Dr. Gridlock

Jun 23, 2014

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. About an hour before the chat began, Metro General Manager Richard Sarles announced that the target date for opening the Silver Line is July 26.

But we have many questions and comments on a variety of topics today.

In yesterday's article about the memorial to commemorate the victims of the 2009 Metro crash, Mayoral candidate Muriel Bowser said she's hoping state governments and the federal government will provide $26 billion for Metro improvements. Is she drinking something funny?

The $26 billion is the estimated cost of Metro improvements over three decades. That would include the cost of building two new rail tunnels, one inside the District and another between Rosslyn and Georgetown.

Also in this plan, new tracks would be built west of Rosslyn and near the Pentagon, allowing trains on the Orange Line to go south into Virginia on the Blue Line tracks and east over the Yellow Line bridge.

Bet the $26 billion turns out to be an underestimate on the cost. And for related reasons, the three decades is likely to be an underestimate on the timing.

Like your weekend commenter, I recently switched from all Metro to MARC and Metro. The MARC train is fantastic compared to Metro. It is cleaner, faster, cheaper, and the customer service is much better. I can't bike right now, but am looking forward to using Capital Bikeshare and skipping Metro entirely.

The commuter whose letter I printed in my Sunday column had been away from Metrorail for a few years and when he came back, he was shocked by how much the fares had gone up. Metro fares are scheduled to rise again this Sunday.

In his Sunday column, Bob McCartney wrote about Metro's safety improvements since the 2009 Red Line crash.

The safety improvements are of paramount importance. But many riders, waiting on the crowded platforms at rush hours, aren't thinking so much about what didn't happen -- like, our train didn't crash -- as they are about what did happen, like, I had to let two Red Line trains go by before I could find a space to squeeze aboard.

While Metro attributes lower than expected rail ridership to winter weather and federal shutdowns, I think part of what we'll see this year is just people saying it's not worth it. (That's if they have alternatives.)


Kudos to both Metro and the Fairfax connector for running clean NG buses, but how can we 'encourage' Loudoun County transit to replace their aging Diesels? They are without doubt the dirtiest commuter buses in terms of their air pollution. Woe to the driver stuck behind them during a gear shirt as a blast of black exhaust envelopes all around.

I think Loudoun plans to buy six new commuter buses, but am not sure what type.

Does Metro plan to do anything special to mark the opening day of the Silver Line? I'd like to take my nephew on a trip on its first day for fun, since he's been watching the thing being built since he was born (he's 6 now). It would be nice if they opened it on a weekend so families could take their kids on the SL's maiden voyage.

Metro GM Sarles said today that the first Silver Line train is scheduled to leave the Wiehle Avenue station at noon on Saturday, July 26, and Metro is planning a ceremony. Don't have the details of that yet.

I think there will be a good-sized crowd for that.

Commuters'  first experience with the new line will be on Monday, July 28.

We will be leaving for the Outer Banks on Sunday morning (around 6am) from Fairfax. Any construction or other issues we should know about (last year there were lane closures on 95)? We usually take 123 to 95 and head south from there. Thanks!

I think I'd take Route 123 again, or perhaps Route 28 to Route 234 (Prince William Parkway/Dumfries Road) to rejoin I-95 as far south as you can swing it.

The road work and traffic scenes should be pretty much as you remember them from last summer. It's the 95 Express Lanes project, scheduled to be done at the end of the year.

Recent articles on the tragic crash on the NJ Turnpike reveal that Tracy Morgan's vehicle was rear-ended after the speed limit dropped to 45 MPH. I have noticed that the NJ Turnpike's variable speed limit signs frequently display low limits of 40-45 MPH, yet these restrictions are almost universally ignored. The reality is that the vast majority of drivers on the NJ turnpike speed just as badly as the truck driver did. I have observed similar situations in the DC area, such as on I-695 , where the recent construction speed limit was universally exceeded by a vast margin. What do other drivers do in situations like these, where the average speed is 20-30 MPH above the speed limit? I don't want to get rear-ended and end up like Tracy Morgan, but I don't want to risk a ruinous ticket for extreme speeding either.

The work zone speed limits are set lower than the regular speed limits because it's dangerous to drive through a work zone. It's obviously dangerous for the workers, but most people injured or killed in work zone crashes are in the vehicles.

The lower speed limits are maintained whether or not workers are present, because of the narrowing and shifting of lanes, the rough pavement and the reduction or elimination of shoulders.

The least dangerous response is to slow down, for your own safety. Many other drivers will go faster than you. Stay to the right. No reason to add their road rage to the dangers.

And there's no excuse under any circumstances for a driver not leaving a safe following distance between the driver and the vehicle ahead.

I had to use the Red line Metrorail two days last week when my car was not available. I have been driving since the Red line accident five years ago. One of the first things that I noticed was Metro is STILL using the 1000 series of rail cars, even though the NTSB recommended that they be phased out because they are vulnerable to collapse in collisions (which was exactly what happened when the trains collided). Is Metro ever going to replace these death traps?

The replacements are the new 7000 series. Some riders have noticed test trains moving through the system. But the production line isn't scheduled to crank up till this fall.

What would be the best time to travel north on 95 to NY for the 4th of July -- Thursday night or Friday morning? Thank you!!!

Friday morning. Early Friday morning.

For those who haven't noticed, July 4 is a Friday this year. So many people will be starting their long weekends on Thursday afternoon and evening.

But don't be looking for anything like what you experience on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Many people have much more flexible schedules now that it's summertime, so they can spread out their departure times more.

On the ever-crowded western branch of the Red Line, Metro typically runs every other train from Grosvenor to Silver Spring (instead of the full run of Shady Grove to Glenmont) during the morning rush. This eases congestion quite a lot, as the Glenmont-bound trains are usually packed by the time they reach Medical Center and Bethesda, the two stations I use. Lately I've noticed that the Silver Spring trains are coming much less frequently (and are therefore more crowded when they do come). Do you know if this is a permanent change? If so, the morning Red Line commute is about to get much worse for just about everyone.

Metro hasn't announced any changes in the schedule. I double check to see if any sort of experiment is underway, but I have a feeling what you're seeing is the result of disruptions on the Red Line, and possibly some schedule adjustments made on the fly by the operations control center.

Currently, the HOV restrictions on I-66 are part time, which means that the HOV lane is available for anyone/everyone to use the rest of the day and on weekends. If they convert it to a HOT lane, odds are it would be toll 24/7 taking a lane away from I-66 for general use. I can only see that as a way to make traffic worse for everyone. Please tell me they wouldn't do such a stupid thing.

I think it's likely we'll see HOT lanes on I-66 at some point, but that need not be a straight-up conversion of the HOV lanes into toll and carpool lanes.

Virginia solicited proposals from private companies for better managing the I-66 traffic, but we haven't seen an actual plan yet.

Whatever happens on I-66, it can't be just one thing. The problem is so big, it will require a variety of traffic mitigation programs.

By the way, if you notice new message boards and overhead signs going up on I-66 this year, you're probably seeing the installation of the Active Traffic Management system.  That's supposed to guide drivers to the best travel lanes, warn of hazards ahead and suggest alternative routes. It's scheduled to go live in early 2015 -- and it's not a HOT lane system.

I no longer live in the DC Metro but when I did, I liked MARC better as well. The sad things about MARC is that there is no weekend or late night service. But I have been gone for quite a while. Has that changed?

We do have some weekend MARC service now between DC and Baltimore.

I've heard favorable reports about that.

Dr. G., I've been struck recently with some of the comments made by metro, in your column and here in the discussion regarding blue line commuters being "creatures of habit" particularly metro's underestimating blue line riders dug in habits. I see this as not understanding where blue riders are coming from, not being a creature of habit: basically we are being made to compromise without getting anything in return. We are being asked to willingly accept a longer commute at a high commute cost during rush hour for the good of other passengers on other lines and for keeping the system moving. Our commute is longer now whether we wait for our blue line train or we jump on yellow to switch at L'enFant only to back track to get to the McPherson, Farragut West, and Foggy Bottom stops. If you need to get to Rosslyn or Arlington Cemetery you options are even more limited. So, faced with choices like that, why would anyone "change their habit" with no incentive? We've already had to adjust our commute times and leave earlier to build in the added times.Offer us something, like not having to pay rush hour fares and maybe we will change our habits and switch to the yellow line as metro wants us to do!

From your description, it sounds like you should keep on doing what you're doing, whether you want to call it a "habit" or something else -- probably a less attractive term.

Metro isn't planning to offer any discount to Blue Line riders, or to the riders on the far west side of the Orange Line who will be losing trains at rush hour.

My point in comparing the start of Rush Plus to the start of the Silver Line is that it should be a cautionary tale for Metro.

For the Silver Line plan to work, many riders who now use those west-end stations on the Orange Line will need to shift to the new Silver Line stations in Fairfax. Some will, and some won't, for reasons similar to the ones you outlined regarding Blue Line riders. It just doesn't work for them.

Wanted to report on my drive to Philly this weekend. I was expecting huge delays due to the bridge in Delaware being out, so I took Route 1 from Baltimore on the way to Philly on Friday. There were no major delays, but that route just takes so much longer than 95 (4 1/2 hours!). On the way back to DC on Sunday, I risked it, passed 2 accidents on 95 and still it took just under 3 hours -- smooth sailing! During rush hour, the bridge may cause extra delays, but otherwise, don't be afraid to use 95 anyway.

Thanks very much for the report. Long-distance travelers from the DC area have been very curious about the traffic conditions through Wilmington, Del., now that the I-495 bridge is closed because of structural problems.

This is likely to continue through the vacation season. This affects vacation drivers and Philly-bound drivers because I-95 is the main alternative to I-495, which is a bypass around downtown Wilmington.

I regularly check the traffic maps and cameras for that area. The I-95 traffic during the morning and afternoon rushes and on weekends. Things looked really bad those first few days after the bridge closing. But at most times now, it seems manageable. Not smooth sailing, but manageable.

Went to the Nationals game on Saturday night. I live in Reston so to take the Metro, I would go an hour each way and spend $7 per person in my party. OR, I could park a block from the stadium for $30 and not have to deal with any of the headaches. And now Metro wants to raise the fares again? Good luck with that.

If you find it easier and cheaper to drive, you should drive. Parking around Nationals Park is much easier than it was in the early days.

Very cool...I will have to come back for a visit. BTW...I also read an article that other regions have also added new commuter rail systems; including one from DeBary to Orlando (a distance of 60 miles) and the fare is only $3,00! There has been a lot of talk of high-speed rail; but I think we need more commuter rail. Do you have any thoughts on this?

I absolutely think we need more commuter rail. Travelers sometimes ask if Metrorail should be extended to Gaithersburg, or Gainesville, or Centreville or Woodbridge.

Metrorail, which needs to run trains frequently, because it's that type of service, isn't suited for that long range travel -- not yet, anyway. Commuter rail is set up to bring people from the suburbs to downtown in the morning, then take them home at night. That's what we need more of right now.

Do any jurisdictions enforce slow traffic keeping right. On a recent quick trip to NJ and back, it seemed that the slow traffic stayed in the left lane, forcing everyone to pass on the right.

Yes, police call that "impeding the flow of traffic," and they do ticket for it.

(Of course, that's different from someone not passing another vehicle at the rate of speed the following driver would like.)

The basic problem with MARC's Brunswick line is that it is purely a commuter line and doesn't have any scheduled trains going in the opposite direction during the day. However, it is much better for commuters that the horrors of 270.

I think the main problem right now on the Brunswick Line is the high volume of freight traffic, which messes with the commuter train schedule.

But I'd still rather be sitting on a train reading than staring at the car ahead of me on I-270.

Here's something that's bothered me for quite awhile about the toll lanes on the beltway in Virginia; that the charge never, ever goes down to zero. The way I see it, there should have been a requirement on the part of VDOT and whatever other local agencies are involved that Transurban would reduce the fare to zero at times when there is literally no reason, no advantage to taking the toll lanes. I'm talking about late night, early early morning when the traffic is barebones. Anyone who's driven around those times has seen the miles and miles of empty toll lanes, not a single vehicle the entire stretch, and why? Because the toll is still $1.50 or something ridiculous. To me, this seems entirely intentional on the part of Transurban and a shrewd move to pass upkeep and repair costs for the road back to the normal lanes, and municipal agencies. Each and every car that passes over a road does miniscule damage to it, and larger vehicles do exponentially more. And eventually roads need to be repaired. This is expected. But what Transurban has the ability to do is to create a situation where, counterintuitively, it's better for them financially to NOT have riders in their lanes at certain times. They can force nearly all the traffic into the normal lanes by keeping the fares nonzero at such times where the transit time for a driver would be the same anyway, and they don't build up wear and tear on their road when they don't have to. The amount of cars not taking the toll lanes at that time is certainly tiny compared to the amount that do during rush hour, but how about the numerous shipping trucks that traverse the beltway during off-peak times? Again, those are worth hundreds if not thousands of cars' wear and tear each, and the state is paying for all of it. How was this allowed to happen? Transurban has really got VDOT and other agencies by the you-know-whats on this one. And I know you are always saying how Transurban says they are 'in it for the long haul' and are not cheating anyone because they 'need repeat drivers' in the region to trust them, otherwise they don't make money, but I don't really see that as true. I certainly don't see those ideas reflected anywhere else by the company.

I'm not sure I follow your argument. To me, it sounds like the equivalent of saying the government should require supermarkets that are open 24/7 to give away free food between midnight and 4 a.m., because there are so few shoppers at those hours.

The deal between Virginia and Transurban/Fluor was that the consortium would build the lanes in exchange for the right to collect tolls. The consortium charges the tolls to recover the investment and, it hopes, make money for its investors.

From the beginning, Transurban was telling us to expect the low end of tolls to be about 20 cents per mile on the 14-mile Beltway system. Nobody ever suggested they would be free for anyone but carpoolers.

I moved and no longer take Metro (New Carrollton to Faragut West). Instead I take a commuter bus (Annapolis to 18th & K). Not only are the buses nicer than the trains, I save about $100 a month. The park & ride in Davidsonville is expected to expand the number of parking spaces, I believe the target date was April 2014. No where close to being ready. Do you know when the ETA is? Thanks.

I see a Maryland State Highway Administration notice that says "summer 2014, weather permitting." It's summer now, so I'll see if I can get something more specific. I know the harsh winter and spring rains slowed down many projects, but am not sure about this one.

They do in VA. You cna lso be charged with Reckless Driving and Aggressive Drivng for failure to move over when signaled Ie headlights flashed. Reckless and agressive are class 1 misdemeanors and not traffic citations. Doesnt matter how fast you are going in VA you ahve to move over when signaled. I got flashed by a 2014 Porsche 911Gt3RS on Saturday on I66 and I was doing over 150mph in my M6

According to the Virginia State Police, with whom I checked on this, it does matter how fast you're going. There's no lane privilege available to a speeding driver. Speeding is against the law. Drivers can't select the law they want enforced.

A while back, I discovered that if the metro turnstile doesn’t read your SmarTrip card on the first try, you need to move your card away from the reader momentarily and wait for the little red light to go off (seemingly “resetting” the reader) before tapping your card again. But I’ve noticed that most riders do not seem to know about this trick, and simply tap their card over and over again, to no avail. Why doesn’t Metro just put a little sign on the readers informing riders of the need to let the reader reset? This would avoid the back-ups caused by people giving up and switching lanes, and would significantly improve efficiency!

I wish they'd just fix the readers, so they got it right the first time. I often get that message telling me to retouch my SmarTrip card. I wait, retouch it. And it tells me to retouch it again. I understand why the people behind me get impatient.

At midday are you better off with the Ft. McHenry Tunnel or the Harbor Tunnel? The former seems to backup at times, but the latter adds miles.

I think that under normal circumstances -- even with some backup at the toll plaza -- you're still better off with the Fort McHenry Tunnel.

The thing I'm worried about this summer in Baltimore is the road work that's shifting lanes and closing some ramp lanes along I-95 between the Fort McHenry Tunnel and Caton Avenue.

take I66W to Rt 234 to Rt 28. then take left onto Elk Run Rd at Catlett. Then take another left onto Bristersburg Rd. the a left on Rt 610. This avoids a lot of traffic. just reverse to get home.

I've looked for any kind of transit solutions to get from the DC area to Frederick, but all I've found are Frederick-DC-Frederick solutions aimed at Frederick residents working in DC. I have a customer in Frederick, and it's a hassle arranging rides when I need to go out there (non-driver, native New Yorker, never learned). Are there any plans to provide morning service to Frederick via bus or train?

I know of none. It's a reverse commute that might not draw enough riders to justify transit service. (Almost all public transit loses money. It's a question of how much of a loss the sponsoring agency is willing to tolerate.)

I don't use I-66 that much but when I do the time estimates from this systems are always wrong. They underestimate the times for travel What's the data source and are these messages generated automatically or manually?

It's a computer. One of the main sources for just about all the travel time message boards in the D.C. area is INRIX traffic information service. The data are drawn from GPS units on the road.

I've had a similar reaction to the travel time data on I-66. Been stuck in the westbound lanes during the afternoon rush and wondered how much better the traffic ahead could possibly get to match the travel time estimate on the sign I'm just passing by.

I think there's something of a lag between the transmission of the GPS data and when the information reaches the message board.

I think this is one of the things that bugs Metro users. Don't talk about $26 billion for new tunnels until you can make what is in place work properly. Fix the Smart Card Readers, fix the escalators and elevators, and then worry about building something new.

I understand what you're saying and would like to see those basic services fixed in my commuting lifetime. But it's also fair to expect that Metro do two things at once: Fix what's broken today and plan for the future.

The Post should have a contest to guess the date of the first escalator breakdown on the Silver Line.

I'll tell you the one I've got my eye on: It's the platform/mezzanine escalator on the far west side of the Whiele Avenue station. Too exposed to the weather, I think.

It looks like work has stopped completely on the Silver Spring  Transit Center. Any word on when or if they plan to begin the "remediation?" At the current rate, I'll be surprised if the thing opens before 2016.

I can tell you that the Montgomery County government says that the work has resumed and that it's scheduled to be done by the end of this year. But I can't tell you to believe it.

Not sure if you'll know the answer to this or not, but thought I'd try here before sitting on hold with EZ Pass. Two weeks ago I was in my boyfriend's father's car and took the HOT lanes on 495. I used my own EZ Pass. There was no way to mount it in the car, so I held it up into place when I went under the sensors. Except for one, in the middle of the trip. It was in my hand, but I didn't hold it up to the windshield. If it didn't register, does EZ Pass have a way to connect my EZ Pass to the vehicle I was in and figure out that I was still on the road? I wouldn't worry if I was in my own car, but I really don't want my boyfriend's dad to get a ticket in the mail. I didn't realize there was a 5 day window, and the EZ Pass website wouldn't tell me if a ticket was issued for those plates.

I've never heard of one like this, where a traveler's E-ZPass might not have recorded passage under a gantry in the middle of a trip.

There's another potential issue in that the transponder won't match up with the license plate.

For the benefit of others: If you think you may have had a problem getting the toll recorded when using the Beltway express lanes, go write away to the Web site, 495expresslanes.com, and click on the "Missed a Toll" page. I wish that information was available to people on the road, but the lane operators say it's a federal highway rule that forbids them from displaying a Web address in the lanes.


I don't believe it. There is not one person or one piece of equipment working at that site.

I-66 has had traffic estimates for a while. They only give one destination (US-50, Rt 28, or Gainesville) with both distance and time. Why can't the signs give all three destinations and times instead of just the closest one. I would also love to see an estimate to the same point via an alternate route to tell me if I would be better getting off at Nutley or staying on I-66.

Personally, I think that would be swell. But the main complaint I get about travel time signs comes from drivers who say there's too much information on them, and that drivers slow down to read it.

I need to go to Cape Charles from reston on a Saturday next month. Is there any good reason why I shouldn't go 50 to 13 to avoid the 95 traffic?

If you can leave early on the Saturday, that's the way I'd go. Should be much more pleasant, relaxing and scenic than a drive down I-95. Just get past the Bay Bridge early.

Thanks for joining me today, travelers. I'll be back next Monday at noon, and perhaps we can talk more about your July 4 weekend travel plans.

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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