Dr. Gridlock

Jun 24, 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, as we start the first week of summer commuting 2013 style. I'll open with questions that could benefit from your contributions, but I would also appreciate your feedback on commuting congestion -- roads and rails -- over the past week.

I sense that we may be starting to see the summer decline in volume just beginning to show up.

I am driving south from Boston to DC during the late afternoon/evening of July 5. Do you anticipate that most travelers will be at their destinations by then and traffic will be light?

Here's another one where I'm curious to see what other travelers are planning.

With July 4 falling on a Thursday, I think this is going to be like a Thanksgiving scenario. Many people are going to create a four-day weekend and hit the road on Wednesday afternoon and evening. That would make Friday afternoon/evening a relatively good time to start a getaway along the East Coast. But I would watch out for some beach-bound traffic if taking I-95 south from Boston to DC. A route that avoids the coast might be better.


Perhaps it is my poor luck, but I have noticed that Metro seems to be running more six-car trains on the Red and Green lines over the past week or so, resulting in overcrowded cars and extended stations stops to squeeze in more sweaty souls. Has Metro been reducing the number of cars or is it just that my timing is off? Thank you.

I'll ask if there's been any reduction in cars. Can't think off hand of a reason that would have occurred. For all: Metro added more eight-car trains to the Red Line when it made the gap between the Red Line trains wider. This was done to try to make the schedule more reliable -- lowering the number of times the trains would get bunched up and you'd sit there waiting for "schedule adjustments" -- while maintaining the line's capacity.

My own experience with this at rush hours has been pretty good, and I often get aboard an eight-car train.


Dr Gridlock. What is the cause of traffic between the hours of 630am-10am from exit 4B Saint Barnanbas Rd to VA going across the Woodrow Wilson bridge? Once You cross into VA there is no traffic. With the express and local lanes. this problem should had been alleviated.

Several others travelers have commented on this mystery. And I've also noticed it in the traffic maps and cameras I look at between 7:45 and 8:15 a.m.

I asked the Maryland State Highway Administration if there was any road work in the area likely to be the cause. Answer: No.

The only explanation I know is spring/summer volume. So far, no one I've heard from has pointed to a particular trouble spot that might be causing this.

Looks like the slowdown disappears on the bridge. So I thought maybe its traffic going north on I-295. But there doesn't seem to be congestion on I-295 at the south end. (Up by the 11th Street Bridge, that's a different story.)

I live in Alexandria and have a meeting in downtown Baltimore next Monday afternoon. When looking at Google maps it shows that the Southeast Freeway is closed. This is the route I normally take to 295 north (Baltimore Washington Parkway). Any ideas on another route? Thanks very much.

If  I understand you right, what you normally do is cross the Potomac via the 14th Street Bridge and take the Southeast-Southwest Freeway. So I'm answering based on that.

Yes, a portion of the Southeast Freeway is closed, east of 11th Street SE. But for those of you who used to take that portion of freeway to reach Pennsylvania Avenue, then go across the Sousa Bridge and turn left to reach 295 north, there's now a better way.

Simply stick with the freeway (marked as I-695) and cross the 11th Street Bridge. Look for the ramp to D.C. 295 North. That's it.

This formerly missing link in the freeway system has been filled in for a while now, but I do hear from drivers who go this way only occasionally, and they don't yet know about the change.

In response to the reader last week doubting that five orange trains in a row had passed through stations recently: yes, it did happen. And yes, I know how bad the orange line is (as an occasional rider), but the reduction in blue lines service has created a bad situation as well. Your perception that there are always seats on the blue line is based on a number of factors like how long between blue line trains and time of day. I'm sure that there are blue line riders that will gladly share stories of how bad it has gotten. Really, I think we need to stop the bickering over who has the worse line and just fight for better service from WMATA period.

Here's a link to last Monday's discussion:


And just to clarify, it wasn't my perception that there are always seats on the Blue Line. Below, I'll show you the reader comment. But I would like to join today's commenter in urging that riders not divide themselves by line, which is something I see way too often.

Here's the comment from last week:

I demand proof

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.

Your response to the person who raised the concern last week about VDOT raising the speed limit in the 495 Express lanes missed the point. It may be the case that the majority of drivers in both the Express and regular lanes go 65 or faster if conditions permit, but the fact remains that the driver doing 65 in the regular lane is subject to ticketing while the person in the Express lanes isn't. The discussion last week raised important questions about whether this speed limit change is being done to benefit the investors in the Express lanes. The Post should ask critical questions of VDOT. For example, what is the average speed in the regular lanes? Were the speed limits in the regular lanes reviewed?

I can tell you this right now: I'd be against a proposal to raise the speed limit on any part of the Beltway's regular lanes, in Virginia or Maryland, based on safety.

Aside from the safety issue, the premise of building the express lanes was that they would provide an express trip in exchange for drivers' paying a toll, if they didn't meet the HOV requirements. Anybody who drives the Beltway through Tysons at rush hour has been able to see since the express lanes opened last November that people in this lanes are going faster. That was one of the reasons I don't expect to see much difference in the express lanes this week from last week.

If it was not obvious before, WMATA doesn't get it. They want to arrest someone for planting flowers, but take no responsibility for the safety of their users (ie out of service intercoms, more public statements about the red line incident, etc). They are just power hungry executives who care more about their power level and their perks than anything else. They need to be replaced.

Here's a link to Robert McCartney's column about the Phantom Planter: http://wapo.st/14pF8Tt

Metro's response the the planter was a "cease and desist" letter  from the real estate department. That's discouraging. Seems to me that Metro could find a way to work with this guy, who just wants to make things look better. It exemplifies everything the public has come to expect from big government bureaucracies.

Traffic seems to have bacome worse over the past few months when using the Wilson Bridge to get from Md to Va. Is this a temporary or pernament change, and what factors are cotributing to the increased traffic congestion?

Again, there's no change in the lane setup, no new work zones -- nothing I can see that could account for this other than increased traffic volume. Folks have written in to confirm that they're in this congestion, but they have no explanation for it.

You know people often write to me to say, Such and such transportation agency should fix this merge, or this traffic signal or this work zone. That's not the case with this slowdown on the inner loop near the Wilson Bridge. The drivers are mystified about the cause of it. And as I said earlier, the Maryland State Highway Administration has no work zone in that area that would account for this congestion.

In years past metro had extra orange line trains (and maybe red and yellow) to get fans home. These days it seems their only concern is to get people out of the Navy Yard station. Once we L'enfant we wait for the regularly scheduled trains, which come every 18 mintues or so and which have to service the people from 4 or 5 green line trains and get so packed that people can't board at other stations (though they try). Why has metro changed their process on this? I supposed everyone gets home eventually but it can be a very uncomfortable trip home.

My view on this is different: Since Nationals Park opened, Metro has done a good job managing the Navy Yard platform. The transit authority runs some post-game trains that are basically shuttles, to move fans north to the transfer stations, then come back for more.

The problem since Nationals Park opened has been at the transfer stations. There aren't enough trains coming through on the Red, Orange and Blue lines late at night to ease the crowding on those platforms.

I think there should be more trains on the connecting lines, but I don't see this as a new problem.


I recently purchased an Easy Pass in MD to use the ICC.(Its a great road bTW!) A friend of mine told me that I should have purchased an easy pass in VA bacause ther eis no monthly fee. I understand that other states also have easy passes available with no monthly fee. Do youhave any infor on that?

If you're now a regular user of the ICC, I'd stick witht he Maryland E-ZPass. Maryland waives the fee for the previous month if a driver used the E-ZPass three times at Maryland toll facilities.

It used to be that Virginia had no monthly fee. Now it has a monthly fee. This is the trend with the agencies that issue E-ZPasses and maintain the accounts. You might shop around and find an agency that still doesn't have an account maintenance fee, but it's a lot of trouble for a little savings that could soon disappear completely.

I do know that frequently Maryland State Highway sets up speed traps on both sides of the Thru Lanes of the Wilson bridge just before the river. Whether or not this is the root cause of the slowdowns is difficult, but considering the typical driver reaction of going down a hill a few miles over the speed limit and spooting an obviously placed State Trooper car, it is certainly one possible cause.

Are drivers encountering Maryland state troopers doing radar patrols at rush hour on the Beltway near the Wilson Bridge? (This has not been my experience anywhere on the Beltway. In fact, I wish there were more speed patrols on the east side of the Beltway in Maryland, which historically is the most dangerous section.)

Hi Dr. Gridlock - Just curious on Beltway HOT pricing - is the rate set for the entire stretch at one time, adjusted for distance? I was on it Thursday evening, from Lee Hwy until the end at 395 and it was priced at $2.90 for that part, a good bit higher than usual. I'm sure the HOT lanes were quite packed at Tysons and heading north to Md., but that stretch had very light traffic. It doesn't make sense that if it's crowded anywhere, the rate goes up everywhere, but that's the way it seems to work. Do you know if that's how it's supposed to work? Thanks!

I think rates are set for six zones along the 14 miles of express lanes. So crowding around Tysons wouldn't affect the rate for -- let's just say -- a driver heading south from I-66 on the express lanes.

The tolls now often are higher than they were when the lanes first opened in November. The tolls rise and fall based on what the road sensors are telling the computer at the HOT lanes operation center about the level of congestion.

What I notice from driving and from looking at the traffic camera images for the HOT lanes is that there are more cars on the lanes now. They've always tended to move in clusters -- but now the clusters are bigger. My theory on why the express lanes traffic appears in clusters is that most of the access points are at traffic signals. It's only at the ends that cars can slide in and out of the express lanes.

Contrary to your earlier post 'the week ahead', Metro IS doing track work this weekend with a belated announcement (http://wmata.com/rider_tools/metro_service_status/advisories.cfm?AID=1722)

Here's what this morning's "Week ahead" posting says:

Metro this weekend
No major project work is scheduled for this coming weekend. But many smaller projects will require trains to share tracks and result in schedule changes on all five lines. We’ll have full details in a follow-up posting on the blog.

Just an observation: One possible justification for the higher speed limits on the express lanes is that there are fewer entrances and exits -- and therefore fewer lane changes -- than in the regular lanes. Higher speeds in restricted lanes are probably safer than lower speeds in the regular lanes.

I think it might be just about the safety record, at this point. VDOT did a safety study before raising the limit. Same approach that the Maryland Transportation Authority took before raising the speed limit on the Intercounty Connector to 60 mph.

The access pattern on the 495 Express Lanes is certainly different from that of the regular lanes. But let's take Tysons: The express lanes don't have an access point for Route 123, but they do have two new access points -- at Westpark Drive and Jones Branch Drive -- and they're fairly close together. So I think that argues against raising the speed limit just based on the layout of the lanes.

(Speed limits on the I-95/395 HOV lanes also are higher than on the regular lanes.)

Whatever happened to plans long ago to extend the Blue Line to Lorton, VA? I never hear anything about that any more!

There's no active plan to do that. If it happened, it would be because Virginia wanted to build the extension, and I'm not seeing enough interest in that among the public and private entities that would likely have to finance the extension.

And I think it probably makes more financial sense to look for improvements in VRE service in that corridor. I doubt that in the near future we'll have enough tw0-way commuting to justify Metrorail service, as opposed to commuter trains that take people north in the morning and bring them back south in the afternoon.

If flower guy falls planting or watering, he'll sue. Then we all pay. I say WMATA is right to stop him. Their property, their right. Have you seen how not sturdy that part of the Dupont escalator scape is?

I do think safety is an issue. The planter says he's willing to sign a waiver, but I wouldn't like it if Metro reacted by saying, "Oh, okay, the guy can risk his life as long as he won't sue."

However, I think there must be some accommodation that could be worked out if Metro people would just sit down with him and talk rather than send threatening letters.

I go the other direction (VA to MD) but I think a big part of the problem is the backup to get onto Route 1 going northbound towards Old Town. Traffic gets slowed by the stop lights pretty much up to Duke Street before Route 1 loosens up.

I'm doing the opposite drive, DC to Boston, also on July 5th, and would love to hear any comments or guesses on what traffic might be like. Thanks--your chats are great.

Yes, I'd like to hear from travelers on this as well, but my own take is that you should be in pretty good shape heading north on July 5. I'm not saying it will be smooth sailing. There will still be rush hours, though probably much lighter than normal. There will be beach traffic. There are work zones in the middle of Delaware on I-95 and on the New Jersey Turnpike. And western Connecticut is always a mess for drivers.

why the worse and worse delays on the inbound Roosevelt Bridge (maybe E st / 20th NB)? Back ups to Spout Run every morning - even now in "summer traffic"? We think it's a DC conspiracy to keep Virginians out. Confirm?

If "summer traffic" patterns have begun, they've just begun -- and it might be me being overly optimistic. You don't really see the vacation season benefit kick in fully till we get well into July.

Commuters across the region said during late spring that they thought highway traffic was getting worse on their routes. If it's a conspiracy, it's a vast one

According to the article, it's clear that Metro wasn't paying much attention. In October, Docter planted 150 daffodils and tulips in the same boxes. After they bloomed and died, he pruned the spent flowers and turned down and secured the leaves for future vitality." and "Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said that round of gardening apparently slipped under the radar." Further evidence that this organization and its employees are clueless. How is it possible that no one at WMATA noticed?

They should stop and smell the flowers.

I agree we should not divide our fights by line, so would that apply to the original poster who was crying about 5 Orange Line trains in a row? When I see trains leaving McPherson in the afternoon with tons of empty seats (I won't say what line) and then the train I have to take (no line mentioned) is sardine packed standing room only, I think the overall service is bad. I guess the key question would be is it worse to wait a few more minutes for a train with room, or get on a packed train right away? And if they went to a straight alternating pattern (not mentioning lines here), how bad would my trains be?

I think there shouldn't be five Orange Line trains in a row. That would be a problem on the line.

Lately, I have been stuck most afternoons for 15+ minutes trying to get on I-66 West from the Inner Loop of the Beltway. The way the road is set up, traffic entering I-66 from the outer loop has the two right lanes. All of the rest of the traffic has the three left lanes. It seems like the outer loop traffic has the better deal getting from the Beltway to Nutley.

I think what you're seeing at the interchange -- if this is recent -- is another example of heavy springtime volume. There's no recent change in the traffic pattern.

I certainly agree that the westbound traffic at the interchange is very, very slow. But I don't see an advantage for those entering from the outer loop. Many of them are going to try immediately to move left. It's that leftward merging that looks like the key problem in the traffic flow.

I was interested to see that Georgetown merchants are now thinking they need a metro stop. About 20 years ago, I stopped going to Georgetown to eat and shop because street parking was no longer available and it can take half an hour to drive 10 blocks down M or Wisconsin. Simillarly--I stopped going to Wolf Trap. It's too hard to get there during rush hour. I'm spending less at places around the region I used to frequent because you just can't get there on our roads!

I think the best transportation project that could happen over there on the west side is a new Metro tunnel under the river from the Rosslyn area into downtown D.C. I don't see any new roadways coming out there.

(A new tunnel and more telecommuting.)

The few times I have taken the Outer Loop of the Beltway from US-50 to the Toll Road, the lanes on the beltway were fine until a mile before the toll road, then they came to a complete stop. There must be a way for the Express Lanes to help with this problem, but if all of the lanes are moving fine when getting onto the beltway, why would someone take the Express Lanes? There needs to be a way to get into the Express Lanes from the Beltway every few miles.

I know what one key theory was back in the planning stages: If you provide access to the express lanes every few miles, there's no way you're going to be able to manage traffic well enough to promise a reliable trip in the express lanes.

I do think -- as I've said many times -- there needs to be a way for drivers to make the instant cost-benefit analysis in deciding which lanes to choose at the access points. But I don't see that happening for a long time.

Meanwhile, I've been suggesting that commuters check out the express lanes and see if on average they save time over the regular lanes. If they do, then choose the express lanes on days when you know going in that you need a reliable trip, days when you have an appointment, or you're running late and need to avoid any traffic slowdowns.

I've seen the Md State Police set up looking for speeders on the outer loop thru lanes. Used to occasionally see them on the inner loop thru lanes too. That wouldn't explain heavy traffice in the local lanes of the inner loop though, in the mornings coming from MD to VA. There's no place for them to set up. I think it's just volume. BTW, I take the WWB outer loop to N/B I-295 every morning on my way to work. Live in Alexandria (FFX Co), work in College Park.

It has been four years since the fatal accident on the red line and the policy that trains go all the way to the start of the platform. Does Metro plan to install any signage on long platforms (eg, red line at Gallery Place) informing visitors that they should move to the middle of the platform? At rush hour, there is a mad rush for the last car of 6-car trains, causing congestion and people holding doors trying to get on.

I don't know of any plan to put markers on the platforms. It does seem to affect visitors more than the regulars. There used to be platform announcements about the trains pulling to the front of the platforms, but I haven't heard one in a long time.

Best solution would be return to automatic train operation, under which a six-car train could stop at mid-platform.

No date for that.

Thanks for joining me today. We're well into OT, and our producer, Mark Berman, and I need to break away for this week. But write to me any time at drgridlock@washpost.com.

Stay safe, and stay cool this week. Talk to you next Monday.

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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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