Dr. Gridlock

Aug 11, 2014

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 think this is about as mellow as the traveling public can get in the D.C. region. It's midsummer, many commuters are on vacation and the weather at rush hours has been favorable.

Then again, people don't write to Dr. Gridlock because they LIKE something about our transportation system. So let's take a look.

Dr. Gridlock, I live in Reston and work in Ballston. Without regular access to a car, my options are pretty limited in terms of commute. My previous trip (Fairfax Connector to West Falls Church station to Metro) has been made easier by the Silver Line. However, now fares are $5.45 each way. That's almost $11 a day, far more than the $7 round trip fare for taking the toll road.

Absurd cost aside for a trip that seems to be disproportionately inflated, I'm confused because I thought the rising tolls were intended to provide an incentive for folks to use the Metro instead.

What is the logic in having the Metro more expensive (about $80/mo) than the toll road? I know I am helpless in this situation, but hoping at least for some rationale to calm my annoyance. Thank you, Jenny Reston, VA

This is a quick response to a question that could launch an entire discussion:

So far, it looks to me like there are plenty of commuters who are very pleased with the Silver Line, and many who are not.

The main source of complaints is the bus/train commuters who now get taken to the Silver Line stations, particularly Wiehle-Reston East at the end of the line's first phase.

But our commenter here is a bit different, saying that the commute "as been made easier" by the Silver Line.

Travelers, of course, should make their own calculations about what works best for them, but that's usually going to be a combination of cost and convenience issues. Time savings and convenience have values to be balanced against the monetary cost.

The tolls don't fully capture the monetary cost of driving. Many commuters -- not all -- also have to pay for parking. And they have to pay the cost of maintaining and operating their cars.

Metro needs to do a better job with parking signage at Reston Wiehle. Coming off Wiehle onto Metro property there is a sign ... Metro parking .. as you pull in there is only a parking garage entrance visible. On Sunday I and a few hundred others pulled into this apparently private garage and found out at the end of the day it was almost 5 bucks to get out. That entrepeneur is lovin' life.

This is not the first time I've heard from a traveler confused about the entrances to the two parking garages on the north side of the Wiehle Avenue station.

One is a private garage, operated by the Comstock company. The bigger one is a Fairfax County garage. That's the main one for Metro, and certainly the one where you want to park on weekends, for free.

For your DC cred, can you give the first name of the person behind these eponymous stations: Cleveland (Park), Dupont (Circle), Farragut (North), (Fort) Totten, (NoMa-)Gallaudet, (Rhode Island Ave-)Brent(wood), Tenley(town-AU), Van Ness(-UDC), and Wheaton? I am unable to google anything about Grosvenor-Strathmore.

Opening this one up for everyone.

Kent Island is the largest island in the Chesapeake Bay. You cross it on the Kent Narrows Bridge. Denton, MD is short for "Eden town". It is named for Sir Robert Eden, the last royal governor of Maryland. (Or it could be the original Garden of Eden) Ellendale, DE is named for Ellen Dale, the daughter of the chief surveyor of the Junction and Breakwater Railroad. The railroad ran between Lewes and Baltimore. Greenwood, DE was a station on the line. Milton, DE is named for the English poet, John Milton. It was settled in 1672 by English Colonists.

What is this, Jeopardy Day on the Dr. Gridlock chat?

(If it were Jeopardy, I wouldn't have been able to hit the buzzer for any of these.)

It doesn't look like there are any plans to build the new tunnel under the Potomac at Rosslyn anytime soon. There is room (barely) for the current one-every-6-minutes Silver Line trains now.

I am wondering how this will all work, when, in 4-5 years from now, Phase II opens, which will double the number of stops on the Silver Line.

By then, ridership on the Phase I parts should be way up. Is the long term plan to stay with that one train every 6 minutes schedule?

Even if they are all 8 car trains by then, will that leave enough space on the trains for everyone that wants to ride on them if there is only one every 6 minutes?

(At the same time the ridership on the above ground part of the Orange Line will also have surged due to population growth beyond Vienna.)


Since building a tunnel takes a long time, and there are no plans currently being drafted to construct one, I was wondering if you are aware of any plans Metro has already made to deal with the future bottleneck before it actually happens?

Or is that something way off in the future, and not of concern for them yet?

This is not way off in the future, given the time it takes to plan and finance such big construction projects.

Metro's first and foremost priority for congestion relief is to buy enough railcars so that all rush hour trains would be eight cars long. But as you know, that's as long as Metro trains can get.

Eventually -- not too eventually -- we'll max out on the capacity of the existing system. That's partly a Silver Line issue, but certainly not entirely. The region will keep growing.

We need another river crossing in the Rosslyn area and another tunnel through downtown Washington. Right now, that exists as a really good idea. There's no money.

Another big thing we really need is a way to get around Rosslyn just in Virginia -- a way for Orange Line or Silver Line riders from the west to get to the Pentagon, Crystal City and Reagan National Airport, and for Blue Line riders from Franconia-Springfield to get to Court House, Clarendon, Ballston and so on.

I live in NW DC, and have noticed brown "Zoo Bus Route" signs in Van Ness and in Cleveland Park. What do they mean? I've never heard of a "Zoo Bus."

I think those are National Park Service signs for tour bus drivers, meant to keep the buses off your neighborhood streets. (This is not a special transit route for the giraffes.)

Hi Dr. G, Just wanted to say how happy I am not to have to deal with the crowds of people trying to get through the turnstiles at West Falls Church. It is so much more pleasant at McLean to get through the gates. That crush of people at rush hour was just awful. And I am thrilled to no longer have to be a part of it!

I think it will stay that way at least for a while, but the station gradually will become more used. I'm curious to see what happens at all five new stations in September, but that's not the long-term growth I"m thinking about.

Seems to me, the initial ridership on the Silver Line is made up mostly of commuters who used to take the Orange Line. That was natural in the early going, with the bus routes changing. Over the long-term, I think, we'll see many new Metro riders using the Silver Line stations in Fairfax.

The closure signs announcing road closures for the Africa Summit are still up around the Lincoln Memorial. Why can't the people in charge of signs take these things down in a timely manner? And, who can I call to ask them to do this?

I think the easiest thing is to call 311 in DC, the mayor's call center, which is a focal point for pointing out such problems.

(In case there's any doubt: The summit is all over. No more street closings because of that.)

I have a 7pm meeting in the Tower Oaks neighborhood in Rockville. Coming from my Rosslyn office, how early do I need to leave if I drive? The meeting is in September, after school is in session. I am just trying to prepare myself of the nightmare of I-495. I am also considering if metro is a better option, but it looks like it will take forever to get home.

That's not an easy trip during the evening rush, no matter what mode you choose. I do think it's a little much to accomplish via train and bus to Tower Oaks. So I'd probably drive. But the Beltway's inner loop is just ghastly during the evening rush.

From Rosslyn, you don't have to drive up the GW Parkway to the Beltway. You could cross the Key Bridge and try either Canal Road or Wisconsin Avenue, so at least you could dodge the Legion Bridge crossing.

But I think the main thing is just allowing yourself a lot of extra time at the start. I'd leave an hour and 15 minutes to reach a meeting, and I'd be curious how other travelers react to that.

It's been many months since I saw any workers at Deanwood station, and the plywood is still covering the deck and the dangerous wooden walls are still pressing people close to the tracks. Has work stalled? I used to see the workers packing up to leave when I would arrive at 5 AM.

The Deanwood platform is scheduled to be done by October. That and the reconstruction of the Minnesota Avenue platform are among the major projects on Metro's rebuilding list. Each has been underway for quite a while.

I'm not aware of any delays in the schedule, but will check.

As a non VA resident, how do I obtain a flex transponder. The Va website told me to contact my state's department of transportation, but my state does not mention flex transponders.

Virginia and Maryland are the states that issue the E-ZPass Flex transponder for carpooling free in the 495 Express Lanes, and eventually in the 95 Express Lanes when they open next year.

I've heard from plenty of out of staters who have not had difficulty getting the Flexes if they call up.

This isn't really a question, it's a request to my fellow drivers -- when at all possible, please try to do the expected thing when driving. For example, if you have the right of way, then go. Don't stop and let cross traffic go instead, because everyone behind you has to stop and folks end up not clearing the intersection the way they're used to. Don't worry, cross traffic also has its turn to go -- it's just not when you have your turn to go. Another example is if you're in the left lane and want to turn right. If you can't get over soon enough, please go up a street or two and turn then. Cutting across traffic is dangerous, because people aren't expecting that. On highways and parkways (the GWP is notoriously bad), please stay right unless you're passing. Thanks!

My take on doing "the expected thing": Sometimes drivers cause confusion when all they're trying to do is be courteous. It may seem counter intuitive, but that's not always the best choice.

One example: Trying to let an oncoming driver turn left in front of you when the light becomes green. The left-turning driver usually doesn't expect you to wait, and you just hold up everybody.

Or at a crosswalk: If a person is standing on the sidewalk and just thinking about crossing a multi-lane road, it's often not the safest thing for all concerned to have a driver halt. (If the pedestrian is actually in the crosswalk, you absolutely positively have to stop.)

I feel the same way about that scenario when I'm the pedestrian. I'll cross when I decide it's safe to do so. Don't try to get me to step out in front of your stopped car when I don't know what other drivers are going to do at the intersection.

As all the commuters are now bussed to Wiehle-Reston East, or encouraged to drive/park there, has this made a big difference in volume of passengers at Vienna and West Falls Church stations?

I don't recall seeing numbers for West Falls Church and Vienna. So this answer is based on other things:

I think it has made a difference. I noticed a sharp drop-off in complaints from the week of Silver Line simulated service (when the Orange Line service at Vienna-West Falls Church was cut back) to the week when the new Silver Line stations opened.

Also, despite the first week's fairly good numbers for boardings at Wiehle-Reston East, overall Metro ridership was about the same as the previous week. So my suspicion was that the initial boardings at the new stations were largely by bus commuters who were being switched from Orange Line stations to Silver Line stations.

Plus, if you hung around the fare gates at Wiehle-Reston East, you noticed a periodic surge in crowding at the fare gates. That seemed to match the arrival times for buses. A parking crowd creates a much steadier flow to the fare gates.

Grosvenor is easy and suggests a lack of facility with Google. That was a longtime editor of the National Geographic and a relative of Alexander Graham Bell. Strathmore is the name of the mansion at the music center. These whiners who compare tolls and metro fare seem to forget gas and wear/tear on their cars. Not to mention productive time lost.

This is the first of several responses to the station name question above. I'll show you the other responses, too.

The station is named after Grosvenor Lane and the Strathmore Mansion and the Strathmore Music and Arts Center. Grosvenor Lane is named after the founder of the National Geographic Society, Gilbert Grosvenor. I vaguely remember NG having its headquarters on Grosvenor Lane years ago. "Strathmore" (the mansion greatly precedes the concert hall) comes from the name of a valley in Scotland, which is like the valley in which the Mansion and adjacent Rock Creek lie.

Cleveland Park: Grover Cleveland, who had a house in the area; Dupont Circle: Samuel Dupont, Civil War Admiral; Farragut: David Farragut, Civil War Admiral ("D..n the torpedos..."); Gallaudet: Thomas Gallaudet, pioneer in education of the deaf; Fort Totten: Joseph Totten, General; founder of the NAS and involved with the Smithsonian; Tenley: John Tennally, 18-th century tavern owner in the area; Van Ness: J.P. Van Ness, NY Congressman and Mayor of DC; Grosvenor-Strathmore: the Grosvenor area was named after the Grosvenor family, who onced owned the Carolinas as a colony. Strathmore was added after the arts center was opened; that was named after the estate that used to be there. The Oyster family owned the land; they called their estate "Strathmore" for whatever reason.

You do not have to be a resident of the state that gives you an EZ Pass account. My cousins in Ontario have an EZ Pass from New York State. NY State residents get a discount on certain toll booths with a NY EZ Pass, but out-of-staters don't get the discount. My brother uses his NYS EZ Pass to pay for parking at JFK Airport, but only because he lives in NYS and has an EZ Pass in NYS.

People can shop around. In case anyone missed it, Virginia eliminated the monthly maintenance fee in June.

(Just in case anyone got confused, the original poster was concerned about getting an E-ZPass Flex. That's available only through the Virginia or Maryland E-ZPass systems.)

Is that still expected at a four-way stop sign?

Yes, but I wouldn't bet my life on the three other drivers doing the right thing. Proceed with caution.

Now age 78. Lifetime bicycle commuter in Boston and D.C. In fairness, shouldn't bicyclists pay for their use of highways, special lanes police protection and byways just like automobile drivers do with gas tax, tolls, excise taxes. I'm sure I am not the first to gripe about the bye that bicyclists get from any financial contribution to their use. LDB Sr.

I've certainly heard from travelers who argue that a road tax for everyone would be fair, but two things: First, I don't understand how that would work for cyclists. Second, I think it's fair to all travelers for governments to create an incentive to get people out of cars. Success at that means holding down road repair costs, congestion and demand for new roads.

I always want to avoid DC rush hour and Annapolis rush hour. So I eat dinner here and head out at 8 pm. You get in late, which is OK for a hotel, but not for a campsite. On the way back you want to avoid check-in traffic, which is usually 2pm, Saturday or Sunday. So again I leave at 6 pm, get in at 8.

Do you think the metro would ever consider implementing express trains like those in NYC? I realize that there aren't extra tracks for this like in NYC, however, it seems a bit ridiculous that a trip to work for me that takes 20 minutes to drive takes an hour and 20 minutes to arrive by train (using the new silver line). If the Silver Line wouldn't serve all the same stops (or at least only stop at major transfer hubs) that the Orange and Blue lines do, it would make it much more convenient. For example, why can't the Silver line just stop at East Falls Church and then skip all the other stations until arriving to Rosslyn and Metro Center? Beyond it taking forever, the prices are absurd and it takes me much longer to take public transportation, so metro will never get as many riders when it logically doesn't make sense financially or with regard to time.

A not so bold prediction: We will never have express trains.

The most Metro can do is skip a stop or two, and that's only when a line needs to recover from a disruption, so you don't really want to see that.

At rush hour, the trains are scheduled to run close together, so there's not enough room for expressing. Off peak, there's such a big gap between trains that you don't want to make it even worse for some riders by skipping their station.

Sorry this isn't about traffic, but do you know what happened to the weekly chat about grammar?

I am definitely not that kind of a doctor.

And I don't recall us having a weekly chat on grammar. If I've missed such a thing, I'm sorry, because that's a chat I would tune in for.

Very often only one or two cars can turn right at intersections when their lanes have a green light because pedestrians have a walk signal then as well. Traffic gets backed up and it makes little sense to not have some other method to get pedestrians across efficiently and safely and get cars moving as well. Having sat through multiple light changes only yards from an intersection because pedestrians are in the crosswalks for most of the time the light is green is maddening. Any chance DC can improve the flow?

Only by making it easier for people to avoid having to drive in the first place.

There's no form of signal timing at busy intersections that truly solves the problem you describe. Anything that favors all drivers or all pedestrians just increases the cycle time for the lights and further retards traffic.

Oh lordy, I didn't know that. I thought with four-way stops, whoever is there first gets to go next, and down the line.

I think the original poster probably had in mind the simultaneous arrival at the intersection.

I should add: The problem I see most often at stop signs is drivers not stopping for them.

It's a monthly chat, first Tuesday, I think.


don't have a problem excluding cyclists since they do very little wear and tear on the roads but hybrid and EV owners need to pay their fair share. So we need to come up with a way of taxing for miles traveled that doesnt violate our privacy. Or just add a surcharge at tag renew time for Ev and hybrids I think $500 for 2 years is fair.

I think that's fair. But nationally, we seem very far from an agreement on subbing for the gas tax.

Hi Doc - Need to leave my Verizon Center 'hood office to catch a 6:30 p.m. flight out of BWI tomorrow, driving. I would like to arrive inside terminal at 5:30. What time should I leave downtown, and should I take BW Parkway? Thx!

I'd take I-95. (I almost always go with the biggest, widest highway.)

And when travelers ask about making it to an airport, I am extremely conservative. (Don't want a missed flight on my conscience.) So for the BWI drive in the p.m. rush, I'd leave two hours. It's just so hard to predict what's going to happen during a peak period on a congested route with lots of traffic lights to get through.

Thanks for joining me today. Our next discussion will be Monday, Sept. 8. (The Monday after Labor Day.)

Stay safe. Looking forward to chatting with you again.d

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 the Get There blog, as well as in the Metro section of The Washington Post.
Recent Chats
  • Next: