Dr. Gridlock chat

Oct 22, 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. Beautiful week ahead for commuters in the D.C. area, but we've still got plenty of issues to talk about.

When?

It could be almost a year away. It's the dispute between the county and the contractor about the quality of the concrete pour. Here's a link to The Post's most recent story:

http://wapo.st/ST2iOs

Like everybody else, I want the floors to hold the buses, but what really bothers me is the impact on travelers through downtown Silver Spring who have had to put up with this disruption for years now.

Just curious - why were the speed cameras removed from the SW Freeway? (No complaint, btw...)

You mean the ones around exit 4, right? I wouldn't get too rapid traveling through there. Those are authorized sites for mobile cameras.  So DC police could put them back there any time.

You can see the full list of authorized sites here:

http://mpdc.dc.gov/node/216362

You see the same approach in Maryland highway work zones. Drivers who go through the Northwest Branch bridge work zone on the Beltway in Silver Spring see the cameras there some times and not others.

 

This morning at my suburban Metrorail station, a well-known brokerage firm had set up a table on the platform, a few feet away from the tracks. What next? Will we see cell phone kiosks and Fro-Yo stands appearing on the platform as Metro tries to address its funding issues by allowing vendors into the stations? More than the annoyance of getting a sales pitch while waiting for your train, this is simply not a safe development on already overcrowded platforms. Riders and safety officials, including the NTSB, should demand an immediate halt to this improper and potentially dangerous use of public space.

On the platform? What station? Anybody else see such a thing?

what is going on with the GW parkway NB by Spout Run, and when will the Park Service have that work completed? it's compounding traffic all the way into DC (21st, 19th and 17th st).

It's one of the worst new traffic issues created by a work zone in the DC area. Sorry to say it's likely to be that way into December.

This is the park service's rock stabilization project in the parkway's northbound lanes. Parkway drivers will remember there was an emergency effort late last year. But this now is supposed to be the long-term fix.

To clear the work zone, the left lane is closed all the time. Then at midday, the north side goes down to one lane. On weekends, the north side may be completely shut, as it was this past weekend.

Used the new Dupont South escalators today, very nice. The sides and steps seem higher. Is it to discourage walking or just the new models?

I haven't been there since they reopened around noon on Sunday. The escalators are a new design, and supposedly much tougher than the old versions. But I doubt that they were built to deliberately discourage walking. In emergencies, Metro needs all its escalators to be able to serve as stairways.

...make a left hand turn onto a one-way street on a red light in DC? Thanks.

No. DC drivers write in from time to time and say that when they were waiting to make a legal left turn without going through the red light, the car behind them was honking. It's one of those handful of traffic laws that is different in the different jurisdictions around here.

When you came past the station manager's kiosk, there was a digital clock there that was helpful in figuring out what time it was without checking a cell phone. These seem to have been replaced by brown screens which are currently blank. What are there expected to be for?

This is a Metro project that is supposed to address one long-standing concern: Not knowing the status of service before going through the fare gates. Those screens will eventually report the status of service on the lines.

But they'll also display the time of day again, just as the old clocks did. The units are being installed and tested over the next couple of months. But the time of day should return first.

Many riders notice that the time is missing now, and they're really annoyed. Especially the riders who wait for the time to change so they know Metro has gone to the lower fares for the off-peak periods.

Who will pay for the enforcement of the HOV-3 or toll rules on the new Express Lanes? How will it work? On a normal HOV lane, an officer can just look into a car and count the number of passengers. Either they see the 2 or 3 people required or they don't. Sometimes, they are wrong because a child is too short to be noticed. But with the Express lanes, someone can pay to drive without needing the 3 passengers. That means that just looking at the cars isn't enough because they also need to know if they paid tolls or not. That seems like a real challenge that will lead a lot of people to cheat the system.

Transurban, the company that will operate the 495 Express Lanes on the Beltway, will pay for enforcement through a contract with the Virginia State Police.

I've been writing about that new type of transponder called an E-ZPass Flex. This device was developed to help with enforcement on the express lanes. If you plan to go as a carpool with at least people, you need the Flex to get the free ride.

State police can wait by the side of the lanes and see a signal from the gantry that says a driver is claiming the carpool exemption. I believe they also will have a device in their patrol cars that can read the transponder.

Some drivers might still get pulled over because the trooper can't see a baby on board, while other drivers may be able to cheat, as they do now in the HOV lanes.

But I do think this system will cut down on cheating. Keep in mind the profit motive: Transurban needs to keep traffic moving at 45 mph or more. The company can't afford to have cheaters jamming up the lanes.

I'll be writing a lot more about the new lanes as we get nearer the opening time. There's no exact date yet for the opening, but it will be later this fall.

My plan on stories is to start this weekend with a Commuter page feature that's a real basic guide to getting on and off the lanes and what signs drivers will see.

 

Dr. Gridlock, I wasn't aware of the northbound G-W Parkway closure this weekend until it was too late, which more than doubled my driving time for a routine trip from DC to Montgomery County on Saturday night. I'm curious why signs about the closure weren't posted near the exit on 295 south, giving drivers more time to pick an alternate route and avoid the snarled traffic. I'm all for rock stabilization, but c'mon! Thanks, Pete

Many drivers are saying they see no warning signs before getting onto the northbound parkway and getting stuck.

All the northbound lanes between Spout Run and Chain Bridge Road have been closed some recent weekends, but even on weekdays, the traffic is very bad because the left lane is closed all the time.

Last THREE weekends, at least. I live on Spout Run and it's been a mess the last few weekends. I doubt they can do it next weekend because of the Marine Corp Marathon.

I'll have a list of the closings for the marathon by Friday. And we should have a map in the Metro section coming up.

Many drivers ran into bad traffic this past weekend, not only because of the parkway lanes closing but also because of outdoor events. On Saturday morning, the big deal was the Best Buddies cycle/run/walk. Then on Sunday morning, it was the Army 10-Miler.

I try to preview all that sort of stuff on the Dr. Gridlock blog on Friday mornings, along with the Metro maintenance disruptions. If you happen to spot some event coming up that you'd like me to include, please send a note to me at drgridlock@washpost.com.

This week I'm going to use the Loudoun County Connector Bus for the first time, to commute from Sterling to downtown DC. Can anyone chime in on how reliable a transit service it is (as opposed to taking Metro in and out of DC), and how early I should get to the Dulles North Transit Center before it runs out of parking spaces? Thanks!

The Army 10 Miler was a reminder of how complicated these races can make navigating in and out of the city. I'm supposed to be down in SW for dinner before theater at about 5:30 on Sunday. Do you think the traffic delays from the marathon and crowds etc will have dissipated by then, or do I want to think about allowing more time or a different route than the Rock Creek pkwy and Independence Ave?

I think you're going to be okay. The street closings in DC should be wrapped up by about 1 p.m.

Does single driver simply need to enter I-66 before HOV restrictions or do they have to be off the lanes when the restriction is in place? What happens when you are stuck in traffic?

You have to be out of the lanes by the time the restrictions take effect. Drivers should make their plans accordingly.

Why does WMATA make things hard? The old clocks were always on and always clearly displayed the time in large numerals. This cannot stand! (My creeky, old Ride On bus scrolls the date and time continuously on the inside display when its not telling me the next stop.) I fully expect the new screens to sequester the time to a small corner of the screen. Why can't the big old clock simply be mounted above the new screens? Please prove me wrong, WMATA!

I haven't seen an example of this new screen in action and will be curious to see it.

But the bigger annoyance probably is this interim period when there's no clock at all on display. People have their own watches, but for paying the fares, they need to know what the Metro time is.

My husband & I recently took a round trip on the auto train for some family business in Florida. On the whole it was a good experience. There are some things I want to talk to them about, but there are two that you might be able to answer. At both stations, we arrived around noon to get the seating and meal times we wanted. Sanford has a free shuttle that runs between the station and downtown so that people can shop, eat lunch, etc. Why doesn't Lorton? Also Sanford seemed to have more people moving cars off the trains and be doing it more efficiently than Lorton. Why is that?

This is the first time the issue has come up here, and I don't know why there's no shuttle on the Lorton side -- or whether there's extensive demand for such a service. But I thought I'd post this to see if others want to weigh in.

I still haven't seen a good explanation about the access from I-66 to the Express Lanes. My understanding is that they are using the old HOV ramps, but HOV on I-66 and HOV on the Beltway will be very different. I-66 is HOV-2 and Hybrids. HOV on the Beltway will be HOV-3 and no Hybrids. Also, people can pay to use the Express lanes but can't pay to use the HOV lanes on I-66. It seems like there will be need for HOV traffic to access the non-Express lanes on the Beltway and for non-HOV traffic from I-66 who are willing to pay to access the Express lanes. this has the potential to create a lot of chaos on I-66 as people merge to the correct side of the road for the exits.

I'm also very curious about seeing this interchange in action once the express lanes open. I-66 East drivers in the left lane will have a ramp to the northbound Beltway but it will be for the express lanes. So they'll either be paying the toll for that ride or they'll have a Flex transponder and at least three people in their vehicles.

Driver who don't have three people aboard and don't want to pay the toll will need to shift from the left lane to the right lane exit at the interchange.

I'm worried about that traffic congestion in an already congested area, but if this is going to happen, shouldn't we be seeing it now? The left HOV ramp has been closed completely for reconstruction into the express lanes ramp.

Dr. G, I was reading your most recent blog entry about the 495 Express Lanes project and I took note of the reader comments. I find it easy to dismiss the ones that seem to be pure emotion (stuff like "These lanes stink and I won't use them," as that sort of comment adds nothing to the discussion). A couple of people submitted comments that reflected a lot more thought and I'm curious what your thoughts are about some of the issues they raised. In particular, one fellow was very concerned about the use of the plastic bollards as separators; he's convinced they're unsafe and that we're in for some sort of crash-mageddon type thing that's going to cause traffic snarls. But I also know that there are high-occupancy toll lanes in use in Southern California, Miami, Minneapolis, and Salt Lake City (and I think maybe Seattle?) and that most of those also use plastic bollards without any safety problems. Surely those other cities' experience is relevant to what's being built in Virginia, right? What do you think about the design?

I wrote about some travelers' concerns with the bollards in my Sunday column: http://wapo.st/RRjdkA

You see there that one driver is concerned about snow removal from the four-foot wide section where the bollards are.

These bollards meet federal standards as lane separators. But some of you are concerned about the differential in speeds that might occur between the express lanes and the regular lanes. (The speed limit of 55 is the same on both sides, but the express lanes operators are supposed to make sure that traffic can maintain a speed of at least 45 mph, even if the regular lanes are very congested.)

We do have spots in the region where there's no barrier what so ever between the HOV lanes and the regular lanes -- I-270 and Route 50 in Maryland. But we have no experience with these bollards on the Beltway yet.

Advocates for the design also talk about safety features. They say that this system gives emergency responders more flexibility. They can roll ambulances or fire trucks over the bollards to get to to a crash scene. Or police could pull them up to create a gap for traffic to exit or leave the express lanes, depending on which lanes are experiencing the emergency.

 

A friend told me that in a couple of years VRE will be able to service commuters in Gainesville and Haymarket. Is there any truth to that? What about the possibility of metro going further west through I-66? Thanks!

The extension of the Manassas Line is part of VRE's long-term plan. I haven't seen any real dates for that yet, and I think it's at least a few years away.

And I've heard no serious talk -- talk with some real money behind it -- about extending the Orange Line farther west along I-66. But Virginia does have a bunch of studies underway about how to improve mobility in the I-66 corridor.

I'm not familiar with Sanford so not sure what their downtown consists of. However, I'm not sure Lorton has a "downtown". Where exactly do they want to go?

Thanks, and I have one more response on the Auto Train that extends this thought.

My wife and I usually ride the Auto Train twice a year (one-way each time) and I think the main reason there is no shuttle to anywhere in Lorton is location. The Sanford station is located relatively close to downtown Sanford, just a few blocks' drive. The Lorton station is not located particularly close to anything, and you have the added problem of I-95 traffic if you tried to run a shuttle to downtown or to the Metro (a problem no doubt made worse by the seemingly perpetual construction on I-95....I've lived in Northern Virginia since 1974 and it's hard to think of a period of time when there wasn't SOME construction SOMEWHERE on I-95 around here). As far as loading/unloading cars goes, the big key to understand is that the rail siding (the storage tracks, that is) are configured differently in Lorton and Sanford and that makes a big difference in how they can unload the cars. It's funny, my experience has been that unloading tends to be faster in Lorton because there are more sidings than there are in Sanford, so they don't have to drive the cars through as much of the train.

Makes a lot of sense.

So was the weekend just ended. But my plan to drive the GW Parkway and visit its overlooks was cancelled by continuing rock-containment work. Why is this done during autumn drive-time?

I appreciate the fact that the park service doesn't want rocks falling on us as we driver along the GW Parkway. That would kind of spoil the experience of one of the most beautiful rides in the DC region. But it is a shame that people are missing the view from the overlooks on fall weekends.

A bigger problem for traffic, I think is the fact that so many travelers aren't seeing signs and advisories telling them what they're getting into around the parkway.

Really helps those of us who take the airport road to 495 in the AM. Are they going to repair the old, crumbling bridges near 495/267 interchange? Everything else in area is new...shame that the old bridges are falling apart.

I think if you don't see something getting rebuilt around there right now, you're not going to see it getting rebuilt for a while.

Two efforts have been underway: The construction of the 495 Express Lanes and the construction of the new ramps from the eastbound Dulles Airport Access Highway to the Beltway. The latter was paid for by the airports authority, which saw an opportunity to get these long-desired ramps built at the same time the interchange was under reconstruction for the express lanes.

Travelers, I need to break away now. Thanks for joining me. For the Dr. Gridlock blog, I'll have more about the Marine Corps Marathon and other traffic and transit issues coming up this weekend. And I'll try to answer some more of your questions about how the express lanes are going to work.

Stay safe, and please rejoin me next Monday. Write to me any time at drgridlock@washpost.com.

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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