Dr. Gridlock

Jul 21, 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. I was watching what happened during Monday morning's rush on the Blue and Orange lines, now that Metro has begun the testing week for what will be the Silver Line trains.  I see at least one comment from another rider about that.

Send in all your questions and comments about our local travel issues.

Will Metro have a debrief later this week to talk about what went right and what went wrong during the trial run week? and if so, will they have time to fix the bugs and snafus occurring? Just recognizing there are problems isn't enough. Today's ride was a series of stutter-stops the whole way on a more-crowded train. Also, there was more hold time at each and every station.

Metro had a bit of a debrief this morning about the first experiences with the simulated service on the Silver Line. But I'd like to hear more from riders who were out on the Blue, Orange and Yellow lines.

What you experienced this morning will continue through this week. Then when we chat again next Monday, the Silver Line will be operating for real.

My experience this morning was somewhat different from the commenter's experience. I rode the Blue Line from Franconia-Springfield to Rosslyn, stayed there to watch inbound Blue and Orange Line trains come through, then got back on a Blue Line train to Metro Center.

Many Blue and Orange Line trains were very crowded just before they entered DC. But it wasn't something a regular rider would have found remarkable.

Your results may have been different, as this commenter's results were.

And I'm also aware that this was a Monday morning, when commuting tends to be lighter than on the midweek mornings, and it's also the middle of summer, when many commuters are away on vacation.

Did I hear correctly that tolls on I-495 have reached $8 during peak use? Who can afford such a price? I avoid the Dulles Toll Road, but at least I know how much I will pay if I want to head that direction.

No, you didn't hear correctly. It's higher than that. The most recent report from the Transurban company, operator of the Beltway HOT lanes, said the maximum toll charged for a full 14-mile trip was $11.85. (That's for the three months ending with June.)

The number of drivers using the express lanes keeps rising, and the full-length trip, south to north, continues to be among the most popular options. So somebody can afford that.

You make the comparison to using the Dulles Toll Road. But that's more of a captive audience. On the Beltway, you always have the option of using the regular lanes.

Maybe someone can help out. Taking a day trip to New York and staying the night before in Red Bank NJ. Does anyone know if the Red Bank or Longbranch daily parking fill up and if so what time.

I have no idea what the answer is to this question, but thought I'd put it out early in case you well-traveled readers can help.

I'm planning on riding the Silver Line and then the bus to Dulles on Saturday. Will you be posting updates on how well it's going through the day and evening? (Hope so)

I think we'll have plenty of live stuff for Saturday's opening day. And then we'll do it again for the first day of commuting next Monday.

Other travelers might be interested in this earlier blog posting by Luz Lazo about the new airport bus service from the Silver Line's Wiehle-Reston East station.

If Virgiina is so in love with the creation of HOT lanes, given all the complaints about rising tolls on the Dulles Toll Road and Greenway, why are those roads not being considered for HOT lane conversion; meaning vehicles with three or more passengers use both roads for free? You get more cars off the road by encouraging carpool and you give commuters the chance to lower their costs for using a toll road.

The Greenway is a private road, so I think that may be out of the picture.

The airports authority operates the Dulles Toll Road, and I don't expect to hear anything from the authority about converting lanes to HOT.

The HOT lanes concept, as practiced so far in Virginia, has two goals: One is to manage traffic by varying the tolls as traffic flow varies. The other is to finance the construction of extra travel lanes.

The latest proposal is to convert the I-66 HOV lanes outside the Beltway to HOT lanes. There would be two HOT lanes in each direction. The number of regular, untolled lanes would stay the same.

I think this almost certainly will happen, but I wrote a blog posting last week urging caution, as both officials and the public evaluate the plan.

It's a promising concept, but not a proven concept.

I heard a report that said they are looking at expanding I-66 and adding toll lanes. The report said that they want 5 lanes total with 3 regular lanes and 2 toll lanes.

Currently, I-66 has 3 regular lanes and 1 HOV lane during rush hour. I think that the toll lanes on the beltway prove that people will avoid driving in the toll lanes at all costs, so it really reduces I-66 from 4 lanes available for traffic to 3 lanes. How could that help traffic on I-66? We need 5 lanes, all FREE! Or 4 Free lanes and 2 reversable toll lanes to avoid putting more cars in fewer lanes.

Your description of the I-66 idea matches what Virginia officials said last week about the program they are considering: Three regular, two tolled.

But people clearly will use tolled express lanes. We know that much from the limited experience we have so far with the Beltway express lanes.

Whether there would be enough drivers doing that on I-66, I don't know -- and neither, at this point, does the Commonwealth of Virginia.

One of the keys to helping the traffic in the regular lanes would be creating a rapid bus system to take advantage of the I-66 HOT lanes.

That hasn't been done with the Beltway express lanes, even though there are some express buses using them. Virginia officials last week were pledging that we would see a real bus rapid transit system as part of the I-66 program. But there's a lot of study, planning and negotiating yet to come on that.

Good morning and thanks for taking my question. OPM sent out a notice recommending that Agencies strongly consider allowing telework for the period of the African Leaders summit, ALS, next week. How do you think commuting in/out of DC will be affected by the summit? Will commuting in to Federal Triangle on the metro from Virginia really be that difficult? I appreciate your insight!

Thanks for flagging this for me. I'll look into it. I see the summit is scheduled for Aug. 4-6 (Monday-Wednesday). My initial thought is that it will have a limited impact on commuting that week. One of the factors is that we'll be deep into summer vacation season.

On your specific question about commuting from Virginia to Federal Triangle station: I think you're probably going to be okay on that. But I will check.

I knew my commuting cost was likely to go up a bit with the opening of the Silver Line, but I'm shocked to find that anyone traveling from Wiehle-Reston East to or beyond Rosslyn will be paying the maximum $5.90 fare during rush hour. My Metro fare will go up $3.90/day -- a 50% increase! Suddenly, I'd save $30/mo by driving to WFC and paying for parking instead of taking the bus from Herndon-Monroe to Metro. And paying for monthly parking near my office downtown actually looks like a viable alternative now. After a dozen years of Metro commuting, I'd very much prefer not to be one more car on the road for a longer time every day, but the $80/mo hit to my budget forces consideration. Way to make public transportation LESS appealing to exactly the people who should be using it.

Fairfax Connector and Metro have done a lot to reorganize bus routes to get people to the Silver Line option isn't going to work for everyone.

And if it doesn't, do what works best for you.

The Metro and Fairfax County officials involved in planning this seem very confident that they will get plenty of commuters on the Silver Line.

But they also know that they've made changes that will inconvenience some, especially the people who have been riding buses from the Reston/Herndon area to West Falls Church station.

I'm headed north on I95 this weekend, and I seem to remember the patented "bypass the toll booths in MD and Delaware" directions provided by you or one of your previous incarnations. I couldn't find it on your web age nor in the FAQs, Can you help me with information on how to bypass the I95 toll booths going north?

I think you'll find that in this 2009 holiday getaway feature. After Delaware put in the highway-speed E-ZPass lanes, I stopped including this local dodge through Newark, Del., because the bottleneck at the toll plaza was so much eased. It made much less sense to get off the highway and wander along local streets.

What's going on at the Mass Ave/H Street/395 ramp area? A worker told me this will be a years-long project.

At least that. It's all about putting a deck over that Grand Canyon of I-395 and developing on top of it. The development is called Capitol Crossing.

This morning, I got on a train signed for Largo (which is the simulated Silver Line, correct?). Coming into the Ballston-Rosslyn corridor, the train was AMAZINGLY empty. At least half of the seats were unoccupied. Even through to Metro Center, there were seats available for most who boarded. I assume this will not be the case next week once these trains have 5 stations worth of people boarding along the Silver Line. But for now, it's a nice surprise for this daily commuter.

This week, I suggest that Orange Line riders look for the trains marked "Largo" during their morning commutes. It's like this commenter says: Because they start taking on passengers at East Falls Church, they're likely to be less crowded.

This might possibly work for some going west from downtown in the afternoon, as well. There will be fewer Vienna-bound trains, and they may be more crowded. If that's what you're finding, an option is to get on a train marked "East Falls Ch", get off at that platform, then wait for the next "Vienna" train, which is likely to be less crowded than it was at your downtown platform.

As of next Monday's commute, you won't see those Orange Line "Largo" or "East Falls Ch" trains. They will become Silver Line trains, and they will start picking up passengers at the five new stations in Fairfax County.

I have no idea either, but you may want to ask your question in the Travel chat at 2 pm today. Yesterday's travel issue was all about NYC!

Hi, What will stop Metro users from using the big VDOT lot on Sunset Hills from making the two block walk over to the Reston station, rather than using buses or car pools?

This is what Fairfax DOT Director Tom Biesiadny said about the Reston area parking:

The park-and-ride lot at Town Center Parkway and Sunset Hills Road was intended to be temporary during construction of the Wiehle-Reston East Metrorail station. It will close at 11:59 p.m. on July 25.

The Virginia Department of Transportation lot at Sunset Hills Road and Wiehle Avenue will remain open, as will the other park-and-ride lots at Reston Parkway and Lawyers Road, and at Baron Cameron Park.

The Herndon-Monroe Park-and-Ride Lot will also remain open. All of these lots will continue to be free.

Driving North up 95 from the beach a few weeks back was totally fine until Triangle, VA, where it, as usual, slowed to a stop and go slog. I'd gladly pay for a toll lane option if it would get me past that mess!

Those HOT lanes on I-95 should open at the start of next year, unless the construction wraps up sooner.

The traffic signal at 19th & D Streets, NW, are out of synch and causing delays. Who can I reach in DC to report these problems?

The standard way of doing this is to use the mayor's 311 call center.

I avoided metro today -- what reports have your heard of crowds at Vienna, Dunn Loring, and WFC, and did the eastbound Silver Line trains really take on passengers at EFC as planned? Thanks.

I know the Silver Line test trains switched their designation to Orange Line "Largo" when they reached East Falls Church and started taking on passengers. Metro said all that went smoothly this morning.

I didn't get that far west this morning, so I can't give a first-hand observation on what things were like on the far western platforms, where there are now fewer trains.

As I watched the Orange Line trains come through Rosslyn, I thought the test trains generally looked less crowded than the ones that originated in Vienna.

Why take more trips away from the Blue Line? Why can't Metro just give all the trains the same amount of trips...equal distribution? I'm going to be one more car on the road now that the Blue Line will not be meeting my work schedule.

Do what works best for you.

Metro estimates it's going to negatively affect 5 percent of its riders with these Blue Line changes. It estimates that 37 percent of its riders will have shorter waiting times.

But there's no question that a Blue Line rider starting from Northern Virginia and going to a far west station in the District, or transferring at Rosslyn to take a westbound Orange Line train is going to have a longer wait.

If Metro gave an equal number of trains to the Orange, Silver and Blue lines, that would hurt far more people than it would help.

I want to be one of the first to ride the Silver Line on opening day. If I arrive at the Wiehle-Reston station on Saturday for the opening ceremonies, do you think I'll have a good chance of getting a seat on the first train?

Yes, but I'd get there real early. The first train is scheduled to leave at noon, but the opening ceremony will be at 10 a.m. There will be plenty of people hanging around waiting for that first train.

Another option for some: Go to East Falls Church before noon Saturday and wait on the platform for the first westbound train marked as a Silver Line train. Once it's noon and the first Silver Line train leaves Wiehle-Reston East, some of the trains arriving at East Falls Church as Orange Line trains will switch to the Silver Line designation, destination Wiehle-Reston East.

You won't be able to say you were on the inaugural train -- that's the one that will leave Wiehle-Reston East at noon. But you might find the competition less intense, and you'd still have something to tell the grandchildren.

I commute from Franconia-Springfield metro. This morning, there were two trains in the station when I arrived. Both had passengers, however, neither was marked on the outside of the cars what lines they were. Is it so hard for Metro not to show this? I had to ask the peoole in the car what line it was. Luckily, they guess right. Also, did notice the slowness of the train this morning. When I left the train at Farragut West, there was another train directly behind mine. I could see the lights in the tunnel.

I experienced the same thing at Franconia-Springfield this morning. A was seated on a train when a man walked through the door and said, "Is this Blue?"

Many travelers complain about Metro's seeming inability to declare where the train is going while people are boarding. It's only at the last moment that the destination signs come on and the train operator makes an announcement. I saw some people running off the trains just before the doors closed.

At least, you can't go too far wrong. You can switch trains at any platform up to Pentagon. (I'd do it at Van Dorn Street, to make sure I could still get a seat.)

Have you heard any scuttlebutt on whether Metro is concerned about decreased rail ridership? I used to ride the redline around from Ft. Totten to Tenleytown every day, but got tired of paying more for regular delays and poor communication. I "voted with my feet" and now drive to work. I've also stopped taking Metro on the weekends (except for an occasional trip to Nats Park) because of all of the work. Now I am a bus/bike/walk/Uber taker. Do you think Metro is aware of people like me?

Yes. And Metro is concerned about the rail ridership not living up to the estimates in the budget. But even though many people complain about the service and the recent fare increase, I think a bigger factor affecting ridership is the decline in the federal transit benefit.

Sorry if this has been asked before. Do you think there will be a noticable decrease in traffic on I-66 and I-495 when the silver line is running? And if so how much and when will you really notice it?

I've seen no projections on this, but there might possibly be a decline in rush hour traffic on I-66, as some travelers shift from using Vienna, Dunn Loring and West Falls Church to using the Silver Line stations.

I'm not sure it will be enough to improve your travel time. I-66 is so bad, it would take a lot more than that to make a significant difference.

On the Beltway, I'm not looking for any visible change in traffic based on the opening of the Silver Line.

On the Dulles Toll Road, I want to see what happens with morning traffic around Wiehle Avenue. There may be some extra congestion there as people start using the new parking garage for the Wiehle-Reston East station.

What's going on with rush hour in the West End? For the past few weeks (months?), L St, Penn and the circle have been completely gridlocked. It takes me 15 minutes to go 5 blocks. There's no construction and I don't think it's tied to the bike lane. And I think it pre-dates the NH Ave switch (which is also horrible--the lights there only turn green for 7 seconds!). Help!

Sounds like you're seeing ripple effects from the new traffic signal setup around Washington Circle. It's meant to be more pedestrian-friendly. I"m getting a lot of complaints about it from drivers who are slowed down getting through the circle. That started before the NH Ave switch.

I take in the Orange line from Landover. This morning there was a long wait between trains. Is this going to be the norm with the Silver line? I know there have been articles about Orange line in Virginia, but none in Maryland. I assume if there are going to be delays, it will affect the entire line.

Check this blog posting: What Metro riders need to know for Monday.

On your segment of the Orange Line, you should have the same number of inbound trains as you do now. They're scheduled to arrive ever six minutes. (I noticed this morning that there was a disabled train offloaded at Minnesota Avenue. That may have thrown off the schedule for you.)

Going back home in the afternoon, you probably will notice there are fewer trains than you had as of last week. If they're on schedule, you should see one about every six minutes.

Co-worker rides the OL, getting on at Dunn Loring. He said that he had an 8 minute wait between trains and by the time the train got to Dunn Loring, it was already standing room only, no seats available (which is unusual at 6:35am). Unless some of those Vienna passengers move over to the Silver Line (unlikely with the lack of parking), the OL riders at Vienna, Dunn Loring, and WFC may be in for a worse commute, especially in September.

If it was eight minutes between trains, then the trains were off schedule. A train should reach Dunn Loring every six minutes.

I didn't get that far west, so I appreciate the report about Dunn Loring. What I noticed watching the trains come through Rosslyn (this was between 8 and 9 a.m.) was that the trains originating at Vienna tended to be more crowded than the trains that first took on passengers at East Falls Church.

But there was another factor that regular riders are familiar with: When there was a gap of even a couple of few minutes between trains, the next train in was especially crowded. When the trains were very close together, the second or third train would be much less crowded. (Eight-car trains also made a difference in crowding.)

Fairfax County and Metro are very confident that thousands of those west end Orange Line riders are going to switch to the new Silver Line stations as soon as they open.

Yellow line out of Eisenhower avenue was noticeably more crowded this morning

You seem a little hostile to the people who are frustrated by having only 5 trains per hour on the blue line. And for people going to Rosslyn, taking the yellow isn't really an option.

No, there's no way taking the Yellow Line to Rosslyn is a good choice for the Blue Line riders, as I've said here in the chat and earlier. It's perfectly understandable that people would be frustrated about that.

I find that travelers of all sorts tend to stick with an established pattern even when it becomes more difficult for them. Sometimes they say, "Well, I'm sticking with it because I believe in transit," or something like that.

I think that's wrong. They should figure out what works best for them and do it.

Dear Dr.,  I regularly use the Bay Bridge as a resident of Delaware whose job is based in DC. Over the past 20 years I have seen speeds and stupid driving instances increase dramatically.

Speed enforcement by MDTA Police is done on the approaches to the bridge, almost never on the bridge itself.

On weekday mornings on the Westbound span, speeds of 70+ are not unusual, evenings on the Eastbound span are around 65. Speed limit is either 40 or 50 mph.

Add the summer (beach) drivers to the mix, it approaches insanity.

Many do not appreciate how few options there are to avoid an accident and how long a drop it can be. Why aren't there speed enforcement cameras on the bridge? Great revenue source for the state. And it would reduce close calls and assist in a return to more sane levels.

-- Frequent Bridge User

I think it would be insanely dangerous for police to make routine traffic stops on the Bay Bridge. To put traffic cameras on the bridge, the Maryland General Assembly would have to change the law on automated enforcement, and I don't believe that would get much support.

This is probably the least-important Silver Line question, but how does one pronounce "Wiehle"?

This is a response to the traveler who wants to know about parking in Red Bank. I grew up in the area and know that if they are staying IN Red Bank, they can walk to the train. Long Branch is further out and does not pay to drive in the opposite direction. There is Middletown closer up the line. As for when the lots fill up???well, it is summer and the Jersey Shore so lots of people are on vacation but others, who have shore houses do a commute on a different branch of the railroad. Check with NJTransit and they will have an inquiry site. Enjoy! and Check out Sea Bright and Sandy Hook State Park!

Thanks for this, and the notes from others to stay tuned for the 2 p.m. Travel chat. Here's a link to the chat.

Thanks for joining me today. I"m going to stop the chat here and switch over to the Dr. Gridlock blog, because I still want to post something about today's experience with the Blue/Yellow/Orange/Silver test before the afternoon rush starts.

There's still a fairly large number of questions and comments about all that in the mailbag, and I'll try to get to them also on the blog.

Stay safe, and come back for next week's chat, when we'll have a morning's worth of experience with the Silver Line commute.

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 the Get There blog, as well as in the Metro section of The Washington Post.
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