Mar 28, 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.

Welcome, travelers. Anybody got the cherry blossom blues yet? We're going to have lots of extra travelers in town for the next two weeks. And Nationals opening day is Thursday.

Do you know if DC, VA and MD have agreed to cover the additional $72.5 million funding gap that WMATA is facing? What have the three jurisdictions discussed so far regarding this matter? What might happen if the three jurisdictions do not increase their subsidy from last year?

There's been no announcement from any of the three that they're going to kick in extra money to close the gap in Metro's budget. I hadn't expected to hear anything quite this early, but you're quite right to raise the issue, because it's going to be very important over the next several months before the new budget takes effect in July.

The Metro budget presentation in January was a bit low key. No proposed fare increases or service cuts. But it assumed this extra money from the three jurisdictions.

Without it, the Metro board probably will have to consider service cuts and hold hearings on them. The usual target: bus routes.

As multiple studies have shown, Metro employees live pretty well. To the extent you have bus driver who can make in the low six figures. I am also willing to bet the benefits and possible pension packages are pretty generous. Why doesn't Metro look to pay more reasonable amounts instead of looking to reduce service or jack up the rates on its riders. I know this is about as likely as Congress giving itself a paycut. People rarely choose to reduce their own salary. However DC's nightlife, as well as many jobs and the safety of its citizens from drunk drivers depend on the 3 AM closing time for Metro. Stopping this service would do tremendous harm to the service industry, probably hurting those who are poor the most.

I also get paid to drive in heavy traffic, but would not trade my job for that of one of our bus drivers.

Metro recently has been dealing with a shortage of bus drivers that started with hiring freezes in 2008 and 2009. The freezes turned out not to be a good idea, and neither would be negotiating a salary freeze or cut on these front-line positions.

Metro officials who speak positively about cutting the nightowl service aren't saying that because they want to stiff the service industry. They think the rail system and the riders would benefit greatly from using those extra hours for maintenance.

They've started construction on the site of the old convention center on New York Avenue, NW. They've closed the sidewalks on the east side of 11th street from H to New York Avenue, and on the north side of H street from 9th to 11th streets. They allow pedestrian traffic on the south side of New York Avenue, but only because they've taken away the parking lane on the curb and placed Jersey walls. The actual sidewalk is closed. The project is likely to take take several years. With the convention center, hotels, and Metro nearby, it's unsafe to close sidewalks. What do DC laws say?

DC rules say that a developer can take away the sidewalk as long as the developer provides an alternative pathway for pedestrians.

Doc: I was on the SE freeway (right before exiting to Penn Ave.) this weekend. There is a ramp on the approach to the RFK parking lot entrance that just stops mid-air. Not far away is construction, some ariel ramps being built. What's with the old/incomplete ramp and what is the construction going on in that area?

That sounds like 11th Street Bridge project, the biggest transportation project undertaken by DC in the past decade. By the end of the year, according to the schedule, there should be two new spans over the Anacostia. They will be for through traffic, and will end the need for eastbound drivers to make that off-highway transition onto Pennsylvania Avenue and then make the left onto 295 northbound.

A year later, the third span should be open for local traffic.

Meanwhile, the project includes work on the 11th Street Bridge approaches on both sides of the river.

Do you know if they're planning on resurfacing the section of 370 that connects to the ICC? It's pretty rough right now.

Yes, it's awful. There's lots of work still to be done around there. State officials were anxious to get the first segment of the highway open as soon as possible, and start collecting tolls to pay off the bonds.

When Metro announces that there are delays due to a sick passenger on a train, what exactly does this mean? I feel like this happens about every six weeks or so during the morning commute. What kind of illness is causing this?

I think it happens more often than that. A "sick customer" could mean a person got motion sickness on a train, or something way more serious. Metro personnel focus first on helping the sick person. Often, the entire train gets unloaded, and that creates extensive problems down the line at rush hour.

There's usually single-tracking around the train for at least a while.

Why does the District not recognize Maryland handicap placards? Wouldn't reciprocity make more sense between the three local jurisdictions?

The District does recognize Maryland permits. Here's the rule as stated by the DC Department of Motor Vehicles:

Disability parking placards/permits or tags from DC or any state allow you to:

  • Park in any parking space designated for a disabled person.
  • Park for double the posted time in metered or time-restricted spaces
  • Park for free at metered spaces for double the meter time; after double the time, you must pay the meter rate.

Are columns ever again going to appear on the columns page at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/linkset/2007/11/26/LI2007112601672.html? The updating has been erratic for a couple of months now, and nothing new has appeared since the 5th.

The archive page for Dr. Gridlock's columns was one of the many things that got disrupted during the Post's new Web design. You can find old Commuter and Dr. Gridlock columns at http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/trafficandcommuting . Sorry for the inconvenience, but we hope you like the new page, which has live traffic, weather and blog posts in the same place.

I am flabbergasted by today's article about the rail stations being built in Tysons. How is it possible that this thing was "planned" without taking into account how people would actually be able to access the stations? Things like this are one of the big reasons why no one has any faith in Metro's ability to run the railroad.

I think the Tysons stations were planned to be accessible by foot and by bus rather than by car. I don't recall ever seeing plans for parking in the first phase except at the Wiehle Avenue station in Reston. That said, Virginia, Fairfax County and Metro need to get together and make sure they're ready for passengers when the first phase opens in 2014.

I'm not sure what this issue says about Metro's ability to run the railroad. Metro has had very little to do with the Dulles Metrorail project. Virginia is planning and building it, then will hand over the keys to Metro for the transit authority to operate.

The folks who built the ICC did an excellent job, it's a beautiful road to drive on. Unfortunately, despite the fact that the portion that is open might actually be useful to me, I have given up on it. I could live with the outrageous tolls and ridiculously aggressive speed enforcement if I knew that driving on the ICC would save me time. And it should. However, when I try to enter the ICC going North on Shady Grove Road, I have to sit through 3 lights at a total of 7 minutes in order to just enter the road. Even if one hits the first light, at Crabbs Branch Rd, green, the next light (at the entrance to Metro) will be red every time. And then that turns green, and even if you are first in line and hit the gas hard, the left turn arrow to the ICC will be red. And both of those lights are VERY long in the other direction, even when there isn't actually any traffic. If Maryland actually wants people to use the ICC, it would be helpful to make it a bit less time-consuming to actually get to the road.

That left turn onto the ICC from Shady Grove Road is particularly problematic. I've hit it on green just once. The other times, I've sat there for what seems like a couple of minutes. Not sure I can urge Maryland transportation officials to change that at this time. There's clearly a far heavier volume of traffic in all the other directions. ICC traffic is very light.

And I'd still use the ICC to get from Shady Grove to the Olney area if I'm trying to save time.

By the way, glad to hear there's speed enforcement on the ICC. I saw plenty of drivers going way too fast.

Our commute has us go up 16th St, through the District and into Silver Spring, and then right at that rotary (of doom) and up Colesville Rd. toward Georgia, right past the Discovery building. What is the deal with that stretch of Colesville Rd? Those few blocks -- from the intersection with East West up to Georgia Ave -- are possibly the worst stretch we drive over, ever. The road there is horrible. It's warped, it's pitted, and there's a pair of patches right before the Wayne Ave. light and the Georgia Ave. light that seems downright melted, into a strange and goopy shape. My gut says they won't do anything about it until they finish the Silver Spring Transit Center and have that construction mess cleared away, but... is there a plan to do anything about it? Who would know?

That's Maryland State Highway Administration territory, and I suspect you're right about not seeing really significant improvement till the road work related to the transit center is done.

But I must say that I think our roads across the region are in pretty bad shape right now. In Maryland, for example, I've seen really bad stretches on Rockville Pike and University Boulevard, among others. I'm not talking just potholes. I'm talking whole stretches where the pavement is torn up.

You have probably answered this question before, but I fail to understand why the District government repeatedly begins the process of ripping up streets and then leaves them in an unfinished state for weeks to months. For example, on 16th Street between Columbia Road and Meridian Hill Park, the city begin ripping up the pavement at least a month ago and has then left it that way for people to have to drive over creating a commuter mess every morning and evening. I already have one bent wheel rim due to the conditions of roads in DC, but really why can't they start and finish projects in a timely fashion?

I haven't seen that stretch of 16th recently, so there's a little bit of guess work in this response: From your description and the timing, it could be that the preliminary work on a resurfacing project was done during the winter, but that the final resurfacing is awaiting warmer weather, making it easier to work with asphalt.

While I may be right on that timing, it doesn't mean I wouldn't be upset having to driver over it day after day.

I recently rode the rail service in Chicago, and it's amazing how much more rider-friendly it is than DC's Metro. On two separate occasions, transit workers volunteered help in working the card machine and reading the map, without my asking. The escalators all worked (perhaps because there were significantly fewer of them). The station floors were concrete and not slippery. The station announcements on the train were clear but not loud. There was no PA system bellowing at me to cover my mouth when I cough. Why can't we have these things in DC?

I'm glad you had that good experience in Chicago. It's a little difficult to judge other systems by occasional experiences with them. Over the years, I have heard from many travelers who were favorably impressed with the subways in Chicago, New York and Boston, while others found something nice to say about Metro in comparison.

With transit employees, people who write to me are about evenly split on good and bad experiences. I've had riders compliment Metro employees for helping them with the fare machines.

Recently, I found a station manager at Judiciary Square responding immediately and helpfully to a problem with an escalator.

Are they planning to restrict hybrids on I-66 or make them ride with at least 2 people for HOV? Traveling HOV lanes outside the Beltway is slower than the regular lanes because there are so many.

I think the governor has till Tuesday to sign the bill passed by the General Assembly to grant yet another one year extension for the hybrid exemption in HOV lanes. What's different this year is that you would have to buy your hybrid and get the Virginia clean fuel tags by June 30 to qualify for the exemption.

 

Why is it so many times a train stops and then advances a foot or so before the doors open? Is the positioning of the trains that important?

The trains remain under the control of the operator, and no timetable has been announced for a return to automatic control. Some drivers are better than others, but they all are required to pull their trains up to the very front of the platform.

That's a safety measure, in case an operator used to driving a six-car train forgets that he or she is currently operating an eight-car train. We had some problems with the trailing cars opening their doors in the tunnels.

Hi Doc. I was out of town all last week, and arrived home yesterday to find two envelopes from Maryland EZ-Pass. One for each of the two times I took the ICC while it was free. Did they seriously send one to EVERY driver for EACH time they took the ICC when it was free? I sure hope it didn't cost much...

While we were test-driving the ICC during those two free weeks, Maryland was testing its tolling equipment. (I didn't realize that till a driver wrote to me and asked why she was getting these notices of zero toll due.)

The mailings went to drivers without E-ZPass transponders. Besides telling them they didn't have to pay a toll, they were invited to sign up for E-ZPass. For those of us with E-ZPass transponders, we should see zeroes recorded on our monthly statements.

So why offload the whole train? Unless the passenger cannot be moved (and you can usually tell that pretty quickly) I don't see the point.

I think Metro has been looking at that too. Sometimes, it's just one car that gets offloaded, and that car is sealed up and the train continues on.

(I'm not sure the offloading is the source of delay that most riders on the following trains encounter. I think it's mostly in the stopping of the train and the waiting for medical assistance to arrive. They don't drag the sick person off the train.)

Do you know if the policy has changed recently so that the express lanes over the Potomac are just for HOV at all times? It used to be the overhead signs said "HOV-3 " and the electronic signs right below said "Open to all traffic" on just the bridge portion of the express lanes, but now they've taken down the electronic signs. Does that mean you can't jump into them to go over the bridge?

I've heard of no rule changes regarding the HOV hours on the 14th Street Bridge.

The mess that is 15th Street is creating dangerous circumstances for motorists and bicyclists. Cars dart in and out the left turn only lanes, bicyclists use their lane the sidewalk and the travel lanes. What was once a safe efficient route in and out of downtown is now a monument to bad decision making. Is there any chance that we will see a return to sanity?

I'd like to hear more comments from 15th Street drivers, cyclists and walkers about the new traffic pattern. Send an e-mail to me at drigridlock@washpost.com.

(I've heard of no plans to change the current traffic pattern, with the new bike lane. The District Department of Transportation is monitoring the situation, but I'm not sure the pattern has been there long enough to have a clear idea of whether it should be modified.)

Dr. G: When do street sweepers resume their sweeping?

Not sure where you are, but can tell you something about the DC Department of Public Works street sweeping program. The annual program begins around March 1. Then it plays by these rules:

In neighborhoods where signs advise motorists of parking restrictions during weekly sweeping hours, parking enforcement will begin Monday, March 21, 2011. This will allow residents and others to become accustomed to moving their cars again, especially since street sweeping days and/or times changed for some neighborhoods.

In residential neighborhoods where there are no signs identifying parking restrictions, sweeping will occur twice a month.

Dr. Gridlock, What is the procedure to get a no left turn sign removed. At the corner of Columbia, 18th, and Adams Mill Rd. there is a left turn lane and a no left turn sign during rush hour that is constantly ignored by everybody. I feel like it is silly to have this sign if it is not going to be enforced even when traffic control officers are around and writing tickets about the no right hand turn on red.

Seems like something your local Advisory Neighborhood Commission could help with.

Doc: It's been some time since they shut down Chain Bridge (I remenber the weekend someone had the bright idea to shut down the bridge on the same weekend as the Marine Corps Marathon), but I notice the closure signs are still up, although now consistently covered over. Is the maintenance work finally done or does DDOT still have another nightmare that it is waiting to spring on the unsuspecting?

I think the Chain Bridge project is wrapped up now, at least in terms of the lane closings. (My recollection is that the closing on Marine Corps Marathon weekend last fall was over by the time the Marathon started. No?)

Given that the U.S. is increasing its net population at the rate of 2.3 million per year, then how in God's name will be able to move them around without massive public transportation?

I'm certainly a big fan of sensibly placed public transportation, especially with the dense population in the D.C. area. I think we need to do more to enhance our bus services in particular.

Thanks, as always, for joining me for the chat, and I hope to join you again next Monday. Stay safe, and write to me anytime at drgridlock@washpost.com.

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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