Dr. Gridlock

Feb 27, 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, let's go to your road and transit questions.

Dr. Gridlock This is probably a bit premature, but now that the weather is getting warmer, an annual problem is starting to popup again, potholes. What are the local transportation departments plans for filling potholes this year? The Baltimore-Washington Parkway northbound after the merge with Kenilworth Avenue probably is the roughest, potholed road in the area.

Every road department has its own program for killing the popholes that pop up in the spring.

Just this morning, I saw a statement issued by AAA Mid-Atlantic saying that many highway departments are hoping they'll need to fix fewer holes because of the mild winter.

The District Department of Transportation, to cite just one agency, does an annual campaign called Potholepalooza. It's a month-long event that encourages people to report potholes to the Mayor's complain line, 311. DDOT's goal is to fix them within 48 hours of the report.

AAA notes that In Maryland, residents can report a pothole to the Maryland State Highway Administration by dialing 301-952-0555. Virginia drivers should call VDOT's customer service center at 800-FOR-ROAD (800-367-7623). That's for numbered state roads that the state highway departments are responsible for.

UPDATE: The Maryland State Highway Administration wants to correct the AAA release. If you want to contact the SHA about potholes, go to www.roads.maryland.gov, then click on the Contact Us link on the left side. A list of all SHA maintenance shop telephone numbers is also on the Web site.

Yesterday on I-95 in Maryland I saw something worse than texting while driving - sign language! The driver (doing nearly 70 mph) and a passenger were conversing using sign language. That meant both hands off the wheel at times (to "talk") plus having to look directly at the passenger (to "listen"). I know this may sound insensitive or "non-PC" but that kind of distracted driving appeared even worse than talking on a cell phone. Why don't lawmakers bundle all forms of distracted driving (talking, smoking, eating, etc.) into one statute rather than the hodgepodge we have now?

Over the years, travelers have told me about many forms of distracted driving -- including that one, believe it or not.

I think it's important to recognize that this problem isn't limited to cell phone users and texters. Among the other types of districtions I've heard about: drivers wrapping a newspaper page around the steering wheel and drivers pinning a laptop to the steering wheel.

But as you say, there are many mundane distractions, including talking, eating, changing CDs, adjusting the radio, or staring at the little car on the GPS screen.

I'm not sure I'd go for the law-enforcement solution of trying to wrap everything into one law. Don't you think it would be a bit much to ask an officer to figure out if talking amounted to distracted driving in a given situation -- and you know we're not going to impose a blanket ban on talking in vehicles.

I do think it's more of an education effort, such as what's going on in Virginia work zones with the "Orange Cones. No Phones." campaign.

Two weeks ago somebody mentioned getting a speed camera ticket on I-295 and complained that the speed limit isn't posted on there. I drove down southbound I-295 on the Washington's Birthday holiday last Monday on my way home from a museum trip. The speed camera is a permanent camera and it's a small beige metal box located on the right side of the road where the trees end as you pass the Blue Plains sewage treatment plant. There's a concrete pad there where they used to park a police cruiser with the mobile speed camera prior to the permanent installation. More importantly for the prior question, I specifically noted that there is indeed a "Speed Limit 50" sign (complete with a "Photo Enforced" auxiliary tab) located a short distance prior to the camera location. You know where that on-ramp enters from the right and then the exit marked Blue Plains/DC WATER (used to say "DC WASA") leaves on the right and then you go up a hill and around a curve to the left? The speed limit sign is located just after that exit departs. Everyone sure seemed to know the camera was there last Monday, as after we passed the overhead variable message board everybody slowed down to around 40 to 45 mph, passed the camera, then sped back up.

Thanks. And I believe both DC and Maryland jurisdictions that use speed cameras post the enforcement zones on their Web sites.

I know you don't tend to discuss pedestrian issues so I'll frame this for cars - I regularly see cars running red lights at Logan Circle (as I'm in the crosswalk with a walk signal waving my arms at the car to stop at the red light) at all points around the circle. And this weekend witnessed (as I was in the crosswalk) a car run the stop sign at NH and S St NW - ran right through without so much as slowing down. NH and 18th St is popular for right turns (yes, Mr UPS truck I saw you). This is dangerous for other cars who are obeying the lights/signs. Red light/stop sign cameras at these intersections would be a HUGE financial boon to the city. What does it take to get the city to install them? The financial windfall would be enough to fund the public schools (if based only on my personal experience).

Have you brought this to the attention of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission in the Logan Circle area? (You know, we've got plenty of readers here who think DC is never reluctant to set up a red light or speed camera.)

As a walker with plenty of readers who also are walkers, I'm very concerned about pedestrian safety issues and the techniques that transportation departments are using to improve pedestrian safety.

I'll keep it shorter this week. Dulles Toll Road Connector westbound, right before the main toll plaza. A "new" left lane appears for a quarter mile, then merges with and into the lane to the right suddenly. No sign. No warning. Lots of accidents. VDOT can't even find the location on a map when calling 1-800-FOR-ROAD, much less fix it. Who is responsible for fixing it?

It's either going to be VDOT or the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which operates the Dulles Toll Road.

Dear Dr. Gridlock -- I am truly grateful for those rare occasions when Fairfax County actually repaves a road, but I do wonder why the new surface has to be two or three inches above the existing manhole covers. It would seem a simple engineering feat to add a spacer ring to the manhole so that we would be spared the jarring pothole-like bumps. Is there a Virginia law that prohibits messing with manhole covers? My car would thank you.

The Virginia General Assembly appears to be busy with other matters. I think you might try calling the Fairfax County Department of Transportation at 703-877-5600.  As you say, the height of the manhole cover should be adjusted to the pavement level.

Doc, Does VDOT have any ability to push back on the builder for the 495 express lanes if (when) certain improvements or metrics are not met? I recall that VDOT guarantees the builder certain minimums but I certainly hope that there are standards the builder must meet or else VDOT can penalize the builder - or else the contract is even more one-sided than I thought it was.

VDOT certainly does work with Fluor-Transurban, the private partners on the 495 Express Lanes project.

We saw an example of that just last week, as they got together to try to untangle that traffic jam the project had created on the outer loop at the ramp to westbound I-66.

Hi, Dr. G.: Thanks for taking my question. Have you heard anything positive or negative about the new Blue Line re-routing on the Rosslyn station's lower platform? Is the routing working out well or does Metro need to fix some kinks?

Can you write back to me and elaborate? Or maybe some other readers could help clarify for me?

I don't know of any permanent rerouting of the Blue Line so far. I know that one is scheduled for this summer, when some of the rush hour Blue Line trains are diverted to the Yellow Line. I've gotten plenty of both positive and negative comments about that, depending on which route people find most convenient.

Doc G, When will we be able to drive on the new Capital Beltway HOT/Express Lanes (what are we calling them these days?)? Progress looks good. I've heard late 2012 or early 2013. Do we have a month?

They should be open by December. One of my editors asked me a similar question last night about the names. The generic term for this type of toll road is high-occupancy toll, or HOT. It means drivers who meet the carpool rules can drive for free, while others pay a toll. I always thought "high-occupancy toll" was confusing. Sounds like high-occupancy vehicles pay a toll, when the opposite is true.

So I was pleased when a couple of months ago the project changed the  name of the Beltway project to "495 Express Lanes." Project managers told me they did that mainly because that's the way drivers will see the lanes marked. Federal rules limit what the highway signs can say, and they can't say "HOT lanes."

There's still a lot of work to be done in this 14 mile project. Beltway drivers will start to see many areas looking done, but some other, more complex parts will lag.

Drivers in the left-hand lanes on the Beltway: Watch out for more construction trucks entering and exiting on the left side this year. The left side is where the HOT lanes will be. (Excuse me: 495 Express Lanes.)

I ride a commuter bus to DC but this phenomenon occurs on the Metro as well as buses. I have seen it in Boston, Philadelphia and DC. When a male sits and shares a seat it spreads his legs so that he takes up a seat and a half. On the crowded commuter buses there is not much one can do. How does one politely ask someone to quit spreading their legs?

You've got me stumped on that one. I think we should call in Miss Manners. I'm just the transportation doctor.

Do you think the reduced metro subsidy has had/will continue to have an impact on the number of cars on the road?

We haven't seen the effects of a federal subsidy reduction so far.

Whether we're talking about subsidy reductions or fare increases, travelers don't change their behavior in a hurry. You have to look at the consequences of a financial change over a long period of time.

I travel completely through Montgomery County each day. I see folks turn at corners with no turn signs, folks go straight in turn only lanes, park right next to no parking signs. Any thoughts on why Montgomery County does not seem to enforce these rules and we who see this sort of thing happen, causing issues, to not happen again.

I think we probably wouldn't want a police force large enough to strictly enforce all our traffic laws. Wouldn't want it, and couldn't afford it anyway.

What you're observing certainly isn't limited to Montgomery County. I hear about such behavior from travelers all around the D.C. region, and I see it, too, as a driver, cyclist and pedestrian.

Do you think it's a good argument for more enforcement cameras?

In the case where there are multiple up escalators and elevators available in a metro station, why not convert a few high cost, low reliability escalators with good old fashioned stair cases?

This issue has come up fairly frequently among my readers, and gotten a mixed reaction.

There's the issue of stopping escalators and using them as up and down walkers while another escalator is under repair. I hate that. The escalators have uneven steps, and often there's no lighting to show people where the steps are.

Many riders say, Give up on the platform-mezzanine escalators and replace them with stairs. I think it's sensible to add stairways, but not subtract escalators. And I get plenty of letters from travelers who say they need the escalators.

Putting in stairways is expensive and disruptive. I'm sure riders who use the Foggy Bottom station will confirm the disruptive part, much as I think it's a good idea to ask the staircase at the entrance.

If I need a seat, I ask politly "May I sit down please"? If they are crowding into me, I say politely "Please make room for me. I know we can share." It's worked so far, but I pick my targets.

Good advice on transit etiquette. Thank you. (It's interesting about taking transit: It's the environment most likely to push us up close to complete strangers and test our social skills. I find travelers want to talk as much about their interaction with other travelers as they do about the things a transportation department did or didn't do.)

Why is it that there are never Yellow trains at Gallery Place to carry one beyond Mt. Vernon Square? In the mornings there are frequently Yellow trains traveling south-bound from at least PG Plaza - so why not in the reverse in the evening rush?

I think what you're seeing in the morning is trains being shifted around. The regular Yellow Line service ended at Mount Vernon Square until a few years back, the District won an extension up to Fort Totten for off-peak service. (The District paid for this extension back when it was a pilot project.)

At rush hour, it's not possible to turn back Yellow Line trains at Fort Totten without jamming up the Green Line service. So during those hours, the Yellow Line still ends at Mount Vernon Square.

This will change in the summer, when Metro converts some rush-hour Blue Line trains to be Yellow Line trains and sends them up to Greenbelt.

Dr. G, Do you know at what point VDOT will be able to un-slalom the Beltway? I realize that the lanes aren't due to open for quite some time- but it seems like priority #1 should be to put the inner/outter loops where they're going to permanently be, adn then have a permanent interior construction zone. The slalom- and pavement/line marking changes are getting ridiculous in some areas! (particulary between 95/66)

I totally understand the slalom experience you're describing. Drivers have to be alert all the time, should stay in their lanes and should watch their speeds through those zones. And I wish that in some of those areas, the line markings were brighter.

The project managers are basically building what they can when they can. And some parts are a lot more complicated than others. I'm sure that as the year develops, I'll hear from lots of drivers saying that, The part I drive looks done. When are they opening?

I'm sure the project managers would love to get this thing done and start collecting tolls. But those interchanges -- especially the 66 interchange -- are the parts that are going to take the longest.

So I think the Olympic experience will continue into the fall.

 

Actually it's been there for a while and there is a sign showing the lane will end. The problem is the sign looks like it belongs with the Toll Rd.

Thanks. This is a follow-up on our earlier exchange about the Dulles Connector going into the Toll Road.

Dr. G: Ashley Halsey's Feb 18 article on the revenue generating potential of work zone cameras illustrates the need to end the santimonious hyprocracy that they -- along with most speed limit and red light cameras -- are being installed not for safety, but for revenue . Ohio and Penna. declare their entire states "work zones" so that they can double fines. Penna. imposes ridiculously low speed limits five miles out from a "work zone" and have sheriffs lurking, hidden in trees and hills. However, WVa have lights to indicate an active work zone. No flashing lights, no artifically reduced speed limits, no extra revenue. Maryland and Virginia ought to be similarly up-front and safety -- not revenue -- conscious.

The transportation and police agencies around here that use the cameras continue to tell me they use them to improve safety, not for revenue.

But if they were squeezing speeders and other scofflaws to generate revenue, I'd have no problem with that.

Are Metro's new paper fare card policies designed to discourage tourists from using the system? $6 each way for a family of 4 would be ridiculously expensive, especially if they have to park at a Metro lot as well. You could drive and park downtown for much less. They need to have a reasonable day pass available for tourists in my opinion. Unless they want to keep them out for some reason.

First, let's be clear that this flat fare thing for paper Farecards is a Metro proposal, not a done deal. People have six chances over the next to weeks to come out to public hearings and tell the Metro board members what they think of the idea.

I sense it's not too popular. And I find the concept a bit confusing: On the one hand, Metro staff says this flat fare system would be friendly for tourists because it would be easy to understand. No staring at the fare charts in the stations, trying to figure out how much to feed into the vending machine for a particular trip.

On the other hand, it's deliberately unfriendly: Transit officials are trying to shift the riders away from paper and to the plastic SmarTrip cards, which are more efficient and easier to use.  And they're trying to shift them by making it financially painful to buy paper Farecards at those proposed prices of $4 and $6.

One of the worst offensese i've seen: doing the crossword propped on the steering wheel while driving down 270...

Well, that's eye-catching.

Another weird one: Drivers tell me they get distracted staring into the back of the SUV ahead of them, where they can see what the kids are watching on the backseat video screens.

My problem is when the speed limit is blatantly underposted for no good reason and then they run strict enforcement. That's not always the case. I'd argue that the Beltway Express Lane work zone in Virginia is OVER-posted at 55 mph and that a lower limit would make more sense in a number of places, especially the "slalom" areas and the areas where old pavement markings left ruts. But consider I-66 between Fair Oaks and Gainesville. That road is four lanes on a side, smooth, wide shoulders, yet it's posted at either 55 or 60 mph. It's a better road than most of the ones VDOT posted at 70 mph!

I don't mean this as a contradiction about what you're saying regarding I-66 or the concept that some roads are underposted, but just to extend the conversation:

When I'm driving around the D.C. region, I sense that drivers don't have a problem with the posted speed limits. They routinely ignore them, unless traffic conditions force them to slow down.

What they have a problem with is enforcement of the speed limit. On Maryland's Intercounty Connector, for example, drivers who write to me say they hate seeing police cars. They think it would be much more sensible to assign those cars to other highways -- preferably ones that they don't drive.

Maybe I'm late to the game on this, but I really don't understand what's going on with Smart Trip cards. Apparently when you swipe it, you only get to see how much you have left on your office account, not your total, including personal contributions. Why do they do that? Is this as stupid as I think it is? Is there some sense that I'm missing? I've ended up with a ton of money on my card because I kept adding, thinking I was getting near 0, when in fact I was only getting near 0 in office contributions.

It's complicated. And people who know this stuff will realize that I'm giving you the short-version here:

Metro has finally complied with a long-standing IRS ruling designed to thwart cheating on the tax rules for the transit subsidies.

So your SmarTrip account divides itself into three purses: One for your transit riding benefit, one for your parking benefit, and one for the money you put into the account on your own. When you tap your card at the fare gate, only the transit benefit part will show up, until you've completely used up that monthly benefit. Then it will start tapping into the money you put in on your own, and will display that. (The digital readout on the fare gate can't display a figure for all three accounts at once.)

Excuse me. Please move over so I can sit there.

I think we've solved this etiquette question: Concentrate on the desired result rather than on the offense.

The most frequently asked etiquette issue regarding Metro seating: How do you politely get someone to give up a priority seat for someone who has priority? I find riders are very reluctant to ask for the seat they are entitled to use.

Just a comment -- related to the post about Montgomery County. I drive past a high school every day during the time of day the lower speed limits are in effect and people pass me like I'm standing still. It's a school zone, people!

But I can give you a more positive one, also in Montgomery County: I sometimes ride my bike down to a school that sits on a hill overlooking a road with a speed camera. I really think drivers have changed their behavior because of the speed camera.

I don't mean they hit their brakes as they approach the camera. They did that when the camera was first installed. Now, I rarely see either brake lights or the flash of the camera along that stretch of road.

I have noticed this for years! As a woman who often uses mass-transit, I find myself standing whenever possible, just to avoid having strange men push their leg my way. It seems so... passive agressive, and can be really unsettling. I don't know how to deal with it, though, so if you have some thoughts, we'd love to hear!

Very creepy behavior, and I don't wonder at all about why it upsets you. I'd like to hear from more riders about this -- not only whether they also encounter it, but also about their recommendations on what to do.

People are reluctant to cause a scene -- that's what I was thinking of in my earlier response when I noted that people are reluctant even to ask for the seat they're entitled to -- but it doesn't seem right that riders should have to accept this kind of bad behavior.

Hi, Dr. G. Thanks for the reply to my query about the Blue Line in Rosslyn. This message is in reply to your question to elaborate about this situation. Specifically, there is a sign posted on the outside of the elevator shaft connecting the upper and lower platforms of the Rosslyn station that basically reads "Blue Line trains servicing lower platform between 10 AM and 2 PM." I don't know if this sign is from this past weekend, applies Monday thru Friday, or somethng else. I hope my answer offers further elaboration to your query.

Thanks very much for getting back to me on that. I think this must have something to do with a Metro maintenance operation occuring each day this week between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Blue Line trains are single-tracking between Foggy Bottom and Arlington Cemetery while crews work on the rails along that stretch of track.

I know it's been mentioned before, but I am a pedestrian commuter and making eye contact with a driver is always a good bet. This doesn't mean stepping right out in front of them willy-nilly, of course, but when you are legally crossing at a lighted or signed crosswalk and the car is slowed or stopped, it helps make sure they see you. Humans are hardwired to notice eyes. I've seen too many drivers blow through the lights on Lee Highway coming down the hill to Rosslyn to believe that drivers are paying attention all the time, so every little bit helps...

I very much agree with your point about eye contact but would like to add the caveat that Ronald Reagan used regarding arms control: "Trust, but verify."

In our case, don't assume that a driver staring right at you actually sees you. Drivers tend to look for other motorists, and can look right through a pedestrian or cyclist -- even  a motorcyclist.

Thanks for the explanation. That at least makes some kind of sense. But why can't the fare gates just show the total left on the card, no matter the account? Isn't that what riders actually want to know?

Yes, and some riders are finding this new system a bit scary, because it looks like they're running out of money when they still have their own reserve on the card.

Travelers, thanks for joining me this week for a conversation that took us through HOT lanes and fare gates and into engineering and etiquette.

I'd like to continue hearing from you on these issues, so if you get a chance, drop me a line at drgridlock@washpost.com.

Stay safe out there, and we'll chat again next Monday.

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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