Dr. Gridlock

Apr 01, 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. I'm going to start with some questions I'd like you to respond to with your advice. But I also notice that many people are commenting on the Dr. Gridlock blog about the posting on the free weekend to use the Beltway express lanes, so I also invite your comments on that here during the chat.

Got to work today, after bus and rail, and found that my right pants-leg was splashed with coffee. Don't know when it happened, but I'd just like to remind metro passengers that you need a complete, solid lid on your beverages. That little sippy spot on your coffee cup lets out coffee when you, and your neighbor, least expect it. Also, I'm kind of ashamed at the number of people I see sneaking bites of their breakfasts (cereal out of baggies, or bites of othe items) on the bus. What part of "no eating or drinking" do these folks not understand? Likewise, even when you have a straw in your drink, that doesn't give you license to drink. Sorry for the rant. Love your work!

Now, I know you all hate seeing people eating or drinking on Metro. When travelers complain about each other's behavior, that one is at or near the top.

But I figure our commenter just described a pretty common situation for drivers as well as transit riders: The morning commute is highlighted by spilling breakfast on your work clothes.

Anybody got some home or office remedies to deal with that one?

Hi! I am a social worker and I need to go from Fairfax County to Capitol Heights Maryland. Google map says that I695 to Pennsylvania Ave SE is closed but MapQuest says it is open.I also need to come back the same way. Do you know if the route is open? I don't want to get lost in this area. Thank you so much for your help!!

There is a stretch of freeway south of RFK Stadium that is closed, but I'm not sure that's the key issue in your map results.

First, what's closed is an old portion of the Southeast Freeway between 11th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. This has been relevant to us here lately because it used to be a route soccer fans took to reach the stadium's lot 8.

That stretch won't reopen as a freeway. In about a year and a half it will be back as a boulevard, raised up to the level of the surrounding streets.

I just tested directions in Google and MapQuest for Fairfax to Capitol Heights. To me, it looks like Google and MapQuest are offering different ways of dealing with the lack of an eastbound exit onto East Capitol Street from DC 295, the Anacostia Freeway.

The Google directions send me across the 11th Street Bridge and up DC 295 to Burroughs Avenue. MapQuest gets me off the Southeast-Southwest Freeway for Fifth Street SE then sends me east across Capitol Hill to East Capitol Street and then Central Avenue to reach Capitol Heights.

Not sure which version is better, so I ask the group for comment.

Good morning, Dr. Gridlock. This forum is one of my favorite reads in the Post. Could you please tell us about the construction work to begin on Benning Road, NE on April 8 and the work started today on H Street, NE? I'm looking for number of lanes closed, length of time for the project, and suggested driving alternatives. If you know, what is it they're doing, exactly? I've heard rumors it's connected to the trolley line but one never knows for sure. Many thanks, A grateful reader

I'm just about certain you're seeing the streetcar project. Through the spring and summer, this construction activity will set up H Street and Benning Road for the new streetcar line. Then the streetcars are supposed to get there in the fall for testing.

I'll do a Commuter page feature about this year's work, but there's a lot of information on the construction schedule at:



As someone who lives out in the MoCo burbs, I take the train from Glenmont and sometimes Shady Grove. I would like to know why the platform signs at these stations don't tell us whether the trains are 6-car or 8-car. Some of us need to get in a certain car to ensure that we are lined up to make a quick transfer or get on the right escalator, and since the trains pull all the way to the back end of the platform and then change the direction of the train, we don't know if we are standing in the spot for the first or third car (or 6th or 8th). The signs also don't include the time until the next train (at least not consistently, and not in the same format), which I can understand since they may need to adjust schedules from the end of the line. But why can't they at least add the length of the train to the sign?

I think you're describing the common problem with the NextTrain information at the end of the line stations and the turnback stations.

The little computer brain behind this now-outdated platform information system can't handle information about trains that are off the main line tracks.

While on my way to the MARC train station in Gaithersburg, I encounter several flashing yellow and red traffic lights. I have noticed that most people don't seem to acknowledge the flashing traffic light whether it be flashing yellow or red. I have had a couple of close calls while traveling thru a yellow flashing traffic light. when someone would pull out in front of me when they had a flashing red light. Are you supposed to stop at the flashing yellow light just like you are supposed to stop at a flashing red traffic light and then proceed? thanks.

Reminds me of the scene from "Taxi" where Jim is taking the written test for his driver's license:


Slow down and use caution when you see a flashing yellow light. Stop and proceed with caution when you see a flashing red light.

I haven't driven to Union Station in a few years (as a passenger, I use Metro to get there). Yesterday, I was dropping off a friend in the morning and driving carefully around the circle as I know there has been construction there. I was in the circle eastbound, stopped at a light (either Delaware or 1st). It turned green and just as I was about to take my foot off the break, I noticed the light ahead of me at Mass westbound had a red arrow for our lane, with traffic from Mass moving right in front of us. "Oh [expletive deleted]," my passenger yelled. "Someone's going to get killed." I could have proceeded because I DID have a green light and plowed right into oncoming traffic. Is it designed this way?

I'll got take a look. That's a bit confusing. My colleague Mark Berman wrote an overview about the redesign project at the circle: http://bit.ly/XmhTLe

One thing I've noticed in general over the years: Drivers get real confused by right turn arrows, which are usually meant to protect pedestrians. Right turn arrows are rare, so I think some drivers have no idea what they mean or just don't recognize them, or think it's okay to make a right turn after stopping.

Please fix list of Q&As.

Please write back to us. We're not sure what you mean by "Friday's Sessions." Can you give us a link?

What time is your poster traveling? Maybe it would be smarter to take the Beltway around to Central Avenue and avoid passing through D.C., especially during rush hour. Shorter isn't necessarily faster.

Good question about the timing. But if you were taking the Beltway from Fairfax, would you be inclined to go north or south? Inner loop or outer loop?

It really depends on where in Fairfax County the person is starting. I live in Fairfax County (near Van Dorn) and always take the beltway to 295. It's faster and I avoid the whole question of whether 695 is closed.

How 'bout NOT driving and eating/drinking? People seem to have enough trouble keeping their eyes on the road as it is (and I speak as someone who was recently rear-ended at a stop light by a young driver who I'm sure was texting, although she wouldn't admit it). You don't have to worry about spilling coffee in your lap if you leave your coffee in the bag until you get to work.

Good article by Aimee Custis on the Greater Greater Washington blog about getting hit by a distracted driver:


Sure, eating and drinking can be a form of distracted driving. I think it's one of the least problematic, among the various forms I've seen or been told about by transportation officials and police. My least favorite: spreading the newspaper across the steering wheel and reading while driving.

A big part of the reason people drink and eat on the Metro and Buses is that they are not regular riders, and the prohibition signs are posted in only one place and the print is small. I've talked to many tourists who simply didn't know the rules and were not deliberately disobeying them. Metro needs bigger signs in more places, which will save money because cleanup costs will be decreased..

Seeing a lot of this during cherry blossom season.

http://live.washingtonpost.com/gridlock-0401.html on the top right of the page under Live Q&A's, outside of the frame of the chat...It is the same problem most Mondays.

Thanks for pointing that out. Our folks are trying to address it.

I ran into that same problem as well. It is a very poorly designed set of lights. The lanes are well marked but the lights are poorly located. (The idiot leaning on his horn in back of me didn't help either.) The passenger drop off lane backs up quickly as well. I'm not sure that the situation has been improved despite the lengthy rework. I think it would help if the cabs dropping off passengers could use the lane which seems to be reserved for cabs picking up passengers. It seems wide enough for two cars and would relieve some of the delay in the private car lane.

The Post had a great article yesterday about the end-of-life-cycles for major interstates, using the Beltway as an example. Would complete rebuilding of the beltway- with major closures- pretty much guarantee that every traffic reporter leaves their job? But in more seriousness- how do major metro areas deal with this? Driving through Nebraska last year I saw rebuilds under work- but that worked only because the roads were infrequently driven and in wide open areas.

Bet there are fewer traffic reporters in Nebraska.

We're talking about the story by Ashley Halsey in Sunday's Post:


Here's one paragraph that captures the spirit of the thing:

"Right now, major segments of the Maryland part of the Beltway are in a downward spiral, notably those in the eastern part that curves through Prince George’s County. The underbed is rotten, so a fresh asphalt surface doesn’t last. As the surface gets rough, traffic slows and backups begin. When the surface needs more frequent repaving, traffic backs up. And when the time comes that it all is torn up for replacement, traffic will back up."

Our region does have experience with easing traffic around major construction projects. Wilson Bridge and Springfield Interchange are two examples from the past decade. The Virginia Department of Transportation had so much disruptive road work going on during the same time period that it set up a special Megaprojects office to work on coordinating them and helping drivers get around them.

Beltway reconstruction does look especially difficult, though.

I heard that the Express Lanes will be free to all drivers sometime in the near future. Can you tell me what days, and has anyone asked Transurban the reasoning behind the free trail? I wonder if the useage of the lanes is far below what ws projected, and the company is trying desparately to win new users. If they wanted people to try the lanes, they could simply lower the tolls to more reasonable levels ($0.05 per mile or less) during non-peak times. The fact that this company thinks people will pay $0.25 or more per mile to use the lanes during non-peak hours has got to be killing their business model.

The free rides will be offered this Saturday and Sunday. For those 48 hours, drivers won't be charged a toll and don't need E-ZPasses.

Traffic in the express lanes has been light since they opened in November. But given that the Transurban company has a 75-year lease, I don't see those folks making any major decisions based on four months experience.

They definitely would like more drivers to be using the lanes and paying tolls. See my blog posting from this morning:


The free weekend is one step Transurban is taking to get drivers more familiar with the access points, which can be confusing.

If Transurban paid for the construction of the express lanes in Virginia, could express lanes be built in Maryland from the American Legion bridge northward? Thanks

Sure, if Maryland wanted to go that way and a private company thought the investment was worthwhile.

Tolled express lanes might be the way of the future for many highways, but the case is not proven. Private companies will do then where the jurisdictions are willing and where they think the overall traffic volume is likely to yield longterm returns.

Seems like that would apply to I-270 and the west side of the Beltway in Montgomery County. Space is tighter along the Beltway and Legion Bridge in MD than it was in Virginia, too.

I just received an e-mail from the I-495 Express Lanes marketing gurus. The e-mail states that the I-495 Express Lanes will be free for all users this weekend (April 6-7) even to those who don't have an EZPass. While I think it's a great idea, and one that probably should have been done within the first few weeks of the lanes opening, I'm concerned as to how the free weekend will be accomplished. Will the toll signs actually say "$0.00" with the variable signs alerting drivers to the free weekend, or will the signs just say the normal toll and you have to be "in the know" to take advantage of the fact that the toll collection systems will be turned off?

I have a feeling the word "free" will be involved in the sign display, but that's a good question and I'll check.

I very, very much doubt that Transurban will do anything to restrict this free weekend to drivers "in the know."

One of the problems, as I see it, is that using these lanes is one of the more complicated things our drivers have done. There's plenty of information available on the express lanes' Web site at www.495expresslanes.com, but I get lots of questions that make it clear drivers haven't consulted that.

"My least favorite: spreading the newspaper across the steering wheel and reading while driving." Even if they're reading the Post?

I want my readers to live. It's part of my full-employment program.

" But if you were taking the Beltway from Fairfax, would you be inclined to go north or south? Inner loop or outer loop?" Southern route. Much shorter, and you avoid the American Legion bridge.

I wouldn't recommend the MapQest directions. They take you pretty much through the heart of Capitol Hill, which means a LOT of lights/four-way stops. The Google directions should save you a fair amount of time. Pay close attention to the freeway signs, though.

I was wondering if someone would raise the issue of Capitol Hill lights, stop signs and traffic. I also was inclined toward the Google version, with more highway driving.

The Southeast-Southwest Freeway for Fifth Street SE then sends me east across Capitol Hill to East Capitol Street and then Central Avenue to reach Capitol Heights. This will be your best bet to get to Capitol Heights. Once you're on East Capitol Street it is a straight shot.

... but then as this commenter points out, the MapQuest version has the relative simplicity of a long run along East Capitol Street to Central Avenue.

Note in the link you cited about the accident, the victim of a hit-and-run driver waited more than 2 hours for the D.C. cops to show up. The U.S. Capitol police came after they learned that D.C. wasn't responding. Obviously the cops have to prioritize, but when someone says "I've just been hit, and the guy is getting away!" I would think that would be of special interest. I know a lot of people who have had bad experiences with D.C. cops, and EVEN THE COPS have had trouble getting ambulances to respond. This city.....

Only three Metro stations allow long-term parking. At the others, what happens if your car is still in the parking lot when the station closes? Does the car get ticketed? Towed? Does the day of the week matter? Since parking is free on weekends, if you leave the car on a Friday morning and pick it up Sunday night, would that be treated differently from, say, Monday through Wednesday?

If a driver left a car overnight during the week at a station other than one of the three designated for long-term parking, it's possible the car could be ticketed, but I think it's very unlikely. You would increase the chances by parking in one of the reserved spots, or at a meter, or along a curb where there's normally no parking.

I don't recall ever receiving a letter from anyone who got a ticket for overnight parking. The main issue, I think, is security.

I heard the Express Lanes will let people ride for free next weekend. They think it will give people a chance to try out the lanes and see if it would save them time. I question the logic as I DON'T drive to work on the weekend and I am NOT going to go out of my way just to try out the Express Lanes.

Yes, I agree that this won't draw out long distance commuters. But it may, for example, get some of those who live close to the Beltway and work in Tysons.

Let's say you live near Gallows Road, work in Tysons, and have been wondering about the exits for Westpark Drive or Jones Branch Drive. Maybe you were going to Tysons anyway to shop. (I hear people do that on weekends.) Maybe you work a Tuesday-Saturday or Sunday-Thursday shift somewhere along the route.

Then it would be worth a try.

The experiment would be pretty much limited to wayfinding. You wouldn't get much of an idea whether there would be a time-savings involved since traffic would be unlike a weekday.

Wouldn't it make more sense to have a free trial of the Beltway express lanes during the week, rather than the weekend? Who commutes on the weekend?

Well, then I think you're getting back to why the Transurban folks didn't do that in the first place.

Remember, they're not just selling four new lanes on the Beltway. They're selling a different type of travel experience. Unlike driving in the regular lanes, you pretty much know from day to day that the express lanes travel time will be the same for your.

If they do a weekday free test drive, traffic in the express lanes is likely to be pretty heavy. You lose one of the main selling points.

Plus, I think there's a concern about traffic safety on a weekday. There would be congestion around the access points, and the lanes themselves can be a little tricky the first few times through because of all those left-side entrances and exits.


If I read the article about the failing Beltway correctly, the Virginia segment of the beltway has about 3 miles that will need to be reconstructed in the near future whereas most of the Maryland portion needs to be rebuilt or at least addressed in some way. Do you think Maryland will step up and do the hard work or are we in for many years of band aids?

I think it was during my first few months as Dr. Gridlock back in 2006 that Neil Pedersen, then the leader of the Maryland State Highway Administration, explained to me the need to rebuild the Beltway.

Haven't seen much activity on that since. (Maryland does rebuild the bridges along the route, but that's only part of the work he was describing.)

Maryland doesn't even have a transportation secretary.

I would take the SE/SW Freeway to the new ramp to 295 North, then exit at Benning Road, go east on Benning Road, then make a left turn at E. Capitol St. A related question: Why can't the "SE/SW Freeway" just be called the "Downtown Freeway" and make it easier for everyone to understand?

Thanks for the route advice. That's one I hadn't considered.

On the name: I find that many drivers are utterly baffled by the names and numbers on those freeways, and I'm not sure one more name would help. Also, many commuters wouldn't relate to the idea of a "downtown freeway." So many of them are commuting between Maryland and Virginia. DC is just a transition zone for those folks, and they have no relation to "downtown."

May a person purchase gass at Dulles then use the Dulles access road and I66 during HOV hours? What constitutes "business" at Dulles?

Yes, I believe so. I think if you buy anything at the airport you've been there on business. (Get a receipt.)

I have seen a number of drivers commuting into DC on I-66 E during rush hour flying solo as I sit on a metro train between EFC and Ballston at a dead stop. It frustrates me that so many drivers get past the HOV restriction. What is the process for ticketing for a violation like this? How can so many drivers avoid it?

I think most of the enforcement is done on the ramps. Doing enforcement on the travel lanes creates traffic congestion. It's not only annoying to the lawful drivers, but dangers for the drivers and the police.

While I think it is a good idea in case of crime, is metro also going to use the on-board cameras to check if I am drinking coffee on the train?

I think they probably won't hunt you down for that.

Thanks -- as always -- for an enjoyable conversation about some of our least enjoyable topics in the D.C. region.

I'll be away next week, but back the following Monday. Write to me anytime at drgridlock@washpost.com, and stay safe out there.

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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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