Dr. Gridlock

Jul 28, 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.

The opening of Metro's Silver Line is one of the biggest stories in U.S. transportation this year. But for the D.C. region's commuters, the line's opening is a collection of individual experiences.

If your individual experience was on the Silver Line this morning, you're probably feeling pretty good about it. If your trip was on the Blue or Orange lines, you may not be feeling so peppy.

As we begin, I've got comments already from many participants in Monday's commute. Please add yours.

(And we're not talking just Metro, though I think that's likely to be the dominant topic on a day like this.)

My experience so far (this morning and last week), is that Ballston isn't too affected. It seems to me now that the trains running from Vienna are now full or close to capacity by the time they reach Ballston, but the silver line trains (at least this morning), was pretty empty. It seems they really need to be running full 8 car trains out of Vienna for those to be a viable option closer in. And it's wait and see whether silver line ridership picks up.

At Ballston and the other Orange Line stations in Arlington before Rosslyn, two more trains per hour are scheduled.

So if trains are on schedule (does that ever happen?), they should arrive more frequently.

Metro hasn't changed the mix of six-car and eight-car trains leaving Vienna. The thinking is that thousands of riders are going to be diverted from the west-side Orange Line stations to the new Silver Line stations in Fairfax County.

Two reasons: The biggest is that many Metrobus and Fairfax Connector routes have shifted to take commuters to the Silver Line stations. Second is that some riders from western Fairfax and Loudoun will simply find it more convenient to drive to the new Silver Line garage at Wiehle-Reston East.

 

Hi Dr. G, It's weird that Metro is trying to brand the Silver Line without the 'the.' No one says: I take Orange Line. Why do they think that will take on? It's weird. Also -- today was my first time commuting on the Silver Line. And it was ok -- typical stop and start and wait in the tunnel for awhile. I could see on the side of the train, they were marked Wiehle-Reston, but I'm not sure about the front of the trains. And the PIDs seem to just say Wiehle which looks the same as Vienna from a distance. Which means, you won't really know which train is about to arrive. Maybe Metro can add "Reston" to the boards?

That's an interesting point about line lingo. In the many references I've seen, there are many uses without the "the" and many with.

On the PIDs, I didn't notice the confusion you note between the way Wiehle and Vienna look from a distance. One double-check is to look for the "SV" as you would look for the "OR" or the "BL".

I think Wiehle-Reston wouldn't fit on the boards, and Metro is unlikely to make the reference be just "Reston."

I know that I-66 gets pretty slow passing Nutley, which is the end of the Orange Line. How will the Silver Line impact traffic on the Toll Road? While I-66 is the shorter distance for my commute, the days I need to get home faster, the Toll Road almost always saves me time. I know the Reston station is the only one with parking, and suspect many of the people who use the Silver Line will want to get on the Toll Road.

The thing I was most worried about for Toll Road drivers is that there would be extra congestion at the eastbound ramp up to Wiehle Avenue, because of the new bus bays there and because drivers needing to figure out how to navigate their way to the garage on the north side of the Toll Road.

Didn't happen this morning. Saw no problem whatsoever on the ramp.

It's one morning in mid-summer, so I think we should wait and see on that.

Overall effect on the Toll Road traffic: That will depend on the way drivers judge the tradeoffs. If you work in Tysons, you may have a free parking space. But you would want to make some calculation on tolls plus gas plus hassle of driving to Tysons versus cost of parking at Wiehle Avenue plus riding Metrorail.

If your office is beyond Tysons, I think Metro gets even better looking. It will be better yet when Phase 2 is completed out to Loudoun County.

I understand the explanation for no parking at most of the stations of the Silver Line. Whether I agree is another story. But why no Kiss and Ride?

There's no Kiss and Ride at Tysons Corner or Greensboro, the two stations right in the middle of Tysons. There are Kiss and Rides at the outer Tysons stations, McLean to the east and Spring Hill to the west.

I believe the reason for this is the same as with the decision not to have Metro garages by the Tysons stations: The planners didn't want to draw any more cars into Tysons.

 

Do you have any knowledge on how much longer VA will allow grandfathered licensed hybrid cars access to HOV. I have enjoyed using HOV on I-66 in my Hybrid Camry for the past 5 years and am considering purchasing a new car. Although the hybrid has been extremely reliable, I'm not certain I would get another unless the Hybrid exemption remains in effect. Your thoughts?

I wouldn't buy a hybrid based on an expectation of getting an HOV exemption on I-66. Looks like a pretty good bet that Virginia is going to convert those lanes from HOV to HOT. Hybrid drivers would lose their exemption, just like on the other HOT lanes on the Beltway and the ones coming to I-95/395.

I live out in Reston right near the silver line, but I really feel for people on the blue line. I saw your tweet this morning that most of the blue line trains were 6 cars long. Really? It seems that the very least Metro could do for these folks would be to put all 8-car trains on the blue line. I don't get it.

According to Metro, half the peak period trains on the Blue Line are now eight cars long.

You just can't prove that by me. Last Monday, when the most recent Blue Line cutbacks took effect, and again this morning, when we had the first Silver Line commute, I hung around at Rosslyn and watched the trains go by.

In a half hour this morning, I saw one eight-car Blue Line train. There could have been several in a row before or after that time period, but I just wasn't there to see it.

The good thing about the one eight-car train I did see was that the last two cars were quite roomy. So if you do see an eight-car on the board, head for the rear of the platform.

On the other hand, I wouldn't hang around a platform in the hope that maybe the next Blue Line train will be eight cars. With the trains scheduled for every 12 minutes, it's not worth your time to wait and hope.

Dr. G, all the Silver trains I saw this weekend did not have a color stripe on the front and sides where they usually are on other lines. It was just the text "Silver" and "Whiele" or "Largo." Any idea if that will be fixed?

I'll check on that. I didn't notice either Saturday or today when I was riding Silver Line trains, or watching them go through stations.

I certainly saw "Silver" on the front and "Wiehle-Reston" or "Largo" on the sides.

One thing: Just before my westbound Silver Line train got to Foggy Bottom this morning, a rider asked me, "Is this the Silver Line?"

It didn't matter to him. He was getting off at Foggy Bottom. If you get on or off between Stadium-Armory and Rosslyn, you can board any train -- Blue, Orange or Silver -- whatever arrives first.

But many of us are on remote control when commuting.  This afternoon, riders downtown will need to pay extra attention to the line color, especially westbound, when the trains will be going to three different destinations.

I have a Smartrip card that inexplicably doesn't scan at certain faregates and does scan at others. I always scan without issue at Rosslyn and always have problems at Union Station, which suggests that the problem is the machine. Yet I see hundreds of other people scanning their cards at the same machine without issue, which suggests that the problem is my card. Is this a problem you've heard about and if so, any light you could shed on it?

I have this problem from time to time with my SmarTrip card, and I know many other riders do as well.

I think it's a problem with the readers, rather than with the cards.

In fact, this was the problem I noticed this morning as people came through the Wiehle-Reston East fare gates. Most riders were using SmarTrip cards and most got through easily. But a bunch would tap their cards to no effect, then rub the cards furiously -- also to no effect. One woman went to three fare gate card readers before she found one that would recognize her card.

Hi! Just wanted to check to see if you had any luck with your investigation into the commuting impacts of the impending U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit that you mentioned in a previous chat. We suspect there might be road closures and increased security around the various venues? Thanks!

Yes, I think the summit is likely to have a significant impact on traffic in the Foggy Bottom area next week, Monday through Thursday.

D.C. Police plan to close many streets and limit parking. Experience suggests that the effect of the closings will ripple out to affect traffic on some of the main commuter routes on the west side of D.C.

We have a map in the works to show the closings.

Traffic should be lighter than normal, because of summer vacations, but the impact should still be significant.

Metrorail service should not be affected, but there will likely be many Metrobus detours. I'll check on the Circulator, too. Seems like this could affect the Georgetown-Union Station route.

[This traveler's comment came in on Thursday, after the cutbacks on the Orange and Blue lines, but before the opening of the Silver Line.}

While Orange Line riders understood that Rush Plus was going to end, we expected that Metro would compensate with more 8-car trains during rush hour.

Instead, this week has seen packed cars starting from Vienna in the morning. It's one thing to stand for 10 minutes from Court House into town; it's another thing to stand for 40 minutes from Vienna.

Is Metro oblivious to the needs of Orange Line riders beyond East Falls Church? Didn't they expect this?

If the Orange Line trains are on schedule: The stations at the west end of the line, Vienna through West Falls Church, should have trains about every six minutes. Through Arlington, the service should be more frequent, because the Silver Line has joined the route.

From Rosslyn through Stadium-Armory, the total number of scheduled trains is the same as before: 26, a combination of Silver, Orange and Blue.

All the Silver Line trains are six cars long. The Orange Line trains are a mix of sixes and eights. The Blue Line trains, as I said in the earlier response, are a mix of sixes and eights.

So for an Orange Line rider at Vienna, last week should have been the worst week for crowded platforms, and yes, Metro knew that was coming. This week should be better because many riders are now switching to the Silver Line stations.

Did Metro announce track work on the eastern portion of the red line this past weekend? I always read the alerts and plan my trips accordingly even taking alternative routes. However on Saturday evening my train sat at Fort Totten for 30 mins due to single tracking in the Glenmont direction. Since we sat for so long, I wondered if they were single tracking all the way to Glenmont (it continued to Silver Spring at least). Anyways I read the alerts again while on the train and nothing was mentioned for that side of the red line. The operator didn't mention any special circumstances, it sounded like regular track work. Not that I was paying a lot of attention but I didn't hear it the operator mention it until we were at Fort Totten. It was very frustrating that we weren't alerted to the track work and allowed the opportunity to make alternate travel plans.

Metro did not announce single tracking on the east side of the Red Line. That was a complete surprise to riders.

The schedule did not conform to what a rider would have seen using Metro's online Trip Planner, which is supposed to be the go-to source for scheduling information.

I got an angry letter about this from a rider taking Metro to the Billy Joel concert on Saturday night at Nats Park.

She started on the east side of the Red Line and was caught by surprise by the single tracking past a work zone at Silver Spring.

Just a report; fyi - I take the Blue line from Van Dorn to Foggy Bottom and this morning the train that pulled in to the Van Dorn station was identified as a Silver line going to Largo. Of course, it didn't make any difference, but I have to be honest, as a Blue line rider who is already getting the shaft, it felt like one more indignity. Would be curious to know how a train originating from F-S could be displayed as such.

I think I've got a stranger one: While I was watching the trains go by at Rosslyn, I saw a Blue Line train with destination signs of "Greenbelt." Not sure why those things happen.

(Trains don't do that, by the way. They won't take passengers along the east-west tunnel in DC and then make a left for Greenbelt.)

What if I return to the same station without exiting the metro system? What is the cost, or is it possibly free?

It's definitely not free. I think you pay the basic boarding fare, which would be $2.15 at peak, with a SmarTrip card.

Dr. Gridlock, I'm curious whether you, or your colleagues, will keep tabs on whether the malls at Tysons experience problems with Metrorail commuters attempting to park in their garages and then take the subway to work. I'm certain it's bound to happen, and the question is simply how the malls go about cracking down and how vigilant they are in towing people. (While parking at the mall and then going somewhere else is quite common in Pentagon City, the difference there is that you pay to park in the mall's garage. Tysons I and II don't charge for parking.) Consider that Springfield Mall allows free commuter parking on the three levels of the garage outside Macy's that don't offer direct access to the store and it's a pretty darn popular option. Can't blame anyone: If you park there four days a week (let's assume one day it's rainy, so you pay to park at Metro's garage that day) you're saving almost $20. I'm sure people will be tempted to try the same thing in Tysons even if the malls aren't allowing it there.

My colleagues have seen some warning signs posted about parking for mall use only and others being subject to towing.

My thought is that this won't be much of an issue in the early going.

During this morning's rush, about 500 people boarded trains at the Tysons Corner station, the one closest to the malls. My guess is that most arrived by bus, just as the station planners were hoping.

Meanwhile, my colleagues say, there was plenty of parking available at the private lot on the north side of the McLean station.

It's early. This parking situation could change over the next few weeks as rider habits evolve. We'll watch.

 

Metro handed out pamphlets and other stuff in the lead up to opening the new line. The literature stated that in stations where the blue line operates the info signs on the platform would always show the next blue line train no matter how many hundreds of other trains would arrive first. That was simply not the case this AM. Not at Rosslyn anyway. So we got to watch empty silver and orange line trains go by for a while before a blue line train came for us to all pack onto. I still think it's stupid that they are running so many silver line trains before there's any ridership instead of ramping up service as it is required.

I'm not sure about the format for the Rosslyn platform signs. I can certainly tell you that there are many times when those signs show only SV and OR arrivals, not BL.

And I do know that Metro was having a problem getting the signs at some stations to do what Metro said they would: Show the next Blue Line train, even if it wasn't going to be among the next three. That problem was supposed to have been corrected by rebooting the signs last week.

This is the part I'm not sure of: Metro said "many" signs would be adjusted to always show the next Blue Line train. I'm not sure whether Rosslyn was among the "many."

The point of adjusting the signs was to help riders make a choice about whether they should wait for the next Blue Line train or bolt for the Yellow Line.

There's not much choice at Rosslyn. If you need a Blue Line train, you're pretty much stuck waiting for the next Blue Line train. There's no good alternative.

Rode in from Vienna at around 7:30. Everything moved much more smoothly than last week. There was a slight (maybe 30-second) delay heading into East Falls Church, but otherwise no delays. Crowds seemed much smaller than last week, but the rush is always lighter this time of year so it's hard to tell what is the result of dispersion to the Silver Line versus people on vacation. Still, unlike last week where people were passing up trains in hopes that the next one would be better, I saw no packed platforms at East or West Falls. The PM commute will be the next test, but so far so good on the Orange.

Yes, I'm also curious about this afternoon's commute, especially from the downtown Orange/Blue/Silver platforms heading west.

Here's my theory about what we saw this morning: Almost 10,000 people used the five new stations in Fairfax County during the morning rush. (Far and away, the busiest was Wiehle-Reston East.) 

Overall Metrorail ridership was about the same this morning as it was last Monday morning. It's possible that there are more people on vacation this week than last. But I think it's still likely that most of the Silver Line riders were veteran Metrorail riders, moving from the Orange Line to the Silver Line.

In fact, Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said that ridership was down about 30 percent at the three stations on the west side of the Orange Line. That's about 7,000 boardings. It's probable that most were bus riders who used to get off at West Falls Church and now are going to either Wiehle-Reston East or the Tysons stations.

 

On WMATA's website, the train frequency page still says the blue line operates every 6 minutes during AM and PM rush. Somebody might want to fix that...

Yes. This is the Metrorail Frequency page we're talking about. The Blue Line, as its riders are painfully aware, now is scheduled to operate every 12 minutes whether it's peak or off-peak.

My guess is the internet connection to the farecard DB behind the reader is slow. It always seems to happen when many people are trying to read farecards at the same time. I am curious to the mechanism behind it all.

I think the readers are old technology being asked to handle too many types of transactions. The whole fare payment system needs a major overhaul.

Is there any chance that VDOT reconsiders the hours that the I-495 inner loop shoulder lane will be available? It has been proposed to only be open during the weekday afternoon rush hours, but traffic patterns in the morning rush would indicate that an additional lane would be helpful during those hours as well. The inner loop is consistently backed up in the mornings into Tysons due to merging from the Express Lanes. Does VDOT have the ability to expand the hours, or are they only permitted to allow drivers to use the lane during one specific rush hour period.

I think the VDOT plan now is to open the shoulder during both the morning and afternoon rush hours. I'll double check.

I certainly agree that this would help in the morning as well as the afternoon. Both those time periods are very congested on the inner loop.

It's actually accurate, though misleading. It references the frequency of departure from end-of-line stations. Trains leave Franconia-Springfield every 6 minutes during the AM rush period...they're just not all blue.

I understand what you're saying, but I do think that as presented, with the shields for all the different lines, that it's misleading.

When I wrote about this, I urged travelers to consult Metro's online Trip Planner go get more specific schedule information.

I often round trip the Metro at lunchtime without exiting to exchange keys and whatnot. Does anyone have favorite stations for doing this? I use Grosvenor on the Red line as my exchange point.

This sounds like Charlie on the MTA. This isn't like, your spouse hands you a sandwich as the train goes rumblin' through, is it?

Is metro going to start running 8 car trains on the silver line??

Depends on how the ridership evolves. But if Metro starts using any of the new 7000 series cars on the Silver Line, once they begin entering service late this year, those would have to be eight cars long.

"The whole fare payment system needs a major overhaul." You're not kidding...Why does WMATA continue to make things more complicated with old technology? Either go to a single fare or zone system or upgrade the technology. There's not a single subway system in the country that is confusing to pay for as Metro.

It is complicated. I think you will not see a flat fare system on Metro. Outer jurisdictions would love it, because trip costs would drop. Inner jurisdictions would hate it, because trip costs would rise.

I think the technology can handle the time/distance calculations for the fares. But in more recent years, we've layered on the passes, and the SmartBenefits and the auto-replenishing.

Any idea how full the Parking at the Reston station was? I know they have spots for 3300 cars and wondered how packed it was?

2,300 spaces in the big county garage on the north side of the Wiehle-Reston East station. Not full. (But there's a waiting list for the reserved spaces.)

The private lot by the McLean station also was not full.

I think both those situations will evolve fairly rapidly. And I expect conditions will be different come September.

Have you received any indications from Transurban as to what their base toll will be when the I-95 Express Lanes open next year? I think many were surprised when the Beltway lanes open, and saw that the tolls never dropped below $1.80 for the full length. I'm guessing the total toll from end to end will probably not go below $7.00, which seems quite pricey, but will be masked by the fact that it will be paid in segments.

Before the Beltway HOT lanes opened, Transurban officials told me they expected the low end would be about 20 cents a mile. So if you see a toll of $1.80 for the full 14 miles, it's under what they expected.

They're also now estimating a low end of 20 cents a mile for the 29 mile route on I-95/395.

My husband works downtown and is planning to switch from driving to metro - he took the Silver Line today and was very pleased with his commute. I commute from Loudoun to Silver Spring - not a particularly pleasant commute. I probably won't be an everyday silver line rider, since it's faster for me to drive if I leave early in the morning - but I do plan on taking the silver line at least a couple of times each month, just to give myself a chance to read. It will also be great for when I have meetings downtown or want to meet friends downtown for dinner after work. (also, I'm hoping that it gets at least a couple other people off of the toll road and the VA portion of the Beltway). Can't really tell much about overall impacts until September, but regardless, we're really pleased that the Silver Line is finally open!

I don't do this very often, but I just hate driving between Loudoun or western Fairfax to Silver Spring in the morning. I think it's one of the worst driving commutes in the D.C. region. I might listen to an audio book on the drive, but I lose a lot of it, because of the need to concentrate on the traffic. This morning, I rode Metro between Wiehle-Reston East and Silver Spring. I could get used to that.

Why doesn't Metro drop one SL and one OL train each rush hour and add two BL trains in their place? The BL overcrowding is unsafe, and it doesn't make sense to run emptier OL/SL trains when BL trains are bursting at the seams. Metro needs to wake up and stop making lame excuses as to why things can't be done, and instead think outside the box to find creative solutions to problems.

The region's transit officials seem very confident they are going to get those 50,000 daily entries and exits they anticipate for the five new stations over the next year or so.

I don't see any signs that they're going to change the train schedules, though I think it's technically possible to do that, as long as it adds up to 26 trains per hour at the Rosslyn tunnel.

I live in Reston. Took the Silver Line this morning. My commute is now LONGER than it was before. My previous commute: drive 2 miles to Sunset Hills Park & Ride (10 minutes), take bus to West Falls Church (30 minutes), take train from West Falls to Foggy Bottom (30 minutes), walk to work (5 minutes) for a total of 1 hr 15 minutes. My new commute: walk to bus stop (5 minutes), bus to Wiehle (30 minutes to go 2 miles!), train to Foggy Bottom (40 minutes, why is the train so slow!), walk to work (5 minutes) for a total of 1 hr 20 minutes. So, that's $2B + and my commute is longer!

It's really a shame since I'm a big supporter of mass transit and I've been looking forward to the opening of the Silver Line for years.

But, to spend this much money and get to work slower than before is just a punch in the gut. Who is going to ride the Silver Line when you can drive from Reston to DC is 45 minutes?

It's a line made for 25 years in the future when people live in Tyson's. Sadly, it doesn't help me at all. It would've been useful if they made a huge parking garage in Reston, but driving won't be an option because that lot will be filled before 8AM most days. ARG.

Your situation is the one I've heard about most frequently during discussions of negative effects on Orange Line riders.

Over the past decade or so, the region's transit planners have made a rather calculation that there will be more winners than losers with the new Silver Line.

And as I said in a previous response, as of today, they seem very confident they will be proven correct.

(At the moment, though, we're a ways off from filling up the Reston garage by 8 a.m.)

Hi Dr. G, So did Metro decide to open the silver line this week because it's historically the lowest ridership, with people on vacation? I mean, the train was full when it pulled into McLean this morning...it's not like people weren't standing as it went down the orange line.

Metro made no such calculation about opening in the summer. Metro budgeted for an opening around the start of the year, and has taken a hit because it's been paying for Silver Line staff without any Silver Line revenue.

Your riding experience was different from mine. On my train from Wiehle-Reston East, there were plenty of seats till we reached Clarendon and Court House. As I watched Silver Line trains come through Rosslyn, they were consistently less crowded than Blue or Orange Line trains.

I think it will stay that way for a while. I noticed one rider get off a crowded Blue Line train at Rosslyn and wait a minute till a much less crowded Silver Line train pulled in. Thought that was pretty smart of him.

 

Why didn't the planning of the Silver Line include expansion of the Rosslyn Tunnel or addition of a new tunnel across the Potomac, or at least include the creation of a pocket track or other turnaround mechanism for the new line?

Those are pretty good ideas. I think the practical answer to your question is that the various Virginia governments and agencies in charge of the Silver Line construction didn't have the money to do those other things.

In addition, they didn't have the money to build a tunnel all the way through Tysons. And they didn't have the money to put the airport station in the airport terminal.

Travelers, thanks for joining me today. We focused largely on the Silver Line, but it's a pretty big day in our local transit history.

Please continue telling me about your experiences with Metrorail this week. I'm sure people will be discovering issues we haven't thought of yet.

Stay safe, and come back for a chat next Monday.

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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