Jan 03, 2011

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.

Happy New Year, travelers, and welcome to our first transportation talk of 2011. At this pivot point, we can talk about your reviews of 2010, as well as look forward to what the transportation system has in store for us in 2011. But I welcome all your questions and comments about what's important to you.

I noticed something on my travels from Wisconsin over the holidays and was hoping that you would know the answer. While traveling along the Ohio Turnpike and thru Indiana I noticed that several of the onramps to the highway had traffic lights at the end of them. They were positioned at the part where you merge into traffic on the highway. I saw several of them and thought isn't that a little dangerous? Aren't you supposed to keep moving when you merge onto a major highway so you don't cause an accident? I have seen Yield signs but not traffic lights at the end of onramps. What are they supposed to be doing? Thanks.

It's called ramp metering. Many highway departments in the U.S. use them to positive effect. There are some on Northern Virginia highways.

The idea is to regulate the flow of traffic onto the highway, spreading it out. In that way, traffic engineers reduce the chain of braking that can cause accidents. So the overall effect is a positive one for traffic safety.

Welcome to 2011, this normally reliable Red Line commute now involves platform construction at Shady Grove which means that there will be no chance of a train waiting at the platform in Jan/Feb and an escalator outage at the K Street exit of Farragut North that is unreal. Any hope for either of these projects wrapping up soon?

Those platform repairs are a major part of the long-term Red Line rehabilitation project. Many Red Line riders are familiar with the work that went on last year at Rockville's platform. It's an occasion for single-tracking.

At Shady Grove, the end of the line, it means that riders will find trains waiting on only one side of the station. Metro wanted to get that one started during the winter, when ridership is lower than in the warmer months. It's a theory, anyway.

The edge work should be done in the Jan/Feb time frame. In the springtime, work will resume with replacement of the platform tiles, but I believe that won't involve single-tracking.

You've got a couple of escalator issues at Farragut North. There's one between the street and mezzanine that's busted, but should be back by the end of the week. However, between the mezzanine and platform, you have a rehab project one one escalator, with a companion turned off to serve as a stairway. The rehab will take till March.

Happy New Year, Dr. G. I thought I read in one of your columns about upcoming improvements that there was going to be a multi-year repaving of I-66 outside the Beltway. Any truth to this rumor? Any details on what it entails? I hope it's more than the usual "throw a little asphalt into the gaping holes in the concrete to create a huge speed bump" that is the usual VDOT I-66 "solution."

This is big: It's a major resurfacing and replacement of the concrete on I-66 between the Beltway and Route 50. Here's what we said in The Year Ahead in Sunday's Metro section:

This spring, work will begin on fixing one of the worst stretches of highway pavement in the region, along I-66 from the Beltway to Route 50 in Fairfax County. All work will be done between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. to minimize impact on traffic. The project will continue through 2012.

I never understood the "mission creep" of the Woodrow Wilson bridge replacement extending all the way to the Eisenhower exit and requiring such massive changes to the Telegraph Road interchange. Why was so much work necessary at Telegraph and when will it be done?

Lots of people ask about this, cause they hear "Wilson Bridge project," and know the bridge has been done for a while.

The original idea was to improve traffic flow and safety by rebuilding not only the bridge, but also the two interchanges on either side in Maryland and Virginia. The project is on schedule and on budget, pretty much going according to the original plan, with the Telegraph Road zone the last phase. The intechange is being rebuilt and the Beltway widened in that area. That work will continue throughout this year and beyond.

 

 

I saw the note yesterday that the Orange and Blue lines will be closed over MLK weekend between Rosslyn and Farragut West. Does that mean all 3 of those stations will be closed altogether? I have to get from Ballston to National Airport that Saturday. So normally I would change from Orange to Blue at Rosslyn. Should I just plan on taking a taxi instead?

I'm going to make Metro's huge MLK weekend project the focus of my Commuter page feature this coming Sunday, but let me see if I can give you the general idea now.

Orange and Blue Line service will be suspended between Rosslyn and Farragut West, but only the Foggy Bottom Station will be closed.

Workers will replace four track switches, begin replacing escalators and elevators, and expand cell phone coverage.

Blue Line trains will operate about every 20 minutes between Franconia-Springfield and Rosslyn. All trains will be eight cars long. Blue Line trains between Largo Town Center and Farragut West Metrorail stations will operate about every 15 to 20 minutes.

Orange Line trains will operate about every 20 minutes between Vienna and Rosslyn. All trains will be eight cars long. Orange Line trains between New Carrollton and Farragut West will operate about every 15 to 20 minutes.

I hope that helps, but there's certainly plenty more detail to share. Drop me a line at drgridlock@washpost.com if we don't address a specific concern about this here.

My ride in this morning on the Dulles Toll Road did not feel more valuable than it did last week...even though it cost more. How do we get some local government oversight of the MWAA and their jurisdiction of the Toll Road and the Dulles Metro project? Too much of the funding burden for this massive rail project is falling on Toll Road drivers with no real projection for traffic reduction and improvement to the actual toll road until 2013 or beyond.

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority runs Dulles, Reagan National and the Dulles Toll Road, and it's building the new Metrorail line. Pretty powerful.

It's a creature of Congress. The appointments to the board are made by the governorss of Virginia and Maryland, the DC mayor and the U.S. president.

Tolls at the main plaza went up 25 cents on Jan. 1, and they'll go up another quarter in 2012. The toll money will help fund the Dulles rail project, as well as improvements along the highway. (I'm planning to write about that improvement program on an upcoming Commuter page. Not sure which date yet.)

Any idea when the ICC will be open between Georgia Avenue and 370? It's looking like it's getting close - stoplights have been hung, signposts (but not signs) are up, Georgia Ave traffic restored to almost original lanes, etc. I really hope it helps make a difference for traffic on Norbeck/28, and I'm looking forward to having a quicker (though expensive) route to 270 from Olney. Also, any idea when the rest will be completed?

That first portion got delayed just a bit because of weather in 2010. Should be opening very soon, but I don't have an exact date yet. Much of the rest of the ICC should open late this year or early next.

You can count on Maryland pressing for section openings as early as possible. The state wants the toll money to start recouping the expenses of this huge project.

I am not complained about escalator outages but the fact that you can get down from street to mezzanine and and discover that the escalator to the platform is out. I do know that people with I-Phones can check on escalator availability at particular stations, but a lot of us don't have this stuff. It would be simple to have a sign near the station manager's booth that "escalator to track toward wherever is out of order. Use elevator or request a shuttle."

Yes, there should be sign boards at station entrances advising riders of any problems with escalators and elevators anywhere within that station.

If you have computer access -- doesn't have to be from a mobile phone -- you can check Metro's escalator/elevator status page:

http://www.wmata.com/rider_tools/metro_service_status/elevator_escalator.cfm?

Having a mobile phone helps with the e-alerts about train service disruptions. The escalator/elevator page doesn't change quite so often, so you have a good shot at knowning the escalator status before leaving home or office. (On the other hand, how many people are going to remember to check that before leaving?)

Dear Dr.: You've mentioned the escalators at Gallery Place and Union Station, but what about Farragut North? With no warning last week, one of the platform escalators to K Street was walled off and taken apart. That exit is like a rugby scrum most mornings and with non-holiday traffic coming back, the situation is going to get ugly. What's the status of that repair?

See the answer above for the status of the Farragut North escalators, but let me say here that I completely share rider frustration with situations like this. For one thing, the stations need more stairways between the platforms and the mezzanines. There are a few projects like that -- there's going to be one at Foggy Bottom, for example -- but not enough. The stairways are very expensive.

The escalator program is something like the train car program: You know the life expectancy of the equipment. You plan your capital program for a mid-life rehab, and then a replacement of the unit.

Metro could speed up the replacement of the escaltors, but that's a huge investment of money that the system doesn't have.

 

Has there been any other bag searches since the first day? Will Dr Gridlock post what stations are being searched so we can avoid the congestion?

I haven't heard of any more police checkpoints to inspect riders since that first outing last month -- and I'd tell you if I did. It won't be hard, because riders will start to send Twitter messages right away.

Reminder: The first chance the riding public gets to discuss this issue is scheduled for 6:30 tonight at a meeting of the Metro Riders' Advisory Council. The meeting will be held on the lobby floor of Metro headquarters, 600 Fifth St. NW. This is a discussion that the transit authority should have initiated before deciding it was a great idea to have police randomly stop people engaged in nothing more sinister than trying to catch a train.

Dr. Gridlock- Will anyone be on hand at this evening's Metro Committee meeting to discuss the legal aspects of Metro's new bag check policy? Under whose authority do the Metro Transit Police operate, and which statutes authorize them to conduct these searches and turn riders away if they decline to participate? I intend to attend tonight's meeting and ask some specific questions like these, but I'm not interested in getting standard cop-talk answers.

I'll see you there. I know the transit police have been invited to send a representative to discuss this new policy with the Riders' Advisory Council.

Two years ago, when Metro announced a slightly different version of the search program, Transit Police Chief Michael Taborn went to a riders council meeting and got an earful. Far as I know, those searches never began.

That history was just another reason you'd think someone at the transit authority would have wanted to discuss this new thing with riders, but no, that didn't happen.

The transit police operate under the transit authority and the Metro board. The fact that the board didn't choose to discuss this with the riders is another reason to look seriously at reforming Metro governance.

Happy New Year, Dr. G! Coming home from the Winter Classic yesterday, we experienced an approximately 15 mile long backup en route to the Breezewood exit of the PA Turnpike. When we finally got to the exit, we found that only two on the 8 or so lanes took EZ Pass! The others were cash only!! What's the deal? Combined with the fact that you have to go through Breezewood at all and stop at a stoplight on an interstate, it made for an unpleasant experience.

Watched the Classic on TV. Sounded like there were a lot of Caps fans in Pittsburgh. Don't know why there were only 2 E-ZPass lanes on what would have been a heavy travel day even under normal circumstances.

Come to think of it, I don't know why Breezewood exits. We've discussed this on the Dr. Gridlock blog and in the column. From time to time, I ask for opinions on whether it's better to take I-68 all the way out to Morgantown and then go north on I-79 to reach Pittsburgh.

On Friday, I entered a Metro car which seemed to have a new style of interior fittings. Instead of the usual slick plastic seat covers, its seat cushions had more of a plush "fuzzy" covering. This I thought was kind of nice, but I wonder if this type of covering is apt to wear well over time? More important, this car had no carpeting, just smooth linoleum floors. I can see where this would be easier to clean and would deteriorate less quickly than carpeting, but I immediately found an immediate drawback, it was much more difficult to keep my footing on the slick flooring, particularly since I had brought my bike on with me and had to use both hands to control it. And this happened on Friday long before the rain arrived. I would guess that it would be really difficult to keep your balance on this type of smooth surface on a really wet day, so I don't think this type of flooring is a good idea for Metro cars and I hope they have not made the final decision to go with it yet.

Sounds like you were in one of the three test cars that have been rolling around the rail system for a couple of years. This year, Metro will be consulting riders on the interiors they'd like to see in the next generation of rail cars, the 7000 Series. You'll get a chance to tell them what you think of the floors and seats.

I like the fuzzy seat covers and think they've held up well. There are several different styles of carpet-less floors being tested. I like the one that's a very dark coloring. I think it's held up better than the gray ones. Haven't had a problem with footing. I remember that the designers said the material was supposed to hold people's footing even when wet, but sounds like it wasn't working for you.

http://www.wmata.com/about_metro/news/PressReleaseDetail.cfm?ReleaseID=4778 "In addition to the one-year extension of the transit commuter tax benefit, the IRS has delayed the requirement to separate parking and transit benefits until Jan. 1, 2012. However, Metro is taking steps to separate parking and transit benefit accounts to comply with the federal mandate prior to the deadline. The change will be phased in over several months in 2011. Metro is notifying SmartBenefits® customers and employers about this extension" Have you heard how WMATA will implement the separate accounts? Specifically, on the day they separate the accounts, where will any money on the account go? As I have comingled funds (some transit benefits and some self added money), how will WMATA know what money is from what source? Or are they going to dump all moneys into the "general" account?

Anything you had on your card as of Dec. 31 would stay there as part of your general fund. Once your employer and you set up a new allocation that divides your benefits into transit riding and transit parking, you'll have to watch the LED displays on the fare gates, fare boxes and parking gates to monitor the monthly decline in each account. Once you're tapped out of one of those categories, the fare machines will start to deduct money from your general fund.

Related: Readying for SmartBenefits Change

My resolution not to complain about metro escalators lasted one morning's commute, when all three of the escalators at L'Enfant's 9th & D exit were out, making for a lonnnnggg climb. One, of course, still sports the "to be fixed by Dec 11th" tag; the other two were just a great Monday surprise. The big question: in 2011, do you see metro making a substantive and successful effort to fix this chronic systemwide problem?

No, so far, I've heard nothing to suggest that riders systemwide are going to be better off by the end of 2011, as far as the escaltors are concerned.

Metro is working on implementing the consultant's recommendations on improvements in the repair program and six escalators will be replaced at Dupont Circle and Foggy Bottom. But you're still basically dealing with the same old equipment.

To follow up a previous question about the Dulles toll road, the toll has gone up and up and up for several years (since the early 2000s that I can remember). Isn't the metro rail paid for by now?

I understand the frustration of drivers who, for now anyway, pay one of the few tolls in the region. But do keep in mind that the rail project is going to cost more than $5 billion and that the tolls no way are going to pay all that. It's also funded by the feds and by businesses in Tysons Corner.

I'm wondering, by the way, if these Dulles Toll Road increases will amount to a form of congestion pricing, leading to a decline in the number of cars on the highway. Will some commuters bail out and use Route 7 or I-66 instead?

Travelers, thanks for joining me for the first 2011 chat, and I hope you'll be back for many more this year.

There are some questions still in the mailbag that I want to explore further before answering. For example, I've got to figure out exactly what's going to be happening on Memorial Bridge. But there are a few others also about new issues. Please stick with me this week on the Dr. Gridlock blog, and write to me anytime at drgridlock@washpost.com. (From that e-mail basket, I select the letters for the newspaper columns. So if you'd like to see your comments published, please include your full name and home community.)

Talk with you next week.

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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