Dr. Gridlock

Jun 17, 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. How was today's commtue? Any sign of a traffic fall-off on your routes as we move into vacation season?


Hello Dr. Gridlock, The past couple of weekend nights, Chain Bridge has been closed to DC-bound traffic. Do you know why and for how long? Also, it would be extremely helpful if a sign were placed before the GW Parkway entrance, so that people going into DC would know ahead of time and use GW Parkway then and there, as opposed to having to turn around. Thank you!

I'll see if I can get an update on this. This is a federal project involving repairs to the Arizona Avenue bridge over Canal Road. The work hours are 8:30 p.m. to 5 a.m.

Work can occur on any night, according to the National Park Service. When it does, roads in the general vicinity are closed, including the inbound Chain Bridge.

In the June 2 WaPo, you wrote about the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority's six-year plan and the projects in it. You noted that the "project selections are supposed to be guided by state law, which puts a premium on projects that reduce congestion." Looking at the full list of projects on the Authority' website, I was very disappointed. First, some projects, such as trail lighting and bus shelters, would have little to no effect on congestion. Second, as a Northern Virginia commuter from southwest Falls Church to downtown DC I saw nothing that would reduce congestion on my commute. The time it takes to commute from my home to my job has already jumped up 50% this year - all of a sudden in January it started taking much longer (like you, I think the biggest reason is increased volume). What about doing things to relieve the traffic closer in from the Beltway area to DC?

Really interesting topic and highly relevant for travelers in Northern Virginia.

The Northern Virginia Transportation Authority has been around for more than a decade, but it's newly empowered to spend money, thanks to the transportation revenue law passed by the General Assembly.

The NVTA gets a share of the revenue, though the big money player remains the Virginia Department of Transportation.

The NVTA has calculated that during the first year, it will have about $200 million to spend, so it wants to launch a round of shovel-ready projects from lists previously compiled by the Northern Virginia jurisdictions.

The authority scheduled an open house and public hearing next month for public feedback on shaping the list. It will be held at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at Fairfax City Hall.

People are going to disagree about the spending plans., based on where they live and how they travel. Here's a link to what I wrote about the NVTA plans for first-round spending, which includes road, transit, bike and walking projects:


I was on the 495 Express Lanes twice this morning going to and from Merrifield and I noted the new 65-mph speed limit signs are already in place but covered up. Why is VDOT making them wait until next week if the signs are already there? Seems like a pointless delay.

The speed limit change is scheduled for next Monday, but there's nothing that would prevent VDOT from uncovering the signs once it's sure they all are in place and all the transportation and enforcement people are set to go.

I drive the express lanes fairly often. If there's anyone going under 65 now, I haven't seem them.


Have we reached a point where, despite Metro's work schedule, the infrastructure and rolling stock are simply failing faster than they can be fixed (without regard to Friday's Red line running over a set of service stairs), thus risking more incidents and more serious incidents?

The equipment isn't failing faster than it can be fixed. Things may be bad, but not that bad yet.

Some riders have asked if the work could be done faster if Metro shut down entire lines. That's almost certainly true, but I think the folks asking that have a time frame of a few weeks, or maybe months. It would take a lot longer than that, even with a complete shutdown of a line.

But I've encountered no one in any leadership spot -- Metro, government, civic -- who thinks a complete shutdown of a line is a good idea. Travel in the D.C. region would be horribly disrupted and the economic consequences would be severe.

I will be working part-time in Ballston this summer, and I'll be traveling from Springfield. Which route do you recommend I take? Since I don't have to be at work until 9:30 am, I'm considering getting an E-Z Pass and taking 495 to 66 east (office is right off of the Fairfax Drive exit). Does this sound like a good option? Should I avoid I-395? Thanks!!

I hope others will get in on this question. Here's my view: Avoid I-395. The route is simple enough, but I'm worried about the traffic. The Beltway should be better. (HOV restrictions eastbound on I-66 inside the Beltway end at 9 a.m.)

What I'm puzzling over is whether to use the express lanes. Certainly, do that if you feel you can afford to pay a toll that probably will be around $4 in the morning. There may be some mornings when you're running late or when traffic is really bad and that will be worthwhile.

If you go to the trouble of getting the E-ZPass and you plan to use the express lanes, make sure you check the morning traffic for the Beltway before you leave Springfield. On many mornings, the inner loop regular lanes will be okay, and you'll want to stick with them rather than pay the toll.

Hi Dr. Gridlock, I made the drive up 495 to 395 to 95 to the Baltimore Harbor last Friday and the traffic wasn't too bad-- i t took one hour exactly as promised. At one point on my drive back, I noticed a "Construction Coming Soon!" type sign and am wondering how this might affect folks traveling in that direction during rush hours.

I'm not sure exactly where you saw the sign. (In this season, it could have been several different spots.) Write back and tell me where.

On Sunday, I wrote up a list of some high-impact summer work zones in Maryland, so your might be on there:


Inbound Chain Bridge has to be closed because one can only make a right turn onto Canal Road to go inbound and that is completely closed. There are signs along all the main roads around there , but all they say is "Bridge Work - 8:30PM -5AM, and if I see it having just passed Roosevelt Island, for example, I have no clue as to what they are referring to. Apparently the closed roads there are Canal Road both ways from Arizona to Chain Bridge, and inbound Chain Bridge. There are detour signs in the District from the Arizona Avenue light to the outbound Chain Bridge by going all the way to Cabin John, MD and back down Canal Road. Finally, they have closed it on Saturday afternoons; I found out the hard way.

They shouldn't be closing it on Saturday afternoons -- or any other afternoons -- for this project.

And it's confusing if the signs refer to "bridge work." There are so many possibilities. I have a feeling some of my questioners thought the bridge involved was Chain Bridge, and they can't see any work going on there.

I propose the use of Smartrip cards for parking at Dulles, Reagan and BWI. Bet someone will say it is too hard to put in place but we need to view long term. I would pay a little more for system maintenance.

I think the D.C. region's transportation systems will eventually settle on one payment method for road tolls, transit use and parking, but I don't believe that will wind up being SmarTrip. It would be so much easier if you could pay for everything with an ordinary credit card and not need a specialized card, like SmarTrip.

I-395 South is a very rough road, especially around Seminary. Two summers ago, VDOT repaved I-395 North from Edsal to the 14th Street Bridge. Do they have any plans to repave the southbound lanes?

I'll ask, but I haven't seen anything at all on the VDOT schedule about a 395 paving project, and we're pretty deep into the season now.

If only there was a mass transit option... ;-)

Now, I know what you're thinking: Rush Plus (or minus). In the old days, people could take the Blue Line from Springfield, then switch to the Orange Line at Rosslyn for the ride to Ballston. That's still possible, with good timing and a little luck. Last summer, Blue Line service was reduced to begin preparing for the arrival of the Silver Line trains.

As much as I hate what Metro has done to take away trains from the Blue line, it might make sense for this person to just take the train from Springfield to Ballston. Traffic on the inbound side of 66 always looks backed up when I happen to be driving out the other direction.

I look at the traffic maps and cameras for I-66 between 7:45 and 8:15 a.m. I-66 inside the Beltway gets congested in spots, but it's nowhere near as bad as I-395 North at that same time. (Of course, our original questioner would be traveling later than that, after HOV hours, and might encounter more traffic.)

And lately, I've noticed there's a fair amount of traffic heading westbound on I-66 during the morning rush. What's that all about?

The parking lots at JFK, Newark, Albany, and LaGuardia Airports in New York and New Jersey all allow EZ-Pass for payment. That would be an easy way for all three DC airports (also Richmond and Norfolk) to handle parking, rather than SmarTrip cards, since more drivers have EZ-Passes than SmarTrip cards. If the fee is more than $20 they just take it out of your replenishment credit card. Info is here: http://www.ezpassde.com/news_ezp_parkingpay.shtml

I'd love it if our airports allowed E-ZPass payments. But I think the ideal thing, eventually, would be a universal form of payment. You know, I hear from plenty of people in the D.C. area who don't want to get E-ZPasses. It comes up a lot when we talk about the HOT lanes and the Intercounty Connector.

Dr. G, You seem to put a lot of faith in new express bus type services. However, do you really think it is realistic that folks traveling from some of the wealthier areas are going to suddenly stop driving and take a new "express bus"? I don't.

Nothing about our local transportation system happens suddenly.

Given our traffic congestion, I'm very hopeful that express buses can be part of the solution. But I don't believe commuters will adapt rapidly to that.

We see that the Maryland Transit Administration plans to cancel three of the five express bus routes that use the Intercounty Connector, because of the low ridership.

I'm more hopeful for the Virginia 495 Express Lanes bus routes that can speed up the commute to and from Tysons. The Beltway is such a high-volume commuter route, I think the express buses will eventually work out -- if the sponsors stick with them long enough to allow people to change their habits.

The traffic lights going down Constitution Avenue toward the Capitol are a mess--totally unsynchronized and we have to stop at nearly every light. This has added more than 5 minutes to my drive.

Silly as it seems, you may be better off taking local roads...I live in Kingstowne and drive to Ballston about once every other month at morning rush hour. I take Van Dorn to King to Walter Reed to Glebe and that seems to work the best for me.

How good is your sense of timing? Become one of the "9:01ers." Get on the I-395 Restricted Lanes at 9:01 (HOV drops at 9:00), take the lanes to the Washington Blvd exit towards the Memorial Bridge, then down onto VA-110 towards Rosslyn, to I-66 West to VA-120 Glebe Road and into Ballston. In the evening, so the reverse. HOV drops at 6:00 along I-395, but 6:30 along I-66.

Hello Dr. Gridlock. I work on Greensboro Drive, and without fail, every time I want to get on International Drive to turn left on 123 to get on the Beltway, it's jammed. I have to maneuver in the travel lanes and hold up traffic to wait my turn to merge into the turn lanes (I'm one of many doing this). I usually wind up waiting a minimum of 3 cycles on the traffic lights. Is there anything that can be done?

I think if you continue doing that, you're going to get the same result.

Would it make any sense for you to test out the Jones Branch or Westpark Drive access points onto the 495 Express Lanes?

Is Metro taking any advice from London on how to execute repairs? The Underground is also a 2 track system (unlike NYC with their express tracks) and it is MUCH older than Metro is.

I haven't noticed Metro managers taking advice from any other transit systems on the repairs.

I think sometimes we get too caught up thinking about NYC and its three-track system. That's a rarity, whether the system is newer or older than Metro.

Metro launched its aggressive track work problem in 2011, and it's going to continue to 2017 at about the current pace. I don't know whether it's the right pace, or whether the work could be more focused than it appears to be right now.

I'm not sure we can find the answers to such questions by looking at other transit systems.

Last week, I think Thursday night, my wife was waiting for a Blue Line train at Foggy Bottom and she said (in language you can't print here) that FIVE Orange Line trains went by before a Blue came (heading towards Alexandria). Surely the Rush Minus service wasn't intended to reduce service that much, was it?

No, if the Blue Line trains were coming at that pace -- five Orange Line trains in between -- that would be way different from the official schedule, under which you should see two Blue Line trains six minutes apart and then the next one 12 minutes later. (Though why anybody would hang around a rush hour platform long enough to notice that, I don't know.)

Blue Line riders have the toughest job of anyone on the five lines. We don't see more than the next three train arrivals posted on the platform signs. By the time a Blue Line rider figures out there's a problem, it's unlikely that any alternative route is going to make sense.

(And if you're boarding at Foggy Bottom, Blue Line service would have to be practically non-existent to justify taking a train west to L'Enfant Plaza and getting on the Yellow Line there to reach Alexandria.)

For what it's worth, I've always thought that the EZPass system would work well for parking garages as well. Maybe not Metro, because you're supposed to be charged more if you don't ride the rails, but presumably you can do more than just tolls.

I think there will come a time when E-ZPass and SmarTrip -- any specialized system -- will disappear in favor of some new device, like a credit card with an electronic chip, that can be used to pay for everything.

When I look at the Intercounty Connector in Maryland, it is not running side by side with a non-toll road, so increasing the speed limit doesn't inspire a direct comparison. In Virginia, though, how will Beltway commuters who can't afford the Express Lanes feel about getting a ticket, fine, and points for driving at a speed that is perfectly legal (or close to legal) on the must-pay lanes they are driving beside? I picture that at least some on the Express Lane will be laughing as they zip by. It really does feel like there will be one law for the "haves" (65 mph) and a different law for the "have nots" (55 mph). Your thoughts?

My thought is that I rarely see anyone anywhere obeying the speed limit unless they've spotted a police cruiser nearby or are passing through a zone with a speed camera.

The Beltway setup is interesting because it allows for comparison shopping. Drivers look to the left or right, and they can see the value of the other product. Drivers in the regular lanes certainly notice when drivers in the express lanes are getting a faster trip, but that has nothing to do with the official speed limit now or in the future.

It has occurred to me that a way to provide "MetroRail" service 24 hours per day would be to have buses travel on the Metro Rail routes (on the street, of course) about once every 20 minutes between midnight and 5 AM. I could see a Green Line Bus, a Vienna-Glenmont Bus, a Shady Grove-New Carrollton Bus, and a Largo to Huntington & Franconia-Springfield bus, covering all the stations. This has been done successfully in Toronto and Philadelphia for decades. All the routes could meet at Metro Center with a five minute layover for transfers.

I like that idea, but it has limits for us. To have the buses be a true substitute for Metrorail, you'd need a lot more buses than we have today. It would take two buses or so to hold as many people as one Metrorail car.

You'd also need some sort of traffic signal priority for your buses, even from midnight to 5 a.m., to have them come anywhere close to matching the speed of a Metrorail train. Think about any line's route through downtown DC, for example, and think about what streets the buses would need to take to approximiate that route.

Still, I like the idea for closing that overnight gap. Probably a lot cheaper than trying to extend Metrorail service to 24 hours.

The Albany airport uses EZpass. The system registers when you enter (no ticket) and when you leave - automatically opening the gates. Your fee is charged to your EZpass account. I would love WMATA to do the same. It would speed the exit - especially with EZpass only exit lane(s).

I do like what commenters have been saying about adding our airports to the E-ZPass system.

I've been saying this about Metro parking: Metro shouldn't be in the parking business. Let the transit authority run transit. Turn over parking to companies that specialize in providing parking as a service. I think we'd get a better payment system and all-around better customer service.

While that might happen, it will not be by a credit card with a chip. Sure, that could work for Metro and other places where you stop (or slow significantly) and can swipe/tap/etc. But EZPass has 55+ MPH lanes and the credit card just won't work.

I understand. I think if it would work right now, we'd have it right now. The demand would be there.

The left turn on to 123 toward the beltway from International Drive is definately the definition of a failed intersection. More cars want to turn left than proceed straight. There needs to be a hard divider to prevent cars from the thru lanes crossing the solid white line into the turn lanes. It is a free for all.

If money were no object, where would you live to have the most decent commute for a family where one works near Union Station and one in downtown Silver Spring? Thanks.

I'd live in the White House and have a police escort to both destinations.

But trying to be a little more practical, if money were no object, I'd pick either downtown Silver Spring or the NoMa and Capitol Hill areas. One person would walk to work and the other would take the Red Line a relatively short way.

As you know, the decisions that families make about where they live and where they work are often based on a lot more than money for housing. People often are seeking a certain lifestyle. Or they might be looking to share the pain of commuting -- so in this case, they might pick a new townhouse in Fort Totten or Brookland.

This particular option of downtown Silver Spring or the Union Station area is one of the more painless choices a family would make. Oftentimes, I hear about families where one works in Centreville and the other is taking job in Rockville.

I take a bus from Howard county MD to DC everyday. My household income is well above Howard average income and I take the bus. Many of those who ride the bus with me are in dual income families of GS 12, 13, 14 and 15.

I think the reality of express bus commuting is that plenty of well-off people are filling those seats. (And they're smart, too.) But there's this lingering legend that buses are the route of the poor, while the well-off take trains -- assuming they're taking transit.

We already have a split speed limit on I-395 and I-95: The HOV lanes are posted at 65 mph from just south of the Pentagon to the lanes' southern end at Dumfries, while the other lanes are posted at 55 mph until just south of Occoquan and then 60 mph south of there. I haven't heard any media reports of drivers being confused or people complaining that they got an "unfair" ticket. Why should the Beltway be any different?

I doubt that it will be any different. I guess it's possible that some drivers will say that people are paying for a higher speed limit on the Beltway, while the HOV drivers are going to the extra trouble of rounding up other peope to share the ride, therefore they have more virtue.

But then, the I-95 lanes are being converted to express lanes, similar to the Beltway express lanes.

But aren't they going to transfer those resources to add more to existing routes? The ICC does not really connect people with their jobs. That does not make a bus route there very effective.

This is one of the issues I'm thinking of when I say I'm more hopeful for the express buses that use the Beltway express lanes to and from Tysons. That's a high volume route. Over time, those buses should draw more commuters who want a quicker trip and don't want to warehouse their cars in Tysons all day.


The backup from the merge point of 267 and I-66 East, and then the follow-on backup through Washington Blvd., will likely wipe out any gain from using the 495 Express Lanes. Maybe try the Express Lanes to the Lee Hwy / Merrifield exit, then Lee Hwy to Washington Blvd?

Ugh...I thought it was bad last year, but weekend traffic along I-95 is competely unbearable, and not just through the construction between Dumfried and Garrisonville. It took me 4.5 hours to get from Springfield to Fredericksburg Saturday midday, and that was trying to use route 1 as an alternate, and another 4 hours to get back from Fredericksburg to Springfield on Sunday evening. I guess I could take the beltway over to 301 and down that way, but that's a nearly 2 hour trip without traffic and nearly 25 miles out of the way. There must be something that can be done to alleviate weekend traffic on I-95, and I have absolutely no faith that the Express Lanes will make it any better. I guess I'm resigned to telling my kids that we just can't go south on weekends unless we can leave in the middle of the night (I made a trip a couple of weekends ago to Richmond at 5:00 AM on a Saturday that still took nearly 3 hours because of traffic).

Certainly for this summer, the 95 Express Lanes construction is going to be very problematic for weekend drivers on I-95 in Virginia. It makes more sense now than ever before to investigate alternatives.

As an Orange Line commuter from Ballston to McPherson, I would like to demand proof of five Orange Line trains in a row. Much more often I see packed Orange Lines alternating with the Luxury Blue Line as I call it (seats for everyone) during afternoon rush. It is especially galling when an Orange train has off loaded and they continue the alternating. Can you check the WMATA logs for this because I would bet it was NOT five Orange line trains in a row.

My colleague Mark Berman, who produces this chat, tells me that he has seen four Orange Line trains in a row, though he doesn't recall seeing five.

Meanwhile, I have not heard from any Orange Line riders saying they are now over-served on their commutes and would like to see more trains provided to Blue Line riders.

Much as we'd like to stick around for readers responding to the "Luxury Blue Line" scenario, we must end our chat now. But write to me anytime at drgridlock@washpost.com, and come back for next Monday's chat.

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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