Dr. Gridlock

Feb 13, 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. I see lots of good questions about traffic and transit that should provoke some further discussion.

Its nice that Virginia has placed traffic alert boards on and near major freeways. However, why does VA insist on referring to exits by number instead of name? No one in this region (traffic reporters included) use numbers to identify exits. For example, this evening, the signs warned drivers entering 395 South that there was an accident at "exit 6". Yet I doubt few, if any, drivers knew what that meant. Why not just say accident at "shirlington exit"?

There are two issues I'm familiar with, though I didn't see that particular sign.

The alerts are supposed to be short, and the words small. (I've sometimes gotten complaints from drivers who say the electronic messages about travel times and distances are too elaborate and require drivers to slow down to read them, creating traffic congestion. I don't buy that, and find that information to be some of the best displayed on those boards.)

The other thing is that the exit numbers match the mile markers, and that correspondence is very helpful to many Interstate drivers. Some may not be familiar with names like Shirlington, but they could look at the markers on the side of the Interstate and know that they're passing mile 2, so the accident must be four miles ahead.

I think many in the regular crowd probably have gotten familiar with the exit numbers. I noticed that a driver whose letter I published in my Sunday column refered to "Exit 49," from the outer loop to I-66 west.

Why, at the height of yesterday's (2/8/2012) evening rush hour (6:10pm, specifically), would the only operating escalator at Bethesda metro be running in the "down" position? We observed several elderly and no-so-elderly passengers struggling to climb one of the longest escalators at the end of a work day. Metro will say that someone should have notified or talked to the station manager. Really? The station manager needs to be made aware of such insensitivity and cruelty to customers?

That's interesting, I hadn't heard about a problem on Wednesday evening. Our Metro reporter, Dana Hedgpeth, covered the situation during the Thursday morning commute at Bethesda, when two of the big escalators were stopped and the only one working was heading down into the station.

At that time -- Thursday morning -- Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said: ‘The primary flow of people in the morning is down, so we kept the escalator rolling down and directed folks to the elevator for the ascent.”

But I don't see how that logic would apply to the flow of riders during the evening commute at Bethesda.

Also, Metro officials have told me that their primary concern is getting people out of the stations, rather than in.

For the scenario you describe, it seems to me that the elevator would have been overwhelmed by the number of people who wanted to use it to go up.

Also, it's not good for people to walk up those long escalators.

According the the Maryland MTA website, "Tolls vary to help manage traffic volumes with a higher toll charged during peak hours and a lower toll charged during off-peak and overnight hours.". Since the ICC is basically empty at all hours (including rush hours), shouldn't the tolls be lowered to encourage usage?

The Maryland Transportation Authority could lower the tolls, but far as I can tell, the authority has no plans to do that. I think the revenue is about what the authority thought it would be at this early stage.

As everyone now knows, the change to the 66-ramp on the outer-loop has caused a daily 15 mile bumper-to-bumper backup from the 66 exit to the top of the 270 spur starting about 4:30 pm and not clearing out until 8 pm. The current news says this situation will continue until "the summer". Did the traffic planners anticipate this situation and consider it acceptable? What can commuters do to get VDOT to make a change sooner?

I think the "news" you were referring to was in my column Sunday. A driver wrote in to express frustration with the narrowing of the ramp. VDOT did that to create more room on I-66 westbound at the interchange and ease the congestion on the inner loop leading to I-66 west.

Jamie Breme, a VDOT spokeswoman, told me that VDOT was looking at the traffic situation now on the outer loop and trying to figure out if some adjustment could be made. But so far, the plan is still to keep the current configuration till the summer.

As you know, it's an active work zone for the 495 Express Lanes project, and much of what you see there is temporary. But it's one thing to be "temporary" in the grand scheme of things and another to contemplate enduring half a year of congestion like this.

Why could Metro not be bothered to include in their weekend alerts that the Yellow Line would be rerouted and go between Huntington and Stadium-Armory? I tried to be a good commuter and plan in advance, and I read the alerts page to learn where delays would be. But there was nothing about this change in the Yellow Line, which meant no direct transfers between Red and Yellow. Similarly, at Fort Totten, the train announcer said the station was the transfer point for the Green and Yellow Lines, even though there was no Yellow Line service at Fort Totten (or at Galleryplace). Getting from Takoma to King Street took twice as long as I expected, even with delays, since part of my commute included waiting at Fort Totten for a Yellow Line train that never came, as well as taking the Blue Line since there was no train going directly from L'Enfant to Pentagon. Metro, I understand that track work needs to be done, but please respect your customers enough to provide information so we can plan in advance. And yes, there ARE people who rely on Metro on weekends to go to work.

I know many, many people are frustrated by Metro's schedule changes on the weekends. Sometimes, it's the single tracking. Sometimes it's the line splits. And very occasionally, it's the rerouting.

Metro does put out the word about these things. We reported the plan in the newspaper, and I did several postings about it on the Dr. Gridlock blog.

Here's one from Friday: http://wapo.st/zn5nhL

But when a transit system is disrupted to the extend that ours is, you can't expect riders to follow every change. They're just going about their business, and can get surprised by these things.

That's why I've said I think Metro should give greater priority to upgrading some of the communications systems that riders use: The Trip Planner, which doesn't account for schedule changes caused by the maintenance program, and the electronic signs on the platforms, which rely heavily on the schedules and can easily get thrown off when those schedules change.

Has Metro ever considered seasonal service cuts to help with their budget woes? With a lot fewer tourists and major special events during the dead of winter, I have to imagine there's less ridership during off peak hours, especially weekends. Could they implement reduced hours from say December through mid-March? Leave weekday service unchanged (except close at 12 or 1am on Friday night, instead of 3am). On Saturdays, they could run from 8am to 1am, and 10am to 11pm on Sundays. Additionally, headways on weekends could be longer than during the rest of year. Not only would this cut costs, it could allow more time for major track work while the system is closed. Just a suggestion...

If I'd posted this suggestion first during the chat, I'm sure that by now I'd have a score of responses from riders saying service should be more frequent during these months, not less.

But the direct answer to your question: No, Metro has not proposed any such thing. Over the past several years, there has been some consideration to much more limited cuts in service, like closing some station entrances on weekends. But even that hasn't happened.

Good morning Good Dr. G. It looks like they have finally finished the "resurfacing" of University Blvd. Between 29 and Arcola. And I have to believe that they went with the absolutely lowest bidder. There are already rough spots appearing. The permanent lane striping is uneven. And there is a new lane alignment with no warnings or signs. The question is how does one complain to the state or county about this problem. If one wants to turn north on 29 you now have to cross a new lane to get to the turn pocket. If you want to turn south on 29 you are in the right turn lane automatically if you start in what you think is the rightmost through lane. Thank you for your work for all commuters.

I'm not sure that the Maryland State Highway Administration's is completely done with that job. I'll check with SHA.

It seems like for the past few years, the Metro has had trackwork causing delays on most weekends. I know this past weekend, WTOP said Metro had trackwork on all of the lines except for the Blue line. This really makes it hard to rely on the Metro as a means of getting into DC on weekends. Will this eventually come to an end or is the Metro in an endless cycle of trackwork and repairs?

There's no end in sight. Metro officials say they expect to use the single tracking and line splitting techniques for maintenance projects for the foreseeable future.

I know how much these things bother riders. I'm reluctant to suggest Metro slow down this aggressive maintenance program, because I worry that to do so would jeopardize the safety of riders. (For example: The trains were meant to be operated automatically, not manually. We won't return to automated controls until the track circuits are replaced and the system thoroughly tested.)

But at the same time, if Metro officials know these disruptions are going to be a way of life, they should make it a priority to improve their communications systems with riders, to make it very, very easy to figure out what the actual state of the service is.

How far behind schedule is the Dulles Metro extension?

The phase that's under construction now-- out through Tysons to Reston -- is on schedule to open for passengers in late 2013.

There was a reconfiguration to the outer loop/I-66W intechange last weekend (February 5) that makes absolutely no sense, and has cause the outer loop to consistantly back up I-270 and out to Silver Spring during the afternoon rush. The crux of the problem is that the ramp from I-495S to I-66W starts out as 2 lanes with the right-most lane of the beltway becoming an "exit only" lane and the next lane over with the option to exit to I-66W or continue on the beltway. About 100 yards after the ramp separates from the beltway, the left lane abruptly ends, creating a pinch point. That singular pinch point is what backs up traffic 10+ miles on the beltway. First, who had the bright idea to make a 2-lane exit ramp only to crunch it down to 1 lane just 100 yards into the ramp? Secondly, when will this ramp be reconfigured to either allow 2 lanes to continue all the way to I-66 or eliminate the second lane, because it's obviously not working?

This is the new situation we were talking about earlier in the chat. I hope VDOT will be able to make some adjustments, and also to speed up the work, just as it did to ease the pain at the Beltway/Dulles Toll Road interchange late last year.

Both are work zones for the 495 Express Lanes (the HOT lanes). They are two of the most difficult parts of the project because of the heavy traffic and limited room to work.

The narrowing of the ramp from the outer loop to westbound 66 was done to ease the congestion created last year on the other side of the Beltway when a left exit to 66 west was eliminated. But it seems like any change in that tight work zone helps one set of drivers and hurts another.

During rush hour. How will the changes in the Yellow Huntington vs Franconia impact riders from Gallery Place in the evening. Right now Green line trains go through Gallery Place two or three in a row before a yellow to Huntington. How is this going to change? The platforms at Gallery Place, Archives and L'efant get very dangerous waiting for a yellow.

During rush hours, you would see more Yellow Line trains arriving at L'Enfant Plaza.  (This will be one of the results of Metro's plan to add trains across the Yellow Line bridge and subtract Blue Line trains from the Rosslyn tunnel.)

My car was photographed "speeding" on I-295 approaching the Woodrow Wilson bridge. According to the citation, the limit was 50 mph and my car allegedly was going 62 mph. I do not recall any signs showing the limit, the road is broad, straight and looks like a normal 55-mph zone where everyone travels 60-ish. I really wonder if the limit was marked and if the camera was correctly calibrated. Do I have any redress at all? Thanks from a very chagrined driver who tries to obey the rules

If you think the ticket was issued in error, you should challenge the ticket.

In the scenario you describe, I'm not sure what the chances of victory would be. If I read you correctly, and you were going 60ish, that would be above the speed limit anywhere in the District.

DC doesn't have a law like Maryland's speed camera law, which allows drivers to get away with going 11 mph over the speed limit before issuing citations to the vehicle owners. The DC law provides for no such buffer.

How much longer until the WWB project opens all the lanes from Telegraph Rd to the Eisenhower Connector? The Inner Loop lanes seem to be finished except for striping.

The THRU lanes should be open in late spring. The LOCAL lanes should be done in the summer.

They are pretty close, but they couldn't get all the paving and striping done before the lower temperatures arrived.

"Jamie Breme, a VDOT spokeswoman, told me that VDOT was looking at the traffic situation now on the outer loop and trying to figure out if some adjustment could be made. But so far, the plan is still to keep the current configuration till the summer." Is it really that difficult? All they have to do is get rid of the second lane of the exit ramp, and the situation would improve dramatically. The fact that the ramp starts out with 2 lanes and then goes down to 1 lane about 100 yards after it splits off from the beltway. I hope we don't ahve another DTR/Beltway mess where VDOT just stis around with their arms crossed, because 15 miles of backup every afternoon because of one choke point is ridiculous.

I also hope it won't evolve into another DTR situation, which imposed an extra hardship on drivers for half of last year.

There is no I-295 in DC. But there is DC-295. There are signs. You may think you are on a big wide interstate highway, but you are on a "state" highway. And the speed limit there is 50. Join the club. I've already received my ticket.

295 designations are confusing. The southern part of the highway in DC is I-295, then around the 11th St. Bridge it becomes DC 295.

These days, when people write in to express confusion about designations around there, they ask what's 695.

Hi Dr.G, Is there a reason that metro still does not charge for parking in their lots on the weekend? I understand that the reasoning used to be that they would have to pay for attendants on the weekend, but now that everything's automated it seems weird that it's still free. Has metro considered charging for weekend parking as a way of making up their budget deficit?

I remember that coming up during the last round of fare increases, but Metro staff calculated that it wouldn't be worth the staffing. The lots and garages still have to be staffed during the week, because people get stuck at the gates, even with the automated system.

Robert, I live in Takoma Park... it seems every major road leading out of Takoma is in very poor condition... Fenton and Wayne Ave in particular... and not just a spot here and there but... for miles along the road. I know that there have been some water main replacements but the subsequent patching is very poorly done. Do you know if there are any plans to resurface ?

There does seem to be a lot of work -- I think it's mostly utility work -- in the Takoma Park/Silver Spring area. I'm not sure the state and county plans for resurfacing necessarily match up with the utility work patching. In any case, resurfacing work generally doesn't happen in the winter because of the temperatures.

Travelers, I have to break away now. Still in the mailbag are some additional comments about the Beltway/I-66 session. I'll work on getting them posted, along with some on other topics, to the Dr. Gridlock blog.

Stay safe. Next Monday is the Presidents' Day holiday, so we won't be chatting, but please rejoin me the week after.

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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