The Washington Post

Dr. Gridlock

Mar 05, 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.

Readers, we're experiencing some technical delays. We'll try to have the chat up and running as soon as possible. 

Okay, we believe the issues have been resolved!

Welcome, travelers. Sorry about the delay. Let's go.

The S1, S2, and S4 are always overcrowded during the morning rush hour; 4 or 5 buses regularly pass my stop without stopping because they are so packed. Doesn't this indicate to WMATA that this is a popular route that needs increased service? Just a couple of extra buses during the especially busy 8:00-8:30am time, and a couple extra ones from 8:30-9:00am would help somewhat. Is it possible bus drivers aren't reporting back that their buses are so crowded people can't get on and WMATA has no idea? Or is there just no money to improve service?

I think Metro's bus people are very aware of how popular the 16th Street Line is -- including the S9 Limited stop service. I believe it's more an issue of money about adding buses on that line and others that are overcrowded.

Recently I missed the a play for which I had purchased a ticket because a Metro operator closed the doors of my train much too quickly, before I and others could exit the train. Of all pllaces, this happened at Metro Center, a major transfer point where many patrons need to exit and board trains. It happened to me once before a few weeks ago, only the doors closed before I and others could board. Since, I have learned from acquaintances that it is not a rare occurrence. Of course, Metro hasn't responded to my complaint. What can be done, if anything? This not a budget problem, but rather a brain lock problem.

The number of complaints I've received about this is growing. And I mean the specific complaint about the doors not staying open long enough for everyone to get off, let alone for people to get aboard.

I know it's difficult for the operators to see all the way back, it happens to people on the first car as well.

It's not a budget problem, as you say, but there is some pressure on the operators to stay on schedule through the downtown stations that slow the trains down because so many people need to get on and off.  (That's a guess at what's happening, not a justification for it. Customers shouldn't be held hostage aboard trains.)

If I get on the ICC at George Avenue and exit off at New Hampshire Avernue am I charged the same amount as if I went all the way to Route 29? Judy

You should be paying 65 cents less, by my calculations.

The problem with the ramp from the outer loop onto I-66 has been solved, but when will they address the constriction on the inner loop at I-66. Five lanes (if one includes the on-ramp from Rte 50) constrict to three lanes passing under I-66. This causes backups during rush hour all the way to Braddock Rd and beyond.

I think that's still got a few months to go.

What does it take to get the offensive Ad re the President removed?. It is outrageous that such an offensive ad is protected by Metro. Thanks, Paula Kahn.

I think it's protected by the Constitution, rather than the transit authority.

I tried to get through to Metro via comment online and phone, but their customer service system seems to have broken down. So...the SmarTrip readers at Union Station are not working well at all. Some of them don't read my card and others only do after repeated attempts. I don't think it's my card, since it works fine both in and out of Rosslyn station and elsewhere. Are these readers tuned up? If not, they need to be!! Very aggravating to fish around for a reader that works!

Others having trouble with the SmarTrip card readers at Union Station?

Hello Dr. Gridlock, I live in Dupont Circle, and as you know there are many bike lanes in that part of town. Often I see a bicycle and a car traveling parallel to each other arrive at an intersection at the same time - with the bike in a bike land to the right of the car. If the car is turning right and the bike is going straight, who has the right of way?

This is the "right hook" danger, isn't it?

I don't like to answer right of way questions, because I'm not into deciding who should get the ticket after a crash. I'd rather the crash didn't happen.

The driver of the car should be aware that a cyclist is on the right. Many drivers still are watching only for other cars. This is wrong.

Meanwhile, the cyclist in this situation should be making a political statement about the rights of cyclists. The cyclist should be aware of the danger and avoid putting him or herself in a position to get hit by a turning car.

I only found out on Saturday that the Circulator held their open forum last Wednesday. Does someone from your team have a report from the event? What exactly were the various enhancements and changes proposed for the future of Circulator? And -- to skip to the bottom line -- is a fare increase in store this year, depending on what happens with the DC budget?

I was there. The session was very low-key but helpful in understanding some of the issues facing the Circulator system.

Those 25 or so of us there at Union Station got a chance to meet Carl Jackson, the new head of DDOT's Progressive Transportation Services Administration, which is in charge of the Circulator and the streetcar program, among other things.

There wasn't really any news out of this. The administration would like to see higher ridership numbers on the new route, the Potomac Avenue-Skyland route. It's unclear what's going to happen with the budget. There's no plan right now for a fare increase.

The regular fare has been a dollar since the start, and I'm sure DDOT would like to keep it that way for as long as possible. That makes it cheapr than Metrobus, but also it simplifies the exact change system.

Dr G: Definitely a First World problem here, but do you know if Metro has adjusted, swapped out, or otherwise "improved" the SmarTrip card readers in stations? I used to be able to just tap my wallet to the little circle, but starting this weekend I get a "Touch SmarTrip Again" message, and it's no joy until I remove the card and touch it bare to the reader. I thought my card was going bad, but have seen several other passengers doing the same thing. Can you shed some light on this? Another helpful "improvement"? Thanks -- John

Aside from the traveler who just described the problem at Union Station, I'm not aware of any very recent issues with the readers. (I keep mine in a plastic case and had no trouble this morning.)

In fact, I thought the readers were getting faster -- at least compared to those many months of the software adjustments when you really had to hold the card on the reader for an extra couple of beats before it would read.

Dr. Gridlock, Has I-66 east of the Beltway always been HOV-only during rush hour? If not, when was that decision made and what was the public's reaction? Thanks, Matthew

Yes, and it's always been controversial. Many people in Arlington would rather there was no I-66 inside the Beltway. Long-distance commuter chafe at the HOV restriction.

My carpool uses the I-95 & 395 HOV lane and we are passed by dozens of cheaters every day. Since the State Police can't enforce current HOV-3 laws, how will they enforce HOT rules where single drivers who have paid the toll are allowed? How will Pentagon and DC bound single drivers who have paid the I-95 toll be funneled back into the regular I-95 lanes since 395 will remain HOV-3 only -- or do they just get a free ride? You may have faith in the system, I forsee disaster!

Hey, you ask a lot of questions. (Good.)

One of the things I like about the HOT lanes system is that it's likely to reduce cheating. You'll have a company operating the lanes that has a very direct financial interest in the prevention of cheating. (It's not just the revenue. It's also the pledge to give the payers a reliable trip, and that means limiting congestion.)

The company will have an enforcement contract with the state police. Everyone using the HOT lanes will be required to have a transponder, which can be toggled for payers and carpoolers. The police will be monitoring that. Also, the set up for police to watch and then pull over cars should be safer than it is on the highways now.

The point where the HOT lanes end will be around Edsall Road. That's a merge to watch out for. The deal won't allow for toll payers to continue north in the HOV lanes, so they'll have to get out of those lanes.

I'm a hill employee who uses independence avenue on my way home to Virginia. There've been lane closures for the past couple of months on Independence near the air and space museum. Any idea how long these will continue?

No, and I'm pretty sure that's not a road project -- not DDOT or Federal Highway Administration.

Your page Sunday included information about D.C.'s new red-top meters. Do the handicapped-only restrictions apply at all times, or only during the hours that meter payments are required? (I note also that in many parts of the city meters are being replaced by the paper ticket system because meters seem to be prone to failure and require regular collections and maintenance. I wonder whether it might have been smarter and cheaper to just designate specific spaces as "handicapped only" during posted hours.)

My understanding is that the red top meter spaces are reserved at all hours for people with valid disability placards or plates. They do have to pay during the meters' hours of operation. (And you can pay by cell phone.)


Have you noticed that the new DDOT program has taken away a critical benefit for people with disabilities--drastically in the short run and still significantly in the long run? Until last week, we could park for double the amount of the posted time at any legal parking space in the city. Today we can do that at only 400 spaces. Even if the Red Top Program is expanded as much as DDOT claims, the number of double-time spaces will be slashed (so that if the closest one or two are occupied, the benefit is essentially unavailable). Without question, people with disabilities need the extra time. Why is this restriction of our access and independence not being noted at all? And how could such big changes (including the institution of meter fees) take place without citizen input - or any input from the DC government's own disability officials?

The new program has reduced the locations for double-time parking and added a requirement that everyone pay. The new meters are in the central business district and around federal buildings in Southwest Washington.

DDOT says that the agencies it has worked with on this program include the Office of Aging and the Department of Disability Services.

I know what the theory is: That there were so many cheaters under the old system of free parking for extended hours that people with disabilities weren't able to find parking spaces when and where they needed them. Whether the initial number of 400 and the particular locations are adequate, I'm not sure, since the enforcement of the program has been underway only since last week.

Hello Dr Gridlock. Out of town DC visitor here. Came into town yesterday planning to get metro @Shady Grove. Station was closed so took the provided shuttle bus. Would prefer to not repeat that the next time. When/where does metro announce its station closings for the weekend? Thanks!!

Metro has an announcement of the weekend track work on its Web site about a week ahead of time. I do a regular blog posting on Fridays called "The weekend and beyond" that includes the full list. And I try to post the list earlier in the week as well.

Good morning good Dr. G. This is a followup to my question of 2 weeks ago on the lane realignment at University Blvd. W. at 29. This weekend I was almost hit as someone came into my lane from the right when the lane they had thought was through suddenly became a right only. This has been going on since they "finished" the paving. And the right turn markings on the pavement are still the temporary - straight lines - design as opposed to the nice curved arrow.

Thanks for the reminder on this. I do have to go back and check. I got caught up in writing about the plans for renovating the nearby University Blvd bridge over the Beltway.

Hi Dr. Gridlock, Care to comment on the trend toward building and maintaining roads via tolls rather than taxes? This seems to be especially prevalent in Virginia (e.g., PPPs associated with HOT lanes in NOVA and tunnel tolls in Hampton Roads). Not sure about the HOT lanes, but it looks like the tunnel tolls down in Portsmouth will be more costly for the everyday users than it would have been if the funding had been raised through a modest increase in sales tax. Do you think this no-taxes approach will ultimately result in better overall conditions (both fiscal and physical) of the transportation system, or is it more likely to lead to gridlock and crumbling infrastructure?

I comment about this topic a lot in my columns.  But you ask key questions that I'm not sure we can answer yet, based on actual experience with the toll lanes.

We've fallen into the pattern of using tolling to finance new highway lanes. People in the DC area see that in the Va. HOT lanes project and Maryland's Intercounty Connector.

But the money plays two roles: One is the financing and the other is managing congestion by making it more expensive to travel at crowded times and creating an incentive to avoid those lanes at peak periods.

How those two goals will mesh, I'm not sure.

One thing I do feel sure of and say quite frequently: We are determined to have congestion relief, and equally determined not to pay for it.

Politicians know that, and aren't going to raise gas taxes to finance new transportation projects.

Hi! Latest timeframe for Dulles to Reston (near work, yay!) and then Dulles? Muchas Gracias.

PS - I avoid the beltway as much as I can. When I have no choice, I marvel that there are not more accidents on it. How many accidents per day happen now, versus when it wasn't such a cluster?

Don't know about the accident rates.

The Silver Line to Reston should be operating by the end of 2013. There's no start date yet for construction of phase 2 out to Dulles.

Regarding Metro operators slamming doors on patrons, I can recall visiting a couple cities abroad where giant mirrors -- the size of a sheet of plywood -- were mounted at the ends of subway platforms so operators could easily observe the whole length of the train. Doors didn't close until everybody waiting was safely aboard. That's a cheap, low-tech solution; maybe a higher-tech version would be cameras and a monitor that the operator could watch. I have also had train doors snap closed in front of me, and making it easier for operators to observe the train would eliminate at least one excuse.

We do have mirrors at some stations. Is it just the above ground stations? But I don't believe that's the issue. An operator should be able to stick his or her head out the cab window and look back down the train.

Mirror or a direct look solves the problem. I've stood at the head of the platform and looked back to see what the operator is seeing on a crowded downtown platform. That's difficult.

But again, this problem isn't limited to the rear cars.

Just to chime in on adding buses and Metro's legal obligations--adding buses on that line likely means taking buses away from another line. Metro has an obligation under Title VII (I think) of the Civil Rights Act to ensure that it isn't increasing service in one area and reducing it in an area that is of a racial minority or economically disadvantaged area. These legal obligations are challenging at best when dealing with route increases.

In my job, I have the advantage of being able to travel around the region and see the crowding on different lines. I think the average commuter -- quite naturally -- is limited to seeing just a couple. There are clearly problems with crowding on many major routes.

RE: Metro Survey in Sunday's Column I tried several times to get to the survey you mentioned and could not access it. Does Metro not want to hear from riders?

Here's a link. I just tried it and it worked fine:

Dr. G.: Metro could have rejected the ad about the president and not have been in violation of the Constitution. TV and radio stations have rejected ads as long as those media have been in existence--ads that tell someone to "go to hell" would never air. The free speech guarantee says the government shall make no laws abridging freedom of speech. Last time i looked, Metro wasn't the government.

Are you saying the transit authority isn't a government entity?

Ugh, the "right hook". The guy who got hit by the turning lumber truck on U last week is my friend. He's doing okay and will make a recovery, but has a long road ahead of him.

Saw the photo of what the bike looked like afterward. Thought about how vulnerable cyclists are. Was thinking of it in giving my response to the previous comment about right of way.

I often have trouble getting the gates to read my card as well. But there's no real pattern to it. I figured I was just trying to go through at a busy time and the computer system was overloaded or something.

Got a few responses on the SmarTrip issue and will get some more posted.

Definitely something strange going on with some of the card readers. Last week I had to gate-shop twice at Farragut West because it wasn't reading my card. I'm not doing anything differently.

I've had to do this from time to time over the years, but have not picked up a pattern to it.

I had a similar problem. Got on the metro in Bethesda on Sunday night (after a bus trip back from NYC) and my 2-year old metro card worked fine. I get off at Twinbrook literally 15 minutes later, and NONE of the turnstiles, the fare machines, or the sensors in the operator's booth can read it. I had to get a new card.

You sure it was the card? They do break, but sometimes it is a problem with the readers at the fare gates.

Do you know of any work/delays on the Orange line (west) this weekend. We're coming from Winchester for a Caps game Sunday and I don't see anything on Metro's site yet.

I'll get the full list posted on the Dr. Gridlock blog, but here's what's up this weekend with the OL:

  • Beginning at 10 p.m. Friday and continuing through system closing on Sunday, Orange Line trains will single track between Eastern Market and Stadium-Armory and between East Falls Church and West Falls Church.
  • Throughout the weekend, Orange Line trains will depart Vienna and New Carrollton every 24 minutes.
  • Customers should allow 15-20 minutes of additional travel time.

Cars turning right on streets with a bike land should move into the bike lane before making the right turn.

And they should look first, right?

I've used the metro in London, Paris, Madrid, Berlin, Montreal and Mexico City as well as DC. Only Washington doesn't care whether passengers can get on or off. So the doors are a metaphor for the system: It looks good (the train ran on time) but doesn't actually work. Metro closes doors on passengers because it chooses to.

You think our trains run on time? I hear especially about this from riders on the west side of the Orange Line in the mornings. One reason their trains are not on schedule is that they've made a run through downtown already and got thrown off by loading and unloading passengers.

That survey is very frustrating. I just started and they're basically asking me if I'd prefer them to comply with NTSB regulations, prevent terrorism, or maintain the rail cars? I understand that these may be choices they're forced to make, but the truth is, I care more about my day-to-day use of the system than anything else, but that's no excuse, in my opinion to not comply with NTSB regs

I think politicians call that type of survey a "push poll." There's a lot of Metro explaining what a hard job it is to run a transit system. Then some of the questions sound like, "Would you rather have us do the right thing or the wrong thing?"

Travelers, thanks for sticking with me today. I'm going to sign off now, but will look through the many comments still in the mailbag -- and try to get answers to a couple of the issues you raised.

I'll be away next week and not chatting, but will be back the following Monday. Write to me anytime at

Stay safe.

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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