Dr. Gridlock

Jun 11, 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. I see some comments on problems in the immediate past or future, plus some cosmic questions about the state of our transportation system.

Let's look.


I appreciated yesterday's column explaining Rush Minus (which for some people, is Rush Plus), but I think you neglected to talk about the buses that are being added to cover the Pentagon-Rosslyn gap. Could you fill us in?

I'll bet most readers figured my Sunday column was long enough. But I know there still are plenty of things we need to discuss about Rush Plus service before it starts next Monday.

About the buses: Metro says an option for Blue Line riders is Metrobus Route 9E or 10E, which will include service to Rosslyn via Crystal City during rush hour as of next week.

Here's a link to the Sunday Rush Plus column, and be sure to look at the online maps and video:


I'm submitting a little early! I've commuted as a bicyclist years ago and I'm positively petrified at the number of bicyclists today who use the roadways when there is a perfectly lovely safe bike path available and I can see it from the road. I know how easy it is to hit something and take a tumble (I was also a motorcyclist as a young woman). I practically take up the entire lane to go around them, just in case, when they are going slower than the speed limit. Sometimes much, much slower. They have every right to be on the road, but I don't understand why thie need to be on the road when a viable alternative is right there. There are not that many pedestrians on the bike paths at 7 - 8 a.m. on Beach Drive between Aspen Hill and Bethesda, for example. I watch out for them, don't tailgate and give them wide berth when I pass. I wish more bicyclists would use the bike paths that are available to them. It's scary sometimes.

Cyclists tell me that some of these paths -- including the ones through Rock Creek Park -- look a lot better to drivers than they do to the cyclists trying to use them.

Many of the people we're talking about are commuters who use bicycles, not weekend warriors like me who plod along the paths.

The ruts and potholes in the path can be dangerous for those cyclists.

Why was a portion of the Fairfax County Parkway renamed to Route 286? It seems like part is still Rte. 7100, as well.

VDOT hasn't gotten to all the signs it has to replace as a result of a decision by the Commonwealth Transportation Board in Feb. to ugrade the status of three Northern Virginia Parkways to primary roads. (That means they qualify for federal money for maintenance and improvements.)

Primary routes get lower numbers, so the Fairfax County Parkway becomes Route 286, the Franconia-Springfield Parkway goes from 7900 to 289 and the Prince William Parkway from 3000 to 294.

Do you think the solution to traffic congestion lies in mass transit?

Transit sure helps, but there's no one solution.

For example, I think telecommuting is going to become really important over the next couple of decades.

Key issue: New transit lines, like new roads, are really expensive, and no one wants to pay for them. We're not even covering the cost of maintaining what we've got. So the roads and rails are going to continue to detriorate.


The past two Saturdays, there has been a long backup on 270 south onto 495 into Virginia. Do you know what is causing this? For how long and between what hours is this expected to continue? Thanks.

No, I don't. One traveler suggested this morning that it was paving on the Dulles Toll Road. Anybody else notice that?

Maybe this has been raised before, but It seems to me that using EZ Pass reduces cost to VDOT by requiring fewer toll collectors and moving traffic more quickly through toll booths. Therefore, imposing a fee seems unfair. People who pay using EZ Pass should get a DISCOUNT, not an add-on.

VDOT's proposal to start charging a monthly fee for E-ZPass account maintenance has been a very popular topic for the past couple of weeks. (Where were you when I was writing about this in April? I could have published some of your protest letters by now.)

Many of you commented about it during last week's chat, and just before we started today, I did a blog posting to include some of the unpublished comments from last week. (You know how I never get to post all the comments within our time limit.)

Anyway, I'm going to paste in here my summary of why VDOT says it needs the extra money:

The program is expanding and the cost of maintaining it is rising. The I-495 Express Lanes in Northern Virginia are scheduled to open at the end of the year. All cars will be required to have E-ZPass transponders.

Also, VDOT says, toll collection is scheduled to begin in January 2014 for the Downtown Tunnel/Midtown Tunnel/MLK Extension in Hampton Roads. The Jordan Bridge in Hampton Roads will begin collecting tolls this summer, and there are other toll roads planned.

The proposed fee would cover costs for buying nearly one-half million transponders, implementing a retail program where transponders can be obtained at stores, providing service at some Department of Motor Vehicles offices, upgrading information technology to accommodate the expanded program, account management and the operation of three customer service centers.

This is a link to that new blog posting:


In your article on the new Rush Plus schedule, you say: "Still, I think your best bet is to time your arrival for the period when two Blue Line trains are six minutes apart, rather than during the 12-minute gap, when you'll probably see three Yellow Line trains in a row." I use the Blue Line between Van Dorn Street and Farragut West, and like the vast majority of Van Dorn passangers, I get to the station by bus, so we don't have the flexibility to time our arrivals. This may be especially challenging for the evening return--if the new schedule brings you into Van Dorn Street too late for your bus, you may need to leave the office earlier (or later), which may have ripple effects for other connections, day care, etc. It's not simply the longer wait that makes Blue line riders anxious about this change.

Many Blue Line riders in Virginia are concerned about the impact of Rush Plus, which deducts three Blue Line trains per hour during the rush periods, starting next Monday.

If you get to the Van Dorn Street platform just as the doors are closing on the last Blue Line train for 12 minutes, you could try experimenting with a Yellow Line train,which will be the next one coming up, and see if transferring at L'Enfant Plaza for a Blue or Orange Line train to Farragut West is better than waiting the 12 minutes for the next Blue Line train at Van Dorn.

Metro officials think it will be. It's one of the things I plan to check starting next Monday, so I can report back to you all on the realities of Rush Plus.

8:50 am, Pentagon City station, Blue line train won't arrive for another 8 minutes and there is no mention of any back ups on the WMATA website. Why am I paying rush hour fare for this kind of service?

Metro doesn't plan to lower the fare for deducting Blue Line trains and it doesn't plan to raise the fare for adding Orange and Yellow Line trains.

Depending on what your morning destination is, you might also experiment by taking the next Yellow Line train and transferring.

Some things that aren't clear to you also aren't clear to me: Will the schedules we're looking at in Metro's Trip Planner turn out to be more or less accurate, or will they fall apart as the rush hour progresses? (Like, that hasn't happened before.)

Will the platform signs accurately reflect the color, destination and arrival time of the upcoming trains? Metro is saying the key for riders is to watch the destination signs and listed to announcements, but that all hinges on those things being right.

Metro officials also say that it's almost always going to be better to get on the next Yellow Line train than to wait through that 12 minute gap to the next Blue Line train, but that's something we'll have to test.

I am a pilot who flies out of BWI and owns a nice condo near Arundel Mills. It's convenient to the airport and I enjoy living close to the Mall. I was out of town last week so don't know if you reported on the incredible gridlock the new casino is causing. 20,000 people a day and what, 5000 new parking spaces? I'm afrad I may have to stay over at the airport the night before flying out or I might not be able to make it. Neighbors hosted an event (pre-paid) at Medieval Times; even though they told people to come early,half never got there and those that did could not get home. A friend from Bethesda who routinely sleeps in his car following events at Jiffy Lube Live says this is the worst he's ever seen. SHA assures us tings will get better, without telling us how. Do you have any insights you can share? Thanks much.

Traffic around the new gambling on on Arundel Mills Blvd just off the BW Parkway has been very bad since the opening last Wednesday.

It's still a little early to tell if this is going to be real longterm trouble or whether the traffic improvements -- particularly the traffic pattern called the "diverging diamond"  at the parkway interchange -- will be sufficient to deal with the current congestion.

It normally takes a couple of weeks to see how drivers adjust to something new like this. (And perhaps the gamblers will lose all their money and not return.)

Hi Dr. G, A few weeks ago you asked why people take Metro on the weekends, given the track work and delays. I recently decided to consider the bus. I went to metro's online trip planner to plan a route I am familiar with - a simple route up Lee Highway in Arlington, no transfers. Metro's trip planner sent me almost a mile out of my way in the wrong direction, to pick up the bus at the Rosslyn station. I knew I could get the bus at any number of stops along Lee Highway. This was a route I am familiar with. I would be very hesitant to rely on the bus directions from Metro on an unfamiliar route. What are your thoughts?

I'm glad you're testing alternatives. I think it's important that travelers realize the Metrorail delays and disruptions on weekends are becoming a way of life, and that they should at least see if they can find some better way to get where they're going.

If Trip Planner led you astray, be sure to report that to Metro in the hope that it could get fixed and others won't go through the same thing you went through.

More generally, people might test the Trip Planner results against what they see in Google Maps directions, which give the driving, transit, cycling and walking alternatives.

One thing I've realized in a couple of exchanges with readers: Be sure to enter the correct date of your travels into Trip Planner. (Make sure that if  you're traveling on a weekend, you're using a weekend date, since the schedule is likely to be very different from a weekday.)

Had to comment about the new casino. Those of us that live in AA County have said all along that the roads wouldn't support this - 100 and the parkway are congested already. Our fearless leaders reassured the public they would - and for some strange reason, everyone believed them. So, no surprise here, and, once again, the almighty dollar wins!

This is something people should keep an eye on as some people in the state legislature try to turn Maryland into one giant casino. National Harbor next?

Maybe if Metro ran trains after games, concerts etc, (no matter what time they ended) more often than every 20 minutes, then everyone would get out of the system faster and the Sponsors of these games and concerts wouldn't have to pay as much! When will the new transponders for the Fast lanes on the beltway go on sale?

Dan Steinberg wrote in D.C. Sports Bog last week about who pays for extended Metro service after normal closing times:


I think the new transponders for the 495 Express Lanes, the ones called E-ZPass Flex, are scheduled to go on sale next month. I'll post that as soon as it's definite.


You completely missed the point of the original question. For many years, WMATA has been running trains less frequently during the last hour of "rush hour" service. I guess the idea is that by the times these trains finish their run, rush hour will be over. However, it is profoundly frustrating -- not to mention relationship-with-boss-destroying, or even job-destroying -- to get into one of the outer Green/Yellow/Orange/Blue stations, find that you have just missed a train by a few seconds, and be forced to wait a full 12 minutes for the next train. Metro SHOULD keep trains departing at the same rate throughout rush hour, or else start ending the rush hour fares earlier, at least in the morning.

Yes, Metro should keep the trains on schedule. The rush hour fares are based on the resources deployed -- equipment and personnel -- during that time period.

I have read all the changes that are coming with Metro's Rush Plus but I can't not tell if it will affect me. I take the Orange Line trains west on a reverse commute from Eastern Market to West Falls Church. Will there be more Orange line trains going this direction due to the fact that more trains will be going east?

There will be three more Orange Line trains per hour in each direction and three fewer Blue Line trains per hour.  So it looks like you're going to be better off on your commute.

What is going on with the odors that are prominent throughout metro? It was originally reported that it was Organic brake pads, but Stessel denied it, saying it was dried up sewers. However, the smell has been observed after rain storms, and in the outdoor stations as well. What is really happening here?

I think it's most likely still the brakes. Riders have been reporting that odor problem for several years and at stations across the entire system. There may be some issue with standing water after heavy rains, but that would have to be a more isolated problem than the issues with the brakes.

As it stands now, inbound Orange Line trains in the morning seem to vary between two and ten minutes apart. Will Rush Plus reduce that variability, or will that variability hinder Rush Plus?

That's hard to say. You remember a year or so ago when Metro reduced the number of trains on the Red Line at rush hour in hopes of balancing out the time between trains? The problem with the number of trains on the line was that they were getting bunched up and then there would be big gaps between them and the next bunch. You had some jammed trains in the lead and some relatively empty trains right behind them.

I think the Red Line situation has improved -- partly because Metro made more eight-car trains to compensate for the missing trains -- but you still wind up with gaps and crowded trains.

So on the Orange Line, we'll have more trains, but that's no guarantee that they'll be spaced evenly.

One element that's pretty likely to help: Because fewer Blue Line trains will be using the Rosslyn tunnel, that problem of switching Orange and Blue Line trains at Rosslyn will be reduced. (But then, the switching issue is increased outside L'Enfant Plaza, because more Yellow Line trains will be joining up with the Green Line tracks.)

Odd question but here it is...Who is responsible for mowing the grass where the beltway interchange meets Old Georgetown in Bethesda? The grass is nearly 2 feet tall and I can't see over it from my sedan.

That sounds like an area that would be handled by the Maryland State Highway Administration.

Confirming for you that the recent weekend backups on 270/495 (outer loop) into Virginia are the result of the paving project on the Dulles toll road. They have had the toll road closed down to just one lane between the Beltway and the main toll plaza for this project and it takes only a few hours for the backups to extend all the way up 270 even before Democracy Blvd.

Thank you. Several commenters have mentioned these weekend delays.

Is VDOT still using the same wonderful compute rprogram to predict driver behavior that resulted in traffic being backed pass River Rd on 495 when they shut down one of two exit lanes to I66W? The reason I ask is I am expecting that when they do open the toll/HOV lanes that traffic will come to a stand still for days from Maine to FLA! VDOT is still too downstate based and doesnt have a clue.

You have a good memory on the computer thing. That refers to the congestion that defied predictions of a computer program used by VDOT. Real drivers didn't behave the way the little dots did.

The system that will regulate traffic on the 495 Express Lanes isn't the same. That one is based on road sensors collecting real-time information, transmitting it to a control center computer and having the computer adjust the tolls. (Raise the toll and you decrease the number of drivers willing to pay, so they go with the regular lanes.)

I think traffic congestion will decrease on the west side of the Beltway in Virginia because of the express lanes. That's not really going out on a limb. The effect of adding four lanes to the Beltway is bound to be significant.

We used to have these at Nationals park. Due to tourist stupidity and their ability to block all the entrance lanes, we need a way for locals to get in and out of metro quickly. Not that metro cares about its riders, but a person can dream.

Yes, it's too bad those SmarTrip only fare gates didn't work out. I had high hopes for them -- and they were installed at several stations, not just Navy Yard -- but riders didn't go for them.

I'm a regular Pentagon to downtown commuter who sometimes finds it better to take a Yellow and transfer under the *current* system. I can't imagine I won't do it more regularly now.

The riders who clearly stand to benefit from Rush Plus are the ones coming from the Virginia Orange Line stations in the morning, those who start from Virginia and work in the middle of DC, those who start on the upper part of the Green Line and work in central DC, or those who live and work along that central corridor.

Metro's estimate is that more than 100,000 riders benefit, but most people aren't making such grand calculations. They're just trying to figure out if their own trip is better or worse.

Now I can understand why VDOT doesnt have a clue being Richmond centric but MDOT and Dc officials should ahve a better pulse on area traffic. The latest fiasco with traffic at Arundel Mills is a great example of MDOT just being on a different planet. New traffic patterns should have been in place weeks before.

There was a last-minute scramble to build that diverging diamond interchange at Arundel Mills Blvd and the parkway. I think the gambling interests got a higher priority than state residents on this. It should serve as a warning for others.

Dr. Gridlock, the question "Rush hour fare for off peak service?" wasn't referring to next week's Rush Plus changes. He was asking about today -- why he's paying rush-hour prices when Metro isn't providing rush-hour service.

Sorry if I misunderstood. Riders often ask for their money back and it's been a common response from Blue Line riders studying the Rush Plus service schedule.

It seems nonsensical to me that some one going from Alexandria to the western end of the Orange line would be better off somehow going to L'Enfant and then trekking all the way through downtown? But I suppose at least I might get a seat on the train that way.

The times I've been talking about the potential of a transfer from the Yellow Line to the Orange or Blue, I've been talking about it for the consideration of riders whose destination might be Metro Center, Farragut West or Foggy Bottom. If you're going farther west than that on the Orange Line and you're starting from someplace like King Street or Van Dorn Street, you'd probably just wait for the next Blue Line and change at Rosslyn.

The London tube has button with their logo and the words 'baby on board' for pregnant women. It's a great way to solve the 'is she pregnant' problem and also remind people that balancing on a moving train is very hard ... .

Hope everyone gets a chance to read PostMetroGirl Dana Hedgpeth's first-person account of what it's like to be pregnant and looking for a seat on Metro. The blog posting has almost 600 comments.

Here's a link: http://wapo.st/Kh8BtF

One thing that would really help with overcrowding is more 8 car trains. Is that ever going to happen?

Not only are the scheduled and unscheduled service disruptions a way of life, but also, there's no plan to increase the overall number of rail cars, which would create more eight-car trains.

The cars on order now, the lovely-looking 7000 series cars, will provide for the extra trains need to operate the Silver Line and for replacement of the oldest cars in the fleet, the 1000 series cars you find in the middle of your trains. So there's no relief in sight in terms of lengthening trains.

But we still get fare increases. Obviously life isn't fair - this is an exquisite irony - worse service that costs more.

Fare increases coming up July 1. Overall increase is about 5 percent, but the impact on individual riders will vary a great deal. I'll try to sort that out on next Sunday's Commuter page, a user's guide to the fare increases.

Leaving downtown DC (from the office) to fly out of BWI Friday afternoon (flight at 4:55) and then coming back in to BWI Sunday late afternoon, needing to get home to Silver Spring. What is my best bet?

Well, if it's me, I'm springing for an airport shuttle van.

But for flights that aren't too early or too late, I've also taken the B30 Metrobus from the Greenbelt station, at the end of the Green Line. Even at $6 one-way, it's a lot cheaper than the van. On the way back, you'd just transfer from the Green Line to the Red at Fort Totten.

as I recall, there was some talk of having fewer trains turn around during rush hour, ie, more that half would continue on to shady grove. this has not occurred. I was wondering if you had any information about this. While I see the need for some turnaround, 50% seems a bit high considering how many commuters get off at the shady grove station.

I don't know of any plans to change the turnback schedules on either side of the Red Line in the near future.

Another post today reminded me of a recent chat where you wondered why people took Metro on weekends. One person wrote that he is disabled, so had little choice. You suggested taking Metro Advantage (or whatever that specialized van service is). Do you realize how irresponsible that response was? As a fare and taxpayer, I do not want to subisdize Metro Advantage service for someone who is disabled but could use the regular system (which I bet applies to most disabled people). And your original question--why use Metro on weekends--seemed very naive. I hate to say it, but I think it might be time for you to change your job focus is you have such a lack of understanding of transit use. Do you think you were off-base on this topic?


If a rider qualifies for MetroAccess, the rider should consider MetroAccess, especially if that rider thinks he or she can't use the regular service.

It's far cheaper for the transit system to provide regular service, which is why Metro has been trying to get people with disabilities to consider that.

About the state of weekend service. People write in all the time to tell me how much they hate the disruptions and delays on weekends. It's a big problem and it's going to exist for the foreseeable future.

Under those circumstances, do you really think it's naive to ask people whether they've considered alternatives?

I've been thinking about submitting the following point to VDOT, but I'm wondering if you think it makes sense. My thought is that the proposed E-ZPass fee in Virginia is a bit of a bait-and-switch insofar as it relates to people who will use the new 495 Express Lanes as HOVs. That is, it's been publicized from the beginning that HOV-3+ users ride free if they get an E-ZPass Flex and flip the switch to HOV mode. But from what I've read so far, only Virginia and Maryland are going to offer the Flex device, at least initially (probably because no state other than Virginia has any roads that require it). If Virginia charges a dollar a month, and Maryland charges $1.50 a month, then aren't the HOV people in effect being charged to use the lanes? Seems like a bad PR move from my point of view. I'm not planning to get an E-ZPass Flex, by the way, because I don't expect to have a use for one.

I see this difference between the Beltway express lanes and the ones for I-95: The Beltway ones are brand new lanes. The I-95 project involves converting the existing carpool lanes into toll-or-carpool lanes.

The people who might go for a Beltway carpool will be making a decision to take advantage of a new system of travel. The carpoolers on I-95 have a long-standing and very successful way of taking advantage of the lane rules. They rarely complain about the current system, so I don't see how they'd gain under the planned conversion. And it's pretty clear that they'd lose by being charged a fee -- even if it's only the account fee -- to use it.

Now, you know I don't like to base individual travel decisions on transportation ideology. If you wound up paying this account fee for carpooling on the Beltway, you'd almost certainly recover your investment during the first week, considering what the tolls are likely to be for travel at peak commuting times.

Travelers, thanks for today's lively conversation. There still are many unpublished comments in the mailbag. Many about Metro service, some about road congestion and about biking. So as usual, I'll try to incorporate some of them into blog postings as the week goes on.

Remember, you've got till 5 p.m. Tuesday to send VDOT your comments about the E-ZPass charge.

Please keep sending in question and comments about Rush Plus. That's likely to be a dominant topic for at least several weeks -- at least until we get to the fare increases.

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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