Jan 24, 2011

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. Just a reminder about two events in DC that could slow your travels: The annual March for Life is today. Tuesday night, the president delivers the State of the Union speech. A storm is likely to affect travel on Wednesday, but it's not clear how much rain or snow we should expect.

Let's go to your questions and comments about local traffic and transit.

What a disappointing pick by the Board. We need a fresh direction, not a caretaker of a broken system. But what can we expect from a broken governance system? Is there any hope for the system or are we doomed to live with poor infrastructure?

I've seen some similar comments on various postings following Metro's announcement Friday that the Metro board wants Interim General Manager Richard Sarles to stay on as the permanent boss. He was one of three finalists for the job.

I disagree with Sarles on certain policies, such as his decision last month to treat all riders as terror suspects and have the transit police randomly select certain riders to prove their innocence through a bag check.

Despite that, I'm not sure I understand the comments expressing overall dissatisfaction with his one-year tenure in the interim post. Perhaps some of you would like to write in about that and we can discuss it some more.


Dear Dr. Gridlock,

Do you know why certain bus routes change drivers in the middle of a route instead of at the end destination? I've been on the 79 Express and the 50 buses a few times when the drives change in the middle of the route. During the change, it takes 2-3 minutes to adjust mirrors and seats while often the drivers end up talking for a few moments to each other. We the passengers then sit idle on the bus wondering when we're going to move and hoping not to be too late for work.

So, my question....why do they have to change in the middle of the route?

I've seen bus drivers change shifts at the ends of the line and at various points along routes, including along Georgia Avenue on the 70s line, but am not sure how the decision is made on selecting the point.

Just a guess: That the point selected is either at the end of a line or near a bus garage or a bus route that connects with a garage.

The scenario you're describing doesn't sound as bad to me as the delays that occur at the start of a route, where the passengers must remain standing outside the bus -- in the cold or other bad weather -- while the transition is made.

Sadly I was driving out on 66 last week (rather than my usual Metro commute into DC) to some training and I noticed that VDOT was spreading rock salt to combat the ice on the road. Are they really that far behind the times and is there no more car/environmentally friendly solution for dealing with the ice?

I'm not aware of any local highway department that doesn't use rock salt at some stage of its anti-icing program. The biggest thing around here in the past couple of years has been the emphasis on pre-treating the highways with salt brine many hours before a storm arrives, to prevent the ice from forming a bond with the pavement.

That seems to be having good results, but is not used when a the forecast says the storm will start as rain, since the rain would just wash away the brine treatment.

Does any one know of a highway department that does without rock salt completely?

Could you tell me whether it's legal in the District to make a left on red from one one-way street to another? Thanks -- haven't been able to find the answer myself.

Saw a driver do that last night on Capitol Hill. In Maryland and Virginia, drivers can make a left turn on red from a one-way street onto a one-way street, but it's illegal in DC.

From time to time, readers write in to ask about this, usually after they've been stopped at a light in DC and had a driver behind them honk for them to turn.

Is parking on bridges legal in DC? Now that the construction is complete, I've started to see cars parking on the Connecticut Ave NW bridge just north of the zoo entrance. There are no signs posted about parking restrictions at all (including the standard signs on Connecticut about rush hour restrictions), but it just looks wrong to have cars parked in the lanes of traffic on the bridge.

I'm not aware of anything in the DC traffic law that specifically bans parking on bridges. But there should be some sign stating the parking rules on Conn. Ave, a major commuter route. One sign that parking isn't allowed would be the absence of meters.

Is there any further development regarding VDOT I-95/395 HOT Lanes Project and lawsuit by Arlington County agains the project?

Arlington's federal lawsuit claims that officials have not properly considered the environmental impact of creating High Occupancy Toll lanes along I-95/395. The lawsuit still is in the courts. The Virginia government still would like to build the HOT lanes. (This lawsuit doesn't affect the HOT lanes construction along the Beltway in Virginia.)

Dear Dr. Gridlock: I was wondering what exactly is being done on DC/I-295 between Pennsylvania Ave. & Howard Rd., and when it will be complete?

I think you're looking at the District Department of Transportation's reconstruction of the connections to the 11th Street Bridge. Drivers can see the new spans for the bridge rising between the two old ones in the Anacostia River.

Along 295, you see construction underway for the ramps and bridges that will connect those new spans to the highway. The two new freeway bridges are scheduled to be done around the end of this year. I think the construction of the third span, the one designed to provide a link for local traffic, will take a year beyond that.

This morning's commute just seemed to be a perfect storm of mishaps, between the water main break that closed down the Beltway and the delays on what seems to have been almost every Metro line. Let's just address Metro: how much of today's problem was caused by failures to properly maintain tracks and how much was related to extreme weather?

This morning's commute was one of the worst we've had in a long time, whether people were driving or riding Metro. A very large water main broke in Prince George's County, closing part of the Beltway, and Metro had a cracked rail at Rockville.

The transportation infrastructure is stressed when it's very cold or very hot.

It's not terribly unusual for Metro to discover a crack in a rail. Usually, what happens is that a crew goes out and stabilizes the rail, then Metro restores service, with speed restrictions, till a crew can go out overnight and replace the rail.

There's a fairly extensive program to replace aging equipment all along the Red Line. I'm not sure that the occasional busted rail tells us anything in particular about the state of Metro.

This was perhaps one of the worst mornings I have ever experienced in nearly 5 years of commuting by Metro from Shady Grove. With half of the platform blocked off for continuing maintenance and half packed with a press of humanity, I dumbly heeded the advice to "spread out to both ends of the platform", causing me to miss both 6 car trains that came during my 30 minutes of waiting. I eventually squeezed past people and left to drive despite hearing about issues with the Beltway.

It seems like if Metro will manage to generate issues even in the presence of viable external reasons to take it, this does not bode well. Is there any chance to get caught on on long-term deferred maintenance, or can we expect to limp along playing catch-up indefinitely?

I just mentioned the maintenance program on the Red Line in response to the earlier comment on this morning's terrible commute in the cold, but I'm not saying this is going to make a huge difference in what you're commute will be like in the near future.

The Red Line maintenance program, for example, is a longterm effort to deal with the problems of an aging system. It's the right thing to do, but in the short run, what you'll notice most is the increasing amount of track work and the resulting disruptions from single-tracking of trains around the work zones. The maintenance program gets much more aggressive in 2011.

I have seen the progress being made on the Dulles Toll Road and Route 123 towards getting the Metro extension up and running. However, it seems the section on Route 7 just remains a giant dirt dump. Why has no progress happened on this span? Is it an underground portion? That doesn't seem to make sense. Is there something wrong with that section that required more work to be done prior to putting up the pillars? I'm pretty weary of driving this stretch and can't wait for it to get back to normal.

I think the managers of the Dulles rail project would say that the construction along Route 7 in Tysons Corner is the most difficult. The work along Route 123 is mostly confined to the north side of the roadway. The work along the Dulles Toll Road is largely confined to the median.

But along Route 7, it's necessary to eliminate the service roads, shift all the travel lanes outward, and create a median that will not only contain the new rail line but also two new stations. The utility relocation alone took a couple of years, and required the disruption of businesses along the route.

The only underground part of the thing is the short tunnel from Route 123 to Route 7. That was dug through the natural high point of Fairfax County. The grade would have been too steep for trains if the tracks were laid at the surface through there.

A light was recently installed at the intersection by the men's shelter on Gude Drive, but it is not a "normal" traffic light, it is apparently only triggered when someone wants to cross the road. However, the light pattern is so confusing (slow flashing yellow that turns to fast flashing yellow that turns to red that then turns to flashing red) that people don't seem to know what to do, when to stop, etc, and over the past few weeks, I've noticed that people don't even seem to use the signal anymore to cross, they just wait until a break in traffic. Is there any way that this weird light could be turned into a regular traffic light (that maybe only turns red when someone wants to cross), instead of the confusing thing it is right now?

If I'm picturing this correctly, it's what's known as a HAWK signal. You won't believe what that stands for: High-intensity Activated crossWalK.

They are unusual around here, but not exactly rare. The District, for example, has one on Georgia Avenue, just south of Silver Spring.

They get placed at spots where pedestrians are at risk, even in a crosswalk. Engineers do studies and first decide that a standard traffic signal isn't the best solution. That might be because they think the standard signal would make the location less safe for both drivers and pedestrians.

I've watched how pedestrians respond to some of the, so I know you're right when you say that one of the issues is that some pedestrians just ignore them. Sometimes, they won't bother pushing the button to activate the lights, which are very good at getting drivers to stop. Sometimes, they won't bother to use the crosswalk at all.

I don't find the HAWK signals confusing for pedestrians as much as I find the pedestrians just ignoring them.


I don't know if it was brought to your attention, but last Tuesday, a slight shift in lane alignment was made on the inner loop north of the I-66 interchange. However, they way the crews decided not to bother to mark the lanes at all, and on the following day, the change was with little (2"x2") pieces of tape that were not even placed in straight lines. The lanes are now marked with solid reflective tape, but for two days, drivers had no clue what to do through the area.

Another new development in the area are miniscule (4' x 2') orange signs to mark exit ramps since most of the overhead signs have been removed. I'm not asking for a giant overhead sign, but something more than a small orange sign right at the entrance to an exit ramp (outer loop at Rte 7 is the most egregious) needs to be used for a configuration lasting more than a week.

I've complained about this before, including to VDOT, but you continue to support the management of this major construction project. The communication through the Web site and e-mail is great, but where communication is important and legally required, on the roadway itself, the management of the Beltway HOT lane project has been TERRIBLE.

I haven't seen this, but will take a look. Driving through the HOT lanes construction zone, which includes about 14 miles of the western side of the Beltway in Virginia, is a real challenge because of the lane shifts around the interchanges, bridges and overpasses, all of which are being rebuilt to accommodate the four extra lanes of the Beltway.

Wasn't he retired and took it basically as a favor? Putting someone who has "checked out" mentally is not a good idea considering the major challenges we face.

The situation is a bit odd. Sarles was 65 when hired last year, but I don't believe he was checked out mentally or emotionally at any point in his tenure. Metro officials made a point of saying that while he was the interim leader, he wasn't hired to be caretaker. He's had full authority.

On the other hand, let me reproduce a quote from Sarles that appeared in Ann Scott Tysons's story on his hiring March 5, 2010:

"I have been asked why would I want this job, and if I want the permanent GM job," he said. "Let me be very clear, first, that I am not a candidate for the permanent GM job. I am taking this position as the interim GM because Metro is a vital public transportation system not only in this region but as a symbol for this entire country."


I'm moving to the DC area. Your chats put the fear of God, gods, and other supreme beings into me about either being stuck at the mercy of a metro transit system that seems more off than on or roadways that would leave me in the car more than enjoying my life. I want to rely on public transportation so outlying communities are out. So, where in the DC metro area can a person get a home in a nice/safe area, good schools, and a commute that won't kill the commuter? I'd ask a real estate chatter but none exist any more. Thanks in advance.

Any long trip in the DC region -- whether by road or transit -- involves a great deal of uncertainty. When I was writing my story for Sunday's Commuter page in The Post, Ron Kirby of the Transportation Planning Board pointed out to me that commuters hate long trips but what really kills them is the uncertainty about when they'll get there. Long drives, and even long Metrorail trips, lack predictability -- as you can see from the reports about this morning's commute.

There are many communities in the DC area, where housing, jobs, commerce, entertainment and transit are close together -- just not enough of them for our huge population.

Outside of DC, Bethesda is such a community. So is Arlington in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor. But of course, you'll pay a lot of money for that.

I think I'll post your question on the Dr. Gridlock blog this week, and we'll see if we can get some other suggestions and guidance for you.

Is it illegal to be on the HOV as a single occupant car even though you entered before the HOV requirement went into effect? I live in Frederickksburg and recently got some work in D.C. When driving home I can get on the HOV by 3:10/3:15 p.m. From DC I can be on the HOV for 30 minutes or more. Do I have to exit before 3:30pm?

Yes, it's illegal. Police won't accept the excuse that you entered the HOV lanes before the rules took effect.

Dr. Gridlock, You are correct, mid-route changes are often made near bus garages in order to save the cost of needing to pay the relief driver to get from the garage to the end of the line, and the relieved driver while he gets back to the garage. In the case of the 70s, the garage for that route is located at 14th and Buchannan.

Thanks for the feedback on our earlier exchange about the shift changes for bus drivers.

What was the deadline for Metro to provide cell service throughout the system from all carriers, not just Verizon, and is this effort still on track?

There's one on Van Dorn Street in Alexandria, at a point where there's a bus stop on one side of the street, and all the residences are on the other side. It seems to be utilized properly, but I didn't know until now what it was called. Thanks.

Thanks. Pedestrian safety has been one of the areas where traffic engineering has been making some decent progress over the past couple of decades, but there's still a long way to go.

Dr. G, when will the ICC segment A open? I'm eager to use it, and it seems like there should be more info published about the opening date.

Haven't got an opening date yet, though it should be soon.

Travelers, thanks as always for joining me and offering these good questions and useful comments. In addition to the question about best places to live in the DC region from a transportation perspective, there are some other questions and comments from today that I'd like to discuss further on the Dr. Gridlock blog, so please check in there from time to time this week, and join me again here 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 the Get There blog, as well as in the Metro section of The Washington Post.
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