Dr. Gridlock

Jul 07, 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. Hope your holiday getaways were successful, whether local or long-distance.

Programming note: Next Monday, I hope to have Tom Biesiadny as my guest for a Q&A.  As director of the Fairfax County Department of Transportation, he's in the middle of one of the biggest transportation stories in the United States: The opening of Metro's Silver Line, with its five new stations in Fairfax County.

Today, let's start with a couple of your questions and comments about Metro.

Metro seems to be tinkering with its week/weekend trackwork page, slimming it down to just the essentials. It's currently showing as a 'test', but not sure for how much longer. http://www.wmata.com/rider_tools/metro_service_status/advisories.cfm?AID=3280

I'm looking at that link for the first time, and haven't had a chance to ask Metro about it. The page certainly does look like a "test," since it contains track work information from early June weeknights.

But I think this is potentially helpful. Some riders have been complaining that while they can find details about the weekend track work, they can't find the equivalent for work after 10 o'clock on weeknights, which is what this test page could provide.

Metro does send out e-mail alerts and Tweets about the weeknight work, but a Web page might reach an additional audience.

As of now, I know of several Metro Web pages that provide information about weekend track work.

Use this link to see the schedule for big projects through the end of the year. (The kind that close stations.)

Early each week, Metro also puts out an announcement about the smaller weekend projects, the ones that require trains to share tracks. Here's the announcement for this coming weekend.


Not that anyone ever obeyed solid white lines on the road very often, but I am finding that the solid white lines that have been added on I-495N from VA to MD are so long in their extent that almost no one obeys them. What is the point of having solid white lines that extend for miles? It's like VDOT is begging for them to be completely ignored.

Solid white lines mark zones where lane changing is discouraged. Double white lines mark zones where lane changing is forbidden.

I find many drivers ignore both. In any work zone anywhere. But this particular one is for the project that will open the left shoulder on the inner loop to rush hour traffic by the end of the year.

In my experience with that work zone, the lane shifts aren't slowing traffic. (Traffic in that area doesn't need much help to get slowed down, because of the high volumes on the Beltway and the high volumes of traffic entering the Beltway.)

Have others had different experiences with the lane shifts? (Meaning, do you find that you slow down for the lane shifts and then speed up right after they end?)

According to Lynn Bowersox, "The platform displays (PIDs) will continue to show the next 3 trains to arrive at the station, except at stations served by the Blue Line. Thanks to customer feedback, we made a change to displays at stations served by the Blue Line. They now always show the next Blue Line train, even if it is not one of the next three trains."

Why don't they do this at all multi-line stations? For example, at Gallery Place they always show 3 Green Line trains. Why not the next Green, the next Yellow, and the next Green. I'm a Yellow-liner and care not a whit about the next Green line train.

What you say makes sense. I think the reason it's happened at the Blue Line stations is that -- as Blue Line riders are painfully aware -- the gap between Blue Line trains is going to 12 minutes, all the time. At rush hours, that will be the biggest gap between trains in the entire rail system.

There's a specific goal for the PIDs under those circumstances. Blue Line riders are being told by Metro that they might be better off taking another line. In the morning, a rider at King Street bound for Metro Center might have an easier trip by boarding a Yellow Line train and switching to the Orange or Blue at L'Enfant Plaza.

In the afternoon, the rider at Metro Center might be better off taking a Blue or Orange train from the other side of the platform to L'Enfant Plaza and boarding a Yellow Line train there.

I don't know any place else in the two-line system where a rider might need to make such choices.

I have not seen much attention given to this issue, but it seems that for many Metro customers, switching to the Silver Line may increase their commuting costs significantly. For example, I currently commute from Herndon-Monroe to Arlington via bus and the Orange Line. When the Silver Line opens, I will have a shorter trip on the portion of the route with a flat fee (bus) and a longer trip on the portion of the route with a distance-based charge (Metro), and my total commuting cost will rise accordingly. Have any of the area's planners given consideration to the fact that this may create a disincentive for use of the Silver Line?

Yes, I think Fairfax County DOT and Metro officials are well aware of that. Commuters raised such objections during the string of public meetings in 2013 when Fairfax Connector officials offered their draft bus schedule for review. They made some adjustments accordingly, but they didn't satisfy everyone.

For example, they kept several buses they were planning to eliminate after riders  in the Herndon area said they saw no benefit giving up a one-seat bus ride to their destination in exchange for a bus to train route.

The Fairfax officials said upfront that they wouldn't be able to accommodate everyone. The goal was to keep the overall cost of Fairfax Connector about the same, while changing routes to leverage the huge new transportation asset represented by the Silver Line.

The Silver Line will not help all today's commuters in western Fairfax and Loudoun. In fact, it may make some commutes worse.

As our daughter and her family have moved to Raleigh, we find ourselves on I-95 much more than we would like. Why is the work on I-95 North in Virginia taking SO long? And why do they have to spread it out among several areas intend of doing one until it's finished and then moving on?

This is the 95 Express Lanes project, which got underway in August 2012 and is scheduled to be done by the end of this year.

Many drivers share the pain of this commenter. The traffic in that work zone is awful, especially on weekends when the reversible lanes have been closed for the construction.

Here are some factors.

At 29 miles long, this is one of the biggest work zones in the United States. A two and a half year timetable for a project of this magnitude compares favorably with many other public works.

For example, put it up against the Silver Spring Transit Center, which is basically a three-deck garage. Commuters have felt the effects of that project since 2008, and there's no end in sight. Put that up against two and a half years to build 29 miles of new lanes.

A major factor in the timing for the I-95 project, which affects both northbound and southbound traffic, is the need to keep the lanes open during rush hours. If the workers could ignore drivers' needs at all times, the job would be done a lot faster.

Also, the job probably would take a lot longer and be a lot more expensive if crews completely finished one section before moving on to another.

So am I going to be impacted negatively or what from this Silver Line? I see all the Blue line coverage, but I am assuming, there will be less trains for me, as well.

You should have the same number of rush hour trains on that route that you have today.

Trying to figure out the morning and afternoon impact of the Silver Line is complicated, and I'm not sure I've figured out all the possibilities. There are some clear losers -- anyone who boards at Franconia-Springfield heading for Foggy Bottom or Ballston, for example.

There are some clear winners -- anyone who has a short trip to the new Wiehle Avenue station, or who boards at Largo Town Center, for example.

But a traveler in an earlier exchange offered an example of a Virginia commuter who doesn't benefit from the Silver Line.

And I've been trying to figure out the potential impact of the Silver Line on Orange and Blue Line riders trying to get home from downtown D.C. during the afternoon when the regular service is disrupted.

Riders know their own particular circumstances better than anybody, and I'd appreciate hearing about their specific concerns.

Why is it worth building a line where the majority of stations already are served by other lines? [Dr. G: This is a question that came in during last week's Q&A. I've got several others I'll try to add in this week.]

A project as big as the Silver Line has many goals. One of them is to provide a rail link between the center of the Washington region and a major regional airport. Another is to use new stations as focal points for the redevelopment of Tysons Corner, the major economic center of Northern Virginia.

Opening the Silver Line from Fairfax through DC into Maryland helps far more transit users than it hurts -- but it clearly will hurt thousands of riders on a daily basis. Also, it will put more long-term stress on the transit system. Even if those trains aren't crowded to begin with, they are bound to add tens of thousands of riders and challenge the system's capacity long before we have all eight-car trains at rush hours.

The number of days until the Silver Line has a full fledged, WMATA worthy meltdown. Anyone who takes the over hasn't been paying attention lately. So, question - when the inevitable happens, will anyone actually be held accountable? [This is another comment originally submitted for the June 30 chat.]


I think that could happen on any day after the opening. The Silver Line, a the previous commenter noted, isn't just five new stations in Fairfax County. For most of its route, it will share tracks in the old part of the system with the Orange and Blue lines.

Any track problem or train breakdown in that zone will affect Silver Line service.

Also, the Silver Line will use the same aging railcars as the rest of the system.  The tracks are becoming less of a problem, because of the rebuilding program, but the number of brake and door problems remains way too high. An old rail car is as likely to break down at the Tysons Corner station as it is at Metro Center.

If a train goes out of service for a door problem, etc., that means almost half an hour between trains. Not including the delays associated with the actual problem. That's a huge issue, and will create backups and dangerously crowded platforms, impacting Orange and Silver riders as well.

Yep. See what I wrote in this posting about potential extra problems during a disruption. But like I say, I'm not sure I've thought of all the angles on that.

The Silver Line will open in mid-summer, when commuter trips are reduced by vacations. I think we won't really know how this will play out till September.

Given the pressures on the Blue Line for commuters to western DC, why doesn't Metro run express buses from Alexandria (King and/or Braddock) to Foggy Bottom or a nearby spot?

See Lori Aratani's story about some bus options for Blue Line riders.

It's possible Metrobus should do more, but there are a couple of factors: Metro almost certainly would need to buy more buses. And even if Metro did buy a bunch of new buses, the number probably wouldn't compensate for the rush hour capacity of one train.

Extra bus service will help a relative handful of commuters. It isn't a make-up for the loss of the Blue Line trains.

The least they could do for Blue Line riders is to not charge the higher prices at rush hour, if we have fewer trains than everyone else. That is just adding insult to injury.

Metro's fares are based on time of day and distance traveled.

I'm not sure how Metro could figure out special fares for rush hour riders who have less service than other rush hour riders. Maybe some day.

But then, you'd be opening up other issues: Many more riders will be getting extra service under the Silver Line plan? Do their fares get adjusted accordingly?

(Everyone is paying something more now because of the fare increases that took effect June 30. Metro links its fares to balancing its budget, not to better or worse service. Most of the service improvements in long range plans are in the capital budget, not in the operating budget paid for by fares.)

I drove back to Bethesda from eastern North Carolina yesterday, and decided to take Route 301 north from the Richmond area in order to avoid I-95. All was fine until we got within a few miles of the Harry Nice Memorial Bridge crossing the Potomac. Long story short -- it was a disaster, and getting over the one-lane bridge added at least an hour to our trip. Should I stick with 95 on future busy travel weekends, or is the bridge usually not that bad?

There are no undiscovered routes. Under most circumstances, the timing of a trip is going to make much more difference than the route.

Something I noticed Sunday afternoon: There were big delays on I-95 North -- especially in the Fredericksburg area -- because of crashes and holiday traffic volume. It looked like many drivers were bailing out onto Route 301.

Many travelers recommend Route 301 as an alternative to I-95 in Northern Virginia, and they often have good experiences -- but not always.

Another thing about Route 301 -- besides the potential for congestion at the Nice Bridge -- is that many truckers use it as an I-95 alternative through the DC area.

Sell it outright to the highest bidder or let it go public with a stock offering. It cant be run any worse. Lets get the govt out of running a bus and a train system and back to funding,repairing, and building roads. gas tax must be used for roads only. The planet is cooling and needs more climate change. We do not live in a socialist country despite Comrade Barry's best efforts.

What do you think privatization would do to Metro fares? Riders pay less than tw0 thirds of the cost per trip. Wouldn't a private company expect to make a profit? Isn't that the American Way?

I was wondering if Maryland's SHA does not have enough radar systems for their photo enforced speed zones? In Frederick area the vehicles used for these come and go and do not seem to be there when most needed (workers working and lots of traffic). It does not do much good if they are only there part of the time. Thoughts?

I'd be fine with having speed cameras in the SHA work zones all the time. In fact I'd recommend that for the work zone on I-95, where drivers seem to have difficulty with the 65 mph speed limit through the work zone north of the Beltway.

But as you say, there aren't enough units to monitor all the work zones round the clock.

Does the Silver Line have a "pocket track" anywhere along its length, so that, sometime in the future, trains could run from Dulles to Tysons and back, without costing capacity on the Orange Line? (I heard that SV trains will be every 6-7 mins at rush hour, this would allow service to Tysons every three, especially once Phase II is completed.)

I don't know of any pocket track along the new section in Fairfax County. But I think the Metro and Fairfax County planners have some different goals in mind for the service.

They don't want trains turned back. Most riders don't like that either. I often hear from Red Line riders about that, especially those who are bound for stations beyond Grosvenor in the afternoons. The goal should be to have enough trains to eliminate the turnbacks.

Also, I'm not sure there's much of a market in the foreseeable future for a Dulles-Tysons shuttle.

They already have a webpage with that information, it is just hidden. WMATA needs posted signs and announcements in advance of all trackwork projects in the stations themselves, irregardless of day of the week or time of day.

Franconia to Farragut West is typical ride. Here's the problem. While there's a choice in the am about which train to take, (either blue straight through to FW or yellow/red to FNorth), in the evenings there are more limited options (you're stuck depending on the station you choose). Changing at L'enfant makes the ride much longer. Of bigger concern is that reduced blue line service means the trains will be much more crowded (probably standing room all the way to the end of the line).

Among the concerns I have about the start of Silver Line service is that Metro will do it without having any of the new railcars bought to accommodate the extra demand created by the new service.

Those rail cars aren't likely to enter service till the end of this year. The expanded rail system will operate for many months with the existing fleet of railcars. Very little maneuvering room to handle surprises in ridership demand.

Maryland has been working on the express toll lanes from White Marsh to the tunnel since 2007 and the project is still not close to completion. I think the use of a finance, construct and operate contract in Virginia is the reason for the shorter construction period. No tolls (and therefore no return on investment) can begin until the work is complete. Unlike a private company the State of Maryland seems to not need cash flow.

That Maryland project is a very complex one, and I can understand why it's taken a long time -- but it's been a REALLY long time.

The public-private partnership deal gave Virginia a lot more flexibility on construction while Maryland was dealing with the decline of gas tax revenues. Spreading out the Maryland project over many years has probably helped contain costs.

In Virginia, meanwhile, Transurban-Fluor was anxious to get the Beltway HOT lanes done so the private consortium could begin recouping its investment through tolls.

I just rode it during my vacation. *Sigh* Everything was so much better: ticket machines (buy multiple tickets at once!), station signs, trains, the braking... Metro is hands down the WORST system in the US.

I love BART.

Travelers, I need to break away now. There are many questions and comments left in the mailbag, especially regarding the Silver Line.

So either later this afternoon or first thing Tuesday, I'll address some of them on the Dr. Gridlock blog.

Stay safe, and rejoin me next Monday, when I hope we'll have the Fairfax transportation director to address more of your concerns about the Silver Line and the changes in the Fairfax Connector service.

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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