Dr. Gridlock chat

Jul 09, 2012

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. Looking through the early arrivals in the mailbag, I see two main topics, the state of Metro and the state of the Beltway. You've got strong opinions about both. So let's look at some of those comments to get started.

When was the last time Metro had a rush hour without at least a 5-minute delay on any line?

Some week. Seven days ago, I would have predicted the main transit news would be about continuing issues concerning Rush Plus on the Blue, Yellow and Orange lines.  Those issues do persist, but it turned out the Green Line accounted for a big share of the week's transit troubles.

And problems continued during this morning's rush hour, particularly for Virginia riders on the Blue and Yellow lines.

If you combine scheduled disruptions for maintenance and unscheduled disruptions for new problems, Metrorail is basically disrupted all the time.

Riders know this, of course, but I think it hasn't really sunk in among the region's leaders. It should be considered a big problem for the region's transportation network, because we need a lot of people to take transit.  To have a lot of people take transit, we need transit to be reliable.

Reliability -- compared to driving -- was always a key selling point. But Metro is basically telling us that the delays and disruptions will continue for an undefined period of time.

What should be done about this?


It looks like the Telegraph Rd construction project is nearing an end. Can you tell me when that will be? It seems like it has taken way too long!!!

The work you see on the Beltway and at the Telegraph Road interchange is the last phase of the Wilson Bridge project. It's basically on scheduled, because the schedule for rebuilding the bridge and the interchanges was strung out over so many years.

Paving along the Beltway in the work zones between Springfield and the bridge should be wrapped up around the end of the month, putting the THRU and LOCAL lanes in their final alignment with all their lanes open.

That leaves Telegraph Road as the last major part of the rebuilding. Project managers hope to have the job substantially completed by the end of this year, but some work will continue into next year. All work is scheduled to be done by June 30, 2013.

Dr. Gridlock: This morning I arrived at the King Street station at 8:43 and the sign said Yellow trains were coming in 9 and 14 minutes, with a Blue train in 20. 20! I asked the station attendant what was going on, and he mumbled something about an earlier delay at Pentagon. There was no mention about single-tracking, but clearly something was up, as I saw 6 outbound trains before I saw a single inbound train. And of course, the inbound train was completely packed to the gills. For this I'm paying a higher fare?

This morning, a disabled train outside Pentagon City created delays in both directions for Blue and Yellow Line riders and crowded the platforms.

I can't tell how much Rush Plus was a factor in all this, since the problem affected both lines. But I think it's clear that since June 18, when Rush Plus removed three trains an hour from the Blue Line, that Blue Line trains have been more crowded and that any problem with the trains or rails makes the crowding even worse.

Dr. Gridlock- Are you aware of any subway systems in the world that are privatized or partially privatized? Is there any opportunity for this to help ailing metro? I am aware that some cities bid certain bus routes/contracts to private companies or garbage pickup. There's the threat of losing the contract if performance is poor. Hiring subcontractors who have the same incentive as government workers doesn't seem to work.

I'm not aware of any major U.S. transit system that has been privatized. The privatization efforts that I'm aware of in our transportation system have to do with roads, like the Virginia HOT lanes.

Do you think this would make our transit system more accountable to riders, or just set us up for a different type of failure? (I'm not sure we could get a big round of applause for Pepco's performance in its sphere.)

We're headed to Ocean City for the first time on Saturday, and we're staying in the far north end of town (117th St.). What's the best way to get there? Straight out 50 and up? 50 to 90? Head toward Rehoboth and drive down? Also, if the Bay Bridge traffic sounds horrible on Saturday, does it ever make sense to drive all the way up Newark, Del. and drive down?

The Bay Bridge would have to be completely knocked out for it to make sense to drive up to Newark and then head south. The traffic up around there is usually pretty bad during reach-the-beach times.

You could take 50 to 404 and then 16. But I'd like to hear advice from other drivers who might do this trip routinely.

When driving from the northeast to the southeast, and you know you're going to pass through Wash DC between 7am-9am or 4pm-6pm what's the best route to avoid rush hour gridlock?

Not an easy question, and I'm not sure there's one right answer. It can vary from day to day, or even from the morning rush to the afternoon rush.

If you're a long distance driver going northeast to southeast, I'd stick with I-95 and the Beltway. I think the problem with the work zone on the Beltway inner loop in Virginia is clearing up. I'd stick with the biggest highway in town rather than trying to get fancy.

Here again: Other views?

Can you give us a summary of the potential impact on the Metro system of the extension that the Loundon County board just approved? How does Metro intend to supply the train cars, maintenance personnel, track workers, etc. when it has trouble maintaining the current system? Thanks.

Metro has many problems operating the existing system. I think it's going to be very difficult to add in the Silver Line. At least that will happen in two phases. The first one, opening in late 2013 or early 2014, goes through Tysons Corner and west to Wiehle Avenue.

Most of the additional riders from phase 1 will be commuters who shift their station to Wiehle Ave. Metro will most likely be shifting bus routes, too.

The adjustments people are having to make for Rush Plus shows how difficult the integration of the new line will be. The advent of the Silver Line is a major reason behind Rush Plus. It's all about the capacity of the Rosslyn tunnel.

As for the personnel, Metro's new budget contains a lot of money to start staffing up for the Silver Line service.

Dr. Gridlock, There's a point in my commute (near the intersection of Goldsboro Road and Bradley Blvd. in Bethesda) where a VERY large downed tree limb has been sitting for over a week now, partially obstructing one lane of traffic. I'm wondering whose responsibility it is to remove that tree limb--Montgomery County, or the property owners. Thanks!

Those are two state road, so if there's a tree limb blocking a lane, I would think the Maryland State Highway Administration would be interested. You could try calling the maintenance shop at 301-513-730.

Or use this online service form:


(There may be extenuating circumstances, of course, that make it somebody else's problem. But I'd start with SHA  just because of the location.)

How long will the outer loop local lanes narrow to one lane from Van Dorn to the Eisenhower Connector?

Till around the end of this month. The Wilson Bridge project is paving the Beltway lanes to put the THRU and LOCAL lanes in their final, and full, configuration.

The narrowing of the LOCAL section to a single lane has been a problem for drivers for several weeks. It's not just that there's a single lane. It's also a question of drivers needing to decide whether they want to be on the THRU or LOCAL side before they reach the split.

But once all the lanes are open, drivers should be pleased with the result. It will end that bottleneck that has prevented outer loop drivers from enjoying the full benefit of the widened Wilson Bridge.

I waited in the crowd at Pentagon City after the stalled train was cleared while 10 nearly empty outbound trains passed and 2 trains too full to board hopelessly stopped and left in the inbound direction. It seems that turning just one of those outbound trains around earlier could have cleared the crowds off the platforms at at least 1 or 2 stations. Is there a reason Metro's operations isn't nimble enough to make these kinds of quick decisions?

I don't know in detail what happened this morning. So this is more general: Metro controllers do worry about crowding of the platforms after a rush hour train is disabled. They do unload trains before they finish their scheduled runs and send them back into the crowded part of the line to ease the situation on those platforms.

Where the trains turn around depends on the track configuration. There has to be a switch or a pocket track that will allow the train to turn back.

On Saturday. No delay on any line. 23 minutes waiting for a blue line going to Rosslyn from Pentagon City. TWENTY-THREE MINUTES! Why does Metro hate its customers?

I'm not sure about the no delays part. For example, on  Saturday afternoon, there was a disabled train on the Blue Line, and there may have been others. (Metro did abandon the scheduled delays for the maintenance program because of the derailment on the Green Line.

Also, aboveground trains were required to slow down to 35 mph as a precaution against any more heat kinks, which could have led to more derailments.

But even if things are going okay, there are big gaps between trains on weekends.  Some people would be better off driving.

Is there any chance Metro will re-visit their Blue Line train decision during rush hour? For us Blue Train riders our commute has become a nightmare. Do you think a grassroots campaign or contacting our representatives in Congress/House would help? Thank you, Anne - Alexandria, VA

Anne, I think riders should become more active politically. There's no sense just stewing if people think the system isn't delivering the service they expect. Aside from Congress, there are the local governments that appoint the members of the Metro board. And there's the Metro Riders' Advisory Council. (Next meeting is Wednesday evening at Metro headquarters.)

With Rush Plus and the Blue Line situation: I haven't heard a proposal that would allow Metro to just put things back the way they were. What I mean is that any major revision would have to include a way to deal with the Silver Line trains and the Rosslyn tunnel.

Maybe there is a way to do that, but I haven't heard it. (Maybe that's what blue ribbon commissions are for.)

Hi Doc - as an Easthern Shore resident who commutes daily into DC for work, can I make a plea to folks going to the beach? PLEASE understand that we live there! Yes, Route 50 gets bad, but if someone is trying to get on the highway, DO NOT refuse to allow them to merge into traffic because you are crabby about being held up reaching your vacation destination. I leave my house to run erands by about 7 am on Saturdays in July and August, because even though I only have to travel a short distance to the 50/301 split, the beach-bound drivers will not me allow to merge into traffic. I bascially have to force the nose of my car in, and I am just trying to get left as far as possible to take 301 to Centreville. Lighten up people - the beach will still be there when you arrive, and we locals are not trying to cheat you out of something. It's also not safe for you to drive that aggressively!

You're certainly not the first Eastern Shore resident who has mentioned this problem to me and called for a little consideration.

Too many drivers are assuming the Eastern Shore routes were built simply to get them from DC to OC.

What guarantees do we have from VDOT whose computer modelling leaves alot to be desired that when these lanes finally open that traffic will not be backed up past Philly and Pitsburgh to NE and NW and the NC? VA to the south. When closing a small section fo the left lane of the outerloop has traffic backed up to GA Ave I just dont see these lanes be anything but a total a disaster for months. Not to mention a financial disaster. So does VDOT have a backup plan which should be open the lanes to everyone!!!!!

When the 495 Express Lanes open late this year, there's certainly a chance we'll see traffic issues that we didn't anticipate. But it's hard to imagine how the HOT lanes would make traffic worse than it is now.

For one thing, you're removing 14 miles of work zones. For another, you're adding four new lanes to the existing eight.

Re: privatization of subways: I've heard of no city doing this. Contracting out bus lines, though - especially through the system that London uses - can increase capacity, frequency, reliability, etc., while saving a jurisdiction money. Also, why oh why oh why will WMATA not conduct a study about an additional Rosslyn portal/separated Blue Line?! This is a major, massive, wildly necessary project that has needed serious consideration for a long time. The longer they wait, the harder it will be.

With all privatization plans, one of my concerns is how the private companies will make money. The HOT lanes will make money from toll revenue, and there's no limit on how high the toll can go. If we privatized the Metrobus lines, what would the fare be? Would the lines be restricted to the ones with ridership so high they could possibly turn a profit for the private companies?

With the Rosslyn situation: I've heard no serious proposal to resolve one of the region's key transportation problems, which is the capacity of the Rosslyn tunnel. We're seeing the consequences of this in Rush Plus. Metro isn't building the Silver Line and the Silver Line wasn't Metro's idea. But Metro will have to operate it, finding ways to accommodate those extra trains.

Dr. Gridlock, Although I have noticed that you seem to mention driving more and more as an option over Metro (which, to those of us without cars and who wish to remain without cars is not very useful), I still appreciate the amount of time and space you dedicate to metro issues. However, last week a commenter referred to metro riders as "losers" and lambasted you for answering our questions and you didn't address his rude comment in your response. It was completely uncalled for to call any group "losers" and the discourse should remain more civil than that.

I think Metro riders make a big contribution to the health of the region's transportation system. They're definitely not "losers."

If there's something about Metro riders that bothers me, it's that many who complain seem unwilling to act on their complaints. If riding Metro is intolerable, they should either become politically active in fixing the problems or find alternative forms of transportation that leave them feeling less abused. That might involve driving, but it might also involve biking or walking.

I know I can hardly speak alone when I say that I moved here a) for a specific job and b) because that job and my house did not require me to own a car. Switching methods on the weekend is just not an option. MANY PEOPLE DO NOT OWN A CAR.

Many people do not own cars. Several hundred thousand people ride Metro on weekends. Besides buses, bikes and walking, alternatives include using one of the car-sharing services. Alternatives also include becoming politically involved.

I remember in past years that many Metro board members simply did not show up for scheduled meetings -despite being paid by their respective jurisdictions to do so. How would you summarize the current board's attendance?

Better than in the past. What has always bothered me most about the board is that it appears to be more responsive to it's investors than to its customers.

The board is very attentive to the governments that provide the funding. Board members carry out their fiduciary responsibilities. They don't do enough to explore what it would take to make the customers happy.

Thanks for taking my question Dr. G! My SmartTrip works perfectly at the fare gates of my typical commuting stations (Fed Ctr SW, Landover, Cheverly), but I've encountered serious issues every time I travel to/from a few other stations: notably at the Farraguts, L'Enfant, and Foggy Bottom. At these stations, I have to try any number of methods to get the faregate to read my card, and I usually have to try multiple gates before it will read. My typical 1-2 second transaction becomes anywhere from 15-45 seconds at these stations. I can't imagine the issue is my card since it's fine at a majority of stations (and every time I ride the bus). Have you heard from any other riders with a similar issue?

I also have problems from time to time with my card, but I can't relate that to particular stations. I'll try one fare gate, and if that reader doesn't work, just move over to the next one. Then I see someone else go through the one that didn't work for me.

I've asked station managers to check my card -- I guess it's about a decade old -- but they don't find any problem.

From time to time, people write in and describe similar experiences. Those fare gate readers are very old technology and should be replaced.

Hi Dr. Gridlock, It's amazing what effect small changes can have on traffic flow on 495 in VA. The addition of the continuous transition lane on the inner loop between I-66 and Route 7 has really helped improve flow. It seems like more of these similar transition lanes are desperately needed in places, such as on the outer loop at the same location (between Route 7 and I-66) and also between Georgetown Pike and the Dulles Toll Rd. Do you know if the current 495 construction work will add more of these vital transition lanes? I am not able to find any detail on this on the Express Lanes/VDOT website.

That one between 66 and 7 was a side benefit of the 495 Express Lanes project but I don't know of anything else in that particular category.

We have gotten a lot of interchanges rebuilt through this project, but remember, it's basically a project designed to add four HOT lanes to the Beltway, not to make general improvements.

For that, you've got to pay extra.

Hi There, I thought WMATA did a very good job deploying extra people on the platform on Saturday to guide folks at Ft. Totten during the green line shake up. It looked like a lot of the workers were temps, but they were there and they were visible! That's what matters. Regarding the announcements on the train, those weren't 100%. The announcement i heard made it seem that the train I boarded was terminating at Ft. Totten, and if I wanted to go further than that I had to get on a different train. It wasn't until the train took off, that the conductor alerted passengers to the shuttle buses. On Sunday I went to my first ever Nats game at the new stadium, and thought the mass exodus to the Metro after the game couldn't have gone any smoother. (Unless you count the passengers who stop walking as soon as they get in the car, blocking all those behind.)

Most complaints about the shuttle buses are about the immediate emergencies, such as the time right after the Friday derailment. It takes Metro a long time -- a very long time, if you're a rider waiting in the heat -- for Metro to get the buses and the supervisory personnel to the scene.

Once the thing is set up, it seems to go pretty smoothly. On those weekends when Metro plans for shuttle buses to bridge the gap across a work zone, the operation seems to go pretty smoothly. In fact, I've gotten letters from riders praising those operations.


Saturday is move out day for Rehoboth, so don't go north and take 16 unless you want to wait in 1 South traffic.

Thanks for the reach the beach tip.

The CTA is closing down 10 miles of the Red Line (southern portion) to complete repairs in five months instead of the estimated two years it would take to conduct the repairs overnight and on the weekends. It's a radical decision which will cause massive disruptions but it will get the work done sooner. Has METRO ever considered ripping off the bandage in the same way?

I've heard no proposal from the transit staff, the Metro board or regional leaders to shut down any big part of the rail system for any extended period of time.


I commute occasionally from Springfield-College Park. I generally find the Wilson Bridge side of the Beltway (95/495) to be less traffic these days during the rush hours. However, it does vary, so before I usually leave I check google maps, as well as a local radio station (WTOP 103.5 FM - with traffic at every :x8 minute mark). Keep in mind the traffic station will say "inner loop/outer loop" which confuses the non-locals, so you will have to train your long-haul self in advance.

Thanks for the advice following on our long distance driving question.

Thanks, as always, for joining me. I'm going to try to follow up on several questions and comments by using the Dr. Gridlock blog this week. One other think I want to talk about is the Green Line train stranding last Tuesday, which I hope the transit staff and Metro board will review.

Write to me any time at drgridlock@washpost.com. Stay safe, and come back to us next Monday.

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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