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HOT lanes work zone a hot spot for accidents

Thursday - 9/22/2011, 10:10am  ET

TussGraphic.jpg
According to statistics provided to WTOP by the Virginia State Police, crashes between the I-495/Springfield Interchange and the American Legion Bridge have been steadily increasing since 2008. (WTOP Graphic/Greg Otto)
Adam Tuss, wtop.com

WASHINGTON - If you've driven through the High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes project work site on the Virginia side of the Capital Beltway, you know there are a number of shifts, twists and turns to navigate.

All of that shifting may be having a serious impact on the number of accidents along the 14-mile stretch between the Springfield Interchange and just north of the Dulles Toll Road.

According to statistics provided to WTOP by the Virginia State Police, crashes between the I-495/Springfield Interchange and the American Legion Bridge increased nearly 20 percent in 2009 - the first full year the work zone was in place - compared to the previous year.

In 2010, crashes increased nearly 30 percent when compared to 2008. In 2011, the number of crashes along the work zone is again on pace for a 30 percent increase when compared to 2008.

It is important to note that the HOT lanes work zone went into effect in July of 2008, so for half of 2008, drivers were getting adjusted to the new travel pattern.

"We have seen more accidents overall," says Larry Cloyed, VDOT's senior project manager. "Some of (those statistics) are attributed to texting and cellphone use."

In 2009, Transurban-Fluor (the builder of the lanes) along with VDOT and other transportation groups began an "Orange Cones, No Phones" campaign, a reminder to drivers to stay alert when they are passing through the HOT lanes work zone.

"If you drive through our work zones, you will (still) see those signs," says Cloyed.

For construction-weary drivers along this stretch of the Beltway, there is no break from the shifting and twisting scheduled for the immediate future.

"It's going to be very busy through the remainder of the year," says Cloyed.

About 75 percent of the entire HOT lanes project is now complete.

"The big work remaining is to complete the shifts, pushing the traffic out, getting into the middle, and getting these HOT lanes built," Cloyed says.

The project will add two new lanes to the Beltway in each direction. The two center lanes in each direction will become the HOT lanes. The remaining four lanes on the outside will be general purpose lanes.

The estimated opening date for the project now stands at December 2012, according to VDOT.

When the lanes open, drivers will be able to use them if they pay a toll or if they have three or more people in their vehicle. Tolls will rise and fall based on how many drivers are in the lanes. The more people that use the lanes, the higher the tolls.

The idea is that people will be priced out of the lanes at some point and traffic will be able to continue moving.

Tolls will be collected using an E-ZPass-like device that will allow traffic to keep flowing. The operator of the lanes, Fluor-Transurban, has promised a minimum speed of 45 miles per hour at all times.

Transit advocates are championing the lanes as a way to move buses quickly between different points on the Beltway since traffic flow is supposed to be predictable.

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(Copyright 2011 by WTOP. All rights reserved.)