Dr. Gridlock

Jul 22, 2013

Please note that Dr. Gridlock will chat at 1pm on Monday. He'll be back to his usual noon chat time next week. 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 just got back from riding on a D.C. streetcar along the test track in Anacostia. Brakes are being tested right now.

Since we're starting an hour later than normal, let's get right to your questions and comments.

Is there any hope for improvement on I-95 between DC and Fredricksburg? I hit an all-time low this weekend: 90 minutes to go 11 miles (southbound). Even with the extended HOV lanes, I just don't see how it can keep up with the volume.

Your question reminds me that among all the transportation plans I hear about -- six years, 20 years, 30 years -- nobody ever promises that traffic will be lighter at peak periods. They always say that if their project gets built, traffic will be less worse than it would have been.

I think that's the situation with I-95 in Northern Virginia, where the state is committed to building the 95 Express Lanes, a high-occupancy toll system, between Edsall Road just inside the Beltway and Garrisonville Road, 29 miles to the south.

That's not the only Virginia project along I-95, but it's definitely the main event in adding capacity to I-95.

The express lanes are scheduled to open in 2015.

What you were experiencing this past weekend was a combination of the heavy summer traffic volume, plus the very intensive work underway for the express lanes construction.

Will the express lanes improve the summer driving experience? Let's talk again in sumer 2015. I think they will, but all I know for sure is that this summer will be the time of most intensive work and the most disruption on the route you took last weekend.

Why does the District allow commuter buses to park on the DC streets and highways while waging got their routes to start? These buses block traffic and cause air pollution and are not serving tax paying DC residents. The worst spot is at 25/L st NW where the Keller buses block a turn lane and cause a dangerous condition

This is a long-time problem that the District still hasn't gotten under control. We want the commuter buses. Commuting conditions would be better if we had a lot more of them. But not to the point where they actually contribute to the problem on city street.

The new construction on I-395 near the 3rd Street Tunnel was an unpleasant surprise this morning. It caused major traffic problems. Traffic reports said traffic backed up all the way down I-395 to Duke Street and up the GW Parkway for a few miles, and that it is a long-term lane closure for both directions. Do you know what work is being done and how long the lanes will be closed? Also, what kind of traffic planning was done, and couldn't this be done at night instead or with intensive weekend work when there's no Nats game?

I could see from the traffic maps and cameras that it was very heavy from approaches to the 14th Street Bridge and then east along the freeway to the tunnel.

It's a DDOT project. I think it's the one we talked about in last week's chat when a traveler reported noticing the warnings on variable message boards.

I had included an item about it on the Dr. Gridlock blog. I'll paste it in here, so you can see if it describes what you encountered:

 

The District Department of Transportation is closing lanes along I-695, the freeway south of Capitol Hill, to install new variable message signs. Watch for traffic barrels and concrete barriers.

The first phase is set to begin Saturday and continue through Aug. 10. The left-most lanes on both sides of the interstate near the South Capitol Street exit will be closed. To set up equipment, an additional left lane will be temporarily closed between 2 a.m. and noon Saturday and again between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. July 25 and 26, if the work schedule holds.

A second phase will start on July 27 and continue through Aug. 11. This phase will close the right lane on the westbound side approaching the Third Street Tunnel. To set up equipment for this, an additional right lane will be temporarily closed starting at 10 p.m.  July 27 through eight o’clock the following morning and between 2 a.m. and noon, and again between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. July 29.

In mid to late August, a third phase will close the right lane on the eastbound side from the South Capitol Street exit to Sixth Street SE.

 

Interesting survey results (Sunday WaPo) about Metro ridership in NoVA, showing a smaller portion of the NoVA population is riding Metro over time. In 2005, 23% rode Metro regularly, in 2010 it dropped to 19%, and by 2013 it had dropped far more to 12%. I stopped using Metro to commute several years ago when my 31 minute ride started always taking 41 minutes because of congestion in the tunnel between Rosslyn and Foggy Bottom, making it take far longer than driving when you add in getting to/from Metro. The drop in ridership is while the population continues to grow. Do you think this might be a major reason why a number of us on this chat and in other places have been saying our commute has gotten a lot worse from NoVA to DC (contrary to that other recent survey some of us have questioned)?

All the Post stuff is coming from the same set of polling data. I sense some people might be deciding that the polling data must be correct where it backs there position, wrong otherwise.

The main frustration that both transit users and drivers express to me is the unreliability of their trips. Reliability used to be a major selling point for transit, but the poll showed a decline in people's perceptions of Metro's reliability.

Whether that's related to a decline in ridership, I don't know. Could be. But there's also been a decline in traffic congestion, according to The Post poll and other sources.

People spin that in a variety of ways, including the idea that people have made a decision to drive less and use transit more.

I suspect that we still haven't fully recovered from the recession, and we still have people traveling less.

Said that in Sunday's Dr. Gridlock column:

http://wapo.st/157o1aJ

By which I'm referring to the roadwork on 395 by South Capitol Street.

Check my response higher up and see if the DDOT work I was describing matches what you encountered. Let me know.

Dr. G - My wife and I were driving in Montgomery County on Sunday, and saw a family with two kids driving up a major road, one of whom (age about 4) was obviously not only not in a car seat, but up and walking around across the back seat of the car. Would you (or local police) encourage calling 911 in a situation like this? Police non-emergency #? Other ideas?

Definitely would not use 911. Save that for emergencies. You could use #77 on your cell phone to reach the nearest Maryland state police barrack, though I think I'd save that for a case of aggressive driving.

I don't put it that way to downplay the seriousness of failing to buckle up.

I recall asking a senior US Department of Transportation official for a safety tip I could give my readers. I was expecting something fairly complex. She said simply, "Tell them to wear their seatbelts." Nothing an average driver can do will make such a difference in traffic safety, she said.

Seems that planners have grand ideas about commuters using new public transit options. How often do they poll prior to funding a projects? Seems that common sense would show that most people aren't going to drive/bus to a metro station from McLean/Arlington/Reston to reach Tyson's or the Duller Corridor.

This is a really interesting issue -- complicated, too. So let me make just a few points  and ask the rest of you to join in.

No transportation project is just about moving people from Point A to Point B. Unless there was some other element, nothing would get built these days. That applies to both road and rail projects.

A big part of the reason for building the Silver Line was to focus the location and type of development in Tysons for decades to come.

There will be four stations in Tysons, and the planners' hope is that people will be taking the trains to those stations so they can walk or take a shuttle to their jobs.

Meanwhile, Metrobus and Fairfax Connector are reorganizing their routes to bring commuters to the four Tysons stations and to Wiehle Avenue, the onlystation in the first phase of the Silver Line  that will have a big permanent parking facility.

Do you think Metro could do a better job communicating with riders before they enter the system? On the night of the Blue/Orange line debacle, the screens at metro center were not working and the station manager was not informing riders of the potential delays. Also, the platform screens do not do a good job transmitting system information.

Which Blue/Orange Line debacle? (See earlier reference to the "reliability" issue on transit.)

Yes, Metro should be doing a better job communicating with riders before they enter the system. I do like the fact that Metro added those new screens at the station managers' kiosks. They're not always placed in a way that's immediately visible to riders hurrying to the fare gates at rush hour.

I think the station managers should have bullhorns and should use them to make announcements on the mezzanines about disruptions.

Metro has had the most success over the years in upgrading its electronic communications with riders, but the information isn't always up to date, and not all riders are looking.

Is there any reason you can think of to cause increased traffic on I-495 headed north from VA into MD in the late morning rush? For whatever reason, my commute has been about 10-15 minutes longer on this stretch for the past 6-8 weeks, with stopped traffic on the highway occurring frequently. I don't see any construction or other obvious factors being an issue.

I can't tell from the wording if you mean I-495 traffic on the Legion Bridge or the Wilson Bridge. I haven't noticed a surge in either, but i'm paying the most attention to morning traffic between 7:45 and 8:15 a.m. and you're talking 'late morning rush."

At the time I'm looking, I have noticed slower traffic on the inner loop heading west and north from Springfield, near Robinson Terminal, and on the inner loop in Maryland approaching the Wilson Bridge toward Virginia. The former is a fairly short stretch. The latter disappears before the bridge.

There are no work zones in those areas. There's a sound wall under construction on the inner loop south of the Legion Bridge, but I don't observe that interfering with traffic.

What's left? Warm weather volume is the only thing I can think of.

Does Metro have any statistics on whether the escalators service since they have taken over the repair and maintenance? This morning two of the four escalators I use on my commute were not operating, and only one of the 3 escalators at the Dupont South entrance was running.

Metro has escalator service statistics in its quarterly Vital Signs reports. They show that overall the escalators' performance is improving, but the overall percentage doesn't necessarily match up with what a rider experiences on a daily basis.

I've heard quite a few complaints lately about the street escalators on both sides of Dupont Circle. Whenever those go out, it's really nasty. That's not the same as an escalator out between the platform and mezzanine at Vienna. Somehow, the measures should take into account the impact of an outage on riders.

Hi Dr. Gridlock, When reading Metro's trackwork advisory for this coming weekend, I struggled to understand what they were trying to say about train service between Van Ness and Friendship Heights (I've copied and pasted it below, from Metro's website this morning). Then it occurred to me -- is Metro no longer using the phrase "single tracking"? At a time when its riders are frustrated by (among many Metro issues) poor communication, why put out rider advisories written in Doublespeak instead of plain English? What do you think? "Red Line 10 p.m. Fri., July 26 through closing Sun., July 28 Trains every 20 minutes between Shady Grove & Glenmont Red Line trains will operate as follows: Between Shady Grove & Glenmont: Every 20 minutes throughout the weekend. Additional trains between Van Ness & NoMa-Gallaudet: Service every 10 minutes 9AM-9PM Work Performed: Between Van Ness and Friendship Heights, crews will rehabilitate third-rail systems, eliminate joints in the rail, repair drains, mitigate leaks, clean drains and remove standing water. Between NoMa-Gallaudet and Fort Totten, crews will install new Emergency Trip Station boxes and communication cable. In addition, platform reconstruction will continue at Takoma and Fort Totten."

Metro's announcements about weekend service refer much less frequently to "single-tracking."

That doesn't mean the clocks are striking 13.

I believe two things are happening: 1) Metro is trying harder to communicate the information about the disruptions in a way we can understand. 2) The track work system for weekends has changed.

On the first point, keep in mind that I've been reading these anouncements for a few years, and looking for simpler ways to say that stuff. Metro track work announcements often say more than they have to, just like operators' announcements. (My all-time favorite ws the preamble, "Please be advised at this time ...")

You remember how the announcements use to say there would be single-tracking between Station A and Station B, so anticipate delays of X minutes going through the work zone?

Now Metro says the trains will run every XX minutes, and there will be work between Station A and Station B.

What happened was that Metro increased the space between trains to the point where there should no longer be delays on the tracks where the trains line up for their turns on the track. Once you board, you should encounter no delay.

That means Metro's online Trip Planner is suddenly relevant on weekends. If you look at it after Friday morning, you should see a real schedule. You shouldn't have to add on extra minutes for this or that disruption.

Questions?

 

Wow, that was a bad commute today because of the lane closings on each side of the SE/SW Freeway. How long will these lane closures be in place for? What were preople thinking when deciding on these closures? Those lanes are stressed enough during even the most mundane rush hour.

This is going to continue into August. Make sure you see the first comment and response on this topic above.

The survey did not indicate a decrease in ridership. In fact, Metrorail ridership is at an all time high.

Metro's own numbers indicate a decline in rail ridership. But the cause isn't know. We guess at that. I think that if it were just people switching modes, we should have seen an increase in traffic congestion, but isn't apparent.

I'll start using the Silver Line once it opens. Currently I take a Loudoin County Transit bus that goes to the WFC Metro station. I am debating it it will be worth it to just drive to the new Weihle Ave station and skip the hastle of taking the bus. The one thing I haven't seen yet is an estimate of the travel times on the Silver Line. Do you know how long it will take a Metro train to go from Weihle to one of the main stations such as Rosslyn or Metro Center?

I think it will take about 50 minutes to Metro Center. I've asked various officials about this, and they all pointed me to the Environmental Impact Statement on Dulles Metrorail, which I think goes back to 2005. And my memory from reading that was about 50 minutes.

Of course, that was a planning document, not a schedule for riders. I'll check again to see if there's an actual schedule available.

I'd second the increase in traffic across the American Legion Bridge in the morning. I think it has to do with the increase in efficiency in getting vehicles through Tysons that's to blame. With the redesigned I-66/I-495 interchange and the Express Lanes, more vehicles are getting to the bridge than before. The bridge is a major bottleneck that slows things down, which wasn't a problem before because the I-66 bottleneck prohibited enough cars getting to the bridge at the same time to cause a slowdown at the border. While the drive through Tysons now is great, all the work did was shift the bottleneck up to the bridge. Even with VDOT further increasing flow to the bridge with shoulder lanes, it's not going to change anything until a new, wider bridge is constructed or a second Montgomery County/NOVA Potomac River Bridge is built.

This is a very interesting idea on the source of congestion, and I hadn't thought of it. I do think that one of the biggest improvements created by the HOT lanes project was the better design of the I-66/Beltway interchange, especially for eastbound I-66 drivers heading toward Tysons on the inner loop.

I hadn't thought of the potential consequences for traffic north of Tysons on the inner loop.

One thing I don't see happening -- and I've heard from drivers who disagree with me on this: I don't believe the merge point on the inner loop between the HOT lanes and the regular lanes is a problem, not so far, anyway.

 

I would use more Dulles more often if they cut the price of their satellite parking in half. It's too far and expensive for a cab, and it can't complete with Metro to National and the $5 buses to BWI.

The Post's Lori Aratani had an interesting story recently on what Virginia is trying to do to boost use of Dulles Airport.

Here's a link: http://bit.ly/1bGmVI7

I think the reasons for Dulles's problems are very complicated. Partly to do with accessibility, partly with the terminal design, partly with overall convenience of National and BWI, partly that bWI is a Southwest Airlines hub.

Travelers, thanks for joining me today. I have to stop now, but will make a copy of the remaining questions and comments and see if I can use them on the Dr. Gridlock blog this week.

Next Monday at noon, I'm hoping to have a guest: Shyam Kannan, Metro's chief planner. He'll take your questions about Metro's long-range plan, the one called Momentum.

Stay safe out there.

In This Chat
Robert Thomson
Robert Thomson is The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock. He offers therapy for that most intimate relationship: the one between you and your commute. You can read his work on his namesake blog, as well as in the Metro section of The Washington Post.
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