The Washington Post

Jan 31, 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. Many of you had some unwelcome adventures last week, and may be wondering what's in store for commuters Tuesday morning. (We've still got a tree draped across our neighborhood street in Montgomery County. Anyone got a similar view?) I see others asking about Metro conditions -- current and future. Let's get to them.

Why don't local jurisdictions enforce snow removal ordinances? I observed many, many cars being driven around with six (6) inches of snow on the tops of roofs. In addition, many property owners failed to remove snow from their properties.

The top complaint I get from travelers after almost any winter storm is about the drivers who leave dangerous crowns of snow atop their vehicles. (The Grid Spouse thinks the worst offenders are school buses, because they have so much potential to damage following vehicles.)

Of course, like you, I wish enforcement was better, but I also understand that police and inspectors are overwhelmed by the number of violators and the other missions they have immediately after a storm. It's really up to us to be more responsible. (It doesn't take that long.)

I noticed a while back that in a few Metro rail cars, the bars near the doors had been removed, eliminating the crowd of passengers near the doors. This seemed like a good idea, but I haven't noticed any such cars lately. Do you know what the situation is with this?

The 6000 Series, the newest generation of Metrorail cars, removed poles at the front and rear to open up access in those areas and encourage riders to move to the center of the cars. (You'll see the 6000 Series cars at the fronts and backs of trains. The oldest cars are in the middle.)

That new style is not universally popular. People complain that a crowded car is a crowded car. People are going to stand anywhere they can, including near the front and rear doors. Meanwhile, people who are trying to get near the doors while the train is approaching a station say they have nothing to grab onto -- except their fellow passengers. And some shorter people standing in the middle of the cars say they have trouble reaching the overhead grips.

Dr. G, many of the jams I saw last Wednesday were caused by drivers slowing down way too much on hills, losing momentum, and getting stuck. How about a reminder that too much caution can be a bad thing?

From what I saw last Wednesday, an abundance of caution was the least of our problems. There were plenty of drivers displaying their mediocre skills at dealing with winter weather.

I'd like to hear more views on what should have happened last Wednesday, in addition to whom you blame for what did happen. My own view, as I said in my Sunday column, was that the results of a winter storm arriving at afternoon rush hour are inevitable, and that transportation departments need to say that to travelers before the event begins.

I've read with interest the commentaries about how releasing the federal workforce 2 hours early might have contributed to the horrendous commutes from last Wednesday. However, I haven't seen any suggestion that would have 'fixed' this problem - are people suggesting that the Federal government had not allowed employees to leave early? And given the snow started at 4pm, I think most people would have left a little early anyway - landing us in the same/similar scenario that we saw on Wednesday. What would you suggest the federal government (and employers in general) do in this situation?

I think many more workers should have been allowed to stay home on Wednesday, or at least to be gone by noon. We've had troubles before when the forecast has been a little off, but this one was right on the money. The weather service -- and our Capital Weather Gang -- predicted and publicized the fact that a "dangerous" storm was going to arrive here just in time for the afternoon rush.

You can't mix rain, ice, snow and a lot of cars and expect anything good to come of it. The transportation departments do a lot better job of getting out in advance of winter storms. They had their trucks in position. The problem was that all the commuters were in position, too.

The success of this minor improvement shows how badly we need a third and fourth track throughout the system. And given the additions in capacity it would create, it shows once again how shortsighted the Board and WMATA really are.

I think this is a reference to Metrorail's active management of congestion on the Red Line on Wednesday morning. (I highlighted this in my Sunday column, because I thought it was encouraging.)

The Operations Control Center expressed a lead train through several stations, then had one make limited stops before resuming regular service. That active management of a problem helped restore regular service faster.

Yes: It does show that we'd be far better off with an extra track through downtown DC. It could be done, but the cost of construction would be astronomical. That cost would be a burden to local governments and to the riders. It's way more than an issue of curbing waste, fraud and abuse. It's an issue of us deciding that we're willing to take on that financial burden, and I don't see that happening.

Blue line trains have had to slow to a crawl upon going back underground between Arlington Cemetery and Pentagon. Do you know why this is happening and how long the slowdown is expected to last?

No, I don't. Usually, that's a sign that one of several things is going on: Track workers are present, a repair has been made recently to the tracks, a repair is needed on the tracks.

What advice do you have for people who got stranded in last week's storm as far as preparing for the next time? My husband was stranded a mile from our home and was able to walk the rest of the way. We already try to make sure the gas tanks are full whenever a winter storm is predicted. Thanks!

You just mentioned one very good piece of advice for drivers preparing to deal with storms. But the best thing would be for drivers not to put themselves in that situation in the first place.

Nothing should get your attention like news that a winter storm is going to hit during the afternoon rush. We can't deal with that. Doesn't matter how good your driving skills are. You can't control what other drivers are going to do. Doesn't matter how many trucks the highway departments have pre-positioned for the storm. They're stuck in the same traffic that you are.

The Post, WTOP and all the other media that have traffic news make a great effort to put out as much practical information as possible during these situations, but it's never enough to help a driver stuck in traffic in conditions like we had last Wednesday. The only solution is not to be on the road in the first place.



You've probably gotten this before, but I'll ask again anyway: Does OPM coordinate with Metro at all before they close early or open late? It seems to me with such a large number of government employees commuting early or late (and many private sector offices following OPM), Metro would adjust the number of trains they run or the times they run rush hour service. I understand this would not be easy, but seems to make sense to me.

Yes, OPM does talk with Metro under such conditions. But I'm not aware of any adjustments that Metro made last Wednesday afternoon because of the early dismissal. Still, I got very few complaints about Metrorail's performance during the storm. The rail network held up far better than the road network.

Coordination doesn't always have the most positive result: You remember that Friday last February when all the federal workers came back and Metrorail clearly wasn't ready to provide the necessary service? The government should have told people to stay home that day.

A Metro bus driver informed us last week that beginning tomorrow, Feb. 1, Metro bus drivers will be protesting management by following procedures to a T, which will include lowering the wheelchair ramp at each stop, whether or not there is a passenger in need, and keeping speed limits at 25mph. Have you heard anything about this? The driver informed us that this will slow travel significantly and we will want to take an earlier bus during rush hour to get to our destination on time. Metrobus is notoriously slow and unreliable as it is. Thoughts?

I haven't heard about this particular protest, though the general idea of a "work to rule" day by Metrobus drivers is not new. The Tuesday morning commute on the roads may be very difficult anyway because of the weather forecast.

It's been a long time since I've heard anything about Metro's progress on the SmarTrip updates (rail passes, online loading, etc.) - have you been able to find out anything more on this? Thanks!

Metro continues to work on those long-promised upgrades, but I haven't heard any implementation dates. The one thing that has changed is that bus riders can now load the value of two Seven Day Passes onto their SmarTrip cards. In fact, as of this weekend, they had no choice about it. Metro has discontinued the paper bus passes.

I was laid off a few months ago. This past Wednesday, when the snow came during rush hour, I was actually happy to be home and not at work.

Did you have power?

I thought the people who were in the ideal situation last Wednesday were those who could telecommute. They didn't have to come into their offices for part of the day and then skidaddle for safety, and they didn't have to get stuck for the whole night in a traffic jam.

Telecommuting is really one of the best long-term solutions to our traffic problems.

I live in the District on a dead-end street that houses a commercial parking garage and my building, which has over 450 units and over 800 residents, many of them elderly. Since I moved there 20 years ago, the District has never once plowed our street. First we were told that it wasn't city property, which we were able to prove is wrong. But even after being told last year that the street was put on the snow clearing list, we still weren't plowed during the most recent storm. I have called 311, written to the Mayor's office (which told me to call 311), tweeted DDOT, and e-mailed its spokesman. Nothing has worked. Do YOU have any suggestions? I paid city taxes for snow removal, and the District's steadfast refusal to plow my street is absolutely frustating, especially given the many elderly people in my building. We cannot safely walk or drive to the plowed main streets.

I'm curious what street you're talking about. Could you drop me a line at Otherwise, do you have a civic association that could hire a lawyer to press your case?

How long do you (or WMATA) think it will take to catch up on maintenance/repairs on Metro? Is an end (of single tracking during the day, night, and weekend) in sight?

I think it will take many years to catch up. It's the central focus of the now-permanent general manager, Richard Sarles, but I think the maintenance backlog will be around longer than he's in that post.

Metro's maintenance program is getting more aggressive this year, and you're going to see more single-tracking. I don't know of any development, aside from building more tracks, that would end that.

My dad is supposed to drive from Ohio to DC this Thursday for a visit with me. The weather looks to be clear on Thursday, but I'm worried about road conditions, especially over the mountains. His usual route is I-68 through WV and MD, but he can just as easily take I-76/70 through PA. Any guesses as to how clean-up along the routes will be? Should I try to convince him to come out tomorrow? He has to be here by Friday morning, so Friday isn't an option.

Based on the forecasts we have now, Thursday seems like the better day to be traveling on the Interstates. I think Tuesday is the worst day.

We talk about I-68 vs. I-76 from time to time on the Dr. Gridlock blog.  I know many people have concerns about 68 through the mountains, but winter weather certainly creates hazards along the western part of I-76 in PA as well.

I agree that the best way to get up a snowy hill is to have plenty of momentum, but that doesn't work when traffic is basically stopped everywhere. In a lot of places, there was no way to get a running start, because everyone was gridlocked.

This is my feeling, too. I really don't want to recommend that drivers solve the problem of icy hills by going faster up the hills when so much else can go wrong -- including having cars ahead of you spin out when it's impossible for you to stop safely.

The highway departments across the region could not prevent ice from forming on inclines. The pre-treatments had been washed away by the rain that led the storm. After that, the trucks were stuck in traffic.

I noticed new SmarTrip readers at the turnstiles this morning. Know anything about this?

You mean something different from just new decals on the SmarTrip readers? Do they appear to function any differently? (I have not seen any readers that look like they're new.)

You know what we need reminders of, is the fact that an intersection with a traffic light whose power is out should be treated as a four-way stop. By Thursday morning when I went to get my car from where I'd parked it and walked the rest of the way home Wednesday, the roads were relatively clear, and people were blowing through dark traffic lights without even slowing down. Un-neighborly *and* unsafe.

Yes, and thank you, I forgot about this also-common complaint from travelers after storms. Seems like the worst spots are along multi-lane roadways where they intersect with what drivers deem to be lesser roads. The rules don't change there. Everyone should stop. Some drivers might be unfamiliar with the roadways, but most have been there before.

Sometimes, I hear from drivers who say fine, I know the rule, but does the driver behind me know? I think if you know the road, you can alert the driver behind you be tapping the brakes well before the intersection and leading a slowdown.

Personally, I blame most of the drivers; not the government officials. The ones that did not have a full tank of gas, those that could have stayed home, those who should have stayed at the office or a friend's or relative's home to stay out of the mess that afternoon, those who know they are full of fear when driving in bad weather.

In our remaining time, I want to make sure I put out as many of your comments about the storm as possible. First, I agree with the commenter here that drivers created many problems. But I do think it's critical for transportation officials to take the lead by telling people what the highway agencies can and can't achieve under the conditions they expect. Then employers need to listen to those warnings and give their employees a break.

Dr. Gridlock, this isn't a question, just an observation. Last Wednesday, I left the office about 4:30, just as the snow was starting to fall in earnest. My usual commute is about 1-1.5 hours (2 Metro lines and a short drive), and Wednesday it took me about 1.5 hours. Metro ran smoothly, just a little slower than usual, and there was hardly any traffic on the back streets for the drive home from the station. Every now and then Metro gets it right.

Yes, I think Metrorail did fine. But those short trips from the Metro garages can be quite problematic in the conditions we had last Wednesday.


Is a great idea for bad weather days unless you live in "Pepcoland" where you have no ability to work on-line.

I hear you. Last Wednesday, I was pleased to be able to use my home office as a base of operations -- till 7:10 p.m., when the power went out. Didn't come back till 6:45 a.m. Saturday. So much for telecommuting.

You said you haven't heard many compaints about Metrotrain service with the snow days. I too thought Metro did a great job, until I tried to get to work on Thursday, 2 hours after my normal commute time and learned Metro did not extend or shift rush hour service. Trains 15 min apart and rush hour crowds packing the platforms. What a mess. No wonder everyone who commuted before 9am that day thought Metro did a great job, they only had a fraction of the usual ridership.

That's a good point. I know of no scheduled adjustments made last week based on changes in the departure or arrival times of the federal government.

I noticed the new card readers at King Street this morning. They look like little bubbles so they are raised rather than flush with the top of the turnstile. Hopefully they will be more reliable than the old ones.

Thank you, I'll check on that.

I'm not sure if it was here or somewhere else, where I read a suggestion that tractor trailers should be prohibited from roads during a winter storm. Is that a suggestion really under consideration by local governments, or just people reacting in frustration? I don't drive trucks for a living, but as a person who has a CDL, I know that DC is one of the most restrictive regions to drive in with a commercial vehicle. Banning heavy vehicles from the roads when it snows is not going to change the fact that millions of people who drive cars have no idea what to do when white stuff falls from the sky.

I'm not sure of the practicalities of attempting to ban tractor trailers in this corridor. I do recall that the Maryland Department of Transportation, which had problems with trucks on I-95 last winter, has made a greater effort to position tow trucks that can deal with tractor trailer mishaps. Still, we had plenty of problems last Wednesday.

For federal works, here's the latest I see from OPM:

A storm system approaching the National Capital Region later this evening is not expected to affect evening commutes, but will continue through Wednesday. Conditions will be highly variable and may include ice, sleet, and freezing rain. To protect the safety of Federal workers and our community, maintain continuity of operations and assist employees in planning accordingly, we are announcing for Tuesday, February 1 the option for unscheduled leave/telework.

Now is the time for managers and employees to discuss the possibility of working from home on Tuesday. Uncertain weather conditions could extend through Wednesday. OPM will update the operating status as needed and appropriate. This may include a delayed arrival on Tuesday morning. OPM will continue to monitor conditions closely and will make that decision as soon as possible. Please follow your local news and closely for updates.

Travelers, Thanks for sticking with me through today's chat. Watch the forecast, and remember what you went through last week -- like you could forget. Join me 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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