Dr. Gridlock

Jun 10, 2013

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'm going to start with several questions -- at least one traffic, and one transit -- that I know could benefit from your responses.

Thank you for taking my question. I might have a new commute next month and wanted your advice. How is the GW parkway north in the mornings these days from Rosslyn to 123? and returning home?

I want to post this one early, so commuters can comment. But here's my thought:

I pay special attention to how the highway congestion looks from 7:45 to 8:15 on weekday mornings. My goal is to identify the worst stretches (most congested for the longest distance) day in and day out. This means looking at various traffic maps and traffic cameras.

The southbound parkway is almost always congested through Rosslyn. But the northbound side usually looks pretty good to me.

Of course, "pretty good" is a relative term in the D.C. region. I don't mean nobody's going your way. In fact, plenty of people use the parkway to get from DC and Arlington to the Dulles Toll Road or Tysons or Bethesda and Rockville.

(By the way, for the GW Parkway from Rosslyn to the Capital Beltway, there are no traffic cameras -- at least none that I've discovered. I'm basing my parkway observations on the real-time maps by various traffic services. I wish we did have more traffic cameras along all the parkways.)

Hello Doc. Did you have any thoughts on the Post's WMATA/Metro editorial yesterday? I thought they were completely correct. I also noted that the editorial cited a Washington Examiner article. I hope this is taken as constructive criticism, and not just criticism, but I have admired the aggressiveness of the Examiner's WMATA reporting and wish we got more of the same from the Post. The Examiner has done a good job of not just reporting what WMATA says, but also digging into whether WMATA is spinning by checking their facts, etc. I would love to read WMATA reporting that is a little more challenging. Thanks!

You mean the editorial in Monday's Post, right? The one called "Grading on the Metro curve"?

Here's a link for everyone: http://wapo.st/13Qojkd

I think the editorial's theme was that riders have a right to better service, that mornings like last Monday are unacceptable, and that Metro officials should acknowledge that.

I agree with those points. Metro tends to be defensive about its day to day short-comings, even though officials have spent years telling us that the system hasn't been properly maintained. They're very forthcoming about the long-term deficiencies, and defensive about the day to day problems.

 

 

I saw your recent items in which you noted that the new ramps to the local 11th Street Bridge don't seem to be helping traffic much. I wonder whether part of that is because the streets on the north side are still an incomplete mess. That is, I drove over the local bridge once to explore where it went and I found that on the north end, I had to turn right, then left, then left again to reach M Street past the Navy Yard and over towards the ballpark. But an exit ramp from the "highway bridge" would have put me directly to the same spot on M Street, where I could have turned left without making all those turns. This makes me wonder two things. First, why would people want to use the local bridge and go through additional stop signs/red lights when they could just take the direct ramp? Second, will that exit from the highway bridge remain open when all the work is done, or will it be demolished? If they don't get rid of that ramp, then some level of congestion is going to remain on the highway bridge because people won't bother to change their route; in turn, that means continued slowdowns as people coming up I-295 from the south have to jockey to the right in the same place where people coming down DC-295 from the north have to move left to continue to downtown.

The 11th Street Bridge is still very much a work in progress, but I think the ramp you're talking about from the inbound freeway span will remain open.

For everyone, we're talking about the very recent opening of two new ramps on the local span, the southernmost of the three. The other two spans are designed basically for inbound and outbound freeway traffic.

The project should make a lot more progress on the Capitol Hill/Navy Yard side of the Anacostia River this year, but the best hope for easing congestion on the inbound span won't come till summer 2014, when construction allows for an extra through lane onto the Southeast-Southwest Freeway toward downtown and the 14th Street Bridge.

That should eliminate a lot of the weaving between lanes that not only slows traffic on the bridge but also backs up people on D.C. 295 South and I-295 North. Plus, it affects traffic heading north on the Suitland Parkway.

I mentioned in a previous response that I look at morning traffic maps and cameras. Almost always, DC 295/I-295 and Suitland Parkway near the 11th Street Bridge make my short list of worst traffic spots.

Loved the editorial about Metro! This is the problem. I could accept all the hassles if they were better at communicating and would hold themselves accountable. That will never happen so instead I fume.

I think you shouldn't accept all the hassles. But I also think communication could be better and that both management and the board should be held accountable.

This is a point I've been trying to make in recent columns: The current management and board aren't responsible for the long-term problems, the delayed maintenance and investment. But they are responsible for the plan to fix the system. A rebuilding strategy was adopted in 2011 without much public discussion. The approach adopted to fixing the five rail lines wasn't the only possibility. Work could have gone slower or faster, or been more focused on particular issues.

Meanwhile, Metro has made communications improvements about real-time problems. (It's been slower than I would like to make those improvements.) But I think forthrightness in the aftermath of problems is lacking, and I don't see the board members insisting on it.

 

 

What causes the morning backups on the 14th Street Bridge? It never seems to be attributed to an accident and it's terrible still around 10 in the morning. Four years ago, I made the commute from Washington Blvd to downtown without much backup. I just moved back to Arlington and it's amazing how much worse the traffic is now. This morning 395N was so bad it backed up Washington Blvd past 50. Any idea if this is related to something temporary or just the new normal?

This morning, you were seeing the effects of the rain, which changes everything in the commute.

But there's no project or work zone that would have made the 14th Street Bridge traffic worse lately. (Anyone disagree and think they know of such a project?)

This isn't the first time recently I've heard complaints about the bridge traffic. But the major culprit, I think, is volume.

What is the status of the Metro Silver line and when will it officially open? Any updates from the media side?

The schedule is still for the Dulles Metrorail project to complete construction this fall and hand the keys to Metro. The transit authority will then conduct extensive tests before opening the line for business. The target date remains the end of the year.

I think the testing will be extensive, and that Metro won't feel pressure to open by some particular deadline.

Where do I call to make a suggestion about the traffic control officers? The south side of Mt Venon place in front of the convention center is clogged with taxis discharging passengers but the officer is apparently unable to move them along.

The basic method of registering complaints with the city departments, like the Department of Transportation, is the mayor's call center, the 311 line. But your complaint might also be directed to the D.C. Taxicab Commission.

(I'm interested in hearing from people who have used the 311 system.)

For about 3 weeks or so, something on 23rd seems to be causing traffic to slow -- to stop-and-go -- in the span from the Pentagon, approaching and crossing the Memorial Bridge. Once past the 23rd street light at the Lincoln Memorial, everything runs fine. This is adding 15 to 20 minutes to the morning commute. Any ideas? Thx.

Nope. Commuters don't like the lights at the circle, but those lights have been a problem for years. I don't know of anything that's changed very recently, though other regular travelers might.

Hello! I have been commuting northbound the entire length of the GW parkway for the past 3 years (literally the entire length). Assuming you're getting on from N. Lynn St, the commute between Rosslyn and 123 is generally fine. There is sometimes a bit of a back-up right where you would exit in, just because of the merge lane to the Spout Run Pkwy, but overall isn't bad. (If you are getting on further south, at Memorial bridge, you may hit a few more delays prior to the Spout Run exit.) The thing about the GWPKWY is that it is only 2 lanes and the park police are not particularly considerate when it comes to clearing the lane after a breakdown or an accident. If there is an incident (more frequent in winter weather it seems), one lane WILL be closed, traffic WILL come to a stop and you really have no escape routes. So just be prepared for those days.

Same commenter as earlier... the one who makes the entire parkway commute daily (NB in the morning, SB in the evening). Wanted to note that the stretch of the parkway mentioned is generally much more congested in the afternoon, anytime between 4:30-6:30 there are frequent sudden stops. I've noticed its worse when the Nats are playing a home game. Go Nats!

Thanks very much for helping out the new commuter.

Hello, I have a family celebration coming up on June 21-23 and want to find out what Metro and DDOT are doing that weekend. How can I find out? Many thanks for your help.

I don't know of anything major that DDOT will be doing on the city's roads that weekend. There tends to be a lot of weekend work at the New York Avenue Bridge.

With Metro, the major project will be on the Red Line: Buses replace trains between Rhode Island Avenue and Forest Glen. (That will be the second weekend in a row for that, by the way. It's also the major disruption for this coming weekend.)

If by occasionally telling users why a problem is occurring, than maybe. However when your solution to your trains constantly breaking is to tell your riders they should just spend longer at Happy Hour (which happened in a poster earlier this year), your message is deeply flawed. Metro's communication generally goes towards shifting the blame to others or just some general statement saying they are late. They do not take accountability for virtually anything they do.

I don't expect Metro officials to offer elaborate explanations for problems as they are occurring. (That should come later, after a review.) When something breaks, Metro needs to get the max amount of useful information to riders so they can make decisions about how to get where they're going.

I think the e-alerts have gotten a lot better. (And they're now available for bus routes, too.) We have those new electronic displays above the station kiosks that show the status of the lines before riders go through the fare gates. These are things we said we wanted.

I think the station and train announcements are still lacking, and sometimes just confusing. Plus, the staffers who have to help people after disruptions at stations, like the one after the empty train was smoking and spitting flames at Silver Spring, need better training and better information.

I have also noticed that traffic has been increasing this summer instead of the normal summer drop-off. I wonder if the decrease in the number of blue line trains is sending more commuters into their cars along the 395 corridor. Has their been a noticeable uptick in congestion once metro converted to rush plus? My normal 30 minute drive from Arlington to DC has been pushing 60 minutes the past month.

Metro cut back on Blue Line service a year ago. I don't know of any changes in transit services that would have sent people to their cars over the past month or so, or over the entire spring.

While I think there might be a slight decline on some commuter routes in late spring, we don't really see the influence of vacation season till July and August.

Every week, various agencies send out road/transit closure information for the upcoming weekend. Is there a place to find out this information a little further in advance? I would love to know that in 3 weeks there is a race that will close my route from NW to SW, so I could actually plan in advance.

I don't know of any place that sort of comprehensive information is available a few weeks ahead of time. (If there were, I'd love it, because it would help me prepare my "Week Ahead" and "Weekend and Beyond" blog postings on Mondays and Fridays.)

The only weekend disruption information I know of that's available a few weeks ahead of time is the information about Metro's major track work. (The kind that closes stations.) The highway departments and the police departments generally make their information about road closings, lane closings and parking restrictions available within 48 hours of the event.

What is up with traffic? My afternoon commute the past two or three weeks has to be the worst I have seen all year. I could understand it in the morning when I was driving east into the sunrise, but the sunset isn't until 8:00pm in the evening so that can't be the cause of the problems in the afternoon.

This general comment reflects with other commenters have been saying about specific routes. We have entered the height of the road work season, but that shouldn't be a factor in your rush-hour travels. (The most difficult spot for road work travel this summer is likely to be in the 95 Express Lanes construction zone in Northern Virginia.)

I think what you're seeing is related to volume, rather than to road work, or a very sudden shift away from transit. But I don't have a comprehensive explanation for you of why volume would have increased during the past month.

I think the left turn light at Lincoln Cirlce and 23rd street is short timing. The extensive delays backing up the Mem Bridge and onto 27 by the Pentagon have been happening about the last 2-3 weeks. It hasn't been this bad since the last time there was a light issue. I submitted a complaint via the Daily Gripe and encourage others to do the same - seemed to resolve the mistimed light at 18th and Virginia Ave last week.

The lights at the circle can be activated by pedestrians who want to cross. Do you think there might have been more of that lately, with the warm weather and tourist season?

This is a follow-up to my prior comment/question on the 11th Street Bridge. I found a map on jdland.com showing that the highway ramp I mentioned will indeed remain open, probably because it will provide access to the new at-grade boulevard that's replacing the eastern end of the Southwest-Southeast Freeway. I have to say I don't entirely see the logic in this for the reason I suggested before: Where's the incentive for highway users to change over to the local bridge if they can continue to follow their old route? I guess at this stage of the project it's a bit late to quibble with that. Maybe they're concerned about overwhelming the local bridge with Navy Yard traffic. At this link, it's Ramp D-1: http://www.jdland.com/dc/stadium-panoramas.cfm?filename=drawings/11bridges-phase2-map-201203-zoom

JDLand is a labor of love operated by Jacqueline Dupree, whose day job is at The Washington Post. Her site is one of the very best in the region for community news. If you want to know what's going on in the Southwest Waterfront areas near the Anacostia River -- Nats Park, Navy Yard, local development and traffic issues, her site is a destination.

The local span of the 11th Street bridge was built primarily to serve local traffic, between the neighborhoods on either side of the river. The two freeway spans are meant primarily for people who use the freeways on either side of the river. But planners didn't expect travelers would go all one way or the other. They're setting it up so that there will be options, and escape hatches.

 

Is the Metro still using escalators on their new Silver Line stations or have they learned their lesson. While it may be less effort than walking up a flight of stairs, stairs are less likely to break down. Put an extra set of elevators or two for those who can't take the stairs and let the rest of the passengers walk up and down on their own. Should save a lot of money on repairs in the long run.

There are escalators, elevators and stairways at the five new stations.

Also, I'd like to make one basic point I think gets forgotten sometimes: Metro -- the transit authority -- is not building the Silver Line. The Dulles Metrorail Project is working with money from Virginia and the federal government (at least for phase 1). The project will turn over the infrastructure to Metro this fall, if the schedule holds.

Last week during the 'minor rigamarole' that resulted in my being late to work by a considerable time it was discussed that there were switch/circuit issues. Isn't this the same thing that caused the Red Line incident (Where people died)? Seems like more than a 'minor rigamarole'

It wasn't switch problems that caused the 2009 derailment. There were circuit problems -- train communication and control problems -- that allowed one train under automated control to collide with another.

Metro has yet to return the trains to automated control. They continue to be driven by the train operators.

That's not good. The cars were built for automated control. Some of the stopping and starting you experience as the trains approach the platforms is because some drivers are better than others.

I saw the news about the speed limit going up to 65 on the Beltway's express lanes. I thought it should have been 65 or 70 from the beginning, except at the two ends, but I guess I understand starting low and then raising it. I'm just wondering, Dr. G, did you ever think you'd see a speed limit above 65 mph on the Beltway again? I sure didn't. (I'm not saying I expect people to obey it. WTOP reported the average speed of traffic in those lanes is already 66 mph.)

I drive the 495 Express Lanes most times I'm traveling on the west side of the Beltway in Virginia. Partly, I want to see how they're working and partly I want to get where I'm going on time.

I don't recall seeing a vehicle going less than 65 mph in those 55 mph lanes. I think the speed limit increase to 65 is fine -- and it was a good idea to wait for some experience with the new lanes. (I thought the same about raising the speed limit on Maryland's Intercounty Connector from 55 to 60.)

But I don't see it making much difference to travel on the express lanes. In my experience, drivers pay attention to the express lanes speed limit when they see a state police cruiser.

We're headed to the beach this Saturday from Arlington. If we leave by 6am- should be able to avoid lines to cross the bridge- or should we consider leaving earlier? And then coming back- how is Saturday traffic coming from the beaches back to the area on Saturdays?

I think you should be fine on that schedule. We've had some horrendous traffic backups heading east on the bridge on Friday afternoons when the weather has barred two-way traffic on one of the spans. It's always good to check on the status of bridge traffic, something you can do by looking at www.baybridge.com.

 

Hello, Any ideas why the Outer Loop of the Beltway in VA headed towards the Wilson Bridge is getting bad during afternoon rush hour? It was great when all of the construction finally ended last Fall, but in the last 6 weeks or so it gets worse and worse. Traffic is sometimes backed up to nearly 95, with no specific reason. Thanks!! Joe

Nope. I have heard from drivers complaining about traffic on the Beltway near the Wilson Bridge, and in both directions. In the morning rush, I've noticed there's a good deal of congestion on the inner loop in Maryland heading toward the bridge.

Again, the only culprit I can see is volume. And I'm noticing that in many of the comments about extra traffic people are asking "Any idea why ... " rather than saying "When are they going to reopen that lane ..." (The exception is that Memorial Bridge drivers are talking about timing issues with the signal lights at the Lincoln circle.)

I've always found traffic gets worse in late May/early June. I think it's a combination of things. Fairfax schools don't close for another week or two yet, so you still have school traffic. It's light earlier in the mornings, so people may well get up earlier; also, since it's light later in the evening, people have more incentive to try to get out of the office and get home from work while it's still light out, go for a walk or whatever. The pools open over Memorial Day weekend, too, and usually close at 9 or 10 PM, so that's a further reason why people might want to get home so they can take their kids.

Your comments match up with my theories on the extra traffic -- but I can't prove my theories from any actual traffic counts. Basically, I suspect that we're in a season of overlap. We're seeing travelers more active locally, but we haven't experienced the sharp decline in commuting that comes with summer vacations.

Another thing I notice from the comments: While some travelers are complaining about specific routes, like Memorial Bridge or the 11th Street Bridge, many others talk more generally about seeing extra traffic along their routes. So it's hard to believe this could have just one or two specific causes, like traffic signals or construction.

"I don't expect Metro officials to offer elaborate explanations for problems as they are occurring" that is exactly why they need to tell the public so they may make informed decisions on how to get to their destination(s)

As a problem is developing, it's useless to riders to get an elaborate explanation of why an insulator arcs. Explain that later. As the problem is developing, tell riders as much as possible about how long it's going to take to fix the problem, whether any immediate relief is likely, like extra trains or lots of buses to bridge a gap, or whether there's something else riders should be trying to reach their destinations.

Why is Metro running yellow every 20 minutes this weekend when there is no track work on the yellow? Insane. Metro's current board SHOULD be held accountable for the failures of this system. Many of them have been in local government for years and could have been part of the solution. They could have held Metro accountable. They didn't and are now part of perpetuating a broken system.

It's probably because the Yellow Line trains share a portion of tunnel with the Green Line, which does have work, so the train schedules for both lines were adjusted.

Metro has done something lately with the weekend schedule that I think is good and relates to the 20 minutes between trains where there's single-tracking:

The schedule is now set up so there's enough of a gap between trains to avoid -- in theory -- the stopping and starting, and bunching up of trains as they enter the single-tracking zone. If that works the way it's planned, that's an improvement in the weekend schedule. It means that riders who check Metro's online Trip Planner as of Friday will know when they should arrive at their platform to minimize the wait for a train and also when the train will reach it's destination.

 

As mentioned in your last chat, Metro communication during a delay leaves something to be desired. I wanted to offer a positive story. A couple of weeks ago, I walked into Farragut West at the beginning of a delay. If it seems like it will be a long wait, I jump to the 38B bus. The announcements weren't clear, but @wmata reported a train down at Metro Center with "help on the way." Off I went to the bus stop. As I waited, I checked Twitter again, to find that the repair had been minor and only residual delays remained. Back to the metro stop and a swift ride home. E-mail alerts, in station announcements...nothing was half as fast or clear as WMATA's twitter poster, who was answering a few specific questions about delays as this all went on. Would that the rest of WMATA's communication systems worked so well.

(Sorry for another 'what time should I leave question') I need to be in northern NJ by noon on Thursday. I am planning on leaving at 7am. Too early? Too late? Should I just get a hotel room on Wednesday?

You're leaving five hours for what I think would be a four-hour trip under normal conditions. (via I-95 and the NJ Turnpike as the main highways.)

I'm very conservative on "what time?" questions, so I suggest leaving a little more buffer time. You're going to run into somebody's rush hour. And I'd check the Thursday weather forecast on Wednesday night, so you can leave even more drive time if necessary.

I drove across the 14th Street Bridge almost every day for about 10 years and I think the backups through there stem from several factors: (1) Approaching on I-395, the two right lanes end. Everybody has to funnel over to the left. (2) The loop ramp from the southbound GW Parkway to the inbound bridge has a MINUSCULE (at best) merge area. Even if traffic is flowing reasonably well it's a difficult merge. (3) Traffic from both directions of the GW Parkway enters on the right, so drivers from there who want to access lower 14th Street (past the Bureau of Engraving & Printing) have to move left. (A lot of those people COULD and maybe SHOULD use 12th Street, which has six fewer red lights, but do not.) (4) At the same time, I-395 drivers who want to continue towards 12th Street or Capitol Hill have to move right. (This is the same problem you've noted on the 11th Street Bridge.) (5) The right lane becomes "Exit Only" at 12th Street, but the DC DOT forgot to put up an "Exit Only" sign like you see everywhere else, meaning people slow to a crawl and try to shove left, slowing down the traffic. (6) I-395 narrows to a single lane as it goes down the ramp into the 3d Street Tunnel, meaning the traffic backs up basically all the way to the bridge. All in all, I think it's fair to say the backup is caused by the overall combination of high volumes of traffic crammed onto horribly outdated roads that were designed in the 1950s/1960s and never updated (consider the awful left-lane merges from Maine Avenue and the 9th Street Tunnel, for instance).

Thanks for this comprehensive review of the traffic issues at the bridge, and also for noting the comparison with the weaving on the 11th Street Bridge, which I think is on target.

In light of our earlier exchanges about what's going on lately on various routes, let me add that many of the 14th Street Bridge issues are long-standing ones. Any extra volume just makes them so much worse.

The 14th Street Bridge is another of those spots that almost always makes my short list of worst morning trouble spots. The long-term fixes are not simple, and would be very expensive. Probably can't be solved by changes in the highway and ramp setups along. There needs to be some transit component.

Thanks, all, for today's discussion, which I think had two main themes: Metro service disruptions and traffic slowdowns on many major commuter routes.

Stay safe out there -- especially in this week's bad weather -- and let's explore this stuff again next Monday.

Meanwhile, 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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