Dr. Gridlock

Aug 05, 2013

The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock, Robert Thomson, will be online to take all your questions about Metro, traffic throughout the region and other transportation issues.

Welcome, travelers. I'll look first for questions and comments that would benefit most from your feedback.

Why is WMATA so bad at estimating how long repairs will take (enough so that they have a standard placard to apologize how the deadlines keep "slip sliding away"?) I noticed without surprise that the elevators at Farragut North, out of service since April, have had their estimated completion date adjusted again, from the original June now to August, after previously having been adjusted to July. I certainly don't know enough about what repairs are needed or how long they take to know how long they should take, but shouldn't WMATA be able to accurately estimate how long things will take from the start, rather than consistently getting things wrong by a factor of two?

The timetables that Metro gives for completion of escalator and elevator work are as specific as any given by transportation agencies in the D.C. region.

All transportation agencies adjust their schedules. With the highway departments, they may encounter bad weather or adverse soil conditions. With Metro, it might be the inability to find the right part for an escalator because the manufacturer went out of business so Metro has to make it's own.

I wish all the agencies could hit their timetables. But the thing about Metro that bothers me the most is that for so many projects, Metro won't set any timetables at all.

We're two years into the aggressive weekend repair program. The work is on weekends, but you see the effects throughout the week. Platform and ceiling repairs, for example. Do you have any idea when that stuff is supposed to be done?

I don't mean an exact date. How about a season, or a year? All you know is that the most aggressive part of the weekend program should be done in 2017.

Dr. Gridlock, I was just curious if there are any metrics available about the HOT lanes- perhaps how many daily trips are made, how much increased usage they've gotten per month, etc. Has the company that runs them released anything like that? Thanks!

Transurban, the company that operates the express lanes, issues quarterly reports. So we've had three of them since the lanes opened in November.

You can see my summary of the latest one here:

http://wapo.st/1ab0k2V

 

Why does 295S (Kenilworth Avenue) backup every morning, even in the summer?

I see two zones of congestion on DC 295 South when I'm looking each weekday morning between 7:45 and 8:15. One is just south of the Route 50/Eastern Avenue zone. The other is where traffic approaches the 11th Street Bridge. There's also a backup northbound on I-295 approaching the 11th Street Bridge.

I know a reason for the latter. The 11th Street Bridge construction is still underway. When the work on a new flyover bridge is done next summer, there will be an extra lane for the inbound drivers, who now have to weave around to line up with the through lanes.

But then, another project will get under -- the reconstruction of the nearby Douglass Bridge (South Capitol Street) over the Anacostia River. I'm not sure yet what the traffic impact of that will be on 295.

 

While traveling around in Maryland and the District, specifically on the BW Parkway and the Suitland Parkway, I've noticed a lot off the road signs are obscured by overgrown trees and bushes. Is there anyone in these areas who is responsible for making sure these signs are visible?

The parkway maintenance is complicated. I think in some zones on the BW Parkway, it's the National Park Service and in others, it's the Maryland State Highway Administration. With Suitland Parkway, I'm not sure if the maintenance is done by the park service or the District Department of Transportation.

You noted that the I-95/395 HOV lane times are being slightly adjusted to accomodate weekday traffic. IS VDOT making any adjustments to help out the ridiculous weekend traffic? It took me 45 minutes to get from Springfield to Woodbridge (posted at 24 minutes) on Saturday afternoon. Has VDOT ever considered altering the times during the summer, since the traffic patterns are different than they are during the winter?

I know of no plans to adjust the weekend hours on the reversible lanes. The congestion you're seeing this summer probably is related to the construction of the 95 Express Lanes. The lanes will open in early 2015, but this summer is the peak period for road work impacts on drivers.

After the new lanes open, they will be operated by Transurban -- same company that operates the Beltway express lanes.

The plan is to operate the reversible lanes on basically the same schedule as what you see today.

Is there no 'major' weekend track work for the middle of August? This would seem to be the prime time for large projects that shut down stations (though maybe not for workers working outside....)

There's no major work in mid-August, with major defined as the type of work that closes stations. But there's plenty of weekend track work. This coming weekend, only the Yellow Line has no work scheduled.

I know that for the Aug. 23-25 weekend, work was rescheduled to avoid the March on Washington, which is likely to draw very big crowds to Metro.

 

Last week in your chat with Shyam Kannan, director of WMATA's planning office, he stated that adding capacity to Metrorail's core was a priority. Given shouldn't Metro be more active politically to help make that happen? They can't just be hopeful that money and political will will manifest it self. While WMATA may be doing things behind the scenes and they have presented the 2025 and beyond goals, I just don't see it as enough of a serious effort to effectively build new trunk lines through a very expensive city. I think DC would be willing to play ball fiscally but they couldn't do it alone.

For other readers, here's a link to last week's chat:

http://live.washingtonpost.com/gridlock-0729.html

Metro has mounted quite an effort to gather support for its long-range plan, called "Momentum." Many local governments have been supportive, as have important civic groups and transportation advocacy groups.

And it will take a lot more of that to actually get the money for this program. One key issue is whether Congress will continue to provide the annual federal contribution to

When Shyam Kannan accepted my invitation to join us for the chat, I'm sure he and other Metro officials saw that as a chance for them to build public support for Momentum.

There's a long way to go, not only with the financing issues. It's still not clear to me what entities are supposed to build some of the new stuff, like either a new station at Rosslyn  or a bypass that would allow restoration of some Blue Line service.

Any news on whether the H St. NE corridor's trolley/street car service will start?

I think there's no question about "whether." On "when," the District Department of Transportation still is targeting the end of the year. That seems very ambitious to me, but that's what city officials say.

If the target slides a bit, I think it probably won't make much difference to most folks who might use the streetcar.

That reminds me of our earlier exchange about the Metro timetables. DDOT set the timetable for the streetcars. It was good to know the target. There will come a point where DDOT will give us all an update, saying either they continue to be on target, or they need to push back the start date. That's the way this process should work, isn't it?

Several months ago, people suggested that one could gauge the traffic delays on the Beltway based on the prices for the Express Lanes... the more expensive they are, the more likely traffic is bad. However, if people don't know traffic on the Beltway is backed up, why would they get into the Express Lanes. And if people don't get in the Express Lanes, the prices won't go up. It seems like a cycle. Posting travel times to compare the main lanes vs. express lanes would be of more value in deciding which to take.

I think the congestion pricing system won't work the way we envisioned it until drivers can make the instant cost/benefit analysis on which lanes to choose. Right now, there's no way to do that.

You can check from home or office easily enough, but most commuters don't do that.

Many transportation officials and individual drivers have told me that one way to decide is to consider that the higher the toll is for the express lanes, the more likely there's crowding in the regular lanes. I get that idea, but it seems like a bit of a bank shot. I'd rather have an actual travel time comparison at the express lanes access points.

You've probably answered this before, but I didn't catch it. When the HOT lanes are finished, will I still be able to get on for free off-peak, or will I need to pay 24/7?

Tolls will be in effect all hours and all days.

Every day on my morning commute I turn left from 14th St onto Madison, then right onto 15th to continue northbound. Currently, that route takes me right next to the construction site for the new Smithsonian African-American History Museum. Do you know whether they're planning to leave that little block of Madison open to vehicle traffic once the museum is complete? I worry that it is slated to become a plaza or some sort of pedestrian area. Losing that shortcut would make my drive much less pleasant ... Thank you!

There's nothing in the museum plan that calls for the permanent closing of Madison Drive.

DC is always high up on the lists on terrible traffic, but the emphasis always seems to be on the highways. As a driving commuter in the district it seems to me that a lot of the traffic problem are located inside the city limits, specifically in the downtown area. On any given day, whether AM or PM rush there are always delivery trucks stopped blacking lanes where it's clearly posted "No Stopping or Standing," often times double parked sot hat 2 lanes are blocked. Other times it's an out of service metro bus or metro access van. And there are always a plethora of cab drivers that seem to think going 10 mph under the speed limit while straddling two lanes in helping anything. How come you dont see MPD doing anything about this?

The Metropolitan Police Department has not been very effective at enforcing rush hour traffic rules. My hope is with the District Department of Transportation's traffic control officers -- and some more tow trucks.

I was talking recently to some DDOT officials who were pointing out that delivery companies are just factoring the price of parking tickets into their cost of doing business downtown.

I've seen a few questions regarding why there is a back up on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge/Inner Loop of the beltway. This may not answer it entirely, but I've noticed as someone driving the other way that traffic backs up on Route One and Duke Street in Old Town and spills over onto the highway. I reverse commute (thank god!) but have noticed the light at Route One/Duke Street is all off 15 seconds long allowing only a few cars through at a time. Once past that light, the traffic flows better and one can actually travel through Old Town without stopping. But as traffic does back up and does end up impacting those coming off 495, I see it having a much bigger impact onto the bridge than one would expect.

Thanks, many drivers have asked what's going on with the inner loop.

What I see as I look at maps and cameras on weekday mornings is very slow traffic on the inner loop until drivers reach I-295, after that, it seems to ease up considerably. Occasionally, I see slow traffic on the Wilson Bridge, but much less often than I see slow traffic in the zone approaching the bridge in Prince George's.

This morning (August 1), I received an email from metro at 5:33 - "Orange Line: Expect residual delays to New Carrollton due to an earlier train malfunction at West Falls Church." I never received a message about the train malfunction itself. This type of thing happens frequently. Do you know why metro does not send out information concerning train incidents when they first occur?

I see that sometimes, too. That was my first eAlert on Thursday morning.

Looking back at Metro's service record for Thursday, I see two Orange Line problems:

5:09 a.m. A New Carrollton-bound Orange Line train at West Falls Church was offloaded due to an equipment problem. Passengers experienced a 3-minute delay.

5:23 a.m. A New Carrollton-bound Orange Line train at Vienna did not operate, resulting in a 12-minute gap in service.

I say I see this problem sometimes with the alerts, but it's not a consistent issue.

Hi Dr. G. Why is it that even with very concientious train operators (who are attempting to announce every station and try to give explanations for delays) the in-train car PA system often cuts in and out making their message undecipherable? It happens all the time. My impression is that Metro inspects cars before allowing them to leave the train yard so maybe it is something that only happens when trains are in motion and so is not getting detected. It happens a lot more frequently than hotcars in my experience.

I have a rider's letter in this Thursday's column in Local Living noting that sometimes it seems like the operator isn't speaking clearly and sometimes it seems like the equipment.

Some of the equipment is just plain old. But there's another problem: When the cars made by different manufacturers are combined into one train, the audio systems don't match up well.

This won't really be solved till we start getting those new cars, the 7000 series. Not only will the equipment be better, but also, those cars can't be combined with any earlier generation of cars to make a train.

I am always looking for an alternate route that might get me to my destination faster. I-66 is a parking lot, but US-50 and US-29 are no better. We just don't have enough roads that connect. Is there an alternate to I-66, US-50, and US-29 between Fair Oaks and the Beltway?

I'm not sure exactly what time you're driving, but on most mornings, I think I'd stick with 66 rather than pursue an alternative.

In recent months, the morning problems on 66 seem to be concentrated around Fair Oaks, and then the eastbound traffic eases up somewhat -- at least to the point where it looks better to me than the alternatives to the Beltway.

You have been touting a relief of traffic as August approaches, yet all I've seen is a steady increase in traffic on the beltway through Tysons. This morning, the inner loop was backed up from Springfield all the way to River Road. This level of backup has become more frequent in the past 3-4 months. When the Express Lanes opened at the beginning of the year, the trip was regularly taking me 20-30 minutes. Now it is taking me nearly an hour to make that 18-mile trip into Maryland. There's no construction, and supposedly, summer traffic would suggest the trip time would decrease. I dread when September comes, will it take me 90 minutes to get to work?

The inner loop was awful this morning, particularly around Tysons, but also farther north to Maryland.

But it seems very unlikely that many more commuters are choosing the west side of the Beltway for their trips because of the express lanes. Why would that be? What route to Maryland would they have been taking before the express lanes opened?

I'm seeing more slow traffic on the inner loop around the Robinson Terminal, heading west from Springfield. I'm wondering why that would be. Is it a summer travel thing that affects the entire west side of the Beltway?

One traveler suggested that with the rebuilding of the I-66 Beltway interchange, drivers are moving more quickly from I-66E onto the inner loop, creating a traffic problem farther north.

Once the HOT Lanes construction were completed, I did notice a drop in transit time between 66 to the American Legion Bridge. But lately during the morning rush, I've noticed a backup developing from the Dulles Toll Rd onward. Do we know if this is due to the ripple effect of the left lane merge at the end of the HOT?

I've also noticed very slow moving traffic in the mornings going from the eastbound Dulles Toll Road onto the inner loop. But I'm not sure if that's an issue with the interchange or something farther north.

I know drivers are worried about the express lanes/regular lanes merge point on the inner loop. My personal experience doesn't reflect that. At various times of day, including the morning and afternoon rushes, I haven't encountered problems with the merge point itself.

I've certainly encountered very slow traffic going from Tysons to Bethesda, but the merge point itself hasn't been any slower than other parts of that drive.

Anyone who thinks that drivers will get reliable information on point-to-point drive times in the express and local lanes is delusional. Transurban has absolutely no incentive to give drivers more information than they are already getting (i.e., toll lane prices). Why on earth would they provide info that can help drivers decide whether or not to take the HOT lanes?

If you look at Transurban's Web site, www.495expresslanes.com, and go to the section called On the Road Now, you'll find current traffic information, including the best traffic camera views in the D.C. region showing both the regular lanes and the express lanes.

Thank you for the response. Here's the thing though: I almost always ride in the front car of any train yet I STILL frequently note that the message cuts in and out - even with those train operators who have awesome radio speaking voices and are genuinely trying to get messages out to the riders. It seems like a real liability if there is ever an emergency where they need to tell riders no to get onto the tracks, etc.

Yes, it certainly would be a safety issue. That and the deliberate turning off of the intercoms.

Thanks for joining us today. I see a few unanswered questions that I think I can get to on the Dr. Gridlock blog this week. (Meaning I don't know the answers right now but think I can figure them out later.)

I'll be back again with you next Monday. I hope your travels -- whether commutes or vacations this month -- will be safe ones.

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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