Dr. Gridlock chat

Jul 16, 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. Let's get started with some of your concerns about Metro's performance and about the new VDOT E-ZPass fees. But we're open to all your concerns and questions.

Dear Dr. Gridlock, While one wants not always to be griping about Metro, this morning's red line delays one again seem to reinforce one's sense that Metro persists in raising fares while failing to improve reliability. The red line was so slow during rush hour, delayed, apparently, by a broken train and closed station at Dupont, a sick customer someplace else, and seemingly at least one other thing. The driver was apologetic, but the fact remains that many folks were delayed in getting to work. So here is my question: can one REASONABLY expect Metro to step up its reliability as it again moves forward with fare increases? Metro is expensive and at some point, driving will come to seem a better option for many commuters.

First, If any Metro riders think they would be better off driving, they should try it and see if it really is better. It might be. For some, it might save time -- especially on weekends -- or be more reliable, or just make you feel more in control of your commute.

Metro riders have had a bad month. During that time, I've been trying to make the point that if riders are really angry, they shouldn't just sit there and take it. Either change your commuting behavior or get active in changing Metro. The latter could happen by getting involved in the Metro Riders' Advisory Council or with the political jurisdictions that appoint the members of the Metro board.

But specifically about the commenters concerns: I don't recall Metro officials  -- board members or staff -- stating a quid pro quo on the fare increases. Maybe some readers today can cite something I'm forgetting, but I just don't remember them saying, if you pay this much, you'll get this improvement.

I don't say this to let them off the hook. Actually, I think it would be much healthier if the staff and the board would address their customers very specifically on the issue of what's going to get better and when.

At this point, riders can't distinguish between disruptions that are scheduled and those that are unscheduled. It's all the same to them, because it all means delays.

On this morning's disruption at Dupont Circle: Unlike the Green Line stranding on July 3, which I've been describing as a scary mess that put riders at risk, I think something actually went right in Metro's response to the service disruption at Dupont Circle.

With the southside exit shut off for the escalator replacements, Metro needs to be vigilant in protecting the station platforms from overcrowding. There are two main ways to do that: Temporarily shut the northside entrance, and have trains skip the station.

The fact that Metro did those things in a timely fashion actually inspires confidence.

Robert, this bogus fee plan is the start of a very slippery slope. Every inch of the consumer's wallet is being hammered by increases...can't think of anything that is going down in price now-a-days. So back on topic...regarding this new fee, would you kindly tell those folks who drive periodically into DC by picking up slugs...what should we do? Do we need to get a different transponder or keep the current one and get this special HOV lane one too? Thanks for your insight!

You may know that in this debate about the Virginia Department of Transportation starting to charge a maintenance fee for E-ZPass accounts, my particular concern has been with the slugs, the commuters who do themselves and everyone else a favor by gathering into carpools for the trip along I-95/395.

To address your practical question: If you're going to carpool on I-95 after the HOV lanes are converted to HOT lanes -- which I think will be in 2015 -- you'll need to have the new transponder, the E-ZPass Flex. That's the one that can be switched to the carpool setting.

I don't see any point in having more than one transponder.

Doc - According to VDOT's press release the new E-ZPass fee structure goes into effect September 1, 2012. However further down in the release it states that basically if you make any changes to an account after July 9, 2012 (adding or replacing a transponder) the new fees are applicable. So which is it, September 1 or July 9?

My understanding is that if you make any changes to your Virginia E-ZPass account after July 9, then the new fees will apply to your account as of Sept. 1.

Do you ever get complaints about DC cops driving motorcycles on the sidewalk? I almost go hit by one a few minutes ago at the corner of 14th & H. Somebody, presumably the President, had just passed, and the copy was doing duty on that. Instead of going around the block on surface roads like the entire rest of the world, he came down the sidewalk going what I would guess was at least 15mph with nary a warning to pedestrians. He did this simply because H St is one way one, was trying to get to 14th, and was too lazy to go around the block.

You have the honor of being the first to register this type of complaint here. When we talk about a problem with cycles on the downtown sidewalks, we're usually talking about bicycles. Though they weigh less and are unmotorized, they've represented quite a hazard to walkers.

I noticed on Metro's track work calendar, and I believe you've mentioned this before, that they are planning to shut down the Yellow and Green lines through downtown over the long Labor Day weekend. The Green Line would be closed between Waterfront and Gallery Place. This cuts off the southern part of the line - including Nationals Park - from the rest of the system. The Nats are drawing huge crowds this year and have home games that entire weekend. Metro can't possibly have enough shuttle buses in their fleet to accommodate the crowds. If half the fans take Metro (just a guess), that's roughly 18,000-20,000 follks. Does WMATA not take these types of things into account when setting their schedules? How can we get them to scrap this plan? I sent them an email several weeks back and just got a canned response.

Stand down. On Thursday, Dave Kubicek, Metro's rail boss, announced that Metrorail is cancelling the portion of the maintenance program that would have closed stations on the Green and Yellow lines throughout the Labor Day weekend.

Metro already had heard from a lot of folks who shared your concerns on that.


To whom it may concern: Thank you, thank you, thank you for repaving Piney Branch Rd from the district line to university boulevard. The road was one of the worst roads to travel on beforehand. The work isnt complete, but it is already so much better than before.

It was very bad -- especially between University Blvd and Sligo Creek. Just two concerns:

For the pavers, please be sure to get the lane markings down right.

For drivers, please don't let all that good paving work become an excuse to speed. That's one of the most dangerous areas for pedestrians in all of Montgomery County.

(Just a bit north of there, I'm pleased to see the paving work that is going to add some traffic calming elements on Franklin Avenue, which many commuters use as a shortcut.)

With this morning's disaster at Dupont (thankfully I had to be in to the office early today so I managed to avoid it), what's the status of the escalator repairs? We're nearly 6 months into it, and I haven't heard a peep for a while. I also hate to see how the escalators to the platform on the south side of the station continue to run incessantly, despite being closed. Is this thing running on schedule or not? Given Metro's knack for over promising/under delivering, I'm going to guess not.

[This came in before the commenter would have had a chance to see my earlier response re Dupont Circle.] I think my own description of the morning situation at Dupont would be "disaster averted."

I don't mean it's okay for trains to break down and cause delays at rush hour. I do mean you and I would be all over Metro officials if they allowed a train breakdown to put riders at risk inside the station when they knew in advance of the escalator replacement that dangerous crowding was a possibility.

Keeping those platform-mezzanine escalators running is part of the safety plan worked out beforehand between Metro and emergency responders.

If people need to be shifted quickly from one platform to another, or get to the one mezzanine-street escalator on the southside that's always available as an emergency staircase, it's better to have the platform-mezzanine escalators working.

Meanwhile, the escalator replacement is on schedule for an October reopening.

Can you please address the rumor that metro wants to double the wait time for trains across the board, including rush hour? If they do this , the orange line will be back to the waiting times we had before Rush plus (and crowded platforms) and the blue line people will have almost no reason to use metro at any point.

What we're talking about is the standard for train headways that the Metro staff introduced at last Thursday's board committee meeting.

Right now, Metro doesn't have a minimum standard on train headways, or on several other basic performance characteristics, such as rail car crowding.

So first, I think that if the full board adopts the headway standard, it won't make a bit of difference to your experiences aboard the trains -- certainly not in the near future.

Second, I think it's a good thing for Metro to have standards. Potentially, it's a way of increasing accountability.

My main concern at the moment -- and what I plan to address in next Sunday's column -- is about the presentation of the standards proposal last week.

Many riders got the same message that this commenter did: That Metro wants to double the wait time. Given Metro's problems over the past several years, this interpretation was only natural. And the fact that the transit staff and the Metro board didn't appear to see that coming really bothers me.

The staff and board members should have been falling all over themselves to say they understand how the riders feel about what's been happening and how seriously they take the establishment of standards so close to their customers' daily experience.

There was some discussion of this last Thursday, but nowhere near enough. And the strongest takeaway was that board members were baffled about what this means and the staff was having a hard time explaining it.

The committee finally passed an amended version of the original draft on standards so the full board could consider it later this month. But what was the rush on so important a topic to riders?

Dr. Gridlock, is the whole track work schedule shifting? We are planning a big event on Red Line, have always run shuttles to Metro, we were considering running to Green Line. Any chance the whole thing will shift a little further into fall? The original plan -- Red line shut from Dupont Circle thru NY Ave, would making the trip nearly impossible.

It's not a wholesale shifting of the track work schedule. The Red Line project is still on.

I'll give you a link to a Metro pdf document that shows the schedule of major track work for the rest of the year:


What you're looking for is the part toward the end marked "Total Shutdowns."

Not to knock you, but I noticed the post did not seem to have any update on it's webpage this morning. There was an article last update at 8:14 that said Metro was running normally. If there was an update that said an entire Metro Station was closed in the middle of rush hour, I can't find it. A lot of people depend on the post for news about metro's status, given Metro's own inability to be honest and accurate. It just feels like the ball got dropped this morning.

I'm glad you would normally find those morning reports helpful. They take up a big part of the work day for "Mark in the Morning" Berman. Mark has been on vacation, but when he's on duty, he tries to provide some basic guidance for a.m. commuters about both the roads and rails. (That's on the Dr. Gridlock blog and on the drgridlock Twitter feed.)

So Unsuck DC Metro is saying there may be considerably longer waits, sometimes up to 30 minutes. Is this true, and doesn't this completely make the whole Rush + thing completely a lie? It would reset the amount of trains on the orange line to pre rush plus, and basic make the blue line almost useless?

The reason last week's meeting was so vexing is that the transit staff and the Metro board members should have addressed these questions explicitly.

The interpretation that Metro is going to use the basic minimum standard as a basis for rescheduling trains is not some paranoid fantasy. It's a natural conclusion that many riders drew, based on their experience with Metrorail over the past several years.

I don't believe that adopting the standard is going to make 15 minute headways at rush hour or 30 minute headways off-peak into a goal.

I think the standards issue has no significant connection to Rush Plus service. Rush Plus put more trains on two lines. It did, however, subtract from service on the Blue Line. There's now a 12 minute headway between  Pentagon and Rosslyn during Rush Plus hours. We've discussed the problems this is creating for many riders.

I think that's the biggest schedule gap we'll see, though Metro has not publicly announced a train schedule for the first phase of the Silver Line, starting in late 2013 or early 2014.

What gives you the impression that metro cares? I'm not kidding. They launched an ad campaign that says we were able to tell metro had delays so we could change our reservation. They are awful at communication and have a long history or rude service. I wish I could believe they cared, but the facts are overwhelmingly against this point.

I know many transit staffers who care about providing good service. I think the Metro Board needs to show more leadership and to be the voice of the customers.

We talk very often about Metro's communication failures. That was evident in the two Green Line incidents this month. And I thought it was evident in last week's board committee meetings, on issues like the setting of standards.

Personally, I'm extremely anti-Metro and have been since they stopped giving frequent riders benefits to cancel out rush-hour fare costs. However, I think it's extremely short-sighted and disingenous for a transportation journalist, such as yourself, to actually recommend turning your back on a mass transit solution that has continues to consume so much or our regional governments' budgets. Whether we ride or not, we are all paying for Metro, and will continue to for decades. As a journalist, responding to questions about the system's performance by suggesting that people just give up on the system doesn't solve anything. The Post, and citizens need to get tough with an agency that is slow to change and adapt to changing economic conditions, and rarely listens to requests. Metro needs to be exposed for the corrupt agency it is, and only a credentialed journalist can do that. Recommending people get off the rails is not going to get anything accomplished Dr. Gridlock. You, and you fellow reporters, need to step up and put some heat on these cronies and put their feet to the fire. Until Metro's corruption and incompitence is fully exposed, we will all continue to throw money away, even if we never ride the system again!!

I've never suggested that the DC region should abandon Metro. I've said repeatedly that I object to riders just sitting there and taking it if they find the experience of riding Metro to be horrible.

Far as I can see, they can do two things: Change their mode of commuting, or get active in changing the transit system.

People ask me for advice on how to make their travels easier, less frustrating. If they tell me they're considering driving, I tell them they should try that and see if it works better. I'm not into transportation ideology.

I have recently heard that Loudoun Supervisor Ken Reid is having second thoughts about his vote. Is there any chance he, and therefore the board, could reverse their approval of the financing plan? Please say no!

I don't see how the Loudoun board could revisit it's decision. Don't you think the board would be a laughing-stock if it did so?

You mention it would be good for Metro to have standards and increase accountability? At the meeting, board member Kathy Porter asked what would happen. The response from Sarles, was that it would go in a report. How does that fix anything? No one is held accountable.

It was around that point in the exchange between the board and staff that it became clear board members were baffled about why this standard was needed and it became equally evident that the staff was having a hard time explaining it.

"For the pavers, please be sure to get the lane markings down right. For drivers, please don't let all that good paving work become an excuse to speed. That's one of the most dangerous areas for pedestrians in all of Montgomery County." Good points! Im surprised you know this much detail, do you try to drive all the roads around town? It is true, the lane markings arent done yet, and there had been alot of confusion southbound at Sligo Creek, where there was a left only lane before. For awhile, it wasnt marked, but there seems to be a temporary marker now that they paved the right lane. Lots of pedestrians in that area, as you know, one was killed over the weekend on University in that area.

I'm sorry to hear about the pedestrian crash over the weekend.

Generally speaking, I'm not blaming drivers or pedestrians as categories in creating the problems in this area, but just urging everyone to recognize the danger and be careful.

Thank you so much for the answer about the shutdown Sept. 7-9. This will help us question WMATA -- bus bridges? More Green Line trains? All we had were the dates and stations.

Weekend disruptions in the "Major Shutdown" category split the lines and involve bus bridges. There's another page on Metro's Web site that has more detail about the effects of the major track work on weekends, but I think it hasn't yet been updated to reflect the cancellation of the Labor Day weekend disruption on the Green and Yellow lines:


(Also, for everybody, those lists tell you when lines get split and the bus bridges come in. They don't tell you about the other sort of disruptions that don't split lines but do involve trains sharing tracks.)

I feel very lucky to have the option to commute by car, and I'm taking advantage of it. Not sure if I'll be missed by Metro but let me tell you, I'm sure not missing Metro. I used to be a regular Metro rider but I'm finding the financial and emotional value of driving, not to mention time savings. Wish I had a way to cash in the $$ on my SmartTrip card....

I'm glad this is working for you, and you know I tell people to explore their options. Some people tell me they have no other options than to ride Metro.

I lived overseas and out of state for over 6 years. And now that I've been back in the DC area, I've noticed that no one does that friendly "thank you" wave or hand signaling in the rear view mirror when someone makes room for you to change lanes, or merge into the lane. I seem to remember people doing it all the time before and it was nice, you slow down to let somebody move over, and they wave thank you. Whatever happened to that?

I drove around Ireland for a couple of weeks. Everybody waved at everybody. They didn't need an excuse. They were just saying, Hi. When I got back, I had to unlearn some of that behavior, because people gave me that stare, like they were thinking, "Do I know you?"

During the power failures after the big storm, when so many signals were out, we could have used a lot more waving and hand-signaling at the darkened intersections.

Weren't multiple companies given the opportunity to bid on building the Beltway Express Lanes? Why can't VDOT subcontract the EZPass administration out to a 3rd party to lower costs? Heck, I'd do it on my home computer for a fraction of what they are proposing to charge account holders. What are the real "administrative costs?" Maintaining a database is a pretty minimal cost in the grand scheme of things.

People who had E-ZPass accounts before July 9 won't be charged anything. A new E-ZPass account, or an old one that adds or changes standard transponders, will be charged 50 cents a month.

That's not the sort of business I'd like to take over, and try to run at a profit.

Hi, Dr. G. Question: If the whole idea of Rush Plus for those of us Metro riders living in Rosslyn is to reduce the congestion in the Rosslyn tunnel by the Blue Line, may I ask why I still see Blue Line trains during the Rush Plus operating hours of 8:30-9 AM? Regarding the handling of sick riders, how exactly are these folks identified now? Does somebody see somebody else, call the operator, explain the situation, tell the operator which car the person is in, and then Metro Transit police officers are alerted to board that car with the sick person in it at the next station, or is some other method in place? Can this operation be performed better w/o inconveniencing other riders? Thanks.

The Rush Plus concept is a little more complicated. It was designed to clear room in the Rosslyn tunnel for the eventual addition of Silver Line trains. It wasn't designed to ban Blue Line trains from the tunnel.

On sick customers: It's likely that communication starts with a fellow passenger using the intercom to report a problem to the train operator, who calls the Operations Control Center and arranges for emergency responders to meet the train and help the sick person.

This is a significant cause of delays, and we've been talking about it for years, but I haven't heard of a better method for helping a person who becomes ill on a train.

You said earlier in the chat: "Right now, Metro doesn't have a minimum standard on train headways, or on several other basic performance characteristics, such as rail car crowding." This is untrue - see pages 9 and 11 of the Metro .pdf found here: Link

Look at page 67 (by the Metro page numbering). WMATA has no formal standard for train headways or passengers per rail car.

So if riders complain and put heat on their local elected officials to reduce funding, Metro will just turn around and raise fares. However, even if funding stays the same or increases (as it did from 2009 and 2010), Metro raises fares. Either way, the riders suffer. What are we supposed to do to improve Metro? Please don't say get into our cars, because I don't have one. The goofballs at Metro just don't listen. They act like the only way to run a subway system is their way. Their are dozens of successful subway systems around the world, and Metro doesn't employ half of the great ideas that they use to make Metro a safer and more efficient system. It's almost like there are a bunch of high school dropouts throwing darts at a board coming up with "ideas" without actually listening to the people that have first hand experience of how poorly their subway system is operating, the riders!!

I can't imaging why riders would put heat on local officials to reduce Metro funding. That would be like parents putting heat on their county governments to cut public school funding.

I think the goal should be to get the region's governments to make Metro more customer-oriented.


Hi, Any updates on when the outer loop approaching the WWB will be finished? The single local lane is painful. Also, please tell me that once the work's completed, the signs on the outer loop will indicate that all lanes will take you into MD! The current signs imply to out-of-state travelers that only the left 2 lanes are thru and that the right lane is exit-only. Afternoon traffice would be eased if drivers knew they could stay right and still get into MD. Thanks.

Should be done at the end of the month. I agree with you about the need to make it plain that all lanes go through to Maryland, whether they're marked THRU or LOCAL. But I think the problem right now has to do with drivers not paying attention rather than a lack of signs.

Dr Gridlock, You have mentioned in chats before that one way to stand up to WMATA is to become politically active. I would love to do that, but I don't know what people are involved in selecting the board of directors? Who is in charge of this process (or equally important, holding WMATA to some standards) so I can let them know in the upcoming elections that holding metro accountable is an issue that is important to me.

You raise an important concern. Influencing the Metro Board isn't easy for riders. But I'd get after the governors and the mayor, the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission and the D.C. Council. Congress, too.

It's not just a question of voting for or against particular people. They have to know why you're voting -- that Metro service is important to you and a decisive factor in your voting.

Thanks for joining me today. There are a few issues I should continue to talk about with you on the Dr. Gridlock blog, and some others I'll probably slip on to the Commuter page in The Post Metro section this Sunday.

Stay safe this week, and rejoin me 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.
Recent Chats
  • Next: