Dr. Gridlock

Jun 09, 2014

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.

Is there a timeline yet for the initial streetcar opening (or an estimate) and where will the line run from?

After blowing through so many tentative targets for opening its first modern streetcar line, the District won't set a date for starting up the H Street/Benning Road NE route.

It won't be before August, at least. The District Department of  Transportation hopes to finish the car barn maintenance facility in August.

Travelers can see the streetcars undergoing testing along the route, but among the things that DDOT still must resolve are the cost of a ride and how the fare will be collected.

Since it will never be a totally isolated lane why does I66 have a HOV lane? Only reason I can see is revenue enhancement at the expense of public saefty and law enforcement. I once counted 7 diferent troopers have drivers pulled over from the beltway to the Fairfax County Parkway. enforcement slows down travel for everyone and actually makes the road less safe because you ahve drivers who are distracted by the enforcement. Shame the 7 troopers werent enforcing the the signalling before switching lanes or laws against cell phone use. Its all about revenue. lets end HOV on 166 outisde the beltway now it will make 90% of the dirvers who use it trips faster.

Many I-66 drivers will be glad to hear that the HOV rules are being enforced. The main complaint I get regarding HOV is the number of violators in them.

Many drivers -- me among them -- think that enforcement of our traffic laws is a great way for governments to raise revenue.

I wish that all HOV lanes could be separated from the regular traffic to cut down on the number of cheaters. Cheating is a problem in both Virginia and Maryland.

What to look for next on I-66: The possibility that the HOV lanes will be converted to HOT lanes.

Question (and apologies if it has already been addressed by you): Your article yesterday discusses the impact on the Orange Line riders coming from VA, but what about those of us that come from Maryland? I take New Carrollton to Rosslyn (and back) every day. What will my impact be? Will there be fewer Orange lines trains to ride for my route? If so, it looks like I will have to start driving. My route is already packed each way every day (and every train)

There's so much to talk about regarding the start-up of the Silver Line, and I appreciate all questions, because the only thing I'm sure of is that we haven't thought of everything riders need to know.

Going from New Carrollton to Rosslyn, you should find the same number of trains you have today, operating at the same rush hour frequency.

What does one get when they pay "Peak Fares" on metro? I catch a train from Springfield around 520 am and pay a peak fare yet the trains only run every 12 minutes! With the silver line coming online soon I'll be paying peak fare on my round trip when commuting and will have to wait 12 minutes for blue line trains morning and afternoon! I do not think blue line riders should have to pay peak fares when they'll be getting no benefit from it.

The next hit that Blue Line riders are in for will come the week this summer when Metro begins a week of simulated service on the new Silver Line.

During that week -- and there's no date set for it yet -- two Blue Line trains per hour will be shifted to the Yellow Line. As the commenter notes, that means Blue Line trains will operate very 12 minutes during rush hours. That will be the least frequent rush hour service in the Metrorail system.

No, Metro has no plans to adjust fares for Blue Line riders. (Fares for everyone go up at the end of this month.)

It's of no comfort to riders, but just for the record: What we call the "peak fare" is what Metro calls the "regular fare." Metro discounts the fare after rush hour, because service becomes less frequent -- except for the Blue Line, that is, when service will be the same at all hours.

Hi Dr. G, Thanks for taking my question. I'm wondering about the Beltway headed south around Arlington Blvd/Route 50 and Gallows -- they share the same 'off' exit...and I recall that those entering the Beltway used to have a yield for those who were exiting, but that's no longer there. And it seems people are just blowing by you, not caring about those trying to get off. Which is typical behavior anyway, but it's so frustrating. Can VDOT put the yield sign back?? Why did they take it away?

I'll ask. The most encouraging thing about your note is the suggestion that drivers used to pay attention to  the sign.

Drivers merging onto a highway are always supposed to yield to drivers already on the highway.

Hi Dr. G, Question about the Silver Line. Just curious: if I were to get on at the McLean Station, I can just take silver all the way into downtown? There's no transfer to Orange at West Falls Church, is that correct? It's just a matter of fewer trains of Blue/Orange/Silver? Do you think the Silver trains will end up being as packed at the Orange line? Seems like people will be nervous about taking Silver at first? Thanks!

So there are things people need to know about the Silver Line we haven't thought of yet. But those of us writing about it also need to remind ourselves that some of you may not be memorizing every single precious word we've already written.

Some things we think are obvious because we're so immersed in the details may not be so obvious to all riders.

Yes, if you board the Silver Line at the McLean station you can keep your seat all the way through downtown. No transfers. The Silver Line trains will join the Orange Line tracks outside of East Falls Church.

My guess: At first, the Silver Line trains at the western stations won't be as crowded as the Orange Line trains are today. I base that guess on two things. Four of the five new stations have no parking garages adjacent to them. And for a while, people will follow their old habits and look for the familiar Orange Line trains.

On opening day, there still will be people who don't know where the Silver Line goes. Metro anticipates some of that, and plans to have staffers out on all the Silver Line platforms, including those like, say, Court House or Ballston or Rosslyn, that overlap with the Orange Line.

 

Who is responsible for the terrible shape of the pavement surface on the beltway in Northern Virginia? I know typically, VDOT would be in charge of making routine repairs and resurfacing of roads, but in this case the pavement has deteriorated much faster than normal, and was most recently resurfaced by Transurban as part of the Express Lanes project. The pavement is cracking, gapping, and rutted in many places that were freshly paved just last year. Also, the expansion joints at US 50 and Dulles Toll Road overpasses are in terrible shape. Is VDOT actively seeking to get Transurban to fix the driving surface since it seems pretty clear that they didn't do a very good job the first time?

VDOT is responsible for the condition of the regular lanes on the Virginia side of the Beltway.

I heard there is a bridge problem in Delaware. I am not sure if it is fixed or will be out. I frequently drive to MA. I take 301 to either 12 or 1 and go through Delaware to get to NJTP. Is this going to have an impact this summer?

The bridge that closed is on I-495, the bypass for I-95 in the city of Wilmington, Del. So that's not on your route. However, closing the bridge means that more drivers wind up using I-95 through Wilmington, and that can back up traffic.

There's no date for reopening the bridge, which has some damage to its supports. It might be closed for months.

I've been checking the traffic maps at various times of day, and so far, the impact on I-95 traffic is limited to rush hours.

To be on the safe side, drive at off-peak hours, and watch out for Friday evenings, with the extra getaway traffic.

But if you take 301 from the D.C. area, you know to watch out for rush hours and getaway traffic anyway at the Bay Bridge to the Eastern Shore.

I did a Dr. Gridlock blog posting last week about the I-495 bridge closing with some suggestions on alternative routes.

 

If I understand the prior reader's statement - there are two lanes on the auxiliary lanes at that cloverleaf. The entering and exiting traffic need to execute a weave. A yield sign is probably not needed based on the striping. Works well on Braddock road inner loop......

Doesnt make I66 any safer and probably causes more accidents. Its not breaking any traffic laws. My tax dollars paid for that lane and I should be able to use it whenever I want to. Making it a HOT lane i dont think so my tax dollars paid for it. I take the state to court. HOV lanes like the ones on I 66 outside the beltway are dangerous. Its not the job of state and local LE to collect revenue. Stupid liberal!

Sometimes I almost fall over when the drivers slam on their brakes coming into the station. I'm starting to wonder if all these brake problems the trains have are due to the drivers abusing the brakes? With ATC nowhere in sight, isn't it time we start training the operators to properly operate the trains?

The brakes would be in better condition if the trains still operated automatically and weren't in the hands of a human. People's braking skills vary, even with training. Think what you see on the highways.

There's no date for a return to automated train operation. (Metro officials re-explain this to me about every three months. We still have automatic train controls to monitor the movements of trains and slow or stop them between stations when that needs to happen. Since the Red Line crash in 2009, we haven't had automatic train operation, where the computer system runs the trains and stops them at the correct mark in stations.)

Am I the only person who feels as if drivers these days don't know the laws? I see so many violations: not yielding to through traffic; crossing several lanes at one time because the driver wants to turn at the next intersection; yellow lights that don't mean anything (neither do red lights a lot of the time); etc. Is this just rudeness or ignorance? The laws are supposed to keep us safer. What can be done?

I'm not sure what the exact cause is in any given situation, but rudeness and ignorance cover a lot of the possibilities.

With the I-495 bridge closure in Delaware "until further notice" already causing pretty massive delays, I am not looking forward to every-other-week trips up to Philly. Is there another way to get from DC to Philly besides taking either I-95 through Wilmington or the Delaware Memorial Bridge that I haven't found yet?

I saw what I'd call "massive delays" during the first two days after the emergency closing. Since then, I-95 has been heavy at rush hours, but okay at most other hours. So I'm reluctant to suggest anything other than sticking with I-95 or I-295, the routes you mentioned.

Even if you encounter slow traffic on one of those two interstates, you probably will be better off than taking a secondary route through Delaware.

So, what's your best guess for when the Silver Line will actually be up and running? I think it's going to be a real struggle to get it open before Labor Day.

Metro Deputy General Manager is optimistic about the Metro part of the preparations. He said this morning that he's not feeling as good about the stuff that the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority and its contractor have pledged to complete before the opening.

He said that some of those items that Metro expected would be completed by now aren't done. As examples, he mentioned things like painting and grouting in the tunnels and drainage issues in some stations. Plus, they need to have the certificates of occupancy for the stations.

MWAA and its contactor had pledged to fix 33 things before the opening.

So Metro will not set a target date for opening the Silver Line. The next thing that's going to happen from Metro's side is that the Metro board on Thursday will be asked to give General Manager Richard Sarles the authority to set the opening day.

My guess is that the opening will occur on a weekend sometime before Labor Day.

I can't even believe you would post that nasty comment about someone demanding to use HOV when and how they want. HOV lanes work when used properly and there is and ought to be a disincentive to cheating. Cheating at HOV is just stealing, and that should be punished. Better to set up cameras and have doubling fines for each infraction though.

When I exited at Ballston station one evening last week there were a bunch of Metro employees handing out small bags with various brochures and a metro map lens cloth. Included was a brochure suggesting that blue line riders not ride the blue line. Of course for those of us transferring between the west end of the orange line and the south end of the blue line there is no workable alternative. They did claim they will add 8 car trains to the blue line to alleviate the looming overcrowding. We'll see if that actually happens. I am not optimistic. They also claim the electronic signs will always show the next blue train no matter now many intervening other colored trains will arrive. I bet that is going to confuse plenty of people.

I think plenty of people will be confused. That's one characteristic I've often seen when a new project or program begins. In fact, it's quite humbling, because I often feel that I've presented plenty of information before an opening, or a change in a traffic pattern, only to find that not everyone in the D.C. region has read my stuff.

With that in mind, I think Metro is going the right thing mounting this long and widespread publicity campaign for the Silver Line. Many Blue Line rides and some Orange Line riders won't benefit from the opening of the new line, but at least they should know what they're in for.

 

As someone who has made that drive every weekend for years, there is no shorter way. Except Amtrak. Any short cuts you can think of (and my ex thought of them all) ended up taking hours longer than sitting in traffic!

Is the plan to open the entire thing, Alexandria to Rt 610, all at one time, or will it be opened in phases? It looks like the existing stretch between Springfield and Dumfries is farther along than the southern part.

All at the same time early next year. It makes sense that the northern part should look farther along, since that's an expansion of the HOV lanes rather than completely new lanes, as is the case in the southern part.

But there's still a lot of work to do getting all the electronics in place and paving the lanes. I'll have further updates about the express lanes on the blog later this week.

Any idea if Congress will raise the pre-tax limit for transit? It's crazy that we get a higher pre-tax break for parking than for transit!

Earlier this year, there seemed to be week by week assessments on the prospects of Congress restoring the higher pre-tax limit for transit benefits, but lately, I haven't heard a thing. That's not a good sign.

The operators of the Beltway Express Lanes are quite possibly the most customer un-friendly company I've ever dealt with, and from recent reports, I'm not alone in this assessment. I was entering the lanes from Braddock, where traffic is forced to wait at a light. During the 30-45 seconds I sat at the light, the toll to get to the northern exit of the lanes went from $3.55 to $4.65 to $5.50, with that last switch happen just after the light turned green and traffic started moving to enter the lanes. After waiting nearly 2 weeks for the toll to show up on my EZPass account, I noticed that I was charged $7.35 for the toll. I called up the customer service to make my case, and noted that I distinctly remember the toll amounts because it had changed twice while I sat at the light, but they refused to change. I was even willing to pay the $5.50 that was displayed right before I entered, but they were not willing to negotiate. I've talked to some others who have dealt with Transurban customer service who have had similar issues with staff who are very friendly, but unwilling to budge a penny on tolls. Is this lack of compromise more of a reflection of a company that is in dire need of every penny they extract, or are they just not willing to negotiate to retain customers, knowing that they make far more money on unwitting drivers who accidentally drive in their lanes and subject to the administrative fees than regular drivers?

The first thing that surprises me is that the display board would change with such frequency. The second is that customer service wouldn't make the adjustment.

I haven't talked to anyone who works in customer service for the express lanes. I have talked to express lanes managers about customer service. They always talk about being in this "for the long run." They very much care about having repeat customers. They need to build that kind of market, since their financial strategy involves local commuters more than it does long-distance travelers who would use the lanes rarely.

In response to an earlier question, you noted driver ignorance as one plausible cause of the driving behaviour we see today. I commute weekly between central PA and the DC area, and routinely encounter interstate driver behaviour that is just ridiculous. Some examples from last night's drive: cruzing in the left lane on a 2 lane interstate, with no traffic, which forces others to pass on the right; lane changes without signaling; rapid deceleration during heavy rain downpours, swerving over to the shoulder, and parking; continual speed changes (+-5-10 mph). I learned to drive in the midwest many years ago, so have never taken a MD written exam. But I assume all of these things are addressed by standard drivers exam questions. Therefore, how is is possible that people don't know the rules of the road (excepting perhaps the ridiculous MD turn signal law)?

I think it just shows you don't have to be an Einstein to get a driver's license.

Travelers often write to me to say they think this or that dumb thing is becoming more common. But I can't tell. I've been driving in all parts of the country for 40 years now, and can't say if drivers are getting any worse on a particular behavior.

I'm pretty sure they're not getting any better.

(That reference the commenter makes to Maryland's turn signal law: It is ridiculous. In Maryland traffic law, drivers aren't required to use turn signals to indicate the intent to change lanes. Do it anyway.)

Hi, I somehow got into the HOT lanes out by Merrifield. We got off as soon as we could, but I have no idea how to pay these folks. We have an EZPass account and obviously, the cameras got our license. I am not trying NOT to pay; I am trying to pay, so we don't get in trouble, but I don't know what to do. Thanks.

If you had the E-ZPass transponder mounted as usual, the charge will go to your E-ZPass account automatically.

If you didn't have the E-ZPass mounted  and the administrators of the system need to track you down via your license plate number, use this link to the Missed a Toll page on the express lanes Web site.

If this happened within the last five days, you'll pay the toll plus an administrative fee of $1.50. If it's longer than that, they mail you a bill and the administrative fee rises to $12.50.

Another way to Philadelphia is to cut north near Aberdeen, MD up to US 1. It crosses over a dam and then becomes a freeway in PA. Plus you miss paying the Susquehanna bridge toll in MD. You can cut back down on US 322 to cross over to NJ or just I-95 from there up into Philly.

Will next year's completion of the I-95 Express Lanes also include a repaving of the normal I-95 lanes? Is that something that VDOT will do when construction is nearing completion, or is Transurban doing it as part of their project?

I'll ask. The I-95 project is different in that it doesn't involve building new lanes at the sides and shifting traffic during the construction the way the Beltway project did.

I had a similar experience to the previous poster. I recall getting in the lanes with the sign reading somewhere around $5, and got a charge on my EZPass at $6.35. I e-mailed them, and got a canned response, so I called, and got the runaround. I wasn't exactly sure what the toll was when I entered, but told them I was pretty sure it wasn't $6.35. The fact that it took over a week for the charge to show up on my account, plus the fact I went on vacation for a week, meant my memory wasn't crystal clear. Nonetheless, the person I spoke to was very nice, but explained they were unable to make any tolling adjustments. If that's the case, what keeps them from charging drivers more than the posted toll? After all, what choice to drivers have other than sitting in the traffic?

Other than the fact that people could be prosecuted for fraud if they charged more than the posted tolls, it's not a good marketing strategy. As we said during the previous exchange, the express lanes need repeat customers to succeed.

If drivers think they're not getting a fare shake -- if they think there's some finagling with the toll rates, or they simply think the tolls are too high to be worthwhile -- the drivers will stop coming to the express lanes.

So far, the express lanes traffic has been increasing.

Has there been any further study about the choke point that will be created by the termination of the I-95 Express Lanes north of Edsall Road at Turkeycock? I am highly skeptical that traffic will continue to flow smoothly through the area, it is already a nightmare in the morning rush and on weekends. Adding a new batch of cars to the mix and merging just before a major interchange is not going to be pretty.

I have not seen a study suggesting that traffic will flow smoothly through that merge area, so if you're aware of one let me know.

This is a spot I'll be looking at on Day One of the 95 Express Lanes operation.

Where does the HOV enforcement actually start on I-395 South? Does it start before crossing the Potomac in DC where the actual lanes start, or is it in VA after crossing the bridge where there is an exit to get off for Rt. 1?

I haven't heard of D.C.police enforcing HOV rules. I think that's up to police in Virginia, south of the Potomac. (The most frequently asked question along these lines is whether the HOV start time means you can't enter the HOV lanes after that moment. What VDOT says is that non-HOV drivers must be out of the lanes altogether at the HOV start time.)

Isn't the Silver Line opening bound to be a disaster? Rush plus is being eliminated on the Orange Line, which I suspect will mean that all the trains are packed by the time they reach East Falls Church. It doesn't seem very likely that many riders will shift from riding the Orange line (past East Falls Church) to the Silver Line (past EFC). Wiki says that Vienna has 5,840 parking spaces, Dunn Loring has 1,319 spaces, and West Falls Church has 2,009. In contrast, Wiehle Reston has 2,300 spaces, and I understand the Tysons stations have none. How likely is it that large numbers of commuters will shift to Silver since there is much less parking than on the Orange?

There are bound to be problems -- and I plan to be among the Posties out there looking for them -- but I very much doubt the opening will be rated a "disaster."

A couple of things to keep in mind: There will be 2,300 parking spaces at the end of the Silver Line. some people who now drive in to Vienna will simply find it more convenient to drive to the Wiehle Avenue station and park there.

Also, not all riders get to the trains by driving. There are plenty of bus riders. Many of the routes they take today to reach Vienna or West Falls Church will switch to take them to the Silver Line stations at Wiehle Avenue or in Tysons. That will draw riders away from the Orange Line.

That said, I think the key thing to look for on day one is what happens with those platforms on the west side of the Orange Line.

The Silver Line plan does involve a lot of behavior modification, and commuters are often reluctant to participate.

We should wrap up now, and give our obsessions with traffic and transit a chance to cool. But we'll rev them up again Monday. And write to me any time at drgridlock@washpost.com.

Stay safe out there.

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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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