Dr. Gridlock

May 21, 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. This is our last chat before Memorial Day kicks off the summer travel season. But I see a lot of questions and comments about very local issues on traffic and transit, so let's start with them.

With Metro's fare increase going into effect somewhat soon, is there any fare chart or tool available to see what any specific fare will be after the increase. I've seen generalities of average percentage increases and changes in maximum and minimum fares, but nothing helpful for each individual rider.

I have not seen a fare chart, like the ones we see at the station kiosks and vending machines. But if you go to Metro's Web site (www.wmata.c0m) and use the Trip Planner, you can figure out the new fare. Put in a date that's after July 1 and list your start and end stations.

Despite the ever increasing frustrations with Metro riders concerning deteriorating service, increasing fares, and safety incidents, Metro's governance seems to display little urgency in resolving the issues. While RAC, TOC, NTSB and various other agencies and task forces have published findings of severe issues, none of them lack the enforcement ability to affect the changes they recommend. The blogs and newspapers constantly report on issues, but rarely illicit a response from Metro beyond spin or denial, such as with the Times piece. Rider complaints at public hearings seem to be largely ignored. Should Metro's board be elected, which could turn politicized, but would be more responsive to riders? It certainly would be easier to change ineffective elected board members versus protesting a gubernatorial or even local council appointee. Shouldn't board members be required to use the system on a regular basis to understand the needs of the riders? Should RAC be granted abilities to force change on certain issues? What would you advise for recommendations to fix the issues with WMATA? Some riders can use alternate means of transportation, but, for many, Metro is the only way, no matter how bad the system gets. Personally, I've been testing out bikes for the last week, plan on purchasing one on my next day off, and would like to thank Metro for any future lost pounds.

There's been a lot of turnover on the Metro board in the past two years, but not much turnover in the approaches to issues that riders care about. All the board members are appointed by board, commissions, governors or the federal government.

If the board members were elected by the voters in the juridsictions served by Metro, they most of those voting would be people who don't use Metro regularly. They'd be taxpayers who subsidize those who ride. So it's difficult to tell who'd wind up on the board. It might be that the people actually voting in such elections would be those who care the most about Metro, which of course would be the riders.

But would those who now appoint the board members ever be willing to cede that power to the voters?

How many pips are on a Metro warning tile?

Okay, I'm publishing this. But you've got to promise to send in the answer before the chat is done.

And by the way, I'm still concerned about those outdoor platforms that have big sections where there are no warning tiles at all. Last year, the busted up tiles at these stations were removed and concrete patch was applied.

That was okay as a temporary measure, but the warning tiles should come back.

Dear sir: I honestly don't think this ridiculous situation we are dealing with will change until businesses in the area start realizing how much money they are losing by what amounts to a shutdown on the Metro during the weekends. Both Saturday and Sunday I decided not to go into the center of the city because it wasn't urgent and I did not want to deal with the single tracking on the red line. If my failure cost businesses a few hundred dollars, and is aggregated by even a small portion of the population, businesses in dc are losing significant money from the fact that Metro is so horrifically delayed and it isn't worth the effort to go to downtown and spend money. This isn't a small issue. Metro's behavior is costing a lot of decent people money. And they are so completely unapologetic about the trouble they are causing.

There's no doubt that the weekend repair program, which got a lot more aggressive last year, has inconvenienced tens of thousands of riders. In fact, my question is why do so many hundreds of thousands of people continue to ride on weekends?

Some people are going to work. Some people think they have no choice. But hundreds of thousands of people?

Long-time readers know I don't believe in transportation ideology. I think travelers should decide what form of transportation works best for them and use it.

Weekend Metro riders write in about the length of the trips -- especially if they involve transfers from one disrupted line to another -- and the uncertainty of trips. Normal ways of anticipating rides -- the electronic signs on the platforms and Metro's Trip Planner -- are unreliable during maintenance disruptions.

So "Why ride"? is one question I have for the weekend travelers. But a more complicated question is, If Metro's weekend repair program is unacceptable, how would you fix all the things we know are busted?

That's Metro's answer to these complaints: If we slow this down, transit officials say, we're slowing down the effort to make your rides safer.

Working on the assumption that it will snow again, who will be responsible for treating/plowing the 495 Express Lanes? If VDOT who covers the costs of supplies and machinery? If another contractor will removal be coordinated with VDOT? As the Express Lanes are closer to the center will they receive priority?Where will the snow be removed to, the Beltway travel lane next to the Express Lanes?

I believe the snow removal will be done under a special contract with the Express Lanes operators. I don't forsee an issue of snow removal first for Lexus Lanes -- but if it happened, that would be a great story.

It looks like Montgomery County has installed a camera that issues a citation if you stop beyond the white line on westbound Randolph Road at Kemp Mill Road. Are these cameras now in use in MoCo?

I believe that all red-light cameras are set to record violations if drivers cross the solid white line in front of a crosswalk while the light is red.

The new tile on the platforms at Shady Grove and Rockville is nice, but the work seems stalled at Twinbrook and other stations down the Red line. Any idea why they started the work but then stopped?

I know that some of this work is done in stages. The crews will do the platform edge and the foundation, then do the tiles, using the new type of tiles that come in big sections and are meant to last longer than the crumbly ones. There seem to be breaks between the stages. Some of the work requires single-tracking, to keep trains and riders away from one side of the platform or the other.

Any word on when this staircase will be open? It would have been handy the other day when the escalators at Vienna were all either stopped or running downhill.

I thought the long-awaited staircase opened late last week.

On the Inner Loop of the Beltway, there is now a 5th lane between I-66 and VA-7. This has made the morning rush hour a lot easier at that part of the Beltway. However, on the Outer Loop, there are still only 4 lanes which causes a backup in Tysons in the evening rush hour. Are there any plans to extend a 5th lane on the outer loop betwen VA-7 and I-66?

There's no plan to do that as part of the 495 Express Lanes project. But if that project works the way people are hoping, it should remove some of the traffic from the outer loop in that very congested zone.

Maryland State Police and Montgomery County Police closed a large "rolling" segment of I-270 Saturday evening apparently to accommodate the motor travel for some of the G-8 attendees. I understand the need for security, but our own President moves around the National Capital area by motorcade without fully closing the roads. Why couldn't the same be done in this case? Closing an entire, heavily traveled Interstate highway was overkill and a bad move by the police. This just adds to the air of "over-importance" that already grips politicians.

What do we have all those helicopters for?

What do yo do if you have an EZPass from a different state and it doesn't have the high occupancy switch and you have the required number of passengers and you want to take the HOT lanes? Do you remove the EZPass from the window and put it in the foil bag? Or are you out of luck?

You're out of luck. Anybody who wants to use the HOT lanes for free as a carpooler will need to get that new type of switchable transponder called the E-ZPass Flex, which I believe is going to become available starting next month.

So you'd give up your old transponder, the standard one, and get one of the new kind so that you could switch it to carpool mode. That's a financial calculation you'll make, but it may be worth it if you carpool even once or twice a month.

(This is new for us, and kind of complicated, so I just want to re-emphasize: If you're carpooling, and you have a standard E-ZPass transponder, don't just put it in a foil bag. You'll be considered in violation of the lane use rules. Everyone who uses the HOT lanes must have a readable transponder, either old or new.)

What's the latest you would leave on Saturday morning for the Outer Banks, to avoid the brunt of the traffic? I've heard horror stories that Saturday has become almost as bad as Friday afternoon.

For Memorial Day weekend, a lot of drivers will be considering the Saturday morning option. I'd get going about 5 a.m. I wouldn't be worrying so much about beating the traffic south of DC, but I would be worried about traffic in the Hampton Roads area, in the later stages of the drive.

When I write my getaway advice columns, I'm always recommending travel at off-peak periods. Easy for me to write. What I'll actually be doing this Friday is heading for western Maryland in the late afternoon. That should be a ghastly trip, to Frederick and beyond.

The Navy Yard station got "Ballpark" added next to it. Stadium-Armory has always had it. Why not change Gallery Place to read "Gallery Place-Arena?"

All the name changes you're seeing were recommendations to Metro from the individual jurisdictions. So it would be up to the District to recommend a name change for Gallery Place.

To me, "Arena" is a bit indistinct. You'd probably have to know some other way that they were talking about Verizon Center. And I think the name-changers in this past round were careful to avoid names, like "Nationals Park," that could be changed if naming rights got involved.

DC has seen such a renaissance in the 20 years I have lived here, and a huge factor has been the flourishing neighborhoods that have developed around the metro stops. People literally purchase houses and pay higher rents because living near the metro means they don't need to have a car or deal with horrific traffic. That is how it should work, and hundreds of thousands of people have made decisions about where they live and play based on the metro. And, now things have fallen apart and it galls people. So, people feel like they are paying for the right to public transportation in all sorts of ways and it is really psychologically difficult to say "screw it" and not take advantage of what they have bargained for.

That's the best explanation I've read or heard about why so many thousands still ride Metro on weekends when the service has deteriorated so much.

Seems like housing is getting built just about every place it can get built near stations.

But I still wonder about the "bargain" aspect. At least in the short term, people aren't getting what they bargained for when they paid a premium to live near a Metro station and go car-free. Why should they just simmer about it? Shouldn't they do something?

Sorry, that doesn't work. it spits out the same fare I'm paying now. And surely my Silver Spring to Farragut North commute isn't going to be immune from the fare hike!

That's odd. Before answering the previous question on this, I put in Silver Spring to Farragut North today (0ff-peak) and got $2.15. Then I put in Silver Spring to Farragut North on July 10 and got $2.75.

I don't have a car. I am disabled and cannot walk far. I am disabled and have limited funds. what choices do you think I have??

I don't know how many choices you have. Can you not ride MetroAccess? If not, what do you think you should do and what do you think Metro should do?

Have you tried parking in downtown DC? The extra 20-30mn of driving around to find parking, then walking many blocks to your destination, wipe out any drive vs. metro benefit for me on weekend. (Granted, if I can, I'll use a bus before metro, but metro still beats driving)

If for your particular trip, Metro still beats driving, it sounds like you should continue to take Metro.

People should make their own calculations -- just as we talk about doing when we talk about potential uses of the HOT lanes.

It seems to me that you're making a valid calculation when you mention the difficulties of parking downtown and walking many blocks.

I'm travelling to the Finger Lakes region on Friday using 270 N to 83 N. What time do you suggest leaving on Friday and is early afternoon (1pm) too late?

I wish you could leave earlier than 1 p.m. (You'll notice, if you read my comment above, that my answer here is "Do as I say, not as I do.")

The difficulty with any long trip on Friday is that you may escape traffic in the early going, but you're bound to run into somebody's rush hour.

The ramp from North bournd New Hampshire to the outer loop is under rennovations. Is there a timetable for this work to be complete? I have seen no signs about the length of the work.

The bridge rehab project is scheduled to continue into next year, but the phase that has blocked off the bridge should be over in midsummer.

For those who haven't seen this, the difficulty is the detour. Drivers coming north on New Hampshire Avenue are directed to go drive east on the Beltway to the park and ride area, then come around onto the outer loop. The delay estimates I have from drivers range from 10 to 20 minutes, depending on the hour.

Also, many parking places in DC are limited to 2 hours, even on Saturdays, so if you want to spend more than that downtown, metro it is.

Another good reason to continue riding Metro. And if that works best for you, I'm not trying to talk you out of it. But some other people might be able to consider Metrobus, Capital Bikeshare, DC Circulator, walking -- even a cab ride. Or they could protest the aggressive track work policy. (But if doing that, people should be prepared to discuss how and when they think the repairs should be done.)

Once they are open who will maintain the HOT lanes? The operator will, of course, keep up the traffic monitors. That brings in money. Keeping up the road surface is nothing but an expense, and, as we have seen with METRO, that type of expendature is all too easily deferred. Is this yet another expense that will have to be covered by Virginia?

The private company operating the lanes will be responsible for maintaining them. I've often said that I like the profit-motive element of this project. It's in the operator's financial interest to keep drivers happy with the experience of driving in these lanes. So I expect they're going to be kept in pretty good condition, day to day, and long term.


I take either blue or orange trains from Farragut West to Federal Center SW in the morning. When the mix of blue and orange changes in June, I'll still be OK. But how am I supposed to know for the return trip in the afternoon where a blue train is going? I'd prefer not to be randomly taken across the Potomac on the yellow line tracks and end up in Virginia.

I think if you stick with that Federal Center SW to Farragut West route in the afternoon, you won't have any problem about getting on the wrong train. The Blue Line trains aren't going to divert from that tunnel they share with the Orange Line trains. You're definitely not going to wind up on the Yellow Line tracks, and you'd have to fall asleep or be deeply absorbed in reading material to wind up in Virginia when you meant to get off at Farragut West.

Dr G, this morning's commute (King Street - Foggy Bottom) illustrated exactly why I am so annoyed with the pending Blue Line Split. Metro was running Blue Line trains with 9-10 minute headways at 8:30 a.m. ... and on top of that, we sat for 5 minutes waiting to get into the Rosslyn tunnel. If I have to wait that long for a train, I don't think it's unreasonable to think that they can work out the timing so I don't wait another 5 minutes for no good reason when I'm en route. Seriously annoyed at paying premium prices for subpar service.

You're one of the riders who can call the new rush hour service Rush Minus.  The schedule that starts June 18 subtracts three Blue Line trains per hour at peak periods.

So far, I don't see any reason to believe that Metro will have fewer unscheduled delays at rush hour because of these changes.

(If you think the Blue Line delay is going to be significant and you've got a Yellow Line train right there at King Street, you might experiment by boarding that and changing to a Blue or Orange Line train at L'Enfant Plaza, to see if that helps at all in reaching Foggy Bottom.)

Thanks, travelers. Join me again the Monday after Memorial Day. For the blog this week, I'll post some more information about the holiday getaways, and about Memorial Day activities in this area. And I'll see if I can get in some more of your thoughts about the Metro weekend service.

Stay safe, whether you're upcoming travels are long or short.

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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