Dr. Gridlock

Jun 16, 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.

Welcome, travelers. We had some news about the Silver Line this morning. In a conference call with reporters, Metro General Manager Richard Sarles said that if the contractor on the new line successfully completes seven or eight fixes, then next Monday he will be prepared to announce a start date for the Silver Line.

Let's get to your traffic and transit issues.

We've been told that the Silver Line will run with the new 7000 series cars. Is that planned for the opening (ie, all 7000 series cars needed to run the Silver Line have been ordered and delivered and are waiting in a trainyard somewhere waiting to be the only cars on the Silver Line), or will we have to wait for them to come in (ie, that test car that we've seen might be running but at opening of Silver Line it will be primarily older cars running until we get the new ones in). Thanks!

When the Silver Line opens this summer, you won't see any of the new 7000 series rail cars on it. Metro now has eight of these cars, and they're being tested on the existing lines. Metro officials say the testing is going well, but the production line for the new cars isn't likely to crank up till this fall.

Here's the thing about the new cars: Yes, the first batch is being bought to meet the demand of the Silver Line. But the new cars can run on any line. In fact, there's a federal rule against using this new equipment exclusively for the benefit of one line. It's considered discriminatory.

How can a state govt prevent drivers from using HOV lanes that my tax dollars paid for just because my job or personality prevents me from having a couple warm human bodies in my vehicle? I am not talking about the HOT lanes but the HOV lanes on I66 and 95. Traffic would move a heck of lot better if HOV enforcement ceased on I66 in the afternoons and VA just ended HOVs. Its not the govts job to force to conform to their desires to have more than one occupant in my vehicle. ... Enforcing the HOV regs will not have any effect on climate change. It just doesnt matter. Even if you Dr Gridlock could wave your magic wand issued by your editors at the WP and change all vehicles powered internal combustion engines into EVs it wouldn't change anything(R&T2/10) in the US. What this country needs is a rational energy and transportation policy based on logic and sound fiscal policy and not emotion.

Your tax dollars and mine paid for HOV lanes, under federal programs to clean the environment and reduce congestion. The main problem with them is that cheaters get into them, because it's difficult for police to enforce the rules.

The most likely change in the HOV system: Lanes will gradually be converted to high-occupancy/toll, allowing drivers who don't meet the carpool rules to use them, if they're willing to pay a toll.

Dear Dr. Gridlock, We the bethesda Metro riders have been dealnig with an inconvenient and potentially dangerous problem since January, when one of the two platform escalators was dismantled for reconsruction. That escalator and the side of the other platform escalator were walled off with wooden walls, leaving a clearance between the wall and the platform edge of five feet or less -- a potentially hazardous situation. The remaining escalator can be used as a "walker", though the steps are high and unkind to elderly knees. There is also a staircase and a platform elevator, but if one uses them to descend to the platform one may need to sidle past the barricades. Similarly, when getting off the train one must make a similar choice. The original sign on the barricade stated that the work would be finished in March, then April, then May and, now June. Since a couple of months, the escalator seems to be fully assembled and there has been no sign of workmen. When I called WMATA customer service, they weren't very informative, though they did say that the work might be waiting inspection or reinspection by local authorities. I have no idea where the fault lies, but I and many other Metro users are beyond outraged. If the project isn't finished in a reasonable length of time, the least we should expect is an explanation. Can you get one?

I see the new target date for completing the platform/mezzanine modernization is June 20. Not sure what the problem has been on completing this important job. (Also, given the history, not sure how likely it is that Metro will hit its latest target.)

Using the other escalator as a walker is problematic. For one thing, you've got two-way traffic. For another, the escalator steps are uneven, and people have trouble anticipating the step. At such a busy station, every day of delay hurts.

Any idea why this is closed at night sometimes? It was closed late one night around 12am coming back from airport so I was forced onto toll road.

For constructing phase 2 of the Silver Line.

Part of Pennsylvania Avenue was closed Sunday afternoon for what was rumored to be some kind of film shoot, and southbound streets were blocked at E Street between at least 11th and Seventh streets, maybe more. Pennsylvania Avenue traffic and all the southbound traffic was pushed onto E Street, creating massive gridlock. Police sat in their patrol cars at the blocked intersections or stood around outside them, but they never directed traffic. Cars pushed into the intersections during yellow lights, blocking cross-streets that had the green light, who then entered on yellow and blocked the cross-streets themselves. What a mess. If the cops had controlled the intersections, traffic would have been dense but manageable. The same often applies during ordinary rush hours. You never see cops directing traffic and keeping intersections clear, which in other cities is a primary police function. What do these guys do anyway, and why don't they keep traffic moving?

I rarely see D.C. police directing traffic. (Sometimes around Nationals Park.) When we get traffic direction at intersections, it's most likely to come from the District Department of Transportation's traffic control officers. That's a force I think should be greatly expanded.

Trackwork is important and needs to be done. The current practice of running fewer trains so as to not congest the single track zone also makes sense. The issue is how WMATA communicates the changes to the passengers. A look at what other systems do illuminates how WMATA can improve in this regard. 1. Stop differentiating between "major" and "minor" projects. Every project is a major one, including evening single tracking. 2. In New York, many posters are posted in a designated spot in each station's mezzanine, as well as on the station platforms. These posters are posted for all trackwork changes, no matter the time of day or the severity of the change (WMATA only posts such posters on the faregates for planned station closures). 3. On the WMATA website, ALL trackwork announcements should be concentrated into a single, easy to find page instead of separate pages for weekend and evening work. The evening trackwork also isn't announced via press release, which makes it harder to locate or remember about. 4. Update the trip planner earlier than Friday afternoons. In New York, the trip planner is updated to account for trackwork related changes as soon as they are announced (which is earlier than 5 days before the trackwork takes place as in DC, a source of mine at New York City Transit says the work programs for modified schedules have to be set several weeks ahead of time, WMATA is probably doing something similar). 5. Evening trackwork has gotten out of hand, in the sense there are few announcements about it, rarely are there e-alerts sent out, and I have even been through supposed single track zones where no work is taking place (as evidenced by trains running on both tracks) yet the trains are still only arriving every 20-25 minutes, instead of every 15 minutes, and the trip planner does NOT get updated for evening trackwork, making it very difficult to rely on Metro after 10 PM. There's simply no way to know when the trains will arrive and how I can minimize the amount of time I spend waiting for one. A trip into town at 6 PM might be 40 minutes door to door. For the same trip in reverse at 11 PM, it can take almost that long just to walk to the Metro and wait for a train to show up. Let's stop focusing on what Metro has done to improve its weekend trackwork communications to date, but instead, let's focus on how they can further improve the communications not only for weekend work but weeknight work as well.

In my Sunday column, I wrote about the impact on riders of Metro's weekend train schedules. The worst parts are the zones at the ends of lines where trains may be scheduled to run 24 minutes apart.

Metro's strategy is that the weekend trains -- even on lines where trains share tracks around work zones -- now have an actual schedule that riders can follow by looking at the online Trip Planner. In theory, this should be an improvement. You're not delayed if you check the schedule, show up at the scheduled time on the platform and get a ride of the scheduled length.

But if all these things don't go write, it can really mess up a weekend trip.

 

Can you tell me what VDOT is doing on the inner loop between Old Dominion Dr. and the American Legion Bridge. In the last week they have restriped the road with solid white lines and put up come Jersey barriers along the shoulder.

It's the project to open up the left shoulder for rush-hour traffic. Scheduled to be done by the end of the year.

 

What is the current situation with the red-top parking meters? I remember that they were installed for the implementation of a new disabled parking system, but then there was an outcry and it was put on hold (?). I do not remember ever hearing that they were later put into use as intended. Are they now reserved for only those with handicapped permits, or can anyone park at those meters?

The red top meter program for people with disabilities has been on hold for two years. Anyone can park at the meters.

Good Doctor, Apologies if the answer to this question is buried somewhere in your old chats. I could not find anything on WMATA's website. Is there a Metro policy (and if so, what is it?) governing customers who want to leave their originating station before boarding in the event of a delay? What fee does Metro extract in these situations? Is there any policy governing when customers may egress without paying a fare in the event of a major disruption (eg. customer struck)? Or is the decision to allow customers to leave without paying (I have witnessed this) left solely to the discretion of the station manager? Thanks for your help. A Metro rider

Metro doesn't normally allow riders to exit at the same station without going through the fare gates and thereby paying the basic fare. (But as you say, ask the station manager.)

Those video display signs over the station kiosks were installed in part as a way to compensate for this problem. The theory is that riders can check that display board and be aware of problems on the lines before they go through the fare gates.

 

I'm driving down from Greenbelt to Orlando in the beginning of August which means taking 95 all the way down until Daytona Beach. Is there a best day to leave? I'll need to be leaving in the morning as well, so what's a suggested departure time to avoid the craziness that is 95 in the morning?

When I look at the D.C. region's traffic maps and cameras each morning, the lightest highway traffic tends to be on Fridays. (Remember, that's morning.)

Starting from Greenbelt, you might consider taking Route 301, via the Nice Bridge across the Potomac, connecting with I-95 South around Fredericksburg. Many drivers recommend that as a way of getting around some of the I-95 traffic, especially while the 95 Express Lanes are under construction in Northern Virginia.

The thing about a long-distance trip like yours is that you're likely to run into somebody's rush hour at some point along the way. Though in early August, plenty of commuters will be on vacation and the local traffic will be about the best it's going to be all year.

I'm really confused by how the WMATA people who make these decisions feel that cutting the blue line service to every 12 minutes DURING RUSH HOURS is a good decision. Have any of these people ridden the blue line during rush hour as it is???? It is at capacity for most trains. I live in Old Town and work in Rosslyn so the yellow line is not an option. And I would say there are at least 30 people in my car each morning that get off at Rosslyn. Is there a way to run more blue line trains and have them turn around at Rosslyn so they do not have to go through the tunnel? Then anyone who wants to go into the city can get on a silver or orange line train. I think this would solve at least some problems.

I've been talking to Metro officials about these changes for several years now, and I don't recall any time when they suggested that this long-planned cutback in service is going to be a good thing for Blue Line riders. (Really, how could they? It's obvious this is going to hurt anyone with your start and end point.)

On your question about the possibility of a turn-back at Rosslyn: I think it wouldn't make things any better. You'd have to bring the Blue Line train into the station, then reverse it. The Orange, Blue and Silver Line trains between Rosslyn and Stadium-Armory are so tightly spaced now at rush hours that if you tried to turn back trains from the Rosslyn platform, you'd have the permanent equivalent of what riders experienced last Friday afternoon during the single-tracking.

I didn't know that red-top meters don't mean what the signs say. Am I to understand that if I park there without a handicapped card and pay the fee, i won't be ticketed? And if I park there during non-pay hours and don't pay, I won't be ticketed. You're sure? Do the cops and meter maids know this? I don't think this is common knowledge. These spaces are usually vacant, even in high-density areas.

The D.C. Council suspended enforcement at the red top meters in March 2012.

On Saturday according to traffic reports there was a 30 mile back up on I95 in NOVA. Anyone ahve any idea waht the record is??/ 50 miles, 75 miles or from NYC to Atlanta???

This is frequently done by the Convention Center, on New York Ave.

I'd prefer cops who'll write tickets. Look at it as a revenue-generator and idiot-deterrent. Double-parked delivery vehicles, cars waiting for carpoolers, those who block the box ...

Crowding is already oppressive, and will result in considerably more frequent offloads once we're down to every 12 minutes. I see many dozens of people boarding at Pentagon and getting off at Foggy Bottom (and vice versa), so the "just don't use the Blue Line" advice is unhelpful at best, and insulting at worst.

I feel sure that when the Silver Line opens and we have a chance to assess all the effects, we will once again be discussing whether building the new line was a good idea in the first place.

The question will be: Would it not have been better to concentrate on expanding the capacity of the existing rail system before extended a new line farther into the suburbs?

So what you saying is: 1. Unless I happen to be in grade school most likely I'll be dead and gone before Metro is running all 7000 series cars. 2. By the time Metro is running all 7000 series cars the first cars put into service will be worn out and obsolete. I was really looking forward to one ride on the Metro before I died when I could understand the announcements. Now I see I can take that off of my bucket list.

The Metro purchase plan, at present, includes buying 7000 series cars to meet the rail car needs created by the Silver Line addition and to replace the 300 oldest cars in the fleet, the 1000 series that you now find in the middle of trains.

Then the next step will be to replace the 100 cars in the 4000 series. Metro decided to replace them rather than rehab them, because they've had so many problems.

The Metro "Momentum" program that you've probably read about includes plans to buy even more cars, so that by 2025, all trains are eight cars long at rush hours. But that program isn't completely funded yet.

You should at least be seeing some trains made up of 7000 series cars by early next year.

Perhaps a class action would help.

That's an interesting idea. Blue Line cutbacks started two years ago, when Rush Plus started. I'm not aware of any court cases so far.

What is it with all of these people griping about tax dollars and HOV lanes? That's not how tax dollars work. My tax dollars pay for food stamps for needy people - I don't get to use them. My tax dollars also pay for countless bus routes that I don't use. They pay for handicapped parking spots that I'm not allowed to use. I could go on. The entitlement of these posters is incredible. Having HOV lanes benefits every driver, not just the HOV passengers. When people decide to carpool based on the incentive of the HOV lanes, overall congestion goes down. This cannot occur if cheaters, through selfishness and bizarre "tax dollar" entitlement use them and make them just as congested as the normal lanes. PS: It's the same with the sometimes-shoulder lanes on I-66. If there's a red X, don't use them. It's dangerous for merging traffic, for people currently stopped when it's serving as a shoulder, and for everyone else when you have to swerve because you're about to hit somebody through selfishness. Drives me crazy. Just wait until it's time to exit.

I understand what metro is doing with the delays between trains on weekends. But can't metro run eight car trains on the orange line on weekends? Especially if there are ball games or other events that draw larger than normal ridership? There were six car trains both directions on the orange line. (I won't even go into the timing of the "baseball shuttle" to arrive at L'Enfant Plaza just after a train has gone through).

Metro does sometimes add eight-car trains to compensate for weekend work delays, but from what I've seen, that's pretty rare. Seems like there should be more.

(The times I'm thinking of, for example, are when there's single-tracking on the Red Line through the middle of downtown. The Red Line is the busiest anyway, so if you reduce train service, the crowding problem is obvious. Plus, you've got weekend events at Verizon Center to add to the crowding.

I think Metro's theory is that the busiest stations are in the core, and in that zone, Blue/Orange and Green/Yellow lines share tunnels. So service is more frequent and crowding shouldn't be severe.

It's taking a public right of way and selling it or its use to the rich. Public infrastructure is for everyone regardless of income.

I think you'd have a better case if the public were covering the cost of building new lanes or maintaining old ones.

Since today is the 23rd annual Ride to Work Day, I'd like your opinion on why the number of motorcycle commuters is miniscule compared to the number of people who bicycle, drive cars, or take mass transit to work.

I think commuters who drive want the advantage of multi-tasking with a car. It's difficult to put your laundry and groceries on a bike.

Once the 7000 series roll-out is complete, a high percentage of trains will be from that series. What happens if a defect is found that requires the series to be pulled (much like the 4000 series in 2010 and possibly other series at other times). I'm sure that when they ordered the 4000 series they had the same rosy thoughts they have about the 7000 series. Isn't unwise to put most of their eggs in one basket?

It's a potential problem. But on the other hand, Metro may have learned from the mistakes with the 4000 series (and the 5000 series, with the breakdown-prone air conditioning).

The 7000s are being tested now on the regular tracks in an attempt to discover flaws before mass production starts.

While I see your point about the impact of late-discovery on design flaws, there also should be some advantages in having a consistently modern fleet of cars that have the same mechanical and electronic systems.

Twice in the last week I've been on a southbound Yellow train that gets stuck ascending the incline between Crystal City and National Airport. One time we were stuck for less than 2 minutes; another time it was close to 10. The trains seem to have trouble getting up the hill, and often slide backwards multiple times as the operators keep stopping and starting to climb again. Is this a known issue? It makes me very anxious as a rider.

I think it might be related to the construction underway at the airport station, rather than to some characteristic of the train cars.

Dr Gridlock, in case metro is paying attention, I rode for years and years and years. Not anymore. I had the misfortune to have to ride metro last week. Aside from the dangerous situation at Bethesda (which was the case for years at Farragut North), the delays mean it's faster for me to drive. A shame.

I can relate to the narrowing of walkways as a result of a "walled off" escalator: see also Columbia Heights and Petworth. That being said, the walkway is still less narrow than many in the NYC system. My question: when WMATA is repairing escalators, do they work three shifts, 24/7? There doesn't seem to be much escalator-repair activity at either Columbia Heights or Petworth when I'm there. Ever.

It's unlikely your going to see work in that confined environment. Metro officials say they try to avoid working in narrow spaces where riders are present.

Same safety reasons you see much of our road work confined to night time hours when traffic is much lighter.

Has there been any word on when/if Metro might replace those awful spider maps it has in many stations that are incredibly misleading (making it look like Federal Center SW and not L'Enfant Plaza is a transfer station, for example)? They're really bad.

We had a discussion on the Dr. Gridlock blog about some of these baffling station signs.

The most obvious problems are signs where the dots marking stations don't line up with the station names.

But I think the larger problem is that some of the signs are way too complicated. Metro is trying to help riders understand the options with the new Silver Line. But the signs we see on the station walls should be as simple as possible. They should show what stations are ahead on the lines that use this side of the platform, and nothing more than that.

With all the problems the orange and blue have sharing the same track, how could metro be so shortsighted as to add ANOTHER line to the track? This makes it painfully obvious Metro doesn't learn from its mistakes.

The Silver Line wasn't part of the original plan for Metrorail. The transit authority didn't take the lead in conceiving of it, planning it or building it.

Rather, Metro is on the receiving end of key decisions made by other governments and agencies. The problems with that are about to become obvious.

Put very simply: why does WMATA plan for/advocate such infrequent trains? To compare this system to a commuter rail and suggest that people treat it like such on weekends - such as Stessel or Sarles did recently - is to do the entire region a huge disservice. 6 minutes is barely cutting it at rush hour. 12 minutes at noon or on a Saturday is unacceptable. 20 minutes or more on a weekend is downright criminal. Why is there no movement to run more frequent trains, especially when there's no trackwork taking place?

I think you've got several important questions intertwined there, and the answers aren't so simple.

We should not be thinking of Metro as commuter rail. That's putting lipstick on a pig. Metrorail is supposed to be an urban rail transit system. VRE and MARC are commuter railroads.

But the more frequently trains run, the more the service costs. Metro just got local governments to increase their subsidies, but can't go to that well too often. If we want more frequent service, it's probably going to come from even higher fares. (The latest fare increase is scheduled for June 29, and I haven't heard anyone praising that.)

After spending a week riding the T in Boston, I have a new appreciation for Metro. Every line has a different kind of car, some are really trolleys. The handicapped accessibility is nil. Eating is allowed in the system (just unpleasant to be exposed to food smells of all sorts), and the system is filthy and noisy -- the squeals of the train would definitely affect your hearing over time. Yes, our trains and escalators have reliability problems . . . but boy is our system cleaner and faster.

Our well-traveled residents of the D.C. area come back from other cities with mixed opinions of Metro. Some will praise our system -- often for the reasons cited by the commenter here -- and others will say our subway suffers by comparison. If it's the latter, it's usually issues about train frequency, reliability and communications with riders.

Thanks for joining me today, and please come back for more conversation next week. That chat may begin shortly after Metro announces a target date for opening the Silver Line.

Stay safe out there, and watch out for what's likely to be a string of very hot, humid days ahead.

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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