Dr. Gridlock

Apr 14, 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.

Any idea why Metro decided to waste a 6000 series train by parking it at National Airport for people to cross from one platform to the other instead of using the old, 1000 series cars?

Just a guess: This is the first many visitors see of our transit system. Metro may have wanted to avoid having that first impression be a bad one.

Here's a link to Lori Aratani's story about the train bridge.

Does Metro plan to use any of the money from the upcoming fare increase to fix Next Bus so that it actually, you know, works? Accurately. It's really pretty sad as it is and not at all reliable.

The fare increases probably won't affect the operation of NextBus, since an equipment upgrade would need to come from the capital budget, rather than the annual operating budget paid for in part by your fares.

NextBus definitely needs some fixing, and has ever since the system began operating. Iwish the system would just tell us where the bus is, rather than making a calculation about when it will reach our stop. The computer uses scheduling information and traffic information, plus the GPS locator, to estimate the bus's arrival time. Sometimes it works, and sometimes, not so much.

I am very excited that Governor McAuliffe signed SB 156 into law on April 4. This sets up a series of actions to end the E-Z Pass monthly fee by this September. This story may have passed us by up here because the real political action (and voter anger) re tolls is happening around Hampton Roads, but the legal results affect the whole state, including us here. I think this will be a great opportunity to encourage people to get transponders and try out the Express Lanes and those publicizing the lanes should make something of the change when it happens this fall. It removes yet another obstacle to "trying out" the Express Lanes by no longer requiring a monthly fee for life. Now even non-commuters can try them.

This month, Gov. McAuliffe signed the bill that says: "No later than September 1, 2014, the Department of Transportation shall develop and implement a plan to eliminate the maintenance fees associated with electronic toll collection transponders."

Since 2012, VDOT has been charging an account maintenance fee of 50 cents a month for regular E-ZPass transponders and $1 a month for Flex transponders, though you could get the Flex fee waved if it was used consistently to carpool on the Beltway HOT lanes.

I thought that was a reasonable thing to do to help cover the expensive back office operations needed to support the E-ZPass system. Many Northern Virginia drivers groused about it, but it became a bigger issue with the advent of all-electronic tolling at the Midtown and Downtown tunnels in Hampton Roads this year.

The cost of the back office operations isn't going away, and I'm not sure how VDOT is going to redistribute the cost burden now that it wouldn't be able to charge a fee for the accounts.

To your question: Yes, I agree this will remove one of the obstacles that has stopped motorists from testing the 495 Express Lanes. Transurban, the company that operates the express lanes, estimates that 40 percent of  Beltway drivers don't have E-ZPasses.

But it may be tough to assess the impact of the fee removal, since there are other obstacles. Some drivers just don't want to pay a toll. Others would be willing, but can't figure out if the toll at the moment is worth it. In other words, how much time are they actually saving in exchange for that price?

Dr. Gridlock, Those of us who use the Dulles Toll Road put up with the increase in tolls to pay for the Silver line, and we put up with the endless construction a few years back until the new access lanes to the 495 and the HOT lanes were completed. What we probably didn't count on was that the powers that be were going to design the road as incompetently as they did. As I understand it, a great deal of the construction was supposed to alleviate the traffic back up on the toll road caused by drivers waiting to merge on to the 495. However not only is this worse than before, the backup inevitably leads to cars trying to squeeze onto the ramp at the last minute, blocking the right-hand lane on the toll road leading to I-66 at exactly the point where the left-hand lane on the toll road merges to the right. What kind of idiot designed this? Has anyone given any thought to how the problem might be mitigated? At a minimum, barriers should be put in place to force cars trying to get the beltway to merge before the narrowing point on the toll road, and inexpensive fix that *I suspect would help considerably.

This was a difficult area before the HOT lanes were built and it's a difficult area now, whether you're trying to reach the Beltway's outer or inner loop.

The thing that helped was adding the ramp from the eastbound Dulles Airport Access Highway to the Beltway. It meant drivers coming from the airport didn't have to weave through the toll road traffic. That helped everyone, but it wasn't enough.

I wish it were easier for drivers coming from the toll road to line up well in advance for their Beltway ramps. My thought was there should be direction markings painted on the pavement, like interstate shields marked "I-495 North" and "I-495 South."

One thing I do remember VDOT construction managers telling me while the HOT lanes were being built: This wasn't going to fix the congestion going from the toll road to the outer loop, heading south through Tysons and I-66. They said their mission was to build the HOT lanes and that more money would be needed to fix the interchange problems.

Who is responsible for damages when a monthly parking customer parks her car in non designated parking area i.e. roadway and her car is hit by another driver whose path was blocked or constricted by the first driver?

Maybe there's a lawyer in the audience who can address this. My guess is that the burden falls on the operator of the moving vehicle. (The parked vehicle should have been towed, but driving into that vehicle isn't really an option.)

It appears that the New Hampshire Ave NW project is nearing completion. There's just a few pockets of active work going on and a final project-length resurfacing remains. Can you get an official update from D.C.?

This is the project near Washington Circle. The District Departmentof Transportation should be getting pretty close to done. I'll check.

Some of our very mild winters allowed projects like this to advance more quickly, but not this past winter. I've heard about many projects across the D.C. region that got slowed by the snow and cold.

You'll notice this especially on the projects that were nearly done and looked like they just needed paving and lane marking.

Are there any limitations on contractors blocking off sidewalks? It seems not. For example, the contractor at the old NPR building has had the sidewalks on the north and south sides blocked for months. This would be merely annoying if the contractor across the street was not doing the same thing. Pedestrians have to take a pretty wide detour to get around these projects.

I believe there's a DC law dating back to the Fenty administration that requires contractors who block off a sidewalk to provide an alternative for pedestrians, in most cases.

As a frequent Metro rider, I often wonder what sort of emergency plan Metro has in place should a station or train need to be evacuated quickly. Judging by the mass of people getting off at Smithsonian yesterday, this would not be a very quick process. Because we live in the nation's capital, I think every Metro rider should know what they should do in any emergency situation, and I think Metro needs to communicate this plan more clearly and proactively. After all, waiting until such a situation were to occur would be too late.

I think it's the Metro staffers and other emergency responders, not the riders, who need to know how to handle an evacuation. We've certainly had some poor experiences with that over the past several years, and not just in the underground stations.

Even under the best of circumstances, evacuating an underground station would be a slow process. I think of this when people write in to complain about the pattern they see on the Metro escalators in the afterno0n, where they see two escalators going up and only one going down.

Metro's policy is to make it easier to get out of the station than to get in. If people are going to be in a crowd, it's better to have that crowd be on the street than down below on the platform.

The stop lights are hoplessly out of synch on the drive near Lincoln Memorial and buses are now parking there, too, causing horrible rush hour traffic in the evening. Can't someone fix this mess?

The District Department of Transportation controls the traffic signal timing. Park police need to enforce the rules on buses stopping or parking.

Both issues come up a lot during tourist season at the Lincoln Memorial. One thing that throws off the signals: Pedestrians and cyclists hitting the buttons at the crosswalks. Don't know what can be done about that.

If I'm heading south on 95 to North Carolina from Capitol Hill early on Wednesday morning, is there any good time to leave before the southbound lanes start choking at Springfield/Occoquan/etc?

I think you probably will be fine heading south at any time early Wednesday. Since last Friday, I have noticed extra traffic on I-95, corresponding with what for many is spring break time.

But midweek travel, especially opposite the rush hour direction in the morning, isn't likely to be difficult -- barring a crash that closes lanes.

Of course, if you're traveling a long distance, you're almost certain to wind up in somebody's rush hour at some point. But getting out of Northern Virginia shouldn't be especially difficult at that time.

Dr. G- Been meaning to ask you about this for a while. As I'm sure you're aware, the elevator at Takoma is accessible through a fairly unique set-up, with a single faregate on the platform that only provides access to the elevator. This is also the most direct access to the Kiss and Ride area in the parking lot below. This faregate has been broken for MONTHS - probably since last fall. I now see dishonest folks using the emergency gate to exit there, but someone in a wheelchair or with crutches would probably be out of luck. For me it's just more of an annoyance, but I am wondering if they have any plans to fix it. There are no signs up anywhere!

I know the setup you're describing, but wasn't aware the faregate was busted. I'll check.

Can we finally start to get excited about the opening of the Silver Line in the not too distant future?

Not so fast. We still need the airports authority to agree with the contractor that the project is substantially complete. Then Metro comes in and gets 90 days to do its own tests. And the Federal Transit Authority also has to review operations for safety.

I ranked the opening of the Silver Line as the region's top transportation story for 2014, so I'm very much looking forward to seeing all this happen, but I'm not getting edgy about it yet.

Hi, Dr. G. I live in Edgewater, south of Annapolis. On Sat. night around midnight, I discovred the South River bridge on Rte 2 was closed due to an accident. No problem with that, of course, but they gave us no notice until we actually got to the bridge, where we had to make a U turn and head back. I don't know how familiar you are with this area, but a notice at Aris T Allen Ave, a couple miles north of the bridge, would have saved a lot of time and aggravation. As it was it took 30 mnutes to circle around and use another bridge to cross the river. People said the same was true from the other direction. Very sad about the accident, but it could have been better handled.

A plea for drivers: When you move into the left turn lane, but sure to get all the way over to the curb of the median. On Georgia Avenue, both north- and southbound in the Wheaton area, the left turn lanes are very narrow and left turners often hang into the adjacent lane, causing cars to swerve or slow to avoid hitting them. It's a very dangerous situation, so please move over as far as you can when turning left!

Those left-turn lanes in that section of Georgia Avenue really don't leave much margin for error. I enter them very cautiously to make sure I hug the median -- as you say -- then I feel my car shake as other motorists pass very close by.

How are D.C.'s "Hawk" pedestrian crossing lights working out? I ask because I was nearly hit crossing upper Connecticut Avenue a few days ago by a driver who seemed not to grasp how they work, and I've observed other close calls. I think what confuses drivers is that these lights combine flashing yellow AND solid yellow AND flashing red AND solid red lights. When drivers approach a solid yellow traffic light we know it will turn red shortly and we need to get ready to stop. But a flashing yellow light means proceed with caution. A solid red light means "Stop," period. But a flashing red light means "Stop, look and go." I think what's happening is that even when drivers stop for the solid red (and some don't), they interpret the flashing red as an OK to proceed even while the pedestrian is still in the crosswalk unless he is directly in front of them (and maybe not then). What's wrong with using just solid yellow (prepare to stop) and solid red (stop until the light goes out)? Maybe these installations should show a flashing yellow at all times just to alert drivers of their location, then turn to solid yellow followed by solid red when a pedestrian presses the button. Or just use button-operated regular traffic lights. But the flashing red is going to get somebody killed (maybe me). Here's the D.C. government Hawk brochure. The whole thing looks more complicated than it needs to be. http://www.scribd.com/doc/133996347/DC-HAWK-Brochure-8-6-09

I know a person doesn't have to be an Einstein to get a driver's license, but motorists at least should know that red -- any sort of red -- means stop.

In DC, the HAWK signals are still fairly new, and there aren't many of them, so drivers may not be familiar with them, but the basic idea of stopping on red should be clear.

These may be fertile locations for ticket-writing police in the coming days as they conduct the annual Street Smart campaign to protect pedestrians.

Traffic on the streets feeding to this new exit have bottle necked - "Eye" Street traveling from 13th to 11th is now horrible. Residents of this area have contacted the city using the 311 system, but so far no response. There seem to be several major issues: 1) The light timing "Eye" street only allows 15 seconds which is not sufficient, 2) The sides of the street where parking is prohibited during rush hour do not match current traffic patterns between 11th and 12 (currently the left side has parking which right side is prohibited, but more people are turning left and literally squeeze by these cars) and lastly 3) The is a construction worker on 11th at the entrance to 395 that tries to direct traffic, but does not realize the back up they are causing down "Eye" Street. Any advice to get the city to study this new traffic pattern? It seems to have slipped through the cracks.

Are we talking about the ramp onto the outbound Southeast Freeway that opened last week?  The District Department of Transportation would normally watch any new traffic movement like this for a couple of weeks and see if adjustments needed to be made on things like signal time.

But if this isn't happening, the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission should get into it, and perhaps the office of D.C. Councilmember Tommy Wells.

To tag on to what a previous poster mentioned: the trouble with the Takoma faregate is that they try to fix it and it only works for about 24-48 hours. I've mentioned it to the station manager occasionally when exiting and she always claims it's working when it's actually broken AGAIN. They need to replace that gate altogether.

So, in the end, the Silver Line will be close to a year behind schedule it seems, since the original timeline I think had it operational in the fall of 2013. With your answer that Metro has 90 days, if the handover were today, it'd be mid-July...? What, do you think since I'm sure you have much more knowledge than the average user who just hears bits and piees, have been the major reasons for delays?

The only major transportation project I can think of off hand that opened on time was the 495 Express Lanes.  The Silver Line is one of the biggest transportation projects in the nation and one of the most complex. The need to have all new systems mesh with the existing Metrorail system added a difficulty factor.

Some critics say that it would have been better not to put the project in the hands of the Washington Metropolitan Airports Authority, which has more experience operating runways than railroads. But I'm not sure what other entity would have made a satisfactory alternative for a project of this scale.

Metro and Washington Flyer operate buses to Dulles from the West Falls Church station. When/if the Silver Line opens, will the buses move to the Reston station, which is quite a bit closer?

Yes. There will be a very large realignment of bus services, including Fairfax Connector services, on the day the Silver Line opens. Despite a lot of planning time -- which these delays have added to -- it's still going to be very interesting to see if all these changes can go smoothly on day one of Silver Line operations.

I think this is an issue with the ramp onto WB 695 from 11th Street (that opened last year). There is definitely more traffic on I westbound now, with the bottleneck at 11th because of the short light. (and with that ramp closed this week, maybe there's even more confusion)

i think the problem is that a FLASHING red light means "Stop, then go," which can happen when pedestrians are still in the crosswalk. A SOLID red would be unambiguous. How are these things working in other cities, or is DC the pioneer?

DC was not the pioneer. I think it was Tucson. And they haven't been around all that long, and for a while, localities needed special permission to install them as experiments. But we're past that phase now.

Part of the concept is that you don't have enough foot traffic relative to car traffic to justify installing a regular red light, so you're going for something that will offer more protection to pedestrians than just a plain crosswalk while not jamming up traffic on a major route.

First one I saw was on Georgia Avenue. Also the first time I met Muriel Bowser, who was out there for opening in 2009.

Crosswalks that take pedestrians across multi-lane commuter routes raise many safety issues. I never feel really safe in those crosswalks and doubt that many others do. I think "trust but verify" is the right approach. Make sure the drivers really are stopping before stepping out.


Dr. Gridlock, I'm curious what, if any, reaction you might have to the report WTOP ran this morning (it appeared online a few days ago) about people complaining that the 495 Express Lane toll gantries didn't read their E-ZPasses properly. All of the complainers had one thing in common: They didn't follow the instructions about how to mount the device in the proper place on the windshield. They either had the device lying on the dashboard or they tried to hold it in their hand. Of course WTOP came across as sympathetic to these people, but frankly, I don't see why. The instructions are perfectly clear about how to mount the device. You can even use tape to mount it if you need to do so, but it's supposed to be on the windshield unless you have a car whose windshield interferes (in which case they send you a special device that mounts above the front license plate). Why should the authorities have any sympathy for people who refuse to follow directions? Thousands of other E-ZPass users have no trouble mounting the device properly!

One outraged driver wrote to me complaining that he had an E-ZPass and still got a notice of toll due while using the 495 Express Lanes.

He mailed me the photo of his vehicle included in the notice. It showed him fully extending his arm out the driver's side window. His hand gripped the E-ZPass transponder.

I agree with you that the directions are real clear. But not everyone reads directions, whether it's for E-ZPass or a new microwave oven.

One thread in many comments about the express toll lanes is that all-electronic tolling makes drivers nervous. They can't tell when going under the gantries whether their tolls have been recorded.

They could still install a regular traffic light that is only activated by the walk signal - what is the HAWK advantage over that? I've seen several of those and they always seem to work well, since everyone is familiar with what's going on. Why would you change the situation?

I think you could do that in many places. You'd probably modify the signal so that it displays only yellow and red lights.

The HAWK signal has limited applications, generally when you've got heavy motor vehicle traffic on multi-lane routes combined with relatively light pedestrian traffic. See this story I wrote about the one on Connecticut Avenue.

In some parts of Arlington, crosswalks have flashing lights embedded in the crosswalks themselves that are activated when the pedestrian presses the button. They seem pretty effective. Maybe they would work in D.C.

There are a variety of options. Seems like traffic engineers are always trying to figure out what's going to get the attention of drivers and keep pedestrians safe, especially on the multi-lane streets.

Another element is the positioning of the stop line for the cars. You want it far enough back on a multi-lane street so that the pedestrian can tell what the second car over is doing -- stopping, or driving through the crosswalk.

I see comments about how awful nextbus is all the item in this chat. I use it every day, and aside from the very rare"ghost bus," or very occasional case when a bus arrives a minute or two sooner or later than usual due to traffic, I very rarely have problems with inaccuracy. If you try to plan your arrival to the stop to the exact minute the bus will arrive, you're likely to have issues, but if you give yourself a three minute buffer, you should have no trouble. I think it's great - much better than looking at timetables.

I've had more good luck than bad luck using NextBus. The bad luck is generally in downtown DC during rush hours when there's lots of traffic and many people boarding at the stops ahead of mine.

The very most annoying thing for riders is when the bus gets to the stop ahead of when NextBus predicted it would arrive. So I agree with you on leaving that buffer time to account for errors.

Doctor G. - Why does the national park service not shut down the roads near the tidal basin during busy Cherry Blossom weekends? I know some of these parkways are fairly busy through routes, but between the mass of pedestrians and the mass of extra cars, those roads are not moving anywhere any time soon, and having more than the existing narrow, roped in sidewalks, and the short 20 second pedestrian timed signals down there would go such a long way to relieving the crowding issues during peak tourist season.

I completely understand the problem you're trying to solve, but think it might be less disruptive to move the Tidal Basin.

The ripple effect of closing Independence Avenue, Maine Avenue and Ohio Drive would be amazing. Did I say ripple effect? It would be more like a tsunami, rolling back through Northern Virginia.

I've got to run. (This week, I'm testing some traffic apps.) We won't have a chat next Monday, but I'll be back on April 28. So please stay safe out there and rejoin me then.

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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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