Dr. Gridlock chat

Sep 17, 2012

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. Thanks for joining me today. It's been a month since our last online chat. A few weeks of vacation, plus Labor Day, came in between. Last week, my wife, Candy, and I were on Cape Cod celebrating our 25th anniversary.

A check of the mailbag shows some new traffic and transit questions today, plus some ones from earlier this month. I'll start with the most recent, then pick up some of the earlier ones.

This region has its fill of people who like to talk about their "rights" and when they're driving, or walking, or riding bicycles, they have the "right" to do this or do that. At what point can't we just use common sense to be careful and considerate of people? A lady holding a coffee walked out into the middle of a busy 4 lane road this morning on my commute. No crosswalk, no traffic light, right in the middle of the road, like she expected traffic to part for her like the Red Sea. Look people, just use common sense and don't do anything that is likely to result in you killing or injuring yourself or someone else. That's it. Don't walk into busy traffic because you think pedestrians have the right of way, don't blow through red lights or stop signs, yield where you're supposed to yield, don't drive aggressively (passive aggressively either), treat everyone on the road like someone you care about and how you would like others to treat that person.

Actually, I think that's a pretty good guide to how we should behave in traffic. So I thought I'd start with this, since the effects of September traffic on our nerves are building up.

The quibble I have is with the assessment of motivation. Yes, many travelers write in to me and assert the rights of this or that class of traveler, whether a driver, cyclist or pedestrian. But I'm not sure we can assess motive when we see someone behaving dangerously, like the person with the coffee in traffic.

Don't get angry when someone does something that's just plain dumb. Just be the adult.

What is going on with the construction northbound during afternoon rush hour? Why couldn't they work on the project during the summer months, especially August? How long will the project take? Thanks for taking my question.

This is the rock stabilization project along the northbound side. All lanes should be open at rush hours, but it does have an impact on traffic at other times of the day.

Weekdays from 9:30 to 2:30 between Key Bridge and Spout, the left lane may be closed. I'm afraid it's going to continue for the next few months.

When will they finish work on the outerloop and stop closing lanes between American Legion Bridge and Rt 123? Can't they do the ramp work on I66 in the evenings? It can take me 20 minutes to get from the Rt 7 exit to my exit I66W? When will this work be completed? Most afternoons a lane is closed on the ramp and no work is being done! Nice job VDOT! VDOT needs remedial classes in managing work and scheduling. They laso need to 86 thier computer program for predicitng driver behavior. Drivers in this area behave so irrationally a computer program could never predict their behavior!

That's the work for the 495 Express Lanes. They're going to open late this fall. Some parts of these HOT lanes (these are the four lanes in the middle of the Beltway) look like they're done, but there's still plenty of work to do before the whole system is ready to open.

Meanwhile, the I-66 interchange reconstruction has been one of the most difficult parts of this lengthy project. Part of what's been going on lately is demolition of the old ramp from the Beltway to I-66 West. That's a tight space to work in.

The work at the I-66 and Dulles Toll Road interchanges has generated the most complaints from drivers out of any aspect of the HOT lanes project.

Hi. Thank you for addressing blue line-related issues in your Sunday column a couple weeks ago. I commute from King Street and Rosslyn daily, and would like to add an additional problem: skipping stations for 'schedule adjustment' purposes. Since the blue line has reduced service, it seems very unreasonable for the blue line to ever skip stations. I saw this a few times over the summer where Arlington Cemetary was skipped, leaving people waiting on the platform waiting for as long as 20+ minutes. Ten minute frequency of service is bad enough during rush hour, and I think it's unreasonable for WMATA to compound the wait.. Thanks very much.

I promised those letter writers and others that Mark Berman and I would get back out and do another Commuter page feature focused on Rush Plus performance, similar to what we did near the start of the service in June.

We'll work on that later this week and next.

Some thoughts about the schedule adjustments: The situation the commenter describes suggests that Metro is struggling with the pattern of trains going through the bottleneck at the Rosslyn tunnel. If controllers are telling operators to skip Arlington Cemetery station, they must be trying to get Blue Line trains to Rosslyn faster.

Not many riders get on or off at Arlington Cemetery, but skipping the station still should be a last resort.

On station skipping generally: I get why Metro controllers do this and how it helps avoid dangerous crowding on trains and platforms at peak periods, but I hope it doesn't become routine as the train system gets more congested.

What's your take on Crystal City FINALLY fixing the A/C? Guess it was too much to ask to actually resolve the issue when it was 90+ degrees out, right?

The cooling equipment for the stations is another area where under-investment over the years really cost us. Some of the equipment is prone to break down. And some of it doesn't provide much relief on hot days even when it's working.

We've been through two really hot summers in a row, and we have no reason to think next summer will be any better.

Instead of bribing riders $5 (wow two rides!!) to take the Yellow and transfer, how about having full blue line service? Is this just some more Rush- stuff going on?

We're talking about Metro offering a limited supply of free fare cards to encourage riders to transfer from Blue to Yellow Line trains. Our Ted Trautman wrote about this: http://wapo.st/Nr7VSV

Metro calls the campaign Hello Yellow.

 Ted noted the giveaway times and locations: "Staffers will hand out Farecards — while supplies last — according to the following schedule: Tuesday, Pentagon and L’Enfant, 7:30 to 9 a.m.; Wednesday, Pentagon City and L’Enfant, 7:30 to 9 a.m.; Tuesday, Sept. 25: McPherson Square and L’Enfant, 4:30 to 6 p.m.; Thursday, Sept. 27: Farragut West and L’Enfant, 4:30 to 6 p.m.:

I understand why Blue Line riders heading for Rosslyn, or Foggy Bottom or the west side of the Orange Line would be very frustrated about the new gap between Blue Line trains during the Rush Plus hours.

But I don't see anything wrong with Metro using this new program to encourage others to try taking the Yellow Line into the middle of DC and then transferring. If your reaction to Rush Plus is to hold your breath till the trains turn Blue, it's not likely to help you.

Given what we know is coming with the Silver Line, I don't see how Metro is going to be able to replace those Blue Line trains at the Rosslyn tunnel.

But if you think I'm overlooking some strategy for accommodating the Silver Line at the tunnel, let's talk about it.

What prevents someone with an old Virginia EZ-Pass what getting a new EZ-Pass Flex and simply switching between the two when using/not using the new 495 express lanes to avoid the monthly fee? There is no monthly fee for previous holders of the traditional EZ-Pass and the fee is waived for EZ-Pass Flex when used exclusively on the 495 express lanes.

You could do that, but it seems like a lot of trouble to go to -- the switching back and forth of transponders -- just to avoid paying a dollar a month fee for the Flex transponder.

Isn't happening. I leave work at 3pm and go thru there around 15-20 minutes later and the left lane was blocked every day last week. Doesn't look like they have it set up to easily re-open.

That's a problem across the region, when contractors don't pick up their work zones when they're supposed to. It's one of the main things you hear Bob Marbourg complaining about during his afternoon traffic reports on WTOP.

The problem with switching trains isn't in the morning (Yellow to Blue), it's in the evening. The yellow trains do not seem to run with the same frequency southbound. And on top of that, the signs never seem to show Yellow arrivals at Gallery Pl or L'Enfant until the train is just 2 minutes away. it's very frustrating to try to transfer and be left guessing whether the train is coming in 3 minutes or 13.

These are among the things my letter writers were complaining about in the Sept. 9 column: http://wapo.st/UAJEdu

The train schedule in the afternoon is more difficult (my guess is because the Yellow Line trains have come a longer way on the southbound run and are off schedule) and because the electronic signs (showing  just the next three trains) don't give riders enough guidance to pick their best route.

Dr. Gridlock, thanks for taking my question about skipping stations. Arlington Cemetery usually is relatively light, as you mentioned, but not during peak tourist season. The times I saw Arlington Cemetery skipped, there were a lot of people stranded!

I'm not disagreeing with your observation. It's an inconvenience for many people and should be a last resort for the controllers. My point about skipping Arlington Cemetery would be only that if they are going to skip a station to make up time, it would be better to skip the cemetery stop than to skip Pentagon, or Crystal City or King Street.

Wouldnt it run better and be more cost effective in Metro outsourced all its jobs. No more union issues etc. Service, reliability, and safety cant get any worse. VA should withhold its payments until Metro ends its union shop status.

I don't believe a unionized work force is the source of Metro's problems. I'd look first at the design of the system, under investment and governance. Lots of blame to be spread around.

Why has it taken YEARS for the Kenilworth Ave. bridges over the Beltway to be repaired?!? They built the pyramids in less time.

Many projects outlast our patience with them. But I think one of the key issues is the need to maintain traffic during work on bridges. The planners have to figure out how to get the jobs done while keeping traffic flowing through the work zone, especially at rush hours.

Hi - I'm sure you've answered this before, so I apologize if this is a frequently answered question: if a bicyclist is waiting to cross at a pedestrian crosswalk (e.g., the one on GW parkway), should cars stop to give the right-of-way to the bicyclist? I have to say I've done both (stopped and not stopped), and the guilt I feel when not stopping is prompting me to write to you! Many thanks.

It's a very difficult situation. But no, you have no obligation to stop for a cyclist or pedestrian who is waiting at the side of the road and isn't in the crosswalk.

And there's a reason there are stop signs for the cyclists and pedestrians on the Mount Vernon Trail at the parkway crossings. It's dangerous for motorists on the parkway to come to a complete stop -- even though it's the following drivers' responsibility to maintain a safe distance.

Another thing: Any smart cyclist or pedestrian is going to wait after you've stopped to make sure the vehicle approaching in the other lane also comes to a complete stop before crossing. So that's just going to increase the time your vehicle is a sitting duck.

That said: Drivers absolutely must yield to bikers and pedestrians who are in the crosswalk.

It seems that half of the roads I use are under construction. Every few weeks, the lanes seem to shift one direction or the other. The problem is, there are too many shadows of the old lane markers left on the road. Under certain lighting conditions in the early morning or evenings after sunset, it can be hard to know which lines are the real lines. Isn't there something that they can do to make it easier for drivers to remain in the proper lane?

I also see this frequently -- I'm sure many readers do -- and have difficulty following the correct lanes. Even when the old markings are properly blacked out, there are times of day when the slant of the sun makes the old markings look like they're still active.

This happens on a little two-lane project, and it happens on the Beltway and I-95.

Sometimes travelers write in to complain about the speed cameras in the Maryland work zones, and they say isn't it unfair that the cameras are active even when there are no workers present.

I say I have no problem with that, because the lane shifts and the rough pavement and the confusing elements of the work zone are still there, even when the workers aren't. Most people injured in work zone crashes are motorists. So slow down and be extra cautious, I tell them.

Am I allowed to ask a bus driver to lower the bottom step to make it easier for me to get on? Or is that completely at the driver's discretion? I'm a not particularly rugged senior citizen who has trouble with that really high first step. It bothers me when the driver sees me having a hard time and still does nothing, as though to say, "Tough luck, Granny!"

Of course you should tell the driver to lower the step.

I feel the same way about this as I do about those priority seats in the Metrorail cars: Don't just stand there and stew because an able-bodied person is sitting in them. Ask politely to have the seat.

Dr. Gridlock, what do you think it would take to get Metro to run 8-car trains on the Blue Line during Rush "Plus"? It's infuriating to see sparsely populated 8-car Orange trains while Blue riders are cheek by jowl.

I think at least that first train after the big gap should be an eight-car train.

why don't the giant signs on 66 just west of the route 7 exit make any mention of the HOT lanes on 495? The signs just say something like HOV or EZPass only which makes it seem like I66 is HOV or EZPass only. Some one unfamilar with what is going on could be very confused by this thinking that they needed an ezpass to drive on 66.

Yes, I think some of those signs approaching the Beltway can be confusing and don't see why they can't be covered up till needed when the 495 Express Lanes open later this year.

By the way, you're never going to see a sign referring to "HOT lanes." The federal rules on official signs don't allow for that. It's one reason I've shifted away from referring to "Beltway HOT lanes" and started calling them the "495 Express Lanes." This thing will be confusing enough when it opens. I figure I'll spend a lot of time this fall trying to help drivers get familiar with a system that will be unique in the DC region.

I used the new I295 south to 395 south connection on my return from the beach after Labor Day. Wow, what a huge improvement! But it helped that I was traveling on Tuesday afternoon so there was no traffic to contend with. Figuring out which lane to be in was a little tough. After I do it a few times it will be easier.

Thanks for mentioning it. I think it's one of the great traffic breakthroughs in recent times for the DC region. The ramp in the other direction, from the 11th Street Bridge to 295 North, should be open fairly soon.

Any updates on when the next span of the new 11th Street Bridge will open?

All three spans are open. You mean the next ramp? The next development I've been looking forward to is the opening of the ramp from the outbound bridge to DC 295 North, and that should happen in a couple of weeks.

Metro has said that the change in sending blue line trains down the yellow line track has not worked out as they anticipated. Will there be any more changes to this schedule?

I think this is the part of Ted Trautman's story that elates to your comment: "Metro official Lynn Bowersox said Thursday that the people who planned Rush Plus, which began in June, had not anticipated how strongly many passengers prefer a one-train commute. The result has been a summer of crowded trains and disgruntled riders up and down the Blue Line."

She wasn't alluding to any schedule changes, but rather to this new program (Hello Yellow) designed to get more of the Blue Line riders to try the Yellow Line. Notice that she went on to say: "Our hope is that once they see how they can use the Yellow Line, they’ll stick with it."

I just don't see Metro restoring the old schedule, as many Blue Line riders would like. That's because I don't see how the planners would get around the need to add Silver Line trains to the Rosslyn tunnel once the Silver Line opens. They're talking about rush hour headways of about every seven minutes on the Silver Line.

Are there any other places that use switches on their toll devices? Since the EZ-Pass is accepted in several states, I see potential problems if each state decides to modify the devices for specific uses in their state.

Virginia, at the moment, anyway, is the only state offering the Flex passes. I think it will always be necessary for the various E-ZPass program participants to allow standard E-ZPasses to work in their toll lanes.

(And in the Virginia express lanes, anybody's E-ZPass will work. But if you're using the standard transponder, you won't be able to claim the free ride for carpooling.)

Travelers, I've got to break away now. Thanks for making this first September chat a lively one. I noticed a bunch of Metro Rush Plus questions and comments came in toward the end, and I didn't get a chance to publish them, so I'll try to add them in to the Dr. Gridlock blog. Also, if you have suggestions about what aspects of Rush Plus you want Mark and me to check out during the next couple of weeks, please send an e-mail to me at drgridlock@washpost.com.

Talk to you next Monday, and 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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