Dr. Gridlock

Feb 11, 2013

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. I spent a long weekend in Lake Placid, NY, which got about 10 inches of snow. But it seemed like every other vehicle had a plow blade attached. No problems getting around.

So it's good to be back where we have something to talk about.

Since the VA House passed a modified transportation bill and the VA Senate failed to pass their version, do you see the Virginia legislature coming together and try to fashion a compromise or will it all fall apart in the end?

First and foremost: Any politician who suggests that governments are engaged in solving our congestion problems is blowing smoke.

There is no serious plan in Virginia, Maryland or Congress offered by either Republicans or Democrats to solve our congestion problems. The most we can hope for is that at some point they will find a way to fix the stuff we already have -- but we're not there yet.

OK. Got that out of my system. Virginia: No bill ever really dead in the General Assembly until the end of the veto session that follows the regular session. So it's still difficult to predict the outcome. There could be some agreement on a modest increase in transportation spending that would allow officials to claim they got something done.


Hi Dr. G, A couple of weeks ago a reader wrote in saying they had never received a bill for using the ICC. It reminded me that I hadn't received one either for a trip I took last fall. Any idea who to contact on this? I read another story online where a person got slapped with a late fee even though they also said they had never received the original bill. Also, I find it kind of funny that there is an administrative fee for using the ICC if you don't have an EZ Pass, yet if you have an EZ Pass in MD you get hit up with an annual fee too. Seems the state is trying to have it both ways! We have one easy pass for my wife's car, the reason I never bothered to get one for mine is that I wouldn't use it nearly enough to justify the annual fee.

The Maryland Transportation Authority operates the Intercounty Connector and is responsible for toll collection.

The monthly fee for a Maryland E-ZPass account is $1.50. It's waived for the previous month if a driver used the E-ZPass three times at Maryland toll facilities.

Yes, the state is trying to cover its administrative costs on both E-ZPass accounts and the cost of tracking the registered owner of a vehicle that used the ICC without an E-ZPass.

Dr G: South of MD212, there is an overhead sign with travel times to Virginia for each of the Beltway splits. These don't appear to be to the same place in Virginia, but the sign says nothing of destination. Unless your only goal in life is to get to VA as quickly as possible, this sign seems to hold no useful purpose other than slowing down traffic in a bad merge/split zone. Any clue as to this sign's purpose?

There are things the sign tells you and things it doesn't.

A through driver trying to decide which side of the Beltway to take to reach Virginia would learn whether there's a delay on the Beltway in Prince George's or a delay in Montgomery County around, say, I-270 and the Legion Bridge, a traditionally difficult zone for travelers.

What you don't learn is the condition of either side of the Beltway in Virginia, so if you're heading for the Springfield interchange to continue south on I-95, you wouldn't know about a traffic jam around Tysons, or around the Telegraph Road interchange.

By the way, I use that interchange a lot -- last night, for example -- and haven't noticed any slowdown before the sign followed by a pick up in speed just afterward.

Splashy announcement on Metro's website: "Metro will host three public meetings [this] week to get public feedback on the Authority's draft strategic plan, called Momentum, and the FY14 budget." Hmmm, feedback on the Authority (who is that, pray tell)'s draft strategic plan - a plan that has its own name and for which taxpayers probably overpaid some PR firm. Why doesn't Metro's leadership understand that before you get to the high-falutin stuff you need to nail the basics first? No. 1 basic thing to nail: improved customer service and communication throughout the ranks, particularly among the Metro employees that regular riders like me encounter every day at the station and on the bus. No. 2 basic thing to nail, improved train and bus performance. Nail the basics first, ok? Why don't they get it?

If you go to one of these meetings and comment on service and communication, you're addressing core goals that Metro is setting for itself in the Momentum plan. So go talk about those essential elements.

In a blog posting last week, I wrote about the big gap between Metro's goals and its performance, as illustrated by the Green Line stranding of two weeks ago. Here's a link: http://wapo.st/XGdFsV

For additional information about Metro's problems with communication and accountability, see the story Dana Hedgpeth did last week on Metro's response to The Post's request for Metro documents concerning last summer's Green Line stranding.

You'll see that about half a year after The Post's request, Metro handed over a copy of its "final report" on the incident, in which scores of riders wound up on the tracks. The "final report," as Dana noted in her story: "includes nothing about how Metro plans to prevent riders from fleeing stranded trains or about how the transit agency would better inform riders caught in a dangerous incident."

Dana's story: http://wapo.st/XY7heW


What is the status of this? I go past it every day twice a day, and I swear I have never seen any work being done. This is striking me a bad, overwrought idea from the get go.

This is a Montgomery County fiasco. The county government is talking about the possibility of the downtown transit center opening in September, but There aren't many reasons to believe that will happen.

The idea of collecting transit services in one place and using it as a focal point for downtown development was pretty good. The execution was terrible.

It isn't so much that this moderately sized concrete and steel garage is taking longer to complete than the Beltway HOT lanes. The issue is more that bus riders and pedestrians have been inconvenienced for years by this project.

How do you get information about lights that are out of sync? The light after Walter reed on 16th st going toward DC is out of sync and causing huge traffic jams on 16th St during rush hour in the AM... It happens almost every day now, yet a month ago it was fine..so who and how do you tell some one about the issue.

Use the mayor's 311 system to report that. You can call 311 or use the online form at http://311.dc.gov.

When considering future priorities, how expensive would the proposed walking tunnels be relatively to new rail options? I'd think they'd be much less complicated, and they'd improve passage in the middle of the system for existing traffic, and take traffic away from transfer points.

I think the pedestrian tunnels between Farragut North and Farragut West and between Metro Center and Gallery Place would be a huge improvement. And the price tag also would be huge: About a billion dollars. And that estimate is in 2012 dollars, without any detailed engineering studies, that might reveal additional costs. In the draft of Metro's long-range plan, the thing called "Momentum," these tunnels are a target for 2025.  But my guess is that very few people commuting today will ever walk through those tunnels. (See my response to the first question today.)

This weekend will be the third straight in which the Red Line has a significant amount of single-tracking for riders from Silver Spring (where I live). My response has been to make plans that don't involve Metro, mostly substituting driving. Do Metro ridership statistics show a decline in weekend ridership since the aggressive program of maintenance was begun? I support Metro taking these steps, because I know it's necessary to put the system on a good long-term footing, but at the same time I don't want to subject myself to a big wad of transportation misery by waiting heaven knows how long for a train (and woe betide me if I have to transfer).

Metro ridership dropped on weekends last year. If that's because people are discouraged about the weekend service, it would make sense. Why would anyone ride Metrorail on a weekend if they didn't have to?

I agree that Metro needs to do the work. I also agree that weekends are the best times to concentrate a lot of work, because it gives workers some continuous time to be out on the tracks and platforms while the ridership is relatively low -- low compared to weekdays.

But after a few years of this, I don't see why the communications with weekend riders can't be better. At least, Metro's online Trip Planner should reflect the delays.

This is going to continue for four more years, at this intense level.

Now that the speed limit has been upped to 60mph on the ICC I believe it's time to look at the speed limit on the BW Parkway, Kenilworth Avenue, 295 and the GW Parkway. Traveling at the posted limit of 45mph creates an unnecessary backup, constant lane changes by others and increased chances of road rage. It's also extremely dangerous when your being passed by everyone. It makes no sense that the speed limit on Georgia Avenue is higher than on these major commuter routes.

Very, very rarely do I see drivers observing the speed limit on any of those roadways, including Georgia Avenue. I do see a lot of bad driving, including the frequent lane changes the commenter referred to.

As for the Intercounty Connector, I really doubt there were many drivers who greeted the 5 mph increase in the speed limit by saying, "Wonderful. Now I can save 90 seconds on the cross-county trip." It's a rare driver who obeys the speed limit on the ICC, so there's little benefit in raising the speed limit.

Would you please re-phrase that statement? Governents at all levels (I am a county transportation planner in Pennsylvania) ARE working to solve our congestion problems. It's the smoke-blowing politicians that get in the way! I work daily with hard working, caring professionals at FHWA, FTA, PennDOT, our local transit provider, and a litany of other agencies. Unfortunately, we're all subject to the political (read: financial) decisions made by the elected officials.

I think planners at the city, county, state and federak levels have plenty of good ideas, and the ones I know care very much about helping people get around.

But what good does it do to have a bunch of talented people coming up with great plans that are going to be placed on shelves till the next generation of planners comes up with a new set of plans to sit on those shelves?

As the commenter so rightly notes, the plans are subject to political decisions -- or non-decisions.

Dr. G-- first, want to give some credit to metro for clear notice of the closing of one side of the metro escalators, and good signs pointing you where you need to go. I think most people are just resigned to missing more buses, etc., because of the added time that using just one set of escalators will entail. However, I noticed something last week that would be a super easy way for metro to make this easier -- as I was headed home (so up the escalators, to my bus), the way the up and down escalators were positioned, all the people coming up the escalator had to cross the sea of people leaving the pentagon and heading to the down escalator. I had to wait for a bit to find a gap, and even then almost got run into. What would be the best way to get this kind of info to metro?

Call 202-637-1328 and tell them, or use this comment form: http://www.wmata.com/about_metro/contact_us/ridercomment.cfm

Or contact one of the Metro board members from Virginia: Mary Hynes, Catherine Hudgins and Jim Dyke.

I am jealous! I love it there! What were the highlights?

We were there to watch World Cup luge. But we also enjoyed the 10 inches of snow. Won't be seeing much of that around here.

Over at the Miracle on Ice Arena, we watched some figure skating -- part of the Empire State Games held this weekend.

Still on the to do list: Skating on the Olympic oval where Eric Heiden won five gold medals.

Lake Placid is great, winter or summer.

I have to say that I was wondering why the Post was so quick to criticize the HOT lanes for not making money. It really does sound as if there is an agenda behind the article crowing that the developer and operator lost money during the first few weeks. People are still figuring out whether it makes sense to use them and when. And some of us are still waiting for our EZ pass transponders. I'm sure that that article pleased the anti-car, pro-bike lane crowd, but honestly, I expected more objective reporting from the Post.

I missed something, and in a quick check, can't find anything in The Post archives that criticizes the HOT lanes for not making money, or reports any financial results.

My own view, as expressed in newspaper columns and on the Dr. Gridlock blog, is that it will take about three years for us to figure out whether the HOT lanes are fulfilling the vision of their advocates. I'm very hopeful that they will, but my concern is whether travelers find them useful, not whether the operator makes money.

The money issue is interesting. It would suggest whether we're likely to see many more HOT lanes developed in the DC area. But what I really want to see is whether commuters develop an interest in trips of reliable length, whether enough buses take advantage of them and whether carpoolers go for the E-ZPass Flex transponders to get a free ride.

Hi Dr. Gridlock, I'm wondering about the minimum and maximum HOT lane tolls. Is there a maximum? I've noticed the minimum HOT lane rates have gone up 20 cents since they opened only a few months ago (in my case, the 66 to Springfield stretch). There's a process for changing regular toll rates, but does the variable nature of HOT lanes means it's entirely up to the firm running it? Is there any oversight at all on the amounts?

There is no maximum on the toll rates. The tolls exist partly so the operator can make money in the construction investment and partly to regulate the flow of traffic.

I can't imagine why people would drive in them if they think the toll is too high. That's a bit of self-regulation.

My concern on the tolls has to do with what you might call the free market aspect. For the dynamic tolling system to regulate traffic flow, many drivers must make their lane choices based on what the message boards say as they approach the decision point.

But many drivers say that's hard to do, because they can't determine traffic conditions in the regular lanes farther along the Beltway.

I've been advising drivers to test the lanes, see if they actually save time, then decide to use them when they must keep to a schedule. So no instant decision-making.

I still think that's a good approach -- used it myself last week and got to a meeting on time when I would have been 20 minutes late taking the regular lanes. But my suggestion doesn't conform to the theory of dynamic tolling. For that to work, drivers must make their decisions based on the current toll rate.

It's not a problem now, when the express lanes are lightly used, but it could be when traffic picks up.

Doctor Have there been more accidents as a result of the new 495 toll lanes? It sure looks like a confusing mess. Shame to think a 35 cent toll (or two dollars, whatever) can cause people to veer and cause accidents.

I haven't heard much about accidents since that first week the lanes opened. (I agree with you about the insanity of risking lives to save a buck.)

My own experience is that the entrances are not confusing. You have to pass so many signs to get in the wrong lanes. What I think can be confusing are the left-hand entrances and exits to the lanes. That's not what Beltway drivers are used to, and it can be disorienting.

Dr. Gridlock-- I am a fairly recent transplant, and I am still flummoxed by those red lanes on the 66 that are only open during rush hour (except when you need to exit, of course). They seem to cause more confusion than help. Is this a common area practice? What are the advantages to this instead of simply having the lane open all the time?

I think you will get used to this, though I don't like the setup. Those outer lanes are the emergency breakdown lanes at times other than rush hours. That reddish color was added last year to help distinguish the lanes from regular travel lanes.

For safety, I would much prefer that they be used only as breakdown lanes rather than travel lanes. But the Virginia Department of Transportation decided that the traffic volume was so great on I-66 that the lanes needed to be open to all traffic at peak periods.

I can't think of another place in the D.C. area where drivers are allowed to use the breakdown lanes at rush hours. There are places where buses are permitted to travel in breakdown lanes at certain hours.

Hi, Dr. G. I realize there's no way this could be enforced, but I'm wondering if there is a minimum speed on the Beltway. Yesterday afternoon,light traffic, good conditions I twice came upon drivers going between 30-35 mph. I was going 50-55 and had to brake hard to avoid running into them. I think you're s upposed to put on flashers when you're going under 30 but they were just over that speed.

Police could give the driver a ticket for impeding the flow of traffic. Going too slow can be just as dangerous as going too fast.

My family is thinking of buying a vacation home on the Northern Neck. How bad is the traffic on 301 heading south of the beltway on Friday afternoon/evening? What about the traffic heading north on 301 on Sunday?

On summer weekends, the Route 301 traffic can be heavy. I'd rate it as a toss up as to which is better, 301 or 95 and the Beltway.

What about the idea of treating walks between nearby stations as if they were part of a single ride? Are there really no programmers competent to make Smart Trip cards calculate a 2nd ride on another line beginning within, say, 30 minutes as a combined trip?

SmarTrip cards recognize the virtual tunnel between the two Farragut stations, though none exists as of now between Metro Center and Gallery Place.

Before opting for the real tunnels, I'd give virtual tunnels every chance to succeed. And I'm not sure they will. For one thing, it's difficult to spot the signs that explain the free transfer. For another, I think a lot of people just would rather not go outside.

Are they considering a walking bridge like the one between Farragut N and Farragut W? I hope so.

I wouldn't take any of these long-range proposals too, too seriously at the moment. Let's hear from some officials who say they actually are proposing the tunnels and seeking the money to build them.

It is that drivers can drive at a reasonably appropriate speed without fear of getting trapped by the police trying to make their monthly quota.

I'm very sure many drivers treat our traffic laws as advisories, but I don't believe that should discourage police from enforcing them whenever feasible.

Thanks for joining me today. I need to rush off now -- at a prudent speed.

We won't have a discussion next Monday, Presidents' Day, but please come back again the following Monday, Feb. 25.

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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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