Dr. Gridlock

Apr 29, 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. As usual, I'll try to start with some questions and comments that would benefit from some of your responses.

Will the Caps be putting the required deposit down with Metro for late night hockey games, just in case we go 2 or 3 OT again?

My recollection is that the Caps do have such an agreement with Metro, but I'll double check.

The Caps and Rangers are scheduled to play at Verizon Center at 7:30 p.m. Thursday. The next game is Saturday afternoon.

Last spring, the Caps covered the $29,500 cost of keeping Metrorail open an hour late after a triple overtime.

When there is work in the Express Lanes, say between Edsal and Duke, why does VDOT have to close the entire 30 mile cooridor? Why can't they run the lanes southbound below Springfield and northbouth above Seminary? Then traffic is moving away from the work zone.

The next lane closings I know about are overnights this week.

The I-95/395 reversible HOV lanes between Duke Street to Dumfries Road are scheduled to be closed 9:30 p.m. to 5 a.m. Monday through Saturday.

VDOT said that during those hours, drivers can reach the I-395 HOV lanes north to the District at Seminary Road.


Metro does a great job getting folks away from the Navy Yard station at the end of Nats games. But then, when they reach the transfer points, it seems the other 4 lines are running at standard intervals creating extreme crowding on the platform and on the trains. Does Metro plan to run additional trains on the other lines when the Nats game is over?

I don't recall Metro adding trains throughout the system after Nationals games. As you say, that creates extra crowding at the transfer stations. The worst, I think, is Gallery Place, partly because of the design of the platform on the Shady Grove side, and the fact that trains now pull to the head of the platforms.

When Nats Park opened, I was most worrid about potential crowding on the Navy Yard platform. Turned out -- again, as you note -- that Metro has done a pretty good job with that.

If things get very crowded, Green Line trains can be held in the tunnel. Or they can get to the platform and stand there for a minute or two with the doors closed before letting out the riders.

Also, the station managers can block the entrances, or turn off the escalators, to slow the flow of fans into the station after games.

I think those are good measures. The most endangered I ever felt on a transit platform was at the end of an Oakland A's game when people streamed onto the nearby BART platform. There wasn't an inch of free space. People could easily have been pushed onto the tracks.


Is there a possibility that Metro could add more trains 9 PM-11PM to prep for high crowds after sports events? Last week, I had worked a 13 hour day, as I typically do, but I stood at Rosslyn for 45 minutes, unable to board three or four Vienna-bound trains because they were packed with drunk sports fans. Is it realistic to ask for a couple additional trains during this time?

I think that would be great too. There are a couple of issues. The more service Metro runs, the more it costs, and somebody's got to pick up the tab -- either the riders through fares, or the taxpayers. Or both if you're a taxpayer who rides.

The other thing about late nights is that Metro often begins track work at 8 p.m. Running more trains at those hours would mean more delays.

Wow, what a disaster...It took me 3.5 hours to get from Springfield to Fredericksburg Saturday with a noon departure. I tried going over to route 1, but it was gridlocked as well. I know they're extending the HOV lanes to Garrisonville, but you won't be able to use them on the weekends without paying a toll (they're free for everyone right now to Dumfries). Should I just give up trying to get south on I-95 on weekends forever?

You're saying it wouldn't be worth a couple of bucks to have a 55 mph trip though the congested zone? That's a perfectly reasonable decision.

Dear Dr. Gridlock: More and more, the rules against eating on Metro are being flouted. Usually it's just a furtive chip, but I see more people openly having whole meals on board. Last week was the last straw: seeing someone having a smoke while waiting at White Flint. Can you suggest that Metro deploy some of its largely invisible police force to make occasional appearances on the trains to issue warnings or summonses as appropriate? Disrespecting minor rules can quickly degenerate into significant lawlessness.

I certainly see people eating and drinking on the trains. I don't know how to measure whether there's any more of it than in past years.

I also wish the transit police force were larger, so more uniformed officers could ride trains and buses, especially just before and after school.

Still, it would require a very large and very expensive increase in the size of the force before riders noticed the additional presence.

Is there any way to send video (from a dash cam) or pictures of unsafe drivers to the appropriate authorities for follow up? Will they (can they) take any action? What about reporting cab drivers who drive recklessly and illegally talk on cell phones? If I report them to their company, will they actually do anything about it? I wish there was a way to report the drivers to their insurance companies, that might actually get some results.

I'm pretty sure the police would prefer we all concentrate on our own driving rather than trying to take pictures of somebody misbehaving in traffic.

I'm going to paste in here the advice from the Maryland State Police, which I think is good:

"Make note of the highway that you are traveling, the direction of travel, color, make and license number of the vehicle. If you have a cell phone dial #77 and this will connect you with the nearest state police barrack.
Give the dispatcher your name, phone number and the above information. Follow the directions of the dispatcher and a lookout will be given for the vehicle.
"Do NOT attempt to keep up with a reckless driver - it will only put your safety in jeopardy."
With the cabs, I'd report the misbehavior to the regulating agency in that jurisdiction.

My morning commute to downtown DC from Falls Church so far in 2013 has been the worst it's ever been in 8 or so years of driving to work. I usually go across the 14th St Bridge and the ramp to the bridge from southbound GW Parkway is backed up badly most days rather than the old occasional bad day, the 3rd St Tunnel is backed up further than it used to be, and traffic exiting from southbound GW Parkway to Memorial Bridge blocks the right lane of the Parkway most days now. Any idea why it's been so much worse? Is it just more traffic?

I think it's more traffic as the economy improves.

Each weekday between 7:45 and 8:15 a.m., I try to figure out where the worst highway traffic in the region is. The 14th Street Bridge and it's approaches almost always make the list of top trouble spots. I-395, for just about it's entire length, is a frequent contender.

The only major traffic change I can think of that might be a contributor is the opening of the new freeway links at the 11th Street Bridge. That makes an MD-DC-VA highway commute more attractive for some, though right now, there are plenty of slowdowns in the morning because of weaving traffic on the 11th Street Bridge.

Others must have ideas on whether traffic is worsening on certain routes and why.

"You're saying it wouldn't be worth a couple of bucks to have a 55 mph trip though the congested zone? That's a perfectly reasonable decision." Assuming they merely charge a "few bucks". My guess based on what I've seen with the Beltway tolls, is that it will cost over $10 to make the run from Springfield to Dumfries. I would just as well alter my plans than pay $10 or more to avoid 20 miles of gridlock, only to then sit in another 10 miles of gridlock from Garrisonville to Fredericksburg. How about another N/S highway? This region is nearly devoid of parallel higways, and the I-95 corridor is no exception.

Several Virginia governors have said there was no way the Commonwealth could afford to build a highway parallel to I-95 or to widen I-95 without having a private partner who would absorb most of the construction cost in exchange for toll revenue.


I took the Orange line to Smithsonian yesterday. Since I came from New Carrollton I did not experience the single tracking and it was a quick journey. Yes I know the Metro has problems. There are many and we certainly hear about them. BUT how many passengers arrive at their destinations on time every day? YES I want the Metro to be better but it does do a good job.

Metro does a good job. It could do better. Metro's senior managers, board members and local government officials outside the system say the key problem is the history of deferred maintenance. The transit authority has torn up and disrupted the system to make up for that.

For many riders, though, it makes no difference whether the problem is an unscheduled delay because of a breakdown, or a scheduled delay for maintenance. It's still a disruption, and many get angry about that.

My experience is similar to the commenter's: Usually, I get where I'm going on time. But people who take transit expect it to be VERY reliable. That was always a selling point of transit, a reason to leave the car at home.

That's not where we are right now.

Since the beltway express lanes have been completed, more vehicles are efficiently approaching Maryland from Virginia. This increased flow has caused backups at the American Legion Bridge even during non-afternoon rush periods. The bridge itself is already inadequate with just about every inch of the roadway used for vehicles (no shoulders), which causes catastrophic delays when there's a collision or other hiccup. I know this is really long term stuff, but when are transportation planners going to identify that this crossing is an issue along with the fact there is not another river crossing within 10 miles of it (save for the completely ineffective Chain Bridge)? This is a project that is already crippling the region, and will only get worse. I know people that regularly spend 2 hours every day in the 5 miles on either side of this bridge trying to cross the river. There isn't a single bridge in NYC that can tout those type of delays.

As a former NYC commuter who whiled away hours at the GW Bridge, the Whitestone, the Throggs Neck, the Triboro and the Verrazano, I think I have reasons to dispute that last statement.

Also, I've seen no traffic stats to indicate that the express lanes have added traffic at the Legion Bridge since the new lanes opened in mid-November. I think that could happen eventually, if enough people changed their living and working places so they could commute on the express lanes. But that would take years. Right now, it's more a question of current Beltway drivers deciding their going to use the regular lanes or the express lanes on any given day. When they reach the Legion Bridge, it's all the same traffic.

But the fundamental point is sound: Maryland needs to do something about the bottleneck that stretches from the Legion Bridge through Bethesda. And there's no current plan to do that. Virginia is far more active in addressing its traffic problems than Maryland is.

I agree with the Falls Church poster. The morning commute over the 14th Street bridge and through the 3rd Street tunnel is worse than it's every been - even worse than when the bridge was under construction, resulting in a lost of a lane. Not sure what the explanation is for the backup being worse as you approach the bridge. As for the tunnel and freeway, is there construction that might be affecting the C Street/South Capitol exit? That exiting traffic often backs up, but once you get past it the traffic in the tunnel moves more quickly.

I don't know of any way the 11th St Bridge construction would affect the C Street/South Capitol traffic. Others have thoughts on that, or on our general inquiry on whether commuter traffic is getting worse?

You mentioned that extra trains cost more money. Metro seems to argue both ways. When ridership falls, they complain about not enough people. When it spikes, they find other reasons to complain. If more people are riding, such as after games, wouldn't it make sense for Metro to put out more trains on its own. Then even more people would ride metro. It seems like simple supply and demand. I would be more likely to take metro to sporting events if I knew I would have an easy commute home and could skip the problems of parking at a stadium.

Couple of things: In good times and in bad times, Metro loses money. Fares cover less than two thirds the cost of a ride. The taxpayers make up the difference.

Increasing service systemwide for a Nats or Caps or Wizards or DC United game would be very good for fans, but probably wouldn't help Metro's bottom line much, if at all. In other words, I think the cost of the extra systemwide service in power, personnel and equipment would very likely outweigh the extra off-peak revenue that would be generated by the additional riders.

Ever since the time I saw a Metro employee in uniform eating openly on a train, I gave up hoping for enforcement of the no-eating or drinking policy. It was disheartening to see even the employees wouldn't follow the law.

On the earlier question about Metro and the Caps playoffs: I hear that Metro and Verizon Center are working on an agreement that would cover this year's playoffs.

As many of you will recall, the event sponsor has to put up the money -- $29,500 last I heard -- in advance for an hour of extra service. If the service is needed, Metro refunds the amount it gets from passenger revenue.

They spent the entire weekend "fixing" the tracks at Fort Totten. Yet there was a massive track problem in that exact section. How can we trust that all this maintenance isn't wasted effort, since many repairs at Metro end up being done incorrectly, with nobody being held accountable.

That doesn't exactly match up with the information I had: This past weekend, Metro closed the Red Line platforms at Fort Totten, Rhode Island Avenue and Brookland. One of the main reasons was to allow the District Department of Transportation to do more work on the New York Avenue bridge between NoMa and Rhode Island Avenue. But Metro crews also worked on rail ties, insulators and the communications system in that area. 

I saw Metro reported two Red Line problems at Fort Totten this morning. One was a switch problem and the other a sick customer.

I don't have any information suggesting that this weekend's work was done incorrectly or that the weekend work led to this morning's problems.

Surely you can't be serious. Of course it's getting worse! From 1987 to about 1992, I commuted between Arlington and Reston; since 1992 it's been Arlington to McLean. Initially I could take I-66 westbound from Glebe Rd/Fairfax Dr.; now if I don't get on by about 7:00 a.m., there's no point taking the interstate. In the evenings I don't even bother -- 99 times out of 100 I take streets to get where I'm going, and thank my lucky stars that I only commute 4 days a week (because of flexible work hours) and don't have to cross the river. Tysons Corner wasn't great in 1992, but today it's murder, and if it rains it's even worse.

Thank you for that perspective. I think the original commenter might have had a shorter time frame in mind.

You mentioned during this chat that Metro fares cover less than 2/3 of the cost of a ride. How can that be? How can a company operate like that, and why do officials continue to accept that? I can see that a fare may not cover a trip during slow periods or at all times, but a train carrying a full load of rush-hour fare-paying customers should be a "gravy train". That's economics 101, and if that model is broken, than Metro is far more broken than anyone has thought, espeically considering that this system has the highest subway fares of any system in the world.

Does anyone know of a major U.S. transit system that operates without a taxpayer subsidy? (Highways, of course, also are subsidized by the taxpayers.)

I've commuted across the American Legion Bridge for years. The addition of the express lanes has meant that more cars are in the left lane when I get on from Georgetown Pike that before. This is shortly after the express lanes end. I used to be able to get to the left lane and it went faster across the bridge than the other lanes (due to oncoming traffic from the GW Pkwy). Now the left lane is not always moving faster due to those cars from the express lanes being in that lane, some of them moving right to take the GW Pkwy or Clara Barton. Beforehand, the left lane had less cars because of the closeness of the left-lane exit to Dulles. This effect has added over five minutes to my greater-than hour evening commute. An additional 5+ minutes are added due to 270-bound drivers moving right before River Road and back left after River Road to lessen their commute to 270.

It's possible that the merge point for the express lanes and the regular lanes on the inner loop is causing delays at peak periods. That would be a problem.

It's not the same problem as adding traffic volume to the Legion Bridge.

"Several Virginia governors have said there was no way the Commonwealth could afford to build a highway parallel to I-95 or to widen I-95 without having a private partner who would absorb most of the construction cost in exchange for toll revenue" So instead they chose the cheap way out that not only gives oodles of money to a private (non-US) corporation, but also reduces the capacity of the only N/S highway in Northern VA. It would be one thing if they were building a new road, but in this case, they're narrowing an existing highway to convert existing lanes for private toll collection. NOVA drivers who can't afford the $10+ tolls are going to be stuck in hours upon hours of traffic just to get south of Fredericksburg. I can see using these as toll lanes on the weekdays, but on weekends, I-95 is going to be a literal parking lot. I-95 is a major intercity highway, and it's pathetic that Virgina has chosen to sell its soul to the devil for no perceivable improvement. In fact, weekend traffic on I-95 is going to be worse than it is right now once the Express Lanes open.

You may turn out to be right. Meanwhile, I don't recall anytime when I didn't hear complaints from drivers about the off-peak traffic congestion on I-95 in Northern Virginia. The complaint is usually that the HOV lanes are going in the wrong direction for the person who is complaining.

The main complaint I heard over the years about converting the HOV lanes to HOT lanes was from carpoolers -- slugs -- who feared that the conversion would ruin that very successful method of carpooling.

Then why are they spending nearly a billion dollars on a new road between Suffolk and Petersburg to run parallel to a perfectly adequate 4-lane highway (US 460)? From the project website: "Public funding from VDOT – $753 million to $930 million." Don't you think this is government waste at its finest?


Help! My boss will be driving a 15-person van to deliver our Principal of the Year and (following week Teacher) to the Post's Tuesday night dinners. Where can such a beast park?

I'd try The Post's community relations office, at 202-334-7969.

Regarding the issue the other commenter raised, I think a suggestion Dr. Gridlock has made in his columns (based on reader feedback to him) is a good one: Don't feel that you have to change trains at the stops WMATA refers to as "transfer stations." If you're going from Navy Yard to Huntington after a game (changing from Green to Yellow), for example, go one stop beyond L'Enfant Plaza to Archives. This has a couple of benefits: (1) Everybody else will get off at L'Enfant and cram onto the escalators there to cross to the other platform, whereas you'll just walk straight across the island platform at Archives. (2) The train will be empty when it pulls in at Archives, allowing you to snag a seat before the mobs crush in at L'Enfant. I know all this doesn't work as well if you're changing to the Red Line towards Shady Grove because the only way to avoid Gallery Place would be to change to an Orange or Blue, ride to Metro Center, and change to a Red there, which means getting on AFTER most of the crowd, but if you really face crowding issues you could always go one stop the other way (to Judiciary Square) and then cross over to get on a train going the other way because, again, in that case you'd be ahead of the main mob.

Thanks for the reminder.

Thanks for joining me today. As soon as I hear for sure about a deal about Metro service for the Caps playoffs, we'll post that on http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/dr-gridlock/.

And write to me anytime at drgridlock@washpost.com.

Stay safe, and we'll chat again next Monday.


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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