Dr. Gridlock

Jan 13, 2014

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. We've got some Metro issues and traffic issues to start out with.

With the Silver Line slated to open soon but the 7000 series rail cars not slated for delivery until later this year, will Metro have enough existing rail cars to maintain current service levels on other lines as well as service the new Silver Line? It feels like Metro barely has enough cars as it is without a 12 mile new line to service...

We don't have a start date for the Silver Line, but I expect it will be in the spring. Meanwhile, the new generation of rail cars is not scheduled to begin entering service till late this year.

Metro officials have consistently said that they will have enough rail cars available from the existing fleet to begin operating the Silver Line. This is without cutting service on the other lines to grab extra rail cars.

We've talked many times about the cutback in Blue Line service to accommodate the addition of the Silver Line, but that situation has to do with the capacity of the tunnel between Rosslyn and Stadium-Armory rather than the availability of rail cars.

One change we've talked about less frequently is that fewer rush hour trains will originate at Vienna once the Silver Line starts. No more Rush Plus Orange Line trains. Those trains will be shifted over to the Silver Line.

Still, Metro has set itself an ambitious scheduled: Silver Line trains are supposed to operate every six minutes at rush hour.

Frequency of service on all lines is certainly something we'll be watching when the Silver Line opens.

Several times when major incidents happened on Metro, one of the things that is brought up is poor communication with riders during the incident. Metro acknowledges this and promises to do better in the future. The next time, same scenario. And on and on. Why can't they improve the way they communicate with their station personnel and riders?

I've been hearing about Metro's communication problems and Metro's pledges to do better since 2006. Metro has gotten much better with its electronic communications -- the e-mail and Twitter alerts -- during emergencies.

But the more direct communications between station managers and train operators and riders still leaves a lot to be desired. I've heard many times that Metro is going to get two-way radios and bullhorns into the hands of the station managers so they can share information with passengers in emergencies, but I still get complaints from riders that there's a lack of information on the scene.


Why doesn't Florida accept it? We went ahead and bought a Sunpass, but we just read that Florida has just made a reciprocal agreement with North Carolina to honor each other's passes. So why not the Easy Pass?

It does seem so logical that Florida would be tied in with the E-ZPass system on the East Coast, since so many Sun Birds shuttle north and south along I-95, but it hasn't happened yet.

This is my summary of Florida news accounts about this issue: The state's transportation officials have been working on a tie-in for several years. In fact, there's a federal law that requires state systems to be compatible by 2016.

But joining the E-ZPass system isn't as easy as having one state's tolling agency make its technology compatible with the entire E-ZPass system. No, arrangements have to be made with all the agencies that are part of the E-ZPass system.

Many of you will recall that Maryland and Virginia also went through this phase. Each state started out with its own transponder system before joining the E-ZPass group.

Dear Doctor: Why is the new traffic light at the ill-fated Silver Spring Transit Center functioning now? It's on Colesville Rd., just before the Metro underpass. It cycles off and on, backing up traffic headed south on Colesville yet the Transit Center isn't open so there's no need for a light that would allow buses and cabs to turn into the center. Thanks.

I asked the Maryland State Highway Administration about this, since Route 29 is a state road. SHA said it activated the traffic signal at the request of Montgomery County, which was concerned about adding a safer crossing for pedestrians, even though the transit center is not yet open and buses don't need the signal.

Pedestrians who cross Colesville Road at Wayne Avenue or at East West Highway probably understand that thinking. Colesville is a very wide road, and at the intersections, traffic may be coming at you from several directions. The crossing in front of the transit center is more straight-forward.

Still, it's understandable that drivers would be annoyed when they realize the one functioning element of the transit center project is a red light.

Hi Dr. G, The first stop on my usual bus route (the 3Y that runs along Lee Highway) has a NextBus stop number (6001085) , but whenever I run that stop number through the WMATA Nextbus website or try to pull the stop times from the many various apps that will report such data, I get the error that "WMATA is not currently providing data on this stop". Is there anyway to request that WMATA begin reporting stop times for a stop that has a NextBus stop number, or is the number just there for show? (Note: other stops on this route have stop times reported, it's just this particular stop that has the issue.) Thanks!

I'm not sure what the problem is there. The number seems legit. I say that because when I plug it into NextBus it tells me that this is the stop at Patrick Henry Drive and Harrison Street, where the 3Y heads east toward McPherson Square. (Correct?)

I wonder if the problem might have to do with this being at the start of the eastbound run, and that's messing with the little computer brain behind NextBus operations.

NextBus often works well, but it certainly has quirks.

Reporting a problem with NextBus is the same as reporting other service problems. You can call 202-637-1328 or use this link to the customer comment form.


I live on Columbia Pike and three times this weekend there were buses reported to be coming on the next bus website that never showed. They were scheduled to come in 15-20 minutes so we rushed to leave, but when they were supposed to be 5 minutes out there was no bus. Do you know how this happens and if there is a more reliable predictor?

Speaking of NextBus problems ... 

This is the type of thing I had in mind in my previous comment when I mentioned the quirks in the system.

Metrobus officials said recently they expected more accurate arrival predictions because of improvements in the GPS system, but that's obviously not universally true.

The problem of ghost buses has existed since the system first began operating a few years ago. I think that issue stems from the computer program, rather than the GPS units aboard the buses. The computer doesn't just tell riders where the bus is, as some such systems do. It's supposed to predict when the bus will arrive at your stop. So the computer is programmed with schedule data and traffic data, among other things. Sometimes it predicts an on-time arrival for a bus that is stuck in traffic, or that broke down or didn't start its run in the first place. 

I noticed that electronic speed limit signs are being installed above the 95 express lanes. Do you know if the speed limit will be variable? If yes, what speeds will it range between?

I think the plan is to lower the speed limit in emergencies, like a crash ahead. So the limit probably would vary depending on the scope of the emergency.

This isn't the main way of regulating traffic flow in high occupancy/toll lanes. As with the 495 Express Lanes on the Beltway, the variable toll will be the major way of keeping traffic moving -- though the pattern will be a bit different on the 95 Express Lanes when they open in early 2015.

There will be more chances to go from the express lanes back into the regular lanes. You'll pay a toll for each segment you use. Drivers may like that flexibility, but it will mean they need to pay attention to the electronic signs telling them what the toll will be for the next segment.

Part of the reason why SunPass and E-ZPass are not compatible is technology: The systems use completely different technology. The most notable difference is that SunPass supports the "sticker tag" (the SunPass Mini, similar to the gate opener transponders some gated communities/condo developments use) whereas E-ZPass does not. The E-ZPass transponder requires a battery and so must be replaced every few years, whereas a sticker tag doesn't. Now, with that said, it would be possible to allow for interoperability using license plate numbers: Say you have an E-ZPass and you go through a "SunPass Only" lane in Florida. If you had plate-based interoperability, before the system issued a ticket it would query the E-ZPass database and, if it found your license plate number, it would bill the appropriate E-ZPass account. Problem is, this doesn't work well in reverse (SunPass on an E-ZPass facility) because a number of E-ZPass member agencies, especially the ones in the New York area, persist in keeping the gate arms in the toll lanes that were converted from the old toll machine lanes (the Dulles Greenway does this as well). You have to slow to a dead crawl until the toll gate detects your E-ZPass and raises the arm. A SunPass will not trigger the gate on an E-ZPass toll lane, so plate-based interoperability doesn't work in that direction right now. I just have two devices, an E-ZPass and a SunPass Mini. They do not interfere with each other. If you really want to have just one device, get the hard-case version of the NC Quick Pass. It will work on both E-ZPass and SunPass facilities as well as on North Carolina's toll roads, but it will cost you $20 to obtain the transponder whereas the SunPass Mini costs $4.99 plus 6% sales tax. (The NC Quick Pass sticker tag costs $5 but will not work on E-ZPass facilities, so there is no real reason to consider that one.) By the way, pro tip....Florida claims the SunPass Mini must be permanently affixed to the windshield by peeling off the backing and sticking it in place. If you remove it, it will stop working. That's nonsense. It will work perfectly well if you simply use scotch tape to attach it. Mine is attached that way to allow me to move it between cars and I can confirm that the green light has gone on in the low-speed toll lanes when I'm forced to go through a tollbooth instead of using open-road tolling.

Thanks very much for the detailed explanation.

Next bus isn't the only local bus tracking system with problems. Ride On Real Time for Montgomery also has issues. Schedule mismatch between online, real time, and printed is one. Another (at least for route 38), is that the route still does not match the reality. They still show the route as it existed months ago. And as it is subcontracted out, I have not been able to find any _responsible_ person to email about it.

I think of the region's bus systems as the main source of transportation improvements that will occur in the lifetimes of today's commuters.

But it's difficult to get people who don't use buses to give them a try. Prediction systems can help get people over that threshold and onto buses. So it's frustrating to see the problems that remain with these technologies.

Who should I complain to when a Metro parking garage elevator is out of service? Normally I don't mind tackling the stairs, but at 32 weeks pregnant, 5 flights is a lot. It would be helpful if there was signage so I could know before I walked to the garage that I should take a cab or the bus and let my partner take the car home. Is it too much to ask for some signage at the construction site known as Dunn Loring Merrifield Metro? Also, these elevators are brand new!

There should certainly be signs warning people off. Have you reported this to Metro's customer service department? It's same phone number and online form I listed above during the NextBus discussion.

I live in Arlington and work in McLean, so I am a potential customer for the Silver Line. I can tell you definitively when it will open -- not this nebulous "sometime this spring." It will open in second quarter 2015. How do I know that? I know that because I am planning to retire April 1, 2015.

So I saw the photos last week of these new metro cars. I noticed a lot less seating and a lot more open standing space. But there still seems to be a total lack of places for people to hold onto anything if they are standing in the middle of the car. How is that supposed to work? Does anyone who actually rides the subway (and is less than 5' 10") have any role whatsoever in the design of the cars?

I'm looking back at some of the pictures I took inside car No. 7000, what Metro calls the "hard mockup" car that arrived a while ago for testing.

There's a railing along the ceiling on each side of the aisle, then there are poles extending down from the ceiling to the seats. In that open space on one side in the middle of the car, there's a vertical railing joined to a horizontal railing. (This is the area where a wheelchair could be placed, but if no disabled person needs it at the moment, other passengers could use it.)

The hand grips are always an issue. Metro certainly has studied this and attempted to answer complaints with this latest design. But it's unlikely to satisfy everyone.

One thing I've really learned to hate: Those plastic straps that come down from the ceiling on some cars. It's like walking through cobwebs.

Why was Metro running trains to "Noma?" I couldn't find any such station on its map.

You're talking about NoMa-Gallaudet, right? The station formerly known as New York Avenue?

It wasn't part of the announced plan to terminate trains at NoMa. Some were supposed to run between Shady Grove and Union Station. Perhaps a last-minute decision was made to continue them one stop to NoMa.

There was a work zone between NoMa and Rhode Island Avenue.

Many weekend riders will recall the phase of the rebuilding program where Metro would announce that trains would be sharing a track through a certain area to get around a work zone, and you pretty much took your chances on how long that would take to get through.

The new system is to space the trains out more, so they don't have to take turns getting through the work zones. Each Friday, Metro updates its online Trip Planner to reflect that temporary schedule.


Just submitted my complaint! Thank you for taking my question.

I think in a perfect world that Metro staffers would have taken care of all such issues, but until that great day, the transit system can use a little help from its customers.

Dr. Gridlock, I've been through Union Station several times over the last month. The new traffic lanes are a nightmare. It is always backed up in that third lane because it is so narrow. Additionally, security lets cars just sit there and wait rather than circulate so that traffic frees up. I've now taken to having cabs just drop off right on MA Ave and I then walk because I don't want to spend another 10 minutes and $5 in taxi fare waiting to drop me off in front of Union Station. Why did they not design a wider third lane? And why can't the taxis use the middle lane for drop off in the evening when there are no buses coming through? Who can I address my concerns with at Union Station? Every taxi driver I've talked to hates the new layout. Thank you.

I'd address such complaints -- and I've heard others -- to the District Department of Transportation, which handled the redesign of the plaza.

What I've noticed is the backup of traffic at the left turn lanes from eastbound Mass Ave. Some drivers will try to jump the line by using the next lane over, so they block what should be a through lane.

It used to work beautifully. It no longer does. I've talked with one of the guys responsible for it. He said don't bother with the app, but the website should work fairly well....except that it does have incorrect schedules. The real time part of the website seems okay.

Family business had me there during the snow storm before the -15 during, and what would have amazed me if I hadn't grown up nearby is that streets and even most walks were kept clear, with chemicals spread liberally before and plows run frequently during and after the snow. Saw only one blocked street, a few days later, when a front end loader & dump trucks cleared the walks to the CTA train station. A reminder that it is possible to do a better job than we do around here, if we're willing to pay for it.

I remember when I lived in Montreal that there were little snow plows for the sidewalks. I rmember when I lived in New York City that every garbage truck had a plow blade in front during a storm. New Hampshire has a bare pavement policy so people can get to the ski hills.

Municipalities design their snow removal systems for the types of winters they have. I don't believe it would make sense for our governments to spend what it would take to deal with somebody else's typical winter.

What would be wrong with installing hand grips of the type I used to see on the New York City subways? The handgrips in NYC are tubular metal in the form of an isosceles triangle with a base about 6" wide, attached at the vertex to a horizontal bar that is slightly above head level for me (5' 10"). They are easily reachable by anyone over about 5' 4", and they swivel through about 60 degrees. New York has been using those for years and years.

Yes, those are very effective. Some Metrorail cars have similar grips.

In my previous comment, where I talked about the complaints riders had about Metro's style, one of the main complaints came from people who couldn't reach the grips. So what Metro is going for in the new design is those poles that come down from the ceiling to each seat. You can grab them pretty easily. No need to reach up high.

I have submitted multiple complaints to Metro about the recurring failures on the 8Z AM route. After several years of comparatively consistant service over the last eight months, the 6:27 am, 6:42am and 6:56 am buses are pertually late or fail to arrive at all. This morning all three buses failed to arrive. The bus 7:16 am was jam packed with people by the time it arrived at the Pentagon. It is difficult to view this Metrobus route as a reliable transportation option when I cannot arrive at work on time. I still haven't figured out how Metro could be unaware of the recurring situation. Frankly at this point it would be better to delete these times from the bus schedule instead of allowing riders to believe consistant service is going to be provided.

When I was looking at the Metrobus information alerts this morning, I saw many about delayed buses, but nothing about delays on the 8Z, part of the Foxchase-Seminary Valley Line in Virginia.

So this is discouraging for two reasons: First, that the buses were delayed or failed to make their runs, and second, that there was no alert to riders.

In saying that, I should also note that the Metrobus alert counts as one of the communications improvements in the past couple of years. Before that, we didn't get notices about Metrobus issues at all.

As someone who commutes back from Farragut West to the Yellow Line in Virginia, I can travel in either direction, depending on how long I will have to wait for a blue train. The problem is the PID near the 17th and I entrance only ever shows a Metro website address, never the time for the next trains, so it is completely useless. To see how long until the next blue train to VA, I have check the signs all the way down the platform at the other end of the station. Only then can I decide if it makes more sense for me to take a blue into Virginia or if I should head to L'Enfant. Who can I complain to about this issue at Metro that both has the both power to do anything about this and will care enough to do it. I'm not sure if the station manager can do anything and sending a complaint to the Metro website seems to be like sending something into a black hole.

As I said a moment ago, this is not a perfect world and Metro could use some help from its riders. If people figure problems aren't worth reporting because no one will do anything about it, it increases the chances that no one will do anything about it.

I'm with Wayne Gretzky on this one: You miss 100 percent of the shots you don't take.

This rider's complaint is totally legit. Farragut West has side platforms. During Rush Plus, you need to know as you reach the mezzanine when the next Blue Line train toward Virginia is coming, so you can decide whether it's better to wait on the other platform for an Orange Line train to L'Enfant Plaza, where you'd switch to a Yellow Line train. 


Thanks for joining me today. We'll skip next Monday, the Martin Luther King Day holiday, but I'll be back with you on Monday, Jan. 27. Stay safe out there, and 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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