Dr. Gridlock

Jun 27, 2011

The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock, Robert Thomson, will be online to take all your questions about Metro, traffic throughout the region and other transportation issues.

Welcome, travelers. I just got off the phone with the Delaware Department of Transportation and learned that the highway-speed E-ZPass lanes are likely to be available to drivers this holiday weekend at the Newark toll plaza on I-95. The project isn't officially done, but it's ahead of schedule. There's still testing of the equipment and some work on the lanes to be done. But things are looking better for this traditional bottleneck.

Now, on to your questions.

Heading from Fairfax down to Richmond on Friday evening, what's the best time to go? How about coming back on Sunday morning?

You can find tips on what routes to avoid and which ones to take here.

We've also got some suggestions in our summer getaway guide.

If possible, leave after 8 p.m. on Friday. (Or around noon, if you have that kind of flexibility.) Sunday morning should be fine for a return, but consider that we're not talking Thanksgiving traffic here.

Basically, on getaways from the DC area, there's Thanksgiving and then there's everything else. July 4 weekend has not traditionally been a horrible one for getaways and getbacks.

My boyfriend and I had plans yesterday around noon to head down from the Van Ness area toward U Street, and tracked the appropriate L2 bus on the WMATA site about an hour ahead of time. We (and a healthy group of people) were waiting at the stop when the bus disappeared completely from the "Next Bus" app (not only on my phone, but on several other people's phones also) and proceeded to never appear. How does Metro expect people to take it seriously when it can't coordinate its basic services? I'm not even totally mad about "Next Bus," though it clearly shouldn't have been tracking a bus that wasn't going to show up. Getting a bus to the stop it's supposed to service at the correct time is a basic necessity in a town that should be able to tout a first-class transportation system, yet can't due to examples just like this one.

I'm glad we have Next Bus. But: Many travelers have weird experiences with it. I've long referred to your scenario as "the ghost bus." Metro has never been able to get this service to the point where it's completely reliable.

As I understand it, the information you see on your mobile device is a combination of the bus locator equipment and a central computer's calculation of where the buses should be given the schedule and current traffic conditions.

The thing gets more accurate -- usually -- the closer it gets to your stop. Yet riders routinely tell me about their experiences with ghost buses.

Hi Dr. Gridlock, I honestly didn't think it was possible for the mess on Eastbound I-267 (Dulles toll road) around the main toll plaza to get any worse, but VDOT has managed to make it happen twice now. Their initial "solution" of closing the left lane was such an epic failure that they have tried again and their latest attempt is little better. Long story short, those of us who stay to the left through the toll plaza because we intend to go on to I-66 are bearing the brunt of it now. There has been perhaps incremental relief for those headed to the Beltway, especially for those going south on 495 as they now have an EZ Pass lane on the right aligned with their exit lanes. (Why did that obvious solution take so long to implement?) But those of us who need to get to I-66 have lost a lane and face greater merge pressure from those coming off the airport road. I calculate that it is costing me 8 -10 additional minutes each morning now. Brutal. What is the best way to complain to VDOT and when is this going to change?

For complaints, I'd try the Virginia Megaprojects office at this number: 877-959-5222 or e-mail to:


I know that VDOT has received many complaints about this, and they're along the lines of what you described. I've seen the congestion also, and have written about it in several columns.

So the project officials know what you're talking about. Whether that can translate into a solution, well, I'm less sure of that. The construction on this part of the HOT lanes project is scheduled to continue into 2012.

I remember years ago that people were afraid to even carry food and drink on the metro, so strict were the transit officers enforcing the ban, or at least there was the general sense that one would get in trouble. In the last year or so, I have been dismayed to note how many people I see eating and drinking, and consequently how dirty the metro seems to be getting. I used to think the metro was so clean in comparison to the NYC subway, now I see disturbing similarities all the time. Why doesnt metro do something??

I've also seen an increase in eating and drinking on the trains. By the end of a rush hour -- especially the afternoon rush -- the cars look pretty crummy.

I'm not sure what the solution is. There are signs and an ad campaign. Transit police say they enforce the rules when they see violations -- they don't like to make arrests for this, but will tell people what they're doing wrong.

Seems like people should take responsibility for themselves on the eating and drinking rules, and they should take their newspapers with them, too.

I travel up 95 towards from Arlington to south NJ beaches, and pass the plaza weekly. Pleasant surprise this weekend, the EZ pass lanes were open at Delaware toll plaza. Left 2 lanes dedicated to EZ pass no backup heading north rolled thru at 35 mph around 5 pm Friday . Southbound lanes were open as well on Sunday around 4 pm but had 5 mile rolling backup due to lane squeeze. best to keep right, and move over to ez pass lanes about 1 mile or so from toll plaza. Cash lanes were terrible, backed up for miles southbound. I am heading north to Jersey beaches late on Friday (after 9 pm let the getaway rush die down a bit) and home Tuesday.

I was in the southbound lanes about 3:30 p.m. yesterday, and was in stop and go traffic for about five miles, so I was dismayed when I saw the highway-speed lanes were open when I reached the toll plaza.

But DelDot tells me the southbound highway-speed lanes were opened about 2:30 p.m. I may just have been in a residual backup.

At the time, I saw the northbound lanes were open, too.

The project isn't done, and DelDot can still close off those new lanes periodically. It's not 100 percent certain they'll be open this weekend, but DelDOT is very hopeful.

Dear Dr. Gridlock: I have lived at Woodley Park for almost 2 years and in that time the air conditioning at the metro station has not worked at all. Zero, zilch. I lived there in the 90s and it functioned minimally, but now nothing. Calling metro only gets me a recorded message at the "Red Line Team." Do you know why Metro has stopped running the AC there? The Dupont Circle station was very comfortable this weekend, in comparison, and it's an older station.

I don't have a report specifically about Woodley Park. But at many of the older stations, the cooling equipment is really old.  It doesn't work as well as it used to, and breaks down more often.

The Red Line is undergoing a lengthy rehab now -- lengthy, as in a few years.

I'll ask if there's a particular problem at Woodley Park.

Recently, my husband and I received a speeding camera speeding ticket from Prince George's County. Neither of us had been in that neighborhood (ever; we live in Howard County). Upon examination, the photos showed a Chevrolet with a license plate with one letter different than ours. After calling the number provided, we sent photos of our car. In response we received a letter from the county saying that after reviewing our documentation, their subsequent research shows that we own another car matching the description of the offending auto. We have three cars, and none is a Chevrolet, none has that license plate. Can you suggest what we should do next? Thanks, M Gilbert

I know that those mistakes happen, even though the violations are supposed to be reviewed by law enforcement. I'd send them another letter, registered mail, return receipt requested, saying you don't own the and never have owned the vehicle in question or had those plates.

This shouldn't have gotten this far. It should have beend dropped after your first letter.

During an early evening drive in Fairfax, a flock of geese were crossing the road and a driver intentionally swerved and ran over one of the geese. About six cars stopped; she was not dead, but had a broken leg and wing. I took her to a vet to be put down. We have the driver's license number and many witnesses. Is there a law about animal cruetly that could be used to prosecute this person?

Dumb as well as cruel. I've -- fortunately -- not heard of anything like this on or roads, so I'm a little unsure what to recommend, but I think I'd start by calling the non-emergency number for the Fairfax County police: 703-691-2131

Shout out to you for stopping and helping.

Or is the Humpback Bridge FINALLY almost done?

You are not deceived...reconstruction on the bridge is wrapping up.

Just spent some time in Chicago - and while their metro system, the CTA, isn't as "nice" inside and out as our Metro - it is much more user friendly.

-A one price cost of $2.25 - no "normal", "rush hour", or "peak of the peak rush hour" ridiculous pricing

-CLEAR and EASY TO UNDERSTAND announcements inside the train telling you what line you are on & what stop is next (PLEASE can Metro learn that their employees cannot pronounce station names correctly and/or don't know how to clearly speak into a microphone)

-Smooth(er) stopping of the trains - probably due to automatic stopping versus the awful manual stopping we have to deal with on a daily basis

-Line specific transit maps at the top of each entry / exit

While the DC Metro might look nicer - it pales in comparison to what is going on in Chicago. Of course I'm sure their daily riders have gripes/complaints as well, but I refuse to take Metro anymore due to its incompetent workers and high / gouging pricing.

I always like to hear from travelers who experience other transportation systems, because it can raise our consciousness about what's good and bad here. I do wonder if our opinion of some of these other systems would drop as we became more familiar with them.

Just a couple of thoughts about your comparisons:

I doubt we'll ever go to the flat fare. The old systems use flat fares for various reasons, but one of them is that they're old. They didn't have the technology to vary fares by time and distance.

Lots of people like such systems. See Sam Staley's op/ed in Sunday's Post about how we should think more seriously about market pricing for transit. (Basing fares on supply and demand.)

But practically speaking, we won't go to a flat fare because it will launch a city vs. suburbs fight.

We need better maps in the stations, like the ones you describe.

There's no deadlilne still for returning the trains to automatic control.

Hey Doc - At the risk of tipping off thousands of potential traffic obstacles (sorry fellow travelers) to my secret travel plan to avoid them all - I'm planning on getting up and out at around 3 AM on Saturday morning to make the trek up I95 to Rhode Island. Normally at this hour traffic is light and most jurisdictions along the way have thankfully suspended construction activities. However, I was wondering if you had any insight as to whether any of the worst offenders (DE and NJ, yes that's you) have will have any overnight construction planned? Thanks!

You should not encounter any active projects along the way. Delaware, for example, won't be doing any scheduled construction work at the I-95 toll plaza this holiday weekend.

But they don't pull up the concrete barriers or remove the lane shifts. For example, if you use the NJ Turnpike on the RI trip, you'll find that lengthy zone of lane shifts and no shoulders where New Jersey is widening the turnpike.

Then there's always the beach traffic in Connecticut. Even leaving at 3 a.m., you could encounter that by the time you reach New England.

I believe last year they suspended single tracking for 4th of July weekend because, unlike other holiday weekends, many in the area (not to mention tourists) stay in DC. Will metro be doing this again this year?

Yes, and same logic: July 4 weekend is huge for bringing crowds into Washington on transit. So no single-tracking is scheduled for this weekend.

This is true despite Metro's more aggressive approach to weekend maintenance this year.


I need to get from Greenbelt to Reston on Friday and be there by 6:30. How much extra time to leave? It normally takes 40 minutes no traffic and about an hour to hour, 10 minutes in normal rush. Should I give myself even more time?

Many readers know I'm very conservative in giving travel time estimates when people tell me they have appointments. I'd leave an hour and a half for the trip on this holiday getaway weekend.

You may well get there before 6:30 if you follow my plan. But there's likely to be a lot of volume. You'll probably take the Beltway outer loop and pass through the work zone at the Northwest Branch bridge in Silver Spring.

There could be an accident anywhere along the way to slow traffic significantly.

I took I-95 through Delaware this weekend - the Northbound express lanes were already open, but the Southbound was still a 7 mile backup on Sunday afternoon. As you said, still orange cones and some lane weaves, but a nice taste of what is hopefully a congestion free future at the "border"!

I do think these new lanes will make things a lot easier for all travelers, whether or not they have E-ZPasses. But a couple of cautions:

DelDOT is still finishing up the lanes, and it's possible travelers will find them closed for various reasons at the time they reach them this week.

Long term, if we're talking Thanksgiving Wednesday style traffic, you may still be in slow traffic till you reach the point near the toll plaza where traffic splits for the booths on the right and the highway-speed E-ZPass lanes on the left.

I agree with this point on CTA - I believe that they have a recording instead of having the drivers announce the stations. That makes it much more clear for riders since the recording volume and pronunciation is consistent. I wish Metro would at least lift this from Chicago.

Yes, I think Metro has come to that conclusion also and will have automated announcements on the next generation of rail cars, the 7000 Series.

Where can i find bus safety record information for buses like Bolt, Megabus and Vamoose?

I believe this will help. Follow the instructions and you should be able to find the bus company you are looking for.

Just wondering if there's any ETA for when the new close stations plan will take affect and when the schedule will be made public. I live on the west end of the red line and having nightmares about having a year filled with having to shift to shuttles to go downtown for shows or museums. Please talk me down.

You're reacting to Metro's recent announcement that it's going to move away from weekend single-tracking and toward station closings. That will limit the disrupted part of the line -- maybe.

No schedule for this has been announced yet. As soon as it is, we'll have that for you.

Trying to talk you down: It won't be every weekend. And I think Metro is doing this because it now has a lot of practice setting up and operating the weekend bus bridges.

Example: I was worried about the shuttle bus set up for Memorial Day weekend on the Blue and Orange lines. But that seems to have gone very well.

The comment regarding Chicago's subway/elevated system made me wonder if there's an additional difference between the two systems. Doesn't the Chicago system have multiple pairs of tracks (like NYC's), which keeps the trains and passengers moving even when there's a train with a door problem or sick passenger and more easily enables track maintenance? I wonder if you know, Dr. G., how many major subway systems have a single pair of tracks like Washington's does? I think that's a HUGE issue with our system.

I think most of the nation's transit systems are two-track systems. In other words, the NYC pattern of having three tracks -- an express track in the middle -- is the rarity. Metro planners didn't do anything weird by going for a two-track system and saving money and disruption. But we clearly see the consequences of that, not only in the weekend delays, but also in the rush hour delays when we have door problems and sick passengers.

What is the on-going construction project on the platform at Farragut North? That huge black box has near the L. St exit at the far end of the platform been there for over a year, the ceiling tiles seem to be removed/replace but nothing really changes. What are they doing?

I asked Metro's Dave Kubicek about that a couple of months ago. That turned out to be a pretty big project, though I'm still amazed it's been over a year now.

It's not just a question of replacing some ceiling tiles. It turned out to involve designing and building a support column in that space where the wooden construction box is. Still got a ways to go, as I recall.

While riding the Metro on Saturday, I gave up my seat to one of a pair of senior sisters who was having problems standing. They said they were visiting from Phoenix, AZ, had been here for 2 weeks with 1 to go and they loved our Metro system. They said it made their visit so much nicer to not have to worry about a car and to be able to get everywhere they wanted to go on the public transportation system. They thought the system was great. This is just for the regulars here who have become jaded and resent the operational problems and forget that we have one of the largest, most accessible and comprehensive public transportation systems in the US.

Yes, I'll bet they'd love to have Metro in Phoenix. At least, till the air conditioners break down.

We've talked during the chat about the July 4 getaway. But we've also got many thousands of people coming to DC for the holiday celebration. Please be patient with them. They don't know how the train doors work. They don't know we stand to the right. They move more slowly than regular commuters.


Why do they vary so much over such short distances. For example, there are three gas stations in Clarksville, MD. The Exxon is 20 cents more than the Shell, which is just across Route 32. The Lowest Price is about 8 cents lower than the Shell. That's maybe half a mile away. There are two stations in Ashton, MD, about 500 feet apart with a 12 cent difference. Why?

This seems to be a question people all over the country ask. Not sure there will ever be a definitive answer.

As for D.C., the gas price issue is one that is having a major impact for the Fourth of July weekend. Check out this story on PostLocal. It seems like a lot of people are skipping the drive and choosing air travel.

I suppose that's one way to get around the issue...

When the project was announced, the WTOP press report stated "Work has already begun on the bridge over Firth Sterling and should conclude by June 23." Only 1 of the 6 lanes over Firth Sterling has been completed and June 23 has come and gone. Thinking back to the 12th Street Bridge Reconstruction and other similar projects, why do bridge projects in the District take much longer than planned?

It was my understanding that the repairs going on this summer at five bridges along the Anacostia Freeway involve work on all the lanes. But the program will continue through the summer and will continue to affect commuters.

It's not unusual for a bridge repair project to take longer than the original estimate. They often find things they didn't expect to find, or get slowed down by weather, especially toward the end of a project when they do paving and stripping.

The National Park Service project on the Humpback Bridge on the GW Parkway is more than a year behind schedule. The District's 14th Street Bridge project, the work on the northbound span, also is way late from the original estimate.

It seems to me that the Dulles toll plaza to I-495 has transferred the lane change delays from the right side, those getting on the Beltway headed south, to the left side, for those heading North AND the through traffic. Now the police are being ever more diligent to prevent people from jumping from the toll road to the access road. Is this misguided policy of taking away a potential lane going to be re-considered, and soon? Summer and schools-out have helped but it's still ridiculous, and it seems unnecessary...

When I look at the project maps, that area looks to me like a work zone for one of the new ramps that will be part of the HOT lanes set up. That makes me think this isn't just a question of restoring the left lane to the way it was until recently.

I agree that VDOT has to do something to alleviate this congestion. Summertime traffic declines should help, but this road work is going to continue into 2012.



Does Metro really want people riding the system on weekends? To go from my Rockville home to Eastern Market on this past Saturday morning would have meant nearly 35 minutes in delays, in addition to the time to travel. I can drive there in 45 minutes. And parking is no problem. What's the incentive to taking Metro? I'm pretty much done with it on weekends.

I think you and everybody else should do what works best. (Watch those DC parking meters, though, because of the Saturday hours.)

Metro officials know this weekend work is a big inconvenience to riders. But they say this work needs to be done and done soon.

Dr. G - Thanks for all the attention you've given this topic recently...I hope there's room for one more question. What is the alternative(s) for going from the Herndon/Reston area to either Arlington/DC or to Montgomery County? Buses/Metro aren't always an option (no parking, takes too long, costs too much, somewhere to go after work) and neither is telecommuting. The backups in this area are now so pervasive and commonplace that the radio traffic reporters don't even mention the problem unless there is an associated accident or temporary lane closures for road work. There's just no way I can keep up this grind for another year or more!

There is no short-term solution. I'm hopeful that the rebuilding of the Toll Road and I-66 interchanges at the Beltway as part of the HOT lanes project will help. That's about a year and a half away. I'm hopeful that the Dulles Metrorail line will offer a transit alternative that will ease traffic on the toll road and Route 7. VDOT is studying what to do about I-66 -- longterm.


Hi Doc -- Looking to take a day trip from Falls Church to Gettysburg on Sunday July 3rd. Am hoping that is a light-traffic day, but what say you?

I think you should be fine on Sunday, in the middle of the three-day weekend. (Should be hot and humid, though.)

So, on Saturday, I got to ride one of the new Metro cars for the first time. When I boarded at Greenbelt, it was great and I didn't notice too many problems. I thought that the flooring was easier to keep clean, the new seating was much more comfortable than the old, yada yada. Then we hit a stop where the train PACKED. I mean face to armpit packed (fortunately, we had seats). It was horrible and dangerous. There were several dozen people packed into the open area between the doors that had nothing to hold onto. About 1/3 were tall enough to use the upper rails, but more than half were not able to reach the rails. Relatively few people used the pull-down handles because many could not reach them and the ones that could reach them ended up just holding onto the rails. There were two guys that couldn't reach the rails that braced themselves by touching the ceiling, but they were unstable when the car lurched. The people on the sides could use the couple of rails on the wall or the rails on the back of seats, but the bulk of people in the middle were just holding onto each other. We had one lurch and about 6 people started to fall like attached dominoes and were only stopped by several guys that had a hold of the upper handrails and had a hand free. I also noted that the new flooring was slick enough that many leather shoes were sliding on it as it was. Once you got any precipitation on it, it would be an ice skating rink. Although a nice idea, I think these new cars are a safety hazard and WMATA should reconsider ordering any more.

Sounds like you were riding in one of a handful of rail cars that Metro set up specially to test flooring and seating styles. Those are 6000 Series rail cars. They're the newest in the fleet, but are a few years old now.

The next generation, the 7000 Series, will be different from anything we have now. But one thing's pretty sure: We won't have another generation of rail cars with carpet.


I'm going to sign off with you now. I see a few questions about getaway travel and some other issues that I'd like to deal with on the Dr. Gridlock blog. On this Sunday's Commuter page in The Post, I plan to write up some information you might need to get around the DC area on July 4. But all of us will post information on the blog that you might need if you're leaving town this weekend.

We won't have a chat on the July 4 holiday, but I'd love it if you could join me again on the following Monday.

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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