Dr. Gridlock chat

Jul 30, 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. We're sliding into summer, but this still should be a big week for the D.C. region's commuters. 

Congrats to the District Department of Transportation on the opening of the new ramp from southbound DC 295 to the 11th Street Bridge. And congrats to the commuters who now can use this as a direct highway link across the Anacostia River via the 11th Street Bridge. (Well, at least partly. The ramp from the bridge to northbound 295 is scheduled to open this fall.)

By this time next Monday, I hope, the Wilson Bridge project will have finished paving on the Beltway's outer loop, creating another milestone: Elimination of the bottleneck that prevented drivers from taking full advantage of the new Wilson Bridge.

An early look at the mailbag shows a good mix of traffic and transit comments, so let's dig in.

Hi, Dr. G, So here's my question: why is it that when metro's trains 'go out of service' they always zip away as soon as everyone is "offloaded" as if there was never a problem? But when you're on the train and it's experiencing some "mechanical problem" it jerks an inch, another inch, another inch, another inch...and so on.

When I'm on trains that get taken out of service, it's usually for a door problem. We sit at the platform and the operator tries time after time to get the doors to close right. Everybody sighs, cause they know what's going to happen. Then the operator gives up and we have to get out.

Sometimes, a mechanic can get on board as the train moves along the line and get the thing back in service before it reaches the yard, sometimes not.

The jerking of the train you describe could be related to a brake problem, or it could be unrelated to what takes the train out of service. Almost everyone who rides Metro can identify with the experience of lurching about as the operator tries to position the train on the platform. Some drivers are just better than others.

Reminds me: There's still no date announced for the return to automatic train controls, which is the way the trains were built to operate.

Last week, Metrorail's hot cars were discussed. Now, Metrobus has very cool buses this summer. Meanwhile, DC Circulator buses are hot, and the windows are small. My understanding is tthat DC Circulator buses were purchased from Portland, Oregon. The air conditioning was retrofitted on DC Circulator buses in D.C. So, let's give Metrobus credit for nice air conditioned buses. Metro is doing something right.

You might be thinking of the original batch of Van Hool buses that were part of a California bus order, and the AC was added on for us.

I also have had good experiences with the Metrobuses this summer. (Others?) A Navy Yard-Union Station Circulator I was on last week was a bit warm but not uncomfortable -- not like some of those Metrorail cars. I'm not sure about the rehab schedule for the Circulators.

I've seen comments the last few weeks about new EZPass fees in Virginia. When EZPass debuted, my impression is that the costs were covered by the fact that you're advancing money to your EZPass account. At any given moment, they have somewhere between $10 and $35 of your money that you have not yet spent on tolls--and the cost of running the system was covered by having your money in advance. At least there are still some jurisdictions that will still issue EZPass without fees even if you live outside the state.

Yes, I think Delaware is popular. But I remember our discussion a couple of years ago when Maryland started collecting an account maintenance fee and lots of people said they would go to Virginia for an account. Now Virginia is charging. So you might spend a lot of energy setting up a new account somewhere and find that agency is starting a fee system.

I'm puzzled by one aspect of the Beltway Express Lanes project and I'm wondering if you know the answer. There are toll gantries set up (similar to the ones pictured on yesterday's Commuter Page) at the Springfield Interchange just to the west of the ramps to and from the I-395 HOV lanes. Those ramps are not going to be tolled, so you can go from the Beltway to, say, inbound I-395 HOV without paying (provided you satisfy the HOV requirement). So why is the tolling equipment up there? I know obviously a few years down the road if/when the I-95 Express Lanes project is opened those ramps would THEN become tolled, but why put up the equipment now? I note that no such tolling equipment is in place on the other side of the Springfield Interchange closer to Van Dorn Street, for example.

I can't picture the gantries you're talking about and will try to get down there soon and see.

You're not going to be tolled to drive on I-395. You're not going to be forced into the 495 Express Lanes if you get off I-95 at Springfield and get onto the Beltway toward Tysons Corner.

On the I-95 Express Lanes project: There's a groundbreaking coming up for that, and it's scheduled to open in 2015. Setting up gantries is likely to be one of the last things that happen for it.

I was reading about the Ez-Pass Flex for the new lanes on the Beltway. Typically, motorcycles count for HOV lanes. I read that motorcyclists don't need this for the HOV lanes. That's fine - it's hard to rig up an EZ pass on a bike anyway - but I am confused about how this is going to work. If they track it by transponder and tolls are collected by transponder, how are they going to screen out bikes? By license plate? That seems the most reasonable solution to me, but it's a lot of extra programming to bounce license plate numbers of state DMV lists. For the ICC, bikes get charged same as cars, and there's nothing in the EZ Pass "violation" bill that indicates car vs. motorcycle. BTW, I wrote to you when the ICC first opened about putting EZ pass on my bike. I still haven't found a good after-market EZ-pass handlebar bracket that can be easily taken on and off, so I just eat the extra charge. Maybe I'm just being too picky. EZ pass, using gantries, is not bike friendly.

Seems strange that over the past few years no clever marketer has figured out how to sell an E-ZPass mount for a motorcycle. (Anybody find one?)

I asked people on the HOT lanes project about motorcycles in the lanes, and they said that the tolling system is built to recognize cycles.  No one with a motorcycle should have to worry about either having an E-ZPass or about getting a bill in the mail.

I was on the 8 car train at Ballston that had a door problem in the height of rush-hour today, delaying my commute by about 20 minutes. When a door on a particular car doesn't close, why does Metro offload the whole train? The other cars were working fine, and Metro obviously has the capability to shut down a single train. They have been doing this all summer with the "hot cars".

I think the operator can't always tell which car is having the door problem. Part of the reason I think that is from being aboard trains where the operator asks us if we can see a door that isn't closing.

I do think that Metro should take trains out of service when a door problem occurs. Remember a month or two ago on the Red Line when the doors on a car opened while the train was moving? That car had had a door problem earlier on the route, and riders would have been safer if Metro had taken the train out of service after the initial problem.

Why is there now some spots where there is a double solid white line on the HOV lanes of I-66 just outside of the beltway? Are these permanent?

This is an experiment by VDOT. You can read more about it in my Sunday column:


But the general idea is this: A VDOT study found that one of the things slowing traffic in the I-66 HOV lane is the drivers weaving in and out. So VDOT is experimenting by putting in solid white lines in sectors where it feels drivers shouldn't be moving in and out of the lanes. If it works, you might see those double white lines on other sections of HOV. If not, the striping can be removed.

Dr. Gridlock: When I was driving on 295-S yesterday afternoon, I noticed signs stating that a new exit (right before the exit for Nationals Park) would be opening soon (today or tomorrow) connecting 295-S to "395." Do you know whether this ramp will connect to 395 North AND South or just North? The signs that I could see from the road only stated "395." It would be really convenient if it connected to 395 south! I'm just not sure where it would connect to 395 south.

I'm pretty sure you're talking about the ramp that just opened this morning to connect traffic from southbound DC 295 to the 11th Street Bridge. The ramp from the 11th Street Bridge to northbound 295 is scheduled to open this fall.

These are great things for commuters who travel between Maryland and Virginia, or are trying to reach downtown DC.  As of now, no more need to continue south past the 11th St. Bridge and swing around at Howard Road or Suitland Parkway to get on the northbound side to use the bridge.

This is a breakthrough.

In the past week, at Farragut West during rush hour, I have seen a train listed as a Red train towards New York Ave (especially absurd since the station isn't even called that anymore) and a train simply marked "Special". It doesn't help when the next train signs aren't functional. I'm not sure where the "Special" train was heading, but the Red train did take me properly in the direction of Franconia-Springfield. These aren't the first times I've seen trains with unhelpful signage. Twice in the past year, at Farragut West, I've seen trains marked Greenbelt that headed towards Vienna.

Rush Plus, the new rush hour service that started June 18, has made the train system more complex, but I would be really surprised if it created a Red Line train to Franconia-Springfield.

I do think it's very frustrating that so many destination signs are blank or have the wrong information -- or at least, has a destination marked that contradicts what the train operator is saying.

And speaking of announcements, I'm not finding that the announcements are any clearer since Rush Plus started despite some new training that opertors got.

In my experience, it's been more of an issue with the equipment rather than with the operator's voice. Sounds like someone is beating on a drum when the operator is speaking.

As a daily commuter on the DTR, I am concerned over the WMTA's apparent acceptance that the vast majority of funding to build the Silver Line should come from increased tolls from drivers and not Metro riders on the new line. Has there been any consideration given to levying a surcharge at the future Dulles Airport station (a la San Francisco International Airport) and using the subsequent savings to Fairfax and Loudon County budgets to support a greater portion of the construction costs?

I've said that I think an airport station surcharge is a good idea. Station surcharges are possible under Metro's current rules to finance improvements, though no station has such a surcharge right now. (Look for it at Union Station at some point.)

Just to be clear, because this gets confusing and wasn't necessarily a good idea: It's the airports authority that is building the Silver Line and has arranged the financing plan. When it's done, the airports authority will hand the keys to Metro, which will operate the line.

Has VDOT said how much the "administrative fee" will be for vehicles riding in the Beltway Express Lanes without an EZPass? Will it be $3, which is what Maryland charges drivers who ride on the ICC without an EZPass?

The 495 Express Lanes are different from the ICC system. On the ICC, you have the option of using the toll road without an E-ZPass. The 495 Express Lanes will be E-ZPass only (exept for motorcycles, as previously noted). So if you don't have an E-ZPass, don't get in those lanes.

It won't be hard to figure out which Beltway lane is which.

Hello. Why does Metro keep the platform escalators running on the south side of Dupont Circle? There's no where for people to exit until they finish the repairs to the street elscalators. Seems like a waste. If Metro employees need them they can turn them on if necessary.

It's part of the safety plan that Metro officials worked out with emergency responders before the escalator project began.

There's an emergency staircase available on the south side. Also, one of the three escalators in the bank that's being replaced is always in position to be used as a staircase if the station needs to be evacuated. The platform/mezzanine escalators are always on to speed either an evacuation to the street or a movement from one platform to the other in an emergency.

I'm very much in favor of every safety precaution that was taken to limit the risk to passengers while the south entrance is closed.

If they don't want people weaving in and out of the HOV lanes, they need to create exclusive HOV exits. Sometimes you cannot physically get to the HOV lanes for long stretches if you get on at the betlway, Nutley Street, or 123. HOVs should not be penallized for heavy traffic because they cannot get on I-66 inside the beltway. Also, if they're going to do this, there needs to be some signage not only reminding drivers of the double-white line rules, but also letting vehicles know when a window to enter or exit the lanes is coming up. This whole excercise sounds like a poorly designed kid's science fair experiment.

Forgot to mention: One of the reasons I've been getting so many questions about the new lines is that VDOT has not yet put up the signs that tell drivers not to cross the double white lines.

I agree with you that it's a difficult situation with congestion on I-66 near the Beltway. The reconstruction that is part of the HOT lanes project should help somewhat, but it's not going to be a complete solution to that problem.

Subject line addresses my question. Do you really think it will work? I detected the skepticism in your column and I think it's justified. We saw how well people obeyed the solid white lines on the Beltway during the years of construction: They didn't!!!!

Yes, I was thinking partly about the many drivers who ignore the solid white lines through the HOT lanes construction zone on the Beltway. That's an obviously dangerous area, with the lane shifts and the rough pavement. And you still see people speeding through there, weaving among lanes and talking on their cell phones.

So no, I don't believe that everyone is going to obey the solid white lines on I-66, but it might get the attention of enough people to slightly improve the flow of traffic in the HOV lane, and that can't be bad.

One thing that everyone should know when you get on a Metro car without air conditioning is that its probably working on the next car down. That's why most people stay on cars without a/c, they assume its out on the entire train.

I totally agree with you about changing cars. I think more people have become aware of that over the past couple of summers, when the AC problems have seemed especially bad.

But I'm not sure why it is that so many people just sit there and sweat through station after station. The longer you sit there, the worse you feel. It's really draining. Moving just one car can provide some real relief.

People would have less need to merge through all of the lanes of traffic to get into and out of the HOV lanes on I-66 if they weren't HOV lanes any more. That would solve most of the merge related issues.

You don't believe that eliminating HOV would increase the number of vehicles on the highway and leave you worse off than where you are now?

Just to clarify my comment which you answered about a train marked Red at Farragut West. The PIDs were out, so I used my phone to check the incoming trains and saw that the next train was supposed to be a blue. When the train pulled up, the signage on the side of the train said "Red" & "New York Ave". Unsurprisingly, nearly everyone in the station was very confused and few boarded the train. Once I boarded the train, the conductor said it was a Blue train to Franconia-Springfield, but I'm not aware if he knew the signage was off. As I mentioned in my previous comment, this is not my first time seeing such an occurrence.

That was pretty smart, going to the phone to check the real time arrivals. The operator should have been making an announcement as the train pulled in.

We need the trains to have the correct information displayed, but let me make a guess on what was happening in the situation you describe. This might have been what Metro calls a "gap train," a reserve train moved onto a line that's experiencing a problem. The train might have last been in service on the Red Line.

Speaking of Circulator, I've ridden the Circulator in Baltimore which is free and announces all the stops in advance (like Metro Bus) yet the DC circulator doesn't announce stops or have a map on board, so you take your best guess and hope to not wildly overshoot your stop (as I did once, planning to get off at 25th and K, only to find out the next stop after 24th and K was under the Whitehurst freeway). Why does DC Circulator not announce stops (verbally or electronically)?

Riders can help me with this: My recollection is that some Circulator bus operators will announce stops, at least periodically. There should be maps up behind where the operator sits. And there are those spinny maps on the poles at the bus stops.

The Circulator has some very helpful guidance available through it's Next Bus service, its mobile apps and it's Web site, at www.dccirculator.com.

Anybody else had trouble navigating via Circulator?

Hi Doc! Do you know if the new solid lines on I-66 will be enforced only during HOV hours or will they also be enforced for the 80+% of the time that there is no HOV?

They're for all the time. Not just the HOV hours.

On the Blue Line, at least, it's too crowded to try to get off and go to another car, or the other car will be too crowded to get on, thanks to Metro taking away three trains per hour but failing to run eight-car trains the way they should to try to make up for the lost trains.

The trains are very crowded on many lines at rush hour, and Blue Line riders have been complaining a lot about crowding since Rush Plus happened.

I haven't found it difficult to change cars. At least, no more difficult to change cars than it is to get on and off at stations during rush hour.

If I'm not going around with the air temp thermometer and deliberately riding on hot cars, then I'll do anything to avoid them. I'd rather wait on the platform for the next train than stand in a crowded car that's 95 degrees.

Thanks for answering my question earlier. The operator knew it was on the last car, and they were correct. I agree it doesn't make sense to use a broken car, but why isn't just shutting down that car an option.

Don't know. I'll ask.

I have a different question about the I-66 HOV Lanes not related to the new double-white lines. Will drivers traveling as HOVs in the eastbound left lane still be able to use the left exit lane to access the normal beltway lanes, or will that exit be exclusively for the Beltway Express Lanes? If that exit only services the Express Lanes and since I-66 is only HOV-2, you're going to see some serious accidents or at the very least heavy traffic from HOVs have to shift 3 lanes over to the right to use the right I-495 north exit to the normal lanes. Please tell me that the left exit will still have access to the normal beltway lanes without having to pay a toll or be HOV-3.

No, when the HOT lanes open, the left exit will go into the HOT lanes. You'll want to be on the right side if you don't want to use the HOT lanes.

I agree with you that this could be a traffic problem in an area that's already problematic.

However, I think most drivers are going to know what the situation is before the new lanes open, and they'll figure out that they have to start shifting over to the right pretty far back so they can reach the exit for the regular lanes on the inner loop. Or, some might add one more person to the carpool and use the HOT lanes for free.

But in response to the previous question, what he was asking is if it wouldn't have made more sense to close JUST THAT CAR. Your example proves the point: if they had closed that car with the door problem, then the train could have continued and no one would have been in danger.

In that example I used, from the Red Line, I think the doors opening problem happened in the adjacent car, rather than the car with the initial problem.

Or to put it another way, a problem in one car might be an initial sign that there's an electronic problem affecting multiple cars. (I know that's not necessarily the case. It could just be someone leaning on one door in one car. But it's the sort of thing I'd rather have a mechanic check out if there's any doubt.)


I'm hoping you can clarify the new EZ Pass fees. From what I've seen both in your discussions/posts and on the VA EZ Pass website, it seems to indicate that the only people who will be charged fees are those who obtain new transponders after July 9th this year. Am I reading this correctly?

Yes. Anyone who gets a new transponder for an old account or opens a new account after July 9 will start paying the monthly maintenance fee after Sept. 1.

Transponders don't last forever, so even if you have one, you probably will need to replace it eventually. And you might have a regular one, but you see an opportunity to get three people together for a toll-free ride in the new express lanes, so you want to get the new E-ZPass Flex transponder.

I've heard from many drivers who have a philosophical problem with the new fees, but just to narrow down to one practicality: The toll money you save by using the Flex for one or two days commuting at rush hours probably is going to cover the annual fee for the Flex transponder.

I have one E-ZPass and two cars. Do I need to switch the E-ZPass device back and forth between the two cars or can they figure it out? I know when my last device died, they were able to properly charge my account until I was able to get a replacement device.

My recollection is that you need to make sure you have all your vehicles registered to the E-ZPass account.

Often it comes down to a simple calculus--hot car with a seat vs. cool car standing with your nose in someone's armpit.

Yes, I've heard from riders who make a similar calculation, and that I can understand.

What I find odd -- and have experienced -- is a hot car that remains very crowded for many stations with miserable looking people.

I ride the Circulator(s) almost daily and would estimate about 50% of the operators announce the stops as they pull up. There are also quite large maps posted in the middle of the bus across from the middle doors that show the routes and stops-- I believe on all routes, but you'd have to check me on that. Agreed that you have to be careful since the stops can be far apart.

Thanks. About the spacing of the stops: It's a difficult balance. The more stops, the more convenience. The most stops, the more chances the bus will get thrown off schedule. The Circulator markets itself as offering reliable service, arriving at stops about every 10 minutes.

I think you may be mistakenly spreading misinformation, but it's pretty clear from the 495 Express Lanes website that you can indeed ride in the lanes without an EZPass. It will be just like the ICC, and the vehicle's owner will be sent a bill in the mail with an administrative fee tacked on to the total. It's very clearly spelled out on the FAQ on the website. Do you have information that is not being spread to the general public, and if so, can you provide the source so we can trust it?

The ICC has what's called a Video Toll Rate. You can drive the highway with an E-ZPass, or you can have the electronic tolling system take a picture of your plate and send you a bill based on the Video Toll Rate.

The 495 Express Lanes will not have a Video Toll Rate. If you accidentally get in the toll lanes without an E-ZPass, or you try to cheat the system and use them anyway, the electronic monitoring system will take a picture of your plate and send you a notice saying you screwed up, here's your bill, including an administrative fee, and get an E-ZPass.

Metro can make me furious, and while the bus isn't perfect, I find it to be much more reliable and convenient than the Metro. It makes me wonder; why don't more people take the bus? Is there some stigma attached to it? It takes me from door-to-door most of the time, and I can almost always manage to find a bus route to take me where I need to go, no matter how out-of-the-way it seems. The annoying issues are bus bunching and just plain old not coming. Which, yeah, is pretty terrible.

I think our buses -- Metrobus and the suburban bus lines -- provide a very flexible way of getting around that supplements the train system, but they don't have anywhere near the people-moving capacity of the train system and, as you correctly note, are subject to some pretty bad bunching as they move through crowded streets.

Thanks for joining me again. I have to break away now, but think I'll do a Dr. Gridlock blog posting this afternoon or tomorrow morning to follow up on some of the issues you raised about Metro doors, HOV lanes, HOT lanes and Virginia E-ZPasses.

Stay safe, and come on back next 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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