Dr. Gridlock: What to expect during Hurricane Sandy

Oct 29, 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.

Ask him your questions about how Hurricane Sandy is affecting the D.C. area roads, metro, traffic and more.

Welcome, travelers, though I hope very few of you have been traveling today as we begin -- begin, I say -- to see the effects of Hurricane Sandy. If you did have to go to work today, I hope you can get out early, or find a safe shelter.

Getting was probably the easy part of your day.

I'll start with a few questions related to Hurricane Sandy. Chime in if you've got more questions or observations.

My friends and I don't recall if the entire DC-area Metro system has been suspended before, prior to Mother Nature bringing it to a stop. I do remember that during "snowmageddon," there were no buses for several days (maybe a week?), at least where I live, but I think the service only halted after the snow fell - and I forget if Metrorail stopped, too. Similarly, if you know, is this a first for NYC? Thanks.

Metro shut the entire bus and rail system in September 2003 in advance of Tropical Storm Isabel. During the blizzards, transit service was severely restricted, to the point where we had very limited service underground and no service above ground.

New York shut its transit service just last year for Hurricane Irene.

We here in the D.C. region don't face some of the flooding problems that NY faces, but I think this was the right call for Metro. I remember the shutdowns for the blizzards. People were uncertain when they would occur, and there was the potential for people to be trapped on trains and buses.

In the case of Hurricane Sandy, we faced the possibility of trains and buses getting stranded when the region's emergency personnel were stressed to the max already. Imagine trains getting stuck in tunnels. Or even above ground between stations. Imagine buses scattered across the entire region having to stop in mid-route. How would the passengers reach their destinations, or get back home?

Plenty of people did have to go to work today, although the governments and schools were shut. Closing Metro is a problem for many of them. But I think not as much of a problem as getting stranded on Metro might have been.

Other opinions on this?

For those of us who had to go to work, and commute from VA to DC, what is the prognosis for the bridges? Is it likely any will be shut down?

As I write this, no bridge has been shut, but the Capital Weather Gang says we ain't seen nothing yet, and I think there's a very strong chance for a bridge closing. This morning on the blog I was advising commuters that they should not expect their trips home to be like their trips to work. Bridges could be closed, roads could be flooded and intersections could be dark.

Here's a late-morning status report from the Maryland Transportation Authority, which operates the bridges and tunnels:

"Bay, Tydings, Hatem and Nice Bridges all under Wind Restrictions.  No box trucks or tractor trailers.  The Key Bridge is operating under a Wind Warning, which means use extreme caution when crossing.  Avoid the roadways if you can today!"

Here's a link to the MDTA's emergency alerts:

http://1.usa.gov/UagwaE

I'm staying home for the foreseeable future not because of the weather but because of the idiots on the road...the ones who try to drive through 2 feet of standing water, don't turn on their headlights, or think that since there is no traffic, they can drive 80 on the beltway. I know that these aren't your readers, but perhaps we can all remind the people we know who do these things to cut it out!

No, I don't believe people who car enough about travel to check out a chat like this are going to be the people driving 80 through standing water.

But I think this is a good reminder that we should travel humbly. We're not completely in control of our fate. Total strangers have a lot to say about it.

One key thing that can slip a driver's attention: Stop at an intersection where the signals are dark. Violations of that rule are just about the most common complaint among my readers in severel weather. It doesn't matter who's got the most lanes. It doesn't matter whether you see oncoming traffic or pedestrians. Just stop.

 

In the afternoon on Bradock road west bound, we sit at green lights. There are four lights closely spaced so traffic does not move normally takeing 10 minutes to cover less than a mile. Does VDOT routinely review the effectiveness of the light timing so traffic is optimized?

VDOT has a traffic operations center in Fairfax that monitors signals and the backups that occur around them. Signal timing can be adjusted from the center.

The first thing anyone in this region involved in signal timing tells me: They can't manufacture time. If they give more green time to one direction, they're taking it from another.

That said, it's certainly possible for signals to be poorly sequenced. If you think you see something that VDOT isn't seeing, try calling VDOT's customer service center at 800-367-6723.

There were a couple of articles and graphics that appeared this week in the Traffic section of the Post online regarding DC speed cameras, the ones that produced the most tickets/revenue last year and so far this year. One question remains - what is the threshold speed for generating a ticket with the DC cameras? The Metropolitan Police website does not make it very clear, and suggests there is a zero tolerance rule in place, but that's assumed because there is no minimum threshold for generating a fine. In MD it's well known (or should be) that you have to be going 11mph over the posted speed limit or faster to generate a ticket. I technically do speed, but usually no more than a couple MPH over the posted limit. I live in MD, and don't even bother looking for speed cameras there because I never have and probably never will be caught by one, but every time I drive into DC I am very paranoid and on the lookout for speed cameras.

Unlike Maryland's law on speed cameras, the DC law sets buffer. Under the DC law, you could get a ticket for going 1 mph over the speed limit. The DC police department won't say how the cameras are set.

(Of course, a police officer in Maryland or DC could give a driver a ticket for going 1 mph over the limit. This is an officer's discretion.)

As usual, many large defense contractors and other big-workforce employers are remaining open today despite obvious life-threatening safety issues. When pressed, they point to "liberal leave"-- meaning that their workers can choose to spend a day of vacation and pay for being safe that way. Is there any hope of giving state and local governments power to shut down all employers in case of real emergency? Alternatively, could this at least be written into federal contracts with these big companies? Right now they are making money for being open today. I think that's wrong.

I think it's wrong to haul workers in under these conditions, or pressure them to show up because they would have to burn a day, or more, of vacation time. But I'm uncomfortable with giving the federal government the authority to shut local businesses.

By the way, I fear there are many small businesses that opened up today when they should have allowed their workers to remain safe at home. While I think Metro made the right call to shut, the closing very likely had a big impact on workers at small businesses and eateries.

Simple question: Do you think Metro will be open tomorrow? Thanks.

This is purely a guess on my part based on the Capital Weather Gang's forecast about the amazing length of Hurricane Sandy's impact and on the conditions that shut Metro in the first place: No, I don't believe Metro or the region's other transit systems will be operating on Tuesday.

Besides the weather conditions likely to prevail on Tuesday, Metro has said it will need time after the storm passes to assess the damage to its equipment.

But all Metro has actually said about timing is that the service suspension is for an indefinite period.

Where are the Metro Trains? Are they out in the yards, or did they try to park as many in the tunnels as they could?

I haven't heard, but I think it's very likely that as many buses as possible have been moved into garages and as many rail cars as possible have been moved underground. You probably recall that this was done during the blizzards.

How's this for Metro making things difficult: I went to a Metro shop yesterday to buy a senior smart trip card. Its $5 cost had to be paid in cash, in a separate transaction from the deposit, which could be paid by credit card. Unused regular paper cards could not be credited to the smart card there, but only inside a Metro station. Unused senior paper cards can never be credited to the smart card, but can only be used, with the penalty. It must have taken a good deal of thought to get the process so screwed-up! SAStern

I'm not sure why you would have had to pay the $5 in cash. I'll see if I can clarify that with Metro. I know you can make the full purchase of a regular SmarTrip card online with a credit card, so I don't see why the payment process would need to be any different  for a senior card. (Though I do understand why Metro requires the discount cards to be purchased in person.)

In general: The SmarTrip card is supposed to be a convenience card for riders, but making it convenient has been an awfully slow process.

When will the Fairfax County Parkway and Fair Lakes Parkway interchange be completed?

I remember going to the ground-breaking on this one. The roadways should be in their final configuration next summer. The final paving should be done by next fall.

Here's an update on our earlier question about the status of bridges. This is from Post reporter John Wagner: Maryland officials say it's highly likely the Bay Bridge will be shut at 1 p.m. because of high winds. If you have to get across it, do so now.

 

I had to drive this morning (9 am then 11 am), and it was still OK. Some people overly cautious and slow maybe. But 1 in 10 cars had their lights off. I guess they just forgot. Is there any established way to remind them? I doubt that honking would do any good, but do you think that flashing high-beam lights at them could be a good reminder? Or ist it hopeless?

We've had this discussion before, because so many of my readers see drivers failing to observe this simple rule about having lights on when the wipers are in use.

I think such reminders are a legitimate use of the overhead message boards on highways. There's no non-verbal signal that's commonly recognized to convey such a reminder. Flashing headlights can be easily misunderstood by another driver. (Same can be said of hand gestures.)

Our newspapers showed up on time today. They always get delivered. Even when the snow plows get stuck on our road, somehow the newspaper trucks or cars or bicycles get through. Bravo to them!

My paper landed at 6:36 a.m. I see a lot of transportation information online, including at washingtonpost.com, but I need that newspaper. So thanks for the reminder about our valued delivery people.

While I don't agree with my company's policy of ALWAYS being open we do have the option of working from home in days like this. I presume most defence contrators have similar policies, all my fellow contractor friend's do. So it isn't always just a take a vacation day or risk getting to work options.

Teleworking is the way of the future. I think it's going to have the biggest impact on our commuting out of all the transportation plans we discuss. It won't work for everyone, but both government and private companies should be expanding the opportunities to do this.

It would be a public service if the Post could list businesses that forced their employees to come in today. Shame the heck out of them for endangering their employees.

There's probably a great range on this. For example, people had to go to work at hospitals and other health care facilities today. I know people would endorse that idea, even though it created great difficulty for many workers, especially those who normally take transit.

I do agree with you that transit systems should shut down because of the concerns that you cited. But, to my shock, neither Rhode Island Transit nor the Boston T has shut down; though I understand it is supposed to be equally bad up there. Do you think that is a mistake? Why would they be the only transit systems that have not shut down? All others in the storm's path have shut down.

Boston.com says the MBTA is going to discontinue service at 2 p.m. Not much more detail than that. But I'm glad that our Metro riders don't find themselves in this same spot, depending on midday alters to tell them their going to lose transit service after many have used it to get to work.

Maybe I was watching too many WWII films, but it occurred to me for some people taking cover in the metro station while the worst of the winds past might be safer than a wooden house surrounded by monster trees. Guess WMATA isn't up for that though.

Most if not all jurisdictions have opened shelters. For example, Prince George's County announced it's using Charles H. Flowers High School in Springdale.

I'm not sure this is the type of event in which you'd want to be putting people into underground spaces, with the threat of flooding such a key issue. Also, this is going to go on for a really long time. People are going to need heat and food.

Add me to the list of grateful home delivery customers of the Wash Post. My delivery guy will get a good tip at Christmas.

The examples you give are for the past ten years. Any idea if storms are worse now, or government more cautious, or the infrastructure too fragile to trust? Or were there other shutdowns further back in time?

I think that 2003 Metro shutdown was the first complete shutdown in advance of a storm. Not sure what the historic factors are. Add this possibility: The weather predictions are getting better.

The Post's Mark Berman relayed a bit of information related to the earlier question about where the trains are. Mark says that according to Metro spokesman Dan Stessel the trains are parked in the yards, where they are away from trees and other debris that could cause damage.

(And this is different from a blizzard, where one of the issues was the trains getting buried in drifting snow.)

What is the criteria for when airplanes may take off and do you have an estimate as to when that should occur?

You're flying above my level of expertise, but I know that few if any flights are operating right now in the Northeast. I think this is the latest story on our Web site: http://wapo.st/TO8hAy

" I fear there are many small businesses that opened up today when they should have allowed their workers to remain safe at home. While I think Metro made the right call to shut, the closing very likely had a big impact on workers at small businesses and eateries." I am at work, because the small business I work for does not close for weather. Ever. While I am fine with being here now, I am worried about getting home. But I don't really have an option to stay home unless it is dangerous RIGHT NOW.

This is one of several responses I got to the earlier exchange regarding who had to go to work today. This is something that employers should consider very carefully, as the federal government did after the last year's Jan. 26 storm, the one that developed in the late afternoon and created so many problems because people already had gone to work.

All the forecasters were in agreement that the weather this afternoon would be incredibly bad, and much worse than the weather this morning. No boss could use the excuse that, "I just didn't know how bad it would be."

Now, I'll show you some responses from other folks.

Workers employed by businesses with government contracts regularly are told by a business that the "contract" keeps them from offering raises, changing benefits, etc. I think the government issuing a contract can write in that contractors in the Metro DC area will follow the federal's government's emergency guidelines. Dr. Gridlock encourages teleworking but the feds have in the past had restrictions on contract employees telecommuting. Considering the large number of contract employees in the area, teleworking should be encouraged in government contracts. I worked under government contracts.

FYI: President Obama is now making an address about the storm. He is urging people not to ignore mandatory evacuation orders and not put their nor first responders' lives at risk. I concur.

The awful thing about defense contractors being open is that the cafeterias and dry cleaners and other in building services are operating and those employees have to be at work. Many of those people rely on public transportation, often with multiple connections. Liberal leave and telecommuting do not help them!

Why haven't we seen more specific information on the cost to drive in the lanes? Everything that I have been able to find only mentions vague ranges of cost. When will we see the ACTUAL ranges, for specific trips? Thanks

These express lanes will be a very different way of traveling, and there are many aspects of the operation that we won't be used to.

One is that there is no toll rate, as we have on other roadways. Sensors will feed traffic flow data to an operatons center, where computers will adjust the tolls up or down depending on the level of traffic congestion. There's no cap on the toll. The key element is that the operator, Transurban, is committed to keeping traffic flowing at a speed of at least 45 mph. The toll can go as high as it needs to in achieving that goal.

Transurban says its models show averages of $3 to $6 for a rush hour trip and $1 to $2 for an off-peak trip.

There's a lot more I need to explain about these things before the lanes open later this fall. I plan to do that via the Dr. Gridlock blog and The Post's Commuter page on Sundays in the Metro section.

My brother-in-law is a fireman in the Miami area. He's been calling us regularly and one thing he mentioned is that down there when they ask the public to stay off the roads, apparently the local governments put very heavy pressure on the private employers to close, to the point where if someone is told to come to work, the authorities want that person to call the police to report the employer. The employer then receives a visit from the police saying "we want you to reconsider." I have no idea to what extent people actually do call the cops, though, as I know I'd be afraid that if my employer found out that I ratted him out, it wouldn't go well for my continued employment. (I was rather surprised and pleased that my wife's office is closed today. She works for a law firm that brags about staying open at all times and not following what the local governments do.)

Different communities will need to have different responses to emergencies. For us, I'm not crazy about the idea of police visiting private employers to apply pressure on this.

Example: At The Post, we're certainly open for business today. Keeping you informed in emergencies is our business. The Post is doing what it can to help its employees, but for many there's no question that getting to work is a hardship.

I wouldn't want us to have a D.C. or federal law under which the police would visit our editor and try to pressure him to shut down our news operation.

I'm trying to figure out how the Blue Line survives after the opening of the Silver Line next year. The Orange Line is operating at capacity as is and the Silver Line will most likely take the current Orange Line Rush Plus trains, thus returning the Orange Line to sardine-can status. Couple that will one tunnel going from Rosslyn to DC and I don't see how Metro can justify operating a line that basically only serves a cemetery for tourists. Will the Blue Line survive or do you think more of its train will be re-routed through DC?

First, your question about how the Silver Line will join up with the trains from the Orange and Blue lines is an excellent one. I've asked Metro officials. They say only that all options are on the table and they haven't decided on a plan.

Now, this is just me: I don't see how the level of Blue Line service we have today at rush hour can be maintained while also providing full Silver Line service through the Rosslyn tunnel.

I also want to note this: When we talk about the Blue Line issue, we're not just talking about how frequently trains stop at Arlington Cemetery. Many of the riders on those trains are going to destinations on the west side of D.C., like Foggy Bottom or Farragut West, while others are on their way to transfer at Rosslyn for trips on the Orange Line in the direction of Vienna.

For the second time in a few days a truck has jackknifed on the inner beltway. I assume the truck drivers don't anticipate the sudden curves after driving in a straight line for hundreds of miles. Why are there so many curves in this section of the beltway? For the most congested traffic area in the country, wasn't there a design that would have been less curvy, and why did the government settle for a design that would cause a daily backup?

Maryland planners were very constricted by existing communities when they planned the route of the Capital Beltway, and still are. Maryland definitely needs to do something about that section of the Beltway, one of the worst bottlenecks in the entire D.C. region. But there's no serious plan right now. (By serious, I mean a plan backed by money.)

(I don't know the status of the police investigation into those recent accidents, so I can't comment on the specific circumstances and possible causes of those crashes.)

Why is there a smell of decomposing flesh on the platforms at Union Station, Federal Triangle and Metro Center? I ride 2 times a day and can smell it as I walk thru the stations. Thanks,

I think you're talking about a longstanding problem with Metro's brake pads. The smell is awful. Riders don't always agree on what it smells like. "Dead rats" is a common comparison. The odor can turn up just about anywhere in the underground part of the system.

Just got an email from my dry cleaner that they are closed :) but I saw the FedEx truck drive by my house a couple times :(

I read your blog regularly, as well as traffic-related stories by other local reporters (Adam Tuss comes to mind), and I always notice how a lot of the commentary about the 495 Express Lanes consists of rants from people convinced they'll be a disaster, will increase congestion, will be a safety hazard, etc. Aside from the fact that other cities have similar lanes and have not seen any sort of parade of horribles, how do you respond to these people who are (in my view) clearly determined just to be naysayers and trolls about the whole thing?

These HOT lanes are a new thing for us in the D.C. area, so I think it's understandable that travelers would be both curious and concerned about their operation. We have a lot to learn about them.

I do like the idea that we're trying new things to ease our travel problems. This is one of those new things.

Travelers shouldn't judge the lanes by what they see in the first couple of weeks after they open. I think there will be a learning curve both for the drivers and for the transportation agencies involved.

Travelers, I always sign off by urging you to be safe out there. It's especially on my mind today. As we've been chatting, I've noticed the rain getting harder and the wind picking up. Please don't take chances with Sandy.

If you want to get in touch with me, send an e-mail to drgridlock@washpost.com, and let's talk again 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 his namesake blog, as well as in the Metro section of The Washington Post.
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