Dr. Gridlock

Jan 28, 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. I hope you either got through the morning's ice storm safely or else stayed home. There's more weird weather on the way this week.

Since our last chat, we've had an inauguration, a very interesting plan from Metro management for expanding the transit system and snow.

Let's start off with some questions and comments that might draw a group response.

Hi Dr. Gridlock, I have two questions for you today. First, a few weeks ago there was an article about how drivers on the Inter-county connector in MD weren't paying their toll bills. I don't have an EZ Pass and took ~3 trips on the ICC in the late summer/early fall. I never received a bill for any of these trips in the mail. I'd have gladly paid the toll had I received it. I wonder if this is commonplace and if it factored into their analysis. Is there any way, besides receiving a notice in the mail, to find out if one has any outstanding fines? The last thing I want is to receive a bill a year from now with compounded late fees..... Second, any updates on the Purple Line? Haven't heard anything about it in ages. Thanks!

The Post's Katherine Shaver has been writing about the unpaid tolls on Maryland's highways, bridges and tunnels, including the Intercounty Connector. All of them are operated by the Maryland Transportation Authority. This is Katie's latest story, about potential legislative action: http://wapo.st/XeR6tQ

Drivers who don't have E-ZPasses are supposed to get bills in the mail. The bills are sent to the address of the vehicle's registered owner.

Sometimes, that's the issue. A driver might not have updated the address on the registration. Other drivers tell me that it seems to take a really long time to get the bill -- but it certainly shouldn't take a full season or two.

I don't know how common it is for drivers to receive no bill at all for video tolling. So I invite other comments on this.

Meanwhile, I'll ask the MDTA what drivers are supposed to do if they don't get a bill.

When did they started allowing big trucks on route 66 inside the beltway? Trucks used to be banned inside the beltway on 66.

Tractor-trailers are banned on I-66 inside the Beltway. I haven't noticed any along that stretch, but I'm not a regular driver on that route. Are others seeing them?

He probably has enough sense not to say it now, but remember how he ridiculed the city for closing the schools followinhg a modest snowfall early in his first term? Well, he's right. There can't be another city that shuts down this often, costing zillions of tax money when the governmet closes and inconveniencing parents when schools close, open late or close early. I'm all for safety, but people can die from bee stings. We don't make everyone stay indoors on the off chance that they might be stung.

Now, I have to disagree on this. I think the federal Office of Personnel Management and all the local governments, school systems and agencies that follow OPM's lead on weather delays and cancellations are doing the right thing when the take a cautious approach.

Think about the Jan. 26, 2010, storm, the one that hit at 4 p.m. and gridlocked the entire DC region. Government employees should not have been brought in that day, and OPM rightly adjusted it's policies afterward.

This region is right on some sort of weather line, where we can get a mix of everything, and some parts of the region can get rain while others get freezing rain or sleet.

It's better to play it safe.

I know that Arlington county voted down the HOT lanes to extend much farther north than the beltway. It sounds like an awkward arrangement as two different systems will share the same lanes. Doesn't the state/feds ultimately have control over the median and right of way on a interstate highway. How is a local jurisdiction allowed to veto the project? Would it be in everyone's best interest for the express lanes to extend to the DC line?

Arlington didn't exactly veto the HOT lanes plan. The county sued the state over the plan, so Virginia eventually decided to stop the HOT lanes at Edsall Road, before they got to Arlington County.

The Federal Highway Administration approved the plan.

Yes, I do think there's a potential issue at the north end of the 95 HOT lanes. Drivers who have paid a toll because they don't meet the HOV3 requirements will have to get out of the HOT lanes where they end, rather than continuing north in what still will be HOV3 lanes.

Arlington was worried that if the HOT lanes continued farther north, they would have created congestion issues for the county. They might also have created congestion issues at the 14th Street Bridge.

Any highway improvement has to end somewhere, and those improvements are always likely to generate concerns. Over on the 495 Express Lanes, people are concerned about congestion northbound between the end of the express lanes and up to and beyond the Legion Bridge. But I haven't seen any evidence of that yet.

Who could I write to about the crosswalk coming from the capitol at the circle near union station. It used to allow plenty of time to cross, and now that has been shortened to around 15 seconds. Even worse whoever designed it had the second (and further) walk light stop right before the first one turns on. Ideally they should be in sync, but at the end of the day this is horrible timing. I have seen a number of Jaywalkers get fed up and try to dash across the two lanes only to be missed (and honked at ) by cars. Its a accident waiting to happen.

The reconstruction of that Columbus Plaza area in front of Union Station is being handled by the District Department of Transportation.

I was out there a couple of days recently, and I do think that at present, the area is a mess for both drivers and pedestrians. However, I don't see any more or less jaywalking than I did before the project started. People there always walk out into Mass Ave as soon as they think they can make it across, whatever signal is on the light.

I have one E-ZPass and two cars. I usually remember to switch the transponder between the two cars, but sometime forget. I haven't had any problems on the Dulles Toll Road because I put both cars and their plates on my account. Will things be the same on the new HOT Lanes? Will I be billed extra if I forget that the transponder is still in the other car?

Since we just talked about the toll system for those on Maryland's Intercounty Connector who don't have E-ZPasses, let me first note that the 495 Express Lanes, the Beltway HOT lanes in Virginia, are different.

The Maryland system is set up to allow video tolling, taking an image of the license plates and sending a bill. That's a part of the tolling system.

The Beltway HOT lanes don't work like that. If you drive those Beltway lanes without an E-ZPass, you're making a mistake, and you could wind up paying a lot for it. If you realize your mistake, the simplest thing to do is go to the HOT lanes Web site, www.495expresslanes.com, and look for the "Missed a Toll" link. Pay online right away and you get nicked only for $1.50 more than the toll. If you wait till you get a bill in the mail, based on them taking an image of your plate as you drove through the lanes, they add on $12.50 to the toll. And if you don't pay that one, the fee goes up to $25.

But in this particular case, the question is from a driver who has an E-ZPass but might not have put it in the right vehicle. If that happened to me, I'd call the HOT lanes operator right away and explain that, to see if they'll just let you pay without any fee. The number is 855-495-XPRS (9777).

FYI We used ICC on 12/5, 12/16, and 12/19 to and from BWI. Received invoice dated 1/11/13 on 1/25 and paid bill immediately plus one for 12/28 which was online but for which we hadn't been billed.

Thanks, that's more in line with the time gap I've heard about from other drivers. I'm inclined to think that the driver who asked the original question about ICC tolling is in an unusual situation. Should have gotten the bill or bills by now.

Dr. Gridlock, I think the planners at Metro are culturally clueless. Let me explain why I think this. Thanks for your article yesterday regarding the infernal Metro weekend track work that increasingly will incorporate station closures. I was struck to see that during Memorial Day weekend, the West Falls Church station will be closed. Thousands of people attend A Prairie Home Companion's live broadcast at Wolf Trap that weekend, and the shuttle to Wolf Trap is from West Falls Church station. When there is a football, baseball or (like yesterday) hockey game, Metro bends over backwards to accommodate the throngs that use Metro to travel to and from the games. But a performing arts event like Prairie Home doesn't appear to have the same value in the minds of Metro's planners. Hmmmmmm......

That's them getting ready for the Silver Line out that way. What the Metro people say when I ask about this sort of thing is that there's always something going on in the D.C. region that the track work program is going to interfere with.

Metro does assign people to monitor events in the region and bring that knowledge to the table when transit officials set up the track work schedule.

I think the main source of frustration for riders is stated in your subject line: "Track work, ad infinitum." Metro GM Richard Sarles said we can expect four more years of weekend track work at the current level of intensity.

That means the region's major transit system is disrupted two days out of seven for years to come. It may be necessary for safety, as the Metro officials say, but if they know it's going to go on that long, then there should be ways to improve communications about the disruptions. Like, have the Metro Trip Planner incorporate the weekend delays into its computer brain.

I don't have a problem with DC closing for winter weather--it happens so rarely around here that it doesn't seem worth the oulay of cash it would take to buy and maintain all the equipment, vehicles, and staff needed to deal with it. However, today's late start was laughable. A half-day closure for rain? If OPM doesn't have a meteorologist on staff, they need to hire one; if they do have one on staff, they need to fire him.

OPM didn't instigate a half-day closing for rain. OPM consults extensively with the National Weather Service as well as scores of other employers, governments, transportation agencies and school systems in the D.C. region before making its calls. Based on the National Weather Service forecast for the entire region, which included sleet and freezing rain, I think they made the right call about this morning.

It seems to me that the easiest way to determine whether or not to enter the express lanes is to check the tolls. Low tolls = no traffic, not worth it. High tolls = big backups on the main line

Yes, I agree, but it's a bit counterintuitive, isn't it?

If the toll sign shows a toll that's  much higher than you're used to seeing, it very likely does mean there's so much congestion in the regular lanes that people are getting into the HOT lanes and threatening to make them congested as well.

But drivers are more likely to say, Wow, I'm not going to pay that much," and get into the regular lanes.

So I think this is an even better approach for the average commuter: Test the new lanes out a few times. See if they tend to save time over the regular lanes, and if so, what's your average time saving? Then on days when you may be running late or absolutely need to be on time for an appointment, just plan on using the express lanes.

Drivers often tell me they can't figure out on the fly whether to use the express lanes. Until there's some sort of signage that let's them instantaneously assess the value of an express lanes trip over the regular lanes, I think they're best off making the decision before they reach the entrances.

When metro cuts back access on the blue line to every 12 minutes even during rush hour, are they also going to cut the fare for blue line?

No. And they didn't raise it for Orange and Yellow Line riders when they added service on those lines.

When I was taking the Red Line to work on of the first things I would do was check Dr. Gridlock. It was in Local/Columns and Blogs. Dr Gridlock is still there but no information about the morning commute. Where has it gone?

We don't have Mark Berman doing that morning report on the Dr. Gridlock blog anymore. Mark has moved on to other missions, which include extensive blogging, just not the morning report.

So why can't OPM get announcing the government's operating status right? When I woke up this morning, OPM.gov informed me that I was to stay off the roads until 10am, but I was to be in the office by 10am. Does no one proof these announcements before they're posted?

I hadn't checked it since last night. Saying that employees had to report at 10 a.m. would indeed have been confusing.

Here's what I see at this hour, which I think matches up with what I was looking at last night:

Status: Open - Delayed Arrival - Employees should remain off the roads until 10:00 am. Federal offices will Open to the public at 12:00 noon. Employees have the option for Unscheduled Leave or Unscheduled Telework.

Federal agencies in the Washington, DC, area are OPEN under a DELAYED ARRIVAL. Employees should remain OFF THE ROADS until 10:00 am. FEDERAL OFFICES in the Washington, DC, area will OPEN at 12:00 noon. Employees have the OPTION FOR UNSCHEDULED LEAVE OR UNSCHEDULED TELEWORK.

Having take the bridge a couple of time since the newest one opened I think I've pinpointed part fo the problem. The way the approach ramps are on the western side of the Annacostia all of the traffic going westbound has to collapse into two lanes until they finish the new ramps down below. Add in the awful state of the ramps, espcially the eastbound one, and it makes for a very slow trip until they finally finish everything.

Thanks, I've been asking everyone who travels those routes if they've seen increased congestion in the past few months during rush hours, and if so, why.

I think it looks more congested coming south on DC 295 and going north on I-295 toward the 11th Street Bridge. It's also congested around where Suitland Parkway comes in, but I'm not sure if that's any worse than it used to be.

The 11th Street Bridge remains a work in progress. It may be that the new ramps have quickly become popular and drawn more traffic than is good for the unfinished project.

Another theory I have is that the uncorking of the Beltway bottleneck at Telegraph Road late last year is sending more commuters across the Wilson Bridge and up I-295. But that wouldn't explain the heavy traffic from around Route 50 heading south on DC 295.

Dr. G - will they need to close off 50W again as part of the replacement of the Courthouse Road bridge in Arlington. As someon who lives along 14th Street, diverting the entirety of 50W onto 14th St. this weekend was a mess. Add to that the existing diversion onto the Rhodes St. bridge for 50E because of the Courthouse Rd. bridge project and just getting around was a nightmare all weekend.

I don't see a similar closing on the VDOT calendar. The rebuilding of that Arlington Boulevard interchange is quite a big project and certainly has involved some major disruptions. It's all scheduled to be done late this year.

On my commute home on Friday evening, I notice several places on the road where the de-icing treatment was so thick that you could not see the lane markers on the road. The treatment coats over the markers, taking away their ability to be reflective or even visible. This obviously creates a very dangerous situation, especially in places where the lanes "shift" in construction zones. On one part of I-66 heading east, the lanes were merging and cars were just guessing which lane they were in.

I understand the problem, and it's not confined to I-66 or Virginia. The salt brine treatments put down in anticipation of winter weather leave white streaks along the lanes, and if the pavement markings are fading -- and so many are -- then it can get difficult to tell where the lanes are.

I certainly wouldn't want the transportation departments to cut back on the road treatments before storms. I think they've been very effective. I do wish the lane markers were better maintained all across the region.

I recently read Metro's 30-year plan. I generally agree with all the proposals (two new tunnels, additional line through GTwon - I mean not including a line to DC's nightlife hub in the original Metro plan is almost criminally negligent! - , expansion out to Bowie and Centreville, additional track to allow Blue Line riders to travel to Vienna without switching in Rosslyn, etc.). My questions are as follows: 1) What is the order in which you think Metro will seek funding for these projects? I'm guessing the additional tunnels are required before the other projects west of DC can be completed. 2) What projects were not included in the plan that you would've like to have seen included? I would've liked to have seen an additional line serving Montgomery Country running into DC considering the Red Line is running at capacity. Thanks.

1) I would absolutely start with projects designed to relieve congestion within the existing transit system before moving on to others that would increase demand on the system.

2) Generally, I'd look for projects that are justified by population density -- or anticipated density -- and that would help focus communities. By focusing communities, I'm thinking of the plan to use those new Silver Line stations to focus development in Tysons, making it into more of a city and less of a space station with shoppers.

But hold on: This Momentum report is a very interesting draft proposal by Metro's management. It's not yet what I think of as a "plan." The ideas in it are something the entire region should debate, and I'm glad the staff has put this out to stimulate the debate. But I won't think of it as a "plan" until somebody tells me where the money is coming from.

It seems like there has not been much progress on the MD hot lanes (White Marsh). Any update on compeletion?

You're talking about the express toll lanes north of Baltimore, right? They're supposed to be done next year. Taking a long time.

Those aren't going to be high-occupancy toll lanes, like Virginia has. They'll be more like the Intercounty Connector. There's no free ride for carpoolers.

I agree about working with more caution when there are weather issues. I've grown tired of people, most from more hardened northern climes (I'm from Ohio, fyi) bemoaning how panicked everyone gets at an upcoming storm. Yes, I understand that where you're from, no one even asked about cancelling school unless there was at least 10" of snow, but I'm guessing that place doesn't have to deal with the millions of commuters coming into DC as well as the ever-present rush hour gridlock even when the weather is perfect. The number of people potentially affected by a storm multiplies the impact of even 1" of snow. I'm thankful those making these decisions are aware of this reality, even if the detractors are not.

When I was growing up in New York City, it seemed like every sanitation truck has a plow on the front to get the streets clear in a snow storm. There's no way I'd expect governments in the D.C. region to match that level of investment for the types of winters we have around here.

We just need leaders to make sensible decisions about when it's safe to bring people in to work and when it's safe to send them home.

And we've had enough experience with the consequences of failing to make cautious decisions to know how bad those mistakes can be.

Then why open at all? Isn't always better to just stay home? OK, now that it's out of the way that we need to use our best judgement, the judgement used in the last week was less than optimal.

The scenario that concerns me the most is when a storm is forecast to arrive as the afternoon rush begins. That was the scenario for Jan. 26, 2010. It happened exactly as the forecasters said it would. Snow began falling heavily at 4 p.m.

Nobody buys this "shelter in place" stuff. Everybody wants to go home. It's a tough call on those days for the big employers to say, Don't come in at all because we think the evening rush would be bad if you do.

It seems so far away, and if the forecast doesn't live up to expectations, people say they're a bunch of weenies.

A much easier call is a morning storm, where you can tell employees to go back to sleep in for a couple of hours.

And keep in mind as we talk about this that the big employers -- particularly OPM -- are looking at the weather forecast for the entire region. We may get rain on the east side of I-95 and sleet or freezing rain to the west. The employers need to make a call for the entire region.

"Over on the 495 Express Lanes, people are concerned about congestion northbound between the end of the express lanes and up to and beyond the Legion Bridge. But I haven't seen any evidence of that yet." You obviously must not drive the corridor during either morning or afternoon rush hours. There is now a regular backup at the northbound merge point every morning (it might have more to do with the soundwall construction and Georgetown Pike interchange improvements, but it's there), and the Express Lanes regularly back up in the afternoon, sometimes beyond the final gantry that causes an alternate merge in the left lane of the beltway that compounds the traffic heading north into Maryland. The northern merge point of the Express Lanes is an issue!

I drive that route frequently and on days when I don't, I check the traffic cameras. Congestion at the north point -- congestion caused by the merge as opposed to the regular congestion in that area -- is something I haven't seen. But I'd like to hear from those who have. Write to me at drgridlock@washpost.com. If you include your name and home community, I'll publish your letter in an upcoming column.

Im more confused than ever after your last answer. We drive from DC to Dumfries(weekends mostly) occassionally and try to take advantage of the HOV lanes which are free now. Will we have to pay to use them in the future?

Yes. That is, if you don't meet the HOV3 requirement and don't have an E-ZPass Flex transponder. The 95 Express Lanes, which are scheduled to be done next year, will charge a variable toll. They'll work pretty much like the Beltway express lanes. The tolling will be in effect at all times.

Did Metro ever consider running all three of the lines that will be running through the Rosslyn tunnel at equal frequencies? That would be about 8 minutes instead of the current 6, which would seem to be a more equitable solution that pushing all the cutbacks on Blue line riders.

I never heard anyone at Metro talking about running all three lines -- Blue, Orange, Silver -- at the same frequency through the tunnel. In fact, I don't believe that would be the right thing to do. The ridership is so much higher on the Orange Line than the Blue and I think the ridership projections show that the Silver Line ridership will outpace Blue Line ridership in that segment near the Rosslyn tunnel.

So there is no place in the Post where I can check traffic and Metro delays for the morning commute?

Mark says to check out wapo.st/traffic, which has links to traffic information and our most recent blog posts and Tweets. They deal with Metro and other travel issues.

Travelers, I need to break away. We've been going for an hour and 40 minutes, and I know there's still a lot of comments in the mail bag. There are some responses to issues I raised, and some new issues as well.

So I'll see if I can publish some of them on the Dr. Gridlock blog over the next couple of days.

Also, this request of you: I'm planning to write a feature for Sunday's Commuter page looking at that some of those proposals from Metro. Tell me which ones interested you the most, or what you'd like to see added to the mix. Write to me at drgridlock@washpost.com.

Stay safe through all this weird weather and joing me again 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 his namesake blog, as well as in the Metro section of The Washington Post.
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