Apr 11, 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. We're deeply into spring now, so be careful in the blossoming construction zones. I see questions and comments about road work, Metro work, bike lanes -- all sorts of traffic and transit issues.

Any word on when the Cathedral Ave. entrance to Rock Creek Parkway will reopen? We're already past the initial estimated time, and it's hard to tell where things stand in the progress of the project.

Here's what I wrote about the RC Parkway project on the Dr. Gridlock blog this moring:


The park service says the rehabilitation project is moving into its next phase this week, but rush hour delays for drivers will continue. Traffic will be switched from the northbound to the southbound lane on Shoreham Drive/Calvert Street and from the southbound to the northbound lane on Cathedral Avenue.

Between 7 and 9:15 a.m. weekdays, traffic will be able to enter the Shoreham Drive/Calvert Street ramp next to the Shoreham Hotel from southbound Connecticut Avenue at Calvert Street and proceed to southbound Rock Creek Parkway toward downtown Washington. The Shoreham Drive/Calvert Street ramp will be closed to southbound traffic at all other times.

At 9:30 a.m., the traffic direction will be reversed, so drivers can go northbound on the Shoreham Drive/Calvert Street ramp. That pattern will continue the rest of the day.

After 9:30 a.m., traffic will be able to go northbound only onto Cathedral Avenue, leading to Woodley Road and Connecticut Avenue. There will be no access to the Shoreham Drive/Calvert Street ramp and the Rock Creek Parkway from southbound Cathedral Avenue at any time during this phase of construction, the park service says.

Hi Doc - do you have any idea when the "spot' improvement project to widen 66 by one lane from Fairfax drive to the Toll Road?

The one underway now on westbound I-66, Fairfax Drive to Sycamore Street, is supposed to be done in December.

What's been going on with the Eastbound 66 ramp off Southbound 495? Several times coming home in the evening, the ramp has been closed off, without any warning whatsoever. Just blocked off. No signs, no detour, nothing. It makes for a very, very dangerous situation when cars in the left lane must suddenly brake because they can't exit. Granted, one time there was a pickup truck stacked on top of the guard rail, but at least two other times, there was no visible accident or anything blocking the exit.

There's a lot going on at the I-66 interchange because of the HOT lanes project. Generally speaking, that work is going to continue all this year and into next.

Here's what's on VDOT's list for this week, and it's worse than ramp closings:

I-495 south at I-66: On Friday night, April 15 and Saturday night, April 16, starting at 9:30 p.m., crews will close three lanes of I-495 south at I-66. Motorists traveling on I-495 south in the Tysons Corner and I-66 areas should plan for overnight stoppages of up to one hour at a time after midnight. VDOT urges motorists familiar with the area to use alternate routes. All lanes will reopen on Saturday by 7 a.m. and on Sunday by 9 a.m.

I-495 north at I-66: Each night, Monday, April 11 through Saturday, April 16, starting at 9:30 p.m. one lane will close on I-495 north at I-66, progressing to a full I-495 north closure after 11 p.m.  Motorists will be directed to exit onto Exit 49C, I-66 west via the left exit, to Exit 62, Nutley Street and follow signage to I-66 east back to I-495 north. All lanes will reopen on weekdays by 5 a.m., on Saturday by 7 a.m. This closure allows crews to set steel beams over I-495 north.


Dr. G, Can you use your influence to get VDOT to hire an unemployed English major? For several weeks now, the flashing sign on the side of I-95 north between the Mixing Bowl and the S. Van Dorn exit has been encouraging drivers to "Drive safe." Adverbs modify verbs; adjectives modify nouns. The distraction caused by this bad grammar could cause a bad accident.

Our previous commenter would have been glad to see any sign, even with bad grammar. But you're right, there are plenty of signs -- not just in Virginia -- that use adjectives where adverbs belong. Think of how many times you've been told to "Drive Slow."

I blame sportscasters, as in "He's hittin' good," and "He's playing outstanding."

Dr. Gridlock, How do we(sidewalkers) get bicycles off the sidewalks and onto bicycles routes, where I think they belong. I understand by law, bicyclist are to yield to pedestrians and that bicyclists are to annouce themselves when passing us. But, exactly how should pedestrians go about trying to enforce this? This is an especially important issue since I'm "an old fart." Thank you for highlighting this issue to all.

There is a law barring cyclists from the sidewalks in downtown DC. I've never seen that on a street sign and never seen it enforced.

One break for us as pedestrians: Remember back in the 80s and 90s when you had to dodge bike messengers? Technology, rather than enforcement, took care of that.

I think cyclists need to assume that pedestrians aren't looking for them on sidewalks and do more to announce their presence.

Dr. G, I was on the inbound Red Line train that struck the person at Bethesda. I would like to report to you and your readers how the train operator handled the situation. He did a great job. I was in the sixth car of an eight car train. The train came to a stop and a horn sounded from what I gathered to be very close to Bethesda station. My car was still inside the tunnel. A few minutes later the operator announced not to panic and stay calm, but did not announce what the problem was. Just after that announcement, power was cut to the train, which not only limited us to the emergency lights, but there was no air flow. Finally, about 10 minutes later we were told what happened, and that he did not anticipate us having to evacuate the train in the tunnel. Finally, about 30 minutes after the accident, we were escorted to the 3rd car to leave the station. I can't imagine how this operator must have felt after what he had just witnessed, but he remained calm and kept us informed. This was a a horrible situation made slightly easier by communication on his end.

Thanks very much for this report about the morning tragedy on Metrorail. My colleague, Justin Jouvenal, report this on the Dr. Gridlock blog:

"A woman was struck and killed by a Metro train at the Bethesda station shortly before 8 a.m., Montgomery County fire officials said.

"Riders should expect Red Line delays throughout the morning commute, according to Metro officials. [That was at 9:09 a.m.] Trains are single-tracking between the Friendship Heights and Medical Center stations.

"The woman placed herself in front of the train, according to preliminary indications, said Steven Taubenkibel, a Metro spokesman. She was struck at 7:49 a.m."

It does indeed sound like the train operator handled a very difficult situation well.

I drive in from Herndon and can drive on 66 w/ my hybrid- yay, me. I usually come down Constitution and hit 10th Street to get to 11th. With Constitution being ripped up starting this week- what alternative can you suggest?? Going through G-town is a nightmare! Also- how long will the Constitution project take? Thanks!

The Constitution Avenue reconstruction is scheduled to continue till early 2012. The workers will be moving block by block between 15th and 23rd streets.

This is what the park service suggests for inbound Roosevelt Bridge drivers.

Destinations north of Constitution Avenue:

Take the E Street exit north to Virginia Avenue. Merge left onto Virginia Avenue, then go right onto 19th Street southbound and make a left onto Constitution Avenue heading east.

Destinations south and east of Constitution Avenue at 14th Street:

Take the Independence Avenue exit south to Independence Avenue. Continue on Independence or turn left onto 15th Street northbound.

Here's what the park service says about getting out:

From north of Constitution Avenue and east of 14th Street:

Take 19th Street south and turn right onto E Street. Bear left for the on-ramp. Continue bearing left and follow signs for Route 50 west or I-66 west to the bridge.

From east of 14th Street:

Go west on Constitution Avenue to Virginia Avenue. Bear right onto Virginia Avenue. Turn right on 18th Street and then left onto E Street. Bear left for the on-ramp. Continue bearing left and follow signs for Route 50 west or I-66 west to the bridge.

The assertion that the 14th Street Bridge "rehab" with its mulitple delayed "phases" courtesy of DDOT and the Constitution Ave reconstruction courtesy of the NPS couldn't be better coordinated is patently ridiculous. Why doesn't DC just openly declare war on commuters from Virginia? DC is the only capital city in the entire world where the interstate leading to it both narrows to two lanes and then just simply terminates in a stoplight.

Tom Jackman is writing a new blog called The State of NoVa, and he's got an item today called, "NoVa traffic will drive you insane."

He asked park service spokesman Bill Line about coordinating projects. He said: "The bottom line is there is never any good time amongst the 365 days of the year to do these projects. And the reality is, the work has to get done at some point.”

There are lots of road projects underway now in Virginia and the District. Seems like every construction season there are enough projects going that a driver will encounter at least one on any commute of moderate length. The agencies do talk to each other about the impacts, but if they did these projects one at a time, there would not be much improvement in the lifetime of any given commuter.

Several weeks ago, Metro closed Union Station's Mass Ave entrance to improve people flow. I assumed that the work would be completed during those two weekends. The work is, however, incomplete. In fact, nothing seems to be happening. Metro moved the attendants' kiosk and built a large rectangular shed where the kiosk used to be, which impedes people flow. I thought that Metro was going to do something useful like install more faregates, which by the way still have freqently broken SmarTrip readers.

What you've seen so far is nothing. Metro has a huge plan to rebuild the Union Station entrances and exits with the goal of improving passenger flow. The staff is going to talk to Metro board members about it this Thursday. One feature of this program: Metro riders entering or exiting at Union Station will probably have to pay a surcharge to cover the cost of the work.

Hi Dr. G. For a station to be as far underground as it is, there seem to be a lot of water leaks and visible water marks on the walls near the elevator side of the platform. Should we be concerned about that?

It's hard to remember a time when those water leaks were not a commonplace sight along the western side of the Red Line underground. Metro is doing a huge rehab project on the Red Line and that's one of the issues its supposed to deal with. The tunnel is quite far underground, and that's contributing to the problem.

Dr. Gridlock, In light of today's event at Bethesda Station, I hope you will take my question: Last week I saw a man at the Farragut North station acting erratic and even dangerous close to the platform's edge. He was leaning and dipping limbs over the edge and walking close to the edge. He was singing to himself and had his own rhythm going. I wasn't sure what I should do - report him to the station manager? But the station manager is all the way upstairs at the Mezze platform, and busy. Is there a phone I should be aware of to report these things? Fortunately nothing happened. But if a rider suspects another rider of dangerous - not just weird - behaviour, what is our recourse?

If you think it's a dangerous situation, call 911 right away. (If you don't have a phone that will work underground, there's probably someone right around you who does.) You can also call the Metro transit police number, which is 202-962-2121.

This morning a woman apparently tried to kill herself by leaping onto the metro tracks. Can anything be done to stop this sort of thing? It seems more common recently.

We don't know all the details yet about what happened this morning. But yes, Metro is concerned about such events and has started a program that might help -- though clearly it's not a solution.

Here's a portion of what Ann Scott Tyson wrote for us last fall about the program:

Metro plans to implement a $250,000 suicide prevention program aimed at countering what officials describe as a "surge" in suicides in the system since July 2009.

The number of people committing suicide in the Metro system, mainly by jumping onto the tracks in front of trains, has roughly doubled in the past year, compared with previous years, according to Metro data.

There were five in 2008, 11 in 2009 and four this year, compared with five in 2008, said Lisa Cooper-Lucas, Metro's manager of medical services. From 2000 to 2007, there were about three or four suicides a year, she said at a meeting of a Metro board of directors committee Thursday.

The program ... would allow Metro to award a contract for a suicide prevention-training program for one year, with two additional years for completing and expanding the program, said Gary W. Baldwin, Metro's chief of human relations.

In a first phase starting in November [2010], the program would train 20 Metro employees to teach bus drivers, train operators and station managers how to spot suicidal people and stop them from taking their lives, Baldwin said.

"This is to position key members of the Metro staff, particularly frontline personnel . . . to intervene when we see those kinds of behaviors," Baldwin said. Metro employees have not had suicide prevention training yet, he said.

Metro employees would not be taught to physically restrain people contemplating or attempting suicide, but they would be instructed on how to identify and talk with them and then call on a local crisis response team if necessary.

A second phase, starting in December [2010], would aim to educate riders about the risk of suicide on the system, so that people might intervene. It makes sense to involve the public because suicides on Metro are traumatic for the entire community, Cooper-Lucas said. "It's devastating not only to the families, but the people on the platform, the station managers, the train operators and their families," she said.

Are we ever going to see automatic operation ever again? I can live without it, but I wish they would come out and say it or at least stop wasting money trying to fix a system that can't fail. Even if they can't get it to work 100%, could they do it during non rush hours where trains are spaced out more and less likely to repeat the mistake. This would not work during construction, but during normal non-rush hour, I can't see why not. Secondly, the metro budget concerns me. Last year, fares were raised to balance the budget, but with another budget deficit this year, it appears that we didn't solve the underlying problem or we didn't go far enough. I think Metro needs to be more honest about why we are in the red and do more to solve those problems instead of kicking the can down the road every year which we are too familiar with.

Quite often, I hear from riders fed up with the trains lurching into stations. The trains, which were built to be operated automatically, have been under manual control since the Red Line crash in June 2009. Metro continues to work on the track circuit improvements that the staff says are necessary for safety before restoring automatic control. And there's no deadline for it.

I'm sure Metro is not going to partially restore the automatic controls, and I can't blame them for this policy. I don't want to ride on trains they say are like, "maybe 75 percent safe" or something like that. No experiments. Just fix it.

Your second point: Can't we just have an ordinary year when a little tinkering balances the budget? Metro doesn't seem able to come up with a financial solution big enough to last several years.

The system is designed so that the transit authority isn't in complete control of its own finances. It has to depend on the local jurisdictions for a big portion of its operating budget. Meanwhile, the board members are very sensitive to rider complaints about any proposed service cuts to safe money.

If construction must go on, VDOT is not looking at creative solutions to ease the pain where it could. Prime example: the Eastbound Dulles Access Road. It is virtually empty in the morning, and those cars and taxis using it are going away from the airport. So open it up to all commuters and ease the congestion on the Toll Road. Or, if the WMATA is worried about losing toll revenue, it would be relatively easy to modify the current merge after the main toll plaza of the access road and toll road to two-way. This would allow HOV-authorized commuters bound for I-66 East to hop over to the access road and ease the strain created by the loss of the I-495 North lane over on the toll road. Simple, temporary and effective. So is there any chance VDOT is open to this? And is VDOT taking such suggestions from taxpayers in any forum, or are we voiceless as construction is already well underway?

VDOT and WMATA (Metro) don't control the access road. It's the airports authority, and if the airports authority tried to open up the access road to more traffic, it would get stepped on immediately by Congress.

The article today noted that there were numerous ongoing projects that all seem to bump into each other and cause cascading effects on the region's traffic. I know there are maps with "dots" that you can click on to learn about a project- but are there any maps that exist online that show the extent of some these projects in real distance? (I.E. a google map that might show 495 from the mixing bowl towards Maryland colored with red to indicate HOT lanes, blue to indicate metro expansion) I think it would be fascinating to really SEE this information laid out like that

I don't know of anything that's exactly like your very good idea. The closest thing I can think of is the map at www.vamegaprojects.com. That's the Virginia Department of Transportation site set up to help drivers get through the very large projects in Northern Virginia. It's extremely helpful in that regard, but doesn't deal with a commute that might take you from I-66 over the Roosevelt Bridge and onto Constitution Avenue, for example.


I'll second the comment on the train driver this morning. For someone who must have been incredibly traumatized, he did a remarkable job of keeping us informed. The train evacuation was much quicker than I would have expected.

Good to hear about the train operator's response to a very bad situation.

Oh please...declaring war on NoVa? At least you have a highway two larger Interstate highways (395 and 66) that come in from your side of town into the city. From the Maryland suburbs, you have the smaller US-50 into town. I-395 passes outbound in Maryland. If you want to come inbound on I-395, you have to do one of several work-arounds (Pennsylvania Ave and the illegal U-turn, take the local Frederick Douglas bridge, or make the double clover leaf at Suitland Rd to come back at I-395 from DC-295 Northbound. DC needs to spend money on making DC accessible on the Eastern side of town before spending money on widening roads in VIrginia.

By the end of the year, DC should have completed the two new highway spans for the 11th Street Bridge, creating a seamless highway connection across the District for drivers.

In regards to the article on possible future Circulator routes, is there a more detailed timeline for the addition of new routes. I would like to see the Silver Spring - Georgia Route get up and going. The 79 express bus is good, but it is designed for commuters, whereas the Circulator would hopefully run on weekends and would be more useful for getting around or doing errands.

I think that one is in the out years of DC's 10 year plan for adding Circulator routes.

Thanks for joining me. I'll be away next Monday and back with you on April 25. There are plenty of comments I didn't get to during the past hour and will try to recap some of this on the Dr. Gridlock blog.

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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