Dr. Gridlock

Mar 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. The week already is off to an interesting start, with the morning problems on the Blue and Yellow lines, so let's start there.

I'm a regular Yellow Line rider but I got the full Red Line experience this morning. 3x longer commute, "unscheduled" track maintenance, long periods waiting, sardines on the train, etc., etc. Oh, I feel for the Red Line riders! Does WMATA plan to fail or just fail to plan?

For those of you fortunate enough not to know what we're talking about, Metro had an emergency this morning on the Blue/Yellow Line tracks near the Reagan National Airport station.

Post reporter Debbi Wilgoren wrote this on the Dr. Gridlock blog this morning:

Hydraulic fluid leaked onto a track near Washington Reagan National Airport shortly before 5 a.m., officials said. While crews worked to clean up the spill, trains in both directions shared a single track from Pentagon City to Braddock Road.

The transit agency reported delays of at least 30 minutes, while some frustrated commuters said they’d been waiting for an hour or more.

At 10:25 a.m., the track where the spill occurred was put back into use. Officials said it would take some time for the backlogs to clear and service times to return to normal.

Dr. G - the Metro problem this morning was ridiculous. I stood on a Blue train at Braddock Road for 40 minutes (8:35 to 9:15). No less than 7 times did the conductor say that the train would be moving momentarily - a complete joke. But my real question is why Metro didn't adjust for rush hour with single tracking. A Metro police officer told me that they were doing 3 trains northbound and then 3 southbound. Setting aside the issue that it should not take 40 minutes to get three southbound trains from Pentagon City to Braddock Road, why 3 and 3? Why not 6 trains northbound and then 3 southbound? My train was already packed and at each station I held my breath, praying that the doors would still work, as more people piled into the entryways. But the southbound trains that went through Braddock were almost completely empty.

Of course, there were many angry riders commenting on the situation this morning. I noticed complaints -- among other things -- about the communications. For example, an announcement referring to trains coming in on "Track One," with very few people knowing what that meant.

Metro often has problems communicating with riders in the stations during such emergencies. The e-mail and text alerts are a big improvement, but many people don't receive them.

I'll ask about the 3-3. For now, I'll give you my best guess: The need to maintain a.m. rush hour service to National Airport might have been one issue. But primarily, if Metro heavily favored inbound trains over outbound trains, it would eventually run out of trains to send inbound.

Thanks to you and Steve Goff for the heads up about stadium traffic. However, getting out of the stadium was a total mess on Saturday night. At the end of last season the police or DDoT blocked the right lane of southbound 295 before the entrance ramp from the Whitney Young bridge which made traffic flow smoothly. But Saturday night they didn't do that so traffic was at a total stand still. Any idea if that is going to be reinstituted for other games this season?

I don't know why that very sensible setup from last season wasn't repeated. I know that the managers on the 11th Street Bridge project who suggested the detour routes for soccer fans thought the lane block would be repeated.

Without the lane block on 295, traffic exiting RFK Stadium after a soccer game is bound to stall, and that would also lengthen the problem for through traffic on DC 295 South.

What we're talking about is the rerouting required for DC United fans now that a portion of the Southeast Freeway is closed, blocking their usual route to Lot 8 on the southeast side of the stadium. This season, those driving along I-395 need  to keep going across the 11th Street Bridge and the Anacostia River, go north on DC 295 to westbound Pennsylvania Avenue, re-cross the river and then make a sharp on Barney Circle, to reach the stadium access road into the lot.

Is there any new information on the fare rates on/around the Silver line once it opens?

The fare rates for using the Silver Line won't be any different from those in the rest of the Metro system. 

why did the exec's at wmata receive bonuses when the system is losing money and always begging for more? how do you defend that?

Have I said something that made you think I was defending any bonuses received by Metro managers?

The news out of the last Metro board meeting was that GM Richard Sarles got a very good performance review from the board, and the board is trying to line him up for a contract extension.

What did you think of that?

Slightly delayed getting from Pentagon City to L'Enfant to Federal Center this morning. I say "slightly" because unlike about 80% of the people in the PC station, I stayed up top & actually listened to the announcements about which train was arrived on which platform. I then proceeded to the correct platform (which wasn't crowded) & got on an empty train. (The announcements were clear & correct.) Are the people that constantly write you whining about Metro the same ones that are too busy taking photos with their phones (to tweet or blog or whatever they do with them) to actually listen to the announcements & then are not ready to board when their train arrives? This morning wasn't the first time I've observed this behavior. If more people would actually pay attention to something other than their phones instead of irrationally blaming Metro, there would be less chaos in the situations. Those of us who do pay attention are tired of being nearly trampled by those who don't & then try to make a mad dash with no regard for others.

I get the sense that there are some who think that finding a practical way to deal with a problematic commute is the same as letting Metro officials off the hook. But we saw plenty of messages this morning from people who were having trouble understanding the audio messages on the platforms.

I don't say that to dispute the commenter, whose performance I admire. We're always going to have these little commuting crises. This rider took advantage of the tools available for dealing with one and came out of it okay.

Was an absolute mess. Mad props to the operator of the train that I was on, though, for not only speaking clearly into the mic, but also doing his best to keep us fully informed of everything that was going out throughout the near hour it took to get from Van Dorn to the Pentagon. Go figure, both the roads and metro were bad on the same day. The only real gripe I have about it was that because it took so long to get through, the bus transfer discount didn't go through. So not only did I pay the rush hour fare to take twice as long as normal to get to work, but I didn't even get my bus transfer credit.

The transfer problem doesn't sound right. I'd call Metro's customer assistance line and tell them what happened to you on the transfer. (202-637-1328)

When the express lanes end on the beltway inner loop, the lane markers are solid for a good quarter mile. When they do change to broken lines, the lane is already shrinking -- leaving almost no time to merge. I've decided to risk getting a ticket for crossing the solid line, rather than risking my neck for a hurried merge. Any idea why the lines stay solid for so long, or if they might be changed?

This is an interesting situation, and one that already was on the minds of some drivers before the 495 Express Lanes opened in November.

I've done that merge many times now, and haven't had a problem -- although, it definitely gets my full attention every time I do it. I just don't like merging from left to right and having to look over my shoulder for traffic as well as straight ahead.

The reason I haven't experienced or witnessed any problems is that the regular lanes and the express lanes ramp run parallel for a good distance (starting from the area with the white bollards) so drivers have time to eyeball each other.

It could be rebuilt within that area, but I think the more likely thing is that VDOT will carry through on its plan to extend the express lanes north so they end closer to the GW Parkway.

Why are there jersey walls along the I-95 Express Lanes right now? I understand that they are being converted into the HOT lanes, so I accept the construction zone at Edsal and also down in Dumfries. And eventually, I understand that the EZPass readers will have to be installed on the existing road. But why does that require jersey walls for the entire length of the cooridor right now?

I thought that was a construction zone safety issue as the HOV lanes are converted to HOT lanes. The lanes are being reconfigured, and new ramps and flyovers are under construction.

The commenter is right that E-ZPass readers will be installed, but just to clarify, because I know some people worry: The E-ZPass readers are for the express lanes -- just like on the 495 Express Lanes -- not for the regular lanes on I-95.

As an NY-area resident transplanted to DC, it seems logical to me to plant the "WMATA fail" flag squarely on the fact that Metro was not planned/built with an express track (either 1 or, as in most of the trunk lines in NY, 2). Surely the original architects of the system are kicking themselves in the rear about that one now. Interestingly enough, the MTA in NY is setting themselves up the same way now by only building 2 tracks for the majority of the 2nd Avenue Sudway currently under construction!

As an NY resident transplanted to DC in 1988, I say there's NY's subway, and then there's everything else. It's difficult to compare any other subway system -- for better or worse -- with NY.

New York's express tracks are the exception, not the rule, for U.S. transit systems.

I enjoy second-guessing the designers of Metro as much as the next person, but reading The Great Society Subway by Zachary Schrag gave me much more respect for what they were up against, financially and politically.

It's a marvel we have the system at all.

Keep that in mind as you hear about Metro's "Momentum" plan for the next generation of trains, stations and tunnels.

I wasn't caught up in this one, but riders should take it upon themselves to know of alternate routes in case there are major delays along their regular train lines, instead of just standing around waiting for trains. Also, I think WMATA should set up a system where any passenger who enters a station and leaves within a certain (small) amount of time, perhaps less than 10 minutes, does not pay under the premise no ride was taken. I've heard there is a fraud concern, but I don't see that as a block that can't be overcome. This morning's incident was exacerbated by the fact that Braddock Road to Pentagon City is one of the longest sections of the system where there is no crossover between the tracks, the pocket at National Airport has been partially removed and can't be utilized in this circumstance easily anymore. As a result, the single track section was a long one and more time was needed for the trains to clear it.

I know Metro officials are concerned about fraud, but I hope that this sort of allowance for a quick exit can be part of the upgrades for the next generation fare system.

Meanwhile: Has anyone found those new message displays at the kiosks helpful in this sort of situation. The exanded information about the status of the lines was added in part to deal with the frustration riders were having with entering the fare gates and only then learning about problems on the lines.

I agree with the commenter that riders should take the time to figure out alternative routes, by bus, by Capital Bikeshare or by foot. We've been talking about walking routes across the Potomac in some of my columns recently. Seems there are many people who know how to use the 14th Street, Roosevelt and Arlington Memorial bridges as an alternative when there's a Metro problem.

Last week, you had a question about walking from the Chain Bridge to Arlington. It can be done, but NOT on Glebe Road. Instead, walk off the Chain Bridge, through the intersection with 123, and over Pimmit Run. Where Glebe Road goes to the left, on foot you want to continue straight onto 41st Street. A path gets you up the hill to Randolph Street. From there, walk towards a bridge that will take you over Glebe Road and onto Old Glebe Road where there are sidewalks. Continue about a mile or so until you finally meet up with Glebe Road at the Walker Chapel.

Thanks very much. When this question came up last week, I couldn't picture how a pedestrian would proceed on the Virginia side of the Chain Bridge.

Dr. G, in recent weeks you've occasionally inquired about what, if anything, we readers do to inform ourselves of traffic conditions before leaving home in the mornings. I think today's Metrorail schemozzle in Virginia is a fine example of why I think it's a mistake to rely on any one news source. I usually drive my wife to the Blue Line in the morning and pick her up in the evening. Our alarm clock plays WTOP when the alarm sounds. Their traffic reports didn't mention the Metro situation when we were struggling to wake up. My wife listens to WNEW while getting dressed. Theirs didn't mention it either. The iTransDC app on my iPhone did not sound an alert to warn us. BUT while I was waiting for her to finish getting dressed I looked online and saw all the Twitter reports about the single-tracking, and I also looked at your blog and saw the news there. So I told her I'd drive her into the District. Only when we were already on the Beltway (I took the Beltway to US-1 in Alexandria so we could go HOV-2 through Old Town) did WTOP mention the single-tracking. By that time I'd have already dropped her at the Metro stop. Now I'm seeing reports of commutes taking upwards of two hours for many people! ......All a long way of saying, look, DC-area traffic is prone to changing big-time in the amount of time it takes to snap your fingers, and it's impossible for any one news source to keep up with all of what's going on. No RESPONSIBLE person would try to read Twitter or traffic blogs while driving, but in almost 40 years of living here I've come to the conclusion that if you don't inform yourself thoroughly before you leave home, you're being foolish, and days like today underscore why checking the commute news is not solely for people who drive!

What I've found over the years is that congestion bothers commuters, but the unreliability of the commute bothers them even more. People certainly have a general idea how long their trips take, but -- given the distances we travel and the number of people who travel at the same times -- even minor problems create big delays.

There's no much going on regionally that would smooth out the problem areas anytime soon. That's why I encourage people to take advantage of every available source of information before leaving home or office, and then do what's safe to get more information while traveling.

I absolutely agree that it's best not to rely on one source of information. Generally speaking, the biggest disconnect is between traffic and transit information. But transit agencies have expanded their real-time information systems. Social media helps, too.

Still, most people don't take advantage of these resources. They just go.

Hi Dr. G! What is the deal with the (almost) constant leak at the top of the Escalators at the Bethesda station? I am fearful that the structure is in danger of collapsing as leaks are hardly ever a good sign. Has anyone else ever mentioned any concern? Thanks!

You're the first. And you mean the top of the big escalators, by the bus bays?

In Reston, the Metro silver line will be coming. I heard there will be parking available, but will there be a charge to park? Right now, we can park for free in Reston and take the bus to West Fall Church Metro. Thanks!

There will be a charge for commuter parking at the Wiehle Avenue stations, at the end of the Silver Line's first phase, and then for parking at the stations to be built later as part of phase two.

The Fairfax Connector is going to be rerouting many of its bus lines when Silver Line phase one opens. (It's schedled to happen late this year.)

Many of the commuters who now take buses to West Falls Church will find that their buses have been reroutes to the Wiehle Avenue station.

There's no commuter parking being built for the four stations in Tysons, but there will be many new bus services, including shuttles across Tysons.

Glad I saw on the news this morning about the single tracking. I hadn't planned to drive today, but it probably saved me at least an hour of hassle and stress. I find myself driving much more frequently despite my employer paying my Metro fare. Today's article about declining ridership should come as no surprise to anyone.

I think most of last year's decline in ridership had to do with the decline in the federal subsidy for riding. The subsidy was restored this year.

But I think everyone should travel in the way that best suits them. If driving is easier, drive. But if you're making a change, do it because it costs less, saves time or is less stressful. Don't do it because you think you're going to punish someone in a transportation agency.


I may be way out of the loop, but do you know the timetable for the Silver Line (or have a link where I can find the information)? Husband works in Tyson's Corner, and we're moving near Dulles; it'd be great if he could Metro into work instead of driving.

It's a little tough to calculate, because there is no timetable yet. When I ask about travel times, officials always refer me to the original environmental impact statement, which gives only the general idea for planners' purposes, not commuters.

But the Silver Line from Wiehle Avenue will be running rush hour trains every six minutes, and it's a straight shot from Wiehle Avenue into Tysons. Your husband could either drive to the Wiehle Avenue station and pay for parking there before boarding the train, or take a bus to the station.

There are some Metro meetings coming up this week about Silver Line service. See a list here:


One reason why WMATA can't prioritize the inbound trains in the way the earlier reader suggested is that they'd back up the trains going in the other direction. Bear in mind that the other end of the Blue Line is in PG County and you have a lot of commuters there who want to get downtown; in addition, the Orange Line shares tracks across DC with the Blue and you have a LOT of commuters coming from New Carrollton on the Orange. So what all that means is that if you don't let the "outbound" Blue Line trains get through from Pentagon City to Braddock, you cause a backup that cascades all the way across DC. Instead of having angry riders in Alexandria, you have angry riders all the way across the area. Yeah, it stinks for the folks at this end of the Blue and Yellow Lines, but even as someone who lives at this end of the system I have to agree that it wouldn't be fair to the people in Maryland to mess up their commutes in that fashion. (In other words: The earlier reader saw "almost completely empty" trains heading outbound through Braddock. But those trains were most likely "almost completely FULL" from Largo through to downtown!)

Very good point. Thank you. In my answer, I was thinking only about the issue within Virginia and the need to get trains down to Huntington and Franconia-Springfield so they could be available for more inbound trips. But the train-balancing issue for MD and DC riders is a significant one.

During the 14th St bridge construction project there was always a backup southbond on the GW Parkway to the bridge during the AM rush, but this is still going on. Any ideas why we wait from the Humpback bridge (or before) to get onto the 14th st bridge?

I think becaue of the heavy traffic coming up I-395 North and getting onto the bridge. Does anyone have another explanation?

What criteria is GM Sarles reviewed upon? Ridership is down, satisfaction is down, there's a huge budget deficit in the transit budget. WMATA has failed to show improvement in communicaiton with customers and emergency preparedness. What did he do so right that he got such a good review?

I think what the board likes about Sarles is that he's said the rebuilding program is the top priority and he's taken responsibility for carrying it out.

I compared him to the baseball manager who takes the team through the "rebuilding' years, when everyone's dumping on the team's mediocre record,  then gives way to a manager who takes the now-robust team to the World Series -- with no one giving credit to the guy who actually rebuilt the team.

He said he was okay with that, because in his long career in transit, he's been both those managers.

Here's what I think is a key problem for Metro management right now: The managers are more into running trains than providing train service. Metro needs both those types, but it's got a deficit on the customer service side.

It's an old topic, but yesterday I was driving in downtown DC (10th Street) and I had a green light at Pennsylvania Avenue. Meanwhile, some pedestrians were strolling across 10th Street against the light and were pretty clearly oblivious to my approaching car. So I blew the horn. They moved, and then one of them turned towards me to give the finger and yell. Somebody please explain to me why a pedestrian who is so clearly in the wrong thinks he's entitled to behave like that.

You don't have to be St. Christopher to be a pedestrian.

Just wanted to say, "Thank you" for checking in to my question last week and publishing it in the Sunday paper. Keep up the good work!

Oh, that's one of the easy ones. We were just talking about how Metro has yet to announce a timetable -- even a time frame, or a time goal -- for restoring the trains to automated control.

The trains have been driven by their operators since the June 2009 crash on the Red Line. So we're approaching the fourth anniversary with no word on when the trains will be operated in the way they were designed for.

This morning I actually thought about catching a bus to the Pentagon from Braddock Road - but was snookered out of it by Metro employees who kept saying that the trains would be leaving "any minute". If Metro had accurate information - that it would have been a 40 minute delay, not a 20 - then I probably would have made a different choice. I don't know what Metro has against giving riders the best information it has, but it is really irritating.

What I fear -- and I think this is worse -- is that people are giving you the best information they have.

Dr. G, as someone who did not grow up in Northern Virginia and have never taken 66 E to a job in Arlington or Downtown, where are the signs saying 66 E is HOV only after the beltway exits? A friend of mine got a ticket recently, and i was shocked to learn this. I've often taken 495 in both directions and never seen a sign stating MON-FRI 66 is HOV only. Thanks!

Traveling south on the outer loop, I see the warnings on the left-side exit signs for I-66 E. Northbound on the inner loop, it's somewhat the same setup for the right-side exit.

On I-66 E, you'll see the warning signs before reaching the Beltway exits.

Thank you, thank you, to the person who responded to my post from last week's chat!

You made a suggestion a couple weeks ago that pedestrians "reward" drivers waiting to turn left. The trouble (from the pedestrian standpoint) is that this encourages all the left-turners to come through without yielding. This is especially dangerous when there's a large vehicle in the queue that other drivers can't see around--they proceed blindly without paying attention to folks in the crosswalk. I'd much rather cross as soon as I have the signal...gives me a much better chance of making it home alive to my family in the evening!

I think you should do what's safe. Pedestrians have the right of way in a crosswalk when the signal favors them, and drivers should never be targeting pedestrians anyway.

I think what that Feb. exchange had to do with was being aware that drivers eventually do need to turn left, so don't start walking when the signal is against you.

Travelers, I have to break away now. Today, we had many comments about the troubles on the Blue and Yellow lines, and there still are more in the mailbag. So I'll try to get out a Dr. Gridlock blog posting that incorporates some of the unpublished ones, as well as reviewing what happened during the morning.

I'll be back with you at noon next Monday. 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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