Dr. Gridlock

Aug 08, 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. Lots of traffic and transit issues for us to talk about today. This is supposed to be the summer lull, but not all commuters are feeling it, as you'll see.

I'm a native Washingtonian, been travelling the beltway for 40 plus years. In years past, impending summer breaks and vacations, led to beltway congestion relief from late approximately June - early September. I've seen no such relief this year. Infact, this is my first experience in three decades that I've seen the traffic grow and worsen especially along the 495 corridor. Dr. Gridlock, what's going on and when will we get any relief in the PG County area travelling west wards towards Rockville?

I'm curious if other travelers are feeling the same thing. The current traffic across the region is difficult to measure. I just had an easy trip along East West Highway in Montgomery County during this morning's rush.

Last week, when I was taking a lot of test drives for a Commuter page feature about driving between Columbia and Bethesda, I had a variety of experiences. Sometimes, I was in heavy congestion that reminded me of late September, and sometimes I felt I was definitely in the middle of a summer lull.

On the commute toward Rockville: I see that getting more difficult this fall because of the reconstruction project at the Northwest Branch bridge between University Blvd and NH Ave, plus the start of the extensive repaving project just west of there.

At the end of the month, the summer vacation ends and kids go back to school. With that transition comes increased traffic. Was there anything done this summer that could make the traffic jams a little less common? I can't totally avoid driving past school zones, but small things like better timed lights would help.

I noted on the Dr. Gridlock blog this morning that a couple of bridge projects have wrapped up: The resurfacing of the northbound 14th Street Bridge, which has been going on for two years, is done so there won't be any more lane weaves. On a smaller scale, but still important, the summer rehab for the Cedar Lane bridge, an important commuter link in Bethesda, has also wrapped up.

One of the big issues in this fall's traffic will be the impact of the federal base realignment program (BRAC) on commuters in Maryland and Virginia. That Cedar Lane bridge rehab was one of the projects meant to help with the new traffic heading for the Bethesda medical center. In Northern Virginia, Metro has added a bus route and modified some others to provide more service to the Mark Center in Alexandria.

That's not enough. Planners in Virginia and Maryland have other things in the works, but they won't be designed, financed and built for several years.

Traffic signals: It's often difficult to tell if they're out of whack or just designed to deal with heavy traffic from multiple directions.

Good morning. I was happy to learn that there will be intercity bus service (Greyhound/Peter Pan, etc) integrated into Union Station in the immediate future. Are there plans to also integrate intercity bus service into the Paul Sarbanes Silver Spring Transit Center that is currently under construction? There is currently a Greyhound/Peter Pan station at Fenton Street and Sligo Avenue, about 0.75 miles from the current Silver Spring metro station. It would be logical to integrate this station into the Sarbanes Transit Center. If it isn't planned, why not? Can it still be done? I look forward to your response. --Yosefi Seltzer, Silver Spring 20910

Let's make sure everyone knows what we're talking about. There's a deal to turn one level of the Union Station garage into an intercity bus hub, collecting about 70 percent of the intercity buses that stop in DC. Greyhound, Bolt Bus, Megabus and Washington Deluxe are in on the deal. And I think this is a really smart plan. You can read my column about it:


Passengers should start to see the effects of this consolidation in the fall.

The Sarbantes Transit Center under construction next to the Silver Spring Metro station has been designed to accommodate intercity buses, and I believe it will, once it's finally done. The latest date I heard for that was early 2012. The project has been making good progress since construction actually started. (There were delays for utility relocation, as well as slowdowns related to weather.)

The logic of using Union Station -- with all it's other transportation services -- as an intercity bus hub applies to the new Silver Spring transit center as well.

Interstate 95 southbound right by the HOV merge always seems to slow down, even if HOV is closed (i.e. no merging traffic clogging things up). Traffic moves freely past 234 (exit 152) and resumes around Triangle (exit 150). But between the exits, traffic inevitably slows to a near halt. Is it because trucks and some cars can't climb uphill at speed? I never thought the hill was that steep. Thanks for any insight.

Thanks for your insight on this. I was aware only of the more general issues: There's a huge volume of traffic and not enough lanes in that area.

The HOV lanes on I-95 are very helpful in managing rush hour traffic and less so at off peak times and weekends. They don't adjust to real-time traffic, but rather are on a schedule based on long-term traffic patterns.

I like your idea about the effect of even a slight incline on truck speeds. In a high volume situation, that slowdown could have an effect on traffic across all lanes.

Hi Doc - I heard that VDOT is no longer issuing any new clean fuel tags for vehicles that would exempt the vehicles from the HOV requirements on I-66 inside the Beltway. Is this true? Thx for clarifying.

While VDOT continues to issue clean fuel tags, hybrid drivers who want to go solo legally in the I-66 HOV lanes would have needed to register their clean fuel vehicles before July 1.

There was a sunset provision in the legislation similar to the one that restricts hybrids in the I-95/395 lanes.

We've discussed here occasionally the annoyance of slowing down to read an overhead message board of no importance. But on Friday, I was notified of the severe back-up northbound on I-95 at Jessup in time to take an alternate route, and estimate I saved at least 45 minutes compared to friends who didn't.

Several times last week, I saw the message boards used very effectively. One time, a board was used to tell southbound I-95 drivers about a crash that had shut the Beltway's inner loop lanes in Prince George's. The message was there in time so drivers could decide to head west when they reached the Beltway and use the Legion Bridge into Virginia.

The other time, the message board on eastbound Route 32 notified drivers heading for I-95 north that they should avoid it and go to Route 1 because of an accident cleanup near Route 175.

Good uses of those boards.

Do drivers ignore these rules or are they unaware of them? 1. not changing lanes across the solid white line 2. turning into the closest lane (not making a left turn into the far right hand lane). I see rampant violations of these on a daily basis.

Very recently, I've heard similar concerns from other drivers. I'm not sure what's going on.

I can understand why some drivers heading through construction zones cross the white lines. For example, in the Beltway HOT lanes work zone, it's very difficult -- maybe impossible -- for drivers coming from eastbound 66 to reach the Route 7 exit without crossing solid white lines. But in other areas -- the Northwest Branch bridge, for example -- drivers clearly are crossing the solid lines in the work zone just to pass other drivers. (There's a mobile speed camera there now.)

Dr. Gridlock--I wonder if you would ask Sarles to take a full 7-day week and use only Metrobus to get around--to commute to work, do grocery shopping, get to his medical appointments, visit friends--and report on his experiences in the Post? This period should include a Sunday, when bus service is very limited. If he did this, I think Mr. Sarles would have a better appreciation that three back-to-back buses every 30 minutes is not the same as the scheduled bus every 10 minutes; that missing an early bus when you wait in a dangerous area, in the elements is a big deal; that Nextbus is pretty inaccurate; that buses not pulling to te open curb for stops is dangerous for all and inaccessible for many. Would you propose this bus-only week to Mr. Sarles?

Metro GM Richard Sarles has four decades of experience in the transit business -- bus and rail -- so I doubt he needs a newspaper columnist to tell him how to assess his bus system. I know he knows about the problems of bus bunching and the inaccuracies of Next Bus. So do his top managers.

Knowing is one thing. Solving is another. The bus bunching can be eased through more accurate real-time data about where the buses are and closer supervision and communication, so some buses can be held temporarily to let others get ahead. (Of course, riders on the stopped bus don't like that.)

Next Bus has been a frustration since the program started. The system will tell you that a bus is approaching, then it disappears. There are unsolved problems with that technology.

What does overhead message "Speed Enforcement Zone; No Warnings" mean? Does it mean you won't get any more notifications; or that if they police pull you over they WILL write a ticket?

Wondering if you might have seen that on the eastern side of the Beltway in Maryland? State police engaged in a campaign over the weekend to target bad driving. They issued a lot of speeding tickets. They say they plan to continue that.

Dr. G: Will the Union Station consolidated Bus facility use the existing level for buses, or are we talking about losing parking spaces. As a frequent Amtrak rider, losing parking spaces at Union Station would be a real pain.

The garage's bus deck is going to be reconfigured to accommodate the intercity buses, without hurting the tour bus services you see there now.

I totally agree it would be bad to reduce the car parking in the garage, and nothing I've heard about the bus project suggests that will happen.

Rather, I think this is going to make it easier for many people to make connections with the buses via Amtrak, Metrorail, Metrobus, DC Circulator, taxi and car.

Dr. G - what is your opinion on the possible outer beltway (very long range, might never happen)? Would you prefer the eastern route (MD 301), or a western route, aligning with route 28 in PW and Fairfax, and eventually meeting up with 270? I know this has been a regional "zombie" issue for 30+ years.

Everything I've been hearing for the past year about our inability to finance big new road or rail projects tells me that we've got to adjust our long-range transportation plans, and our long-range thinking. It will be struggle to finance anything new. Meanwhile, the stuff we have is deteriorating at an alarming rate.

Richard Sarles get this about Metro. He seems totally focused on saving what we've got rather than significantly expanding service. (Metro isn't building the Dulles line.)

I think we need that same sort of focus now on our roads network.

So on your question, I think anything resembling an outer beltway is not going to happen in the commuting lifetimes of the people reading this, and probably shouldn't unless someone thinks of a new way of financing maintenance for the current system.

I thought Virginia DMV had stopped issuing HOV-free license plates for vehicles like the Prius. But friends who trade in their old Prius seem able to transfer the plates to their new Prius. And you see plenty of new hybrids in the HOV with HOV plates. Can I get HOV plates for my new Prius now?

Yes, you can get a Virginia clean fuel tag for a new hybrid. But if you got the registration after July 1, you couldn't legally drive in the I-66 HOV lanes when the HOV rules are in effect. Drivers who had clean fuel tags before July 1 can get those tags renewed when they buy a new qualifying vehicle. They're grandfathered in.

(There's a similar system on I-95/395, but the cutoff date goes back several years, as I recall.)

While it sounds like a great idea, I would wonder about whether the local street structure and the entrances to the Union Station lot are sufficient to support this without creating gridlock in the area.

That's certainly something the District Department of Transportation and the Union Station operators need to watch for. But the old Greyhound terminal is in the same area, and that's going to go away.

Plus, this plan means eliminating many of the intercity bus stops that occur right now on crowded downtown streets.

I heard that there was a sink hole on Clarendon Blvd in Rosslyn. Any truth to this and what's the best way to get to 66 and/or 110 and avoid it?

I'm going to paste in what I've got via the Arlington Alert system:

It is anticipated that both lanes of eastbound Clarendon Blvd (N. Pierce St. to Oak St.)will remain closed through the evening rush hour, related to the construction site collapse.  
On northbound Rte 110, the Rosslyn exit (via Wilson Blvd) has also been closed to relieve congestion.  Motorists are encouraged to continue onto westbound I-66 to the Lee Hwy exit.  
Lee Hwy (Rte. 29) and Arlington Blvd (Rte. 50) are the suggested routes for getting to and around Rosslyn.  Those with plans in Rosslyn should expect major traffic delays.  Transit, pedestrian & bicycle routing will also be affected.    

Traffic this summer doesn't seem appreciably worse to me compared to past summers except for on the Outer Loop between Springfield and the Wilson Bridge. I attribute that primarily to construction, but in the past few weeks it seems like there have been an inordinate number of crashes at or near the Eisenhower Connector exit and the traffic just comes to a standstill when that happens because that's right where the work zone begins. I wonder if anyone else has found that there seem to be an unusual number of accidents through there. (As far as other locations in the DC area go, because I live in Virginia it's not really fair to try to comment on how the Beltway performs because essentially the whole Virginia Beltway has some sort of construction going on. Every time you drive through the HOT work zone, the lanes have been shifted, so it's understandable that traffic isn't flowing as well on there.)

Thanks for this comment related to our general discussion of summer traffic. I think your response tends to confirm what I've found in similar discussions: We don't have just one version of the DC regional commute.

I think of this when I see those studies saying we have the worst or second worst traffic in the nation. What does that mean to you, besides bragging rights? How many different ways are there to get to work in this region? Traffic varies with the day of the week, with the season, with construction, with accidents, with the exact moment you're traveling.

Ther just seems to be no improvement in the signage through the construction zone between Springfield and the American Legion Bridge. There are certain areas now where they have mounted the permanent signs that are nice, but still incorrect in some instances. More often than not, the only signage a driver gets for an exit is a single orange sign right at the exit ramp. The construction manager continue to rely on the mobile message boards that display inaccurate information (lane closures from 2 weeks ago and generic messages like "delays to exit 45" that aren't even remotely accurate) or try to stuff 3 pages worth of information on the sign that is nearly impossible to read at highway speeds. Why are construction managers continually allowed to get away with this nonsense? It's amazing anyone that doesn't drive on the beltway every day can figure out where they're going through this area.

I've had such problems recognizing the new locations of exits, or new access points, in the HOT lanes construction zone. I do think drivers adapt pretty quickly, but this is such a large and active work zone that things just keep changing on them.

By the way, one place I'm going to look for trouble again in September is the eastbound Dulles Toll Road where it enters the HOT lanes work zone at the Beltway. VDOT made adjustments, but many drivers tell me they don't believe that congestion and confusion has been solved.

Dr. G, the other comment up the thread from the person noting drivers crossing solid lines made me think of an example of driver misbehavior that I've noticed becoming more and more of a problem: People turning on red improperly (whether because they fail to stop, fail to yield to other traffic, fail to obey "No Turn on Red" signs, or whatever). Several times recently my wife and I have had to slam on the brakes when right-on-red people have pulled out in front of us when we're going through a green light. I think a lot of drivers must mistakenly think that there is a "right" to turn on red, when in fact turning on red is an exception to the normal rule that you have to stop and wait for a green. I'm wondering if you've observed that turning on red is becoming more of a problem in the DC area. I hesitate to suggest that it needs to be restricted, but I'm beginning to think people who fail to do it correctly are going to cause more and more wrecks. (Incidentally, I say "turning on red" because of the places where you can go left on red legally, although most drivers seem unaware that it's legal.)

Let's clarify that last point first. In Maryland and Virginia, traffic law allows drivers to turn left on red from a one way street onto a one way street. (Some travelers have written to me about experiences on DC streets, where it's not legal.)

It's always hard to say whether some driver behavior is happening more than it used to. Are some of us just noticing it more, and re-enforcing each other's perceptions by mentioning it?

I can say I'm increasingly worried about a particular thing I'm noticing more: Many drivers don't stop before making a right on red. (Sometimes, I hang around street corners just to watch what drivers do. Good thing I have this job.)

What I often notice is that as they glide through the red light and into the turn, they're looking left for oncoming traffic and not right, for pedestrians who might be legally using the crosswalks.

Montgomery County traffic officials also noticed this sort of thing and put up more No Turn on Red signs.

I wrote you last time about my SmarTrip card not working upon exiting the station a few times. Well, it happened a few more times and I bit the bullet and spent $5 on a new card. It has worked flawlessly since. Now, I'm hoping the value transfer (from old to new card) works as well. Also, why does Metro not use the working escalators properly? In the morning, the Farragut North K Street escaltors (all 3 working) are 2 up and 1 down. This makes sense as more people are exiting versus entering. However, in the afternoon, it is still 2 up and 1 down. This makes no sense as more people are entering the station. I know, I shouldn't complain as we have 3 working escaltors but why doesn't Metro use them in logical directions?

Several reasons I can think of. One is that somebody made a mistake and forgot to change the direction. At some stations -- I'm not sure if this is true at Farragut North -- station managers are reluctant to switch the escalators because they correctly fear it will break the fragile machinery.

(And yes, many riders would kill for three working escalators -- up, down, sideways.)

I have to pick up a friend at Dulles airport this afternoon leaving from Union Station. Would you recommend using 395 to the Beltway to reach the Access Road or take the GW Parkway to 66 West?

I'd take the parkway to the Beltway to the Dulles Access Highway. I think that will be an easier trip to the Dulles Access Highway. Leave lots of time, though. Once you reach the access highway, it should be a breeze.

The intersection at MD-28 / MD-97 was operating at a passing level (V/C=0.96/1.11) just after the opening of the ICC for a period of about 6 weeks. SHA then changed the configuration (V/C=1.02/1.18) to a failing one. Why?

I don't recall people speaking of that intersection south of the Intercounty Connector as anything other than a failing intersection that ultimately needs to be rebuilt when money is available. (See our earlier exchange about outer beltways.)

Many drivers were upset when the SHA eliminated one of the two left turn lanes from northbound 97 onto Norbeck (Route 28). But I haven't had the same experience. When I watching last week, traffic always cleared out of the left turn lane before the red light.

I recently read that when the Hot lanes on the beltway are completed, the left exit ramp from the inner loop to I66 west will be closed. Why are they waiting until the Hot lanes are finished. This is something that should have been done years ago. It is a very dangerous situation with traffic from Rt50 west merging onto the inner loop of the beltway and then diving accross 4 lanes of traffic to take the left exit, when there is a perfectly good ramp on the right a few hundred feet further. All it would take is a couple of Jersey barriers across the exit ramp to close it off and make this section of the beltway much safer and also ease the congestion that is caused by everyone having to slow down to accomodate the traffic trying to exit up the left ramp onto I66.

Yes, the left exit will be eliminated in the final configuration when the HOT lanes are done at the end of 2012. This is just a guess: They haven't closed it already because there are other factors that slow traffic in the left lanes of the inner loop in that problematic interchange, they feel the capacity is needed, and they don't want to give drivers any more new things to think about than they've already had to endure.

Two questions -1)in thepast Metro published it scheduled trackwork list for both weekdays/nights and the weekend near the beginning of the month but seems to now just publish the weekend trackwork a few days in advance. is Metro going to resume giving advance notice of the weekday/night trackwork? 2) Metro was going to reroute buses at the Dunn Loring station due to construction in August but that has not yet occurred. Has notice been given of a new date for this project and moving the bus stop locations?

I'll check on both those things.

I like the addition of the long-range work schedule for big projects, the one through June 2012. But I miss the monthly listing of single-tracking projects and the midday and weeknight projects. I thought those were helpful, too.


Travelers, that's all the time I have today. Among  the many questions and comment remaining, I spotted a few I think I can answer on the Dr. Gridlock blog after a little checking. So I'll try to post them over the next couple of days.

Please join me again next Monday, but whether you're on vacation or still commuting, 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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