Dr. Gridlock

Apr 30, 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. The week will get warmer once we get through today, and there's lots of activity in the road work zones.  Metro has an extensive plan for track work this weekend, especially noteworthy for anyone planning to see Nationals/Phillies or Capitals/Rangers.

Let's get to your questions.

What is the latest on the hybrid HOV exemption on I-66? Are vehicles with current clean fuel plates that were issued prior to last June still going to to be able to drive in the HOV lanes on I-66 or is that expiring for good this summer?

You'll still be able to drive in the HOV lanes as long as you've got the proper clean fuel tags.

Metro has been constructing a staircase in the Vienna station for what seems to be nearly a half year. Months go by without any obvious signs of activity. Is there any estimate of when this project will ever be completed. The lack of progress has become a joke among regular Vienna riders. It looks like it could be completed with a day or two of effort.

I remember the last time I asked, the stairs were to be done in May. I'll check for an update.

When exactly did it become the norm to leave a car length or a length-and-a-half between you and the car ahead of you when stopping at a red light? Is this a local custom, or is it something that driving instructors have started teaching? It makes no sense to me. Yes, by all means, leave a cushion between you and the car ahead of you when you're moving - I really wish more drivers would keep to the three-second rule. But when stopped at an intersection, all you're doing when you leave an enormous cushion like that is to build up the traffic behind you, blocking other intersections and access to turn lanes. It seems worse than senseless. Sorry, I learned to drive in New York City, where we didn't have any space to spare, so we learned to minimize our footprints. Maybe it's just my background coming out, but I'd like to see more of my fellow DC drivers closing up their intervals when the speedometer reads zero. Am I off base about this?

Over the years, we've gotten letters about this to Dr. Gridlock. Many people who did this said they were afraid of getting clipped by a turning car. I can understand that concern. What I wish the driver training folks would emphasize is staying in a lane while turning.

I have traveled and used metros all over the world and even in a foreign language or mistranslated English, I find them less complicated than the dc Metro. I always feel so bad when I see tourists at the fare machine trying to decipher it. Why hasn't metro moved to a flat fare rate, which would be less complicated for the riders and for Metro?

Metro GM Richard Sarles this year proposed a flat fare for the paper fare cards, but that didn't get much support from the Metro board or the riders. The flat fare for paper cards, as Sarles proposed it, would have been $4 for off-peak and $6 for peak.

That's pricey, and it was intended in part to push people toward SmarTrip cards, but it does have the same problem as any other flat fare: People who travel long distances tend to like flat fares, because they'd probably save money. People who take short trips don't like the flat fares, because they would be higher than what they pay now.

I agree with you that the Metro fare system is extremely complicated. It will be a little less complicated in July, and I'm really glad Metro decided to eliminate the peak of the peak penalty on 9 to 5 workes, but it still will be complicated.

Do you know if it is true that every WMATA employee can ride the subway for free-24/7? If so, do you know how WMATA justifies this policy when it is considering fare hikes?

I believe that's always been true for Metro employees, both active employees and retirees. I suppose Metro could take this benefit away from managers and board members, but would have to negotiate it with unionized workers.

Is there any chance Metro would make the Short trip weekly pass available on Smarttrip. There is a significant portion of Metro riders who never use a Rush-Hour fare over 3.25 and this would be a great option for us. Metro already lets you go negative once, so assuming there was a rare occasion where you went over, it could just force you to pay the additional funds before riding again.

Metro officials have said they'll study the pass issue more. Many riders aren't satisfied with the pass system. The new 28 day pass on SmarTrip, for example, is just the price of a seven day pass times four. So I doubt that's going to be very popular.

In the fare plan passed by the Metro board last week, there's no change in the seven day short trip pass on paper fare cards, except for the price: It will go from $32.35 to $36.

What happend? Big announcements about repairs to the whole structure, section by section - then one section closed off for a week with nothing happening, followed by . . . nothing!! I can't find anything on a Metro web site to explain it.

Work has been suspended indefnitely. I'll try to find out more for you.

In the recent write up of Metro fares, it was noted that Metro may begin charging for "improvements" at Union Station. Exactly what are these improvements? Restrooms, guaranteed escalators running, etc.? Or is Metro wanting riders to pay for what should be part of the basic fare?

The District wants to rebuild the Metro station. I think the emphasis will be on rebuilding the mezzanine on the north side, the one nearest the Amtrak/MARC/VRE trains.

A jurisdiction can ask Metro to add a five-cent surcharge on entries and exits at a station to support such a redevelopment project. Arlington County also has a couple of stations in mind for such redevelopment projects.

The local jurisdiction has to request the fee and the Metro board has to approve it. (Hasn't happened yet.)

On, off, in limbo??

Dana Hedgpeth, who covers Metro for The Post, had a story about this in today's paper. The Loudoun supervisors have until July 1 to sign on to the current plan, which extends the line into Loudoun. Otherwise, it might go back to the drawing board -- at least for phase 2 of the project.

Seems to me like an easy call. Metro stations are a gold mine for local governments, with all the development they produce around the stations, and all the tax revenue.

Here's a link to Dana's story: http://wapo.st/IGMwOK

I was on 495 this weekend between 50 and legion bridge, and I noticed on part of the express lanes that is complete they put up plastic pylon separators between the main lanes and the new express lanes. Is that seriously their plan to separate traffic? What a horrible idea not to have some sort of hard barrier or guardrail.

There's not going to be a hard barrier because VDOT wants to be able to get emergency vehicles back and forth. And it wants to be able to shift traffic from one side to another in emergencies.

it is a safety issue. if you are hit from behind, sufficient space will prevent you from being knocked into the car in front of you. also, having a car length allows for maneverability. again - safety . . . were someone attempt to carjack you, if you are bumper to bumper you have nowhere to go. if you have some distance between you and the car in front of you, you have possible options. both items taught to me by a police driving instructor.

Thanks, and now that you mention them, these were considerations raised by other drivers during our periodic discussions of this issue in the Dr. Gridlock column.

OK, so I'm not positive the speed camera located on northbound I-295 near Blue Plains is malfunctioning. The camera is flashing a vehicle not going more than 45 MPH when the speed limit is 50 MPH. Who do I contact about this problem, and what should I do if I get a citation that says I was speeding past this camera when I most certainly was not.

The cameras are operated  by the Metropolitan Police Department. For an immediate contact, I'd just use the Mayor's 311 call center. If you should get a ticket, follow the instructions on the ticket to challenge it. The technology is supposed to prevent this from happening, but doesn't always do so.

What I mean is that the device is supposed to be able to figure out that part of it is malfunctioning and alert humans to the fact that the violation reports should be voided.

There has been much discussion about people running (I'm assuming down) on Metro escalators. Some state this is dangerous as the escalators can stop suddenly as well as it damages the escalators. I'm a runner and here's way. The Metro system is unreliable. It used to be if I missed a train, I would KNOW that I would have to wait only a few minutes (maybe 5) during rush hour to get the next train. Missing a train is a minor time loss. However, now you never know if it will be 5 or 25 minutes. Will the next train have a door problem requiring offloading so the train after that (now a 10 minute wait) is overcrowded? Will the next train breakdown meaning we have to wait for it to be clear and now the train after that takes 15-20 minutes to arrive? When these breakdowns were rare, one could risk missing a train. Now that they happen all to often (systemwide every day, many times a day), I won't risk adding 15-20 minutes to my commute by barely missing a train because I walked.

I can understand why you'd do it. All I'm saying is that running on escalators is one of the many things that causes them to break down.

Has the Metro board EVER turned down a proposed fare hike? It seems like every two years for about the last decade they do the same thing- say they are out of money, have public hearings where everyone says that they don't want a hike/don't see what they are getting for the hike, and then the metro board hikes the fares anyways. Is there even a point for people going to public hearings or is it just a waste of time and breath?

I don't recall any time a board has turned down an overall fare hike. But they have made some changes in the proposals before sending them to public hearings and they've made others based on comments from riders.

This year, for example, the board didn't go for the general manager's proposal on the flat fares for paper fare cards, or on the "rounding" proposal that would have made the cash bus fare $2.

The board also decided not to raise the cap on MetroAccess paratransit rides.

The last round, you may recall, was much more complicated. Riders were asked to consider menus of fare increases versus service cuts. Many people said at that time that the fare increases were more acceptable than the service cuts.


Any word on toll rates? Will the toll rates be modified automatically based on speed sensors, or will there be someone watching cameras changing the tolls as the traffic changes? If it is a person, will they have rules to go by to ensure consistancy from day to day? Will tolls change instantly, or will there be a "flashing" period where drivers will know that the tolls are about to change? What happens if a driver commits to the lanes and by the time they get from the ramp to the sensor, the toll changes? Can the toll change once you've entered the lanes, say at Springfield, if you on them for a while, say the Toll Road?

The tolls will change automatically based on the reports sent to a computer by the speed sensors. Once you've entered the lanes, the toll rate is set. It might change for drivers entering the lanes after you, but it won't change for you.

There's no limit on how high the toll may go. You may find it's very different from one day to the next, based on the level of congestion. You'd see it vary a lot during the day, too. (It's a different system from Maryland's Intercounty Connector.)

Transurban, the company that will operate the lanes, anticipates that most drivers will use the HOT lanes to go two or three exits. At peak periods, they may pay $4 to $6.

Tysons Corner, with three HOT lanes access points, will probably be a big center of activity for the new lanes. It's very unlikely that a lot of drivers will use the HOT lanes to go from Springfield to the Legion Bridge.

Saturday I checked about track work before heading to the Shady Grove Metro--there were closings on the other side of the Red Line, but no mention of longer than normal intervals. When I got to Shady Grove, the signs said there was also single tracking related to weekend work and I had to wait 20 minutes for a train mid-day, there is no sign on the track saying when the next train is and the arrow pointing to which track would have a train next was even incorrect. There were no verbal announcements. Had I known, I would have driven...what's up with the mis-information and lack of announcements?

The platform information signs and the Trip Planner on Metro's Web site are often useless when a line is single-tracking, or split up for weekend maintenance.

The announcements in the stations and aboard trains certainly have to be better.

In other words, if Metro managers know the system is going to be disrupted for years to come by scheduled maintenance, they have to put a lot more into making sure riders know what's up with the trains -- in real time -- and what their options are.

I do think Metro has made some progress in its online notifications about scheduled disruptions. For example, you can look at a page on Metro's Web site and see the advisories for the maintenance disruptions this coming weekend. It's this page: http://bit.ly/yV0h2S

Also, you can sign up for electronic alerts on your computer or mobile phone for the train lines and bus routes you care about. This morning, I got bombarded with a bunch of messages from Metro warning about the work scheduled for this coming weekend.

I don't get it. If you're bumper to bumper, carjacking doesn't seem likely.

There are a bunch of messages stemming from the question about drivers leaving extra room when they stop at intersections. I'll go through the mailbag, pick out those and post them.

Couldn't agree more about turns. We were on Shady Grove in a Buick years ago, in the far middle lane and got hit by someone turning right on red! We were two lanes over. Had the last laugh--our car had $70 damage and his more than $900--he still was driving with temporary tags. This area is horrible. On Saturday someone in front of me signaled left and turned right--he was two lanes over and not in the right lane. People apparently have never been trained to turn into the closest lane and then move over--this was part of my driver's training. In this area you never know where a turning car is going to go. I wish your column would have a section of reminders about rules of driving.

I do that from time to time in the Sunday Post feature called "Dr. G's tips." I try to pick on things people have been writing to me about -- lights on/wipers on has been a popular one lately.

But I think a very high percentage of the people who take the time to read a column like mine about transportation are probably pretty smart about the driving rules in the first place.

When I learned to drive, the instructor taught us that for safety reasons you should be able to see the bottoms of the tires on the vehicle in front of you. That gives you a little cushion and it leaves room for you to pull to the side if needed, like if an ambulance comes along and you have to move. But I agree with the prior poster that a lot of people around here leave WAY too much space, sometimes a whole car length (I've pulled in front of people who leave too much space). It's unbelievably rude when it prevents people from getting into a turn lane (this happens to me frequently near my house), and some people simply refuse to move up even if they see someone trying to turn. My wife thinks people are just so eager to get back to playing with their electronic devices like e-mail and web browsing that they stop as soon as they can.

I understand what you're describing about the turn lanes. I try to think about what might be happening back down the line when I'm stopping at an urban intersection. If you can tighten up a bit, you might allow a car to get into the turn lane, or help unblock the box at the intersection behind you.

This is a particular problem at bus stops. Drivers leave silly lengths of empty pavement between them and the stopped vehcile ahead, often preventing bus drivers from reaching a marked bus stop to drop off or pick up passengers until the light has turned green. This thus requires the buses to stop traffic AGAIN to make their pick up or drop offs. Close the gap people!

Yes, same deal. It does seem worthwhile to consider what might be going on with the line of cars -- or the bus -- behind where you're stopping.

This gives the driver a head start when accelerating and allows for a rapid lane change when the light turns green. Sometimes, when traffic is very congested, this is the only way to change lanes in time. NYC is different because of the one-way streets (there's less need to change lanes frequently due to the lack of left turn lanes)

I'm not sure I follow that procedure. You're saying that hanging back at the intersection allows a driver to get ahead? And isn't it dangerous to be quickly changing lanes at an intersection?

There are a lot of them, but I am certain that the five way spoke near the Tacoma metro station where Blair and Cedar cross is perhaps the most scary. At least twice a week I see people almost get hit - the primary problem appears to be that the vast majority of people traveling west on cedar turn at Blair, but the green light to turn corresponds to a walk light to cross Blair, but the turn is blind and cars turning right do not see the intersection as they are speeding along. Why is it times such that this walk signal corresponds to the green light that puts drivers barreling down blindly on the intersection?

That's a very difficult intersection. It's complicated, it's narrow in some places and wide in others, and it's disorienting.

In response to the previous poster's question, drivers should be leaving a least a car-length between them and the vehicle in front. I'm a certified defensive driving instructor, and this is what I teach to my students. The reasons for this are to allow an extra cushion in case you are rear-ended (a 2-car collision does not become a multi-car collision), to provide visibility for the driver to see the light and intersection ahead, and to allow the driver space to get around the vehicle in front without having to back up if that vehicle becomes disabled or just doesn't move when the light changes. I do note to my students that they should also be aware of vehicles behind, and if moving up a foot or two would prevent a trailing vehicle from blocking the box. However, they should still have space in front to see and maneuver around the vehicle in front.

Thanks very much for contributing this information.

I understand it's in their interest to catch cheaters in order to maximise revenue, but how is th ebig question? How will state police differentiate between cars that have paid the toll, cars with 3 riders, and cheaters - in the dark at 65 mph? They can't enforce today's easy rules -- if you don't have 3 and you don't have special plates here's your ticket; I have zero confidence that it can and will be done fairly.

The HOT lanes operators seem pretty confident that the enforcement system they've developed will work. And they're the ones the cheaters would be taking money from.

The key, the tell me, is that all drivers using the lanes will need E-ZPass transponders. The regular transponder will work, but if you think you might be carpooling from time to time so you can ride free, you'll need to get a new type of transponder called an E-ZPass Flex. It has a separate setting for carpooling. The police will have a device that alerts them to your status as a carpooler. If they think you don't have three people, they can stop you, just like they do now.

Also, stopping drivers in the HOT lanes will be somewhat easier. Police will have special cutouts where they can monitor traffic, or pull drivers over.

In a recent post, you indicated that it's taken years for Metro to come up with the Rush-Plus system. Why does it take YEARS for system manager to change the schedules and routes for a few trains? I mean my teenager could have come up with that hairbrained idea in a weekend. I understand that WMATA probably goes back through years of ridership data and numerous projections for future ridership trends, but if WMATA literally spent years of people sitting in a room mulling over data to come up with the Rush-Plus system, it just illustrates the amount of waste within the transit agency.

I've been following this for a couple of years now, and it seemed to me that the planning process involved a bunch of different departments at Metro and, as in any bureaucracy, this wasn't the sole assignment for those departments.

The way I understand the process, it began with identifying several problems, including the capacity issue at the Rosslyn tunnel and the shift in destinations to the eastern side of downtown DC, then figuring out what alignment of trains could make those things better, then figuring out how to explain the changes to riders. (That included bringing back the original Metro mapmaker to redo the map.)

Why would free WMATA employee rides be something to get worked up about? The numbers of WMATA employees on the Metro are probably just a drop in the bucket, compared to regular riders. Plus, do you think those employees are riding around all day for fun? It's entirely likely that they are using Metro to get to their station of work, and then that is it. 2 rides a day. You know, most companies give their employees a discount on company products. I bet if I worked for my city government, I'd probably pay reduced or no fees for recreation programs. Metro employees riding for free just isn't a big deal. Now, Metro mis-managing large chunks of money, yeah, I would get worked up over that....but that's a whole other kettle of fish.

What I've noticed over the years in talking to travelers is that transportation is a zero-sum game. If someone else is winning, you must be losing. I don't know why this shows up so strongly in transportation. Doesn't matter if it's driver vs. driver, driver vs. biker, pedestrian vs. drivers and bikers, transit rider vs. transit employee.

I'll bet we'd see the same mindset if we asked Texas drivers what they thought about having some of their tax dollars subsidize transit commutes for people who work in the D.C. area.

Did you know that many of the staff at your local restaurant can eat for free or at a deep discount? Many employers do this. From what I read about metro employees not being able to use the bathroom, etc., while on shift, I'd say this is a small perk for a largely thankless job.


Come on -- saying Metro employees should be charged for using the service isn't going to even make a dent in the budget shortfall. I imagine their employees have very few perks in their jobs (after all, they have to deal with complainers like us everyday), so let's not take away one of them.

During the Metro budget debate, advocacy groups like Transit First! were pointing out something I wish more riders would pay attention to: While all transit trips are subsidized by taxpayers, Metrorail rides are less subsidized than most. The riders picked up a big share of the burden during the last fare increase, and it would have been swell if the local governments agreed to taken on more of the burden this time. At least, to make transit users in the DC region comparable with those nationwide.

If we're going to worry about what Metro costs, we could include the option of lobbying local governments to increase their support.

I live in Maryland and occasionally have to drive on I-66 to attend a meeting. I have a Prius but Maryland doesn't issue plates for cleaner fuel vehicles. Can I drive in the HOV lanes with Maryland plates and a hybrid?


So if you're travelling in the HOT Lanes with 3 or more people in the car and you have the EZ Pass set to the carpool setting, the police will know that. However, what happens if you get pulled over even though you have 3 people in the car (kid in the back perhaps)? Do you get something for the erroneous pull-over?

No, I'm pretty sure the police won't have gift bags to give out.

And meanwhile, I think some cheaters are going to get through. But the number should be a lot smaller than what drivers see in the HOV lanes.

Travelers, Thanks for joining me. There are several issues I think I can address on the Dr. Gridlock blog, and get some more of your comments published there. I was surprised how many wanted to talk about the question of how much space to leave when stopping, but that was a very popular one. Plus there's some stuff about Metro I think we could expand on.

Please join me again next Monday, and please stay safe driving and riding.

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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