Dr. Gridlock

Jan 30, 2012

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. Lots of questions and comments have built up over the past few days. Let's go.

I will be in town President's day weekend. What sort of metro construction nightmare should I expect? What line will be closed?

Very extensive work scheduled for the weekend of Feb. 18-20.

On the Orange Line, buses replace trains between Rosslyn and Virginia Square. On the Red Line, buses replace trains between Medical Center and White Flint.

There are lots of big weekends coming up. Next weekend, for example, on the Blue and Orange lines: Buses replace trains between Foggy Bottom and Court House and between Foggy Bottom and Pentagon.

The weekend work generates a lot of complaints from riders. They should make personal calculations about whether it's cheaper and more convenient to drive and park.

Metro says it's playing catchup on years when the system fell behind on maintenance. The theory is logical but the practice is very wearing on riders -- especially those who have to change trains on weekends, making the waits even longer.


As I write you, I am crossing into hour 2 of sitting in Dupont Circle. Of my 3 metro rides today, I have dealt with cracked rails, single tracking, and now a "Code 34," where apparently Metro has lost all of its trains. While I have no desire to die on Metro, I also have no desire to spend my remaining years in a train car. Yet to abandon hope now, I would forfeit metro fare and have to find the rare cabbie willing to cross into Bethesda. Is there any chance Metro will compensate for either? Will WMATA ever compensate me for my false hope for local public transportation? I haven't crunched the numbers but I'm beginning to believe a car is the only answer.

This complaint -- reminiscent of Charlie on the MTA in Boston -- came in last week on one of several days when it was particularly frustrating to ride Metrorail.

If anybody thinks their car is the answer, they should try that. Might work for some people. (In this case, I would have gone out and looked for a cab -- or maybe bought a car. Would others have waited more than two hours for a train?)

Metro's spokespeople misleading the public and flat out lying has been well documented over the years. Why do you always report what they claim to be factual?

Can you be more specific? Examples where Metro spokespeople deliberately said things they knew to be untrue? Examples where I endorsed those statements?

Dr. G: I was travelling northbound on I-295 from the Wilson Bridge on New Year's Eve, and recently received two speeding tickets in the mail from cameras along the route. The tickets are $125 each and were issued less than 10 minutes apart, both from DC government. How is this fair to get two tickets for the same offense? I don't deny that I was speeding, but if I had been pulled over, I would have accepted the ticket and slowed down for the rest of my route. Do you think this is worth trying to contest on the basis of double jeopardy?

A traveler once wrote to me about getting a speeding ticket from a camera and then another one from an officer in Chevy Chase.  My recollection is there was no basis for claiming double jeopardy on that. And I'm pretty sure there's no basis for double jeopardy getting two tickets issued by separate speed cameras in DC.

Does WMATA want commuters to start driving into DC? Because that is what I get from their constant delays, breakdowns, endless construction, etc., which creates surprise "traffic jams" on the subway nearly every day getting in and out of DC. If we are going to PAY for that, more and more people are going to drive into DC. Many already have to drive to a Metro parking lot, then take multiple subways to get where they are going, then walk, but then to have all these constant delays - we might as well take our chances with driving!

Metro leaders definitely don't want commuters to start driving. Each time they propose a fare increase, they calculate how many riders they are likely to lose. They're interested -- among other things -- in hitting a revenue target.

I'm not into transportation ideology. I always tell travelers that they need to make the commuting choices that work best for them. If it's driving, they should drive. (But if that's the choice, do it for practical reasons. Don't do it out of some feeling that your going to spite Metro.)

What's the latest news on the Silver Spring Transit Center -- I understand the County Council had a meeting this morning?

I haven't heard about the meeting this morning. Last I heard, the opening date was pushed forward to this summer. So it's now significantly behind the original schedule. I think the latest concern is about making sure the upper level will be structurally sound for the long term.

Hi Dr. Gridlock: On Friday I was changing trains at Gallery Place, and I noticed that the ceiling tiles on the Yellow and Green line platforms are completely new in a nice but offsetting light blue plastic color. Will these same tiles be installed at the Farragut North station, and if so, when will the work at that station be completed? Tadeusz Latynski-Rossiter.

I'm not sure about the colors for the tiles at Farragut North. My main concern recently was whether riders at FN would have any difficulty using the platform there while the Dupont south entrance is closed. That closing is likely to send more riders over to Farragut North, since it's nearby.

Metro Deputy GM told me that he's also concerned about access to the Farragut North platform. The big wooden box on the L Street/Conn Ave side has been removed and so has the big construction equipment. I asked him about the ceiling. He said work would continue, but only at night. So I think the ceiling project has a long way to go.

Given the growing anticipation of the return of light rail to DC, I have the following question for streetcar advocates: What happens when the road on which the streetcar is running is blocked off (say, for fire or emergency response, or security reasons)? Metrobus travel is frustratingly slow, but at least buses can go offroute if the official route is blocked.

Yep. That would certainly suspend streetcar service.

I think what a lot of us who follow you have issue with is that you don't seem critical enough of Metro, especially Metro rail. There doesn't seem to be any "holding of Metro's feet to the fire" when they talk about construction/renovation timelines and future planning. There doesn't seem to be any deep probing as to why Metro has become the most expensive subway system in the country and why end of line users could expect to pay $300 per month to use the subway (including $180+ per month out of pocket). I think many of us are frustrated by Metro's poor performance, continually missed deadlines, horrendous off-peak hour usage, and safety concerns, all at a time when fares are increasing regularly. I know it's your profession, but for the rest of us Metro just becomes a blood-pressure raising experience on the way to ours.

About half the letters I get have to do with Metro, which I think is significant, because most people in the D.C. region drive to work. Plenty of the Metro complaints are about poor performance on maintenance, crowded trains and costly rides.

I don't get much of the first thing you said -- the part about not holding Metro's feet to the fire when transit officials talk about construction and renovation time lines and planning.

Travelers can write to me at drgridlock@washpost.com if they want to point out such failings on my part, and of course, they can respond to my postings on the Dr. Gridlock blog.

Sunday I went up on the parking deck at Tyson's Corner and did a panoramic shot of the Metro construction on 123. Panning from the 123/Lewinsville Rd intersection at right, to the tunnel entrance at left: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kitcase/6783691217/

I just looked at this. Very good shot. I've been up there, too, taking in the view of one of the busiest transportation work zones in the U.S. (Looks different every few weeks.)

Dr. Gridlock, With the new Fillmore opening up on Colesville Road in Silver Spring, many shows begin just after evening rush hour, and long lines form waiting to get into some shows. I can understand why police are brought in to assist with crowd control before shows. What irks me, however, is that before almost every show now, one or more police cruisers parks in the right lane of Colesville (usually with an officer minding their own business inside) for at least an hour at the height of rush hour. This would not be a huge deal except for the fact that Colesville is already down to 2 lanes going into Silver Spring due to the reversible lanes there, so the police parking brings it down to one, and you can imagine the result (usually, a backup to the Beltway.) I thought that this was unique to the opening few shows this fall, but it appears to have become normal practice now. Is there any way to politely request that MoCo's finest move their patrol cars about 100 feet around the corner onto Fenton Street, rather than blocking 50% of the traffic lanes of Southbound US 29? Thanks!

I haven't seen this myself, but it certainly sounds annoying. (Speaking of the Fillmore opening, I thought it would have been far better for the county to get garage at Spring Street and Colesville reopened before the opening of the Fillmore.)

Last Thursday, the day the red line had to single track around the rail problem, it took me about 20 extra minutes to get to work, so I stayed late. Right before I left the office to go home, I checked to see if there were still delays, not because I could have done anything about it, but just out of curiosity. Only alert was for the big work over the weekend. How wonderful. But when my train got to the general area of the break about half an hour later, they were still single tracking. The person next to me said she had received an e-mail at 3:00 PM that the problem was resolved (this was about 5 hours later) and no further updates. OK. Bad communication. They need to fix that. Really, they do. I was annoyed. But I wasn't angry until I heard the train operator announce for the 3rd or 4th time that we would be moving "momentarily." Really? Momentarily has a meaning. It can mean 10 seconds. It can mean 30 seconds. In the context of Metro, I'd even be willing to let them use it for a delay of an additional minute. But when they mean that we will move when 4 other trains have come through the single tracking area which will take at least 15 minutes, then find a new d-mn adverb. Or skip the adverb completely. "We will be moving when it is our turn," works. So does, "We will be moving in a while." So does, "We are waiting here due to a single tracking delay." All of those are truthful and do not imply that the train will leave very soon. It is an easy fix. Stop lying to customers.

Yeah, I think the e-mail alerts and the announcements on Twitter are fine. Metro should take advantage of as many new communications techniques as possible. But the most significant communications problem for Metro occurs in the type of situation you're describing. What are people on the trains and in the stations hearing about the status of the system?

That's long been a problem for Metro. And I think it has to do with the train operators and the station managers not having need-to-know information available for them to relay to the riders. (Not always: During one recent Metro delay I noticed that there were plenty of staffers on the affected platform at Metro Center, and if you asked them what was going on, they'd give you very helpful information -- but you had to ask. Seemed like no one had a bullhorn.)

The messages that come over the loudspeakers from the operations center can be helpful, if you can hear them. Those messages need to be repeated more frequently when delays occur.

It's been a while since we've lived in the area, but will be there over President's Day weekend, which you've addressed in terms of Metro. What about car traffic on Monday morning? We'd be driving from a hotel in Rosslyn to Union Station. I'm sure Sunday would have less traffic, but would Monday be much different than a typical weekday on that route? I was considering Rosslyn to the Whitehurst Freeway, and to Union Station from there (Google Maps suggests 395).

There should be significantly less traffic on Presidents Day than on a typical Monday. It won't be like a Sunday, but you should be fine.

If Metro must close down portions of its lines for weekend work, why does it insist on doing this at 10 p.m. on Friday night instead of waiting a few more hours for the system to close. Why inconvenience people spending a Friday night in downtown D.C.? Does anybody care about the customer? I understand the need for maintenance, but am skeptical that Metro is using this time efficiently -- they can't do anything efficiently from my perspective.

For years, Metro leaders have complained about how little time they have to work while the system is shutdown overnight. That's why workers typically deploy at 10 o'clock each night and single tracking begins.

It's the same theory with the weekend work -- including the times when stations are shut and lines are split. Metro officials acknowledge that this creates a problem for riders. They think of Friday nights as the most difficult times. A rider goes to an event using the system as normal, then finds that the route is disrupted on the way home.

Hello, Metro drivers sometimes sound the "Doors closing" announcement while passengers still are getting out. They also do not allow enough time for passengers waiting on platforms at busy stations (Metro Center, Gallery Place) to get onto trains. What can we do about this? WMATA has brushed off my complaints about this.

This has happened to me boarding the last car, and I can sort of understand that, because I've tried looking down the length of a six car or eight car train and know that it's tough for the operator to see all the way back. But I've also had it happen to me while boarding the first car.

Some operators are better with the doors than others, or just more considerate of the passengers. (I've seen some reopen the doors to get a few more passengers aboard.)

But I think Metro really needs to work on its policy about what they call "dwell time" at stations and clearly explain it to riders.

Do you think Metro will ever switch to rolling stock that have 4 doors on each side? Given the numbers of tourists here who are not used to being on trains, they cause a lof of these problems and extra doors would alleviate it, otherwise these train offloadings will continue. I noticed they didn't make this change for the rolling stock for the Silver Line. Will they ever learn?

I haven't found any Metro official who's interested in that modification. It would cost us some more seats, but noting the last comment before this, maybe that would be a good tradeoff for the sake of better loading and unloading of crowded trains on crowded platforms?

(Don't think of the incoming 7000 series of rail cars as "rolling stock for the Silver Line." They probably will be used on the Silver Line, but they're not reserved for the Silver Line. Riders on the new line are likely to see older cars as well. And in addition, a big part of the 7000 series order will be used to replace the 1000 series, the oldest cars in the fleet, and then later on to replace the 4000 series.)

I think your article coverage is fine. My gripe is that the Washington Post as a whole just "covers" what goes on with metro - scheduled delays, incidents etc. What readers don't receive is hard hitting investigative journalism. Why are their delays? Why was metro not called out when they sold us the idea on weekend station closures to make single tracking a thing of the past? Why do the escalators always break down yet the ones in malls always seem to work. Who has the escalator contract? Why does the metro employee union have such a grip on the system? Why does it always seem that there are 3 station "managers" chatting inside their area ignoring passengers and then look annoyed when you dare to hit the button and ask them for help? How about some undercover journalists with video for a series of articles on metro customer service? Why is the metro board so clueless and uninvolved (which of them drives to work, takes the bus, takes the train and why? You are the voice of the reader and you are letting us down by simply "reporting" and not conducting journalism for which the Post used to be known. I just gave you several hard hitting ideas. Run with one please.

I think you have many good ideas for investigative stories. The Post basically has a three-person team covering the region's transportation system. Ashley Halsey covers roads and air travel. That's a combination of local and national issues. Dana Hedgpeth covers Metro transit. I'm the transportation columnist. I write two columns a week, a feature for the Sunday Commuter page in the Metro section, and a Sunday advice column called Dr. G's tips.

I think Post reporters have done a particularly good job on escalator problems over the past few years. You could probably pop them up with a Google search using some of the names of the reporters -- Lyndsey Layton, Lena H. Sun, Ann Scott Tyson and Dana Hedgpeth -- plus "escalators" plus "site:www.washingtonpost.com."


Does the Washington Airports Authority really think ending the Silver Line at 28 is a good idea? It's bad enough the extension to Dulles was going to take over 2 hours from the center of the city, but now they think people will be willing to transfer to a bus after sitting on a train for 2 hours? Can we just stop this boondongle at Weile Avenue before it gets any worse?

Well, I've always thought the key interest for the airports authority is getting trains to the airport. I don't believe the authority will settle for less than that. (I haven't heard the two hours for the train ride to Dulles.)

An earlier quesiton was whether a car was the answer to Metro's perpetual shutdowns/single tracking. I was forced to drive downtown to the DC auto show on Sunday because a key portion of the Red Line was shut down for the second weekend in a row. With the auto show, a Verizon center event and a parade in Chinatown, traffic was a gridlocked mess. We spent billions of dollars to build a subway system that has become essentially unuseable on the weekend. The parking garage owners must be jumping for joy -- i had to shell out $15.

Each choice -- transit or driving -- has its problems and its costs. (B ut I'm not sure anyone "forced" us to make a particular choice?)

A bunch of us are driving. Could you please answer some non-Metro questions?

A lot of Metro questions and comments today. I'll do a couple of driving ones before wrapping up, then try for some more on the Dr. Gridlock blog.

Based on the new website, the Beltway Express lanes will be divided from the normal lanes by plastic poles. Have the designers driven through the Telegraph Road/Beltway construction to see how useless plastic poles are at dividing traffic? Will a portion of the tolls collected be used to replace the inevitable thousands of poles per year that will be destroyed, or is that part of Transurban's budget that they got from VDOT to build the lanes? Honestly I couldn't believe that when I read that they were dividing pay lanes from free lanes with plastic poles...Simply pathetic.

Are you thinking that drivers will try to switch lanes, like the cheaters who weave in and out of the HOV lanes? I think that particular thing won't happen.

I've followed the Mark Center HOV ramp saga with interest. One thing I haven't heard any more about is whether Fairfax and Arlington are still exploring an extension of the proposed Columbia Pike streetcar to the Mark Center. Last I heard it was to end somewhere around the Skyline development. It seems like the expense of an extension on to the Mark Center would be relatively minimal in the overall scheme of the project's total cost and that it would provide a useful connection from the subway for people coming from DC or Maryland.

I think the streetcar expense is going to be quite substantial and will take a longtime to reach the point where it helps the Mark Center traffic.

One of the reasons VDOT is so interested in this HOV/transit ramp from northbound I-395 to Seminary Road is that they think the future employees at the Mark Center will buy homes to the south, and be perfect candidates to carpool or rider buses to the Mark Center.

I read where you talked about older drivers and that providing more public transportation will probably not be done. We can't have it both ways. People need to get places (work, shopping, visiting) and if there is no transportation they WILL drive. I wonder if many who want to take away licenses just want to speed and don't want someone going a little (5MPH) under the speed limit in their way. Maybe we need to lower speed limits to accommodate the increase of older drivers. If the accident on 50 this weekend had been caused by someone over 60 going the wrong way there would be tons of comments demanding the older people give up their licenses. The problem is real, it is not going away and needs to have some solutions.

No one has written to me saying they want to take away licenses from older drivers. They suggest that it might be wise to re-test older drivers. Some of those who write about this are seniors.

I hear a lot from drivers who want to go faster and are concerned that too many people are getting in their way, but that's not the crowd that writes in about the older drivers.

Travelers, I have to end the chat now. Thanks for sticking with me through the hour, and please rejoin the discussion next Monday. I'll collect all the remaining questions and comments and see what I can get to on the Dr. Gridlock blog this week.

Stay safe out there, whether you're driving or riding Metro.

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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