Dr. Gridlock

Apr 23, 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. I see questions about schedules for highway and transit work. Let's get into them.

Why is it taking so long to finish this project and when will it be completed?

The last phase of the Wilson Bridge project is on schedule, though many drivers passing through the ancient bottleneck on the outer loop wish it were ahead of schedule.

Everything -- meaning the Beltway lanes and the Telegraph Road interchange -- is scheduled to be done in June 2013. But the parts I think most drivers care about, the completion of the THRU and LOCAL lanes on both loops, is scheduled to be done this summer. When that final paving gets really cranked up, it will be disruptive, particularly on the outer loop

So Metro is planning to shut down a stretch of the Yellow Line (including L'Enfant Plaza) when the Nats play the Cubs on Labor Day? For real? Or will reason prevail and the schedule be changed?

I've asked Metro about reconsidering that weekend's work and also about Columbus Day weekend, when the Redskins play at FedEx and there's work scheduled on the Orange and Blue lines.

I'm looking at options for long-term parking at Dulles, and all I can find is something at hotels. Is this the best option? We don't need a room the night before since our flight is at 8 p.m. What do you or the chatters recommend? Thanks!

This question has come up at least once before. When I searched back just now, I found this response from a traveler:

"Last winter I parked at the Crowne Plaza Dulles in Herdon and the rate was $40/week. They have a shuttle twice an hour. I don't know of any "official" off site parking companies like they have at BWI."

Others commented on the hotel options, but that one was the most specific.

Might you be able to take the Washington Flyer or Metrobus 5A?

Any ideas from other travelers?

Dr. Gridlock: Do you know when the road work on Route 202 (Landover area) will be completed? It has been going on for at least 2 years now. Thank you.

I think that Maryland State Highway Administration project should be done in May, if the weather cooperates. (A lot of the final work on such projects is very dependent on good weather, because there's paving and lane striping to be done.)

Will the toll for the HOT lanes on 495 and 95 be waived when road construction is blocking regular lanes? For example, when VDOT blocks 2/3 mainline lanes on 95 for overnight construction. Will they waive the toll to reduce the backup for the work zone?

For the 495 Express Lanes on the Beltway, there are provisions to divert traffic and waive the tolls in the case of a major disruption. I think it's a pretty good bet there will be a similar provision regarding the I-95 HOT lanes.

I believe this has been addressed before, but I'm hoping for a definitive answer. Will the new Sillver Line continue on into DC (to Stadium Armory, perhaps?) or will it run only to East Falls Church, where passengers will have to transfer to the Orange Line? The preliminary map is no help -- the Sillver Line "color trail " doesn't parallel the Orange line past EFC, but that station also doesn't have the "transfer station" iconography. Hoping for the definitive answer. Many thanks...

Let's say you're a commuter in western Fairfax and you decide to park at the end of the Silver Line (first phase) at Wiehle Avenue. You will be able to board a train that will take you all the way to Stadium-Armory.

That's one of the reasons it's a preliminary map you're looking at now. By the time the Silver Line starts to operate, Metro is going to need to show it going through downtown DC.

Right now, I think, it's going to be hard enough for riders to figure out the implications of the Rush Plus service, which starts June 18. That's a key element in the display on the preliminary map.

It seems the parking lot lights at Shady Grove burn 24 hours a day. It seems Metro should have a timer to turn them off at sunrise.

I haven't seen that, but it certainly sounds like a waste of juice. I don't believe there's any sort of Metro policy involved in that. When I parked at Greenbelt recently during the day, the lights were off.

Dr. Gridlock, One thing that has particularly irked me recently is Metro's propensity to underdeliver on their stated completion dates for escalator and elevator work. You see these things being rehabbed and perhaps even replaced all over the system, but I cannot tell you the number of times I see the signs with the completion dates past due. A recent example is the elevator at Cleveland Park, which I saw yesterday. The signs all had a printed sticker with an April 2012 completion date, but all of those were either covered in duct tape or marker and May 2012 handwritten instead. Where's the accountability to finish on time? Making matters worse, how often do you have situations like that where you can't see anyone working at all? When the system is as cash-strapped as it is, why even bother spending money to print up these stickers and signs when they clearly just go to waste? The costs I'm sure are nominal compared to running the system, but still, it's money spent that could be put to better use.

A lot of people would like to see that elevator back in service. It's a shame it had to be out of service during the cherry blossom tourist season.

I'm not sure about those markings on the sign. I can tell you what I wrote the first week in January, when it was going out of service: "The entrance elevator at Metrorail’s Cleveland Park station is scheduled to go out of service Friday for a modernization project that will continue through May."

I've seen plenty of signs at escalators over the past few years that gave a long-past completion date, so I know this happens. Today, Metro reports that it has 57 escalators out and nine elevators out.

At Metro Center, five elevators and escalators are out.

We've asked Metro about the work schedules plenty of times over the past dozen or so years that the escalators and elevators have been a serious problem. Metro officials say that we may not see workers at a particular site because the employees on that project work a different shift -- like overnight. They've also told us that the old equipment may have problems that aren't discovered till the things get taken apart in the initial phase of the repair project. Sometimes, the workers discover a busted part that no longer has a manufacturer, and Metro has to design a new part itself.

I commute by car between downtown DC and upper Montgomery County every day (it's much faster than public transportation), and the worst part of my commute is typically K St NW. To a large degree, backups are caused by delivery trucks (food, beverage, UPS, FedEx, and USPS) trucks that treat the right traffic lane as their personal parking zones. Is there a DC government policy to ignore enforcement against these vehicles? Last I checked, almost every office building in the city has an off-street loading dock specifically for pickups and deliveries.

There's no policy against enforcement, but the enforcement is insufficient. The city needs to hire more traffic control officers (like the ones you see waving you through at intersections) and have them move those delivery trucks at rush hour.

In the Express Lane section of I-495, you can see paving operations for the last month. This includes sections of the road that will be the Express Lanes (near Rt 7 and I-66), sections that are brand new as main lanes have been shifted (Near 236 and Braddock), and sections that desperately need repaving (near Springfield). So why is the paving operations occurring there, and not at Telegraph Road? What is VDOT waiting for at Telegraph?

I think Transurban-Fluor, the private consortium that is building the Beltway HOT lanes, would be unwilling to donate its services to VDOT for the Wilson Bridge construction project around Telegraph Road.

Also, in that Wilson Bridge work zone around Telegraph Road, there are some places they could pave now, but if they opened them up, drivers would run into a dead end a bit farther down the Beltway. In other words, the work underway now isn't all about paving the Beltway lanes. There are points along the way where other work has to occur anyway.

This is true on the HOT lanes zone as well. As the year goes on, drivers will see lots of nice looking pavement that's blocked off. The interchanges -- particularly at I-66 and the Dulles Toll Road -- are the most complicated parts, and they'll have to be done before the lanes can be opened.

Dear Dr. Gridlock, Every single day, every single ride, when entering a station, a Metro train has to stop, move a few inches, then stop, before opening the doors for passengers. Why is that? Don't tell me it is a safety issue. The move has never been more than a few inches. It is awfully hard to think that few inches will make all of us safer. Instead, I saw passengers got up at the first stop, only to be jerked around by that sudden movement of a few inches. Some did fall on the floor. It must be some kind of Metro policy to do this because you can see that on every train, every stop. But why? Thanks,

Some train operators are better drivers than others. They all need to bring the trains to a stop at the front of the platform before opening the doors.

Supposedly, the eventual return to automated train controls will resolve this. But Metro hasn't set a date for that. (It involves the replacement and testing of the track circuits, stemming from the problems with the train controls that were identified after the Red Line crash in June 2009.)

I have to go to Frederick MD tomorrow morning for work - I need to arrive at Ft Detrick military base no later than 10am. I would be coming from the Kingstowne area. What time would you leave? I was thinking 8 but traffic going 495 towards Tyson's is bad. According to the map directions I'd also have to take 270. Suggestions on what time to leave? Is 7:30 to early?

Split the difference and make it 7:45. I think the Beltway inner loop, the first part of your trip, is likely to be the worst. It should ease up after you pass Tysons.

I haven't got a better route to suggest -- which is why travelers write to me bemoaning the lack of another Potomac River crossing west of the Legion Bridge.

Not a question, just a comment: With at least two deaths the past four days (Fri on Dulles Access Road, today on Beltway), please everybody, be careful and be aware. Arriving at your destination safely is more important than anything else.

Thank you. You're message reminds me that on Wednesday, safety advocates in Virginia will renew their "Orange Cones. No Phones." campaign, to get drivers to stop talking and texting when passing through the many work zones in the Beltway corridor.

My husband and I each received letters from EZPass indicating that they were going to start charging a maintenance fee for our transponders. Since transponders will be required to travel as HOVs on I-95/395 and the Beltway as part of the Express Lanes projects, lanes HOVs should be able to travel in for free will now cost money. How can VDOT do this? HOVs are helping the system by carpooling, and now they want to force us to pay a fee to be given the honor of driving in their Lexus Lanes? Why was this not noted when the Express Lanes were in the public comment stage?

Virginia should in no way penalize the I-95 drivers who go to the through of gathering carpools and reducing the overall traffic burden on that crowded highway. Penalizing the slugs for doing the right thing is  just wrong, and the next General Assembly should make sure that doesn't happen.

 

Is it just me, or is DC starting to get really sneaky with their photo enforcement? The speed cameras used to be mounted on unmarked, or sometime marked, police vehicles. Those locations have been slowly replaced by automated boxes that look like nothing more than a standard electrical box. Those of us that know where they are slow down, but there's always the one out-of-towner that's going a few miles over that zips past them to be greeted by a flash. Was DC not making enough money off the more obvious speed enforcement equipment, or do they find this new equipment somehow increases the safety for drivers throughout the city?

Drivers can find a list of the speed camera locations on this page of the DC police department Web site:

http://mpdc.dc.gov/mpdc/cwp/view,a,1240,q,547991,mpdcNav_GID,1552,mpdcNav,|31886|.asp

I don't have  a problem with DC enforcing its speed limits. Neighborhoods love the cameras and often ask for more.

If drivers resent giving their money to DC, there's an obvious solution: Pay attention to the speed limit, just like we were taught in driver's ed.

 

I just moved to Maryland and have encountered several roads (primarily in the Silver Spring area) that have different numbers of lanes in each direction according to the time of day. Is there a website (for MD, or the county, or the region as a whole) with a guide to these lanes at varying times of day?

I believe you're refering to Colesville Road and Georgia Avenue.

The Montgomery County Department of Transportation states the rules for lane use this way

Colesville Road (U.S. 29) (between Georgia Avenue and Sligo Creek Parkway): It is a six lane facility with three lanes in each direction during the off-peak hours. In rush hour there are four lanes in the peak direction and two lanes in the other direction.

During the morning rush hours from 6:30 to 9:30 a.m., there are four southbound lanes and two northbound lanes. During the evening rush hours from 4 to 7 p.m., there are four northbound lanes and two southbound lanes.

On Georgia Avenue (MD 97) between 16th Street (MD 390) and Interstate 495: A center turn lane during off-peak hours is transformed to a through lane during peak hours. This additional through lane helps move traffic in the heavier direction.

The off-peak operation on Georgia Avenue is three lanes in each direction with one continuous center lane for left turning traffic. During the morning peak hours from 6:30 to 9:30 a.m., there are four southbound lanes (inbound to Silver Spring), three northbound lanes (outbound from Silver Spring), and left turns are not permitted. During the evening peak hours from 4 to 7 p.m., there are four northbound lanes (outbound), three southbound lanes (inbound), and left turns are not permitted.

There are 80+ stations in the Metro sysem. Why do only 46 stations have a defibrillator? Also, shouldn't Metro be required by law to inspect these devices? Once again, no one was held accountable and a man died because of it.

If Metro hasn't been maintaining and testing the defibrillators in the stations, that's outrageous. It shouldn't take a rider's death to inspire an inspection. That should be done routinely.

The transit authority says it's going to have them in all stations by the end of the month. That's swell, but Metro needs to make plain that it has a credible procedure to maintain and test them.

What state is the questioner from who asked about now having to pay for her EZPass?! Inquiring minds want to know....I looked at Virginia's site but didn't see anything about a maintenance fee; I'm hoping it's not Virginia.

We're talking about Virginia. Here's the statement that VDOT issued last Thursday:

" With the anticipated expansion of the E-ZPass program in Virginia due to new toll facilities opening, the Virginia Department of Transportation is considering a new fee structure to provide customer support for the increasing number of accounts, transponders and electronic toll collections. 

"Various fee structures are under evaluation, including a monthly $1 set fee which was presented to the Commonwealth Transportation Board on Wednesday, April 18.  

"Public outreach will begin shortly and public comment provided before any final decision on a structure is adopted."

The last time we went through this was when Maryland imposed a $1.50 a month maintenance fee on its E-ZPass accounts. Many drivers were angry about that, and vowed to shop around for a better deal from other states -- like Virginia.

I think a maintenance charge for E-ZPass accounts -- like mine -- is reasonable. What I think is unreasonable is making people who now carpool pay that fee in order to continue carpooling once the HOV lanes are converted to HOT lanes.

It's hard enough to get people to carpool. They shouldn't have to pay extra for doing the right thing and helping limit the number of vehicles on the highways.

It's obvious from the questions this week and a few weeks ago that many are confused by the delays in the completion of the Telegraph Road Beltway construction. Would it be possible to do some more research into finding out what's causing the delays instead of making answers up? If you've actually driven through the corridor, you would see that there's nothing being done in the work zone most of the time. Most of the lanes already have their base coat of asphalt, and it's only a matter of doing the final shifts to give all of the lanes their final grade. The one spot that's not quite ready is the inner loop just before the Telegraph Road North exit, where they've been laying drainage pipe for 4 months. As Dr. Gridlock, I think you could be doing a little more to determine the reasons behind this delay instead of surmising excuses that are clearly wrong. Washington Post readers are not that dumb!

I base my answers onh driving the corridor, visiting work sites, and talking to the senior managers on the project. Their answers about the schedule and the work environment have been consistent and accurate over the past several years.

I hope I'm not too late to make this suggestion. I live in Kingstowne. Best way to avoid AM Beltway: Go to Springfield, then take Backlick Road to Annandale. Stay straight past Fuddruckers and turn right at the end of the road onto Annandale Road. It becomes Gallows. Follow it all the way to VA-123 at Tysons, go right, and get on the Beltway there. You will avoid the bad congestion on the Beltway. I use this route all the time.

Thanks for your help.

With another Metro fare increase likely on the horizon, have the costs of riding Metro not reached the "outrageous" level when compared to just about every other public transit system in the world? Just because federal employees get to ride without paying a dime out of pocket doesn't mean the rest of us should suffer.

Metrorail riders do pay a slightly higher share for their trips than riders on other major transit systems in the U.S.  Advocates like Ben Ross, with Transit First!, have urged the jurisdictions that subsidize Metro to increase their annual contributions so that rate can be lowered, but I don't see any sign from Maryland, DC and Virginia that this will happen.

Quite a few states charge maintenance fees for EZPass. Some waive the fee if you travel enough through their toll plazas (usually a small number), but VA is not the first to introduce the monthly fee.

Virginia certainly wouldn't be the first. The trend is toward charging maintenance fees.

Maryland is one of those states that waives the fee the month after the driver uses the pass a certain number of times.

How can you maintain that paying for an EZPass account is "reasonable"? The drivers that have EZPass accounts are saving states tons of money by allowing them to eliminate millions of dollars of administrative fees associated with manual toll collections. They also increase the theoretical capacity of roadways through high-speed collection of tolls. Drivers are doing states a favor by getting transponders, and states now want to slap them with a fee? "Reasonable," I think not!

And here I was thinking I did myself a favor by getting an E-ZPass and saving all that time at the toll plazas.

Metro must have the poorest luck of any public agency in the country, when you look at all the terrible things that just seem to happen through no fault of their own, i.e. faulty defibrillators, malfunctioning track circuits, poorly designed escalators, etc. Then you have what Metro calls the Orange Crush phenomenon Explaining overcrowding as a phenomenon is just Metro showing that it really never accepts responsibility for anything, and really, when you boil it all down, that's what's wrong with Metro. Anything bad that happens is just a phenomenon. The wise people running Metro had nothing to do with it. It just happened. What can we do to help change Metro's luck? Carry rabbits feet?

I think it's fair to blame Metro for all those things. In some cases, the blame goes back four decades, when planners created an escalator-dependent system that they apparently thought would never have to be fixed.

But transit officials do have a habit of blaming things that were outside their control. Take the escalators, for example. Metro knew for more than a decade what the basic problems were with the escalator systems. And officials kept on offering the same excuses about the problems inherent in fixing them.

They seem like legitimate problems. But once managers understand the problems and their impact on the riders, it's up to them to come up with a way to fix the problems. That's what managers do.

One good thing: Metro has changed its policy and agreed that a lot of the escalators need to be replaced, rather than rehabbed.

Do you know when they will become available. I've heard that there's a type of Easy pass you can switch on when you have only 1 person in the car and switch off when you have 3 (for the HOT LANES). Of course, how can they tell how many people are in the car?! Carol Manassas, VA

Yes, there's a new type of switchable transponder called an E-ZPass Flex that should be available this summer. When it's switched to the carpool setting the information is made available to state troopers monitoring the vehicles using the HOT lanes. If they suspect the car doesn't have at least three people, they can stop it and issue a ticket. They won't catch everyone, but they'll probably get enough to significantly discourage cheating.

Thanks for joining me today. It was a good discussion, and I've got some things I need to follow up on. Plus, there are a few more of your comments that I didn't get a chance to post, and I'll try to get at least some of them up on the Dr. Gridlock blog this week.

I hope to be back with you next Monday, but write to me any time at drgridlock@washpost.com.

Stay safe.

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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