Dr. Gridlock

Nov 05, 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. Looks like we're in for another dose of bad weather at midweek. There are a bunch of traffic and transit issues coming up, including the opening of the 495 Express Lanes on Nov. 17. Let's see what's ahead.

I don't know if it was folks forgetting to set their clocks or just not having adjusted yet, but this morning my commute was the normal 10 minutes for the first time on a Monday since before Labor Day. Even the 14th Street Bridge wasn't too bad at 6:45.

Probably wasn't the time change. Two Mondays a year, I look at the traffic maps and cameras to see if I can spot something like that on the first Monday commute after the time change, but don't see it in the overall view. The traditional places that get jammed up on Mondays get jammed up on those Mondays.

Also, seems like the fall time change, if unheeded, would have pushed commuters out there earlier than normal. When you were traveling at 6:45, they would have thought it was 7:45.

Mondays are normally a bit lighter than midweek commutes. But maybe also some have taken the whole week off because they can tack on an extra day of vacation, with Veterans Day Monday as a federal holiday.

But did other commuters think they were seeing something special this morning?

(For traffic safety, my greater concern right after the time change is with the afternoon commute, when the sun is either lower, and right in your eyes, or you've got that twilight grayness to deal with.)

When the beltway HOT lanes open will the ramps from the 95 HOV lanes to the beltway (both to/from Alexandria) be opened at the same time?

They should be open at the same time. Everything -- all the ramps and lanes -- associated with the 495 Express Lanes (Beltway HOT lanes) should open early in the morning of Saturday, Nov. 17. So most commuters would get their first experience with them on Monday morning, Nov. 19.

I'm planning another blog posting about the new lanes for this afternoon. Got my first chance to ride in them on Friday. Found the experience a bit disorienting and want to tell you more about that.

The real problem with rush minus is the amount of time added to trips by those of us who have no option to use the yellow line. Trips between the west end of the Orange line and the blue line in Arlington or Alexandria (or farther south) are the ones who have been most inconvenienced. Longer waits on both the orange and blue lines means my morning trip now takes at least 10-15 minutes longer than it used to. In the evening the difference has been a bit less because I always had to wait through several trains at Rosslyn before one came along I could get onto anyway before the new schedule.

Trips that don't allow Blue Line riders the option of taking the Yellow Line are definitely a problem since the start of the Rush Plus service since June. I'm surprised, though, to hear you say that the west end of the Orange Line is part of the problem. Metro put three extra  trains per hour onto the Orange Line as part of Rush Plus.

(My colleague, Mark Berman, and I did another Rush Plus test for Sunday's Commuter page. We again rode between King Street and Farragut West. Added an afternoon trip this time. Got different results from our first test in June. )

Here's a link to that: http://wapo.st/PNJQbn

Would it be possible for the blue line to stop running at Rosslyn (at least some trains) with the start of the Silver line? As a orange line rider, the trains are always packed and slow going into Rosslyn. I cannot imagine adding more trains to that tunnel.

Metro officials can't either. I'm not sure how they're going to accommodate all the trains they are planning to add for the Silver Line.

 Metro officials say the Rosslyn tunnel is now at capacity.

A few trains that now start at Vienna will shift over to start at Wiehle Avenue, the temporary terminus for the Silver Line. Still, that doesn't reach the goal for rush hour service on the Silver Line.

Metro says it hasn't decided exactly how to restructure the service. They do have some time, but riders are starting to wonder.

A good question: Blue Line service through Rosslyn has been reduced under Rush Plus. Will it have to be reduced some more to accommodate the Silver Line trains heading into the tunnel?

 

Dr. G, do you what the structure is that they're building in median of the Greenway around the Loudoun County exit? Thanks.

No.

Anyone?

On Saturday it sure looked like they were preparing to open those ramps the other user asked about. The signs were turned on and said "TEST" and advised that they were testing the gates on the new ramps.

When I got my test ride on Friday, it looked like almost all the signs along the 14 miles of express lanes were operating in a test. Many said the lanes were opening on Nov. 17, some others directed commuters to check expresslanes.com for more information. Some signs won't be uncovered till the last minute.

One thing, of course, you don't see right now: There are no tolls posted on the variable message boards. You won't see that till the lanes open.

Dr. Gridlock, when you do your blog post about the 495 Express Lanes this afternoon, I wonder if you might be able to clarify one thing I've noticed when I drive on the Beltway through the Springfield Interchange. On the Inner Loop, the new exit splits off to the left to go to the I-95/395 HOV. But a lane then splits off from that exit and heads back to the right to rejoin the Beltway. On the Outer Loop, there's a lane that splits to the left right after you pass over I-395, but it doesn't connect to an exit ramp; instead it just goes to the left of the I-95 flyover and rejoins the Beltway to the east. What are those lanes for? Also, I asked the people building the lanes if the new HOV ramps to/from I-395 will be tolled and they said no. So why is there tolling equipment located immediately to the west of those ramps? The Express Lanes themselves begin/end to the west of the Robinson Terminal.

I should double check, but I think you're describing the links to the express lanes when you talk about those mystery lanes.

The HOV ramps are definitely not tolled. There should be E-ZPass readers to the west for drivers who have committed themselves to using the express lanes.

(If you're paying the toll -- as opposed to using the E-ZPass Flex transponder to get the free ride for HOV3 people -- you have to pass under two E-ZPass readers. The first one will record your entry into the express lanes. Your toll rate is set at that point. Later, you'll pass under a second toll reader near your exit point. That will  determine how far you've traveled.

I guess that's a bit like how Metro fares work. When you pass through the fare gate, the reader determines if you're going to be paying peak or off-peak fares. But the exact amount you pay is determined by the distance you travel.

How can anyone trust the website when it once again misled customers. The WMATA website said METRO would run till 3AM on Saturday into Sunday, yet there were countless people left stranded in the district because the trains never came.

Did anyone else see evidence of a mass stranding? Could what the commenter saw have been a question of people not checking the exact time for the last train departure from a particular station?

In your opinion, do you think the 495 HOV lanes will alleviate traffic problems in that section of the Beltway?

We're talking about the HOT lanes, right? Yes, I think the HOT lanes will ease traffic on the Beltway, both for the HOT lane users and for the drivers who continue to use the general purpose lanes.

We may see some initial confusion. One thing I'll be watching for is the effect of bringing express lanes traffic into the left side of the regular lanes where the express lanes end north of the Dulles Toll Road.

But the basic thing I'm thinking is this: You can't add four lanes to the Beltway without easing traffic for most of that route. Whether they're managed lanes with variable tolls or just regular lanes, that effect of widening the highway would be the same.

It's possible that might not last. Maybe in a few years people will be making their housing decisions based on having these extra lanes. At that point, I'd watch for the traffic to build up in the regular lanes. The express lanes shouldn't become crowded because the variable toll will rise as high as it has to to ease congestion in those lanes.

 

Any update on the 11th Street Bridge Project? Opening of the ramp to 295 North still expected by Thanksgiving? Seems like a high priority project to help alleviate 695 congestion

The last thing I remember was "around Thanksgiving" for opening the ramp from the outbound through span on the 11th Street Bridge to northbound 295. That will indeed be a breakthrough for commuters. I'll check this week and see if there's an update, but in my experience, it's still a little early for the project to name an exact date. The last little bit of prep for these ramp openings is very dependent on favorable weather for paving and lane striping.

Hi, I saw virtually nothing about the nightmare delays on the Red Line Thursday evening. It would be nice to have some explanation, for example, as to why certain trains were skipping Bethesda and Medical Center stations, and also why trains were offloaded at Dupont Circle in order to turn around towards Glenmont.

Arcing insulation in the Red Line tunnel. We had a short item: http://wapo.st/Wcxa0n

And then afterward, some people told me there was a lot of confusion about the station skipping. What the Metro announcements were telling passengers didn't match up with what they were experiencing with the skips.

Dr. Gridlock, are there chances to exit the HOT lanes to get back on the beltway before the terminus point? Clearly, there are exits straight from the HOT lanes, but not all exits on the beltway have HOT exits. Will it be possible to leave the HOT lanes to merge back into main lanes if your desired exit isn't a HOT exit- or will you just have to do the nearest exit?

The only places to move straight from the regular lanes onto the express lanes are at the end points, Springfield and the area just north of the Dulles Toll Road. Exiting and entering in between involves using ramps at interchanges.

This is a point I was trying to make in a recent Commuter page feature to help drivers get oriented:

http://wapo.st/TKDydq

I'm trying to keep track of all your questions and comments about the express lanes, whether you post them here, or on the Dr. Gridlock blog or send them to me at drgridlock@washpost.com.

I've got one more Commuter page feature coming up, probably for Nov. 18, that will be a user's guide to the new lanes, similar to the one I did just before Maryland opened the Intercounty Connector.

Once the lanes are open, I want to take a bunch of drives up and down, so I can give you a review and address any concerns based on actually using them.

 

The Bethesda elevators were originally supposed to mbe back in service on October 21. The signs around the station now just say November 2012. Any idea of whether service will be available by Thanksgiving? Christmas? It's been a long wait with cranky escalators. Thaniks!

Like you, I've just heard "November" for the Bethesda escalators. These "modernizations" are different from the breakdowns. Metro workers basically rebuild the entire thing. To me, there more like road projects, where the agency sets a target, but might turn out to be a few weeks off. (Which happens all the time.)

Since you rode in the lanes with Transurban, they must have given you some idea as to what the range of tolls they're initially planning to charge. What is the minimum toll they plan on charging (2 AM on a weeknight), and what is the maximum toll they are thinking about charging (5 PM inner loop on a Thursday evening)?

We don't have a similar tolling system in the D.C. region, so I get lots of questions about this, and it will take all of us some getting used to.

First, we won't really know what the tolls will be like till we actually see them in operation after the opening.

But the Transurban folks are saying they could range from about 20 cents a mile at quiet times to about $1.25 per mile at rush hour. The average trip is likely to cost $5 or $6.

Most people are going to use the lanes at rush hour. That's when they'll have the greatest incentive to use them. When more people get in the lanes, the price for using them will go up. There's no cap on how high.

But when the toll gets too pricey, drivers will stop entering the express lanes and use the general purpose lanes instead. Then the toll will drop.

If you're with me so far, I'll add a couple of complications:

Before you enter the lanes -- before you have to commit -- you'll see message boards displaying tolls to three destinations. The last one will be all the way to the end of the express lanes. In other words, that's the max that you're going to pay. The two others will be tolls to popular destinations -- most likely something in Tysons, I figure.

So it's possible you'll never see the exact toll to your own particular exit. You'll just know the toll to a nearby exit, and you'll know the maximum you could pay if you went all the way to the end of the express lanes.

Now, I've already noted that the lanes aren't set up so that you can slide in and out of them every mile or so. Most of the entrances and exits are at interchanges.

So don't picture yourself driving along the Beltway and thinking, wow, looks really heavy up ahead, I'll slide over into the express lanes now.

You won't be able to do that. (And don't think about crunching your way through those white bollards. That's going to leave a mark.)

I think this is going to mean that commuters have to pay more attention to the traffic reports before they leave home or office. I can't figure any other way most people are going to know whether they really want to spend the money to use the new lanes -- unless they just know they're running late and don't want to take a chance on the traffic.

No, it would be too disruptive. There's no pocket track there, meaning a third track between the other two that lets a train turn around without holding up all the other trains. This is the same reason why Yellow Line trains do not terminate at Fort Totten during rush hour. It would cause too many delays. The Blue Line has pocket tracks at Reagan Airport (between the two platforms) and then to the east of Stadium-Armory; the Orange Line has them at West Falls Church (again between the platforms) and the same one east of Stadium-Armory. Silver Line trains will use that one east of the stadium to turn around.

Yes, I agree with you that there's no way to turn back Blue Line trains at Rosslyn during rush hours. Off-peak -- maybe way off peak -- it might be possible to do that, same as you cite about the Yellow Line turnback at Fort Totten: Can't do it at rush hours, can do it off peak.

(My recollection is that for some of the weekend maintenance project, Metro has run a Blue Line shuttle between Rosslyn and Pentagon.)

But I think we're both saying the bottom line is that turning back Blue Line trains at Rosslyn to accommodate the Silver Line trains entering the tunnel is not an option.

I am the one who wrote about my rush minus experience. Yes, service on the Orange line is worse than it was. At least it is for me between 7:30 and 8. The elimination of the WFC-Stadium trains is part of the problem. So all of the trains are already pretty full by the time they get to Ballston. And there is a larger gap between trains than there used to be. Then we seem to always just miss the blue line at Rosslyn so we have to wait at least 7 minutes for the next train there.

Thanks, will try to address the Orange Line issues in another Commuter page feature. For this past one, I wanted to go back and repeat the June Blue Line experience at a time when ridership would not be in any sort of summer lull, and on the other hand, Metro would have had a chance to work out some problems.

I travel 50 W every morning from Annapolis and find that this is the worst fall in my 12 years of commuting. I usually had to leave at 6:40 to get into DC by 8...now it is at least 15-20 min more even on Fridays. A great many others, coming from Virginia and Baltimore also tell me they have noticed the same thing. Any ideas why?

It does look very heavy on the morning maps. My guess is that it's connected to congestion on southbound DC 295 near Pennsylvania Avenue, but I'd like to hear from other driver who experience this commute.

The lighter traffic this morning is likely because schools are closed today in VA.

Travelers, I'm going to sign off now, because we've been having some technology problems with the chat. Example: On my screen, I can't tell which of your comments have been published and which are pending, except from my memory.

But I know there's a bunch that I still haven't addressed. I see many I still need to get to concerning the Beltway HOT lanes, for example.

I hope to do that through several postings on the Dr. Gridlock blog this afternoon and Tuesday.

If you have other questions or comments, write to me at drgridlock@washpost.com.

Stay safe out there, especially with this new nor'easter heading our way for midweek.

 

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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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