Feb 28, 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. I see lots of interesting questions in the mailbag today about current issues in traffic and transit. But first, whether you're driving, waiting for a bus, biking or walking this afternoon, please be careful in the wild weather that's predicted. I'm looking at the Capital Weather Gang's radar page and seeing a storm line across the DC region as we start our chat at noon.


Does anyone know if a government shutdown happens how that could effect Metro service? Would they be running a reduced schedule?

I don't see any potential effect on Metro travel, other than that you're more likely to get a seat on a train or bus. Metro isn't a federal agency, even though we now have federal representatives on the Metro board. Federal money doesn't pay for the day to day operations of the transit system.

Metro officials seem a lot more worried about potential federal budget cuts that would eliminate the $150 million a year in federal money that the transit system is in line to get thanks to former congressman Tom Davis. That money -- if it arrives -- gets matched by the local jurisdictions that finance Metro. If that disappears, it's a huge hit to Metro's plans to maintain and improve the system.

(Anybody think I'm missing a potential impact of the federal shutdown on travel in the DC area? I don't see any significant impact on driving, either, other than a reduction in the crowding on the roads.)


Dear Dr. Gridlock -- Last Thursdays Local Living section had a fairly extensive article on red-light cameras with a guide to where they are and how they work. However most of the article was concerned with the economics of maintaining the cameras, and absolutely nothing was said about what actually constitutes "red light running" in the various jurisdictions.

I understand that entering an intersection on a red light and continuing through is a violation, whether there is a camera there or not, but what exactly is the legal relationship between a car, the white stop line, and the red light? Since at many intersections the stop line is sufficiently far back from the nearest cross-traffic lane, cars will occasionally stop beyond the white line for the full red light cycle, but still be well back from crossing traffic. Are these "red-light runners" that can be ticketed by a camera?

Since the camera takes only a single picture, it would be impossible to tell whether the car is stopped or moving. So would this be a situation where you have to pay the fine since you cannot prove that your car was stopped?

I'm not aware of a red-light camera system that takes a single picture. My understanding is that they all operate similarly to DC's cameras, which take a first photo when the car crosses the stop line on a red signal and a second photo when the car is in the intersection.

See what I mean by looking at this link on the DC police Web site.

That would be following the rules: You don't get a ticket for entering the intersection on a yellow light. You have to blow that red light clean.

This is a personal opinion, since I can't look up the exact wording of the red light laws in our region at the moment: I don't have a problem with issuing tickets to drivers who go past the stop line and sit on crosswalks.

As far as I'm concerned, they've run the risk at that point of hitting pedestrians, or they may be forcing pedestrians to divert out into traffic to avoid the sitting cars.

The AAA guy had it wrong last week. I think the reason people are still getting caught is that each person needs to find out for him/herself that you can't run a light and not get caught. He implied that the lights were no longer effective - but I think the opposite is true. As long as people are silly enough to think it won't happen to them, it will! If you don't want a ticket, don't speed and don't run those pesky red lights! And if they make money for the jurisdiction, so be it. As long as they are set correctly, it's up to drivers to make sure they don't contribute to local coffers!

Yes, as I recall, that was AAA's Lon Anderson saying that the red light camera program has failed to modify driver behavior, so it must not be working.

I agree with Lon about many things concerning traffic behavior and traffic law, but not this. I see absolutely no problem with the placement of red light cameras for traffic safety. And beyond that, I think that if the government is going to raise revenue, then penalizing red light runners is a fine way to do it.

Dr. Gridlock, Did you see that Virginia's Senate followed Virginia's House in allowing hybrid ("special fuel") vehicles, which have special license plates from the state, in HOV lanes on I-66, the Dulles Toll Road and some highways in Hampton Roads, from July 2011 to July 1, 2012? Last year you decried a similar decision. Do you still feel that way? Tom

Hi, Tom, yes, I was planning to do a blog posting this afternoon about this, because it's an FAQ. Every year, drivers want to know if the Virginia General Assembly yet again extended the law that lets solo drivers onto the HOV lanes if they have hybrids with clean fuel tags.

That will be true again this year. The assembly extended the provision till July 2012.

I don't see the value of these extensions. Hybrid drivers were never promised this would be anything more than a temporary measure. The solo drivers simply add more cars lanes that should be reserved for carpoolers.

Heading to NYC for a long weekend on Amtrak in early April, and am wondering about parking at the BWI station. I know there's a garage, but am unsure about availability, say around mid-morning on a Friday. Does anyone have experience?

I have to put this out to the group, since I don't know from my own experience.

Hey Dr. Gridlock, Any updates on the 11th St bridge project? I read that the limited-access link between the SE/SW Freeway and 295 will be completed this fall. Any idea when that will impact Penn. Ave./Sousa bridge and all the commuters who use it to go from SE/SW to 295? As it stands, if there's a problem on 295 N, Pennsylavnia Ave outbound melts down too.

Been there many times myself making that left from Pennsylvania onto 295. Last I heard, the project was still on schedule to open the two new spans for through traffic by the end of the year. Then I think it's another year before the local span opens.

The new through spans will fix the missing link. Drivers who -- let's say -- commute from Bowie to the Pentagon and back will be able to do that on highway all the way once these new spans open.

now that the ICC is open, my husband is debating the merits of Glenmont v. Shady Grove. His ultimate destination is Federal Center SW (at least until the shutdown occurs!). Which direction of the Red Line has fewer delays???

Wow, that's a tough one, regarding the delays. I haven't noticed that one side or the other is better. I was on Red Line train from Glenmont heading toward Union Station on Friday afternoon when a utility pole fell in front of the train and we had to go back and unload at New York Avenue. At the same time, there was trouble on the other side of the line around Twinbrook.

I think the trip from Glenmont might simply be shorter. Your husband is probably transfering at Metro Center to reach Fed Center SW, right? I think there are fewer station stops coming in from Glenmont.

Especially with the tightening budgets...I think that this "voluntary tax" on speeders and red light runners would be a great way to ensure growing funding for transportation needs in the region. We definitely could use the funds for road maintenance and improvement.

I'd be more restrictive. I'd focus the money on traffic safety enhancements. (Of course, sometimes, just patching the potholes would improve traffic safety.)

With the ICC (part 1) going to toll status soon, I have a question about how it will work. I know it is EZ-pass only, and I am debating whether to invest in EZ pass to use this road.

I normally don't travel toll roads enough to make it worthwhile, so I just use cash for the few times a year I cross the bay bridge or travel in NJ and never think twice about it. But this road will be useful to me, especially when it is completely done, so I'm seriously considering it.

But I'm stymied on how. I usually ride a motorcycle. How would I use EZ-pass on a bike? There's no place to mount it. If it was a toll booth sort of thing, I could pull it out and ride one handed for a short stretch, but I don't really see some obvious marker of where the sensor is.

Also, can I transfer my EZ pass from one vehicle to another? Sometimes I use a car, though I prefer the bike.

Follow this link to see how Maryland recommends installing an E-ZPass transponder on your cycle:


Many travelers have been asking me about E-ZPass, because of the ICC opening. Tolling starts next Monday, March 7. There are no toll booths, so you can't pay cash. It's either E-ZPass or the Maryland Transportation Authority takes a picture of your license plate as you pass under the toll gantry and sends you a bill that includes a $3 service charge. Paying the service charge could get pretty annoying in a hurry.

You can get the E-ZPass from Maryland, but you don't have to. Transportation agencies in14 states issue E-ZPasses and you can shop for the best deal. (Many drivers got annoyed at MD when it started charging $1.50 a month as a maintenance fee on the account.)

I think you can't simply move the transponder from one vehicle to another. In fact, my recollection is that you can get a ticket for that. You have to set up the account so you can use multiple vehicles. But on this, carefully check the terms and conditions wherever you're signing up.

As an Olney resident I am SO happy that part of the ICC is open. My trip from Olney to 270 has been cut from 20-30 minutes to less than 10. It has made getting to Virginia so much easier and I'll be going to Gaithersburg/Germantown more often, rather than Rockville Pike, for my shopping and errands.

One question though: I thought Georgia Ave was the stopping point for now, but I see traffic coming and going east of Georgia. I haven't had the chance to head that direction to see where it drops off - can you tell me where the highway ends (for now)?

Norbeck Road, just east of Georgia Avenue. It's a temporary entrance/exit for the ICC and will go away once the rest of the highway opens in about a year.

Right now, though, it's the worst traffic bottleneck I've seen related to the ICC. The Maryland Transportation Authority says traffic engineers are monitoring the traffic flow there and can make some fixes. Authority spokeswoman Cheryl Sparks also told me that the problem might diminish somewhat after tolling starts. It will cost $1.45 at rush hour, and there may not be as many drivers willing to spend that every day.

I'd rather see the traffic problem fixed than drivers get discouraged about using the ICC. We're paying a lot for that road.

I take the Blue Line into DC every morning from Northern Virginia. For the past few weeks, there has been a long delay in getting through Rosslyn, sometimes adding up to 5-10 additional minutes. Is there a track or other issue that isn't being announced?

Metro spokesman Steven Taubenkibel just checked on your question. He says there's no track speed restriction in place anywhere near Rosslyn.

It seems that the planners did not really consider the increased volume exiting on to 270 from 370 now that the ICC is done. The backups in the morning have been considerably longer. Sigh.

This is something I haven't observed, and would like to get some more comments about -- in fact, I'd appreciate it if drivers would tell me about their experiences with the ICC, or around the ICC, by writing to drgridlock@washpost.com.

As I said in the previous response, I've seen the traffic bottleneck at Norbeck Road and that was really bad last week. I've been driving back and forth morning and evening on the ICC and haven't encountered bad traffic anywhere else.

Hi Doc - Any news on when there will be progress toward re-opening the second on-ramp lane to Northbound I-495 at the main 267 Toll Plaza, which was the first thing to close for Metrorail construction? It is still a traffic debacle there nearly every morning and it seems like it should be more of an urgent priority to get that lane re-opened as gas prices soar and wait times increase. Thx

I think that's the HOT lanes project rather than the Dulles Metrorail project, but whatever -- I'll see if I can get an update on your question about the ramp. I thought that configuration -- which many drivers have complained about -- was going to remain for quite some time.

I live in the Falls Church (Va.) area and working on weekends and holidays is part of my regular schedule. I take the Orange Line into downtown D.C. So far we riders have endured the 3-day hassles on Columbus Day, MLK holiday, and Presidents' Day. Are they going to be doing this any more in 2011?

One day might be tolerable, two days more annoying, but 3 days is just ridiculous. One time I spent an extra HOUR (in additional to my regular 35 minutes) waiting to switch stations.

I've seen ads for the weekend of March 5 and 6, and they have my sympathy further down the Orange Line. At least they will only have two days instead of our three-day ordeals. We've also been hassled on the Orange Line with them working on the Dulles extension where they single-track often or people have to get off at East Falls Church and take a shuttle bus.

How much longer is this going on? Seems like we've had a lot of bad luck on my end of the Orange Line. Now I'm concerned about what's it going to be like when they add thousands more riders to the 'orange crush.' Twice in the last week, we've been ordered off a train when it got so crowded the doors didn't close.

There's a lot more weekend work coming. Metro's maintenance schedule for this year is very aggressive. Of particular note to you is that there will be a few more weekend service shutdowns between East and West Falls Church on the Orange Line. That's for work on what will eventually become the tie-in between the new Dulles Metrorail line and the Orange Line.

So, despite the mild winter here, we did have some potholes on roads ... Do you know when/how the state of Maryland, specifically Prince George's County will be addressing those issues? Or do we have to report them? And to whom?

To report a pothole in Prince George's County on a county maintained road: http://www.princegeorgescountymd.gov/Government/AgencyIndex/DPW&T/Improvements/pothole_form.asp

To report a pothole on other roads, call the Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) at 301-952-0555.

Thanks to my producer today for coming up with the county and state listings on pothole repairs. While the state and local transportation departments have their own internal reporting systems for road problems, they also respond to citizen complaints.

Doc - we've all seen the DC mobile speed cameras parked on the interstates and on district roads. I'm curious about staffing them, many times I will see a person in the car. Are they required to legally issue a citation? I ask because occasionally there's no one in there, other times uniformed police officers are in there sleeping (yes sleeping, and totally oblivious to the outside world) and others are on their phones, reading newspapers, etc. What is the protocol, what is the law?

There's no legal requirement that the person staffing a mobile speed camera unit make any observations regarding the traffic. DC could just as well mount the camera on a pole and leave it there. It would be the same ticket.

I think the question of the impact of a federal shutdown is what will happen to all of the transit subsidies given to federal employees and then funnel down to Metro. Though rider fares do not even come close to covering costs, they are nothing to sneeze at. Will the federal government give the money that employees don't need on days they don't commute directly to Metro? Not likely.

I think I see what you're saying here: The transit benefit that the federal government pays to its workers amounts to a huge indirect subsidy to Metro. If riders aren't going to work and using the benefit, the money doesn't become Metro revenue.

I think you're right that this would be a revenue hit for Metro, but am not sure how big a dent it would make. Metro never has a very big cushion in its operating budget, but the main thing I've heard officials worry about is whether the local jurisidictions will increase their Metro contributions enough to avoid any service cuts when the new fiscal year starts July 1.

Virginia has fee free EZ passes. It was a painless trip out to their location in Herndon and I had an EZ Pass. It needs a few days to activate so don't delay!

I think you might be able to get a Virginia account set up by phone, too. Try calling the customer service number at 877-762-7824. Virginians can create an account online with VDOT, but I think that won't work online for out-of-staters.


Thanks for joining me today. We had a good variety of current topics to talk about, and I'll be back with you again next Monday. Stay safe, meanwhile, 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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