers have only one lane to begin with. We were collateral damage last summer when the Beltway ramps were being worked on that chased regular northbound GW Parkway drivers to the Chain Bridge during the afternoon commute. D.C.'s main responsibility is to its tax paying citizens, not to Virginia commuters. And it's D.C. taxpayers that are paying for this rehab. Leave Chain Bridge one lane in each direction during rush hours!!! Everybody bends, nobody breaks.

Posted by: rrno62 | June 3, 2009 4:20 PM | Report abuse

It truly was a nightmare driving inbound toward AU on Tuesday morning. I wasn't even near the top of Military Road in Arlington when I came to stopped vehicles. I assumed an accident on or near the bridge also. I read today that the timing of the traffic light on the VA side has been adjusted. I hope that the timing of the light on the DC side is adjusted as well, to take into account that only half as many vehicles (that were coming across the bridge using both lanes) can get through on one cycle. Longer cycles in general help produce less of the nerve-racking and accident-prone "stop-and-go" traffic.

Posted by: mh53 | June 3, 2009 7:00 PM | Report abuse

We the people of NW DC need to make it loudly and widely known that making Chain Bridge one-way during rush hour is totally and completely un-acceptable to us. I strongly encourage DDOT and VDOT to work together to do anything and everything to smooth out the traffic flow as much as possible while still maintaining one lane in each direction at all times. It makes sense to make a road like Canal one-way during rush hour since there is a decent parallel alternate route for reverse-commute traffic a couple of blocks away. There is no alternative to Chain Bridge other than to drive miles out of the way to another bridge.

Lets look at the alternatives for reverse commuters (using AM peak as an example).

1) Key or Roosevelt Bridges. Both of these would force Upper NW residents to drive to downtown in the morning on roads that are quite congested. Rock Creek Parkway has another rehab project scheduled for Fiscal Year 2010, which is going to royally mess that road up again like it was in 2007/2008. So you eventually get downtown and then across the bridges in the off-peak direction no problem. Then you have to backtrack on the Virginia side. Your options are I-66...perpetually jammed outbound in the morning, or GW Parkway, which will have a construction project on the outbound side at Spout Run.

2) Go out to the Beltway and over the American Legion Bridge. Gunna be a slow ride out to Maryland. No access to Clara Barton Parkway in the reverse commute direction, and you'll be going against the preferred direction of traffic signal-timing wise on all other roads like MacArthur, Massachusetts, River Road etc. Then once you get to the Beltway, all of a sudden you aren't reverse commuting anymore. You are going in the peak direction with all those Maryland commuters going to work in Tysons Corner.

They both suck.


Posted by: thetan | June 4, 2009 12:33 AM | Report abuse

(cont. from above)

Leaving the bridge one lane in each direction will cause some hardship for Virginia commuters. But if everyone and anyone who can and chooses to detour around it, does, then it will be a lot less painful for those who choose not to detour around it. The American Legion bridge is actually a decent alternative for many of those who come from the west, as they will be in the off-peak direction on the American Legion Bridge and will have access to Canal Road on the other side. So if everyone from Langley, Tysons, Great Falls, etc. takes the American Legion, that leaves more room on Chain Bridge for those from North Arlington. Making it one way pretty much just "robs Peter to pay Paul". All of a sudden, Virginia commuters don't have to put up with ANY delays, while DC reverse commuters are FORCED into a miles long detour whether they like it or not. That seems somewhat unfair to me. Reverse commuters on that bridge already suffer because the traffic patterns are optimized for peak direction traffic. Virginia sucks, but at least you only have to deal with it for 8 months.

So all of you Upper NW residents that depend on Chain Bridge, please contact your council members (most likely Mary Cheh-Ward 3) and let them know...."do what you need to do to improve things, anything but making the bridge one-way."

Posted by: thetan | June 4, 2009 12:37 AM | Report abuse

I attempted to cross the chain bridge from VA to DC this morning (Thursday) which was still no fun. I hit the line to cross the bridge at 8:00 a.m. thinking that arriving earlier would be helpful, well I suppose it was helpful since it took me only 30 minutes to cross the bridge instead of the hour it took me on Tuesday.

The light on the DC side of the bridge definitely needs to be retooled to twice as long as it was previously to allow the bridge to empty and refill with each light. This morning it took me two light cycles to cross what is a rather short bridge.

Also does anyone know the scope of the Chain bridge project- what they are actually fixing? I can't find details any where I have been looking (DDOT and the WP).

Posted by: KPLVA | June 4, 2009 2:21 PM | Report abuse

Is there *anything* that DC area drivers won't bellyache about? It really is rather amusing.

If I spent this much time and mental energy fretting over how to get my car from Point A to Point B and back again, I'd move to Wyoming.

Life's too short for this stuff.

Posted by: antontuffnell | June 5, 2009 11:17 AM | Report abuse

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