Dr. Gridlock

Feb 06, 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. We've got plenty of traffic and transit questions already, so let's get started.

I did a quick calculation on how long it is taking to 'modernize' the Cleveland Park metro elevator and get 840 hours (14 weeks x 30 hours per week x 2 employees). That seems like an outrageous amount of time to repair an elevator. Why does it take so long? The Dupont Circle south entrance is closed for an estimated 8 months to repair/replace three escalators. As a friend noted, commercial buildings are built in 2 years so why does it take so long for Metro to make repairs. I have no luck getting a serious response from Metro (typical response--we are closing the Dupont entrance to provide better service--I'm not questioning the closure, just the amount of time), so I'd appreciate it if you can get an answer from them and share your thoughts.

It is a long time. The elevator went out of service Jan. 5 and now is scheduled to be back in early May.

That's about the typical amount of time it takes to rehab an elevator or escalator in the Metro system. Are two employees really working on it 30 hours a week? That's impressive. The elevator repair staff isn't that big, and I count 13 out of service on Metro's list of elevator and escalator repairs.

If, as Metro says, most of the parts of the escalator have to be replaced in that tight a work space, how long do you think it should take?

I wouldn't compare it to the time it takes to build a commercial building. (Some people talk about how it took a bit more than a year to build the Empire State Building. A building owner would pay to have the job done quickly, to start making money off the building.

I notice one local transportation project moving along quite rapidly: the new toll lanes for the Beltway in Virginia. That money-making transportation project might be more comparable to a commerical building construction schedule.

Dear Sir, I was in Washington DC (live out of state) and was driving a vehicle with out of state registration and got ticketed for driving over the speed limit by the camera. They have photo of vehicle license plate. If I do not pay, what happens? Thank you, AH

If you think you weren't speeding, you should fight the ticket. If you were speeding, you should pay the ticket.

If the registered owner of the vehicle fails to pay the fine, the fine gets bigger. The owner also risks eventual problems renewing the registration.

Well, Metro has outdone itself. During rush hour, the fool driving the train closed the doors at Farragut North before allowing passengers to exit. At least half a dozen people in my car alone were dragged to Metro Center and had to double back. The next train wasn't due to arrive for five minutes, so that can't certainly be the justification for such a stupid error. The result: I am one of those people who moves to the center of the car, and I will never do it again. Way to go, Metro! In case anyone from Metro is reading this and cares, I was in car 1056, in the direction of Glenmont, and got shut in around 8:45 am on Wednesday February 1.

That's happened to many riders -- including me. I'd cut the operator some slack trying to look down the length of a six car or eight car train, but I've had it happen when using the first car, too.

The operators are under pressure to keep the trains on schedule, even while passing through crowded downtown stations, but closing the doors prematurely should be considered a safety issue.

Riders should report incidents like this to Metro, giving the information included here with a car number, date, time and location.

Ok, maybe I'll be flogged for posting this but here goes. I love children. I hate their schoolbuses. I'm particularly referring to my morning and evening commute (mainly morning) whereby schoolbuses regularly back up traffic. Now I try to time my commute to avoid said schoolbuses but sometimes it's difficult to do. I commute on heavily used secondary roads, and it's not uncommon for these buses to cause backups of a quarter mile or more (though the one this morning easily caused a one mile backup). Only once have I seen a driver pull over to let cars pass. In all cases these buses could turn down the neighborhood streets to pick up the kids. I understand there are all kinds of safety issues here but I wish there some sort of law that applies to schoolbuses stating they have to pull over if there are more than 5 or 10 cars behind them.

I can see where that would be annoying. But I'm not sure your proposed law would be enforceable. During rush hours, there almost always would be five to 10 cars behind a school bus. (I'd rather the drivers paid attention to the kids' safety than to counting the number of cars behind them.)


It is about time... I drove on I-66 yesterday and saw they finally gave the westbound traffic the much needed third lane. I don't know who thought it was a good idea to have traffic try to merge from four lanes to two in 100 yards. It was a problem most afternoons since the left exit from the Inner Loop closed last fall. This should make things better. Why did it take them so long to realize it was a problem and come up with a solution?

There have been several major traffic problems in the HOT lanes (495 Express Lanes) work zones during the construction, which is scheduled to end late this year.

That's particularly true at the I-66 and Dulles Toll Road interchanges, which are two of the most complex parts of the project.

Over the weekend -- as the commenter knows -- VDOT made an improvement that widened I-66 at the Beltway, which I hope will ease that bottleneck.

But to make room for that widening, VDOT took a lane from the outer loop ramp to I-66 west, and I expect I'll hear about that from other drivers.

The interchange is not yet in its final configuration. For example, that now-missing lane from the outer loop ramp will be restored later this year, as the project progresses.

I often find that there's a big gap between when drivers encounter a problem in a work zone and when a transportation agency does something that satisfies drivers. The transportation agencies will monitor the traffic, but they'll wait a while to see whether things settle down. (There's always an adjustment period, even when things work right.)

If it still looks bad, then they have to work out a solution with their engineers and contractors, a process that can take months.

I read somewhere that the Express Lanes (formerly HOT Lanes) will use left exits. I thought VDOT had finally realized that left exits cause problems and were in the process of getting rid of them along I-66 and the Beltway. Why then decide to put in left exits for the Express Lanes?

I hate highway entrances and exits on the left side. There will be some of these when the Express Lanes project is done.

The one I'll be most interested in monitoring is the exit at the north end of the Express Lanes, where the Express Lanes traffic will rejoin the general purpose lanes heading for the American Legion Bridge.

Richard Sarles always says Metro is in the condition it is because of lack of maintenance over the years. Are the people responsible for this lack of maintenance still at Metro and why haven't they been held accountable?

The leadership at Metro -- both the board and the senior management team -- has undergone a lot of turnover in the past few years.

It was certainly wrong to let the transit system deteriorate, but pinning blame on individuals is a bit tricky. For example, you'd have to sweep in the political leaders in Maryland, DC and Virginia who didn't  raise a cry and say that taxes needed to be raised to generate more funding for Metro.

You could also question whether the riders should have been making more of a stink to their elected reps and demanding more funding for repairs.

To echo your recent letters on prior shuttle service for scheduled shutdowns, the shuttle service at Rosslyn and Foggy Bottom was marvelous with understandable signs and helpful staff. Metro can behave very well when it can schedule its behavior.

Yes, I think the commenter is reflecting on several letters I included in my column on Sunday. (I can't find any evidence that the column made it online, so I can't give you a link.)

These Metro riders said that while it was inconvenient to have to change from trains to buses and back because of the closing of stations on weekends, Metro employees did a pretty good job directing them and operating the bus bridges.

I understand why Metro wants to do these weekend shutdowns. They create more space for workers and several projects can be tackled during the same weekend. And from the riders' side, yes, Metro has a pretty good record when it can schedule the bus bridges, as opposed to the ones it tries to create on the fly to deal with emergencies.

It's unclear to me whether riders prefer this style to the single-tracking style. At least with single-tracking, they can stay on the trains or in the stations, rather than having to get off, go out in whatever the weather is, and board a bus.


Why is it that Metro always looks towards its user base to reduce their budget gap. Has metro looked into their benefits packages to see if this could be an area of cost savings (or its pension). I'm all for sharing the pain, but Metro appears to focus everything on its users.

I'm pretty sure Metro management can't unilaterally cut the benefits for its workers. But there will be contract negotiations this year. Metro wouldn't necessary need to propose cutting pension benefits. It could propose that employees contribute to those benefits.

Do you have any information on the work that is being done to the center lines on River Road north of Falls Road? It looks like they're being changed -- increased height and striated lines added to them -- to prevent passing or at least to discourage it. Any idea what's going on? Thanks.

Nope. None at all. River Road is maintained by the Maryland State Highway Administration, so after the chat I'll check in with them and see if I can learn anything about that work.

Dr.Gridlock Sir,Can you explain why ther are so many accidents on the Balt.-Wash pkwy.It seems like a very nice road.Two lanes each way with a good divison between them.and not many traffic lights.Thankss, Bill

High traffic volume and a roadway not built for the speeds many drivers are maintaining. We could say that about other parkways as well, like the GW and the Clara Barton.

I live near a school where a child was killed almost 10 years ago. He was struck by a car. Ten years later after numerous police patrols, crossing guards, parents holding up signs, sporadic police enforcement of the 25 MPH, a speed camera lives near the school. When I am impatient about school buses, I think if my child and her friends were at this school or at this bus stop, HOW WOULD I DRIVE? Be patient the school bus driver's priority is the safety of children. Is it yours?


On I-95 through Fairfax and Prince William counties, is VDOT planning to reassess the speed limits? The completed widening project has greatly improved traffic flow, but the speed limit remains 55 through Fairfax and 60 through parts of Prince William. This creates a lot of turbulence as the majority of drivers do 65-70 and swerve around a few slower moving vehicles. It would seem safer to set the speed limit at the speed most drivers are actually traveling so traffic is moving at a consistent speed (I think the rule of thumb is the 85th percentile of speeds). Thanks

I haven't heard about any VDOT study on raising the speed limit there. Drivers ignore speed limits just about everywhere. I'm not sure having a large number of illegal behavior is a good reason to change a law.

From time to time, I do here the argument about relative speed, that it would be safer if all drivers sped up so they matched the speeds aggressive drivers want to do. I'm not sure how that would help.

Sure, you can hear it from me. I don't use 66 often, but Saturday afternoon in light, fast-moving traffic on both 495 and 66, the ramp from the former to the latter came to a complete standstill half a dozen times. It was pretty silly.

The comment refers to my comment higher up about the reduction in the ramp width from the outer loop to 66 west.

That congestion could remain there, because of the narrowing, or what the traveler saw on Saturday afternoon could have beent he result of drivers getting surprised by a new situation.

I don't like either one! And Metro is telling us we have to endure years of this while their customer service remains surly and their fares remain high. Why is Metro not giving us riders something in return? If their employees were mostly pleasant, cheerful and helpful, it would go a long way. But they are not. They are tied to the "it's not my job" mentality engendered by the (sorry to say it) Unions. Metro's employees are surly and unhelpful. That's the #1 reason these endless delays are so hard to take.

I find the rides hard to take because I have to wait so long and the trains are so crowded. Over the years, I've had complaints about Metro employees that reflect what you're saying. That hasn't been my own experience when asking questions.

My main concern is that transit staffers who are dealing with disruptions often wait to be asked questions rather than trying to let an entire platform know what's going on.

But the letter writers I heard from in the Sunday column said they did not find that. The employees were very good at directing the passenger traffic, they said.

As a parent, I'd love to have the school bus come back into our neighborhood. A could of years ago, Ffx. Co. moved our stop out of the neighborhood and onto a main road. They claimed that it saved money. I've timed the bus and it takes just as long for 50 kids to get on in one stop as it used to to go through the neighborhood (during which time it never had to stop on a main road). My rant is school zones. Nobody obeys the flashing lights to slow down except me! Then I get honked at and worse by people zooming around me. These are also main secondary roads (e.g., Gallows, Columbia Pike) in Fairfax Co. Can we get these school zones abolished?

Do I understand you right? You want to abolish school zones so everybody can drive fast around schools?

I'd prefer to see Virginia put in some speed cameras around schools, as Maryland did.

They also have only 2 lanes and minimal shoulders, so it's likely things get tied up more if there's a problem.

The commenter is refering to our previous exchange about accidents on parkways in the DC area. I'm not crazy about the design of the entrance and exit ramps either.

None of these was built to be a commuter route. They just evolved into it.

Why do bicyclists insist on riding on the road (say, MacArthur Blvd in Maryland) when there is a wide, smooth, marked path next to the road for them to ride? Is it illegal to ride on the road?

It's not illegal to ride on the road, as long as cyclists obey the traffic laws.

Cyclists tell me that trails aren't as smooth and wide as they might look to a motorist.

The traffic going South from Washington down 395 is just horrible now that the Mark Center has opened. The person who said it wasn't bad must leave the office around 7:00 pm. It isn't too bad then. But, if you leave around 5:30--forget it! Fortunately, for me, I get off at an early exit but there is now an additional 15 minutes for me. Someone better think this through a bit more.

Thanks for the comment. This refers to a letter writer who goes south on 395 in the morning and says that the traffic hasn't lived up -- or maybe it's down -- to expectations we generated with all our BRAC coverage last year.

Here's a link to that column. (Look for the headline "Where's the gridlock?"):


Then several travelers wrote in to say they've seen plenty of gridlock:


There are several shorter range efforts coming this year. One is the widening of the ramp from Seminary Road onto southbound 395. (Not sure cars onto southbound 395 more quickly is really going to please those already on 395.) The biggest effort is a long term one: Build a reversible  HOV/transit ramp to connect with the 395 HOV lanes on the south side of Seminary Road.


Thanks, travelers. Please join me again next Monday, and stay safe, whether your single-tracking or single-laning through the work zones.

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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