Dr. Gridlock

Jun 04, 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.

Issues discussed in today's chat will include:
- Metro's plan for the Rush Plus service that starts June 18.
- The Virginia Department of Transportation's plan for spring/summer paving, lane changes and traffic disruptions on the Beltway west of the Wilson Bridge.
- VDOT's plan to start charging $1 a month to maintain people's E-ZPass accounts.

Welcome, travelers. Everybody okay after the Friday evening commute?

Plenty of questions already today about experiences on the roads and rails, and what's going to happen next.

As a daily rider to Shady Grove at 5 pm, it's really frustrating to endure the delays that the turn around at Grosvenor trains cause. Four days out of five the Shady Grove train must stop for several minutes waiting for clearance to pull in to Grosvenor. And the same thing happens upon our arrival at Shady Grove -- Metro knows the train is approaching Shady Grove but we stop and wait for a spot at the platform to open up. Day after day. It's frustrating.

Yep. Same thing happens on the Silver Spring side. You know why Metro does those turnarounds, right? That the transit authority wants to get the max number of trains operating at the most crowded stations?

Do you think the Red Line would be better off without the turnarounds? (That would certainly increase crowding at the downtown stations, which probably would slow down all the trains.)

I wonder if the Metro would be better off reversing the color naming for their extra trains that are part of the Rush+ program. A train starting on the Orange Line in Virginia will end on the Blue line in Maryland. The Metro can call this train an "Orange Line" or "Blue Line" train. I propose they call it both. Call the train based on its destination. The train starting in Vienna and ending at Largo would be a Blue line train. The train starting at Largo and ending in Vienna would be an Orange line train. The same for the Yellow/Blue lines. I would assume that someone getting on the Metro in Virginia will be heading to DC and not mind getting on a Blue line train on the Orange Line track. But someone getting on the Metro in DC would have a harder time because the Orange Line trains go to two completely different destinations in Maryland making them more likely to get on the wrong one.

I do think there's going to be some confusion among riders when the Rush Plus changes occur on June 18. But at this point, with the new maps already posted aboard trains and in stations, it wouldn't help to start fiddling with the line colors.

During all the discussions leading up to this, the big debate was about how to color the new trains going from Franconia-Springfield to Greenbelt. Should they still be Blues or a new color? Metro finally resolved that the easiest thing would be to call them Yellow Line trains.

There wasn't much discussion of changing the color of the Orange Line trains that will go between Vienna and Largo Town Center.

From a riders' perspective, the key will be to watch the destination signs.

Dr. G: Friday afternoon was extremely chaotic for AMTRAK and MARC due to the weather. I was lucky enough to get one of the last MARC trains that left Union Station before the power went out there. My trip home on the 4:25 Penn Line was slower than usual, but I got to Baltimore safely. I give credit to MARC for continually pushing through email updates, adjusting schedules (i.e., having all trains make all stops, instead of some running express as usual) and in general coping with a very unusual set of circumstances. I think MARC is doing a better job of keeping people informed than at any other time in the 11 years I've been riding.

I thought all the transportation agencies were doing a pretty good job pumping out information via e-mail and social media Friday evening. The radio reports were pretty good, too.

Anyone have a different experience?

So it looks like VDOT is examining the option to charge EZ-Pass customers $1 per month to use the transponder. Goodbye VA EZ-Pass if this happens, I'll gladly get another transponder from the many states that don't charge this ridiculous fee. Toll costs are spiraling out of control & this is just another example of consumers getting nickel & dimed to death. Sure it's just $12/year, but add that on top of the ridiculous fees collected on the Dulles Greenway & Dulles Toll Road and you'll see the toll roads empty and the side streets jammed pack. Thanks Virginia for signing away the rights to the Dulles Toll Road. Awful.

Here's a link to the column I wrote in April about Virginia's proposal to start charging a monthly fee for E-ZPass accounts: http://wapo.st/JgJB0Q

Travelers still have till June 12 to submit comments on this to VDOT.

VDOT says the account fees will go to cover the rising cost of operating the program, which will expand in Northern Virginia later this year with the opening of the 495 Express Lanes.

A final decision on the fees is likely by the end of this month.

Comments can be e-mailed to vdotinfo@vdot.virginia.gov or mailed to: Office of Communications — Third Floor/Annex Building, Virginia Department of Transportation, 1401 E. Broad St., Richmond, Va. 23219.

We had a similar discussion a couple of years ago when Maryland started charging for accounts. As I said at that time, you can shop around and look for a free account, but the trend among the agencies that maintain the accounts is to charge for them.

I'm sorry more people don't like it better. Of course, not everyone is like me and lives just off I-95 in Laurel and has relatives in Gaithersburg. My own peeve -- there are too many police who don't have anything to do, so they make work for themselves. An MSTA officer pulled me over for a non-functioning taillight, and it took a half-hour stop for him to write a repair order to fix it.

I have a lot of readers who object to enforcement of the traffic laws on the Intercounty Connector, but they're usually objecting to speed enforcement. The Maryland Transportation Authority is responsible for enforcement on the ICC.

Dr. G. - I was walking home the other day (about 1/4 way through a wide intersection) and was almost mowed down by someone who ran a red light. The light had been fully red his way for about 5 seconds -- there was no question he had time to stop. He barreled around a corner and accelerated through the light. (right off of N. Capitol NE onto Louisiana Ave NE, which I was crossing on D St.). I saw his license plate as he wizzed by. Is it worth calling the police immediately after?

I would, if only for the satisfaction of making a complaint. I think it's unlikely to result in an arrest, but who knows? It might be someone fleeing from a crime scene, and you could help by providing a plate number and description of the vehicle.

Not that it will make a difference here, as the people here might actually follow the law, but... Doesn't "Hands Free" mean that the phone is not in your hand. I almost got run over this weekend by a driver who had her phone in her hand in front of her face. Obviously using the speaker-phone feature. I do that when I forget my bluetooth, but the phone lives in the cup holder then. I just talk loud <smile>

Yes, hands free does indeed mean you're not holding the phone in your hands. We have hands-free laws in Maryland and DC, but not for adults in Virginia. I've got some letters about cell phone use in my column for this Thursday in the Local Living section.

I agree with the National Transportation Safety Board on this: There's no evidence that hands free is any safer. Talking on cell phones while driving should be banned.

I've recently seen several school aged children bypass the fare gates at metro stations, walking through the handicap exit. Do DC school children ride the metro free of charge?

DC subsidizes student fares, because it doesn't transport students on school buses, but going I don't believe that means they can bypass the fare gates by going through the swinging gate.

Yes, I think we would be better off without the turnaround trains, no question. I vaguely remember reading that DC paid Metro for the turn around trains...something about better service for DC residents. Wrong?

I believe you're thinking of the turnarounds on the Yellow Line at Fort Totten during off-peak hours. Anyway, I remember that DC originally paid for the experiment of extending the Yellow Line from Mount Vernon Square to Fort Totten. Now, that cost is shared by the region.

Similarly, Maryland originally paid to end some of the turnarounds at Grosvenor, but that cost also is picked up by the region now.

Do we have a more specific start date than "Fall 2012" yet?

No.

And whenever they open, the new toll lanes will open all at once. It won't be section by section. (Some readers have been asking.)

It's probably been mentioned here before, but I found Delaware to be the best place to get an EZ Pass. After the $25 for the transponder, there are no additional fees. You only pay for the tolls. If you go to the Delaware EZ Pass site, select "Delaware" as the state (otherwise you'll be bounced to the website of MD,VA, or whatever state you select). Afterwards, you may enter your correct address.

Thanks. I recall that some other travelers went for a Pennsylvania E-ZPass, while others recommended Delaware. (Of course, back when Maryland started charging the account maintenance fee, many travelers recommended switching to Virginia.)

I thought that I was being so very smart by leaving my office early last Friday, but I ended up getting caught in a monstrous downpour in Rock Creek Park on Military Road. I would like to use your chat to remind my fellow drivers that they inviting disaster by driving through rain without turning their headlights on it. I saw a school bus almost hit a compact car that was driving without any lights, and it would not have been the school bus driver's fault if he had, as you could simply not see a small gray car in the rain. How much effort does it cost people to turn on their lights?

That's a very frequent complaint among my readers: Man drivers fail to turn on their headlights when they turn on their windshield wipers. Many told me recently they wish that Maryland and Virginia would use their overhead message boards to remind drivers that it's the law.

Can you explain why there aren't more roundabouts built is this area. The few that have ben built in recent years seem to be working very effectively. Rt15 in Md and Va are good examples. Every time I sit at a traffic light with 5 or 6 other cars while we wait for 1 car to make a left turn I think about how much more effective a roundabout would have been. I wouldn't think that it would cost all that much in the long run to build than a typical intersection with a light.

They're much more common in Europe, and seem to work quite well. As you say, the ones in Maryland and Virginia seem to be doing fine.

The idea is that they keep traffic moving, rather than bringing it to a halt at a red light. Drivers don't like the idea that they have to slow down near the roundabout and yield to traffic already in the circle. But I think they work well and are safer than traffic signals.

I agree. I have one car with a built-in handsfree device and I have an earpiece for when I drive my other car or my wife's car. I find that a phone call is distracting, period, because you're not concentrating on the road, especially if it's a substantive phone call. By that I mean something more than, "Hey, I'm getting off the Beltway now and will be home in 10 minutes if you want to start dinner." If you're driving along talking about work or something, you're thinking about work and not about the road.

One of my concerns about the whole cellphone talking/texting thing is that many people think of it as something kids do. I think employers need to get very involved in making sure their employees know they don't have to do business on phones while they're driving. As you say, think about the road.

I've read some interesting theories about why hands-free is no better. The theories basically say that talking to someone on a phone is different from talking to someone in the passenger seat. The driver engaged in a phone conversation seems to feel some need to keep the conversation going, and not allow any silences to intervene.

Hi Dr. G: I have a question about the HOV lane on I-270 going northbound. My husband and I frequently see an empty school bus traveling northbound and we're wondering if that is violating the HOV rule. It was very clear that there were no passengers in the bus except for the driver. Are we wrong to assume the driver is violating the HOV rule?

I find this from the Maryland State Highway Administration: "High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes are reserved for carpools, vanpools, buses, and motorcycles during designated time periods"

Notice it doesn't say anything about how many people are aboard the buses.

do you know what the hours of the new Metro Rush schedule will be? The WMATA video says the extra trains will be during the "rush hour" but doens't say how that is defined.

Yeah, that's a little tricky. The hours for Rush Plus will be 6:30 to 9 a.m. and 3:30 to 6 p.m. So it's not all of the peak period.

Why won't Metro allow holders of senior Smartrip cards to top up online? Regular Smartrip holders can. Thanks.

It's probably a security measure. But if you've registered the card as a senior and gotten through that hurdle, I don't really see why you shouldn't be allowed to add value online. That's an interesting question. I'll ask.

So, Sarles was on channel 5 this AM blatantly not telling the truth about these service changes, making it sound like EVERYONE would be getting more service. Which is obviously not true. I know they want to put a good spin on this, but they should at least acknowledge those of us who are traveling between south to west are going to have our service cut. They keep talking about how important it will be to pay attention to the destination signs on the trains. A great many trains that I encounter do not have the correct destination displayed. Some say "No Passengers", others have the opposite end of the line displayed, and still others are just blank. To say the least I have no confidence that the right destination will be displayed on the trains.

Sarles was out at Franconia-Springfield this morning to publicize the June 18 start of Rush Plus. (I thought that was a good idea, by the way. This is going to affect a lot of people and anything Metro can do to get riders talking about it is good.)

Metro's mantra on this is "Watch the destination signs." But as you note, they have to be right. And so do the electronic displays on the platforms. Metro also needs to have plenty of staffers out on the critical platforms, at least for the first couple of weeks after this starts.

So there's a lot that can go wrong.

Here's one thing I'll be very interested in testing: Metro officials say that many Blue Line riders who are losing trains may be just as well off taking the next Yellow Line train, even though it involves a transfer.

What I mean is that, according to Metro, a rider heading for Foggy Bottom who misses a Blue Line train could take the next Yellow Line train, transfer at L'Enfant Plaza, and get to Foggy Bottom without losing time.

The only Blue Line destination that would involve losing time is Rosslyn, Metro says. Like I say, it will be something to test.

But the really critical thing will be to have to destination signs and the line colors correct on the trains.

One of my biggest complaints with the roads in the area is the fact that there are so very few roads that connect to another major road. It seems that someone thought that they could prevent people from cutting through a neighborhood was to have only one outlet. The result is that if there is a problem on the main road, there are no alternates that people could use. I think we need to ban this practice and where possible add roads that provide additional entrance and exits to the subdivisions.

Planners discovered this problem of cul de sac communities sometime late in the last century. Too late to avoid widespread traffic congestion of the kind you describe.

Now, the grid is back. Planners want to see lots of entrances and exits in communities.

In your previous online chat, a reader questioned why their rush hour Metro fares remained the same, even though they used the trip planner to find fares both before and after the increase. I also came across the same outcome, but was able to determine why my fare has remained unchanged on my trip from White Flint to Friendship Heights. It is my understanding that the new fares will increase both the minimum boarding fare and the fare per mile (or fraction of a mile). What also is changing is the removal of the peak of the peak surcharge ($.20 from 7:30-9 and 4:30-6). The peak fare for my trip is currently $2.95, but jumps to $3.15 with the surcharge. Now, the new peak fare is $3.15, so if you compare a fare with the surcharge with the new fare, it remains the same. The $.20 increase is offset by the elimination of the peak of the peak. What I found interesting is that someone who currently travels peak of peak (surcharge) and has one fewer stop than me (say Grovesnor to Friendship Heights) may actually see a reduction in the cost of their trip. Of course there is a very small window of people who would have a price reduction since the base price is also increasing, so any fewer stops may be hit with the new base price. I think Metro needs to market the fact that they are eliminating a very unpopular fee within the fare structure.

The thing I'm most pleased about concerning the fare changes is the elimination of the peak of the peak fare.

While the average cost of a ride is scheduled to increase about 5 percent on July 1, your experiences may vary quite a bit. Some commuters will pay much more than a 5 percent increase, some less.

That's why we were talking about the Trip Planner on the home page of Metro's Web site (www.wmata.com). It's been reset so that if you plug in a date after July 1, you'll see the new fare. Just be careful in picking the date. If you're trying to figure out your weekday fare, don't use a Saturday or Sunday date.

I have wondered the same thing as your first poster. Can you explain what you mean by turnarounds?

On a regular basis, some trains end their runs at Grosvenor, Silver Spring, Mount Vernon Square and Fort Totten. They go through a switch and come back on the opposite side of the platform to head back the other way.

Metro does this to put the maximum number of trains in the busiest sections of the lines. But passengers don't like this if they have to get off the train before reaching their destinations, or if they are aboard a train that holds for a couple of minutes while the train ahead moves onto the siding to make the turnaround.

Travelers, that's all we have time for today. I want to use the Dr. Gridlock blog to review some of the issues you raised today, and there are some topics that I just didn't get to at all. So I'll try to do a few postings with those topics in mind.

Come on back next Monday and we'll do it again. Meanwhile, 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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