Is Washington’s Notorious Traffic Congestion Worse Under SafeTrack?

Fears that Metro’s SafeTrack maintenance blitz would send rail riders piling into cars and further clogging downtown Washington streets may have been misplaced, at least according to early traffic volume data compiled in D.C. and Northern Virginia.

The anecdotal evidence differs. Some commuters are complaining of nightmarish gridlock turning short drives into slow crawls, even if it is not clear whether reduced service on the Orange and Silver Lines is to blame. After all, traffic is terrible in and around Washington on normal days for an array of reasons. But what is clear after just a few days of Metro’s historic reconstruction program is the District is not being paralyzed by epic amounts of new traffic.

More traffic? Maybe.

Traffic counts on major corridors entering the city were about the same on Tuesday, June 7, as the prior two Tuesdays in May, according to data released by the District Department of Transportation. At some locations, traffic was lighter.

On the I-395 bridge, volume was 196,000 vehicles on June 7, about 10,000 cars fewer than crossed the bridge on May 24. On May 17, the figure was 192,000.

On the Roosevelt Bridge, traffic volume reached close to 89,000 on June 7, about the same as it was on May 24. On the previous Tuesday — two weeks before SafeTrack — volume was higher: 93,000.

Fewer cars also were counted on K Street between 18th and 19th Streets and 13th Street between I and K Streets on June 7 than on the prior two dates, but not by much.

Overall, traffic in the four corridors is roughly flat, but DDOT reported longer travel times in the “downtown core.” During morning rush hour, the average trip took 21 minutes compared to the usual of 15 minutes, and in the afternoon rush hour it trip time expanded from 15 to 20 minutes.

In NoVa, accidents or SafeTrack?

Major roads in Northern Virginia saw small yet significant increases in traffic volume on Tuesday, although Virginia officials cautioned accidents and other factors may have caused congestion, not necessarily SafeTrack.

On Rt. 29 at Shreve Road traffic volume increased 13 percent in the 7 a.m. hour on June 7 compared to the same day the previous week (from 1548 cars to 1740), according to data released by the Virginia Department of Transportation. Volume was up five percent in the afternoon rush hour.

Rt. 50 at Graham Drive, Rt. 7 at Idylwood Road, I-66 at mile marker 72, Rt. 123 at George Washington Parkway, and Rt. 123 at Georgetown Pike all saw increases of between 3 and 6 percent in morning and afternoon rush hour.

“Since it has only been a few days, there are other factors to consider also, such as impacts from accidents,” said VDOT spokeswoman Jennifer McCord.

“An accident on I-66 at Route 50 around 6:30 am [Wednesday] resulted in additional delays west of 50. I-395 continued to experience heavy congestion this morning, similar to [Tuesday]. On both days, there were accidents on either the D.C. or Va. side.”

Blocking the box

On Twitter and the WAMU Metropocalypse Facebook group, motorists are complaining about what they believe is worsening gridlock.

One commuter, Nicole Kaeding, said traffic was so awful outside her downtown office building on Tuesday afternoon that it took her 15 minutes just to get out of the garage.

In an interview, she speculated that new car commuters unfamiliar with downtown streets could be the culprits.

“I noticed when I was in one of the traffic circles,” said the mom of two as she steered her SUV up 13th Street Northwest. “Most people who tend to drive every day know what lane they should be in when they enter the traffic circles for their exits, and I got cut off three or four times by people who were [in the wrong lane] trying to get out of the circle.”

Not all the anecdotal evidence is doom and gloom.

“We don’t see evidence of an increased amount of blocking of the box or gridlock,” said Neil Albert, the president of the DowntownDC Business Improvement District.

Gridlock often happens at intersections without DDOT’s traffic control officers (TCOs), and the agency concedes it does not have enough personnel for the typical rush hour, let alone the post-SafeTrack reality.

Months ago Mayor Muriel Bowser requested funding for 20 more TCOs for the fiscal year starting in October, but after Metro released the SafeTrack project schedule the administration decided to accelerate the hiring process.

“We commissioned a study with the Federal City Council and Accenture that revealed the need for additional TCOs,” said DDOT spokesman Terry Owens, referring to a report that was produced last year.

“We plan to have the people hired over the next several weeks, hopefully by the end of June. Training should take about a four weeks,” Owens said.

DDOT currently has about 35 TCOs on the payroll. They are deployed at 10 downtown locations, but each location covers multiple intersections.

“We’re definitely on board with getting more TCOs,” Albert said. “But we also want to make sure they are placed strategically. Not every intersection downtown needs TCOs. They are not the only solution. DDOT has done a fantastic job of using better timing on their traffic signals.”

The limits of driving

As traffic ebbs and flows over the next year of reduced Metrorail service, transit advocates say SafeTrack is providing the region a can’t-miss opportunity to make better use of the existing road space.

“What it is showing is a modern, great city can’t survive by car alone. You need a successful transit network to allow for a city to thrive,” said Stewart Schwartz, the head of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

The group has been calling on D.C. and its suburbs to at last install temporary, dedicated bus lanes to move commuters around Metro’s rail work zones. And it has been encouraging people to carpool, bike, or walk to work.

“Hopefully in the coming months we can drive some dedicated bus lanes. The city has been studying 16th Street Northwest for a while, and based upon our recommendations and their detailed analysis, they are finding they can do peak-hour bus lanes on 16th Street,” Schwartz said.

“A crisis is a terrible thing to waste, and we should use this to test out creating a redundant and effective transit network using buses,” he added.

At a news conference last week, Mayor Bowser downplayed the possibility of installing temporary bus lanes on short notice. Starting June 18, Metro will deploy dozens of buses to bridge commuters between Eastern Market and Minnesota Avenue/Benning Road rail stations during the first line segment shutdown of SafeTrack, but those “bus bridges” will have to share lanes with everyone else.

“We are still in the early rounds, but we would like to see more,” Schwartz said.

Photo courtesy of Martin Di Caro. Click here to read the original story.