Dr. Gridlock

Jul 25, 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 see on the radar there are a few storms drifting around the DC region, but otherwise it's just going to be hot again for your commutes this week.

Thanks for joining me as we approach the height of summer vacation season. If find the traffic and Metro crowding to be easing somewhat because of those vacations, but would like to hear about your own experiences.

Meanwhile, the mailbag has questions about some very local issues on traffic and transit, plus some vacation getaway questions.

I read the recent Post article on the Purple line. Am I correct that the line is going to cover about 16 minles but will have mroe than 20 stops? Please say it ain't so! That is far too many stops. It wastes money (especially if each stop will have a station) and increases the travel time for this route considerably. I do not think stops should be closer than 1 mile apart (and would rather 1-1/2 miles between stops).

Yes, there's definitely a trade-off at work here. The more stops there are, the longer it's going take to get from one end of the line to another. But the more stops there are, the more riders the Purple Line can attract.

The planners aren't looking at any big new parking garages or lots along the route. Most of the people riding the Purple Line will live within a quarter mile of the stations.

At least Metro Bus and Fairfax Connector used to have a program where everyone could ride for free on code red or code orange air quality days. Has everyone suspended these programs? Why?

Yes, I believe the last of the free-ride programs was for Montgomery County's Ride On buses, and it ended last year. It wasn't that the air was getting better. The cuts in the programs in Maryland and Virginia were money-saving measures.

What is the rationale behind metro trains skipping every other station? A red line train that I was on during the morning commuting hours skipped New York Ave. and Brooklyn Ave. I don't know if this continued after Brooklyn. A train ahead of the one I was on had to be off-loaded at Metro Center. I don't know if these two issues are related, but thought it was worth mentioning. Thanks for taking the time to answer!

I think you're on the right track in noting the off-load at Metro Center.

Skipping stations isn't something Metro does routinely. When it's done, it's usually because a big gap has emerged in the train service up ahead. (As when a rush hour train is taken out of service.) The platforms in that area get crowded in a hurry. Train controllers need to ease that congestion.

So they take a train operator to announce that the train won't be stopping at a particular station. Usually, they try to avoid skipping transfer stations, and they're supposed to give riders as much notice as possible so they can get off at the station before the skipped stop and wait for the next train, though sometimes riders have to backtrack.

We're heading to Charleston SC this week, how early do we need to get onto I-95 Southbound to avoid the Saturday vacation crawl? Should we consider driving a few hours Friday night to get past Richmond? Thanks so much. Mary Vienna VA

I like your thought about getting out of the DC area and past Richmond on Friday night. (Night, rather than late afternoon or early evening.)

The southbound traffic does tend to be pretty heavy on summer Saturday mornings.

Some drivers, of course, won't like the Friday night departure, because it adds the expense of a motel stop. They'd rather get up early -- really early -- and clear the area while most people are still asleep.

One Virginia road project got done a bit early this summer, and I hope will provide some relief: That's the widening of I-95 to four lanes between the Fairfax County Parkway and Route 123.

So, is this the best VDOT can do? On the eastbound side, it's an extra 15-20 minutes every morning even at 7AM in the middle of summer. On the westbound side, where they now have the two left lanes suddenly merging in the area before the toll plaza without so much as a warning sign (multiple complaints to VDOT via calls, emails and tweets have gone unresponded to), there's been a side-swipe accident nearly every evening as your lane suddenly vanishes. I cannot wait to see what the September crunch will bring. And we get to deal with this until "late 2012"? Do these "engineers" and "mega projects director(s)/spokespeople" ever actually DRIVE on these roads at rush hours? The lane-marking debacle is a prime example of their sheer and utter incompetence, bordering on wanton negligence.

I think the HOT lanes construction zone where the eastbound Toll Road meets the Beltway remains the top source of road work complaints I receive, despite VDOT's efforts to tweak the design of the work zone.

Most of the drivers I've heard from lately are those on the left side of the Toll Road who are trying to go straight on toward I-66. (Originally, back in June, the focus was on the lanes heading to the Beltway ramps.)

The problem now, I think, is that VDOT can't shrink the work zone much more, if any more, because that left-hand area is where a new ramp is going to be built.

I agree that this area is likely to be very bad when everybody is back from vacation in September.

I read Allison Klein and Josh White fascinating look at how car thefts have plummeted. I have one suggestion that could further help local police departments: If a stolen car triggers a speed camera or red-light camera, the police should be immediately notified. My story: My wife's car was stolen about two years ago from in front of our home on Capitol Hill. It was recovered about three weeks later, but not before we received two tickets for speeding, both from the same traffic camera in SE. It would have been nice if police had been notified that a stolen car was just photographed, but they were not. But there was a happy ending: Not only did we get the car back, but we successfully were able to get the speeding tickets thrown out because we were able to prove that we weren't in possession of the car at that time.

Sorry to hear you had to go through that.

For other readers, here's a link to the car-theft story:


Two thoughts on the camera idea. My understanding from talking to camera people is that the equipment isn't set up for those sorts of immediate transmissions and reviews of photos. And I'm not sure how motorists -- and the public generally -- would react to converting those single-purpose cameras into what many would come to regard as police surveillance cameras.

I do support the use of red light and speed cameras. I don't have the same enthusiasm for broader surveillance of travelers.


Time for my yearly plead- Metro please put a large sign at the entrance to the College Park Metro (not garage) explaining how Smart Cards are required to exit the garage. Like the red one at Greenbelt that they rarely put on display. At least once a week I find myself stuck behind someone at the garage gate. And frankly it is embarrassing how we treat visitors to the nations capital.

Yes, it still happens a lot, and I have a feeling it's more so during the summer, when we have so many visitors to the DC area using Metro.

Signs help, but I think the better solution is to upgrade the exits so they all can take a variety of credit cards.

I thought I learned in driver's ed that at at four way stop, the right of way rotates around, but have noticed in Alexandria that the north-south drivers both go and then the east-west drivers both go at the same time. Is this just a local thing, or is the new approach to four-way stops?

There's certainly been no change in the Virginia driver's manual. I can imagine what a driver is thinking: I might as well go when the opposite driver goes, because the car on the right won't be pulling out at that moment anyway.

But that gets everyone out of sync. The idea is that in those situations of potential conflict, driver behavior should be predictable. (Of course, trust but verify.)

If you read the VA constitution and if you are a taxpayer in VA the state is prohibited from passing laws or regs which prohibit you from using facilities constructed with state tax dollars. VA tax payers must have equal access. Now if you are from out of state they can legally enforce these laws an regs for HOt lanes and HOV.

I think the rules governing the creation of HOT lanes and HOV lanes are set by the federal government.

A longtime Metrorail rider, I'm disappointed and frustrated by last week's reversal of the original decision to build the new Metrorail station at Dulles underground and close to the terminal. Like the reader whose inquiry you published in yesterday's print edition of the Post (Sunday, July 24), I urge that a surcharge on Metrorail trips terminating at or originating from a new underground station could pay its incremental cost. How can we get decisionmakers to consider this proposal? There must be a way to get this one right for the long haul. Thank you. Michael J. Grace Arlington, VA

For those of you who may have missed the development, the airports authority last week caved to political pressure and decided not to put the Dulles Airport Metro station where air travelers are likely to use it. Instead, it will be aboveground, across the surface parking lot from the terminal.

No question that the cost of the rail project needs to come down and that Dulles Toll Road drivers shouldn't be paying such a big part of the cost. But making the airport station inconvenient to airport travelers should have been a last resort, not a top priority.

And yes, Mr. Grace here, I think that at least part of the burden of paying for a rail link should fall to air travelers. I like the idea of adding a surcharge for use of the Dulles station, though I think the ridership at that particular station -- even if it were conveniently located -- wouldn't be enough to solve the overall financial issue. (It would certainly help, though.)

Metro has told us that closing stations is less disruptive than single tracking... Shutting down a station on the Orange line is definitely "major trackwork" butsingle tracking the Red line from Dupont to Judiciary Square through two of the most heavily used transfer stations is hardly "minor work" given the impact of the delays on passengers. There were large signs in the Bethesda Station about the track closures, but not the usual "expect delays" signage that has been up for major single tracking in the past. A lot of riders were totally suprised by the delays and single tracking. Prominent signage about major single tracking delays for the Red line at the station entrance would have helped a lot. P.S. Metro deserves kudos for allowing bottled water this wekend.

Agree on the bottled water. That was a smart move.

And yes, I don't consider the single tracking minor. For years now, that's bothered weekend travelers -- especially those who need to transfer trains, adding to the overall length of their delays.

But I do think Metro's doing a good thing by giving us a list way into the future of areas where service train service will be completely shut on weekends.

And I understand the work theory, too: Metro can cram a lot more work into a weekend if it has unlimited access to the track space. At the same time, Metro officials have been pretty happy with the success of the free shuttle buses in handling the ridership between closed stations. It's best if the closed segment doesn't span more than two stations. People can't make a mistake about which shuttle to board if the shuttle is going only to one other stop.

By the way, I write up the Metro weekend delay schedule for the Dr. Gridlock blog every Friday morning.

I recently moved to northern Virginia and had a question - why do so many VA registered cars have license plates that begin with the letter "X"?

That's a mystery to me, and I hadn't noticed that. Virginia has so many specialty tags, but I'm not aware of any that involves an X.

Have there been studies done on adding lanes to a particular road/highway to see if it is counterintuitively counterproductive in terms of relieving traffic delays relative to the costs? Does adding a lane just encourage the marginal commuters who currently don't drive to jump in their cars once the new lane is opened, thereby reaching the same level of traffic delays once it has reached a new equilibrium? How do local governments make those calls on lane additions given this tight budget era?

Yes, there have been studies showing that new lanes tend to get filled up. And it's not just that roads lead to more development leading to more drivers. There also are those marginal drivers who see that all of a sudden the new lanes have eased traffic congestion, so they take to the highways again, leading to more traffic congestion.

There are times when and places where the road network does need more lane capacity. Advocates for that note that when we build a new school and it fills up with kids, we don't say that it's useless to build new schools.

But I think all this has little to do with why governments around here aren't building many brand new roads. They just don't have the money for it.

I have tickets to the soccer game at Fed Fex Field on Saturday. What is the best route to get there from Capitol Hill?

Thanks for this reminder about the 7 p.m. soccer game between Manchester United and Barcelona on Saturday.

From Capitol Hill, I think I'd just take the Blue Line out to Morgan Boulevard and walk north on the sidewalk for about a mile. If driving, I think I'd just head straight out East Capitol Street/Central Avenue.

We are thinking about leaving at 5:30 a.m., is this likely to eliminate much of rush hour traffic as we head north (by 8:00ish we'll be on the NJ Tpke - which I think has the least offensive rush-hour compared to the rest of the places we drive through. Thoughts?

First, I continue to get good reports about traffic through the traditional bottleneck at the I-95 toll plaza in Delaware now that the highway speed E-ZPass lanes have opened.

I like your plan for leavng at 5:30, and think you're right about the NJ Turnpike part. But brace yourself for what comes after that. You're at least likely to encounter heavy traffic through western Conn., and then again as you approach the Bourne or Sagamore bridges to get across the Cape Cod Canal -- and probably someplace before that, too.

You're smart about leaving early on a weekday -- as opposed to trying the same trip on a Saturday. It should definitely be better than that.

Heading to the sold out Man U-Barca game at FedEx this weekend from Silver Spring. Would I save time cutting through the district on 295 to E Capitol/Central Ave. rather than taking the Beltway all the way?

I commented earlier that our Capitol Hill fan should to via East Capitol/Central Avenue, but I doubt it makes sense for you to do that from Silver Spring, where you're right be the Beltway. The Maryland State Highway Administration generally recommends that if you're on the inner loop, you head all the way down to the Beltway's Central Ave. exit, because it tends to be the least crowded of the Beltway exits.

Leave home early.

In Sunday's column you mentioned previuos Metro decisions that have comeback to haunt the system (escalators, number of tracks downtown, etc.) but how much influence (if any) does Metro have over the boneheads at MWAA? This group of non-elected officials has reversed their Dulles Airport Station plans (another mistake) and just want to keep hiking the tolls on the Toll Road they control with very little of the Metro costs being borne by those who would ultimately benefit most from the station at the airport - namely MWAA themselves, the airlines and businesses in western Fairfax and eastern Loudoun counties. Politics trumps overall community interests again.

I do think those 1970s decisions I cited don't look good now, but I don't blame Metro specifically for them. Lots of governments and lots of planners were involved. Today, it's not Metro that I blame for the decision about the airport station location. Metro is close to being a bystander in this process. The fight is between the appointed airports authority board, which is in charge of the rail construction project as well as Dulles airport, and elected leaders in Virginia who either fear the wrath of Dulles Toll Road drivers or just see an opportunity to bash the airports authority.

Of course, the AIRPORTS authority cares deeply about the location of the AIRPORT station. That shouldn't have been a surprise to anyone.  I guess it also shouldn't have been a surprise that Virginia officials didn't care so much about something that won't emerge as problem till after they're out of office.

By the way, I wonder why the state of Virginia is paying such a small share of a project designed to benefit one of its major economic assets (the airport).

I'm going to be driving to the outer banks, leaving on a Friday, and wonder what is the best way to get there without a lot of stress and sitting in traffic.

Let me mention a couple of tips about summer driving to OBX that VDOT says should lessen the stress:

Going to the Outer Banks:

From I-64 East, take I-664 (exit 264) to I-64 West (exit 15B) to Route 168 South/Chesapeake Expressway (exit 290-291)

Leaving the Outer Banks:

From the Chesapeake Expressway Exit 1, Suffolk/Richmond (I-64 East) to exit 299, Richmond (I-664 North) to exit 1A (I-64 West)

Hi Doctor: I have a question that I hope you can get an answer to, because I've had no luck getting an answer from Metro. What is Metro's policy when buses are running considerably ahead of schedule? Other cities have buses hold at a major stop when they are far ahead of schedule (and I've been on Metro trains here that are 'holding for schedule adjustment') . I've missed many buses here because they come 10-15 minutes early (so I see that I am missing them because I am walking to the stop to be there early). This is especially frustrating on Sundays when bus service is so limited. A hold policy would also help address the dreaded (and deliberate) bus bunching. There should never be three buses running back-to-back (I'm talking to you, Metro overseer of the 30s line). The second and third buses should have to wait at least 5 minutes. Please see if you can get an answer; Metro just ignores my question. And please do not suggest that I use NextBus; I find that system a failure.

Plenty of issues with the reliability of Next Bus, though I do find the advisories get more reliable the closer the bus gets to the stop. (That is, if there really is a bus coming.)

Metro has been trying to work out this problem of buses arriving early. There have been some conversations between Metro board members and staff at recent meetings about Metro's rather liberal definition of what it means to be "on time."  That includes being a few minutes early, when in fact, that's often more of a problem for riders than being late. At least if it's late, you're already standing there. If it's way early, you don't know you've missed it.

Holding buses is a matter of supervision. Someone has to tell the driver to wait. (Of course, that's controversial with the riders already on the bus.)

On the Red Line, it has been my experience that we do not get much advance notice that we will be skipping Rockville, a transfer station to MARC and buses. We might be told as early as White Flint (2 stations before Rockville) that we are stopping at Twinbrook but skipping Rockville, but often we are at Twinbrook when we hear we are skipping Rockville.

That's certainly a problem. Skipping Rockville is a problem in the first place, because of the transfers. But it also costs riders more time when they have to backtrack, rather than getting off at the station before the skipped station.

There are 4 ramp/boardwalk-like structures on each sidewalk of the Memorial Bridge (2 on each sidewalk). They appear to be permanent installations and not connected to any repairs or renovations. Does anyone know their purpose or why they were constructed? Just curious.

It's a National Park Service bridge rehab project.

I thought I read around July 4th that the toll construction was completed. Does anyone have a recent account of how freely the traffic is flowing through the DE toll plaza?

The new lanes are open and almost everybody I've heard from has said the traffic is flowing much better.

I fail to understand the gripe being made by the person who submitted the comment with the subject line quoted above. Virginia isn't prohibiting anybody from using the HOV lanes or HOT lanes on any Virginia highway. Anyone is welcome to use the HOV lanes as long as you have the requisite number of people in your vehicle or you satisfy an exemption (unless some other regulation trumps the HOV, such as the requirement that trucks pass through the weigh station on I-95 between Dumfries and Potomac Mills). Likewise, when the HOT lanes open, anyone will be able to use them as long as you either have the three or more people or you pay a toll. In other words, nobody's being "prohibited" from doing anything. You just have to satisfy the eligibility requirements. It seems to me that if you take the prior commenter seriously, then I should have a beef with any public facility in Virginia (say, the State Capitol in Richmond) that prohibits me from using the ladies' room constructed with taxpayer dollars simply because I'm male. I don't think that argument would get me very far if I went in there and the ladies complained, however.


Dr. G, that's far overstating the case against saving hundreds of millions of dollars by building an aboveground station. Do you really think that placing the station adjacent to the airport's existing "Daily Parking Garage," that thousands of air travelers already pay $17 per day to use, means that travelers are "unlikely to use it"? The airport garage already has an underground tunnel with moving walkways connecting it to the terminal -- it takes 5 minutes to walk the distance -- less than it takes to walk from the DCA metro station to Terminal A there. Sure, it's not "as convenient," but it's not a transit apocalypse, either!

Definitely not a sign of the apocalypse. But I think very few air travelers will lug their luggage all the way over to the aboveground station. Maybe they'll try it once.

It's so obvious what's now going to happen that FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff told the Metro board recently that, well, the station really isn't meant for air travelers anyway. It's really for airport workers.

The "not-so-bad" driving routes to FedEx (there are no good ones!) depend on where your parking is. Central Ave/Morgan Blvd for parking on the south side of the stadium, 202 for the north side, Arena Drive for the east side.

Thanks for the advice.

And thanks to all for joining me today. Stay safe out there, and we'll chat again next Monday.

Write to me anytime at drgridlock@washpost.com. I'll try to follow up on a few of today's topics on the Dr. Gridlock blog this week.

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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