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D.C. Transportation Engineers Face Tough Choices, Testy Commuters

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D.C. traffic engineers had to alter changes they made to lanes on Wisconsin Avenue in Glover Park after a legislator complained and drivers started making unexpected—and unsafe—moves in response.
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D.C. traffic engineers had to alter changes they made to lanes on Wisconsin Avenue in Glover Park after a legislator complained and drivers started making unexpected—and unsafe—moves in response.

Roads and bridges need to be fixed, sometimes entirely replaced. Traffic has to be managed. And commuters have to be kept satisfied. In a city whose population has eclipsed 600,000 and is growing—as transportation demand places ever more pressure on aging infrastructure—engineers at the District Department of Transportation face tough choices that often leave some commuters pleased while angering others.

DDOT’s version of the Wisconsin Avenue story
As WAMU 88.5 reported in June, DDOT reversed changes that were made to Wisconsin Avenue NW north of the Calvert Street intersection in Glover Park. The agency had turned a six-lane, north-south avenue (three lanes in each direction) into a four-lane road with a center turning lane. After years of planning and design work, DDOT made the change to slow down traffic to improve pedestrian safety. But just six months later DDOT put the old lane configuration back into place.

D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) had complained the loss of a travel lane in each direction left him stuck in traffic backups on Wisconsin Avenue as he traveled through Glover Park. While DDOT acknowledges it received complaints from Evans and his constituents, the agency said it restored the original traffic pattern because the new one produced an unintended and dangerous problem.

“The slowness wasn’t the problem. It was just that as people saw the level of service reduced they started doing what we consider dangerous moves,” said James Cheeks, DDOT’s chief traffic engineer. “The most dangerous one was people driving the center turn lane all the way down the roadway because of the delay. They just got mad. But if you got someone coming in one direction and then someone coming in the other direction, now we got a problem.”

Turning lane not a travel lane
The reaction of impatient drivers to the new lane configuration served as a reminder that although DDOT’s top engineers may study a traffic fix for months or years, they cannot be sure it will work until they see the change in action. At Wisconsin Avenue, the supposed solution created a new problem while failing to stop speeding.

“We are constantly reviewing things that you probably don’t see when we are out here late at night and early in the morning. We still see those things happen. Speeding is still a problem. It hasn’t gone away,” Cheeks said.

Cheeks said DDOT’s original design called for installing a permanent median down Wisconsin Avenue, but the community protested, preferring pavement markings and the center turn lane instead. As it turned out, a hard median would have prevented drivers from passing backed up traffic on the left. So now Glover Park residents are unhappy that all the traffic calming measures are gone while motorists who use Wisconsin Avenue as a pass-through are pleased again.

DDOT is not abandoning this stretch of Wisconsin Avenue, though. Cheeks said MPD has been asked to step up enforcement of the speed limit and changes are being made to help pedestrians cross Wisconsin Avenue at mid-block crosswalks and bus stops.

A bridge too old
Built in 1954, the bridge on 16th Street NW over Military Road is reaching the end of its lifespan. More than 30,000 vehicles use the bridge every day on one of the busiest north-south routes into and out of the District.

Replacing the bridge is a no-brainer. In fact, it is a DDOT priority. However, the tough part of this future project will be dealing with potentially extensive traffic backups while construction takes place.

“This is approaching critical condition,” said DDOT engineer Paul Hoffman of the deteriorating span. The bridge is in jeopardy of being load rated, meaning vehicles exceeding a certain weight will be banned from crossing it, including Metro’s S line buses. Hoffman hopes the bridge does not have to be downgraded before replacement construction begins.

“This is painful while it is under construction to the driver. After construction it should just return right to the same operations it has now,” Hoffman said. “The components that will come to the site will basically be legos that lock together and they will actually use a self-propelled mobile transporter to lift the final super structure into place half at a time.”

That feat of engineering may be easier than finding alternate routes when lanes are shut down for the construction job. Because the 16th Street bridge is adjacent to Rock Creek Park, there is no immediate north-south alternative to the west. To the east, the closest such road is Georgia Avenue, about half a mile away.

“Anytime you have a project like this it is good to be out here at the front end of it to let people hear that there will be delays on this road,” Hoffman said.

Replacing the bridge is expected to take about 100 days, but there is no timetable for the start of construction. DDOT has not even awarded a contract yet as the bidding process has to be restarted.

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