Feb 07, 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.

Welcome travelers to our weekly discussion of your traffic and transit concerns.

Dr. G: I'm a Texan who's new to the area and thought it would be cool to ditch my SUV for the S2 and S4. But here's the deal: they're always full! Any advice for a guy who wants to take the bus, but doesn't want to stand at 16th and Swann while overfilled buses pass me by? Some mornings I've waited 40 minutes - and it's darn cold up here! 

Welcome to DC. I used to live in El Paso, and loved those wide open spaces. This is a very different experience. Bus lines like the S2 and S4 are among the most popular in our very congested area. I've let them pass me by quite often.

Would you consider walking up a couple of blocks to U Street and trying to catch the S9? That's the limited stop bus that operates every 10 minutes during rush hours.

I've noticed more and more problems with the Metro train doors during my commute lately. Does Metro release any statistics on this? It's happened several times on my Orange line commute lately and the system just can't absorb a train's worth of additional passengers during rush hour. Also, when the doors stop working, why does Metro empty the entire train instead of just the car with the malfunction?

Door problems have long been one of the top reasons that trains get taken out of service. Metro does try to isolate problem cars if possible, but I think the door problems, in many cases, are an exception to that. I think the train can't proceed in service if any car has a door problem.

Metro does share measures of these things in its monthly Vital Signs report. I'll quote from the latest one:

"System-wide, rail fleet reliability decreased by 4% in December, due largely to persistent door malfunctions.

"Door malfunctions continue to frustrate railcar maintenance staff because the problem is difficult to replicate in the car shop, and is directly tied to customer interaction and design of the door interlocking systems, which must be fully closed for the train to move."

Is there any update as to when the I-66 exit ramps at Stringfellow Road and Monument Drive will open full-time? VDOT announced the news back in August, but I have seen no sign of progress.

Nothing new on this. I just checked with VDOT spokeswoman Joan Morris, who says no date has been set on this yet.

Dr. G, any update on when the ICC Contract A will open? Thanks!

Very soon. Project managers really want the first segment of the Intercounty Connector open. Among the incentives from the government side is that toll money can be collected to start paying off the project.

I believe we're down to getting the thing completely paved. That would be just a matter of getting a stretch of good weather. Should be open in the next month or so.

If you had the guarantee of approval from the Virginia General Assembly, what new long-term/dedicated funding solutions for transportation needs in Northern Virginia would you institute immediately? And why?

Great question. I'll tell you what's most on my mind right now, because I just finished listening to a press conference about a new report on the impact of the redistribution of military employees under BRAC this year:

We need road and transit solutions for Fort Belvoir and the Mark Center. VA transportation secretary Connaughton announced two infrastructure plans last week: Add HOT lanes on I-95 and build a new HOV ramp at Seminary Road for the Mark Center. These need to be fully funded, but I'd want to make sure that we've funding new park and ride areas and more bus service in the process.

Meanwhile, a big part of Virginia's current problem isn't just the slow starts on new stuff. Virginia needs more money to maintain what it already has. So I'd spend a lot more on maintenance.

Many of my other fixes would be un-spectacular. I'd spend more on signal timing, building new turn lanes, adding sidewalks so people could safely walk short distances, rather than taking their cars.


There are two wood and steel raised platforms, with railings, being installed on the center section of both sidewalks of the Memorial Bridge. I cannot understand any purpose for this construction. Any information available?

The National Park Service is going a rehab project on the Memorial Bridge. It involves rebuilding the sidewalks. I think part of what you're seeing is construction of a temporary sidewalk.

This rehab is not supposed to affect travels at rush hour.

We are looking to buy a home in the suburbs mainly because DC schools are so poor. We were considering buying a home in either Potomac, Bethesda, McLean, Falls Church, Alexandria, or Arlington. It seems to me that traffic from these VA suburbs is normally worse that traffic from these MD suburbs. Is that true? Where can I find information on average commuting times from these areas to DC during rush hour?

One tool I use to check travel times is Google Maps. When you enter a route, you'll see a travel time under normal conditions and one in heavy traffic. (The normal time almost never happens.)

Nothing beats actually going out and testing a route at the time you would be using it. Not enough people do that before making a housing decision.

All the communities you name experience traffic congestion. The ideal thing would be to find a spot near a Metrorail station or a bus line with frequent service. (Everyone will realize that I'm totally disregarding housing costs in saying this.)

I am very upset over a response made by Metro Transit Police Chief Taborn during the WMATA Riders Advisory Council. When asked how they would respond if a person refuses and walks away, he said, "I can tell you without any uncertainty that that person would be observed. And what that means to you is different than what it means to me, but that person would be observed." If I am driving over the speed limit and a police officer stops me, there are detailed rules regarding the officer's behavior and my behavior. If either one of us "crosses the line"--and those lines are clearly defined--there are consequences.  Taborn's comment sounds as if little thought was given to the rights of Metro riders...  Based on Taborn's comment, they appear to be operating without any guidelines or constraints.

Frequent readers know that I believe Metro should stop the bag checks. The Metro board's customer service committee will discuss the inspections at a meeting this Thursday.

I think the board should have discussed this before the police implemented the new policy in December. The board is a policy board and this is a policy matter, because it fundamentally changed the relationship between the transit system and riders. From now on, the transit authority considers all riders as terrorist suspects, and police will randomly select customers to prove their innocence before boarding trains.

I think I understand what the chief is talking about regarding the tactics. The police don't believe a terrorist is going to submit to a bag inspection. They're looking to create a hubbub at a station entrance, so that a terrorist would see what he's about to get into and turn around. Officers on the perimeter would spot that. Then they'd have someone actually behaving suspiciously, and would follow that person and attempt to question him.

This is an integral part of the tactic.

I commute to work via 16th Street, which has never been fun, but lately it's become a total nightmare. Ever since the new year, the volume on 16th Street has been insane, turning what is normally a 30 minute commute into a 45+ minute one. But today things got really horrible with the closure of two lanes just south of Columbia Road for construction. Do you have any info on how long that construction is going to be going on? There is no way I can afford to sit through that mess tomorrow so if this is a long-term thing.

I don't recall seeing any announcement from the District Department of Transportation that would account for that closing south of Columbia Road -- I could be forgetting something, and will check.

Sometimes, these things turn out to be temporary closings because of a utility problem.

When is 23rd St. above Constitution going to be resurfaced? It's been months!

I'll check on that, too. I know a lot of people are concerned about conditions on 23rd Street NW. There isn't much paving work going on right now because of the cold weather.

Please tell me something can be done with traffic-light timing in this city. Driving down U Street on a Sunday afternoon is as bad as driving on K Street during rush hour because of the traffic lights: light turns green, go one block, next light immediately turns red. It takes 10-15 minutes to go from 14th Street to Sixth Street. Doesn't the city know that this is horrible for the environment, horrible for car health and promotes road rage?

I'm not sure what's up on U Street in particular. More generally, the lights do get out of sync. Complaints about signal timing tend to be highest where there's a dense grid pattern -- like in DC -- where you get intersecting streets that all have heavy traffic. Whatever they give one driver on extra seconds of green, they have to take away from another driver.

The right westbound lane of Constitution is full of ruts and potholes just before the ramp to the bridge. It slows down traffic dramatically, adding a lot to the evening rush hour backup on Constitution. It's been like this for months. Why can't it be fixed?

Seems like it's about time for the District to begin its annual pothole-killing campaign.

There has been anti-American graffiti on in the parking garage and outside the Wheaton Metro for about a month. Why hasn't it been cleaned off? Why doen't Metro update us on the situation and, likely, tell us that there isn't a threat?

I hadn't heard about this graffiti. I can tell you that during our recent discussions of the bag inspections, Metro police have said there's no specific, credible threat against the Metro system.

Once a month or so, I have to go to the Government Center from Tysons and take I-66. There's a ramp in the middle that my GPS wants to send me but it's always closed. It's also closed returning from the Gov. Center. Why did we pay for building it when it never seems to be open?  Instead, I have to take a huge detour in both directions.

Isn't that Monument Drive, one of the HOV ramps we were talking about earlier that at some point is going to be opened full time?

Thanks for joining me today. You may recall that in a previous chat, Metro riders were asking about new, raised SmarTrip card readers they were seeing atop the fare gates. Metro spokesman Steven Taubenkibel says Metro indeed is installing these domed SmarTrip targets so that the targets should be able to read the cards better and get you through the gate more quickly. Has anyone noticed a change?

Check the Dr. Gridlock blog this week and add your comments. And write to me anytime at drgridlock@washpost.com.

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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