Dr. Gridlock

Apr 02, 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.

Welcome, travelers. This should be a beautiful week for getting around the DC area. Let's get to your traffic and transit issues.

The VDOT estimated date of completion is November of this year. Are they still on schedule?

End of November, yes. This is the reconstruction on the intersection. It's a big project that includes the widening of the two roadways, additional left-turn lanes and construction of sidewalks and paths.

(Generally, I've found the highway departments to be very pleased with how they came through the mild winter and optimistic about schedules.)

I have seen this done on trains (but not often enough) and it makes sense to me: if you are standing in the train doorway at a stop but are not alighting (hence blocking those who are), you should step out of the train to free the doorway and then, once everyone who needs to alight have done so, step back in. Perhaps we can promote this as much as "Stand on the right, walk on the left" for escalators?

I find that behavior -- people blocking the doors -- really annoying. Several times, I've seen people board and plunk down their suitcases by the door, and not because they're getting out at the next stop.

But like you, I've also seen people by the doors step outside so that people can exit and enter, and then reboard. (There's also enough time to get to another car that might be less crowded.)

Metro has been trying for years to get people to avoid blocking the doors. Not much success, eh?

Over the past decade, the Wilson Bridge, the Springfield Interchange, and the Express Lanes projects have replaced every single Beltway bridge except five. Does VDOT have any plans to replace the bridges over the Beltway at the GW Parkway, Route 193, and Old Dominion Drive and also the Beltway bridges at the VA-267 and Van Dorn Street interchanges?

I know I haven't heard of any such plans for the near future, though it's bound to happen eventually. Drivers on the Maryland side have been experiencing the periodic reconstruction of Beltway bridges over the past decade or so. The Northwest Branch bridge reconstruction is still underway. In the fall, the State Highway Administration is scheduled to start rebuilding the University Blvd bridge over the Beltway.

This is not your typical transportation question, but in line with the recently reported problems that MetroRail passengers sometimes have in exiting trains, I often find that the area near the top of the escalators outside the Foggy Bottom station is very difficult to navigate. The combination of hawkers, vendors, and solicitors outside the station entrance often adds to the already heavy congestion of MetroRail passengers trying to enter and exit the station. I often need to walk with a cane as a result of an old back injury. Does Metro, DC, or any other governing body regulate this activity which can restrict access to the station?

I don't know of any DC regulations that would prevent people from operating as vendors around the station entrance on 23rd Street.

We often talk about the Foggy Bottom entrance, but not about the vendors. The escalators were recently replaced -- something unusual for Metro; they usually just rehab escalators. Some people think the escalator directions should be reversed to match the rush hour direction -- or at least match the direction they're going in.

Maybe Metro could put a door closing countdown on the outside of their cars, like we now have on crosswalks?

We talk about the doors closing issue more and more. To recap, riders sometimes can't get off the trains -- let alone start getting on the trains -- before the doors close. This is especially true during rush hours and at the core stations, which are the most crowded.

People have written to me expressing different theories on how to deal with this.

The countdown idea is innovative. It would be a pretty short countdown, though, wouldn't it? Some of our crosswalk countdowns are more than 6 seconds. A Metro countdown would probably start at 3. (Or these days, maybe minus 3.)


I've taken the ICC twice now and it's nice - but empty, granted I went in the afternoon before rush hour but I was literally alone! Can you give us the latest stats on the numbers and whether it was a good idea or a bust...

I haven't asked for any stats yet, since -- as I've said in my column -- I think it's way too early to asses traffic on the ICC. I have heard that it's meeting projections for use. I haven't heard of any plans to change the toll rates.

I do hear from many people who drive the ICC saying there's nobody driving the ICC. I'm not sure what to make of that.


Want to go to the Nats game on Tuesday. It is an afternoon game and you always say take public transportation. However I assume that New Carlton or Greenbelt (closest Metro stations) will be full on a Tuesday afternoon. Where can we go to park to take public transportation to the game?

Couple of thoughts, and I'd like to hear from others on this, as well.

It's a 3:05 start. By early afternoon, space should be opening up at New Carrollton and Greenbelt. (Parking might be somewhat lighter anyway this week, because so many of the school systems are on spring break.)

But if you don't want to take a chance on those stations, you could swing north to Silver Spring, where there are usually lots of empty spaces in the Montgomery County garages that surround the Red Line station.

You've stated that VDOT hoped to be able to pave the "Through Lanes" last year. With the extremely wet fall, they were unable to do so. Well, now it's spring. Is there an updated timetable for that paving project? When will the 3 lane squeeze at Telegraph be a thing of the past?

All the Beltway lanes and ramps should be done by August. There's going to be a period this summer when Beltway travel will be disrupted by the paving.

(VDOT had hoped that this paving might be done by the end of last year, but even as they said it to me, they said they were being optimistic. The work toward the end of a project like this is very dependent on the weather.)

How do we get the DC Government to enforce the no parking during rush hour rules? I work at 16th & I Streets, NW, and travel 16th Street during both morning and evening rush hours. On almost all days, there are parked cars along the road both morning and evening. I can't believe the bus drivers don't complain. The other morning, traffic was backed up from 16th & P Streets all the way to Carter Barron. HELP!

You could try dialing the mayor's call center, at 311. Or send a message to the District Department of Transportation on Twitter: https://twitter.com/#!/DDOTDC

Dr. Gridlock, can I just say how great the past few weekends have been because there has been no *&#%!@ track work on the rail road. No planning two hours for a 30-minute trip. No confusion when the electronic signs give out the wrong info. So that's what life used to be like before the nightmare of TWAI (track work ad infinitum).

I know, but don't get used to it.

The weekend maintenance will be back with us at 10 p.m. Friday, April 20.

I understand the need for the track work and the station repairs, but think that if Metro knows this is going to continue for the foreseeable future, then it should upgrade its information systems -- like Trip Planner, and the platform information displays -- to make sure passengers know what's going on.

I think Metro did take a step in the right direction recently when it upgraded the eAlerts for rail and added alerts for buses.  Have you been using them? If so, what do you think?

Also, Metro should try harder to allow passengers to transfer smoothly between the lines during these disruptions.


A few chats ago, someone mentioned that train doors remain open for (at least?) 20 seconds. That sounds like Metro propaganda to me, likely disseminated by Metro employees who drive to work. I have been riding Metro for 20+ years, and the only times the train doors are open for 20 seconds is on July 4 or Nats/Caps game nights -- i.e., when the platform is jammed. 20 seconds is not the norm; 2 seconds is more like it.

Many riders do not experience door openings of 20 seconds, but I think you might be under cutting it a bit with the 2 seconds.

Check out this YouTube video of a doors closing operation. You can time the open-close.  (You can also see the operator looking out the window to check down the platform.) 



Could the Metro shut down for 2-3 weekends and totally fix all of the tracks/stations at the same time. It would be a pain in the but for anyone who wants to use the Metro, but may be better getting it all done at once rather than having the system in delays for the next year or two.

That's an interesting theoretical question about a complete shutdown. First, I think that to totally fix all the tracks and stations at the same time would probably take more like six months -- assuming that Metro could assemble the money, equipment, parts and work force to do that all at once.

The reason I include money is that you're talking about a level of spending that the governments that support Metro are not prepared for. Theydon't make their contributions to the five-year capital program all at once.

I doubt the region would tolerate a complete shutdown of Metro for any length of time.

Did a writer yesterday really state that train delays and track work are unacceptable occurrences? So repairing a track is not acceptable behavior and should be halted? I understand peoples frustrations but I have to say that I always feel a little sorry for Metro when I read comments like that.

Let me share that letter with everyone.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

As someone who must rely on Metro, I find it expensive, exhausting and down right irritating. A day doesn’t pass without some form of Metro headache.

It can be any of the following unacceptable occurrences: train delays, track work, elevator/escalator down, no information postings regarding train arrivals, broken fare gates, trains that stop for no reason, trains that can’t seem to brake without tossing riders into each other, overcrowded weekend trains, the 20-minute wait for a train outside rush hours and the nonstop fare increases.

This is Washington, D.C., and the public transportation is flat out embarrassing. I spend more money, waste more time and am super miserable riding Metro.

Metro: Wake up!


In response, I briefly stated what Metro officials say about our current circumstances, but ended by saying that sometimes, people just want to scream.

(I rarely hear from anyone who feels sorry for Metro -- even a little.)

A report I saw last week said that drivers will be required to have an E-Z Pass that can be changed to indicate HOV or regular status. Is there going to be monitoring of some sort to check if those in HOV mode in fact have passengers? I can see great room for cheating.

We're talking about the 495 Express Lanes scheduled to open late this year on the west side of the Beltway in Virignia.

I wrote a little bit about this on Sunday's Commuter page and plan to do a lot more this year to guide travelers through the new experience of using high-occupancy toll lanes.

If you already have an E-ZPass, you wouldn't need to do anything. That will work fine. People who think they might want to carpool sometimes and drive solo other times will want to get this new type of transponder when it becomes available this summer. It's called an E-ZPass Flex.

The transponder has a switch that will indicate to the electronic monitor, and to state police, what mode you've chosen for the day -- free carpool or toll payer.

One of the things I like about the HOT lanes idea is the profit motive. It's in the interests of the operators to cut down on the current rampant cheating in the HOV lanes. They won't catch everyone, but they're certainly planning for enforcement.

I have less trouble with folks standing in front of the doors than I do with those who step off the escalator and just stand there, looking around. We need a new campaign: Stand right, walk left, and get the heck out of the way!

You're right.  I'm thinking tourists. They get to the top of the escalators, stop and gawk.

"Isn't it great to be here in the nation's capital!"

Meanwhile, people are piling up behind them. Very dangerous.

Go to New Carrollton. The garage never fully fills up during rush hour and as you say, a few folks will be leaving at that time, clearing out more space. There is also a public lot across the street from Metro. run by the county, it's never close to full and a few cents cheaper. Well lit and safe, too.

Thanks for that response on getting to Nationals Park for the Tuesday afternoon exhibition game.

I'm planning on writing something for this Sunday's Commuter page that collects advice on getting to games this season. So if you have any tips you'd like to share or questions you'd like to ask, please send them along to me at drgridlock@washpost.com.

So Pentagon City is refurbishing one of their escalators (which, as far as I know), worked fine. Everybody has to walk to the end to take an escalator, which is never on. Why?

Must be this fine spring weather: One of our commenters felt a little sorry for Metro. That was very unusual. Now, this is the first time I've heard from a rider who thought an escalator worked fine.

Now, you'd know better, because it sounds like you use the station frequently, but from what I'm picturing, it would be the typical situation where Metro takes one escalator out of service and converts the other to a staircase so people can either go up or down. Have I got that right?

I see on Metro's list it's got an escalator out at Pentagon City for modernization and it's due back in service at the end of June.

We use the ICC when running up 95 or 270, because where we live in Four Corners in SS, it's easier to use Rt 29 & the ICC than the Beltway during major drive times. So I hope it stays empty.

My theory: People in the D.C. region have no experience with an uncrowded highway. When they see one, they think something is wrong, rather than, "Wouldn't it be great if more highways were like this."

Your approach is one of the reasons I've said it's too early to figure out if the ICC is a success. I think people are still learning how they can use it to their advantage. You've discovered one way. You're in a perfect spot to avoid that nasty Beltway/I-95 interchange by going north on 29, then taking the ICC east to the Laurel area and picking up 95 there. And you're not paying $4 to do that.

All of the items the person mentions are true, and all happen with regularity on Metro. I've traveled in Vienna, Chicago, Philadelphia Paris, London, and Singapore, and none have systems that are as constantly hosed as Metro's.

I grew up in NYC and road the subways during the 70s, following a lengthy period of extreme neglect. NY finally made the investments and commitments to bring the subways back. I see something similar going on with Metro and the DC region's governments.

Though I did notice over the weekend that NYC transit had 15 subway lines disrupted for repairs.

My memory's a bit fuzzy on this subject, but does Metro actually have a source of dedicated funding? My recollection is that it does not, but I have a few friends who tell me it does. Can you shed some light on this? Thanks!

Metro does not have a major source of dedicated funding. What your friends are probably thinking of is the law sponsored by Tom Davis, when he was a congressman from Virginia, that provided authorization for the federal goverment to match commitments to Metro made by our local governments.

The catch is that Congress has to appropriate the money every year for 10 years. That's not what people mean by dedicated funding. Dedicated funding is money you can expect no matter what.

Most of the Virginia overpasses (or underpasses) had to be rebuilt to accommodate a wider Beltway due to the Express Lanes and the quad-carriageway setup near the Wilson Bridge. Springfield, of course, was a total rebuild. But there's no widening being done at the GW Parkway, VA-193, or Old Dominion Drive, so there's really no reason why those overpasses ought to require replacement unless there's a structural deficiency. Same applies to the Beltway overpass at Van Dorn: All the construction is to the east or west of there. Former Lee District Supervisor Dana Kaufmann called the segment of the Beltway from Springfield to the Eisenhower Connector an "orphan" because of the way the road is being improved to either side but not through there. I live near that exit and I'd love to see the whole interchange rebuilt with a better design, but the money isn't there.

As you say, those other bridges are not part of any widening project that requires reconstruction, or of any other major highway rebuilding program. But all bridges will eventually need a rehab to preserve their integrity. (That's what's going on in Maryland. There's been no expansion of the Beltway, but the state is rebuilding the bridges simply to preserve them.)

There are three escalators on the north end. One always goes up from train level. The one that goes down is out of service. The last one is turned off. If Metro is taking a down escalator out of service, it might be a good idea to turn on the other escalator.

Thanks for this folo on the previous comment from a rider about the Pentagon City escalators.

Why is there the need to repair every escalator in the DC metro? Some of them are 20-30 steps long and every other subway system in the world would simply put in regular stairs!

I think that longterm we sould have more platform-mezzanine staircases. But I see them as supplements to the escalators rather than complete replacements.

I asked my readers about this once -- whether they'd go for total replacement of the short escalators with staircases. I was surprised how many people wrote back to say they absolutely needed the escalators.

The original questioner didn't mention a point of origin, but if the questioner is starting in Prince George's County, the Prince George's Plaza station is a safe bet. Parking at this station rarely (if ever) fills up, even on weekdays.

Thanks for this on getting by transit to Nats Park. (I also thought the fan must be coming from the eastern suburbs -- Prince George's or Anne Arundel. Prince George's Plaza on the Green Line would make sense as an alternative to Greenbelt or New Carrollton, two stations at the ends of lines, which normally get crowded. (Though see the other rider's comment about NC not filling up.)

I had thought about this as well. Three seconds would probably be sufficient, and the countdown could start after the operator has pressed the button to close the doors. It could help eliminate the situation where you hear "Step back, doors closing"...and then nothing happens, or takes more than a few seconds.

I see what you're saying. I think I'd have it be part of the audio message, rather than installing a visual countdown.

I think some readers are probably seeing an issue: Some riders would be like drivers who see a yellow light and speed up rather than slowing down. Some riders will be trying to plunge through the car door at the last second.

I have no hesitation in calling out loudly buy politely: "If you would please step out of the train, we could get out more quickly." Some do, some don't.

That's a fair response. Don't need an automated voice to do everything for us.

Dr. Gridlock, I commute to work via car, and my commute takes me through the construction work being done on Nebraska Ave NW & Military Rd NW, as well as on L St NE, just east of North Capitol St. The workers there routinely interfere with the morning rush hour traffic, and cars on Nevada Ave NW are often backed up to Connecticut Ave. Are there any rules prohibiting, or at least governing, road construction during rush hours? Thanks.

That's a very difficult work zone to get through whether or not the workers are present. No, I don't believe there are any rules -- like a DC ordinance -- that uniformly govern hours of road work. I think the normal hours for DC projects are 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Dr. G, you've mentioned how one of the final steps of the Beltway widening associated with the Wilson Bridge will be a final repaving, which sounds good to me. Do you know whether there will be a similar full repave as a final step in the Express Lanes project? As you know, the many lane shifts over the years of construction have generally left a big rutted mess because of the type of striping Virginia uses in which the tape is literally embedded in the pavement and leaves behind a rut when it's removed.

There are many very difficult stretches of Beltway pavement along that 14-mile work zone for the 495 Express Lanes. There's very little that's in a final configuration and a lot of paving to come. I don't have a schedule yet.

Travelers, I've got to break away now. Thanks for joining me. Write to me anytime at drgridlock@washpost.com. I'll be back with you again 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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