Dr. Gridlock

Jan 09, 2012

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, to our first chat of 2012.  We've invited Metro GM Richard Sarles to join us at 1 p.m. Tuesday for a live Webcast. We'll be talking about Metro's plans for the new year. What would you like to ask him?

Meanwhile, we've got plenty of other things going on in the D.C. region's transportation system, including the opening over the weekend of the new outbound span at the 11th Street Bridge, a new traffic pattern for a big project on Route 29 in Gainesville and a new education and marketing campaign launched by the company that will operate the Beltway HOT lanes.

What's on your mind today?

Dr. Gridlock; I asked this question to you a couple of weeks ago but I have not seen a reply. Why does the ICC have a 55MPH speed limit? You come off of RT95 at 65 MPH and the roadway is so much better.

55 mph is the standard speed limit for divided highways in Maryland. 65 mph is the exception, applied to sections of several Interstates.

I don't see any problem with Maryland setting the speed limit for a new highway at the standard 55 mph. Drivers have to adjust to changing speed limits all the time as they go from road to road, or even from one section of a road to another.

Maybe later, as the state gets more experience with the highway, the speed limit could go up to 65. But to set the speed limit for a new, untested highway at the maximum possible for anywhere in the state doesn't make sense to me.

Hi Doc - is there any timeframe on the repavement of I66 East as it crosses the beltway? Ever since they realigned the road it's been like driving over two large speed humps at about 50 mph as the pavement has got to be at least a foot lower than the concrete bridge sections.

I think the work on the westbound side between the Beltway and Route 50 is pretty much done now, but the eastbound work is going to continue into the spring time. It's tough for any highway department to continue paving through the winter.

As a moneymaker, Metro could offer a premium car on each train. An attendant could ride in the car and you'd have to flash a Golden SmarTrip to get on (extra fare collected at the turnstile). Businesses could offer it as an perk.

Would that car arrive on time?

I've been commuting between Fairfax and College Park for over eight years, and I had been able to attain an almost Zen approach to my commute -- the Beltway is what it is, and I was able to roll with it, with some assistance from podcast-listening. However, the elimination of a lane on 495N right before the 66E flyover-ramp traffic joins is KILLING me. Who thought it was a good idea to worsen a bottleneck by making four lanes of already bumper-to-bumper traffic into three??? I know there are plans to have the 66E traffic have their own lane that continues to a Route 7 exit, but I cannot understand why there couldn't be a better way to handle the merging of this oncoming traffic in the interim. Please tell me I don't have to wait until next winter for this to get better ...

This must be related to the HOT lanes project's rebuilding of the I-66/Beltway interchange and the widening of the Beltway to create the four HOT lanes, but I'm not familiar with a narrowing of the Beltway to three lanes, other than for temporary lane closings.

The interchanges at I-66 and at the Dulles Toll Road are the most complicated and problematic parts of the construction project, and the work at them will continue well into this year, before the HOT lanes open at the end of 2012.

However, the project is opening new things as they get done. An example of that was the new flyover ramp from eastbound 66 to the right side of the inner loop.

I've noticed that when turning cars stop for pedestrians crossing with walk signal that cars behind stand on the horn quite frequently these days. Don't they realize that if the cars hit us they would face an even longer delay?

Yes, I've certainly noticed that. Also, that on a trailing driver will honk if you stop for a pedestrian already in a crosswalk straight ahead.

I hope drivers won't feel pressured to endanger pedestrians just for the sake of some knuckleheads who can't wait.

I feel obligated to respond to the comments in yesterday's WAPO from people with unique ways to deal with tailgaters. I personally very rarely have a problem with tailgaters. I try to always drive in a manner such that I am keeping pace with the traffic flow, pass on the left then move back to the right and if I see someone wanting to pass me, move out of the way and let them pass. As a result, I don't need to resort to gimics to keep people from tailgating me. If more people would simply use what I consider common sense, we would eliminate most tailgating, aggressive driving and some traffic congestion. However until we focus on education and enforcement of what is already the law (as you pointed out in your column a couple of weeks ago) we will continue to have problems.

I was thinking about the tailgating letters in responding to the previous comment.

Drivers who obey the traffic laws -- including the speed limits -- are almost certain to be tailgated. I worry that the drivers being tailgated worry too much about the tailgaters, to the point where they lose track of what's ahead of them.

The responsibility for tailgating rests entirely with the tailgaters.

Will there eventually be inbound access across the 11th Street Bridge from southbound 295 (as a route to southbound 395)?

Yes. That ramp should open in the spring. The District Department of Transportation has opened the inbound and outbound spans. But that was done before all the goodness of these new spans could be realized.

The reason the spans were opened in advance was to clear room so the new ramps could be completed.

A commuter from Beltsville pointed out to me -- and now I've seen for myself -- that the southbound drivers have a new, but temporary difficulty: Because the traffic pattern on 295 changed when the inbound span opened last month, it's very difficult to perform the standard maneuver of making a U-turn at Howard Road or Suitland Parkway to get on the northbound side and reach the inbound bridge.

It's really, really difficult for drivers making the loop at Howard Road, and slightly less difficult for drivers who go farther south to Suitland parkway and them come back north.

I saw this morning's blog entry about the 11th Street Bridge construction making it difficult for people who make the "ramp U-turns" from southbound 295 to access the 11th Street Bridge. I'd have posted this thought as a comment there, but blog comments seem not to be working this morning. My thought is two-fold. First, I think as a general matter we all know and have to accept that sometimes during construction traffic patterns get worse before they get better. It's inevitable. It's the "short-term pain for long-term gain" principle, and I think it's directly applicable here. Second, and more importantly, I note that nobody is requiring drivers to continue to make those U-turns. Drivers who find that it's difficult to make the old U-turn to access the 11th Street Bridge might want to consider using the Douglass Bridge instead. I'm sure many of them did that in the past and rejected it for various reasons, but it bears noting that since the ballpark opened you have a couple of extra options for turning off South Capitol Street and using parallel routes (e.g., Potomac Avenue at the light before the ballpark and then go up First Street SE).

Very good point. Drivers can get off at Howard Road to reach the inbound Douglass Bridge, taking them up South Capitol Street toward downtown DC.

And I agree with you that it's a fact of life in urban areas that we have to put up with temporary disruptions for the sake of something that should improve travel in the long run.

By the way, I find travelers more tolerant of that on the roads than on Metrorail. Why is that?

Dr. Gridlock, A few weeks ago I asked a question about if there was a map showing what the new 66/495 interchange would look like. You provided one that was fairly general, thanks. As a follow up, I was wondering is if you've seen any kind of detail map- that goes all the way down to showing how many lanes go in each direction, etc. In other words, one that might help us realize what the actual traffic pattern will look like?

There's no plan to decrease the number of general purpose lanes on any highway as part of the HOT lanes project.

In terms of the traffic patterns, take a look at the new Web site that Transurban made live today. Look at this page, click on the links and see if it addresses your question about the traffic pattern:

http://www.495expresslanes.com/using-the-lanes

Hi Doc - I do want to actually thank VDOT and the contractors for getting their work done early on reopening the left lane on eastbound I-267 after the main toll plaza, as well as getting the second ramp lane to 495 north restored. Those two improvements, completed before the holidays, have helped a little bit in that area and almost (but not quite) make paying the higher toll as of Jan. 1 less annoying. What is next for this stretch? And what is next for toll increases in this corridor? Thx

With the HOT lanes project, the thing I'm looking forward to next is the opening of new flyover ramps that will take traffic from the Airport Access Highway to the Beltway.

I hope that will cut down a bit on the lane weaving necessary now to reach the Beltway. That would benefit everyone.

But I really doubt that when the entire project is done at the end of the year, Toll Road drivers will say, Oh, boy, problem solved at the Beltway interchange.

The HOT lanes project won't do absolutely everything it would take to relieve congestion at that interchange.

Meanwhile: There's no scheduled toll increase beyond the one that occurred Jan. 1. Doesn't mean it won't happen, of course, but public hearings would need to be scheduled.

Also, there's a bit of a jurisdictional issue to keep in mind. The airports authority operates the Dulles Toll Road. The airports authority has nothing to do with the HOT lanes project along the Beltway.

OK, Dr. Gridlock, I've been watching this project anxiously since I first heard about it. Can I now assume that the outbound Sousa Bridge will NOT be a parking lot each time 295 N melts down? Could it be true? I have wished unspeakable things against Maryland commuters on such days and want to put that negativity behind me in 2012.

It's certainly my hope that once the ramp from the outbound span to northbound 295 opens this summer that many drivers will avoid making that horrible left turn from the outbound Sousa Bridge (Pennsylvania Avenue) onto northbound 295.

A key goal of the bridge project was to eliminate the missing links for through traffic and keep commuters on the highways, rather than making them get off onto local roads.

I live in Woodbridge,VA & use a Honda Hybrid to commute to & from DC. What will be the future HOV Rules regarding hybrid cars with the opening of the HOT Lanes in the near future? Thank you.

Hybrids won't get a break in the HOT lanes. They'll be treated like any other vehicle. To ride free, drivers will have to meet the carpool rules.

If I am trying to drive from Silver Spring to Bailey's Crossroads in VA during rush hour in the morning, is it better to go through the city or take the beltway?

I'd the Beltway for that trip. On a typical morning, the worst of the outer loop traffic is between College Park and Georgia Avenue. After that, it eases up a bit. Stay left to avoid the next slowdown, as drivers stay right to reach I-270.

I'm not saying that any route is easy during the morning rush, but even though the mileage is less, I'd avoid the stop and go and stop and stop traffic through the middle of DC.

I hope Mr. Sarles has a thick skin. He's not going to get a lot of love during his chat tomorrow.

Actually, I think he has a pretty tough skin. And this certainly isn't the first job he's had that involves discussions with transit users upset about travel conditions.

I find he handles himself very well under those conditions.

Last year, I compared him to a baseball manager who's with the team for the "rebuilding years," then retires for the next manager, who comes in and gets all the glory by taking the team to the world series.

Sarles said he was okay with being the manager for the rebuilding years. He said that during four decades in the transit business he's been both types of managers.

Dear Mr. Thomson, I commute between Silver Spring and Baltimore, and the ICC would make a marginal improvement in my commute but not enough to justify the current tolls. Everytime I drive by the ICC it seems virtually deserted. How is ICC usage/toll collection stacking up vs. projections? What happens if tolls fail to meet expectations? Thanks.

I think it's way too early for anyone -- including the Maryland Transportation Authority -- to assess the results of the ICC. Drivers are just beginning to learn whether it's useful on their commutes.

I'm gradually working through some suggestions you all have made for test drives along various routes that include the ICC so I can do a Commuter page feature that says, This seems to work, This doesn't seem to work.

My guess is that most drivers won't do the entire route and pay $4 at rush hour, but they'll break off parts of the route -- and pay less -- when they calculate their time is worth the money.

If the revenue turns out to be very low, that's probably bad for all of us. The state still must pay off the highway.

Here is a diagram showing that the beltway will remain with four lanes at I66 after construction. There will be a fifth lane between I66 and Rt. 7. http://virginiahotlanes.com/uploads/1000/659-I_66_Fact_sheet_FINAL_8_09_10.pdf

Thanks for digging that out in response to the reader's question about the upcoming traffic pattern.

Will they open a portion of the HOT Lanes or it all up at once. From just south of Georgetown Pike to 7 it looks like they are almost complete, 3-6 weeks away from finishing that section, it would be nice if they opened it up.

The plan is to open all at once. Drivers will notice this year that some sections of the Beltway look done, but it's the interchanges -- particularly at the DTR and I-66 that will be the most difficult sections to wrap up, and that work will continue well into this year.

Travelers, thanks for joining me for today's chat. I spotted a few questions I think I can address during this week on the Dr. Gridlock blog. And see if you can join us for the Metro discussion with GM Sarles at 1 p.m. Tuesday.

Write to me any time at drgridlock@washpost.com. Next Monday, we won't have a chat because that's the MLK holiday.

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 his namesake blog, as well as in the Metro section of The Washington Post.
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