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Dodging highway work zones

Dear Dr. Gridlock:
We live near the Wilson Bridge and have to drive to Dulles Airport. Would we be better off to drive via Arlington and Interstate 66 to the Dulles Toll Road and not take the western side of the Beltway and all that construction?

-- Richard Bonekemper

There are plenty of highway work zones across the D.C. region this spring, and our letter-writer raises the very good question of just how difficult it is to get through them. I wrote a spring-summer work preview for the Commuter page followed by another that zoomed in on the High Occupancy Toll lane project on the western side of the Beltway in Virginia. For this Sunday, I'm planning to focus on the impact of the Dulles Metrorail project.

This is what I wrote back about the Dulles Airport drive, which would be on a weekday morning:

I'd plan on taking the Beltway across the Wilson Bridge and over to the Dulles Access Highway to reach the airport. Yes, you'd be passing through the work zones for three of Virginia's megaprojects -- the Telegraph Road interchange, the HOT lanes and the Dulles Metrorail extension.

But if this is a daytime trip, rather than something between 9:30 p.m. and 5 a.m., it's likely to be as good a route as the other main possibilities, which in my mind involve getting to I-395 (Southeast-Southwest Freeway) to the George Washington Parkway and the outer loop of the Beltway down to the Dulles Access Highway (rather than the Toll Road, since it's an airport trip), or 395 to the Roosevelt Bridge to 66 to the Dulles Access Highway/Toll Road.

There are construction projects along all these routes, and as you know, there can always be an accident or bad weather to slow you down. I'd have the three routes in mind on the day of departure, but barring any known disruption that day, I'd go with the Beltway-Access Highway route because it's likely to have the most open lanes and it's the most straightforward.

I'd set aside two hours for drive time. I'm pretty conservative on that. It could well take you less time, but I don't like to add to the tension of catching a flight.

Travelers, do you disagree with me on any of this advice? My recent experience driving through the work zones has been okay -- not something that would make me divert from the basic big-highway route to the airport. Has your experience been different?

By Robert Thomson  |  April 28, 2010; 12:35 PM ET
Categories:  Airports , Congestion , Construction , Driving , Dulles , Wilson Bridge  | Tags: Dr. Gridlock, Dulles Metrorail, HOT lanes  
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Next: Crash may snarl traffic on SE/SW Fwy.


One thing I would add is that if it is during the morning rush hour (meaning up through about 9:45 to 10:00 AM), the Inner Loop from Springfield to Tysons will be EXTREMELY slow. It's been that way at least since I first got my driver's license back in the 1980s, so it's not just construction-related. I've always surmised that it's due to the bad interchange design at I-66 (people move left because of merging traffic from US-50, are forced to slow due to morons from US-50 who bomb across to the left exit for I-66 instead of the right-hand exit they're supposed to use, then traffic cuts right again due to the left-hand merge from eastbound I-66, and then mad lane-changing resumes as people jockey for position to exit at Tysons). I used to commute to McLean and I avoided the Beltway whenever possible due to that mess; it was faster to take Gallows Road and then 123.

If you're coming from Maryland and you hear that the Beltway is backed up, one alternative might be to get off at Van Dorn Street, go right at the end of the ramp to go south to the light at Kingstowne Boulevard (it's immediately after the shopping center on your right), and turn right at that light. Kingstowne Boulevard turns into the Franconia-Springfield Parkway, which in turn becomes the Fairfax County Parkway, and you can follow it all the way to the Dulles Access Road (or to I-66, then go west to VA-28); traffic moves at anywhere between 50 to 70 mph (speed limit is 50) for most of that distance. There are a lot of very annoying traffic lights, and I haven't done a comparison of the travel time with the rush-hour Beltway, but I've always felt that a trip FEELS faster and less stressful if you're moving.

The two hours for drive time sounds right to me. Always better to over-estimate. You never know where a crash might occur on your route. The big thing in my mind is that whenever you're driving in Northern Virginia you're best-served if you know as many routes as possible to your destination and you're prepared to use any or all of them at any time, including changing to a different route mid-trip if needed.

Posted by: 1995hoo | April 29, 2010 9:40 AM | Report abuse

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