Dr. Gridlock

Feb 10, 2014

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. As we start this discussion, I've got questions about Metro service, highway rules and driving and biking safety. I'll launch several that look like they'd benefit from your review and comment first.

Hi Doc. Do you have an update on the Silver Line? Will it open in 2014? Some of us will damn the cost and time in order to nap/read and miss out on traffic. Thanks

Lori Aratani wrote The Post's most recent story on the Silver Line's progress. She said:

The contractor building the first phase of the Silver Line submitted documents Friday saying that construction and testing on the rail line is complete, officials said, setting the stage for Metro to take control of the rail line as early as this month. ... If the handover comes this month, it is possible that service could start this summer.

So definitely in 2014, though there's no start date yet.

I sense many people are following this closely. Tell me why an exact start date is so important.


Hi and thanks for taking my question. Every weekday morning, I get on 66W at Spout Run Parkway/Lee Highway. Entering 66W is taking longer and longer due to the light on the ramp malfunctioning. It will let a few cars through the red-green cycle but will then hold a steady red for 3-4 minutes. This causes backup on the ramp and Lee Highway. Either the ramp needs to not be metered (it's not really necessary given the flow of traffic on 66W at this point) or fixed. I've contacted VDOT who told me to contact Arlington County to no avail. Is there someone else I can contact about this issue?

I often learn things from discussions like this with travelers. In this case, I'm very surprised that someone at VDOT says that Arlington County is in charge of the ramp signal that controls the flow of traffic onto I-66. I'll ask about that, too.

Meanwhile, has anyone else shared this experience of waiting three or four minutes for the ramp meter light to change from red to green?

Does Metro have any idea when the ATS will be back in use? Getting tired of the herky jerky rodeo rides you can have on metro these days.

If Metro officials have any idea when the trains will return to automated operating, they're not sharing that with us. Reporters ask frequently. Metro General Manager Richard Sarles has said that he doesn't want to set a date yet. There are many variables, including the need for the feds to sign off on safety. He's also said that setting a date might be counter productive, because it might put undue pressure on the people responsible for Metrorail safety.

When automated operation is restored, you might see it first on the Red Line, the only one that operates completely independently of other lines.

As you mentioned in a posting before the Metro hearings, most riders focus on their individual situations, train riders on train fares and bus riders on bus fares. Has anyone at Metro thought about the trains and buses as a SYSTEM? In D.C. they are always priced separately. Even off-peak, having to ride both on one trip is expensive. Passes for one are not good on the other. Other cities that have passes allow travel on either for one price.

Some of Metro's top managers certainly think about rail and bus as a system. In recent years, there have been improvements in the SmarTrip system to incorporate the rail/bus transfers. And notice that the suburban bus systems also accommodate SmarTrip use.

The pass system has been slower to evolve, but that affects both rail and bus. I don't see that as part of silo thinking, but rather as a slow development of technology at Metro.

There also are revenue questions in some of the Metro pass issues. Metro needs to recover a certain amount of money at the fare boxes and fare gates.

Why do some people assume that rules of the road don't apply to them? I was waiting to make a left turn from a side street to a main road. A car was coming from my right and wanted to make the right turn onto my sidestreet. I guess that since traffic was light, she figured that we could both make our turns as she started her turn early and drove on my right side. I guess she was lucky that another car wasn't coming behind me because they would have both been in for a surprise. My question is, why didn't she just make the proper left turn? What are people thinking when they decide to cut corners like that?

I realized on a second reading of this comment that I'm having a problem getting oriented with the commenter. It's the sentence that says "A car was coming from my right and wanted to make the RIGHT (?) turn onto my side street."

It seems like the conflict would have occurred with a driver making a left onto your side street from the main road and dodging around you to the right. That would be a dangerous move, as you point out.

People get desperate in heavy traffic -- and then again sometimes, they just hate to break their momentum. Hard to tell in this case.

To me, it's just one more agrument for defensive driving.

I am sure being the head of Metro can't be much fun. And I know that they are always very wary of the answers they give to questions. But telling the person who gets hurt trying to get off a train because the driver closes the doors to soon that they should step back and wait is, frankly, ridiculous. I guess maybe he didn't clearly understand the question. But the patronizing explanation that train doors are not like elevator doors was very poor. Regular riders know that. The lack of accountability at Metro starts at the top. Those of us hoping for change are never going to get it.

This is a reference to an answer Metro General Manager Richard Sarles gave to a questioner in a follow up to last Monday's online chat. I had picked out five questions he didn't address during our hour last week, and he responded to them for my Sunday column.

Riders on both sides of the doors have told me that the dwell times -- the time the doors are open -- are arbitrary and capricious. I've experienced this trying to board trains, and I've certainly heard from riders who say they've been blocked from getting off trains because of the doors closed too quickly.

Riders also complain that the door chimes and the "Doors closing" announcement are less of a warning and more of a fait accompli.

I know the times vary. Think I'll go out and use a watch to measure that.

Dear Dr. Gridlock, You've probably had this question before, but it's driving me nuts. (Well, what isn't when it comes to Metro?) I just cannot figure out a reasonable explanation as to why the Metro rail trains come to a full stop at the platforms - then sit for five or six seconds before the driver opens the doors. It's not long - but it's definitely noticable and seems inconsistent with move people as efficiently as possible. Thank you!

I think I understand this one. Maybe. The operator should first be absolutely sure that the train is in the proper position so all the doors can open onto the platform, rather than into thin air.

If the doors are going to open on the left side, the operator is going to step away from the right-side control panel, walk to the left side, lower the window, look out and hit the button that opens the doors. That could take a few seconds.

I know the subject of whether bikes are subject to traffic rules has been discussed repeatedly in your columns, but I notice that the situation has gotten worse, in that cars are stopping for bikes when the cars do not have a stop sign, and the bike trail does - examples are the Mount Vernon Trail that crosses the G.W. Parkway just north of the Columbia Island Marina by the Pentagon , and also where the Regional Park Trail crosses Crestview Drive in Herndon. Are cars supposed to stop for bikes regardless of the absence of a sign, and even though the trail has a stop sign? I personally have almost been rear-ended by cars that are not expecting a stopped car when I stopped to avoid hitting a car in front of me that stopped for a bike that was almost at the crossing.

This comes up frequently, especially in regard to the crossings on the GW Parkway. Drivers everywhere should stop for pedestrians or cyclists in the crosswalks. That doesn't mean they have to stop for a pedestrian or cyclist on the side of the road who is thinking about crossing. In fact, that may be dangerous to both the crossers and the motorists.

Now, this isn't the fault of the crossers of the courteous motorists. All drivers should be obeying the speed limit and following at a distance that allows them to stop safely -- whether or not they think the car ahead of them should be stopping.

The fact is, drivers rarely do either of those things. My thinking here is similar to what I said in responding to the issue about the turning drivers above: Emphasize defensive driving.

Hi Dr. G! I submitted this to WMATA but got no response, curious your thoughts: I got into a metro station at 9:29 AM according to the clock on the screen outside the station, waited until said clock said 9:30 before entering the gates so I could get off-peak fare, but of course was charged the peak fare. I asked the station attendant at the station i disembarked at, and she said according to my smartrip I entered at 9:29 (and was rather rude about it). Have you heard of this being a problem before? It seems like a big issue if faregate clocks and the clocks WMATA posts on its screen do not line up. How can I escalate my unanswered question with WMATA? I dont care about the 40 cents, just think this should be resolved ASAP!

If I happen to approach the fare gates at the very end of rush hour, I'll also join the crowd staring at the clock over the kiosk, so I understand the situation.

When I saw this question this morning, I asked Metro spokesman Dan Stessel about clock timing.

He responded:

The screens, fare gates and all other systems are all synced with network time (standard time server across the entire WMATA network).  There comes a point where computer systems may lose a couple of seconds based on local time management/device control.  In other words, there may be a few seconds of variance across hundreds of screens, thousands of fare gates, and so on.  Perhaps waiting just a few seconds after the clock strikes 9:30 would be advisable, rather than tapping in the moment the time changes.


The first qestion in today's (Sunday) column was submittted by someone attempting to leave a train, so the suggestion to "step back and wait for the next train" is not appropriate. This is a terrible problem on crowded trains. Sometmes doors close before anyone has gotten on as riders are still trying to exit. I try to position myself close to a door but still don't always make it off. Since I connect to a bus that only runs every 30 minutes this is beyond frustrating and should be addressed.

I think many riders are worried about getting stuck in the middle of a crowded rail car so they are unable to escape the train during the brief period when the doors are open.

Complaints like this have increased in recent years as the trains have gotten more crowded. It's one reason people are reluctant to "move to the center of the car" and instead hang around the doors.

Your collegues at the Baltimore Sun have been hitting the city hard for their deployment of faulty speed and red light cameras. It seems as though there's a new development in the story every week with more and more errors found in the equipment and the way the system was being administrated. Is there any chance that the Post would take up a similar investigation of DC's expansive camera enforcement program? I would be more than willing to submit more than a dozen citations I've received in error that I've had to contest, and I'm almost certainly not the only person.

If you got a camera ticket in error in D.C. or the Maryland suburbs, I'd like to hear about that. Write to me at drgridlock@washpost.com.

Why are the ramps to westbound 66 even metered at all in the AM? Same with the eastbound ramps in the PM. Traffic in those directions is not heavy. The meters just cause more problems than they solve.

Two thoughts: One is that it's a surprise to me if traffic heading west on I-66 is not heavy in the morning. I've gotten some complaints about that and westbound I-66 was nominated by a reader as one of the "traffic mysteries" we're working on solving with the traffic analysts at the INRIX company.

My second thought is that the ramp meters, at least in theory, are supposed to reduce highway congestion. But certainly if they're staying red for three or four minutes and backing up traffic on local streets, the effort is counterproductive.

Hi Dr. G, I'm writing today to complain about Metro's crappy Next Bus app. What is wrong with it? And why isn't it working? Why can't they just fix it? It will show that a bus is coming in 7 minutes, then it will jump to 22 minutes. Or it will say the next bus is coming in 9 minutes, then jump to 19. It's so frustrating. And it's been this way for weeks. I'm specifically writing regarding the 3T, which has changed schedules in anticipation of the Silver Line. That's a whole other question -- why change the schedule when who knows when that will be completed? Thanks!

For all: The 3T Metrobus route links the East Falls Church and West Falls Church Metrorail stations, but it also now continues west to the unopened McLean station, one of the five new stops for the Silver Line.

I get sporadic complaints about the Next Bus service. They've been coming in ever since the real time arrival system was launched a few years ago.

Metrobus officials say it should be more accurare now, because the GPS systems aboard the buses give more frequent positioning information to the central computer.

Here's my guess about the 3T: The computer hasn't adjusted its traffic information to the route changes. The Next Bus system doesn't show you exactly where the bus is. Rather, it gives you a prediction about when the bus will arrive at your stop. That means the computer is taking the positioning data and combining it with other information about the route schedule and traffic conditions.

Traffic conditions often throw off the predictor, and this is commonly blamed for creating the ghost buses, the ones that you don't see arriving at your stop even when Next Bus tells you they're right there.

I know this was a point of discussion a couple of weeks ago, but Maryland was back at it again last night dumping tons of salt onto highways that were already treated from previous storms and pretreated with brine over the weekend. When is enough enough? My daily commute takes me across the American Legion Bridge, and it was night and day the amount of salt applied to the Maryland side of the beltway compared to the Virginia side. The Virginia lanes were a light grey while the Maryland lanes were sparkling white.

The winter weather policies of the Virginia Department of Transportation and the Maryland State Highway Administration are comparable, at least as officials on both sides of the river have explained them to me.

The highway departments in recent years have emphasized the treatment of the road surfaces before the storms arrive. This was especially so after thousands of commuters in Virginia and Maryland had bad experiences with ice storms.

I've noticed that more travelers are talking about the brine and rock salt treatments this winter. My thought is that we've had more storms this winter, and more storms followed by continuing cold weather rather than melting temperatures, so the continued salting becomes more visible to drivers.

I live right off of Columbia Pike in Arlington, and normally take Columbia Pike eastbound to Route 27/395 N every morning to work. However, after the new traffic pattern was implemented last Monday, the traffic on Columbia Pike to merge onto 395 is a mess. Previously, with the old merge onto 395 South and North exiting to the right, the only time traffic backed up was when traffic was not moving on 395. Now, the access to 395N requires a left turn off of Columbia Pike, and a merge onto 27/Washington Blvd (with very little merge area). This week, on multiple mornings, traffic has backed up Columbia Pike almost as far as Walter Reed Drive and inched along slowly to this interchange. Why did they mess up a perfectly good traffic interchange? And is there any chance that anyone would listen to those of us who have to deal with this mess on a daily basis and possibly change it back to the way it was? I'm worried we're going to see a lot more traffic accidents at that intersection, due to people getting impatient and turning when they shouldn't.

I believe you're talking about the VDOT project that is rebuilding the Washington Boulevard bridge over Columbia Pike.

Here's what I can tell you for now: It will be like this for about eight to 12 months, VDOT said. The bridge project, which began in spring 2012, is scheduled to be finished in summer 2015. The new bridge will be wider and longer than the current structure, built in 1949. It will also have a merge lane between ramps on the westbound side so drivers will have an easier time accelerating and decelerating. The project also will result in a wider sidewalk and a 10-foot, shared-use path on Columbia Pike. Clearance under the bridge will be increased to a height that could accommodate a streetcar along Columbia Pike.

But this isn't the first complaint I've heard about the new traffic pattern. VDOT, like other highway departments, usually monitors a new traffic pattern for a few weeks. There's always a period of adjustment for drivers. Sometimes, they do adjust to the new pattern. But sometimes it just doesn't work, and the highway department needs to make changes for safety.

What are the chances that Governor McAuliffe can get the EZPass account maintenance fees eliminated before the I-95 Express Lanes open next year?

I haven't heard anything on that, but my guess is that the new administration won't be making any change in the account maintenance fee. More and more agencies that operate E-ZPass systems are adopting similar fees.

The Virginia fee is 50 cents a month for a standard transponder and a dollar a month for the E-ZPass Flex, the one developed for carpoolers to use in the express lanes so they can get the free ride.


If we can't get ATC back, can Metro at least train drivers to operate these trains without turning it into a herky jerky ride? or at least minimize the effect?

This is a key reason Metrorail riders are anxious for the return of automated operation. The trains have been driven by the operators since the Red Line crash in June 2009. Some drivers are better than others. (They might also stop out of caution, if the operator thinks people are too close to the platform edge.)

But the most important issue in restoration is safety. There's no getting around that. The 2009 crash was horrific. No repeats.

I saw last week that someone inquired about automated announcements on the trains. I'm kicking myself for not asking then, but does Metro actually provide any feedback to their conductors about their announcements? Some are repetitive to the point of annoyance (I once got off a train because the conductor kept making the same long-winded safety announcement after each station; this was a spiel of more than one minute), and some just sound exasperated (petulant threats about off-loading the train if they can't get the doors shut don't really work because no one is TRYING to get stuck in between the doors). Just curious how much editorial control the drivers are given.

Those announcements are scripted by Metro. For example, there's a rule about when and how often the operator is supposed to tell passengers why the train has stopped.

I think those petulant threats -- which I also have heard -- are unscripted. This is a mistake on the part of the operators who do this. They must have no idea how this nanny talk comes across to a train-load of jammed in customers.

I heard they are looking at various proposals for dealing with the congestion on I-66. Some of the options include toll lanes like were done on the Beltway. I know the use of the toll lanes have been lower than expected on I-495, but is there any data to show if the availablility of the toll lanes has reduced the congestion and delays on the regular lanes? I think that adding capacity is good, but having two separate sets of lanes is bad. I would rather have the choice between any of the lanes instead of free or toll.

VDOT officials have told me they think traffic is easier in the regular lanes of the Beltway now that the express lanes are open, but I haven't seen any stats on that.

It just makes sense, though: Add four lanes to any highway and traffic will be better, at least for a while. User estimates made years in advance of a project's opening are unreliable. Don't ever expect the early results to match the estimates that were part of the justification for construction. Don't expect it for the Silver Line, don't expect it for the Purple Line.

For I-66: I think it's a pretty good bet that Virginia will pursue express lanes for I-66. But if the commwealth does that, I hope it's not the only idea for traffic relief on that highway. It will take a variety of solutions to ease the congestion. Even then, it's likely that congestion will just be less worse than it would have been if nothing were done.

For that matter, when did STOP signs become "SLOW DOWN JUST ENOUGH" signs? I constantly come to a 4-way STOP sign corner and come to a complete stop. But someone that arrived after me doesn't want to wait for me and jumps the queue and enters the intersection just as I'm starting to go.

I stand around intersections and watch how travelers behave. (Yes, I'm that much of a traffic geek.)

What I see is that most travelers obey only those traffic laws they feel they absolutely must obey. Hence, most drivers slow down for stop signs. A few even stop.

Don't get why some are bashing Metro head for comments about getting out of doors after chimes/announcement that doors are closing. People can't or won't follow directions and/or common sense & then whine when they get caught in the doors. Why is it always someone else's fault. Take some responsibility & don't start going through the doors when they are closing. Problem solved.

I think this is complicated. Sometimes, yes, riders will do dumb things around the doors. Some will just stand there, rather than making room for people to exit and enter. Some will make a late bolt for the door and block the incoming riders.

But sometimes, this is just flat-out the fault of the operator for not allowing passengers a reasonable amount of time to get off the train, let alone to board.

Yes, too many lefts and rights. We were both making left turns. Her car should have passed in front of me to make the turn. Traffic was light, we were the only cars I could see and I had no problem waiting for her to pass. I was lost when she turned early and didn't know where she was going.

Thanks for clarifying. This goes back to our earlier discussion about traffic rules at intersections.

Hi Doc. I noticed Sarles deflected many questions/concerns, saying Metro will be better by 2025. I find this to be a ridiculous attempt to deflect accountability until well after he is retired. When is it OK to finally hold him accountable?

There was a lot of similar reaction about the solutions-by-2025.

One bit of background is that Sarles sees fixing Metro as his main mission. His take is that it was allowed to deteriorate for many years, so someone's got to go through the uncomfortable process of rebuilding it and take the heat for that.

The thing he seems to fear most is that after the aggressive rebuilding program winds down in 2017, the next generation of leaders could allow the system to deteriorate again. So he's very focused right now on getting the local jurisdictions to commit to the spending required for the 2025 program (like, all eight-car trains at rush hour).

I think that's why he keeps mentioning the 2025 goals.

I've got to break away now, though I can see there are plenty of questions and comments remaining. There are some I think I can address on the Dr. Gridlock blog in the next 48 hours, so please check back so I can offer some more responses.

No chat next Monday, Presidents Day, but please rejoin me the following Monday. And stay safe out there.

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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