Dr. Gridlock

Jan 14, 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. Let me know if you have questions or comments about the inauguration, since we won't be chatting next Monday.

Meanwhile, I see a combination of questions about philosophical and practical matters in transportation.

fund state transportation projects in Virginia? Do you see this idea as a viable option or is there something out there that is better than this one?

Remember my starting point: Americans are determined to win relief from traffic congestion, and equally determined not to pay for it.

So I think the efforts in the Virginia and Maryland legislatures to win a big increase in transportation funding will fail. (I promise to revisit this prediction at the ends of the sessions.)

But you ask about the key element of Virginia Gov. McDonnell's plan.  He wants to abandon the state tax on gasoline while creating a variety of other taxes and fees. (Many reports focus on his proposal to increase the sales tax by a little less than a penny, but there are other elements.)

I have mixed feelings about the gas tax vs. sales tax idea and would love to hear from you folks on this, because I do plan on writing something.

I like the idea of getting away from the gas tax, which is a long-term loser. Cars will keep on getting more efficient, use less gas and drive down the total revenue from the tax. And our state and national tranportation programs need more revenue before we get to the point in the not distant future where we can't afford even to maintain what we have.

The sales tax is more likely to generate more revenue. Not enough, but more than the gas tax. But we'd be moving away from the idea that people are paying to use something -- paying a fuels tax to use roads.

This is clearly about politics as well as money. We should raise revenue in a way that people see as legitimate for the purpose.

Since Governor McDonnell proposed last week to eliminate the State Gas Tax (not on Diesel) and increase the state sales tax to dedicate the revenues for transportation, what are your thoughts on this proposal? Do you agree/disagree with Governor McDonnell? Should the State Gas Tax be increase or indexed to inflation or be converted over to a percentage rate equivalent?

The other type of tax commonly discussed as a gas tax alternative is a tax on vehicle miles traveled. It wouldn't matter how efficient your car is. What matters is how far you drive it. That has the advantage of sticking with the idea of a user fee.

Practically speaking, I think vehicle miles traveled are likely to decline along with gasoline use while it still will cost more to repair the roads.

Also, I don't sense that there's any more political support for a vehicle miles traveled tax than there is for an increase in the gas tax.

Does Metro seriously have a policy that requires a train operator to stop an orange line train in rush hour in the Roslyn tunnel because someone is leaning on a door? I've been on lots of trains over the years where the operator had trouble closing the doors at a station but have never been on a train that was suddenly stopped between stations for door leaning. Last week during evening rush hour the operator shut down the tunnel for 20 minutes while he insisted that someone was leaning on a door. After 10 minutes, he said for the first time that the issue was in the third car. Judging by what was happening in my car, if there really had been someone still leaning on a door, he would have been beat up. After several more minutes we proceeded to Roslyn where the platform was already packed. Metro then off loaded my eight car train (which must have had nearly 1,000 passengers) onto the platform, creating a very dangerous situation. Just another fun day on Metro.

I wonder if there might have been something else going on. It's hard to imagine the Operators Control Center instructing an operator to stop in the middle of a tunnel because someone is leaning on a door. In fact, it's hard for me to imagine any way the train operator would know that someone is leaning on a door.

Certainly, door problems are common, and they often result from someone leaning on a door. But it's the busted door -- not the leaning -- that gets a train taken out of service.

Dr. Gridlock, when the 395 HOV is lifted, is it ok to exit onto 495 via the new HOT ramp instead of Edsall Rd? I mean, will I be charged? Same question in reverse (entering 395 from the left on 495 outerloop). The HOT website is not clear about this. I just chatted with someone from that site who told me I would be billed. I've used it twice already and have not been billed (once a few weeks ago, and last night). I could not find last night's pass in the HOT website. I have not received any bills on the mail. The exit is very convenient to get on the HOV lanes. Why would they charge when the HOV is lifted? I'm not using the HOT lanes at all.

If I understand you right, you should be okay using the ramps to transition. I'll relay your description to the HOT lanes operators to double check myself.

I'd like to note something for all regarding the very last part of your question, where you say, "Why should they charge when the HOV is lifted?"

HOV hours and Beltway HOT lanes are not related. I want to note this because it has come up in other contexts. The new Beltway HOT lanes, the 495 Express Lanes, are HOT lanes all the time. If you're going to pay the toll to use them, you're going to pay the toll 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If you are traveling with at least three people in the vehicle and have an E-ZPass Flex, you qualify for a free ride in the express lanes all the time.

How succesful do you see the new Burke-Tysons Fairfax Connector routes being? After all the fanfare, I understand the first bus left this morning with no passengers.

That wouldn't surprise me. I think it will take a while before commuters realize the commuter bus  service exists. Even using a regular bus represents a threshold for many commuters, let alone an express bus designed to take advantage of the HOT lanes.

But I do want to monitor this, because I think the HOT lanes cannot be judged a success unless a significant number of commuters travel through them via bus.

It's just that I'd give the HOT lanes and the bus services a while to prove themselves.

If you get a chance, check my posting on the Dr. Gridlock blog where I describe the new bus services that started today in Fairfax and Montgomery counties: http://wapo.st/WGhYCw


Does Maryland have any plans to try and do something about the Spur? The Spur it seems is the genesis for high volume congestion during rush hour all traffic both on 270 South and 495 North. Going from 4-5 lanes down to 2 and an HOV creates major back ups and delays. It stands to reason that if they got rid of the Spur and redesigned it to not drop so many lanes that there would be a big relief to traffic and commute times.

There's talk, but nothing solid -- and certainly no money.

Two basic ideas: You could widen the Beltway in that bottleneck or you could change the way the lanes are used.

A Beltway widening would probably take the form of lengthening the acceleration and deceleration lanes along that stretch. (This would be something like the spot improvements program along the westbound lanes of I-66 inside the Beltway.)

Changing the nature of the lanes could mean converting one to and from I-270 into a HOT lane. If it ever happened, it wouldn't be for years. No relief anytime soon.


Hey Dr. Gridlock, I've read that MetroAccess vehicles, drivers with proof of residence or proof of employment will be allowed into the Vehicle Restricted zones on Inauguration day. What about taxis or limos?

We're talking about the restricted zone outside the inner security zone. Here's the guidance I have on access to the outer zone:

"While the outer perimeter of the vehicle restricted zone will be open to traffic, drivers should expect delays. Drivers and passengers should be prepared to provide proof of residence, work identification or a reasonable verbal justification to enter the restricted area."

So if you are in a taxi or limo, you should be okay as long as you can explain why you need to get into the zone.

I did a blog posting last week that has a map showing the inner zone of road closings and the outer zone of vehicle restrictions that we're talking about here.

This is in response to the person who asked earlier about the ramps from the I-395 HOV to the Beltway. There is NO TOLL for those ramps. I've used them several times and can confirm that they never show up on my E-ZPass statement unless I continue into the Express Lanes (and, also, when I continue into the Express Lanes, the toll rate that posts is the same as it would have been had I not used the HOV-lane ramps). Note, also, that there is no toll collection equipment on the eastern side of the Springfield Interchange (if you were going to, or coming from, the Wilson Bridge). The only tolling equipment is on the west side. It's there for traffic count purposes. Unfortunately, 495ExpressLanes.com is extremely UNCLEAR about this issue. Bottom line: Until the I-95 Express Lanes open in 2014, there is no toll on the I-395/95 HOV ramps and the only restriction on using them is the HOV restriction on Shirley Highway that may or may not be in force at any given moment.

I don't think you quite understood the question....The original poster, and myself as well, are trying to figure out if drivers will be charged a toll to drive the stretch of I-395 between Edsall Road and the Beltway. As noted, the new exits that offer direct links between the I-395/95 HOV-Future Express Lanes are very convenient. Currently, drivers are not charged to use those exits, but I think many fear that with those gantries there, that regardless which way you travel on I-395/95, you will be charged a toll to use that exit, even when the I-395 HOV lanes north of Edsall road are open to all vehicles. So the essence of the question is, do lane operators plan on charging a toll between the Beltway and Edsall road in either direction?

If you're asking about the I-95 express lanes now under construction rather than about the Beltway express lanes that opened in November, then I'd say this: When the I95 lanes are coverted from high-occupancy vehicle to high-occupancy toll, then all users of the I-95 reversible lanes will need an E-ZPass to pay the tolls or an E-ZPass Flex to get a free ride for carpooling, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The HOT lanes will start and end around Edsall Road.

And don't forget, we get rid of the gas tax but put a spite tax on alternative fueled vehicles. Ya know, just because we hate the greenies.

One of the other proposed taxes in the governor's package is a tax on alternative fuel vehicles, ones that don't pay the gas tax now. The governor's reasoning is that they help air quality but hurt road quality, so there ought to be some way to have them contribute to the cost of maintaining the roads, since they contribute just as much as any other vehicle to the wear and tear on the roads.

Hi, I commute from Woodbridge to Crystal City where I work. Do you think there will be a ton of traffic coming and going from those areas on Inauguration Day? I have the option of taking off and am weighing my options.

The transportation plan is more liberal than it was in 2009, and the size of the crowd -- and the resulting congestion -- is expected to be a lot less. Plus, it's a holiday, so there should be fewer people going to work than in 2009.

I think you will be okay, though I would allow some extra travel time. (In a way, it was easier to make predictions about last time, because the crowd was expected to be enormous and the transportation security measures were draconian.)

I read the piece about the initial Beltway Express Lanes toll collections, and had a few followup questions... 1. What does it cost to operate the Express Lanes each day? 2. If people are not driving in the lanes during off-peak hours, why has the minimum toll increased 20 cents since the lanes opened? 3. Is Transurban meeting their projected revenue, and do the recent toll increases indicate that they may be falling short of projections? 4. Is Transurban planning any tweaks to the way the lanes operate like changing signs, adding slip ramps, or increasing traffic information on variable signs?

Judging from some comments on my blog posting about this last Friday, some people are very concerned about the financial fortunes of the Transurban company. I don't have any information on that. And given that the company has a 75 year lease on the lanes, I very much doubt that Transurban is planning to do anything based on six weeks' experience.

My interest is in people being able to use the lanes if they want to, and avoid them if they want to. I did ask if Transurban was planning any tweaks in the way the lanes operator, or the signs, etc., and was told no.

I saw on the news this morning that Fairfax Connector reps were at the Burke VRE station promoting the new bus to Tysons. I'm here to tell you they were in the wrong place. The VRE runs to downtown DC. Current VRE riders getting on at Burke are NOT going to Tyson's. The bus would be helpful for folks commuting to Tysons from Manassas--they could get off at Burke and ride the bus. But they're not going to reach those folks at the VRE lot. And they're probably wondering why the new buses are empty...

Thanks for the observations. I think the service that started this morning amounts to a test drive and would expect Fairfax Connector officials to adjust the routes based on emerging ridership patterns.

My husband travels from Ashburn to Suitland everyday for work. He's amazed how nobody takes the HOT lanes--but he does! Saves him so much time on his commute.

Here are the first two paragraphs of that blog posting I wrote Friday when we saw the first data on lane usage from Transurban:

"The new express lanes on the Capital Beltway, the ones that look so empty during rush hours compared to the regular lanes, averaged 23,308 workday users in the first six weeks after they opened, according to data made public today by Transurban, the operator of the lanes.

"The toll revenue grew from a daily average of $12,212 in the first week of operations during mid-November to an average of $24,317 in the week before the Christmas and New Year holidays, according to the data. During that period before the holidays, traffic in the lanes increased from an average of 15,201 daily trips to 23,903 daily trips."

The numbers are interesting, because we've been talking so much about whether the new lanes are being used at all, but I think the numbers are not significant. I don't see any long-term guidance from six weeks worth of data.

I have heard from some people who use the lanes and really like them. I've also heard from some drivers who are confused about access to them -- some of them trying to decide whether they're worth it and others just trying to stay away from them.

Do you have any updates on this construction on Route 50 in Virginia? Is the 10th Street Exit ever going to open again? Thanks.

That detour you've had to follow because of the closing last year of the 10th Street exit should end this spring. The entire reconstruction of the interchange -- which is one of VDOT's biggest projects in Northern Virginia -- should be done this fall.

I was on a train a little behind this one, and we were also told a train was stopped mid tunnel because someone was leaning on the doors. There is no chance that metro, as stupid as it often is, pulled away with a door open. It certainly did not happen in the station.

This is one of two responses I got about the door problems. I'll pubish the other one next.

Like I say, I've certain heard of door problems and been on trains taken out of service because of them. I don't know of any way the operator knows specifically that someone is leaning on a door -- like, the operator is watching through a security camera.

I think operators surmise that's the case. Sometimes, I've heard them yell at a train-load of riders over the loudspeakers that we should all get away from the doors. That's kind of repulsive. We all look around and we can see that no one in our car is leaning on the doors.

I have also been on the orange line towards Vienna in the evening with several power hungry and frustrated drivers. They can sense if anyone is touching the door and will threaten to offload the train by the train car (ie "car 3, middle door). I have been on more than one offloaded train caused by doors that were completely closed, but had people close enough to set off the sensor. I don't have the problem on any other line or time.

Over the holidays I rode the whole length of the 495 HOT lanes in two segments. I first drove from Springfield to 66 West and noticed the merge to 66W is very short and narrow. Coming in from the left at high speed is not good, especially given how congested 66 is. Later I drove from 66 to the end of 495 in order to bypass Tyson shopping traffic and thought the left merge back to the main lanes also to be very tricky.

Thanks. What I find when driving the lanes is that it's tough to get used to the left-side entrances and exits. And I'm not crazy about merging to the right where the lanes end so that I can join the far left side of the regular Beltway lanes.

I have plans to be on the Mall on the Saturday of Inauguration weekend. From what I've read, I'll be able to drive there. Is that right ?

I haven't heard of anything that would stand in your way on Saturday.

I have the unfortunate task of coming into Union station from NYC on Amtrak and arriving at 1 PM monday. I need to metro to Ballston. Is there anything specific I should do or be aware of to make this transition easier? I could possible just get off a stop earlier in New Carrolton and just hope on the Orange line there.

I think you'll be okay, but that's not a bad idea about getting off early at New Carrollton so you can ride the Orange Line all the way.

The main thing I'm concerned about is that people should be able to avoid transferring trains. The transfer stations are likely to be especially crowded.

Cool way to get to Tysons Corner Mall going up the Inner Loop from Annandale. Get on the Express Lanes, exit for West Park Drive. Turn Left at the top of the ramp, then take an the first left. This puts you into the large parking garage at the mall entrance near Barnes and Noble. Total time, two minutes. A week before Christmas I was bypassing a VERY long line of cars waiting to exit the main line onto Route 7 West.

That new access point at Westpark Drive is one of the best physical advantages of the express lanes. It helps coming from the south, but I think it's also something to consider when coming from the north. It's usually just a 30 cent toll to get to Westpark.

Will I be able to get across the mall from NW to SW the morning of Sunday, 1/20? I usually go via the 9th St tunnel, or when that is closed, 7th St, or the 3rd St tunnel. Thanks!

I think you will be okay on Sunday morning. But check back on the Dr. Gridlock blog later this week. Our plan is to post lots more travel information related to the inaguration there -- including any updates about access over the weekend.

I've got to break away now, because we have to go to a newsroom meeting about our inaguration plans. There are a bunch of questions and comments I haven't gotten to, especially a large batch related to the Beltway HOT lanes. So I'll try to get more of that onto the Dr. Gridlock blog, along with the inauguration travel information.

Write to me any time at drgridlock@washpost.com. And join me again here in two weeks. Stay safe.

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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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