Mar 07, 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 spent this morning's rush hour driving back and forth on the Intercounty Connector, and will start us off today with a driver's comment about the traffic.

Bring on all your traffic and transit comments and questions. Over the weekend, I wrote about the upcoming impact on traffic of the military base realignment this year, and about the extension of Virginia's law allowing hybrids in the HOV lanes. But let's start with that ICC one.

The backups from 370 on to 270 are now stretching 1/4 mile and longer, and it doesn't seem to matter if it is 7:15 am, 7:45 am, or 8:30 am. Perhaps I will experiment with getting on 270 at Exit 11 for a while. I doubt it is much better, though!

I'll tell you what my experience was this morning: At about 8 a.m., I came off the westbound lanes of the ICC onto I-370 and stayed left for the single-lane ramp that heads for I-270 toward Washington. There were very few other drivers heading my way on that ramp.

When I came around the bend and saw I-270, it was jammed. Drivers were hardly moving. But I don't believe that this had anything to do with the ICC traffic -- at least not at the time I was driving this morning.

Kelly Melhem, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Transportation Authority, which operates the ICC, says that transportation officials are monitoring the traffic on both the east and west sides of the ICC and are prepared to make adjustments.

One thing they are curious to see, of course, is the impact of the start of ICC tolling today. This morning, Melhem said, there were about 2,100 vehicles on the ICC during the peak period, compared to an average of 5,500 during the morning peaks over the past two weeks, when the ICC was free.


Did you see the NY Times article on Saturday about the cloth seats that the SF Bart trains use and what they've found on them? Absolutely repulsive. Why exactly are we switching to cloth? Makes me think twice about sitting. 

Thanks for pointing out this interesting story about transit seats and germs, and how they get together.

This spring, Metro riders will get a chance to talk about the seats, floors and other design elements for the next generation of rail cars, the ones that eventually will replace the 1000 Series, the oldest in the fleet.

Metro has been testing cloth seats on a few rail cars for about two years. I think the cloth has held up quite well. It's the test floors I wonder about.


Do you know a good therapist? Or support group? I just spent 2 hours on 66 this morning (to go 30 miles, btw). Maybe we can all get together and do some primitive screaming.

Really sorry to hear about this. I have a feeling that plenty of drivers from across the DC region could share your pain about this morning. I listened to the WTOP traffic reports and read Mark Berman's postings on our Dr. Gridlock blog. Sounded like there were several accidents that led to problems. Plus, last night's rain ended with a period of snow and ice in many areas. Not the sort of thing a commuter wants to wake up to.

I wonder whether the city knows how out-of-all-proportion the morning gridlock has become on Connecticut NW driving south, where the flex lane ends and traffic goes back to three lanes. This morning, it took me very nearly half an hour to get between the zoo and Calvert - that's right, about 3 or 4 long blocks = half an hour. Is there nothing they can do with the traffic lights to ease the jam a bit? Or maybe fix up the block just north of Calvert where the pavement has been ripped and potholed to near shreds?

Another example of this moring's pain. I'm not sure what could be done with the traffic signals that would ease the problem with the volume. You think this might be traffic backing up from the Rock Creek Parkway entrance, where the park service continues the reconstruction project?

Certainly the pavement can be repaired. But I'm getting reports about many main commuter routes being in sad shape right now because of the winter weather.

What does "schedule adjustment" REALLY mean? Seems I've heard with increasing frequency in subway stations several times a week announcements along the lines of "We have been instructed by [central control] to hold at this location for several minutes for a schedule adjustment". Several equals many. Thanks.

"Schedule adjustment" in that context means that the trains have gotten too close together. Happens all the time during the rush periods, especially when the trains get closer to downtown. The trains leave the ends of the lines pretty evenly spaced, but then they start to pick up lots of passengers on crowded platforms. The following train starts to catch up. The closer it gets, the less time it spends with its doors open at the platform, because the first train just left.

So pretty soon, you've got one jammed train leading the pack and a couple of following trains with plenty of seats.

Metrorail's operations control center tells the driver of the second train to hold for a while, to put more space between the trains and ease the crowding up ahead.

What is going on with the Orange Line slowdowns? Between Ballston and East Falls Church, it's CRAWLING. And then again between West Falls Church and Dunn Loring eastbound. Twice now in the last week, this slowdown has caused me to miss my work shuttle. HELP! I've left earlier but am still always panicked I will be late. 

I don't see much happening in the near future to ease the congestion on the west side of the Orange Line. That's a real trouble spot. There are plenty of people on those western platforms. Trains get bunched up, as I said in the previous response, and then there's a big gap after that, so the platforms get really crowded again.

Plus, there's the problem of crowding at the Rosslyn tunnel, where the Orange and Blue line trains coverage. The next thing we should hear about that is the latest refinement in the plan to split the Blue Line so that some trains use the Yellow Line bridge over the Potomac. That might ease things somewhat for the Orange Line riders when it eventually starts.

I noticed that the park service has constructed two parking pads on either side of Military Road near the 16th Street overpass. Do you know whether they are designed for cars with speed cameras?

I don't know. Not sure why the park service would build pads for DC police mobile speed units. That's certainly an area where cars tend to speed, though.

Did some research on purchasing an E-ZPass since I'll be randomly using the new ICC from I370 to Georgia Ave. I suggest people purchase their passes from West Virginia to avoid the monthly $1.50 fee in MD and the overly-intrusive detail that MD requires upon registration. West Virginia charges a $5 annual fee and only requires car tag numbers. You don't have to purchase the pass from the state you live in and the pass is accepted in any state where E-ZPass operates. Allow some time, though, since they don't let you register online - it's all done through the mail.

Other drivers who don't want to get a Maryland E-ZPass have suggested Virginia, Pennsylvania and Delaware as alternatives. There are about two dozen agencies that issue E-ZPass accounts, and you can certainly shop for the best deal. It's a little complicated, because there are a variety of fees, charges and deposits -- and some discounts -- in the various accounts.

Doc G: With the Cherry Blossom Festival approaching, and Metro's recent track record of less than satisfactory performance on weekends, what can we expect during the Cherry Blossom Festival? Should we expect the same single-trackings, station closings, and 30 minute headways we've come to expect and avoid from Metro on the weekend, or is is possible we'll see WMATA get smart and run full service with 8 minute or less headways during this very popular downtown event that lacks any sort of parking whatsover?

Ridership surges during cherry blossom time, and it's always challenging for Metrorail. Given that history, I was suprised that last season went relatively well.

Metro says the rail system's on time performance was about 88 percent during January. The goal is 95 percent. There was also a decline in rail car reliability during January, the most recent month for which the numbers are available. Major culprits -- as always -- are the train doors. It's easy to knock them out. Then the train gets taken out of service, but the mechanics in the yard have trouble replicating the problem. So they're difficult to fix, and it's difficult to establish a specific pattern of failure that would lead to a long-term solution.

Please help out a short Metro rider here - I don't understand how the new Metro cars (just clicked the link from an earlier answer) will add capacity. There is NOWHERE to hold on! Do they just assume that people will be squished in like sardines so there's no need for people to hold onto anything? This is so frustrating, after years of attempting to tell Metro that the current car configuration that removed the vertical poles was absolutely awful, that they go to a configuration that appears to be even worse! Please help me understand!

If I remember right, there's likely to be a slight increase in car capacity with the 7000 Series, but I think it's because the cars will come in sets of four, rather than sets of two. You don't have to set the cars up to have as many operator cabs.

About the poles: I've certainly heard from many riders who say they don't like the design of the 6000 Series, the newest cars we have. They didn't like the elimination of the poles at the front and back of the cars. Metro says it did that so people would be more likely to move into the center of the car.

Then people complained and Metro added those overhead hand grips. But people told me that they couldn't reach the hand grips. And others noted that on a crowded train, we all try to move toward the doors before the train comes to a stop, so we have a decent shot at getting out before people pour in.

The train is likely to be lurching on its way to a stop, so people take tumbles and have nothing but their fellow passengers to hug.

I am curious to know whether anyone has used the new ICC bus service yet. I tried using Route 201 yesterday (Sunday) evening from the BWI MARC/Amtrak station. I arrived at 8:30 p.m. and waited over an hour and no bus ever showed up. Has the MTA already given up on running these buses?

I certainly haven't heard about the Maryland Transit Administration giving up on the two new bus routes. They haven't even started charging for them yet. Buses should have been operating at that time on Sunday.

My concern about the service is that the MTA lists parking spaces available for bus riders at places like Shady Grove Metro station. Metro doesn't allow longterm parking at Shady Grove, and I'm not sure I'd want to leave my car longterm at some of the other bus stop locations. So I've been recommending that people get a ride to the new bus stops, or take a bus to the bus.

My wife and I are looking for an apartment and really want to minimize our commute. We work in walking distance from the Branch Ave. Metro and would like to have the option of both Metroing and driving to to work. Any suggestions of areas/neighborhoods to check out that would keep our commute around 30 minutes? We are looking for a max rent of $2,000 if that helps. Thank you. [From Luke: Here's a link to the Post's real estate-near-metro page]

Thanks to the show's producer, Luke Rosiak, for including the link. I'm wondering if you might want to look around the Navy Yard area in DC. That neighborhood has a good future, though plans slowed a bit during the recession. Meanwhile, you're right on the Green Line, and will be able to reach the 11th Street Bridge via M Street (the bridge is being rebuilt) as well as the Douglass Bridge along South Capitol Street.


I work downtown near 20th & L. It is simply amazing how frequently cars speed through the red lights at the intersections of 21st, 20th, and 19th and L streets (21st and M is also a major problem). And I don't mean one guy going through after the light just barely turns red. I'm talking about 4 or 5 cars going through WAY after the light has turned red... frequently with people IN the crosswalks. I have almost been hit on numerous occasions, and several co-workers have been hit (minor injuries) in the crosswalks. Worse yet, I have frequently seen multiple cars run these lights IN FRONT OF COPS with nobody being pulled over. This is an epidemic problem, and someone is going to be killed. My question is, how do I (we) fix this.. or at least get a police presence that cares and will actually ticket offenders?

D.C. Police do periodic crackdowns on red-light runners, but the police performance on basic traffic infractions has been spotty. I've been more hopeful about increasing the number of traffic control officers under the direction of the District Department of Transportation and having them issue citations to red-light runners.

By the way, I agree with you about L/M Street red light runners. The Post newsroom is on L Street, so I wind up seeing a lot of that in walking around the neighborhood. I'm sure other travelers would chime in too, though, to add complaints from many other areas.

There are a number of places where you can get decent apartments for that price range along the Green Line. Check out Greenbelt, Beltsville, College Park, Hyattsville and New Carrollton. Although New Carrollton is on the Orange Line, it is a short trip by either car or bus to the Greenbelt metro station. From most of these places, you can get to a Green line metro station in under 10 minutes by car, in 20-40 minutes by bus depending on time of day.

Thanks for this, which I hope will help the questioner working near Branch Avenue Metro.

That is true, I just looked at the photo as well. If Metro takes away places to hold onto near the doors, then they will certainly solve the problem of people hanging out by the doors. Having more space is certainly great, but if a lot of that space cannot be used because people can't hold on... that's a problem that I think is worse than overcrowding by the doors. And you know what, I never think the crowding near the doors is that bad. When there's crowding by the doors the whole train is crowded. People do move in towards the middle, but only so many people can fit there.

My observation is that it doesn't solve the problem of people crowding around the doors. In fact, I wonder if it might make the door malfunctioning problem even worse. I see riders leaning against the doors as the trains enter stations, because they don't seem to be able to spot  places to grab hold.

Travelers, thanks for joining me today. I have to break away now. (Will try to get back to see the ICC during the afternoon rush.) There are a few questions I couldn't answer. One has to do with the 17th Street Levee project in DC. I'll post that, and some others, I hope, on the Dr. Gridlock blog.

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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