Dr. Gridlock

Mar 31, 2014

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.

Why are you always so adamantly opposed to them? Talk about a windshield perspective. I challenge you to take buses to and from work EVERY DAY for a week, and then tell me that the current allocation of space is fair.

Are Metro's public hearings basically just a sham? It seems like the fare hikes were essentially everything that Metro was asking for. All that public input seems meaningless to them. Have the hearings ever made a difference or is it just going through the motions?

I think the Woody Allen rule applies here: 80 percent of success is showing up.

Very few riders showed up for this winter's six public hearings on the fare increases.

Many of those who did show up were people with disabilities, who use the MetroAccess paratransit service. Though the Metro fare proposals contained no change in the formula for calculating the MetroAccess fare, these riders pointed out that any change in the bus and rail fares would raise their costs, as well, since they are linked.

So the Metro board did something for them it hadn't planned to do: It agreed to cut the maximum fare for a MetroAccess ride from $7 to $6.50.

It wasn't everything they asked for, but they got it because they showed up.

Is it legal to take a right turn on a red arrow in DC? On my evening commute, I drive (Eastbound) on Massachusetts Ave NW and take a right on 9th Street. There is a red right arrow at that intersection. Some days the person in front of me will stay stopped until the light turns green. Other days I will do the same thing and the car behind me will beep. I have searched the internet and was unable to find a definitive answer. I was hoping you could help me. Thanks in advance.

Stop, and remained stop until the solid red arrow disappears. Then you can turn.  (It's in the DC Driving Manual.)

Why isn't there a way for people to determine whether a train is blue or yellow when it is at the Franconia/Springfield metro. Currently, there is no signage or anything on the train designating color until moments before the doors close. Then you see people rushing to get off the train. It happened again to me this morning and I'm so tired of it. Such a crummy start to a long commute -- I go to McPherson Square so I'm one of those who is going to be totally messed with when the Silver Line opens up. Love your column:)

I think this is an issue about an end of the line station. (I can't think of any place besides Franconia-Springfield where you get two lines using the same terminal station, but others might correct me.)

Franconia-Springfield is the terminal for the Blue Line and the Rush Plus Yellow Line. It's possible the train operator or operators haven't changed the destination sign or the line color promptly. Or it's possible the operator hasn't gotten instructions from the Operations Control Center on what color to be for the next run.

Last time I rode from Franconia-Springfield I didn't encounter this problem. I knew from the train signs and from the loudspeaker announcement that I was boarding a Blue Line train. My problem was that the train was late arriving.

For all: If your leaving from Franconia-Springfield and your destination is McPherson Square, you do want the Blue Line. We've talked about Blue Line vs. Rush Plus Yellow Line with a downtown transfer on certain trips.

Do the new bus fares have any provision for seniors or disabled riders?

The fare for seniors or people with disabilities on Metrobus and Metrorail is always half the regular fare.

The signs on the wall of the lower, outbound tunnel at Pentagon station that list all the upcoming stations are backwards. They show Huntington (and all the stations) to be in an inbound direction. Is Metro aware of this mistake and do they plan to correct it?

Haven't seen that one. A few of the new Metrorail station signs put in to prepare for the addition of the Silver Line have been installed incorrectly. The Post's Lori Aratani wrote about one such case at Metro Center.

Both Friday and today, at just after 8 am, an empty train went through the Grosvenor station, leaving many people on the platform. I'm not sure about Friday's, but this morning's train definitely showed Silver Spring as its destination, both on the train and on the display board. The platform both days was very crowded as people had to wait to get on an already full train. Grosvenor is a big garage that fills up early. Trains coming every 6 minutes is a big difference from trains coming every 3 minutes, with one of those trains being empty. If Metro is changing its policy - perhaps trains will start loading at NIH or Bethesda - then lots of people would like to know. I, for one, might change which station I start at.

There's been no change in the policy about the train turnbacks at Grosvenor (or at Silver Spring).

This is a guess on what you saw Friday and today: It may have been what Metro calls a gap train. It's a train pressed into service when Metro encounters a problem on the line. Maybe some inner platforms are getting too crowded or maybe there's a busted train down the line. (I'm not aware of any Red Line trains going out of service this morning.)

Ending the turnbacks is one of those things on Metro's wish list for 2025, but you're not likely to see that any time soon.

Metro has been working on the platform escalators at the Bethesda station for a loooong time. However, in the last month or two, they have enclosed the escalator with wooden walls that extend to about a foot from the bumpy surface at the edge of the platform. This gives very little room for people to walk, particularly if someone happens to be standing there. I have a constant fear that someone -- either me or someone else! -- is going to fall on to the tracks, particularly if there are children, or even just distracted adults. I thought the bumps were put at the edge of the platform as a message to avoid standing or walking there.

The wooden walls are there for safety, but like you, I feel uncomfortable walking past them when they are set so close to the edge of the platform.

I thought that was a problem at Farragut North during the very long time it took to build a support column for the ceiling near the L Street exit.

There's no rule against walking on the bumpy tiles. I've certainly done it plenty of times on crowded platforms where there is no construction. (It's the granite edge I avoid.)

The modernization of that platform/mezzanine escalator is supposed to be done by April 21.

As I say, I don't like that set up with the wood wall. What I often do when I encounter this is to either wait for the oncoming riders to pass or go around to the other side of the platform.

How is aggressive driving determined? When slow drivers (e.g. 45-50 in a 55 zone) are staggered, moving between lanes to navigate them can look like aggressive driving, even though the 'aggressive' driver might be going the speed limit.

Rapid lane changes or changing lanes so as to cut off another driver are  forms of aggressive driving, as is speeding. Simply changing lanes is not aggressive driving, according to any safety expert or law officer I've talked to.

The report released regarding Metro's mismanagement of money really shoots holes in the argument that the problem with Metro is underfunded. There have been plenty of excuses given for Sarles due to the previous lack of maintenance, but this time the buck stops with him. Is it time to start taking a tougher look at him?

Lori Aratani broke the story about the Federal Transit Administration's review of Metro's federal contracts in Saturday's Post.

As Lori notes, the report "does not allege criminal wrongdoing. It does, however, identify myriad weaknesses in Metro’s handling of federal dollars. And it includes 10 pages of recommendations — with specific timelines for implementation — designed to tighten up the authority’s handling of federal dollars."

Metro's response so far is unsatisfying, but the transit authority has 30 days to file a formal response.

Metro isn't underfunded, and it's been a while since I've heard a transit official make that argument. The issue today is more about whether the region wants to commit more to the long-range plan known as Metro 2025.

Half fare? I see folks going though the handicapped turnstiles all the time, are they paying half fare?

They are paying half fare if they have a senior/disabled SmarTrip card.

Metro would much, much, much rather have people with disabilities riding Metrorail or Metrobus than MetroAccess. It saves a ton of money for the transit authority. It costs $56.97 to provide a MetroAccess ride.

I was in Chicago last week when the CTA train ran off the tracks at O'Hare. How do the Metro trains compare with the ones used in Chicago? I know we have had our own accidents, but could something like that happen here? At Vienna, the tracks seem to continue beyond the end of the station, but I don't know about the other stations at the end of the Metro lines.

I can't give you an authoritative comparison of the two systems, but I have these thoughts:

The O'Hare station design is different from anything I can think of in Metrorail. At O'Hare, the train hit the end of the platform and climbed an escalator.

Our terminal stations are like Vienna, where the tracks extend beyond the platform.

Also, we still have automatic train controls in place, which I believe should cut the power to a train that runs a red signal. What we haven't had since the 2009 Red Line crash is automatic train operation, which allows the operator to take hands off the train controls.

One Way streets. Is it legal to make a left turn on red in DC?

No. Driver in DC ask about this from time to time, when they get honked at by a following driver from a jurisdiction where it is legal to turn left from a one way street onto a one way street.

Under no circumstances is it legal to make a left on red in DC.

Franconia/Springfield isn't the only place where trains don't know where they're going. Last week I got on a "Special" Eastbound arriving at West Falls Church. No announcements, but it got as far as Rosslyn and don't know where it went after that (Coney Island? Rockville?). And then there was the Sunday night at Union Station when a "Special" arrived. Quick! Decide whether to get on, because there won't be another train for a long, long time. Turned out it was an abbreviated Orange, which was fine for me. But why bother putting "Special" on the train when it really just means "Guess for yourself"?

More annoying than special. I see them more often on weekends than on weekdays. In my experience, it's always been a train on a route that doesn't match up with the regular start or end points. Hence, it might be in service during a weekend disruption for track work.

Or it might be the designation on a gap train. (See the earlier discussion on the train that skipped Grosvenor.)

Our line system is pretty simple compared to some others. (I grew up on NYC, and as a kid found the subway map utterly baffling.)

We do have our issues. Last week, I got on a Red Line train that was turning back at Silver Spring. It was one of those cars that displays the next station name inside the car. The next stations were "White Flint" and "Twinbrook."

Dr. G, I commute by bicycle to work each day and I follow all traffic controls. I understand that D.C. recently enacted a law that allows me to proceed through the intersection with the Walk light goes on, rather than another 1 or 2 seconds for the light to turn green (many intersections have a delay to allow pedestrians (and now bikers) to get a head start). Unfortunately I've had the experience that some drivers get angry when I start on the white Walk light, thinking I am running a red, which I don't think I'm doing and which I don't want to do. Can you clarify the law now in DC?

I think you're referring to the Bicycle Safety Amendment Act of 2013.

Here's the active part: “(a) A bicyclist may cross at an intersection while following the pedestrian traffic control signal for the bicyclist’s direction of travel unless otherwise directed by traffic signs or traffic control devices. (b) A bicyclist may cross an intersection where a leading pedestrian interval is used.”

Until the train operator is in his or her cab and has keyed on the console, the destination signs will be blank. There is no way for the current rolling stock to display the train's next destination before that happens.

Will the reports finding on Metro fund mismanagement and the accompanying short leash for upcoming federal funds impact plans for Purple Line development?

I don't see an audit of Metro having any impact on the funding process for the Maryland Transit Administration's construction of the Purple Line.

Hi Bob: VDOT says they are going to close two lanes of I-95 south on Friday night through 9 a.m. Saturday. I need to drive to Florida (plan to leave at 7 or 8 a.m.) and am looking for an alternative--not Route 1, which will have 95 bailout traffic. Isn't there a way to take I-66 west and connect with 95 via Route 17? Can you tell me what that is? I'm not familiar with the route so I want to be sure I know where I'm going. I would really appreciate an answer to this question on Monday. Thanks!

The big western swing that we usually talk about is taking I-66 West to Route 29 to Route 17, linking up with I-95 South near Fredericksburg. We talk about it when we expect extra heavy traffic on I-95 in Northern Virginia, because it adds many miles to trips for a lot of people.

If you haven't tried this before, it might be worth the test this weekend, because it may prove handy on summer weekends, or during the fall holidays.

Safe travels to you all the way to Florida.

Dr. Gridlock, do you know if the federal government (probably the Federal Highway Administration) provides funds to the DC government for the maintenance of Connecticut Ave (and perhaps Wisconsin Ave and other large commuter routes) in exchange for their being used as commuter routes, including rush hour parking restrictions and reversible lanes? I'm asking because I periodically hear proposals from smart growthers and/or cyclist to allow 24/7 parking on these routes. If that were to happen, would federal funds be endangered? Thanks.

The federal highway aid programs I'm familiar with aren't that specific. So I don't know of any change in parking rules that would threaten federal funding.

I know that VDOT has been looking into ways to deal with the traffic on I-66, but it seems that solutions always take a minimum of 5-10 years to happen. Are there any short term options to deal with the daily traffic delays. I find it unacceptable that a 6 mile drive between US-50 and the Beltway can take 30+ minutes.

Traffic on I-66 is so bad that one one solution is going to do the trick. In fact, with all the solutions taken together, the message I get from traffic planners and engineers is that conditions will become less worse than they would have been otherwise. Nobody every tells me traffic is going to get better.

But the first think you're likel to see on I-66 is called the Active Traffic Management program. That will be a series of electronic messages and lane controls designed to give drivers better information about what's ahead. It will also allow VDOT to be more flexible on what hours the shoulders are open to through traffic.

Some interchange improvements are in the works. The most talked about one is at Route 28.

Later this year, buses should get access to shoulders inside the Beltway. That's a pilot program.

I think we'll eventually hear about a plan to convert the HOV lanes to HOT lanes.

If people are tired of not being able to tell which train is yellow and which is blue at Franconia-Springfield, they should just figure out the schedule. I take the Rush Plus yellows that leave Franconia-Springfield at approximately 7:16, 7:34, and 7:52 each morning. Just pay attention for a few days and you will figure it out.

I'm glad you've had good luck with that.

Many riders, especially those who travel later in the rush hour, are less sure of the schedules, because as the rush hour develops, trains are more and more likely to be thrown off schedules.

Wait--I don't get this. I thought bikes needed to follow traffic laws. But then why are they allowed to cross based on pedestrian walk signs?

I think the idea was to give cyclists a little more protection from turning motorists.

You mean the Metro board hasn't figured out that the federal workers, whose pay has been frozen and whose transit benefits have been cut, can't afford another round of hikes for poor service?

The transit staff and board were very much aware of the cut in the federal transit benefit this year. They got several briefings about that in relation to the proposed fare increases.

In fact, the transit staff initially projected Metrorail ridership growth of 1 percent during FY2015, which starts in July. Because of the transit benefit cut, the staff now is projecting zero growth in rail ridership.

Dr Gridlock - Have you ever seen the "Next Stop" series that the NY Times did back in 2008 (http://topics.nytimes.com/top/classifieds/realestate/columns/next_stop/index.html)? For one month, they tried a bunch of different commutes on different transit modes in the NY area and wrote about them - commuter buses from Pennsylvania, Metro North, Roosevelt Island Tram, subway rides. It'd be great to see something similar done for the DC area (think MARC Train from Martinsburg, VRE from Fredericksburg, Red Line from Shady Grove...).

I don't recall seeing these at the time, but I took a quick look just now and like them a lot -- especially in the places where riders are giving practical advice to other riders.

I've got to break away now. Thanks for joining me today, and write to me any time at drgridlock@washpost.com.

Stay safe out there -- no matter how you travel -- and come back at noon next Monday.

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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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