Dr. Gridlock

May 16, 2011

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. I see lots of questions already on both road and transit issues. Let's plunge ahead.

Dr. Gridlock, is it my imagination or did we (in MD) just recently pass a law that states "no cell phone usage without a handsfree device while operating a vehicle?"

I'm fed up with these people (especially women in my experience) who drive with one hand and hold their phone in the other. They make right turns from the left turn lane. They drive much slower than the posted speed limit. They try to change lanes without care often narrowly being side swiped. It makes my commute stressful, not to mention, puts me in danger. When I point out the problem, they give me the finger.

Are the police enforcing this law or not? Or did we just waste everyones' time passing this law?

The Maryland law took effect last October, but we certainly have a lot of drivers violating it. The Maryland law is difficult to enforce, because it involves a secondary violation. The police have to see drivers doing something else wrong before they can issue a ticket for talking on a hand-held cell phone.

It's certainly not a Maryland thing. I see this behavior all across the region. My take: Doesn't matter if it's local or highway traffic, doesn't matter if it's man or woman driving. Doesn't matter if it's a young person or an older person. Doesn't matter if they're going slowly or speeding.

I've seen yakkers weaving in and out of highway traffic in work zones, and I've seen them spinning the wheel with one hand to make a left turn into oncoming pedestrians.


Between the morning and evening rush hours Wednesday 5/11, WMATA stopped turning trains around at Grosvenor and started at Twinbrook. While that may make sense from a load management standpoint, there was no notice. Is this temporary? Permanent? A pilot? What gives?

Also a question - if Metro were to take four 6-car trains and resort them into three 8-car trains wouldn't they be able to maintain capacity, save on labor and improve train separation and bunching?

I think you were probably seeing the effect of some midday track work on the west side of the Red Line. There's been no decision to end the turnbacks at Grosvenor.

About making more eight-car trains: It think Metro did what you're asking for the reason you thought it was a good idea. Last year, the transit authority cut the number of rush-hour trains on the Red Line and used the extra cars to make more eight-car trains. The theory was to cut down on train bunching and make the schedule more regular.

I think that's worked out pretty well, but it doesn't mean the problem of train bunching has completely ended.

What have other Red Line riders experienced at rush hour?

the inner loop of I-495 between US 50 and 123 is just plain dangerous at night and during rain. Lane divider markings are almost impossible to see. The exit to 123 north is incredibly poorly marked and makes a nearly 90 degree turn with almost no reflective markings. Lanes on the right diappear with little warning. I know the road well -- 30 years of driving it. But this is absolutely ridiculous and dangerous.

This is the HOT lanes work zone, and it's very challenging. It's amazing how much trouble is created by a simple lane shift, let alone the rough pavement. There will be some major changes this year. Some zones will start driving on the new lanes off to the right. But that doesn't mean the lane shifts will end. The project is scheduled to be done in 2012.

One question: WHEN will the 14th Street Bridge project be done?!? It is a nightmare every. Single. Day. Please tell me it is going to end soon. Please.

Last week, the project on the northbound span entered its next to last phase. The new work zone, at the north end of the left-center lane, will remain for six to eight weeks. The final phase, which will move the construction island one lane to the right, will last about the same amount of time. All the surface work is scheduled to be done this fall.

That's well behind the schedule that was announced to us in the spring of 2009. The lane closings were supposed to last about a year. Instead, the first of the eight phases lasted about a year. The plus side was that the first phase, which shut the right-most lane, wasn't too disruptive.

But this current phase is causing a lot of extra congestion, even though drivers continue to have four through lanes on the bridge at rush hour.

In the traffic camera, I see a lot of drivers in the left center lane pulling right at the last moment before the construction island.

Don't do that. The left center lane goes around the construction island and then allows drivers either to go up 14th Street or to bear right onto the Southeast-Southwest Freeway. There's absolutely no reason to make a sudden lane change.


As if the construction troubles on I-66 aren't bad enough, there is a fresh calamity in the making at I-66 westbound right after the Farifax Rd. on-ramp in Arlington. The lanes go from 3 to 2 shortly after the on-ramp. There USED to be a merge sign alerting drivers. Now that they have removed the shoulder and put up jersey barriers, the sign is gone. I've witnessed quite a few near misses when all of a sudden there is one fewer lane! VDOT or whoever needs to get a sign back up pronto.

I'll ask VDOT about that. But our producer also notes this:

Readers can also submit complaints to the Washington Post's Daily Gripe. Vent about the issue, with as many details as possible. The report is instantly emailed to the city or agency responsible for fixing them, and we follow up with our own reporting on the most pressing and intriguing gripes. Learn more here.

Every so often, I'll see trains pull up to a Metro platform and stop, when the conductor announces that the train will move forward...then inch up less than half a foot before opening the doors. Is there a reason behind this? Do those six inches /really/ make that much of a difference?

The train operator is required to stop at a mark at the head of the platform. That's for safety. You may recall the era a couple of years ago when train operators were forgetting that they had eight cars behind them, and they would stop at the six-car mark.

This would mean that the rear doors on an eight car train opened before the platform. We were lucky no one stepped out into air and got injured -- or worse.

So the transit authority fix was to have all trains absolutely positively stop at the head of the platform.

The trains remain under the control of the operators. There's no date set for a return to the automatic controls.

Hi Dr. G- I recently moved to Vienna, and will soon start taking the CUE Gold route. Do you know if these buses typically run on time, or if they're plagued by similar issues buses in the district face (delays, bunching, etc.)? Thanks! New Suburb Resident

I can't recall a single complaint I've gotten from riders about CUE, though, of course, it's a limited service. One thing to note: CUE uses the Next Bus system, which allows you to track buses in real time. (This is more effective on some bus routes than others. As long as buses are in the same traffic as everyone else, there will be unexpected delays.)

Having regularly experienced the joys of commuting on 395, I can't imagine how much worse it will get when several thousand of my closest friends and neighbors are relocated to that new monstrosity just off of Seminary Road. Seriously, is there a plan for the September opening besides just hoping for the best and planning for a new ramp in 2015?

Unless the Defense Department delays the move to the Mark Center, I-395 commuters are in for an exciting September. There are plans for traffic improvements, including the new HOV ramp. But no major improvement will be in place by September.

Have you considered having an online chat with the Marc managers? I know that they have Meet the Marc Managers sessions at selected sites but I think having an online discussion with them about the state of Marc Trains would be effective and useful. Thanks.

Thanks for the suggestion. I would like to get some reps from the various transportation agencies to join us. We haven't done that in a long time.

Another thing I want to do: Get our new  transit reporter, Dana Hedgpeth, to join us for an upcoming chat.

Why do the PIDS displays and the next train feature on WMATA.com frequently omit yellow line trains, especially for the rush hour extension from Mt Vernon Square up to Ft Totten?

Here's a guess, based on my experience using the Mount Vernon Square Station: There are no Yellow Line trains north of Mount Vernon at rush hour. When a Yellow Line train is approaching the station during those hours, the PD sign might say No Passengers, or it might fail to indicate other information about the train.

What will happen is that the train will unload all its passengers, go into the tunnel, switch tracks and come back on the other side of the platform.

I was at a business meeting last week where Richard Sarles, Metro GM, was the featured speaker. He does seem to be trying hard to resolve the problems, most importantly the escalator issues. I have noticed that repairs have ramped up considerably the past few months, which is a good thing!

On the issue of rerouting Blue Line trains across the river from the Pentagon, he indicated that, next year, three Blue Line trains (per rush hour?) will be rerouted, allowing three additional Orange Line trains to use the Rosslyn tunnel. At least I think I heard him correctly.

I mentioned the poor lighting on the lower level at Metro Center and at Union Station, the two stations I use the most. He said Union Station is undergoing a major overhaul and the lighting will be part of that. I saw new bright lights at Foggy Bottom when I passed by there the other day.

Yes, three Blue Line trains per hour during the rush periods are to be diverted away from the Rosslyn tunnel and sent over the Yellow Line bridge into L'Enfant Plaza. Then they will continue north to Greenbelt. Meanwhile, three more Orange Line trains per hour during rush periods will enter the Rosslyn tunnel.

That's supposed to start during summer 2012.

Lighting is a problem in many stations -- on the platforms, on the escalators, on the mezzanines. That major overhaul at Union Station is a ways off, I think.

I do think Sarles is focused on saving Metro from a state of decay. He's willing to be the guy who takes the heat for a lot of disruption. Someday, he'll probably hand off the leadership role to a new general manager who gets a lot of the credit for good service that actually stems from maintenance programs that Sarles pushed.

In July, I'll be heading to DCA on a Friday morning- early. My flight departure time is 7:10 a.m. I'd really like to use Metro to get from Wheaton to Regan National when Metro opens at 5 a.m. The trip planner at wmata.com tells me if I catch the first Red Line train, I should get to the airport by 6 a.m. Since this is already cutting it a little close, can I trust Metro to get me there in time? Are there any other affordable options? (I do have a car, but really don't want to pay for the parking.)

It's pretty likely that Trip Planner will be accurate. But there are no guarantees. Some mornings, there's an unanticipated problem with a rail switch, or a previously undiscovered problem with a set of train brakes makes itself apparent just as the train is ready to leave the yard.

I'm very, very conservative when people ask about making flights. (I follow the doctor's rule: Do no harm.) But from your description, I don't see a good alternative, other than taking a cab or airport shuttle van.

Weekend service on metro has deteriorated recently. Not only do trains run infrequently (about 20 minutes between trains, but more sometimes if one is waiting for a particular color train), but repair delays slow down the travel with single tracking in the system. This weekend it took me nearly 2 hours each way to travel from Shady Grove to Foggy Bottom because of infrequent trains and repair work on most lines. Considering the volume of riders -- tourists, guests at local commencements, Nats game attendees -- one might have expected Metro to try to accomodate folks a bit more fully. Why so much neglect of weekend riders? Also, why are the final destinations of "Special" trains not indicated on the trains or announced in the train?

I agree with you about the Specials. The train operator should be announcing the destination as the train enters the station.

(Each Friday morning, I post an entry on the Dr. Gridlock blog called "The weekend and beyond." It has the service disruption details for the weekend.)

Your question relates a bit to my previous response to the comment about Metro GM Richard Sarles. He thinks the most important thing is to fix the deteriorating system, even if it means a serious inconvenience to riders at nights, middays and weekends. And it does mean a serious inconvenience, especially to people trying to transfer from one rail line to another.

This isn't going to end soon. We've got a few more years of this. I do think we'll wind up with a smoother, safer more reliable ride, but this isn't an easy time we're going through.

(Big weekend disruptions ahead for Memorial Day. Eastern Market Station will be closed for three days.)

This happened last summer, and it's starting to happen again. I go one stop on the yellow line, L'Enfant to Pentagon, to get my bus to go home, but there are SO FEW yellow line trains that at rush hour, especially once the tourists start clogging L'enfant, it's nearly impossible to get on the train. Last summer, it was easier several times to just take the blue line all the way around the city, but I don't like doing that. Of couse, having to let the yellow lines pass without boarding means I miss my bus, which means I get home way later, etc. why are there so few yellow lines compared to blues and greens?

I have a feeling that other Metro riders on other lines would ask why they have so few trains. The worse crowding occurs on the western side of the Red and Orange lines.

As I recall, Metro is putting all the rush hour trains it can on the section of track shared by the Yellow and Green lines. Yellow Line doesn't have the ridership of the Green Line.

Seriously, nothing is being considered for September to mitigate the effects of thousands of new commuters? Shuttles from a Metro station or a distant parking lot that have a right of way lane directly to the new building? Can they really just dump thousands to existing gridlock and not even have a veneer of a plan?

There's a plan -- it's just not going to be in place by September. There will be some extra buses, and DoD is encouraging people to carpool. But most people going to work at the Mark Center will be driving alone.

This isn't good. In fact, it's very bad.

I put most of the blame on DoD and the BRAC system. There never was enough time and money to get ready for this.

Dr. Gridlock, is there a site where I can get updates on the construction work to the ramps to the Rock Creek Parkway? Thanks.

Yes, this is the link for weekly updates:


Dr. Gridlock, I think that cutting Metrorail service back at all on the weekends is short-sighted, and cutting off late-night service would be outright disastrous. Since the alternatives for *most* weekend users are the more expensive options of 1) driving and parking or 2) taking a cab, why doesn't WMATA consider some more creative pricing? For example, charge a flat, much higher fee for late night service (e.g. $5 fare anywhere in the system after 8pm). Considering how much more expensive a taxi and/or parking are, I think most weekend users would be willing to pay extra rather than put up with an 18 or 25 (!) wait for the next train. It's not 1995 anymore, and this is not the same DC that went without late night Metro for so many years.

There's two issues in the weekend scenario:

First, the Metro board is holding a set of hearings this week on a budget-cutting option: Lengthen the gap between weekend trains and save about $6 million in the fiscal year starting in July. (My view is that the board shouldn't even be asking the public about this. The board should have instructed the staff to find this money somewhere in a $1.466 billion operating budget. The impact on riders far exceeds the potential savings.)

The second issue is a transit staff proposal to eliminate the night-owl train service on weekends to create more maintenance time. I like this idea, though I doubt it will ever happen, because of DC opposition.

This is not billed as a money-saving idea, but rather as a way of speeding up the maintenance program. It would create the equivalent of more than a month of extra maintenance time over the course of a year, Metro says.

Before Metro even seriously considers this, the staff has to come back to the board with a plan that shows in some detail what the benefits would be. That's fair. We may see such a plan put forward this fall for review.

Since last summer, night-owl riders have paid rush-hour fares. I'm not sure much more could reasonably be done on the fare front.

Hi there. I need to be in Richmond early afternoon on Friday, from Rockville, and I was wondering if the traffic on 270S-495 would be sufficiently clear from rush hour by about 10 am. If not, is there a good work-around from MoCo to 95S? Thanks!

You are going to encounter congestion on the Virginia side of the Beltway, going through the HOT lanes work zone from around the Dulles Toll Road down to Springfield.

But I don't know of an alternative, other than swinging around the other side of the Beltway and crossing the Wilson Bridge. I don't recommend that. I'd still go with I-270/495 and the Legion Bridge crossing.

In the afternoon, when I go to Union Station from Farragut North, I have noticed that some days the board shows the next three trains will be 6 car trains, sometimes they will be 8 car trains. There does not seem to be any pattern.

I don't see a pattern either. Sometimes, it will be two eights and a six. (I do still find that fewer people wait at the end of the platform when the sign indicates the next train is an eight. It still tends to be less crowded back there.)

I was on the Beltway last night where the HOT lanes construction is underway and agree the odds are simply not as good for safe passage when driving through there as they used to be and will be again. So be it. My bigger concern is that there was a downpour, only for a few minutes, a kind of tropical deluge thing, and it was very clear to me that there was nowhere for the water to drain off. I was in instant puddles, meaning close to hydroplaning, very fast, within seconds of the downpour's sudden start. Could they put in more drainage instead of sealing off the sides of each lane with barriers that sit flush to the surface all along the road?

I agree drainage should be better, but realistically, I think the project is moving along so quickly that we're not going to see that sort of change. In several zones over the next few months, those new outer lanes are going to open, and work will begin on converting the interior lanes to the HOT lanes.

Sometime when there's no train at the platform, go over and take a look off the edge. You can see some white-on-green markers that look sort of similar to highway mileposts underneath the edge of the platform. Those tell the train operators where to stop, and the numbers refer to the length of the train. While nowadays all trains pull all the way to the end of the platform, WMATA hasn't removed the other markers, and rightly so in case they ever switch back to doing it the old way. (The idea of a stop mark isn't unique to the DC Metro, BTW.)

Back when Metrorail was trying to get the operators to remember where to stop, they used the phrase, "Eights to the gates," to indicate the head of the platform.  But no memory aid proved effective enough. Hence the requirement for all trains to pull up.


I'm planning a trip from Alexandria to Ikea on Friday afternoon. I normally go to the Ikea in College Park via New York Avenue and the BW parkway because traffic on 95 to the Ikea in Woodbridge tends to be backed up, but I am concerned that the New York Avenue project could present the same problem. Should I flip a coin or do you think one is decidedly better than the other? Thank you!

I've been surprised about the New York Avenue project: The traffic resulting from the recent lane restrictions hasn't been as bad as I expected. Not yet, anyway.

So I think I might still go for the College Park route.

I've read that Metro has new trains on order for the upcoming service to Tysons Corner and Reston. But I've also read that the new trains will be only be able to run as 4 or 8 car trains. Why is Metro forcing itself to abandon 6 car trains, especially since that's its standard service?

The idea is that Metro needs to break away from the technology linking it to the oldest cars, make maintenance easier, and slightly increase the capacity of the new trains. All those things were factors into the thinking behind the 7000 Series.

(If you have four-car sets instead of two-car sets, you can save some of the space that would have gone for operator cabs at the ends of the twos.)

I know that there has been a lot of debate about the Metrorail station at Dulles and if it should be above ground or below ground. Really, I don't care as long as it serves the long term needs of the airport. The one thing that I am curious about is if any of the plans provide an option for the daily commuters. Will there be a place for people to park and take the Metro into DC close to the airport without having to pay the high airport parking fees?

I don't know of a plan to put extra parking at the airport for Metro, but those other outer stations will have a lot of parking for commuters.

Most of the backups and delays on I-495 from Tysons to Alexandria is mainly due to construction projects and not traffic congestion. When will the projects be complete?

The Beltway projects  should be wrapping up at the end of next year.

Last week, I heard several reports that said that fewer drivers are opting to use the new ICC than expected. To be honest, I hope this tells leaders around the region that toll roads are not the solution to our transportation problems. Roads should be constructed with the intention of being used. All of the plans for toll roads in the area seem to be constructed in order for people to NOT use the roads. The mentality seems to be that they should increase the tolls until fewer people are using it keeping traffic light. That is the stupidest thing I have ever heard!!! I don't know why anyone would rather have people driving in stop and go traffic on roads not intended to handle volume instead of high capacity roads designed to handle volume. All roads should be built to be used.

I agree that roads built at huge expense to the taxpayers should be used. But I think you can't just the results on the ICC until at least next year, when the whole thing is open.

Travelers, thanks for joining me today. I still have a few things I'd like to get to on the Dr. Gridlock blog -- questions and comments you submitted about bike lanes on 15th Street, for example, and toll roads.

Write to me anytime at drgridlock@washpost.com, and please stop by again next Monday. Stay safe.

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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