Dr. Gridlock: Your traffic and transit questions

May 10, 2010

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

I work in Tyson's corner and have to cross Rt 7 on Westpark to get home. Two things I'm curious about: 1. The signal has this strange box on it that appears to be emitting a radar signal towards the travel lanes. What's the purpose of this thing? 2. When are police going to enforce the "don't block the box"? There are so many idiots trying to turn left onto Rt 7 that they block all the lanes when the light turns red. Then nobody coming down Westpark can move and it just snowballs out of bounds. I've sat thru 15 light changes before you can get thru due to all these jerks blocking the box. I think it should be a capital offense!

That sounds like a device to detect the presence of vehicles waiting at the red light. Highway departments used to use loop detectors imbedded in the roadway for that, but they've moved to pole-mounted devices that are easier to maintain. That's a tough area -- and will be for at least a couple more years. I'm not aware of any special police effort to unblock particular intersections. Not sure there are enough police to do that in Fairfax at rush hours. You think there are any engineering solutions that would work? (Or do you think the county or commonwealth should pay -- that is, have taxpayers pay -- for more officers?

Welcome, travelers. Looks like we've got a mix of questions to start with that concern some of the big road projects and some issues about Metro delays. As usual, I'll try to spot questions that could benefit from a group response and post them early, so you'll have a chance to chime in.

 

Doctor: Copngrats to the Post this weekend for highlighting the imminent transportation disaster facing us who live around Ft. Belvoir. Five hour commutes ? ! And it didn't even mention the impact of the new hospital and Army Museum that are also being constructed on the base.

Given that I-95 is gridlocked most of the time and Route 1, the Richmond Hwy, is a textbook example of incompentent highway planning and design, how many people do you know of who have lost their jobs for adding tens of thousands of vehicles to the inadequate highways in the area without first constructing the transportation infrastructure, to handle the influx, e.g., extending the Yellow Line to Ft. Belvoir, express non-stop busses to Belvoir from Huntington, etc.?

Isn't it time for senior officials to be held personally accountable for their decisions?

Very good story by my colleague, Miranda Spivack, in Sunday's Post. She notes that this effort to decentralize the federal work force for security reasons is in conflict with good regional planning, which would concentrate the work force at transportation hubs, especially transit hubs. Here's a link to her story:

http://bit.ly/9K0Trn

Hi Doc, Can DDOT please paint new clean lane lines on the 14th St. Bridge. Once you are on the bridge the lines are easy to see, but coming from 395 there are segmented lines, solid lines, and hatch marks and most people end up in each others lanes trying to figure out where their lane goes. It doesn't seem like a difficult task. Why can't they paint solid lanes from 395 and all the way across the bridge like they are doing around the Tysons Corner area of the beltway? Thanks!

Do you mean the lines on 395 coming from the District to the southbound 14th Street Bridge or on the opposite side of the Potomac? I'm wondering if the variety of lines you're encountering is related to the rehab project on the bridge or to some of the other reconstruction that's been going on in the 11th and 12th Street area near L'Enfant Plaza.

 

I know you have discussed "ghost busses" quite a bit in this space. I understand this concept when referring to busses that are NOT on the NextBus schedule, but then pop-up unannounced. Non-functional gps easily explains these occurrences.

What I don't understand are the busses that ARE on the NextBus schedule, but then do not actually arrive. How does this happen? If NextBus is truly gps enabled it must be reading something for this to happen. The H1 bus running North from New Hampshire & M at approx 6 p.m., for example, is always on the NextBus schedule, but literally never arrives. Never. What gives? Thanks.

Yeah, that's a good one, and this is only my guess in response: Part of the Next Bus problem is with the GPS signal from the bus. Part of the problem is with the program that receives the location signal and then makes a calculation about when the bus will arrive at your stop. The computer may be projecting something that doesn't actually happen, given the traffic at that hour. Or perhaps that's a bus that is scheduled to go out of service at that hour and doesn't continue the route. In any case, I'd blame the computer programming for that one.

Has either Metro or Virginia/Fairfax County done any studies that support the idea that Metro can successfully integrate the new Tysons area train lines -- and ridership -- into its existing system?

I just can't visualize how an already stressed system is going to handle the new loads, even if you assume that not all riders will be coming into D.C. in the am rush and leaving in the p.m. rush.

Metro says it can handle this. But I'd love to see more evidenced about how. Here's one thing that may be on Metro's side: In the beginning, we're talking about eight extra trains. Metro plans to order 64 cars as a first shipment for the new line. The new line will operate trains between Reston and Stadium-Armory. Coming from the west, they'll join the Orange Line between West and East Falls Church.

The only big parking garage along the way for commuters will be the end-of-the-line one at Reston.

The crunch, as you probably know, is how to get the extra trains through the Rosslyn tunnel. That could be done -- probably -- by diverting some of the Blue Line trains that now use the tunnel. They would instead cross the Potomac on the Yellow Line bridge. That proposal is still a proposal. The Metro board hasn't acted on it.

Dr G - the Dulles Toll Road Main Toll Plaza eastbound has a damaged (struck by a vehicle) toll booth and has closed that lane for several months. The WMAA has not even removed the damaged booth. Why not at least re-open that lane as a SmartTag/EZ Pass only lane? There's already a shortage of adequate throughput in both directions at the main toll booths - to continue this situation for so long is just ludicrous.

I'll ask MWAA about the busted toll booth. Around here, we don't take full advantage of the E-ZPass technology by providing highway-speed toll lanes. In Virginia and Maryland, drivers have to slow to 35 or so and go through slightly modified lanes. (I wouldn't just raise the speed limit in that type of lane.)

I do think it's wise to keep the E-ZPass only lanes to the left at the plazas. Transportation agencies seem to be moving in that direction as a safety measure.

Do you know when they are going to finish the ramp from Randolph road to get on 355/rockville pike?

I believe the Maryland State Highway Administration plans to wrap up that interchange project this fall.

I see cabs with less than 3 occopants on the I-95 HOV lanes during rush hour all the time, are they exempt or just HOV violators?

The rules say the taxi driver has to have at least one passenger.

Hello Dr Gridlock, This morning and Friday morning there were two metro employees on the Shady Grove side of the red line platform at Gallery Place. This is a start. The thing is that the employees did not direct the passengers getting off the train in such a way that people wishing to get on the train could. I watched the train leave without me because I could not get through the throngs of people getting off .

I think we're likely to find congestion there at least until the trains return to automatic control and they go back to stopping at their regular place on the platform rather than at the front end of the platform.

I think the interim solution is to have more Metro personnel on the platform actively directing the passenger traffic. I'd certainly have more than two people there. I don't believe more people would end the congestion, but they could make a dangerous situation safer.

From my observation, the DMV will give a license to anyone. The driver test should be taken every time we do emissions. The law should outlaw cell use because drivers are not focused. In your opinion, do you think the no texting law will be enforced?

No. I think it will be almost impossible for the police to enforce the anti-texting law. Police would have to have X -ray vision. Or the driver would have to be dumb enough to admit driving while texting. (Have you seen that bumper sticker that says, "Honk if you love Jesus. Text if you want to meet him"?)

I ask this in regards to Metrorail. I regularly commute on the Orange Line into the city from Court House. I always look for the next train arrival and service disruptions before I leave, as I could walk the distance to Rosslyn if the Orange Line train is delayed.

Last Thursday morning, I left my apartment later than normal because I had a train to catch at Union Station, there were no reported delays and trains were running 2-4 minutes apart.

When I got to the Metro, the platform was packed 5-7 people deep, and completely packed train was on the tracks idling. My question is this ... if this scene was due to residual delays due to an earlier problem, shouldn't it still be reported online? What good is next train if I can't get on the first, second, third, or fourth trains that go through a station?

I just don't understand how wmata.com reports a line as "on time" when there was clearly an earlier problem affecting service. Thanks for taking my question.

I'll bet a lot of Orange Line riders are going to read this and say, "Sounds like a normal morning."

Court House is one of the most difficult stations on the Orange Line for boarding. (And it's certainly one spot I'd watch out for over the next few years, because of normal growth in ridership and because of the extra passengers coming in on the new line.)

I think we all have some issues with the electronic notifications from Metro. Sometimes, you'll see a note about how the disruption was cleared but there are some residual delays. Other times, you won't really have a heads up about how extensive the residual delays are. Even without a broken down train on the Orange Line, the schedule still gets thrown off a lot as the rush period progresses.

Is the clear the construction by the start of the afternoon rush hour only pertinent to the interstates? The narrowing to one lane on Twinbrook Parkway made a mess of traffic last week as the street is being resurfaced.

All the highway departments in our area want the orange cones up on commuter routes by the time rush hour starts. The contractors don't always keep to their schedules in the afternoon. (You can hear Bob Marbourg complain about that pretty frequently in his WTOP traffic reports.)

It strikes me that many of the metro announcements about weekend track work are quite deceptive in their failure to accurately describe the area that is likely to be impacted.

For example, the announcement about this past weekend's track work on wmata.com stated that they were going to be doing track work after Medical Center and that trains would be running at 20 minute headways between Medical Center and Grosvenor. But when my family went to get on the red line at Dupont, trains were running at 20 minute headways there too.

This is to be expected of course in light of the system's design. That said, why can't Metro be more forthcoming and state that trains will be delayed on the entirety of the line? I have seen them do this time and again and it is incredibly frustrating as a rider to not be able to trust Metro on such a simple matter.

I've seen the Metro folks trying to get more and more exact about what riders can expect to encounter on the weekends -- since the weekend maintenance delays have become so routine these past few years.

During this weekend, the deal was supposed to be that trains between Medical Center and New York Avenue would arrive about 15 minutes apart. But the schedule gets thrown off, just as it does every weekday.

Dr. Gridlock, I like the idea of bike lanes, I really do. But twice in the last week I've seen bicyclists traveling northbound in the southbound-designated bike lane on 15th St. NW.

This is only a problem because the bike lane is seperated from the driving lane by a row of parked cars. If an SUV is parked at the end of an intersection I can't see the bicyclist behind it from my little car.

If anyone goes to make a left turn they're not going to see that northbound cyclist before they start turning. At least us drivers can see the southbound cyclists coming towards us from across the intersection before we start turning. Please tell the northbound cyclists to get out of that bike lane for their own safety.

Yeah, that's a good warning. I've seen the same thing in the contra-flow lane on 15th Street. That's one of the dangers of this new system that the District Department of Transportation and the police will need to monitor if they're going to continue this particular bike lane system there and use it elsewhere.

Because of an appointment after work, I drove to Clarendon today, parked at a a garage and got on the Metro at the Clarendon station, which is not my normal commute. I was dismayed to find that I had to wait four trains over the course of 20 minutes before I could actually get on a train.

Honestly, if this is representative of what is going on at Clarendon, I feel bad for anyone who catches the train there. Plus, with the Silver Line coming, having to wait four trains may soon be considered a good morning.

It was a particularly bad morning to be on the Orange or Blue lines. There was a train malfunction outside of the Farragut West station. That threw the schedule off and crowded many platforms.

I think you might find a bit of relief in this regard when the new line opens in 2013 -- at least at first. There will be only one station with a parking garage, as I noted in an earlier exchange. You might find there's a bit of extra capacity for those Orange Line stations in Arlington.

Brunswick line this morning, 40 degrees, only one car had heat. Gotta love MARC Customer Service.

Sorry to hear about that. It would have been a good morning to have heat. Warming trend later this week, I believe.

Hi - What was the deal with the Blue/Yellow lines this morning? Well, mostly the blue line actually. I was at the Pentagon trying to catch a yellow just before 8 am and there were two blues listed and then a yellow (that kind of bunching happens a LOT during rush hour). So I wait 9 min. for the second blue to arrive and then hopefully depart and it sits at the platform for over 15 min. I could hear three trains arrive and leave downstairs before this train left. Then the yellow train that came was so crowded I couldn't get on, fortunately the second yellow train was better (though I was going to get on that train even if it was crowded because, yep, two blue trains were listed before another yellow would arrive).

My rush hour trip and rush hour rates took me 30 min. or so longer than it should have. What am I paying more for again?

Early in the rush hour, a train broke down outside Van Dorn Street. Later on, there was that other breakdown I mentioned at Farragut West. Post staff writer  Mark Berman was listing these delays in his morning commuter report on our Get There blog. Sounds like people on the platforms and trains weren't getting the same reports.

Given that metro is falling apart and pricing so many riders out in these hard times, do you see more employers allowing workers to telecommute and paying for their employees to park in the garages downtown. Not ideal, but what other way is there out of this transportation crisis?

I don't foresee private employers becoming more generous with parking privileges. The federal government already provides a huge subsidy for its employees to take transit. Metro is about to raise fares a lot, rather than cut services. Last time Metro raised fares significantly, ridership went up. I think the same is likely to happen this time.

But I do think employers should be encouraging their workers to telecommute. There are plenty of programs that help employers do that, and even subsidize them.

Almost every week I submit this and I have yet to see an answer but is Metro ever going to stop running their trains manually? If not, are they going to give their drivers better training? I am tired of feeling jerked around (literally) and nauseous when I ride even when I can get a seat.

Richard Sarles, the new Metro general manager, told us last week that he doesn't know how long the trains will remain in manual. Metro won't restore automatic control until the safety experts agree it should be done. Manual control is definitely a prime culprit in your experience with the jerky trains. One ray of hope: The last time the trains went into manual control for an extended period of time -- around 2000 -- the operators did seem to get better as they got more experience.

Please remind people with backpacks, strollers, etc. that they need to watch out for other people's feet, shoulders, heads, etc.

Yeah, that's a real problem on crowded trains -- especially if you're sitting on the bench seats in the middle of the cars, with your feet pointing out into the aisle.

Hi, Doc, Is Metro finished with its service cuts for this year, or might it go ahead with some that have not yet been announced? I ask because my ANC is to be addressed by a WMATA representative later this week regarding "possible cancellation of N8 bus route" ... which happens to be the only public transportation that goes from Glover Park and upper Massachusetts Ave to Van Ness-UDC-upper Connecticut Ave without requiring a transfer to a second bus or Metrorail. (Unfortunately, WMATA has routed the bus in such an odd pattern that it takes 40 minutes to cover that distance, which discourages some potential riders, but still, it's a needed service.) Thanks for the update!

No, the Metro board has not made a final decision about either the fare increases or the service cuts. It very clearly is going to limit the service cuts by raising fares, but that doesn't mean all the proposed service cuts will be eliminated. I gather Metro thinks that the N8 route is redundant and that there seem to be some issues about it for people on Yuma Street?

If you favor the N8, you'll want to continue defending it. All supporters should make sure Metro board member (and DC Council member)  Jim Graham knows how they feel, though he probably does already.

 

I realize there probably are not enough officers to enforce not blocking the box, but perhaps they could do it every few weeks. I have to think there are enought tickets they could hand out to some of the more blatant violators that might help off-set the cost.

As far as engineering solutions, the only thing I can think of is extending the yellow time of the light and trying to get the Rt 7 lights timed better to help clear out traffic.

Yep, that makes sense. Thanks for writing back. Two hedges: Anytime police do intersection enforcement that involves pulling over cars and writing tickets it tends to gum up traffic for as long as they're out there. Lots of people don't like that. Also, keep in mind that any adjustment of light timing takes away green from the other direction. It's difficult to take away green time from a route as heavily used as Route 7.

Wacky computers, I guess: Last week when I 'phoned in and punched in the posted stop number, NextBus one time give me info for buses headed in the opposite direction (so traveling on the other side of the street), and the other time, info for bus routes that don't even run on the street I was calling from. NextBus is a great idea whose time apparently hasn't come yet.

Make sure Metro's customer service office knows about your experience. That's the kind of feedback Next Bus needs, so they can get this right. I think Next Bus is a really important service, and it works more often than not. But people really need to be able to trust it, so we can get more people riding.

 

Oh, let's get real. Who thinks metro is really able to deal with the added trains and ridership? This is the same group who did not plan for any added parking along the way, has seen deferred maintenance skyrocket and has had a number of the worst subway accidents in the past 5 yrs. Oh, and to have the thing run above ground thru Tyson's is just stupid.

On one note: Metro had nothing to do with the decision to have the trains run on an elevated line. In fact, I'm sure Metro would have preferred to operate an underground line. Metro is out of the business of constructing railroads. That's not necessarily a good thing. We may see some problems develop because the airports authority is building the line and Metro is then supposed to come in and operate it.

 

I mean the lines coming northbound from VA into the District, right after the exit for Route 1 in VA. I imagine it is related to the 14th St. Bridge rehab. Last week traffic was coming to a complete stop there as people figured out which lanes to use.

I'm not sure if that's DDOT or VDOT in that zone, but it's certainly something they could coordinate. Meanwhile, we're going to start to see some changes on the 14th Street Bridge after Memorial Day weekend. Those middle lane closing I told you were coming about a year ago are actually supposed to start happening. There still will be four lanes open at rush hours, but drivers will have to maneuver around the closed area. I think this will be a more difficult phase of the project for many drivers.

I've seen a couple of buses marked as "Not In Service" still show up on NextBus, esp. on the 30-series. Makes me wonder if the operator has to turn off an additional switch that they're forgetting to mark them as out of service for NextBus.

Thank you. I think that's quite likely. For the system to work, the operators need to turn the equipment on and off at the right times.

"Around here, we don't take full advantage of the E-ZPass technology by providing highway-speed toll lanes" Nor do people take advantage of EZ Pass at all. Yesterday, when getting off 28 in VA going to the toll road, I was cut off by a speeding car. As I sailed through the EZPass lane, I saw the car stuck in the cash lane. About 1/3 of the way down the toll road, I was passed by the speeding car again. As I exited the toll road to get onto 495, I saw the car sitting in the cash lanes. I was on 495 and approaching Georgetown Pike when the car sped past me again. I so love EZPass.

E-ZPass is like gold to me. Just used it this weekend on a trip to Northern New Jersey and back. I figure it saved about a half hour in each direction. The New Jersey Turnpike is doing it right: There are highway speed E-ZPass lanes at the toll plaza. (I guess we won't see them till the Intercounty Connector and the HOT lanes open.)

There's only one way to get bikers to change their habits and that is to start ticketing them for going the wrong way and not stopping at lights. Your weekend column on I-270 drivers improving their behavior proves that police intervention does work.

I know that police do engage in periodic crackdowns on bike riders as well as on drivers. I think that's good for safety and for traffic flow. Publicity about those enforcement actions is also very good, since the police are never going to be out there often enough.

About a week ago a couple signs popped up on I66E at the 29 exit in Centreville that says that "No trucks in the right lane, next two miles" Nothing has changed about the intersection, no new construction, etc. Any idea what this is about?

I've got a couple of questions in the mailbag about this. I'll ask VDOT.

Hi Doc--can you or your readers provide a link that actually describes what the new metro plans and alleged Silver Line will look like? Where will it go? Where will the stations be? How does Dulles fit in? Thanks!

I think you'll find most of what you're looking for on the project's Web site:

http://www.dullesmetro.com/

Something to pass on to DC government officials: Their enhanced parking meter revenue program is a royal pain to anyone who needs to park on the street. Drivers need to carry rolls of quarters to feed the meters. The higher rates and extended enforcements hours (now Saturday until 10:00 p.m.) is a license for parking garages to gouge their customers. Some garages near Capitol Hill now charge in excess of $35 for three hours of parking on weekend nights. If this keeps up, people are going to vote with their wallets and take their business out of DC.

The District, like the suburban jurisdictions, is aware that people hate hauling around the quarters about as much as they hate the parking meter rates. They're adding some pilot projects that let you pay by credit card or cell phone.

I think the credit card thing is the way of the future. Eventually, we should be able to pay for all travel -- tolls, parking meters, Metro -- with one card.

 

I had a question about Metro. I ride the red line from Metro Center to Silver Spring every morning, and vice versa in the evening. About 2 weeks ago, Some teens came into our car, from the car behind (passing the doors you shouldn't open uness it's en emergency). They snatched, which I though was at first a girl's purse, but later it turned out it was her cell phone. And they ran out into the station.The girl ran after them. I don't know if she got her phone back. I was really scared. I don't know if this was reported.

But, my question is: Doesn't the driver know when someone is passing from one car to another? This happens regularly on this route. Teens pass from one car to the other. They are very unruly and of course the last time it turned into a cell phone snatching. It really scares me that I may be the next victim.

I think the operator in the front cab won't know about that unless a passenger gets on the intercom and reports it. (I always say we need more transit police to ride the trains, but even if we could afford that, they still wouldn't be on every car. So it's always going to be important for passengers to report misbehavior.)

What is up with the out-of-town posts on the Get There Blog? There have recently been post about a speed enforcement plane crashing in California and a transit official committing suicide among others. They may be interesting stories, but what impact do these items have on DC traffic and transit?

Now, I'm not complaining about the post about airport delays in New York or a Amtrak delays in New Jersey. These items can and do have impact on the local area.

I think our editor wants to provide as much information for as many types of travelers as possible on the Get There blog. My own contributions are limited to local travel issues. All these news blogs are works in progress. We'd love to hear your suggestions about what you'd like to see posted. Write to us at transportation@washpost.com.

I've got to break away now. Thanks as always for joining me, and helping me understand what's you're experiencing on the roads and rails around here. (I guess I'm like the police I just mentioned. I can't be everywhere and I rely on your help to get a better understanding of what the problems are and how we can solve them.)

I'll try to tackle a couple of your concerns from today on the Get There blog. And write to me anytime at drgridlock@washpost.com.

Join me again next Monday, and stay safe out there.

In This Chat
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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