Dr. Gridlock

Apr 28, 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.

Hi Dr. Gridlock, A few weeks ago I commented on seeing drivers from I-66 westbound taking the Monument Rd exit during the mornings -- which is only open to I-66 eastbound drivers (they're basically going the wrong way). Well, we saw another one today - and this was probably the craziest incident we've seen so far. We started honking at him as he was going up the ramp, then I guess when he realized his mistake, he made a 3-point turn at the top of the ramp, went back down the ramp, then basically took a U-turn to get back on I-66 west. I know you told me to call VA state police, but between being flabbergasted at his behavior and realizing the guy would be long gone by then, didn't get a chance. I did manage to snap a picture of this crazy (MD SUV) driver. I'm really nervous we'll get into a head-on collision one day with these clueless/ignorant or law-breaking drivers.

Are other I-66 drivers encountering wrong way traffic on the Monument Drive? Since 2011, it's been open to all westbound traffic at off-peak hours and on weekends. It cost several hundred thousand dollars for VDOT to make the adjustments in signs, signals and lane markings. But is it not safe? Is it too easy for drivers to get confused about the rules? Or is this more a question of a few knuckleheads?


Hi, Dr. Gridlock: Every day on my commute home to Vienna, I notice the orange line train stutters its way out of the West Falls Church station. The train will move a few feet, slam the breaks, move a few more feet, then slam the breaks again. I acknowledge this is a general problem on Metro, but it's quite pronounced at West Falls Church. Why is this? And is there anything Metro can do to smoothly pull out of the station?

I haven't heard of this particular problem at that location before, so this is just a quess and others may have a better response: During the evening rush, westbound trains between West Falls Church and the end of the line at Vienna often get bunched up. That's a reason trains are likely to halt frequently. But that doesn't really explain moving a few feet and hitting the brakes. That sounds more like an operator still learning how to drive a train.

Do you know why Metrorail insists on having two out of three escalators on two separate levels go out (up) of the station all the time for the better part of a year, after a repair. While this is fine in the morning, in the afternoon 95% of metrorail traffic is heading back into (down) the metro station. It's truly a safety hazard with hundreds of people trying to go down two (at each level) escalators while virtually no one is going out the two other escalators. I have heard a rumor that when the escalator was repaired they found if it ran down it broke so now it can only run up. If you want photos I can send them along. FYI, the metro staff in the station completely agree this is madness.

This one we have talked about before: Metro has a policy at many busy stations of having two escalators go up and one down, where we're talking about a bank of three escalators.

Metro officials say the reason is public safety. If there's going to be a big crowd waiting for trains, Metro would rather have the crowd on the street, where people can spread out, than on the platform, where they can't.

You may miss a train, which is bad. On the other hand, a train may miss you, which is very, very good.

I know I've told readers before when discussing this: I was never so worried on a train platform as I was coming from an Oakland A's game onto the nearby BART platform. We were just waved up the escalator to the elevated platform. Great, I thought. No waiting here.

I changed my mind when we reached the platform level and began to be pushed toward the platform edge by the crowd continuing to come up the escalator.

(One thing I notice in reader comments: They get various explanations of Metro escalator policy from station managers. I think that's a problem. Somebody either is not getting correct information on Metro policy or employees are just telling riders anything to end the conversation.)

Why is smoking allowed at the Metro bus station at the Pentagon? Although it is outside (as are many rail stations) isn't it a metro facility -- no other access is allowed. There is no place to escape the smoke if someone lights up while you're in line.

I'm not sure whether the bus stops are controlled by Metro. (Many bus stops aren't.) And, just off-hand, I can't think of any outdoor public space where smoking is banned. Do the seating bowls of stadiums count on this?

I do like the idea of banning smoking in outdoor spots where people must wait. Smoke is repellent and and dangerous to the other people standing nearby.

One thing I wonder about whenever we talk about banning some activity is how a new rule could be enforced. Thoughts?

Dear Dr. Gridlock, I was traveling on GW Parkway northbound around mid-day on April 10 and planned to exit onto 495 at the American Legion Bridge, but the exit ramp was closed. I thought this might be just a one day thing, but during a radio traffic report a few days ago, I thought I heard that the ramp was closed again. I tried to search for some information about this but could not find anything. Do you know anything about this? Thanks very much.

I took a quick look at the National Park Service listing of local work zones and there's nothing for the parkway ramp or anything nearby.

So whatever it was, I don't believe it was a long-term work zone.  In fact, that would be a very big deal for commuters -- the kind of thing I tend to get many complaints about.

The only project I can think of any where nearby would be the VDOT project to open up the left shoulder of the inner loop north of where the express lanes end, but that's too far away to affect the parkway ramp to the Legion Bridge.

Conversations continue on ways to improve traffic in I-66. One of the problems that I see with traffic in the DC Metro area is that there are very few alternate routes that people can take. US-50 and US-29 both travel somewhat parallel to I-66, but neither is able to handle additional volume. It would seem to me that working to improve traffic and capacity of US-50 and US-29 would help by giving people an alternative to I-66 when they are NOT going far. I think roads should be built with another parallel road to help provide alternatives. Unfortunately, we don't have an extensive grid of roads to choose. So many developments were constructed without multiple entrances and exits to prevent people from wanting to cut through the community. This forces more people on to the same roads that can't handle the volume.

I think you are correct about the limited alternatives in the DC area's road network. (No where is it more of a factor than at the Potomac and Anacostia River crossings.)

The road network we have in this congested region is pretty much the road network we're going to have, so for important arteries like Routes 50 and 29, improvements will come in the form of intersection improvements, like adding capacity for turn lanes and maybe building some bypass lanes at intersections.

But we also should consider alternatives like light rail lines or bus rapid transit lanes. I don't see anything like that in current plans, though.

Hi, Dr. Gridlock. I live in Washington, and I do not own a car. So, I ride the Metrobus daily. One of the major annoyances for riders is the failure of some Metrobus Operators to open the back door exit without a passenger calling out "Back Door". Sometimes it occurs several times on one bus trip. I do not think that it is that difficult for drivers to check their mirrors and open the Back Door without being reminded. I think it would be an inexpensive way for Metrobus to improve its service if bus operators were more alert.

Hi Dr. G - One of the people on my street has put put a No Parking sign in front of her home, to stop others from parking in front of her house on the public street. She has no handicap, and neither does anyone in her household. They have a driveway that has space for their two If anyone parks there, the response can be anything from yelling and screaming to eggs thrown at the car. My question has two parts - can a person legally reserve the space in front of their house on a public street and if not, what would you suggest we do about it?

No, and call the police.

Is there any word on when the groundbreaking will be on phase 2?

Work on phase 2 already is underway. For example, Dulles Airport visitors are going to notice that about 100 trees are being relocated this spring to make way for the tracks and airport station.

then there must be a lot of these drivers because the same exact thing happens at Silver Spring, especially if the train is ending in Silver Spring. It's really annoying.

Yes it is. The trains were built for automatic operation, but that was suspended in 2009 after the Red Line crash. Still no work on when Metro will return to automated train operation.

I go there rarely but I just looked at it on Google maps - it's marked for two way traffic and the exit sign on I66 suggests it's open 24 hours. What am I missing?

The rule is that the ramp is open to all westbound traffic from I-66 at off-peak hours and on weekends, and to HOV2 traffic from 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays.

The electronic sign before the westbound ramp should display whether the ramp is open, open to HOV2 traffic only, or closed.

Perhaps there's a problem with the sign? Of course, just because a driver is going the wrong way doesn't necessarily mean there's a problem with the sign.

This is in response to the reader asking about the jerky departure from West Falls Church toward Vienna. While not 100% I have seen this as well and the most plausible explanation is due to a track circuit that is failing causing the operator to loose speed read outs which forces them to stop. Metro is currently replacing all the track circuits in response to the 2009 collision, this will last through 2017.

Thank you. And it's a better explanation than mine, because it accounts for why the rider would notice it so often.

I hope that any transportation system that plans new roads avoids east/west roads that align with the sunrise/sunset or plan tall trees and other sources of shade along the road. Lately, I have been getting on I-66 East in the morning as the sun rises. The bright light causes many traffic delays. I can't wait until we have technology that can filter the sunlight out of the driver's eyes as a simple pair of sunglasses isn't enough. I am looking forward to this being a rainy, cloudy week as that also helps cut down the sun delays.

I think it might be easier to reconfigure the earth's orbit than to plan an east-west route that avoids the sun's rays through all four seasons.

It's certainly a problem for drivers on I-66 and on portions of the Beltway, especially around the annual time changes, when drivers suddenly confront the problem.

Doc - just wanted to help here. The ramp to go northbound onto 495 is a potholed mess. They have apparently done some repairs recently (I drive it often and yesterday saw new asphalt). There was also a flashing message board sign indicating that they were planning to close that ramp from 10 am to 2 pm in the coming days (I can't remember the date now) I assume to completely repave the ramp. I hope you can talk to someone at the Park Service and get them to do a better job publicizing this information and giving warning because yes, this is a big deal.

Thank you for help on that traffic mystery.

Metro has moved the train on the middle track between platforms and has a lot of equipment there replacing tracks. What is the plan now for the middle track?

I think we're talking about that "bridge train" that allowed passengers to move from platform to platform across the middle track at Reagan National during the elevator modernization.

I don't know of any plan to replace the middle track. That's been there since the time when the airport station was the temporary end of the line.

Hello Dr. Gridlock, During my commute on the Red Line, I have noticed thst WMATA has constructed five grey cement pillars thst normally used to provide support beams for rails (esp. for the above ground station railways). Thay haev been in the same spot for months. Why/Where are the plans for the support beams?

That sounds like the area where a pedestrian ramp is under construction to allow people to get safely between the west and east sides of the railroad tracks. I believe that's a District Department of Transportation project, scheduled to be done in January.

There wasn't much going on with it over the winter. Construction is a bit tricky because the crews need to accommodate the safety of the trains operating below.

Is Transurban conducting tests on toll rates on the Beltway Express Lanes? I've noticed on at least 3 occasions where tolls have been posted at $1.00 for the full length, even one day last week at 6:30 AM. Is it possible that they were instead having problems with the displays and the signs were not showing the correct tolls?

I got a similar inquiry from a traveler last week, while I was on vacation, but haven't had a chance to check. Will do.

But I think it's unlikely it's a test of anything.

I've seen the same thing. I believe there is a sign saying it's closed 10-2pm during the week. seems crazy and they of course don't tell you until just before the exit.

Thanks to a bunch of parkway travelers who have written in to explain this.

Is smoking allowed on the outdoor Metro platforms? It seems this would be similar to smoking at a bus stop. As to how a ban would be enforced I would ask how is any law enforced? Since police can't be everywhere as a society we count on people obeying the laws without the threat of immediate arrest just because it is the right thing to do.

Yes, like not exceeding the speed limit, coming to a full stop at stop signs and not eating or drinking in the Metro system.

Could you explain the first question? How can someone take an exit from an interstate highway and end up going against traffic? This sounds like a police emergency. What's happening here?

I didn't see it happen and don't know why it happened. The set up we're talking about is the ramp in the middle of I-66 that connects the left lanes, the HOV lanes, to the Monument Drive bridge over I-66.

There's a similar setup at Stringfellow Road and I-66.

Hi Dr. Gridlock, this is probably a stupid question, but it's driving me bananas and I'm newish to the area so haven't figured it out yet. I commute by car from Silver Spring to Fairfax for work, and it seems like traffic is worse in the spring than other times of year. Is it just me or is this true? The only reason I can come up with is an influx of visitors to the area for spring breaks and travel, but it just seems odd that it's so much worse (at least on 495) than other times of the year. Or is it the same all year round and I'm just crazy?

I think that Silver Spring-Fairfax via the Beltway is going to be a bad commute all year long. Generally, you'll have an easier trip in the morning than in the evening.

Traffic is heavier or lighter at certain times of the year. For example, I thought there was some extra traffic last week that might have been attributable to spring breaks in other regions putting more drivers on the interstates around DC.

You will notice some slackening of traffic in July and August, but that particular route of yours is almost always one of the worst in the region.

Not so much of a question as a comment. I read through the recent chats about the EZPass and can't understand why so many people are reluctant to put the EZpass on their window and forget about it. I haven't been charged when it wasn't warranted. My EZPasses are stuck behind the cars' rear view mirrors, which is not blocking my line of vision at all. I've actually had the NY EZpass since before I moved down here (over 20 years ago) and really don't plan on changing states any time soon (especially because the savings really come when I go through the NY bridge tolls - a significant discount! The discount, of course, is only available to those who have the EZPass issued through NY). You mentioned a driver sending you a toll violation picture of him sticking his pass out the window. Anyone knows that it needs to be CENTERED in the middle of the car (whether on the outside or inside...). Geez.

I've lived in the DC region more than a quarter of a century, but I moved here from New York. And I've noticed that drivers in the DC area are much less familiar with paying tolls to use highways, tunnels and bridges than New Yorkers are.

Tolls still are relatively rare around here, so many drivers don't see the need for having an E-ZPass in the first place. That's one issue the operators of the Beltway HOT lanes talk about. Their survey says 40 percent of Beltway drivers don't have E-ZPasses.

So the main issue from my commenters and letter writers is that they don't see why they should pay a monthly maintenance fee for a device they rarely use. They think it's not worth it.

The positioning of the E-ZPass on the windshield is a secondary theme, but I certainly here from people who have some sort of difficulty mounting the transponder -- or keeping it stuck there.

And then one of the sources of anxiety about using the HOT lanes is that drivers can't tell when they go under the toll gantries if their E-ZPass actually has recorded the toll. That's different from their experience at toll plazas, where they see a green light.

You mentioned on an earlier question that work on Phase 2 of the Silver Line (to Dulles Airport) was already underway. Does that mean a specific location of the airport station has been selected? Please tell me that they're still not considering a station so distant from the airport that it would require a bus bridge.

To save money, the station will be placed far from the terminal. It will be by the daily parking garage. This is a mistake. It would be much better to put the station near where the passengers are. But it will be up to some future generation to correct this. Meanwhile, I think, few air travelers will wind up using the Silver Line.

Has anyone used Green Airport in Providence, RI, and gone from the terminal to the car rental counters? Think of that and you will get an idea of what it will be like to take the Silver Line from Dulles Airport.

I think the reader asking how someone can exit and be going against traffic has never seen the ramp in question. The ramp is in the center of I-66 and has two lanes separated by a double yellow line. Federal regulations prohibit that sort of ramp from being used in both directions at the same time for safety reasons due to the speed of traffic entering or leaving an Interstate Highway. Thus, during the morning rush hour when the ramp is used for eastbound HOV traffic, westbound traffic is not allowed to use it to exit. If you're going westbound on I-66 and you go onto that ramp during the morning rush hour, you are going against traffic. The real question is why there is no moveable barrier preventing westbound traffic from doing this.

I think you're right about the lack of a barrier. The fact that it's been like this since 2011 -- at least -- makes me think that this has not been a major safety issue, since we would have been talking by now about all the crashes. Still, I'll see if I can get clarification on why there's no barrier of the type drivers see on I-95/395.

Are you against any laws that cannot be aggressively enforced? While I do see a lot of eating and drinking on the Metro I haven't seen anyone smoking so some laws do work.

I do think laws regulating public behavior can have some moral force. Just posting a sign can have some force, too. But I also think that lawmakers pass regulations to make everybody feel like they've actually done something about a problem, when there's no realistic way the police can enforce those laws. The effect of that is to make many people skeptical of the laws.

I have actually seen police ticket you men for smoking on the platform. It was 10:00 pm on a Friday evening.

For those not familiar, this Google Map link shows the covered walkway from the airport (right side) to the rental car garage (left side). https://maps.google.com/maps?q=tf+green+airport&hl=en&ll=41.726412,-71.439006&spn=0.005011,0.007371&sll=38.880816,-77.102156&sspn=0.236525,0.471725&t=h&z=18 At least there are moving walkways.

Yes, it would have been better to place the Metro station underneath the main terminal building, but it is a bit unfair (to say the least) to describe the Metro's location as "far". It's across the parking lot where the daily garage is! And, it will be connected via a moving walkway underground! Americans cannot be that lazy.

Dr G, this is my absolute biggest pet peeve, people on metro who stand in the doorway when the train is unloading and loading passengers. Is there any way we can petition Metro to have the operaters say "and, if you are standing in or near the doorways, please step out of the train to speed the unloading of passenger," or somthing like that? I actually ask people, politely, to please step out of the doorway. When I am really peeved at how oblivious someone is, I will brush into him and even step their tows. I know this is childish, and unwise, but how else to deal with these people???!!!

But don't you often hear the operators say, "Stand clear of the doors!" as the train stops at the platform?  That seems to have no effect on some people. It's one thing for a tourist to goof up on this, but I think a lot of regulars -- who know which side is going to open -- who position themselves in a way that blocks the door, and then won't budge to let people off and on.

I wouldn't encourage people to step on toes, but a person's got to get off the train somehow.

Metro has moved the 'train bridge' at National Airport (and installed a temporary scaffolding bridge) in order to position construction equipment there as part of this summer's efforts to restore double crossovers at National Airport, which were removed several years ago. Right now, trains heading south could only access the middle track and trains heading north could only access middle track. The project will allow trains heading in either direction to reach the middle track.

Thank you.

I've recently switched to taking the Green Line to Waterfront for work. (Last 4 years I took a combo of Green, Yellow and Rush plus to Crystal City). The "schedule" for the green line is non-existent. I can't nail down any times when I leave in the morning and any times when I leave work in the evening. The train also often waits in the tunnel prior to approaching L'Enfant for extended periods of time. What is going on with this? Has Rush Plus derailed the timing?

I think you're probably seeing the effects of having the Green and Yellow Line trains bunch up at the point where they come together to enter L'Enfant Plaza station. It's possible that's a Rush Plus issue, at least to some extent, because Rush Plus added trains to the Yellow Line.

Hi, original poster here. In the morning, on I-66 W, there are 4 gates that are lowered down on the left exit lane onto Monument Rd to indicate that it is closed. However, between the last gate and the beginning of the exit ramp itself, there is still quite a lot of open space (which includes a solid white line area) for someone to get on the ramp. (This is all visible on Google Maps) Maybe a possible solution is to add an additional gate closer to the ramp?

Thank you for that clarification. And your suggestion about adding a gate seem logical.

At the same time, it makes me wonder about what's going on in the mind of a driver -- or maybe not going on in the mind of a driver -- who sees the signs and the gates and yet cuts into the open space and goes up the ramp.

Thanks to everyone for joining me today. Let's do it again at noon next Monday. 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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