Dr. Gridlock

May 23, 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. Are you planning escapes for the holiday weekend, or the rest of the summer? Worried about getting around DC to Memorial Day weekend events? Worried that the Dulles Metrorail line won't get built because of the dispute over the Dulles station location? Encountering more road work?

Let's talk about your traffic and transit concerns.

Is the MARC train ever going to include a shooting car? On my trip home to West Virginia I frequently see several bucks near the tracks.

MARC sure could use some extra bucks to buy more engines and rail cars -- but wait, that's not what you mean, is it?

We had been informed at work that Metro was changing the SmartBenefits program beginning June 1 to have the two separate funds on the SmartTrip card- one for the money added through SmartBenefits and one for money you added separately. We were then informed that Metro had problems with the Autoload program and this change was not going to happen on June 1. Do you have any information about how much longer this change occurs?

No, we're aware of the problems -- Dana Hedgpeth did a story after we got a wave of complaints from riders having trouble getting their bus passes properly loaded onto SmarTrip -- but we haven't heard from the SmarTrip folks about an actual fix for the autoload issue.

Would you care to comment on metro reducing their performance targets? Using the example of rail operations the on-time goal has been reduced from 95% to 90%. Metro's stated reason is that ongoing trend data supports this reduction in the target. Shouldn't metro be aiming for a higher level of performance not a mediocre level of performance? Also metro's definition of "on-time" is extremely lax as it is and considers a train "on-time" even if it arrives several minutes late. http://wmata.com/about_metro/board_of_directors/board_docs/052620_3AVitalSigns.pdf (Page 13)

This is on the docket for discussion Thursday at the Metro board's customer service committee meeting.

The transit authority plans to cut its targets for "on time" performance of the trains and buses. I certainly want to hear this discussion. I'm not sure what difference it will make to riders, but it certainly sounds discouraging -- to have the transit authority seemingly saying, We can't meet our performance goals. Solution: Lower the goals.

Some of the stated reasons for the lowering: Metrobuses get caught in traffic, and the DC region has some of the worst traffic congestion in the nation. Metro trains are now under operator control, rather than automatic control. Operators need more time to stop the trains at the platforms and to open and close the doors.

If those are the issues, why not adjust the schedules to make the arrival times more realistic? That's what would have the most impact on riders.


Dr. G, it may never happen again, but Metro could have done fans a huge service by announcing the Nationals'' rainout starting at 10 a.m. last Tuesday, before hundreds of fans took Metro to the stadium on a perfectly clear day and were amazed and irate to learn that the game had been "rained out" at 9:40 that morning. I lived in London for years, where tube stations routinely have message boards inside and outside their stations giving this kind of news. While my primary irritation is with the Nats, spending 2+ hours and $13 in fares and parking added greatly to my frustration.

This was the scheduled afternoon game against the Pirates. And you're right, an announcement would have been a swell thing.

My guess is that Metro simply has system for getting and distributing that information to riders. It has the technology:  the loudspeakers and the e-mail alerts. But I can't think of a time I've heard or read an announcement on something -- no matter how relevant -- that's going on outside the transit system.

Governor McDonnell asked DOD to postpone the 6,000 people office move to the Mark Center. Congressman Moran said this is possible. Why was a ramp to HOV not thought of before???

First, I think it would be a swell idea to postpone the move to such a transit-unfriendly location. None of the significant traffic improvements will be in place by September when the Defense employees are scheduled to move into the Mark Center on Seminary Road, just off I-395.

There never was enough time to make the necessary improvements, including the HOV ramp. A federal study, released earlier this year, said as much. It criticized the base realignment process noting -- quite correctly in my experience -- that it takes at least a decade to plan, engineer and build a major transportation improvement. The base changes were announced in 2005.

I am planning a summer road trip to Florida. We will be leaving from 370. Is there a good time to leave in the morning to avoid the worst of the traffic around the Beltway? Would it be crazy to try to do White's Ferry? Thanks!

If you're on vacation, I think White's Ferry would be a fun way to get started -- as long as the Potomac isn't at flood stage. It's certainly better than sitting in traffic on the Beltway and on I-95 in Northern Virginia.

That said, I think you'd be okay most mornings on I-270, the Beltway and 95 if you left at about 6 a.m. (I'd lean toward departing before the rush hour builds, rather than after the morning rush.)

Good Afternoon, It seems that more and and more people are driving slowly (at the exact speed limit or less) in the left lanes of the beltway and I-95 in Virginia. I remember there used to be signs posted saying "Slower Traffic Keep Right", but they all seem to be gone and replaced by "Commercial Vehicles Except Buses Prohibited in Left Lane". Any chance of asking VDOT to put back the slow traffic keep right signs? I was told that flashing your high beams (which used to be the gentle way of asking people to move over) is now considered "aggressive driving". Is that true? Thanks!!!

One trend I notice among drivers is that they increasingly define driving at the speed limit as "driving slowly." That's now how Virginia State Police define it. I asked. There's no lane in which it's legal for drivers to exceed the speed limit.

Many drivers cite the Virginia law requiring drivers in the left lane to make way if someone wants to pass. But they never cite the accompanying rule: It's illegal to exceed the speed limit.

That said, I stay right. Speeders already are displaying a characteristic of aggressive driving. There's no point in encouraging them to display other characteristics.

Will this weekend's metro closure impact transit from Nats game this Friday night, May 27? We're travelling from/to Vienna. Thanks.

The closing of four stations on the Orange and Blue lines from 10 p.m. Friday through midnight on Memorial Day should not effect your trip to and from Vienna, according to Metro's schedule. You'll be on the western side of Federal Center SW, where the trains will stop and turn around.

The first couple days were a nightmare, but the "regulars" seem to have adapted quickly and the backups are no worse than usual now.

This is good news. The current phase of construction on the northbound span of the 14th Street Bridge -- the next to last phase -- has been a difficult one for drivers because of the location of the construction island. We've been trying to get the word out that drivers in the left-center lane shouldn't swerve right at the last moment before the construction island. (Well, they shouldn't do that anyway, but what I'm saying is that drivers in that left-center lane can either go ahead to 14th Street or bear right just after the construction island and head onto the Southeast-Southwest Freeway and I-395.)

While I'm sure that the removal of one of the left turns has worsened the backup on Georgia, I've always felt that other left turn lane was underutilized anyway. The majority of left turners want to make that immediate right turn onto Muncaster Mill, so they were mostly in one left turn lane already.

I've heard from quite a few drivers upset that one of the two left turn lanes was removed from northbound Georgia Avenue at Route 28 (Norbeck Road). They think it's adding to traffic congestion there, just south of the entrance to the Intercounty Connector.

Maryland State Highway officials say they're monitoring what's going on at the intersection. (In my experience, it's routine for traffic engineers to study the impact of changes for a while before they make any further changes, even if it's just the adjustment of traffic signal times.)

One thing they correctly point out: That intersection has been failing drivers for quite some time. A solution is to rebuild it as an interchange, but there's no money right now for construction.

As near as I can tell, in Maryland, bicycles are considered "vehicles" by the Transportation Code (11-104) and bicyclists are subject to "all duties required of the driver of a vehicle (21-1202). Those duties invclude stopping at stop signs and not passing on the right except in certain limited defined circumstances (beating a line of cars stopped at a red light not among those). Maybe DC and VA have similar laws, but I wonder why we don't seem to see these in your frequent columns on bicycles. Just this morning I had a bicyclist go between two lanes of traffic stopped for a red light and then proceed through the red light and resume a blocking position in the right lane.

Bicyclists across the region are supposed to obey the traffic laws, and as I frequently point out, many don't. (I also point out that drivers at least slow down for stop signs.)

I've got a bunch of comments about cyclists. Is this because we just had Bike to Work Day on Friday? I'll publish some more.

Dear Dr. Gridlock, The WaPo has had quite a few stories about, yes, it's legal for bicyclists to take a full lane while riding. I wonder though whether it is prudent to exercise this right on (for example) a single lane curvy uphill road with a 35 mph speed limit, when you have trouble maintaining 6 mph. None of the stories ever seem to address the safety aspects of what can be an enormous speed differential.

I think it really depends on the circumstances. And in the circumstances you describe, I doubt I'd attempt to ride a bike in the middle of the lane.

When I hear cycling safety advocates urge bikers to take the lane, it's usually in this scenario: They're driving on city streets with cars parked along the sides, and they're hugging the curb, then pulling out to get around cars, then pulling back to the curb, then pulling out to get around cars.

That's not a safe situation. They're confusing the drivers -- sometimes they're there, and sometimes they're not. It would be better to remain in the drivers' field of vision at all times, rather than popping in and out.

D.C. Municipal Regs. Chap. 18-1201.15 requires bicyclists to stop for red lights and stop signs just as autos do. So why do bicyclists routinely pass cars stopped for a red light and go through the light? I guess they feel the laws don't apply to them because they're helping save the planet. In all your recent lamentations about bicyclists not being respected, why haven't you pointed out the law?

I have pointed out the laws repeatedly. And they're quite similar everywhere around here. No excuses for cyclists not following the laws.

My experience is that many travelers don't follow any traffic law they don't absolutely have to. (Note other exchanges about speeding.)

Travelers, thanks for joining me today. We have to shut down the chat now. Because of some computer troubles, I didn't get to answer as many questions or publish as many of your comments as I'd like.

There's one in particular about traffic congestion Sunday on Georgia Avenue that I'd like to post on the Dr. Gridlock blog right away. And I'll try to do some others as well.

Have a safe Memorial Day weekend. We'll be back here on the chat in two weeks.

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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