Dr. Gridlock

Oct 28, 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'm going to start with a couple of questions related to Metrorail, but we've got a variety of issues coming up today.

Living in Herndon, I have been following the Silver Line progress with interest. One thing has me puzzled. I see from traveling the toll road the most of the line has only one track. Is this short sighted as to the demand, or what? How can they have more than one (OK possibly 2 ) trains on this line at a time? All in all, it sounds as it service will be annoyingly infrequent. Can you get to the bottom of this and get an explanation of this? Thanks, A regular reader.

There are two tracks. That's tough to tell from the toll road. Look at this Dulles Metrorail project photo showing the Wiehle Avenue station.

So the track situation is the same as it is on the rest of Metrorail.

Silver Line trains will operate every six minutes at rush hours. At midday, the trains will operate every 12 minutes.

So I think that when the line starts operating early in 2014, the train schedule issues on riders' minds will have more to do with the Orange Line and the Blue Line. Service on both lines will be affected by the Silver Line schedule.

The Blue Line will have trains operating every 12 minutes, even at rush hours. The Orange Line will have trains operating every six minutes at rush hours, but it will lose the Rush Plus trains. This will make a difference for people who use the stations from Vienna to East Falls Church. At East Falls Church, the Silver Line joins the tracks, adding service through the middle of DC.

(Riders, please keep asking us questions about Silver Line operations. I know the new service patterns for rail and bus are complicated, and would like to address as many of your concerns as possible in the next several months.)

I passed through the Smithsonian station this weekend and noticed that both platforms seemed to have some sort of work going on. Any idea of what's going on? Thanks.

I think what you're seeing at Smithsonian relates to the major track work for this coming weekend.

Metro plans to shut Smithsonian, Federal Center SW and Capitol South. L'Enfant Plaza will be shut for Blue and Orange Line service.

Crews will be working on several projects at those stations, including sign replacements, ceiling rehab and tunnel leaks. They also will be working in the track bed.

So from 10 p.m. Friday through the midnight closing Sunday, free shuttle buses will replace trains between Federal Triangle and Eastern Market.

 

 

Why do school buses have the strobe lights on the top? These lights can cause seizures in people (I had a student who this happened too). I always develop a headache when I get caught behind one. This might seem rather inconsequential but I'd like to know if there is any rational reason for this. Thank you.

Buses use strobe lights on the theory that they increase visibility for motorists and pedestrians. Drivers don't pay as much attention as they should to school buses -- especially stopped school buses. Montgomery County is going ahead with a program to put enforcement cameras on buses to catch drivers who go past the buses when they are stopped to board or unload children.

What is it about flashing lights that hypnotizes people into thinking there is something more interesting to see when they should focus on driving? Accident cleanup wouldn't cause nearly as big of a delay if the other drivers on the road would just keep driving. Even when the incident is on the opposite side of a divided highway, people still seem to think there is something to see.

Flashing lights do get drivers' attention, but not always in a good way. I remember driving around the Capital Beltway with Paul Hubbe of the Maryland State Highway Administration. Hubbe's job is to look for trouble, and get problems solved as quickly as possible to east traffic congestion.

His truck had quite the impressive array of lights, but he told me he tried to limit what he used, because drivers might focus too much on the lights and too little on their driving.

Also, a driver's hands tend to bend the steering wheel where the driver's eyes are focused. So an inattentive driver might veer toward the shoulder when coming upon flashing lights.

I've been wondering for some time why there seem to always be 2 police cars parked on both sides of Military Road as it crosses over Rock Creek? Doesnt seem like they are chasing speeders, they never pull away from the cut-out they are parked in. Seems like a waste of personnel time: wouldnt a speed camera be more cost-effective if that's what they are up to?

I think those cutouts are for police cars to monitor traffic, and speeding in particular. There's another one on Military Road just west of Rock Creek Park, where the speed limit is 25 mph.

In general, police have told me that fixed speed cameras aren't appropriate for all locations. But I don't know specifically why they didn't choose cameras for the Military Road locations.

Generally the directional and route marker signs on DC highways are terrible. Do you know when signs will be installed on I-395, I-295 and DC-295 indicating the new designation for I-695 on the SE Freeway? If anybody is following directions and looking for 695, there are virtually no signs to help. For example, there are no signs for 695 on inbound 395; on southbound Kenilworth Ave, the only sign for 695 is at the exit ramp.

This is the opposite of the usual question I get. The usual question is, "Aren't those I-695 signs a mistake? Isn't I-695 the Baltimore Beltway?"

Drivers started to notice the 695 signs after the 11th Street Bridge's new freeway spans opened. That stretch of the Southeast Freeway was always I-695, but wasn't signed that way. The District Department of Transportation thought that, with the new freeway links, it would ease confusion to put up the I-695 signs.

Are other drivers confused by a lack of signs in this area near the Anacostia River?

Is there any end in sight to the roadwork misery surrounding the Horner Rd. Commuter Lot in Woodbridge? Caton Hill Rd. was supposed to reopen all lanes over a month ago.

The commenter and other commuters can correct me on this, but I think we're talking about road work on Telegraph Road and Caton Hill Road that's part of the expansion of the commuter lot?

That road work, I believe, is now scheduled to be done by the end of October.

I don't know exactly what might be responsible for a delay. But many projects across the D.C. region reported they got slowed by days of heavy rain over the summer and early fall. (Every single notice I get about projected timetables for completion of road work includes the hedge "weather permitting.")

 

Often those cars don't have officers sitting in them, so it's not necessarily a staffing issue. But those cars (and others stationed in other parts of the city) are not just for monitoring speed -- they often have special equipment that checks passing license plates for outstanding warrants.

Not a question, just a comment: I don't know who was in charge of getting the word out about the Rt 29 south closure this weekend but they blew it. It took 1 hr and 20 minutes to go from Exit 47 to Rt 55 in downtown Haymarket. What a mess. All of the comms I saw posted after the outbreak of comments on social media. Lessons learned for whoever does comms: Change your approach!

I was surprised by that one, too. I heard about it belatedly, as I was leaving the DC area Saturday morning. WTOP radio traffic reporters were flagging this for motorists, saying that traffic on I-66 was very heavy between Gainesville and Haymarket. The reports attributed this to the Route 29 closing and the homecoming football game at UVA in Charlottesville.

 

The high speed elevators have started to run at the Rosslyn Metro and are generally faster than the trains although it seems that one of the three is routinely out of order. I noticed this morning that the SmarTrpi vending machine was out of order while a handicapped faregate didn't accept SmarTrips last week. I realized that Rosslyn will be a mess until they clear all the construction around the stationb, but new stuff should work from the beginning.

Startups with new equipment often don't go as smoothly as we would hope. Riders noticed this with the startup of new escalators at Foggy Bottom and the south entrance at Dupont Circle.

How are others doing at Rosslyn station?

Question: Do you have to stop behind a bus that is pulled over all the time or only when they have a stop sign indicating that children are boarding/getting off?

You have to stop when the bus you're following starts flashing the lights. That indicates the bus is stopping so children can get on or off, but you don't have to make a decision about the bus driver's intentions. Just look for the lights. (Although, I'd always proceed cautiously around a bus of any sort. There's always a chance someone who can't see the oncoming traffic is going to walk out from in front of the bus.)

I certainly find that area confusing and would welcome clearer signs. I don't drive over there often, so I don't know if the problem is I-695 signs, necessarily. I do know that I got totally lost driving over the 11th St bridge into Anacostia recently, I wasn't sure which lane or exit to take to get to where I was trying to go, I think the DC-295 vs I-295 is totally confusing if you're not a regular commuter. I managed to get myself back from Kenilworth Gardens, but it wasn't easy....

I can tell you that DC 295 is north of the 11th Street Bridge and I-295 is south of it.

And it is confusing -- even if this weren't still a construction zone.

You mentioned that VDOT was going to do a similar shoulder-use project for the Betlway between Tysons and the bridge. Are those shoulder lanes going to be on both sides of the beltway, and available during both morning and afternoon rush hours? Will the lanes be built on the left or right?

VDOT's plan is to open the left shoulder on the inner loop at rush hours. This is scheduled to happen in late 2014.

At rush hours, the inner loop would then be five lanes for about 1.5 miles between Old Dominion Drive and the George Washington Parkway.

Meanwhile, VDOT  has on its long-range plan an extension of the 495 Express Lanes northward toward the Legion Bridge, but there's no deal on this and it's unfunded.

I was planning on taking this route as well on Saturday morning. What made matters worse was that the wording on the signs made it seem like S 15 was closed and S29 was the detour route. I saw people getting off of 66 at the last minute to squeeze onto the 29 south exit. I went down to the Marshall exit and then took 647 to get to the blue ridge mountains.

We drove down to Charlottesville on Friday night and I saw the portable message signs warning of Saturday's road closure. But there were two dumb things: (1) The signs didn't say where the closure was. (2) All the signs were on Route 29 itself once you got beyond the big work zone in Gainesville where they're eliminating the railroad crossing and building an interchange. I thought it would have made a lot more sense to have advance warnings posted on I-66 prior to the Gainesville exit so that people would be more aware and could plan to continue either to Haymarket or to the Great Meadow exit (that exit is near Route 17, which goes south to Warrenton)....or, heck, it might have made sense to have advance warning posted as far east as Fair Oaks Mall so people could use Route 28 down through Manassas and on south to pick up 29 at Remington. That's how I might have gone had I been making that drive on Saturday. Key thing is, post notice well in advance! Don't make people wait until they've committed to a route!

One common issue with the road signs is that the advance warnings are most helpful to people who drive a route every day.

But let's say you've got someone who doesn't use Route 29 as a commuter route, and just went down to Charlottesville for Saturday football. That driver would see the warning signs only on Saturday morning.

Same thing happens with Metro warnings in stations about weekend track work: They can be helpful for weekday riders who also plan a trip on Saturday or Sunday, but there are plenty of people who will use Metrorail only on a Saturday or Sunday to attend a special event, so they don't see the warnings till they're caught up in the delays.

I may have missed it, but is the bridge construction on NY Avenue now completed? Thanks. I've been avoiding the road for two years.

Yes, in fact the District help a little celebration at the bridge on Friday mark the completion of the rehabilitation project.

You have frequetly reported the useage numbers for the Beltway Express Lanes. However, those data are often missing the projected use and revenue for the lanes. Have you or anyone at the Washington Post asked for the useage projections from Transurban? Raw numbers really don't mean much if they're not put into context. So while the useage and revenue of the lanes has increased over the past year, it may be disappointing if Transurban projected something more.

I can tell you that I haven't asked for any usage projections for the first year of Beltway HOT lanes operations.

The actual usage numbers, which Transurban reports at the close of each financial quarter, are interesting, but don't tell me much -- maybe nothing -- about whether the HOT lanes will turn out to be a good idea for the DC region's transportation network. I think that's a very important long-term issue, but whatever first-year projections might have been made a few years ago don't seem particularly useful.

More people are using the lanes now than when they opened in November. The average tolls are higher than they were when the lanes opened.

Transurban has a 75 year lease on the Beltway lanes. The company isn't going to sell the lanes for scrap based on one year's experience.

The thing that stands out to me from the first 11 months is that I should have used different phrasing to describe the variable tolling system. I think I often phrased it something like, "tolls will rise or fall based on the level of congestion." That makes it sound like we would routinely see the lanes congested, then the toll would rise, and then they would be uncongested.

I've seen the lanes congested -- meaning stop and go traffic -- only once, and that was on the small segment north of Jones Branch Drive. The toll does rise and fall, based on the traffic volume, but the volumes I see never match those in the regular lanes.

What I meant was that instead of relying on portable signs to get the word out, they should have had advance warning, either via the overhead message signs or portable signs, on I-66 throughout the entire weekend as far back as Fair Oaks.

That makes a lot of sense.

And what I was referring to is someone who lives in Rockville or Bowie who might be a UVA alum and would be heading south for a Saturday football game, perhaps using Virginia roads for the first time in months.

What is the threshold of HOVs in the Express Lanes before VDOT has to start reimbursing the operator?

From a Post story by Eric Weiss in 2008: "The subsidy kicks in when carpools exceed 24 percent of the traffic on the lanes."

So far, the number of HOV vehicles in the lanes is below 9 percent.

I've noticed that the tolls on the Express Lanes have increased significantly, especially in non-peak hours (weekends especially). You noted a slight increase in use during the most recent quarter (summer months), but the tolls seems to have really taken off recently. Is Transurban trying to squeeze more money out of drivers, particularly during off-peak hours, or do the tolls really need to be that high to keep the lanes moving?

I think the big increase in both tolls and number of vehicles during the past quarter came in September, which would conform with the general traffic pattern in the D.C. region.

There's no doubt in my mind that the Transurban company wants to make money on the lanes. It's a private enterprise, and that was the deal Virginia made in leasing the lanes to a private enterprise.

Transurban is in charge of the computer that sets the toll rates. The tolls can be as high as Transurban wants them. The thing is, if Transurban sets them outrageously high, nobody is going to use the lanes, and Transurban won't make any money.

This type of road operation is a different experience for all of us in the DC area. It was a new experience in the public-private partnership to build and operate the lanes, and it's a new experience in the variable toll system that controls the flow of traffic.

But I think one advantage of the private role on a highway is that: Transurban's success is based on repeat customers. The company can't win by gouging its customers. If they think they're being gouged, they won't come back.

 

There is an empty schoolbus that stops on the southbound side of Connecticut Ave around Albermarle each morning, puts on its flashers and extends the stop sign -- and then the driver gets out of the bus and walks into an apartment building, leaving an empty bus and confused drivers in his wake. Eventually, they just start driving again. Do you have any idea what the driver is doing?

Nope, but I'd ask the police to find out next time you see it.

Why is metro running 6 car trains on the Red Line at rush hour? This was fine during the shutdown, but now it is making for unpleasant crowding. This morning at Rockville, it looked as if all or most trains were running with just 6 cars.

Metro always had six-car trains on the Red Line at rush hour. Several years ago, Metro added more eight-car trains to the Red Line at rush hour at the same time it cut back on the total number of trains on the line.

I've found no way to tell which of the rush hour trains will be eight-cars long and which will be six on a regular basis.

Also, I'm not aware of any problem with the number of cars available for service on any of the lines.

I may not particularly like the direction Virginia has taken to solve their traffic problems through tolled laes. However, at least they're doing something. Why is Maryland, which just increased its gas tax and has a dedicated source of tolling revenue (ICC), not doing anything to solve traffic issues?

There's certainly a lot more action aimed at congestion relief in Virginia than there is in Maryland. That's been true for at least a few years.

And I'm not just talking about road improvements. Virginia also is home to one of the biggest transit improvements in the nation: the Silver Line.

Maryland has been announcing a bunch of improvements statewide based on the increase in the gas tax, which began to take effect this year, but in terms of current action on transportation, most of the improvements are in Virginia.

It's very possible that the driver is going inside to escort a special-needs child.

That's on my bike commute each morning and I've never seen that. I have seen plenty of drivers get out, as they are required to do for many special education students. Bear in mind that public school students in DC take Metro but the school buses are largely for special ed students. Drivers have special requirements to take certain steps.

Doc G, Why is it so hard for Metro to nail down an opening date for the Silver Line? We are not talking about something far into the future. We're talking about in the next few months! We have spent billions of dollars and they can't even give us a date! It started as "late 2013" and now it's "early 2014". Can you ask Sarles the simple question, "When is the Silver Line going to open?" If he says, "Early 2014", can you ask him to be more specific?

Sarles isn't building the Silver Line. The Dulles Metrorail Project is building the Silver Line under the supervision of the Washington airports authority.

When construction is done, the airports authority will turn the railroad over to Metro, for testing. Metro will test and the Federal Transit Administration will say whether it's safe to go ahead with passenger service.

Under those circumstances, it doesn't seem the least bit odd that Sarles hasn't announced an exact date for the opening.

Here's what I think is odd: Sarles won't say when he expects the Metro trains to return to automated operation -- not even the year he expects it.

And Metro hasn't shared with riders any dates -- years or seasons -- when particular types of work on the lines or at the stations is likely to be done. All we know from Metro is that the most aggressive part of the rebuilding program is scheduled to end in 2017.

Thanks for joining me today. I must break away now. Write to me any time at drgridlock@washpost.com, and come back next Monday when we'll have another online chat.

Stay safe.

 

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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