Dr. Gridlock: Your traffic and transit questions

Jul 12, 2010

The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock, Robert Thomson, was online to take all your questions about Metro, traffic throughout the region and other transportation issues.

Hello, travelers. It's been several weeks since we chatted. Traffic now seems a bit lighter on some routes and even some Metro trains as the summer sets in. But that doesn't mean everyone's happy. Metro riders, for example, have been venting about the air conditioning aboard rail cars and the state of the escalators.

Bring on all your local travel questions.

I crossed the Bay Bridge eastbound on both Saturday and Sunday mornings of July Fourth weekend, and experienced significant delays both times, partly because there were only two eastbound lanes. I thought they routinely opened one westbound land for eastbound traffic when flow demanded it, unless weather was an issue, which it wasn't on those beautiful, nearly windless mornings. You can guess what my question is. Thanks.

I'm sorry you got stuck in that. I recall that the Maryland Transportation Authority, which operates the bridge, was warning that nearly half a million vehicles were going to use the bridge during the long holiday weekend.

I know the authority does add an extra lane in the heavy direction under certain circumstances. I'm not a big fan of that. I think there should not be two-way traffic on those spans.

Our commenter here probably knows this next advice, but for anyone else planning a weekend trip, this is the authority's advice on best times to cross

Thursday – before 2 p.m.

Friday – before noon and after 10 p.m.

Saturday – before 7 a.m. and between 5 and 10 p.m.

Sunday – between 7 and 11 a.m. and after 10 p.m.

The recent announcement of the repairs to the walls of Meridian Hill Park and its inevitable effect on congestion leads me to wonder why parking is ever allowed on 16th St. It seems to me that if parking was prohibited at all times on both sides of the street from Arkansas Ave south, then traffic would flow a lot smoother through that stretch.

I have been frustratingly hung up there at all hours of the day. Is there a reason this hasn't been done?

There's a constant tension on this between commuters and neighborhood residents and businesses. Commuters would like to ban parking on the main rush-hour routes in DC. Residents and merchants don't like that. The residents and merchants tend to win on this.

Many commuters say, At least adjust the hours because rush hour is longer than it used to be. On 16th Street NW, the problem doesn't come up so much on the part of the street adjacent to Meridian Hill Park -- where the National Park Service is beginning a three month project to shore up the park wall -- but rather to the north, in Columbia Heights/Mount Pleasant, and to the south, in the area approaching Scott Circle.

Other issues along lower 16th Street: How to deal with turning traffic and how to protect pedestrians.


When is the Humpback Bridge project along the GW Parkway going to be completed? I realize that they're trying to improve the bridge but it seems to be taking forever. It causes a choke point on the parkway and yesterday I experienced it's impact on the Mount Vernon Trail. The trail (which is a very crowded trail) is squeezed into a very small pathway in between jersey barriers. It's hardly wide enough for one bike or person, never mind about two. I'm considering waiting until this construction is over to ride the trail again.

It's behind schedule. The original plan called for completion by February. The new plan is to wrap up the rebuilding of the bridge next spring. Project managers blame unforeseen problems with the utilities in the area, ground conditions and bad winter weather, which delayed a lot of projects.

The reconstruction recently entered a new phase that includes the temporary relocation of the trail.  The park service warns riders to dismount when they reach the work zone and watch for construction equipment. Drivers will see an increase in the number of brief closings from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and from 7 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. This phase is scheduled to last till the end of the year.

I would love to tell the driver the A/C in a car isn't working. Unfortunately, sometimes the call boxes aren't working either.

I've been writing about the Metro air conditioners on the Dr. Gridlock blog and in The Post. I've got comments from a few riders that I want to put on the blog this afternoon.

I'm getting an unsually large number of complaints this summer about hot cars. (Last summer, the focus was on the stations, particularly Metro Center.)

There are two reasons for our discomfort: One is that it's difficult to cool a rail car that frequently opens the doors. I get that part.

But there are plenty of times when the air conditioning unit in the car is just busted. It seems the most likely way Metro is going to hear about busted air conditioners is when riders complain. The quickest way to  make the problem known is to use the intercom to contact the train operator.

Sure, some of them can be busted, too. But I don't see riders performing that experiment. If it turns out to be busted, move to another car and use that intercom. You need to get out of a hot car anyway.

Most people don't do that. We tend to remain in the car and discuss how hot it is.

Hi there, Do you have any idea why Metro is now running one or two inoperable cars on some of its trains? Does this have something to do with the suspect door sensors discovered last week? I'm guessing that they need these cars to have enough cars to appropriately run a train - even though they can't load them. I've seen this much more in the past week. I bet I've seen it on at least 75-80% of my trips recently.

Right now, it's most likely because somebody figured out the air conditioning was busted and Metro sealed off the car.

That's fine. That's what should be done to protect riders while still keeping the train in service. Better yet would be to fix the air conditioning.

(I don't believe this has anything to do with the door problem on the 4000 Series cars. Metro has taken them out of service till they're fixed.)

Do you think it is more advisable to take Gallows Road from Fairfax, VA for my everyday commute to Tysons? I used to take 495 for my commute, but traffic is always unpredictable no matter what time of day it is. Sometimes I want to take 495 because without traffic it is faster, but now I just never know. Besides the obvious after 4pm rush hour, are there any peak times in which I should definitely avoid the beltway?

I think this might be a good one for group discussion, but I'll start with some thoughts. The HOT lanes project on the western side of the Beltway in Virginia doesn't close off lanes at rush hours.  I do think the lane shifts and narrowed widths on both loops contribute to traffic slowdowns at all hours.

But as you know -- as we all know -- the Beltway can slow at anytime because of traffic problems miles from where you are at the moment.

Bottom line: I'd stick with the Beltway, with all its lanes, unless you're hearing about a specific problem when you turn on the radio or check our Web site.

You know to expect traffic to be heavy at peak periods, especially around the interchanges, where the ramps come in, and around Tysons Corner, where 100,000 people work and where drivers are getting on and off I-66, Routes 123 and 7 and the Toll Road.

Other views?

How long will it take for a train to travel from each of the new Silver Line stations to East Falls Church?

That's a good question, and I sure wish I had an answer for you. Let's see, when the first part of the new line opens in 2013, there will be five new stations out to Wiehle Avenue. The four in Tysons are pretty close together, and the eastern most one isn't very far from East Falls Church, so it's hard to imagine the trains are going to get up much speed for that part of the trip.

When phase 2 opens a few years later, it will be a 23-mile line. There still isn't a lot of public discussion at Metro about these real-life issues, such as run time. In fact, Metro hasn't named the line. "I'm not sure what the origin of the term "Silver Line" is, so if anyone has a clue, please send a note to me at drgridlock@washpost.com.)


While everyone else had to deal with a 20% increase, the daily commuters who use the 5A bus had to deal with a 100% increase. Now, the number of riders coming and going from Herndon (Not the airport!) has severly decreased. Will Metro ever figure out its mistake and give daily commuters who use SmarTrip a break !?!

I do think that fare increase on the 5A is a problem. The comparable fare increase on the B30 from Greenbelt to BWI was okay, I thought. That really is an airport bus. But the 5A has always been an airport bus and a reverse commuter bus. That was a big fare increase to stick on those commuters, and there should be some way to give them a discount.

Why is this constantly ignored in traffic reports? I never hear about 66W, especially in the morning. It's always backed up. Lots of us commute against traffic (a dying thing, these days) and need traffic reports in those directions. Also, when will VDOT/Metro stop closing the left lane by the West Falls Church Metro station in the mornings. It backs 66W up horrifically. Thanks!

I-66 west inside the Beltway has been getting steadily worse. There are those controversial spot widenings coming up (only the first of the four is underway), but I think a bus rapid transit system also would help. Ideally, the I66 corridor traffic problems can be addressed comprehensively rather than highway segment by highway segment, which often has limited benefit.

About traffic reports: There are more and more sources of traffic information on TV, radio and online. All of us who work on traffic information realize it's much in demand, and we're trying to figure out more ways to get the information and push it out to commuters.

I think most drivers just jump in the car and go, turning on the radio for traffic news as they hit the road. Drivers all across the region tell me they don't hear enough about their own routes. But that's very difficult. I count about three dozen important commuter routes just in the immediate DC area, but brief report every 10 minutes has to hit highlights only.

Routinely bad traffic usually doesn't make it onto a report.

Anybody want to vote on what they think is the most comprehensive traffic information service in our area right now?

Has Metro even investigated the actual cost to widen the Roselyn tunnel? We always here it would be a huge expense, but has the agency ever actually gone out there and asked a contractor how much it would cost?

There was a point a few years back when there was active discussion about adding an extra tunnel at Rosslyn and through downtown Washington. I thought the price tag back then was a few billion dollars.

It's become more and more apparent that Metro doesn't have the money to do anything like that. It's certainly not part of the new capital budget agreement among DC, Maryland and the Northern Virginia jurisdictions.

The plan to divert some of the Blue Line trains away from the tunnel and onto the Yellow Line bridge looks a lot more workable now than a new tunnel.

Why won't DC and surrounding areas bring back street cars? They used to serve most of DC, Arlington, etc. Aren't they cheaper to build than the metro?

Many of our local jurisdictions are interested in street cars or light rail. In the suburbs, a Columbia Pike line and the  Bethesda-New Carrollton Purple Line have been hot topics. The District Department of Transportation has been very aggressive in promoting plans for a city-wide network of streetcars.

While they are cheaper than Metrorail extensions -- a lot cheaper -- they're still pretty expensive, and they also run into political problems. In DC, for example, there's the issue of whether the streetcars can run with overhead power wires. Will that mar the streetscape?

I read that parts of Va. will now have a 70 MPH limit on sections of interstates. Any idea which ones are impacted (I'm assuming none around here given the amount of traffic). Also, when will Md. catch on and go back to 70 MPH (it used to be that high before the 55 national limit)? Granted it would most likely apply in the western parts of the state.

In my experience, highway drivers don't need much encouragement to go 70 mph, whatever the posted limit. But Gov. McDonnell's law to increase speeds on certain highways after traffic studies took effect on July 1.

The eligible highways are rural or less-heavily congested than most of the highways in Northern Virginia.

The first effect of the law was to raise the speed limit on a 27 mile stretch of I-295 near Richmond. I don't know of any others that have changed over yet under this law.

Hi Dr. G, I noticed while driving around this weekend that there is a huge difference in road repairs between the HOT lane crew and the Metro Silver Line crew. Roads have to be dug up - that is inevitable. But what is so shocking is how the cuts are patched. In areas where the work is most definitely Metro related (on 123 by the Access Road for example) the patches are so smooth that you almost don't notice them. The "patches" on road work done by the HOT people are so bad that I actually avoid certain roads now because they've destroyed my car (Lee Highway on both sides of the bridge heading towards Merrifield). Why the difference?

The only difference I can tell is that VDOT is responsible for the HOT wok and they aren't making sure proper patches are installed versus the Airport Authority and they have stricter requirements? I definitely take this into consideration when determining where I'm going to go and how I'm going to get there.

I haven't noticed that distinction between the projects, and would like to hear from anyone else who has. (In fact, I've got a reader letter running in Thursday's Dr. Gridlock column praising the performance of the HOT lane construction crews.)


I always get a laugh when I pass this...At both ends of HOT lane construction zone along the beltway there are permanent signs and variable message signs. During rush hour, the variable message signs display traffic information that is usually inaccurate. However, what is just silly is that during non-rush times the variable signs default to "Dial 511 for Info," presumably to get information on the closures and such. The funny part is that just past these variable signs (outer loop near the Georgetown Pike and northbound near Braddock Road), there are signs posted that say "Orange cones No phones." So VDOT first wants me to call 511 to get info, but then says I shouldn't use my phone in a construction zone which is what the info is supposed to be about. Could someone ask VDOT what they'd rather have drivers do?

I think 511 is a great service, but I won't even answer a cell phone call while I'm driving, let alone make one. If the Gridspouse is in the passenger seat, fine. She can check. By the way, for those of you who use Twitter, Virginia's 511 puts out lots of current traffic information on Twitter.

Also, VDOT's Megaprojects office has one of the best government transportation sites around, putting out lots of background and current information about the HOT lanes, Dulles Metrorail, Telegraph Road interchange, I-95 widening and the Fairfax County Parkway extension. The site is www.vamegaprojects.com

I was so impressed-- there were staff directing people to cars with fewer people and the whole experience was a lot more orderly and efficient than I expected. (Sorry it's not a question)

Strasburg was pitching that night, and there was an extra heavy crowd at Nationals Park.

I think Metro does a very good job controlling the flow at Navy Yard Station. More of a problem is the post-game crowding at the big transfer stations, L'Enfant Plaza and Gallery Place.

There may be an unusually high number of people complaining about the heat this year- but we're also having an unusually hot summer so far- I imagine they're related. Once it heats up down in those tunnels- it's not going to rapidly cool off. When you have 10+ days in a row of 90* plus heat, through in a handful of 100* days- you're going to feel it. Even with the A/C running- it's going to be hot.

Yes, I agree with everything you said. But there's a big difference between a rail car with working AC where the temperature is in the 80s inside and a rail car with a busted AC where the temperature is 100 degrees inside.

The former, we just have to deal with by dressing appropriately for the weather, etc. The latter, the equipment problems, Metro should fix -- with the help of riders who report the problems.

I keep saying: Trust your instincts. You know right away if you've stepped onto a car with a busted AC unit. It's not just hot. It's oppressive. If you need further evidence, put your hand up against a vent. You won't feel any cool air coming out.

Hi Dr. Gridlock, I have a 10 am flight from Dulles on Friday morning. I want to park in long-term parking there. How much time should I allow for the drive from Gaithersburg? An hour and a half? Two hours? Yikes!

People ask me travel time questions a lot, and they really make me nervous. I don't want to be the reason you miss a plane, so I tend to be very conservative in answering.

My rule of thumb is to be at the terminal two hours early. Then I add the travel time. In this case, I'd be leaving at 6 a.m., which I hope would be far more time than you'd actually need to drive and park in the long term lots. The last part of the trip on the toll-free Dulles Access Road should be a breeze. But you've got to pass through several of the region's major bottlenecks before that.

So in saying 6 a.m., I'm thinking partly of the typical travel time on the route, but also of getting on the front edge of rush hour and of having time to deal with any unforeseen circumstances along the route down I-270 onto the Beltway and across the Legion Bridge.

The HOT LANES work is simply a project designed to steal our commuting time now in the form of delays and then sell it back to us later in terms of tolls for a faster ride. What really concerns me is that there is no equivalent effort in Maryland. I predict here will be huge backups approaching the Legion Bridge in both HOT and regular lanes as we all merge heading into Maryland where there is still a brief section of the Beltway only 2 lanes wide.

I think your premise about the Maryland congestion depends on the HOT lanes being popular. I think that probably will turn out to be true and that congestion in Maryland will be a serious issue. (It's a serious issue now.)  Maryland does not have a plan in place for expanding capacity on the western side of the Beltway. The state seems to have its hands full preparing for the BRAC moves.

This is a fairly common element of many major traffic projects. You make one thing better and it gets more popular with drivers. So you push the congestion problem up the road.

How much of a relief is having 3 blue line trains an hour skip Rosslyn? Is that really the best that can be done there? A successful transit system is going to move people quickly. Can't wait 10 minutes between trains as crowds build up. Is there a long term plan to widen tunnel?

Washingtonians are determined to have congestion relief. And they're equally determined not to pay for it.

Until something changes in our ability to finance the transportation improvements we want, there's not going to be another tunnel under the river, or even some of the much smaller projects that would make a lot of sense: Like a pedestrian tunnel between the Farraguts and between Metro Center and Gallery Place.

Meanwhile, Metro is trying to figure out steps it can take with its existing rail lines and equipment. The Blue Line plans has plenty of positive aspects, but it's not a breakthrough.

From the Wikipedia page on the Silver Line: "The Dulles Corridor Metrorail Project, informally dubbed the Silver Line after its color on planning maps..."

Who informally dubbed it and what planning maps were they looking at? (I haven't found anyone on the project or at Metro who claims to know that.)

Mr Thompson: The Traffic Signal at on the DC side of the bridge, Chain Bridge / Canal / Clara Barton, seems to be ill timed to handle the volume of traffic inbounds to DC after the 10 am lane swap. The backup can go all the way back to around lock 6, while no real volume of traffic is inbounds to DC over the bridge, nor is there real volume of traffic outbounds to either Maryland or back to Virgina over the bridge. Did the timing change after the bridge reconstruction?

I'll check on that, but will tell you my recollection: During the late stages of the project, DDOT examined the timing on that light and adjusted it, to relieve some of the backups that were building across the bridge. (That was bound to result in more of a backup on Clara Barton/Canal.) Once the extra lane reopened, DDOT was going to monitor the results and adjust accordingly.) I'll check for an update.

It's really unfair on the commuters. Many times, I've been on that bus coming from the airport and it's full of low-wage airport employees.

Yep. They're really getting stuck by a fare increase meant to target air travelers.

When I lived in Boston in the 80s, there was a lot of pressure on the city to replace streetcars with buses, which could be easily re-routed during accidents or construction. I remember reading that buses were cheaper to buy and maintain than streetcars. Do you know why the District wants these streetcars rather more buses?

I think your statements about the flexibility of buses, etc., are fair. But no transportation project is just about moving people from one place to another. Often, these days, they are also about community development, and that's the case with all the streetcar/light rail plans I know of in the DC area. The advocates for these plans want people to have an extra choice for getting around, but they also want to focus community development around the new lines.


Any wide when the repairs to Ohio Drive in/around the Memorial Bridge will be complete? The closure of that route under the bridge is causing horrible back-up's on the bridge and back towards the Pentagon in the mornings.

This current phase of the reconstruction, which has annoyed so many drivers, is supposed to be done by the end of the month, and I'm hoping there will be some relief then. But the entire project isn't scheduled to be done till the end of the year.


You had mentioned in a column a few weeks ago that the HOVs will flip a switch on their transmitters to designate themselves as HOVs to enforcement officers. Since the transponders cost money to acquire for new users, will existing EZPass holders have the ability to trade in their existing transponder for an HOV transponder free of charge since I would need to get a new transponder to switch over to HOV when I meet the requirements?

Fluor-Transurban, the private partnership that will operate the HOT lanes, hasn't announced decisions on any of those price issues concerning the transponders.

I feel a bit differently about the Beltway HOT lanes, which will be brand new lanes, than I do about the other proposal to convert the existing HOV lanes on I-95/395 to HOT lanes.

On I-95/395, if that project actually happens, I don't see why current carpoolers should have to pay anything extra to use those lanes. On the Beltway, it would be nice if carpoolers could switch transponders for free, but if not, they'd still be getting an express travel option that didn't exist before.


We're starting a long drive south on Saturday morning that will take us down 395 to 95. How early do we need to leave to not hit traffic? Thanks!

I hate traffic, and there's plenty of it on I-95/395 on a summer Saturday. I'd want to get through that bottleneck south of Washington by 8 a.m. on Saturday.

Let me take this chance to remind everybody about VDOT's summer schedule on the I-95/395 reversible lane. The lanes are open to all traffic at these times:

  • Northbound from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. and 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. on weekdays; from 4 p.m. Saturday until 6 a.m. Monday.
  • Southbound from 1 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. and from 6 p.m. to midnight on weekdays; from 6 p.m. Friday until 2 p.m. Saturday.

But could you give me a very conservative estimate of how long it would take to drive to north Baltimore on I-95 from NW DC during rush hour? Is 2 hours too conservative?

You're starting to understand my thinking from my previous answer. If you're trying to keep an appointment, and it's going to be bad if you don't make it, I'd leave two hours for that rush hour trip.

You didn't specify whether you meant morning or evening rush hour. The DC-Baltimore trip on 95 has been worsening in the morning to the point where I think of that as a rush hour trip.

When I think two hours, I'm thinking about the bottlenecks. First, going north out of DC on Conn., Wisc,. 16th St., Georgia. Then the jam on the inner loop getting to the junction with I-95. Then the traffic around the Baltimore Beltway. And it sounds like when you say north Baltimore on I-95 you mean to go through the Fort McHenry Tunnel, with its toll plaza.

At least, along our trip you have some bailout routes to consider, like Route 29 or the BW Parkway. Our Dulles-bound traveler is pretty much stuck with going across the Legion Bridge.

Travelers, I've enjoyed our chat very much today, but must break away. You gave me a few things to check on. And there are a few more among the questions and comments in the mailbag that I didn't get a chance to publish. So I'll try to get some answers to print on the Dr. Gridlock blog this week.

Of course, drop me a line anytime at drgridlock@washpost.com. Talk to you here next week.

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 the Get There blog, as well as in the Metro section of The Washington Post.
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