Dr. Gridlock

May 13, 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. Are people making Memorial Day weekend getawayplans yet? I'm going to be writing about summer getaway tips this coming Sunday. If you've got any suggestions, or want to see something covered, let me know here or at drgridlock@washpost.com.

But right now, I see a bunch of traffic and transit concerns here.

How likely are the new Circulator routes Ms. Cheh is proposing to go into effect, and if they are going to happen, when would that happen?

I'm going to quote first from Tim Craig's story about this last week. Tim wrote:

Under the plan, prepared by council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), Circulator bus routes would extend to U Street and Howard University, Southwest Washington, Glover Park and Washington National Cathedral. The city is also working with the National Park Service to launch a route on the Mall, where tourists would be shuttled to monuments and museums.

There's no real specific timetable, but Tim's story also said:

Gray has signed off on a new route for the Mall, scheduled to begin in 2015. The route would be partly funded by additional meters at parking lots on or near the the Mall.

I'm not crazy about having the city's legislators do transportation planning.

It seems everybody wants a Circulator route, and I love those buses, but they need to expand in a way that maintains the successful brand: Service that's so frequent that no schedule is needed, and a system that's user-friendly and easy to understand.

Re your column in Sunday's Post about the lane pricing, it sounds like the 20 cents difference in price from one day to another that your reader saw may not have been due to traffic differences but rather the second thing Mr. Coffee mentioned - the system gathering info of how people react to prices. This aspect has not been talked about as much in all the coverage, but if I am reading that right, the private sector operator may look at driver choices and say that if just as many people are willing to get in the Express lanes at $2.05 as they were at $1.85, why not charge the higher price and bring in more revenue. Is that the case?

Here's a link to my column from Sunday's Post:


Even if I saw the algorithm the computer uses to set the tolls, I'd have no idea what I was looking at, so I can't authoritatively answer your question. But here are a few thoughts:

My letter writer was asking about a toll that varied by 20 cents from one drive to the next along the express lanes' 14 miles.

The explanation most consistent with the concept of dynamic tolling is that somewhere along that 14 mile route there was more traffic on one day then the next.

I didn't go into great detail in the column -- partly because of space and partly because some readers might find this a bit too much information to absorb on a Sunday morning -- but the toll you pay for the 14 mile trip is a collection of the toll rates for the segments of the express lanes.

You lock in your toll rate when you enter the lanes, then it's just a question of where you get off. You might, for example, start in Springfield and be unaware of the traffic situation up around the Westpark Drive exit in Tysons. Your toll rate accounts for whatever traffic situation exists there at that time, even though you can't see it.

Now, here's a more general question I do think I can answer:

Q: Does the private operator want to make money?

A: Yes.

The private operator is in the business of building express toll lanes largely at its own expense and then recouping the investment through tolls.

Drivers, me included, don't have much experience with this type of system. We've seen it operating since mid-November. My advice is to use the lanes when you think the toll is worth it. And when you don't believe the toll is worth it, don't use them.

Is Metro planning on investing any money soon to overhaul the fare card machines? I travel from Vienna to Foggy Bottom every day and many machines at both stations have at least one issue: either it won't take cash, won't take credit/debit, won't take Smartrip or is just out of service. And coins are basically useless at all of them. I realize we are able to add fare online, but they really need to fix the machines. It's very frustrating.

Yes, I totally agree. I've frequently tried adding value to my SmarTrip card only to discover that the machine can't do that particular thing or that it won't take cash.

And those of us using SmarTrip cards are so much better off then the folks trying to calculate their round trip fares so they can buy paper cards.

Metro is investing money in new fare payment technology. But I don't know when we're going to see the results.

The long-range planning proposal Metro calls "Momentum" has as one of its goals making Metro as much of a self-service system as possible. In other words, fare payment should be relatively pain free. But that's why they call them long-range plans.

So it used to be easy to commute on I-66 between the Beltway and US 50 in the AM. However, for the last three weeks, traffic backs up between the Beltway and 123. It has now become a regular occurance. For the life of me, I can't figure out the source of the problem. Does VDOT ever look at these patterns with their cameras and try to figure out what the problem is and how they might address it?

I don't know about this particular slowdown and invite other travelers to comment on it.

When I ask traffic engineers if they know why a particular roadway has slowed down, they generally say they don't know -- unless they can identify a particular road project that has narrowed lanes or caused rubber-necking.

They go on to say that traffic can slow down or speed up on certain sections of roadways for a variety of causes that are difficult to track. It will get worse for a couple of weeks, then get back to normal. (Sometimes, it gets better then gets worse.)

One little project I've set for myself is to look at the D.C. region's traffic maps and traffic cameras each morning between 7:45 and 8:15 and see where the worst highway traffic is.

Mondays and Friday mornings tend to be the lightest for the week. But the bottlenecks tend to be in the same places. Really, no surprises. Almost always, there's a morning bottleneck on the Beltway from College Park through Silver Spring, and I-395 is jammed approaching the 14th Street Bridge. I295 North and DC 295 South are very crowded approaching the 14th Street Bridge. The GW Parkway is very crowded approaching Rosslyn.

The consistency is very interesting. Makes me think we could solve many problems just by focusing on half a dozen bottlenecks.

I'd always hoped a Purple Line might swing by NASA Goddard on Greenbelt Rd. on it's way (more or less) to New Carrollton. Or a one-stop spur on the end of the Green Line. Has this ever been seriously proposed?

I can see why that would be a helpful thing, but it's not part of the current plan.

Readers can see a map of the Purple Line here: http://wapo.st/18CbcqL

It was part of my Commuter page feature on Sunday that updated the project. The Purple Line planning team has spent the past few years meeting with communities along the 16 mile route between Bethesda and New Carrollton working out many details, sometimes moving something just a few feet to accommodate a local concern. (They certainly haven't worked out all local concerns.)

Right now, this thing has no money for construction, although the General Assembly's recent decision to raise the gas tax makes the project managers very hopeful of getting the state share. So there could actually be a Purple Line by 2020.

I'm an east-to-west commuter from Takoma Park to Bethesda. Someday, I will board the Purple Line at the Langley Park stop. My question: when? Realistically? Accounting for the inevitable fights over the routing, lawsuits, environmental impact, votes on funding, and building snafus, when do you think it will open for business? Before I retire?

I gave readers the 2020 date before seeing this related question, but it let's me follow up:

The planners are hoping they can start construction in 2015, and they think it would take three to five years to complete. That's why they're using 2020 as the year when trains would start running.

The key thing at this point is getting both state and federal money. For the federal share, Maryland needs to successfully apply to the Federal Transit Administration for what's called "New Start" money. For the state money, the Purple Line has to compete with Baltimore's Red Line light rail project and all the rest of the state's transportation needs.

When are you retiring?

Very frustrating. I tell my incoming family to buy cards at National Airport, and often the machine is just plain broken.

I like the Circulator, too, Dr. Gridlock, but the service isn't as consistently regular as you say. I've waited close to 40 minutes for the Union Station route. That might have been for reasons beyond the control of the bus driver, but that kind of wait is very frustrating for riders when you see Circulator advertising waits of 10 minutes.

I'm guessing you mean the Union Station-Georgetown route, as opposed to the Union Station-Navy Yard route?

Actually, there can be delays on both, depending on the time of day, but the Union Station-Georgetown route is really long and goes through the heart of the downtown traffic.

There's nothing magic about the Circulators under these circumstances. They go through the same traffic as car drivers and Metrobus operators. So the Circulators may bunch up, and their may be big gaps for people waiting at the stops.

With the relatively small Circulator system, it's possible for supervisors to make adjustments (send one bus past another, for example) whereas Metrobus is a huge, complex system to manage.

One of my worries about Circulator expansion is that the system will get too big, less manageable, and nothing more than a Metrobus system with different colored buses.

I hope they have an alternative to credit cards. Some legit riders don't have one, others have big balances. There has to be a non-paper alternative for those folks.

I think there always must be a way for people to pay with cash. (Does anyone know of a transit system that doesn't havce some method of accepting cash as a fare payment?)

But I think Metro would like to get out of the business of supplying the plastic alternative -- currently SmarTrip cards -- and let the majority of people pay directly with their credit cards.

I'm heading out of town Friday morning, and unfortunately leaving downtown right around 8:30a or 9:00a. Of the routes Google tends to vary in recommending, what seems the least painful at that hour to head out of the city towards Baltimore (eventually picking up 83N from there): 16th St through Silver Spring to 29.... Georgie Ave to Silver Spring to 29...., or heading east on Florida Ave/NY Ave and eventually the BWI Parkway?

I think I'd go north on Georgia Ave to Route 29 in Silver Spring.

In Silver Spring, I'd make a right on Wayne Avenue and then a left on Cedar Street and then a right onto Route 29. All that just to avoid the worst traffic in downtown Silver Spring.

Route 29 North should be no problem at that hour. (Very different from 29 South.) Meanwhile, I think you'd encounter congestion on either I-95 or the BW Parkway.

Anyone want to join in on these directions?

I recently was at a stop light and the Metrobus to my right ran right through the light. I got all the pertinent info and reported it to Metro via their website. I got back an automatic reply, but wonder if I will get the update I requested on what action they actually took. Does it do any good for people to report egegious Metro-driver behavior?

I doubt you're going to hear about a specific action against a specific driver. Metro usually tells us those are personnel matters.

That doesn't mean Metro took no action. It also doesn't meant hat Metro took an action you would find appropriate under the circumstances you observed.

I do urge people to report such incidents on the theory that if you don't report it, there's little chance anything is going to happen.

Yes, it was the Georgetown-Union Station route. I was trying to get my drivers license renewed (it was the renewal that you can't do on line) during the work day, and I got to the now-defunct Georgetown Park DMV office OK, but I cooled my heels waiting for the bus back to Union Station. If I had known the headroom between buses, I would have just taken a taxi.

One thing you could try -- if you have a smartphone -- is the D.C. Circulator's Next Bus information site. Here's a short link:


I've had mixed luck with Metro's Next Bus system, but haven't used the one for the Circulator. Anybody with experience on that?

Actually from queuing theory, fixing some problems usually just make the problems appear several miles down the road creating different bottlenecks. These later problems don't appear presently because the current bottleneck effectively meters the traffic coming down the road.

I understand what you mean and agree. That's so often a factor in highway widenings. For example, a widening of I-395 North would mean you'd have to widen the 14th Street Bridge, 14th Street, the Southeast-Southwest Freeway, etc., etc.

But fixing a bottleneck doesn't necessarily mean widening the highway. Figuring out ways to cut down on the number of solo drivers could have a significant impact on congestion at a particular bottleneck.

Hi Dr. Gridlock, you have written about Metro plans to renovate several subway stations. Well, a bus stop on Columbia Pike in Arlington cost over $1 million dollars and took a year to build. Metro was the main contractor on that project. Why should Metro riders and taxpayers have confidence that the Metro subway stations will not be highly costly and excessive?

I think we're probably talking about my support for Metro spending $10 million on using the Bethesda station as a lab for testing out some station design improvements, most particularly improvements that would brighten stations.

One of the values of using a station as a lab is that you get to see how much it would cost do do particular things before you decided to spread those changes throughout the system.

(And spending a million dollars on a bus stop is nuts. You get a great-looking bus stop while essentially proving you can't replicate those changes throughout the system.)

The last couple weeks, we've had problems on Monday morning in the exact same section where track work was performed. Whats going on with this and should riders be concerned?

I guess there could be a connection between the weekend track work and the recent troubles on the east side of the Red Line. But I can't tell that just from looking at the track work schedule.

This morning, there was a switch problem outside Silver Spring that caused extensive delays. This weekend, there was single-tracking between Takoma and Rhode Island Avenue for platform reconstruction.

Hi Dr. Gridlock, I am traveling to Atlanta, GA from Waldorf, MD on Friday, the 24th and returning early Memorial Day. What route do you recommend and how do you think traffic will be?

Well, you're in a spot where you could take Route 301 south to bypass crowded I-95 in Northern Virginia, instead connecting with I-95 around Fredericksburg. I think I'd try that, though my main message over the years has been that there aren't any undiscovered shortcuts and drivers on holiday getaways should expect to encounter traffic on any route. Veteran travelers always tell me that the timing of the getaway is at least as important as the route. (Meaning, they travel very early or very late.)

If I'm anywhere between Farragut Square and upper Georgetown, I take whatever comes along first, a Circulator or 30s bus. If necessary, I can transfer to the Metro to get the rest of the way to Union Station.

Very good suggestion. (If travelers are not using a SmarTrip card to pay the fare,  just remember that the fare is higher on the Metrobus.)

It seems to me that a consistent gripe out the underground station is the lack of adequate lighting. Why can't metro simply increase the illumination and leave all the other station elements alone?

Making all the underground stations isn't just a question of crewing in higher wattage bulbs. I think what you'd like to have is all the station design elements working together to create a brighter, more attractive appearance -- something that's safer, let's riders read while waiting for trains and generally creates a more pleasant environment for them.

More powerful lighting won't necessarily do everything you want done. For example, it might be too expensive to spread throughout the system. (That's what I meant about the million dollar bus stop. You get one bus stop that looks great, but you can't afford to have every bus stop cost a million dollars.)

Good story by Jonathan O'Connell on the Metro planner working on this: http://wapo.st/18oojvR

So many questions - when are they going to start working on it? when is it going to open? who will pay for the repairs that are needed? Is anybody going to jail? Are any Montgomery County employees going to lose their jobs? Would anybody have allowed this project to balloon from $36 million (already too much!) to $120 million and counting unless they were drunk on the open faucet of federal dollars? But, mostly, how did so many people clearly know that there were problems as the concrete was being poured but nothing happened for more than a year? Seems like a lot of people didn't care as long as the check cleared and/or didn't want to be the "trouble maker" because they would take fall.

I don't know anything about concrete construction. And I don't know when the Acme Transit Center of Silver Spring will open. I feel sure it's a product that Wile E Coyote would never have accepted.

Any official who laid a finger on that project has a lot to answer for. The result is disrespectful to the people of Silver Spring and every traveler who has been stuck for years using the bus stops scattered on the nearby streets.

I can think of no worse outcome on any transportation project in the D.C. region.

Another possibility is to go up North Capitol Street, turn right at Piney Branch Road, which dead-ends at New Hampshire Avenue in Langley Park, MD. Turn left and 4 lights later, get on the eastbound Beltway and a mile later you're on 95 North.

Now I can see that as a decent escape route from D.C. What I'm a bit worried about is the traffic on I-95 North getting up to the Baltimore Beltway for the loop around to I-83 North.

Many people know about the congestion on I-95 South during the morning rush, but I-95 North also has gotten worse in recent years.

That's why I was thinking Route 29 North. It's sort of I-95 Lite now.

I think one of the unintended benefits of the express lanes is a reduction of congestion from the I-270 spur to the American legion bridge in the afternoons. Though there are still slow downs around River Road the overall trip seems smoother. Anyone else notice this?

I'd be curious about that, too. But my guess is that they aren't connected. I'd be surprised if an express lanes benefit showed itself that far north of Tysons in the afternoon.

Personally I would be happier with better lighting in the system. I think given the other problems plaguing the system a bright, well lit station would be a long overdue welcome change and Metro can spend the rest of the money on the station changes to 1. fixing the escalators 2. repairing broken fare card machines 3. running more eight car trains 4. getting NextBus up to snuff......Need I go on?

The lighting at Farragut North is much better in recent months. It's easier than ever to see that the station is uglier than sin.

Riders should expect Metro, with its $5.5 billion six-year capital budget, to be working on a lot of things at the same time. There's no reason for riders to say, "Okay, we'll settle for this and not that."  They should want it all.


Have to stop now. It's been a very interesting discussion -- but then, it always is with you folks. Thanks for joining me, and stay safe. I'll be back with you next Monday.

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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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