Dr. Gridlock chat

Aug 06, 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. I'm feeling pretty upbeat today because in the past week, we've had two significant improvements in commutes.

Last week, it was the new ramp from southbound 295 onto the 11th St Bridge and the SE-SW Freeway.

Today, it's the opening up of the bottlneck on the Beltway's outer loop around Telegraph Road. Five THRU and LOCAL lanes.

That's a good week.

Now let's look at some of your traffic and transit issues.

I have a trip planned into D.C., and I would love to park at Shady Grove. The problem is that I'll be arriving at the lot at 2 pm on a Tuesday. What is the likelihood that I will be able to get parking? Also, what if I delayed until 3 or 3:30 pm? Finally, does metro post any of these common questions (ie hours when the lots are likely to be filled)? Thanks so much!

I wanted to post this early so commuters would have a chance to offer their comments.

Here's mine: If you get to Shady Grove between 2 and 3 p.m., there should be some spaces available. It's partly because this is August and many people are on vacation. But also, the early arrivers tend to have left some spaces open by mid-afternoon at Metro garages.

Look to see if any of the reserved parking spaces are open. They're not reserved when you're going to be there.

I don't know of any formal guidance that Metro gives on station by station parking conditions.

I know that last week, you answered the question about the double lines that were painted in sections between the HOV and regular lanes. Today, I noticed a section of the right Green Arrow lane around Rt 123 seems to have been painted orange... what is up with that?

Orange paint is a new one. I'll check.

Anyone noticed that at another location?

I know this isn't exactly your field, but maybe one of your readers might know the answer. For the past 2 years I have walked by the "Coming Soon" sign on the Einstein Bros. store on the first floor at Union Station. Is this ever going to happen or do we have to put up with the wooden eye sore for several years more?

Another one I wanted to post early for general comment.

Last time I walked through Union Station's main hall, there seemed to be a lot of shop space that could have "coming soon" signs.

At what point should we all just throw in the towel and start driving to work? I feel like I should have reached that point long ago, yet I continue to give WMATA the benefit of the doubt by using their worse service at higher fares.

Longtime readers know what I'm going to say: If you think you'd be better off driving, do it. (Or biking, or carpooling, etc.) If you already have a car, experiment with driving and see if you find the convenience and cost puts you in a better spot than taking Metro.

I wouldn't rely on an experiment performed in August, while so many people are away, but certainly you'd get a clue in September.

Dr. G, my commute is about to change in a significant way. I work in Bethesda, and will soon be moving to Germantown, MD. With that in mind, it seems like there's no easy commuting solution, because my understanding is that you take 270 in rush hour only if you have a death wish, and commuting on the Red Line speaks for itself. If given the choice, I'd prefer to drive, so are there shortcuts I can take to minimize the drive down 270 each morning (at a glance, maybe Great Seneca Highway)? Thanks!

Here again, I'd experiment. Both with driving routes and with the Red Line. I wouldn't make any longterm decisions based on August experience, but at least see what feels comfortable.

I've tried a bunch of these routes over the years, but not with the consistency that a regular commuter endures, so I welcome the thoughts of other travelers.

One thing: Traffic north of downtown Bethesda is likely to be messed up for a few years while Maryland and Montgomery County work on various improvements around Walter Reed.

I will be traveling from Capitol Hill to Dulles tomorrow to catch a 6:00 pm domestic flight. How reliable is the 5A bus to the airport? I would like to catch the bus that arrives at 5:06, but is it regularly delayed?

I'm very conservative addressing catch-a-flight questions. I usually leave people enough time for a five-course meal at the airport.

So I'm nervous about you having under an hour of leeway from your scheduled arrival time at the airport.

People generally speak well of the 5A. When they complain, it's more about crowding than about unreliability. Still, the bus route has a long way to go through DC's rush hour traffic before reaching the airport highway, including that stop at the Rosslyn Metro.

If you could possibly catch the 3:30 bus from L'Enfant Plaza, I'd feel better.

I think you mean Navy Med.

I'm thinking of the BRAC consolidation at Bethesda. It's now the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

When, when is Metro going to complete the ceiling??

Many of us look up to see if we can spot Michelangelo.

I don't have a target date for completion of the ceiling. For years, it's looked like somebody's bathroom flooded in the apartment above. But Metro stopped any major work at the Farragut North station till the escalator project at Dupont Circle is done in October. (Metro wanted to make sure the Farragut North platform was fully accessible in case people decided to get on and off at Farragut North rather than Dupont Circle.)

I saw other news sources indicate that the coating is the color of red clay and will help motorists delineate the part-time lanes from the general purpose lanes.

Thanks. That makes it sound like another safety experiment that coincided with the repaving project.

I'm not a regular user, but back in July our kids had camps out near Shady Grove and we parked there. I left the lot a little after 3:30 each day, and there were always plenty of spaces. The top deck was empty most days.

Thanks for this response on the afternoon parking question for Shady Grove.

The other thing to consider about Dulles is it is a big airport- and I mean that in a very literal, space occupying sense. Even without many people, it still can an hour or more to walk from where the bus drops you off, check in, walk to security, get through security (which isn't as organized as DCA), then either catch the train or the bus/mooncrawler to your terminal then get to your gate. Simply put, even if the one that arrives at 5:06 is exactly on time, there's a good chance you won't make it onboard your flight before the door closes.

Thanks, and I think that's a good point -- that just getting to the airport isn't the end of the challenge.

I know nothing about the bus to Dulles, but I will say that last weekend before 5am (i.e., not a crowded time), there was a long line at check-in but not much of one at the security gate, but then we had to wait awhile for the tram to the gate. In all, it took almost an hour from arrival at the airport to arrival at the gate, so keep that in mind! The entire process at Dulles is much slower than at National airport.

As Dr. Gridlock, I see a lot more of the outsides of buildings, so I tend to focus on the traffic and transit issues in traveling. But this is the second worthy bit of feedback regarding what happens inside the terminal.

Dear Dr. Gridlock, Last Thursday it took me over 90 minutes to get home from DC to Waldorf because several traffic signals were dark on Rte 301.There were no officers directing traffic. As we are told to do, drivers treated these signals like 4 way stop signs, alternating crossing the intersection. However, Rte 301 is a major highway, while the cross roads were one or at most 2 lanes. This means that they had very sort waits, usually no more than a few cars, while Rte 30i was backed up for many miles. In the absence of someone directing traffic, I'm not sure what else could be done, but it does seem like the major highway should get some extra consideration in this situation.

I think a police shift would get stretched pretty thin with just a few dark signals on Route 301. I'd like to see more backup generators or battery systems installed for the signals on important commuter routes like that.

(By the way, I'm glad to hear your report that drivers were doing the right thing and treating the dark intersections as four-way stops. That's too rare.)

I have been following your comments on the double solid lines being used by VDOT to discourage weaving between ramp traffic and main lane traffic. Perhaps you could suggest that MD's SHA try that to regulate the traffic from the EB 270 spur onto the Inner Loop. either that or a solid on the main lane side and a dashed on the entry lane side so folks can get into the main lanes; but we don't have lane jumpers from the main lanes causing disruptions and accidents when they try t use the merge lane to get past traffic on the main line.

That I-270/Beltway interchange is a mess from any direction to any direction. People ignore the solid white lines where they exist. They ignore the purpose of lanes, using exit lanes as through lanes, and they merge whenever and where ever they want to.

Many parts of the interchange need rebuilding, but there's no overall plan to do that in the near future.

Finally! I know traffic is light at this time of year, but this saved 20 minutes today. I know this will be great come September. Now if we can only get that ramp from northbound 95HOV to the outer loop open I'll be set.

My memory is that this is to be done at the end of the year.

It's a ways off still, but I'm wondering what your thoughts are about getting to Dulles airport from downtown (Metrocenter) the Friday of Labor Day weekend (Aug 31) for a 6pm flight. I've been going back and forth between the 5a from L'enfant (aiming for a 3pm arrival time) or taking the metro to Falls Church and catching the Washington Flyer bus. Any suggestions or warnings? I'm wary of the security lines as well as the general road traffic and unsure how much leeway to build in to my plans.

Considering it's a three-day weekend, the local traffic at the start of Labor Day weekend is rarely severe. So many people already are off on vacations. And I think you're schedule is early enough so the 5A should work out.

But also, I should say that I don't hear from many people who use the Flyer from West Falls Church, and would appreciate their comments.

As I watched a train offload at Courthouse Station this morning, in the midst of passengers waiting for a previous delay to clear, I can't help but wonder: Why aren't the instructions better when there are door problems? Why aren't the drivers instructed to say "If you are pressed up against a door, please get off the train, and let's see if we can prevent an offload." It is ridiculous and seems somewhat preventable if just a few people might take one for the team and step off. So frustrating.

That's an interesting point. I find that train operators don't have a consistent set of instructions to riders in that situation. But then, even when the operators are quite specific about the problem and that the train will have to be unloaded if the operator can't set the doors right, no one seems to budge. (It's tough to be sure. There's six or eight cars and I'm just watching one. But nobody seems to want to give up a space aboard a car.)

I've got a very interesting comment from another rider about trains getting taken out of service. I'll go look for that one now.

(A friend works for Metro.) There have been a lot of questions about trains offloaded and being taken out of service. A) Sometimes, a train is taken OOS because they need to use it to tow or push another train to a yard or out of the way. It may also be used to carry passengers who must exit a disabled train. If a train is towing or pushing another train, by federal regulations, it cannot carry passengers. B) If a train operator can't get all doors closed, the propulsion system of the train won't work, so a mechanic must adjust those doors, or "cut them out" in order to get the train moving again. When such safety features are bypassed, again by federal regulations, it cannot carry revenue passengers. Metro assigns mechanics (who are ID as CMNT, or car maintenance crew), all around the system to address and intercept trains with problems and to keep the system moving. These are likely the same folks who will shoo people from, and isolate, hot cars. Nobody really enjoys these delays that happen.

Among the many interesting points here: Operators don't have much flexibility about taking the trains out of service when they can't fix the door problems by reopening and shuting them at the platforms.

For the person asking how to get from Germantown to Bethesda, I'd recommend taking your chances on the Red Line. You have far fewer problems in the Bethesda - Shady Grove stretch than you do heading further into DC - that's where the track problems seem to happen. It's only 6 stops and I haven't experienced too many problems that far out.

I'm inclined toward the same conclusion. But I do think the traveler should experiment with both driving and Metrorail.

This used to be an easier issue to address. There was a time when I would have just said flat out, take the Red Line. But Metrorail's reliability has declined so much in recent years. This summer, there have been plenty of problems on the west side of the Red Line.

While I'd love to see the Bruegger's finally come in, I was wondering what your thoughts were on Amtrak's proposed expansion of Union Station. I love the idea of getting up to New York in an hour, and the current concourses are overly taxed. How do we find a way to improve the building and the service, and is it possible to start expanding the train network there? If the station gets expanded, are we going to see more commuter rail service as well, serving, for instance, Southern Maryland?

I love the idea of expanding rail service, both for the Northeast corridor and the DC region, but what did you think of that $7 billion price tag?

To me, that equals "not in our lifetime."

This is the Post story we're talking about:


I think the question of  better commuter rail service is somewhat separate from the Union Station expansion. That's partly money and partly management, in coordination with the freight rail systems throughout the DC region.

But just as a concept: I'd love to see some relief for the Route 5 commuters through an extension of rail transit south of the Branch Avenue Metro station.

The Flyer bus is very reliable, but first you have to get to the WFC Metro station. If you are taking the Metro to WFC, good luck and leave yourself extra time....

Another note about Metrorail's reliability.

No matter how bad Metro is, 270 is worse. Try the experiment. Drive to Bethesda. Record your drive time every day, both ways. And look at metro's reports. Record the days on which you would have been delayed. And compare. I'll bet 42 dollars that the Red Line wins. Remember that Wisconsin Ave and Connecticut inside the Beltway are both hellish. Every Single Day.

Here's a Web page for Metro's daily service reports:


Also consider the Ride On 70 express bus from Milestone Center to Bethesda. The bus can travel in the HOV lane so the commute is not as bad as driving. I take a different express bus to Bethesda and have to say I enjoy not having to drive in that traffic, and can read on my way to-from work.

Thanks for all these good suggestions to our Germantown-Bethesda commuter. I think I've got at least one more in here.

Great Seneca ends at Darnestown/Rte. 28 and that part through Rockville can be really bad. The right lane backs up with drivers getting onto 270 or going through Rockville; Route 28 is only one lane each way. Be certain to try various times of the morning. Once you get to Rockville try different routes such as Veirs Mill, Twinbrook to Parklawn to Nicholson to Old Georgetown which seems to move better than 355. Check out Montgomery County's traffic cams in the morning; Comcast 6.

Good idea about supplementing personal experience with checks on the traffic cameras.

We also have them on our traffic page, along with the color-coded traffic map. There's also traffic.com, trafficland.com and Google Maps, set to show the traffic conditions.

I work in Bethesda near Old Georgetown and 355. There is a commuter bus that stops right by our office that comes from Germantown. The folks in the office that take it really like it and say it is very reliable. Might be an option for the person commuting that direction.

Thanks. Another vote for the bus option.

Only in August would I even dream of taking the 5A and leaving as little as an hour between scheduled arrival and flight departure, and even now it is risky: My last four trips on the 5A have ranged from 10 minutes early to 40 minutes late. Like any other vehicle on the roads in NoVa, it is subject to significant variation in arrival times due to traffic delays -- and while construction on Dulles Metrorail and the HOT lanes continues, the delays can be just as lengthy and unexpected at off-hours as at rush hour.

Thanks for the feeback on the airport bus schedule.

I think that travelers in the DC area are most frustrated by the "buffer time," the extra time they have to build into any important trip so they're not late. They kind of get used to the idea that travel is going to be slow, but what's really annoying is that the time can be so wildly different from day to day.

The $7 billion? I'm not so sure that it is not in our lifetime. One, you're seeing more and more that people of the younger generation (when they can get a job) choosing an urban lifestyle. To the extent that increased use of rail can improve that lifestyle, I think you'd see the urban youth willing to pay more. And look at what TransFluor did with the HOT lanes. I think the price tag alone isn't enough to necessarily end the project. But, and it's a big but, your point about management is a very good point. Amtrak doesn't have the best track record of providing leadership and good service. So to the extent Amtrak is going to have to be involved in guiding and overseeing the project, I'm not sure how well that will work. But with all the talk about more rail and the benefits of rail, and in my (subjective) recent experience riding MARC and Amtrak more recently, I think rail may be taking off. And I think if that continues to transfer over that a Union Station expansion will happen.

I like your point about the younger generation's apparently growing interest in alternatives to autos. I focus my concern on that big white building a half mile south of Union Station, where Congress meets. With a price that high, the money and the management would have to be largely at the federal level.


The Chicago transit system has opted to completely shut down 11 miles of its southern branch of the red line to complete track and station work in 5 months instead of 3 or 4 years of weekend and evening work. Has METRO ever considered such an option? With single tracking going on and on and on it seems like a partial shut down might be a viable, albeit politically difficult, alternative.

I recall some speculation about the possibility of closing down parts of Metro, but it never got very serious.

In terms of reaction, look at the negative response when a few stations get shut down for a weekend maintenance project.

Also, I must say it's hard to picture how our region would handle the weekday commute with a decent-size chunk of a Metrorail line closed.

Do you see how we could manage that?

Like many, I heard Metro fares were increasing by an average of 5%, so I did not pay attention. Now that I am back from vacation and experiencing the new fares, I realized that my commuting fare increased by a whopping 20%! not the 5% I was planning on. It also seems that the nature of the fare system has changed--my commute used to fall under the base fare, but now is charged much higher than base fare of $1.70. I do not remember reading about that change. What was the range of fare increases? What is the highest increase?

I'm interested in the 20 percent you cite. The highest I could find out of the many, many variations was 17 percent. I think that involved parking at an end of the line station, like Shady Grove, and taking a rush hour commute all the way downtown.

If you get a chance, write to me at drgridlock@washpost.com and fill me in on the details.

I've used both since 1987 and I think that for all its shortcomings Metro is still a better alternative, especially with the road construction around Walter Reed/NIH. I will say I have noticed that for some reason the earlier you travel on Metro the less likely it is you'll have a delay. Having said that, if you can somehow arrange a carpool 270 is really not too bad. Again, earlier is better.

Thanks to all who've submitted driving vs. transit comments for the Germantown-Bethesda commute. That developed into a good theme today.

Since commuters and VA tax payers have had to endure massive traffic congestion and back ups as a result of this construction I believe the Commonwealth and the company that owns the lanes owes us. I suggest that lanes be free on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays for next 24mos to pay us all back for the inconvenience because we know these new lanes arent' goign to reduce traffic tie ups in the least when they open. Beltway will be just as congested while these lanes sit unused and the company files for Chap 11

It will be interesting to see how well the HOT lanes are used in the early going. My guess is that if you add four lanes to any highway, tolled or not, you're going to improve traffic flow in the early going.

One difference I know of betwen the startup of Maryland's Intercounty Connector and the 495 Express Lanes: There's no plan to have a free introductory offer on the Beltway lanes. It will be tolled from Day One.

Well, that was really good; especially for a Monday in August. Thanks to all of you who joined in this week, and I think provided lots of helpful information for other travelers.

Join me again next Monday, and meanwhile, 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.
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