Dr. Gridlock

Jul 29, 2013

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.

On Monday, July 29, Dr. Gridlock will be joined by Metro Planning Director Shyam Kannan, who will weigh in on your questions about the long-range plans for Metro in its Momentum program.

Why can't the the Metro train extend to Frederick?. People coming from the north and west go crazy with lane changes on 495 and 270. In the long run, I think it would reduce accidents, gasoline usage, and stress on people and highways. As more people who work in the D.C. area live further north and west, would it not make sense have the metro go further north than Shady Grove? Thank you.

Right now the core of the system is being taxed to and beyond its limits.  Extending the rail system before adding capacity to the core will only exacerbate this problem.  Metro is exploring potential extensions of the system in its long range plan but our immediate focus is, and has to be, adding capacity to the core.

The WMATA 2025 Momentum plan mentions nothing about installing a 3rd track throughout the system. Instead, the plan wastes billions of dollars on a bandaid approach to fixing Metro rail. This plan doesn't represent the input of everyday Metrorail riders. A 3rd track would prevent hour long delays when cars have sick riders or there's a broken train blocking a track.

The Metrorail system was originally designed as a two-track system.  Adding an additional track raises issues related to land ownership, constructability, system integration and certainly cost.  Our two-track system does have infrastructure in place to add routing flexibility.  We are proposing to add additional flexibility in the form of more  pocket tracks and more cross overs as part of Metro 2025.

Given that the aggressive scheduling of weekend maintenance is due to end in 2017, should we expect the resumption of automated Metrorail operations by the end of this period?

We won't have a timetable for return to ATO (automatic train operations) until the current phase is completed, which is a system safety analysis and review by the NSTB. Once we are beyond this step, the GM has said that we will be able to talk about a schedule. 

With the increase in bike riding around DC and the likelihood of more increases in the future, when will metro change the existing limits on taking bikes on metros. Currently, bikes are forbidden from 7-10am and 4-7pm. This doesn't match up with actual periods of metro congestion (or even the RushPlus hours) and is extremely burdensome for those who wish to use their bikes in conjunction with a metrorail commute to work.

Metro is a strong supporter of bicycle commuters.  Not only do we maintain and have plans to expand the number of bike storage opportunities at Metrorail stations, but we are currently exploring ways that our jurisdictional partners can enhance bicycle access to and from our Metrorail stations.  In response to increasing demands for bicycles on the system we now allow folding bicycles at all times.  The restriction on non-folding bicycles is important to minimize the impact on crowding in our railcars and in our stations during the peak period, which already experiences significant crowding.  

According to a recent WaPo survey, only 12% of northern Virginians ride WMATA. That number has been decreasing steadily since 2009. How will WMATA's Momentum plan increase reliability and decrease rider fares so that people in northern Virginia will take Metro again?

Metro monitors a variety of data sources to better understand ridership trends, including, but not limited to, the Washington Post survey.  For example, according to the US Census, transit commuting in Fairfax County, VA, increased between 2000-2010.  This is consistent with the recent MWCOG household travel survey, which shows that transit commuting grew in Fairfax County over the same time period, while driving alone actually decreased.  This data gives us good reason to believe that transit usage is on the rise which is why Momentum calls for necessary investments in both Rail and Bus capacity to accommodate this increased demand.  

Metro says rider input was used when the 2025 Momentum was created. What, specifically, was something recommended by Metro customers that was later incorporated into the Momentum plan?

Metro staff heard from almost 12,000 stakeholders during the outreach process for Momentum, including riders, non-riders, elected and public officials, and the business community.  They overwhelmingly supported this effort to reinvest in the system.  Among their many recommendations they specifically called for major improvements to the region's bus network, decreased crowding on the rail system and a simple and intuitive trip planning and payment technology.  These requests are incorporated in Metro 2025, which calls for the completion of the Metrobus Priority Corridor Network, expansion to Metrobus's fleet, running all eight car trains, improving our core stations, and installing a next-generation communications infrastructure.   You can read about the plan at www.wmata.com/momentum.

Why do all Metro trains need to run into DC? I think it is a false assumption that people live in the suburbs and work in DC. There are a lot of people who live in Springfield, VA and work in Tysons. I have never worked in DC, but I have worked in Herndon, Reston, Arlington, and Alexandria. The Metro should consider building a Beltway line that follows I-495 around DC. That would connect a whole lot of people that the current system misses.

Great question.  You are referring what planners call "circumferential" connections.  The Metro system was conceived as a "hub and spoke" system designed to carry suburban commuters into downtown jobs.  Clearly, the region has evolved since the system was designed more than four decades ago.  In the short term surface transit will be the effective solution for suburb-to-suburb travel patterns.  The Metrobus Priority Corridor Network along with non-Metro initiatives, such as the Purple Line, are examples of these.  Metro is currently examining fixed-guideway options for its long range plan, but again, improvements to the core need to be made in order for these expansions to be possible. 

Is there a regional day-pass system in the works that is SmarTrip friendly for the WMATA commuter?

A truly regional product of this type is not available at the moment, however, Metro 2025 includes an initiative to develop a single, regional trip planning and payment infrastructure that may allow for this type of system integration in the future.  

Dr Gridlock, You have written about this multiple times, but at this point someone should specifically get a quote from Metro and the Nats about trains. This Friday, after a long wait and the standard 16-20 minutes for another evening train the orange line pulled up to Farragut West with a completely full train. People were forced to choose between shoving there way in or waiting another 20 minutes to see if the next train would be better. Not only is Metro hard to use for the thousands of fans on the orange line, but its now affecting all the other riders of the system. WMATA owes us more than the standard, we will look into this. We need a plan for improvement, or we need new leaders.

The Orange Line is one of Metro's most congested.  In order to alleviate crowding on the Orange Line, Metro has proposed a solution to the physical constraint at the Rosslyn station.  Right now we are moving as many train car sets through that tunnel as is physically possible - 26 sets per hour.  Momentum includes an initiative to alleviate this bottleneck and allow us to reduce crowding on the Orange Line as well as restore peak period service to the Blue Line. 

Plans like this always promote great ideas, but few ever are realized because the money is just not there. What is WMATA doing to ensure financial stability in the future aside from the annual fare increases that have made Metro the most expensive subway in the world to ride?

Despite the fact that Metro is the second busiest rail system in the nation, we are among only a handful that does not have a predictible sustained source of funding.  In addition, fares that Metro collectes are directed almost exclusively to cover operating costs.  While other regions are finding ways to pay for major transit investments - Los Angeles for example is moving forward with a $55 billion transit expansion plan - we are working hard to ensure our region's leaders find a funding solution for Metro.  

I just wanted to share my own post-game experience Friday: Metro did a fine job clearing the Navy Yard platform. We got on the Green Line shuttle to Mount Vernon Square, which many fans exit at L'Enfant Plaza and Gallery Place for transfers.

It's at the transfer points where I see the problems, as you probably know from my previous comments on this. We got off at Gallery Place and waited on the Glenmont platform. It took a while -- probably about eight minutes -- before a very crowded train arrived, but so many people got off there, we had no trouble boarding.

We thought we were doing pretty well, till our train went out of service at NoMa. But there was another a few couple of minutes behind, and we got a seat on that one.

Momentum is MUCH too timid an approach to DC transit planning. Credit is cheap, DC has a surplus. Why not invest in a world-class rail system now? It could encourage investment in numerous areas of the city - east of the river, SW, North Capitol/Washington Hospital Center/McMillan - and encourage a more diversified local economy. What are we waiting for?

Metro has to be responsible and for that reason Momentum's first set of initatives - called Metro 2025 - are designed to solve problems that are here and now.  Momentum does include reference to Metro 2040, which is our long range expansion plan that is still under development.  We encourage you to keep your eye out for this plan as it moves through the planning process.  

Regarding funding for capital projects, is WMATA exploring new ideas? In Los Angeles, for instance, they've implemented a 1 cent sales tax increase to pay for transit expansion. How does WMATA go about proposing new funding mechanisms for expansion?

We are certainly aware of how other regions are paying for transit expansions and working closely with our funding partners to explore all options.  We are encouraged by recent transportation funding actions taken in Virginia and Maryland as well as an indication of funding support from the District.  

Why should WMATA be tasked with expanding their service and taking over more responsibility when they can't handle what they currently have? It's like piling on another dozen dirty plates onto a waitor's overloaded try. Please explain how WMATA is equipped to not only take on these new initiatives, but also improve their existing deteriorating service.

Thanks to its funding partners Metro is now engaged in the largest Capital Improvement Program since its original construction.  We are around the midpoint of a $5 billion, 6 year investment program to rebuild the system.  However, we cannot ignore that the system will continue to need investment once this period extensive rebuilding nears completion.  

You mentioned that the Plan seeks to alleviate the bottleneck under the River on the Orange and Blue Lines. Could you elaborate on this solution, because I did not read anything about a new crossing or widening of the tunnel?

We are currently exploring two options.  Alternative one adds rail track that would create a new connection between the Orange/Silver and Blue Lines between Courthouse and Arlington Cemetery.  Alternative two proposes a second Rosslyn station with an underground passageway to the existing Rosslyn station and sets the stage for a second connection across the Potomac.  For full details turn to pages 61-62 of the Momentum plan. www.wmata.com/momentum

Can you comment on the synergy between metrorail and implementing run-through service between Maryland and Virginia commuter rail lines? What will it take to move forward on this needed improvement?

Enhanced commuter rail options for regional riders, including run-through service, is being considered in what we call "Metro 2040."  Making this a reality will involve significant investments by both MARC and VRE as well as a new level of cooperation with CSX and much needed improvements to Union station.  We are pleased to be working with all of these partners right now in order to determine whether or not our long range plan, which is still under development, can realistically call for this service improvement.  

On behalf of all of us here at Metro, I would like to thank The Washington Post and Dr. Gridlock for giving us the chance to discuss our strategic plan with you today.  We hope you will take a moment to read the plan, which you can find at www.wmata.com/momentum.  There you can also find a link to endorse the plan - we will need your support to make Momentum a reality.  

Thanks again!


VDOT has added time estimates to various roads in Northern Virginia. But, sometimes I wonder where they are getting the data. The other day, I was crawling along at about 20mph in traffic as I drove under an overhead sign that said I could get 20 miles in 25 minutes. While I realize things could clear up after a mile or two and the last 19 miles might only take 19 minutes, I usually find the estimate is wrong. Also, sometimes, instead of telling times, the sings go back to the old messages and just say that delays continue to Exit 62. Why can't they just say 12 minutes to Exit 62?

I can tell you how the information is acquired, according to VDOT:

VDOT gets its statewide travel time data from Inrix, a traffic information company. The majority of the data they receive comes from fleets of commercial vehicles that use GPS devices to monitor vehicle location, speed and route. This data is combined with other sources to show a complete picture of the current traffic flow.

The times I've been on I-66, including times heading west during the evening rush, I've had mixed experiences. Sometimes, the signs seem overly optimistic. Sometimes, they reflect the traffic I'm experiencing at that moment. But my route hasn't taken me to the point where I truly know if the estimate was accurate.

I don't know if the traffic eased up a few miles beyond my exit.

Any idea when the repaving on Connecticut Avenue near Jones Bridge road will be complete? They have been working on it for months. I thought about a month ago they were close as the repaving looked to be complete.. Then they came back and tore it up to put down concrete bus pads.

David Buck, spokesman for the Maryland State Highway Administration, just checked on this one for us. Here's what he said via e-mail:

Crews began the final surface on northbound Connecticut Avenue last night with paving in the left lane.  Weather permitting we have about 7-10 nights of paving, which would include the three through northbound lanes, the three southbound through lanes, the northbound turn lane, then all the tie-ins.  With reasonable weather, we should be done with the nighttime paving by mid-August.
We did not have to remove anything already completed.  The bus pad work was done after the first course of asphalt was placed but before the final course.  That is the normal sequence.
Following the paving, the final work includes the upgrade of the existing signal on Connecticut Avenue at Jones Bridge/Kensington.  The signal will be upgraded and replaced (new signal heads, upgraded pedestrians amenities to include audible pedestrian signals and countdown pedestrian signals.
All work is expected to be complete by the end of September.

The place where the northbound express lanes on the inner loop end and merge with the main lanes of 495 is a new chokepoint during the morning rush hour. The congestion starts near Tyson's and carries onto the Legion bridge. Before the express lanes opened, traffic started picking up speed just past the toll road from the Tyson's area congestion...it's moved a little further "downstream" toward Maryland. Until Maryland and Montgomery County agree to add more lanes on the bridge and more lanes on their side of the river this will persist...probably worsen with time.

I've had some experience with the merge point on the inner loop during the morning rush -- as well as the evening rush -- but haven't had a problem there. The problems I encounter occur farther north.  That's also the way it looks most mornings on the traffic maps and in traffic camera views.

As many of you know, Virginia plans to convert about a mile and a half of the left shoulder into a travel lane. But the area farther north, the Bethesda area beyond the bridge where traffic splits for I-270 or to go east on the Beltway, is a long-standing problem, dating way back before the HOT lanes opened.

Maryland needs to do something about that, but has not announced anything that will help today's commuters.

Others want to comment on that Beltway situation?

Are the I-95 Express Toll Lanes north of Baltimore ever going to be finished? I occasionally see a contractor's pickup truck driving on them from time to time, but in general, nothing has been done since the end of 2011. What is going on with this project?

Those of us in the DC area are more familiar with the express lanes on the Beltway and the ones under construction on I-95 in Virginia.

But those projects are significantly different from the express toll lanes under construction north of Baltimore and scheduled to open in 2014.

The project north of Baltimore is a strictly a state project, not the type of public-private partnership used in Virginia where the private partner builds the lanes in exchange for the toll revenue for many decades. The project probably would have gotten done a lot faster with private money involved.

Another difference: The express lanes north of Baltimore won't be HOT lanes. There's no provision for a free ride for carpoolers as there is in Virginia.



Our daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter have moved to Raleigh, NC. We have driven down there several times, and the only way we know to go is I-95, which is always horrible. Is there a decent alternate route. If traffic is (fairly) light, it's about 4 1/2 hours, but it has been more if there are accidents or road work.

I don't have a real good alternative for you from DC south. There are alternatives: To the east, some people like to take Route 301. To the west, some like Routes 28 and 17 to bypass bad parts of I-95 in Northern Virginia. (I'm assuming that south of Petersburg, you probably pick up I-85 to complete the trip to Raleigh.)

When we've been on vacation, with lots of time for the scenic route, we've gone west from DC to pick up Route 29 for the trip down to Greensboro, where you can pick up I-85/40 for the trip to Raleigh.


Thanks for joining us today, and for submitting good questions for our guest, Shyam Kannan. And thanks to Mr. Kannan for participating.

I'll be back next Monday, for our first chat in August. Stay safe out there.

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.
Shyam Kannan
Shyam Kannan brings extensive planning and transit-oriented development experience in the public and private sectors to WMATA (Metro). At Metro, he directs the Authority's strategic planning efforts, calledMomentum, as well as supervises long-range planning, sustainability, and regional coordination. He has a particular interest in the economic benefits of transit, as well as coordinating closely with the business community in the region. He was most recently with RCLCO (formerly Robert Charles Lesser and Co. LLC), a Washington-area based real estate strategy firm. While at RCLCO, he founded the firm's Public Strategies Practice Group, where he oversaw planning, development, and transit system finance for public sector clients across the country. Active in the region's planning community; Mr. Kannan is a committee member of the Urban Land Institute's Transit-Oriented Development Council, the Region Forward Coalition of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, and the Housing and Retail Development Committee of the District of Columbia Building Industry Association. Mr. Kannan has a Master's Degree in Public Policy and Urban Planning from Harvard University, and is also a graduate of the University of Virginia.
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