Dr. Gridlock: Your traffic and transit questions

Mar 22, 2010

The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock, Robert Thomson, will be online to take all your questions about Metro, traffic throughout the region and other transportation issues.

Welcome, travelers. Thanks for joining me today, and I can see a bunch of traffic and transit issues in the mailbag already. Some are in special need of your feedback, so I'll try to post them early.

I commute on foot (Capitol Hill). Could you refresh us on the rules of sidewalk etiquette in D.C.? I moved here about a year ago. I always stay to the right when passing someone, but this morning I was almost intimidated off the sidewalk by a person who refused to move to her right. She proceeded to berate me ("You came straight me! You saw me didn't you? You saw me didn't you? You wanna fight? You wanna fight?") I couldn't get a word in edgewise. If staying to the right is the norm, what do you do when someone else refuses to obey the rules? Am I missing something?

Listen, I know how you feel. Sometimes it seems that Washingtonians can barely walk, let alone drive. At least people had to pass a test to drive.

And yes, you're right about walking to the right. That's the way we do it in this country. But here's what I recommend: In any given travel situation, be the adult. Don't let the rules -- such as they are -- stand in the way. Yield to the other person to avoid a collision, just as you would when driving or biking.

This will come up a lot during the next three weeks as the tourists flood into Washington for the Cherry Blossom Festival and we start the baseball season at Nationals Park.

 

Any idea when is the completion date? I get my hopes up after each weekend only to find that it is still one lane in each direction.

May 31. Originally, it was going to be January, then it slipped a bit to February. The bad winter weather really hit this project, along with some of the other major ones across the DC region.

The Chain Bridge project finally was able to do the long planned weekend closing this past weekend, and has another scheduled for this coming weekend.

 

 

Why is taking 10, 20, 30 minutes to get through from Friendship heights to Bethesda both way on the red line? Happened most days last week. Metro doesn't show any delays on their web page and customer service says they don't know anything.

I just asked Metro spokesman Steven Taubenkibel about this. He was in the process of issuing a statement about it. Here's a little bit of that statement from Metro:

Metro has a 15 mph speed restriction in place on the Red Line between the Friendship Heights and Bethesda Metrorail stations due to track work that is taking place during the overnight hours to change out rail and rail fasteners.

The speed restrictions were installed late last week after an assessment identified the immediate need to replace running rail and fasteners on both tracks between the Friendship Heights and Bethesda Metrorail stations.

Metro personnel will be working during the overnight hours when the system is closed this week to make the necessary upgrades in this particular area. Metro anticipates having trains return to their normal speeds in this location by the middle of this week.

Odd that the Post chose a photo of the dinky Clarendon escalator for its story on Metro escalator outtages. I've seen seniors trying to climb the gi-normous Bethesda escalator (out for weeks in the winter) after they couldn't get on the elevators for the crowds. That should be the focus of your story.

There certainly are plenty of escalator banks to choose among to illustrate a story about problems. The situation at Bethesda continued for weeks. Riders also got plenty of exercise at Dupont Circle. The problem bank I've noticed most recently is at Foggy Bottom.

Those escalators aren't as long as the ones at Bethesda and Dupont Circle, but there are plenty of passengers trying to get out at the same time.

I know the escalators are a daunting challenge for Metro's maintenance people and for the people who have to allocate Metro's resources. But this has been a big problem for years -- long enough so that someone should have come up with a way of making serious progress. Right now, Metro lists about 60 escalators out of service. Some of them aren't slated to be back in action till April and May.

Last time you did a chat someone was annoyed that there were announcements on the metro to keep track of your things to prevent death. The announcements are saying to watch your stuff to prevent THEFT, not death.

Yes, thank you. I think that dates back to our March 8 chat. (I was out of town for March 15.) Several good listeners wrote in to point out that this is an announcement about preventing "theft" rather than "death" -- although that's also a good thing to prevent.

I am planning to drive to Reagan National Airport Saturday morning, and will go through the Humpback Bridge area around 8:30 or so. How bad will the traffic be at that hour? Is it worth it to find an alternate route, or should I make it through the construction area fairly quickly?

Not sure where you're starting from, but I can tell you this about Saturday's plan:

"From 6 am to 3 pm, expect a closure in the left lane of both the northbound and southbound parkway."

My guess is you'll be okay, but it would be best to allow yourself some extra time to get through the construction zone.

I don't remember the last time I got a complaint about the Humback Bridge construction. Anyone want to offer a view on that work?

 

So last Thursday I left work at 4:30 and waited almost half an hour at Federal Triangle for an orange train to New Carrollton.

During that time there were no messages on the electronic displays about delays and no announcements. The first orange train was packed so I waited for the next one which came around 5 or a little after. The train on that car was absolutely sweltering - it felt like the heat was going full blast but at least I was on a moving train. Until we got to Minnesota Avenue where the driver announced the train would be put out of service. Here's what I don't understand. After Minnesota Avenue, there are only what, four or five stops to New Carrollton? And the train has to go to New Carrollton anyway, right? So where's the logic in putting the passengers off and taking the train out of service, creating more delays and more crowded trains? Not to mention the overcrowding on the platform at New Carrollton because of the overpacked trains and the scrum in the parking garage with everyone trying to exit. I just don't get Metro's thinking and logic in these situations. The sad thing was that Thursday was a beautiful 70 degree with sun shining and Metro still couldn't keep its trains operating smoothly and efficiently.

Bunch of problems for Orange Line riders last Thursday afternoon with trains taken out of service. I think you're train was having a mechanical problem. Sometimes, one car can be shut off, but there are other issues -- brakes, for example, that require the off=loading of the entire train.

Good Afternoon Dr. Gridlock, Thank you for taking the time to take my questions on this dreary Monday. First, what's going on with the speed restrictions on the Red Line between Friendship Heights and Bethesda as well as between Medical Center and Grosvenor? My commute took 30 minutes longer than usual this morning. Is this something I'm going to have to endure for days, weeks, or even months? Metro is not offering any information on its website, aside from stating that Red Line trains are running "on time."

Second, how is Metro's proposed rush hour surcharge (7:30 a.m-9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m.-6:30 p.m.) going to impact riders who currently use weekly rail passes or monthly Transit Link Cards? Are we going to have to carry extra cash in our wallets to place in the exit fare machine every time we ride metro during the "super" rush? For me, this extra surcharge is a stupid idea. Not all of us work for the government and have the option of altering our working hours.

Just heard some thunder come rumbling through.

Look back above to see some just-released information from Metro about the Red Line speed restriction.

Metro is starting hearings tonight in Vienna on all those budget-balancing proposals. The peak of the peak fare idea is one among many and it's not clear whether the Metro board will wind up going for it, or what all the effects would be. Generally speaking, if the fares go up, the passes will become more expensive -- same as happened in January when the surcharge was added.

Metro does some things to change riders' behavior. There's an argument that the peak of the peak fare would encourage people to spread out their travels, but the people riding at those hours are the least likely to be able to do that.

Will you please join the flat 25 percent increase, right across the board? I believe they call it the KISS method, and fair also!

Keep it simple, stupid? A 25 percent across-the-board increase would not dislodge the time and distance adjustments made on Metrorail.

Some riders argue we should have a flat fare. Those generally are the riders who travel the longest distances and pay the most right now. The people with shorter trips oppose this. It's unlikely to happen. The suburban representatives on the Metro board certainly would not support it.

Since the end of baseball season, Half Street and Van Street SE have essentially turned into free parking lots for suburban commuters, since the streets have no parking signage. With baseball returning shortly, and those streets blocked off, I'm worried about people heading into the surrounding neighborhoods and adding traffic and illegally parking. And with the elimination of Nats Express, the potential for baseball fans to do the same is there. Last season, local police and parking enforcement did a terrible job of enforcing the local traffic only signage and parking restrictions.

Who do I need to call to be proactive about this?

Seems to me that the Advisory Neighborhood Commissions in Ward 6 and Council member Tommy Wells pay a great deal of attention to the parking issues around Nationals Park, so I'd start with them. But I've also found that the District Department of Transportation people have worked hard on trying to get the parking setup right around the stadium.

Has Metro started to take trains off the early morning schedule? I arrived at Union Station this morning at 6:30 and the next three trains westbound were 10, 16, and 19 minutes apart. This hasn't happened when I arrived at Union Station at that time.

Why are Red Line trains in the direction of Shady Grove coming to a near-halt between Takoma and Fort Totten? This has been happening for the past few weeks.

I'm not sure why this is happening, but Metro has been replacing some of the track circuitry in that area. The stops could be related to that work.

There are signs up saying to expect delays on Telegraph Road near Huntington Metro Station. Do you know what work is being done and for how long?

The Wilson Bridge project has just begun a major new phase of the construction around the Telegraph Road/Beltway interchange. Here's what I say about it on the Get There blog:

Work that began this weekend marks a significant new phase in reconstruction of the Capital Beltway's Telegraph Road interchange, part of the Wilson Bridge project.

Commuters will need to be extra alert for a new traffic pattern through the interchange area.

The outer loop exit to Telegraph Road north is being rerouted, and ramps for the inner loop are being realigned. This will allow workers to complete the ramps and replace portions of old Beltway bridges during the 2010 construction season.

Delays for Beltway drivers are not likely to worsen, project managers say. But traffic on the ramp from the outer loop to Telegraph Road might be delayed up to 15 minutes. Also, for the next eight months, the morning northbound rush-hour travel time on Telegraph Road could take up to 20 minutes longer.

(There's more. I'll post more on the blog.)

I heard a lot of radio and TV folks this morning saying that the Chain Bridge construction was completed and that it was open this morning. Yet, when I drove by it on Canal Road this morning, it looks like 1 lane is still blocked off. When will all lanes be back open on the bridge? Traffic has been better with the fixes made earlier in the process, but Canal Road still gets backed up more than normal sometimes in the afternoon.

Chain Bridge was completely closed this weekend for work on the bridge surface and approaches. (It's scheduled to be completely closed again next weekend.) That's not the end of the project. The third lane won't be back with us till May 31, under the current schedule.

 

You've endorsed adjusting the Red Line schedule to reflect "schedule realities" (most recently in today's paper). I'm curious if you can explain how this seemingly counter-intuitive proposal won't exacerbate the situation. Trains are running behind schedule because it takes longer than the schedule has budgeted to board trains at overcrowded platforms. (Manual control isn't helping either, but it doesn't sound like there's anything we can do about that for now.) Crowded platforms are only going to get more crowded if trains come less frequently.

Won't that simply lead to even longer loading times, and more bottlenecking as trains with room get stuck behind trains that are too full to fit any more passengers?

Metro can't add any more trains to the Red Line at rush hour. What it can do is make the schedule more realistic. (Try plugging a Red Line trip into Metro's Trip Planner and see how the scheduled time matches with your actual experience.)

I don't see any downside to Metro making the schedule look more like reality. The schedule doesn't account for the longer times the trains are spending at downtown platforms and it doesn't even account for the opening of the New York Avenue Station.

What I wish Metro would do is fulfill the long-standing commitment to making half of the rush hour trains eight cars long.

 

Dr. Gridlock - Since the beginning of the year, traffic in the morning on the inner loop (starting at Braddock and continuing, I get off on Route 7), has been steadily worsening. It is now a slow crawl throughout the entire trip. I know they are doing a ton of work in and around that area - is that causing the slow down? Will it be improving any time soon or can we just expect it to be this way for a long while?

I think part of what you're seeing is the result of the HOT lanes construction. Even though the new lanes are being built off to the sides of the Beltway there are still some adjustments in the existing lanes that slow things down, plus, there are off-peak lane closings. Also, it's possible that with the economy emerging from the recession, the traffic volume is beginning to creep back up again.

 

Dear Metro,

Please increase the minimum fare to $2 and quit wasting our riding dollars on your accountants. Also please hire a different vendor for advertising, they aren't doing you any favors. Also, what's up with the west side of the Red Line? Snails pace is as bad as 19 minute headways. Shape up.

Metro's leaders are not optimistic about making more money from advertising. They say the last contract -- which is expiring -- was pretty good. They expect to make less from the next one, because the economy has yet to rebound fully.

I've got a lot of questions today about the western side of the Red Line. Look above for my earlier response, and see the posting by Ann Scott Tyson on the Get There blog.

One of the proposals of Metro's budget is to reduce the Yellow Line to a shuttle between King Street and Huntington during nights and weekends. Am I alone in saying that this may be a disaster? The Yellow Line bridge is below capacity as it is, why is this even an option especially when in three years Rosslyn will be a zoo once the Silver Line starts?

Also, what are the odds that Metro could mothball the Silver Line until they are in a position to run it, especially with MWAA footing much of the bill?

I don't like the Yellow Line proposals either, and think they probably won't happen. I think Virginia and DC reps on the board are likely to oppose them.

Likewise, I can't imagine mothballing the rail line through Tysons to Reston, once it's ready to open in the middle of the decade. Metro is about to order the new rail cars for that $5 billion investment.

Thanks for hosting the chat! When do you think, best case scenario, we'll see DDOT's plans for new bike facilities fully installed downtown?

You mean the plans for more SmartBike stations and new bike lanes on places like Pennsylvania Avenue? I don't have exact dates, but this is something DDOT director Gabe Klein is committed to. I think DDOT plans to move very aggressively on these things.

 

Well, isn't that just typical. That long crawl between stations has been screwing up our commutes for a week, and Metro is just now thinking of saying something about it. I would say it's unbelievable, but almost *nothing* is unbelievable when it comes to Metro these days.

Yeah, Metro still has a lot of work to do on rider communications. I think information doesn't always move swiftly from one part of the transit bureaucracy to another.

Yes, the Red Line has been crawling between Friendship Heights and Bethesda for a week. Yes, we are going so slow that I can see the faces of the workers in the tunnel. Yes, it is good that the speed restriction is helping to protect workers.

But a big BOOO! to WMATA because there are no rail alerts on the website or elsewhere. I'm sure that WMATA likes to say there are "no rail alerts" but I am amazed at their Cold War attitudes about withholding information from their paying customers.

I've got so many comments and questions in the mailbag today, that I'd like to post here on the chat what we're saying on the Get There blog about what's going on. This is the report from Ann Scott Tyson, our Metro transit reporter:

If travel on the western end of the Red Line seems to be dragging, it is not your imagination. Speed restrictions are in place on Metro's Red Line between Friendship Heights and Bethesda stations, the transit agency said in a release Monday, due to overnight track work to replace rails and rail fasteners.

A 15-mph restriction is also in place on the Glenmont-bound track between Grosvenor-Strathmore and Medical Center stations. Metro performed extensive work in the stretch during the weekend, including installing 3,200 feet of new track. The transit agency hopes to resume normal service on that stretch by Tuesday morning.

Metro said the 15-mph restrictions between Friendship Heights and Bethesda were implemented last week after an evaluation determined there was a need to perform immediate replacements on both tracks. Officials said crews will work on the stretch during the overnight hours this week and hope to resume normal speeds by the middle of the week.

Have you noticed the slowdowns, or have they impacted your commute? Comment below or e-mail us at transportation@washpost.com.

I sent you an email about this, but maybe the chatters can chime in. My friends and I have noticed that cab drivers are increasingly asking for directions for locations. I picked up a cab next to the White House and I gave him an address with a major cross street for Capitol Hill and he proceeded to ask me to give him turn by turn directions.

I have had cab drivers drive me north to go south, east to go west, etc. for the past 6 months. Is this because of the change from the zone system? If so, give these cabs GPS meters! I miss the random shared rides anyways.

Others experiencing this?

Dr. G: Apropos of the walking rules, what are the rules for bicyclists riding on the shoulder-less GW Parkway south of Alexandria (including several who insist on doing this during RUSH hour!), or the 'law abiding" ones who try to break the sound barrier on the Trail scattering runners, walkers, and families with kids in strollers? Don't the Park Police ever enforce these rules? Or the prohibition on commercial vehicles on the Parkway?

The riders on the parkway have been a problem for drivers for a long time. Cyclists -- the high speed riders -- don't like to use the trail in that area because it's so crowded.

I drive over the bridge every morning for work and there's rarely an issue but both lanes are open. Can't speak to when there is only one lane. I would recommend Route 1 through Crystal City to be safe.

Thanks for the response to earlier question about Humpback Bridge construction and whether an alternative route to the airport would be best this Saturday morning.

I was listening to the radio this morning and hearing about the uptick in crime on Metro. In reading another poster here talking about Minnesota Avenue, I was wondering if you could shed light on the problem of youths acting violently on Metro or on their platforms. Minnesota Avenue is especially bad after school as all the students come there and then fights and gang activity ensues. Has Metro specifically addressed these concerns of riders? I know there has always been talk of rude kids but this now involves violence and thefts. Thanks.

I get many complaints about the behavior of young people on the trains before and after school. Metro transit police work with the schools and ride the trains looking for these problems. It's not enough. I'd like to see the transit police force expanded into a more visible presence on the trains and buses.

Beginning March 27th, the westbound ramp for Shady Grove Rd. to I-370 W. will move from the right lane to the left lane. This will of course require a traffic light where one wasn't required before. There already are huge back-ups during rush hour and this upcoming change will only exacerbate the problem. Is there not any foresight when changes like this are made? Thanks in advance..

Thanks for highlighting this new traffic issue related to construction of the Intercounty Connector. I'll post some more information about it during the week, but here's what I'm saying right now on the Get There blog to describe it:

A new traffic pattern will affect motorists using the Shady Grove Road/Interstate 370 interchange in western Montgomery County. Beginning Saturday afternoon, drivers heading west on Shady Grove Road toward westbound I-370 will make a left at a new traffic signal.

They will merge with the eastbound Shady Grove Road drivers heading for I-370 on a new ramp. Variable message signs are in place to alert motorists to the new traffic pattern. Lane closings on both Shady Grove Road and I-370 will begin about 8 a.m. Saturday through the afternoon until the new traffic pattern is in place.

As an alternate route for motorists on west/southbound Shady Grove Road currently using I-370 to get to I-270, motorists may continue on Shady Grove Road beyond I-370 and turn right onto MD 355 (Frederick Road).

Drivers heading for I-270 south traveling from points north should consider MD Route 118 (Germantown Road), Middlebrook Road or MD Route 124 (Montgomery Village Avenue/Quince Orchard Road) to reach I-270 and avoid Shady Grove Road.

The traffic switch allows crews to continue bridge construction within the I-370/Shady Grove Road interchange.

Why should I agree to improve Metro's budget when Metro cannot communicate to its people on a routine basis with basic information? Almost all of the Metro questions on this chat involve, not trains being out of order, but no one telling the customers that. Why should I throw my money down a rathole when Metro can't fix the stuff that doesn't cost anything?

I think Metro really needs the support of its riders during this budget crisis. Metro needs to get more money from the jurisdictions that finance the transit authority. But who else is going to back the transit system and push for this if not the people who use it?

Parents don't seem to have any trouble pushing for more money for their public school systems, but Metro riders don't seem to have the same engagement in the transit system's future.

The commenter here makes a fair point about that. Metro doesn't have much good will left among the riders when it most needs it.

First, I look forward to your chats each week! This is more a comment than a question, about escalator/stairs etiquette when one of only two platform-level escalators is out of service (examples, Van Ness, Woodley Park).

It seems to be a simple case of always staying to the right, so that both those trying to walk down and walk up can do so. But, I've seen it so many times recently where a train has just let people out, and all those people take up the entire escalator walking up, leaving the people waiting to walk down to the platform no option but to either just wait or push their way through. If there's no train coming right away, I see no problem with just waiting, but I have actually missed trains because I haven't been able to get down to the platform in time, what with the crowds walking up.

Not a big deal, except when it's late in the evening and the next rain isn't coming for 15 minutes - that is annoying. What's the etiquette here? Is there any? And how about the scene I witnessed last week at Van Ness, where a woman trying to walk down was literally swatting people out of her way with her umbrella. Really now? Really.

Yeah, not much in the rule book on this, though it's quite a common experience. Happens on stopped escalators and happens on stairways, too. Not sure there's anyway out of this, other than for people to get a sudden attack of politeness -- or a poke from an umbrella.

The Capitol Hill walker and you are wrong--just like whe driving, you walk to the right but when passing someone, pass on their left. Of course, the other person should not get worked up and threatening over this error.

And a reminder to pairs (or more) of walkers (or bike riders)--it's rude and intimidating to split to pass someone (one on either side)--just stay together and move over.

I think we're all saying the same thing, including about not getting all worked up about someone making an error. Capitol Hill, I believe, was talking about how to pass someone coming in the opposite direction.

But the main thing is not to get worked up or confrontational -- despite the numerous opportunities that arise even in a short walk on our crowded streets.

Thanks to all of you travelers for participating in the chat. I've got to break away now. The dominant theme today was about rail service, so I'll try to post more information on the Get There blog about this topic. But there are some other questions and comments I spotted that I think I can respond to as well on the blog. Also, as always, please continue writing to me at drgridlock@washpost.com.

Stay safe.

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Robert Thomson
Robert Thomson is The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock. He offers therapy for that most intimate relationship: the one between you and your commute. You can read his work on the Get There blog, as well as in the Metro section of The Washington Post.
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