Dr. Gridlock chat

Aug 13, 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. Are you enjoying (relatively speaking) the August commutes, with so many people on vacation? Or does it still seem like the same ole same ole?

Well, let's look at what's in the mailbag today.

The latest July 1 metro fare increases are particularly expensive to/from the Silver Spring metro. For example, 2-4 stops is far more expensive to/from Silver Spring than other stops such as Chinatown. A 10-minute ride from SS-Rhode Island Ave was $1.60 (off-peak) and is now $2.05. Why the Silver Spring hate, Dr. Gridlock?

Metro fares are based on time and distance, not stations, so I think the transit authority probably didn't single out Silver Spring for special punishment. But the impact of the fare increases varied a lot, depending on the type of trips people take, and the impact was high on off-peak trips.

Doc - Why doesn't Metro put up signs along the escalators that say "Standing - Stay Right, Walking - Stay Left" or something along those lines? I feel bad for the tourists who don't know any better, but I feel worse for the commuters like me, who get jammed up in tourist created bottle neck. Seems like a no brainer - - big return on a small investment. Why don't they try to let the out of towners know how the system works???

I'm pretty sure it's not just out-of-towners. There seem to be plenty of folks who need to stand side by side on an escalator step to have a conversation.

But like you, I'm sure, I see plenty of families spread out on the escalators, creating a human dam to block commuters. What bothers me more is when they pause at the top of the escalator to admire the view rather than moving out of the way of the people coming up behind them.

Metro isn't going to use signs to change that. The transit authority has some long-held beliefs about not wanting to encourage people to walk on escalators. Standing is the safest way to ride an escalator, they keep saying.

Now, the first thing that will come to your mind is the number of times escalators break down. How safe is that?

I have heard rumblings about DC, because its such an international city being a great place to host a future games. This sounds like an awful idea. We can barely handle an increase in tourist. We would have 10s of thousand of people always standing on the left amongst other problems. Am I being overly pessimistic, or would Olympic games in DC literally bring the city to a halt.

I'd like to think that another bid for the games would be coupled with transportation improvements, as has been the case in other cities.

But I think we should probably save the money that would be spent on games and invest it in getting people to work.

I find it humorous that VDOT is proud to be "eliminating one of the nation's worst bottlenecks" through the I-95 Express Lanes project\. Don't they understand that the bottleneck is just going to shift south 8 miles? The traffic between the HOV merge and Garrisonville is far worse than any other part of I-95, and not necessarily because of the merge. This project has the potential to make I-95 even worse than it already is, especially during non-rush hours when non-HOVs can use the reversible lanes. How can VDOT justify this construction?

Every project ends some place. Many of them have the potential over the years to add traffic and create jams around the point where they end. I think it will take a while for traffic to reach the point of creating a bottleneck at the new southern terminus.  I think drivers who now get caught in southbound congestion at Dumfries aren't going to experience the same thing when the merge point is moved eight miles south -- at least not for a while.

I'm not sure the same can be said for the northern merge point, around Edsall Road. I think that has the potential for increased congestion in an area that's already bad during peak periods.

By the way, the HOT lanes will be high-occupancy toll all the time. There won't be any non-rush period when it's toll free.

Will VDOT still control the direction of the Express Lanes when the project is completed, or will the operator have the power to switch the direction of the lanes to reduce traffic/increase revenue particularly on weekends?

I'll double check on who controls that. I think it's the operator. I know the plan is to keep the timing about the same as it is now.

With the new changes to the EZPass fee structure, I have ZERO interest now in getting a transponder. However, I may be tempted from time to time to enter the Beltway Express Lanes if the regular lanes are backed up and I'm running late. What is the penalty for travelling in the lanes without a transponder? In other words, what extra fee is EZPass going to tack onto the bill they send me in the mail for entering the lanes without an EZPass? In most states you get charged between $3-4 for running through EZPass Only lanes without a transponder.

I'm not sure what the administrative fee will be for violating the lane-use rules.

I rarely drive during the week, but I am heading North out of NOVA this coming Friday. The plan is to leave between 6-7 AM, Parkway to 495 to 270... Will traffic be moving?

I think you should be fine -- as long as there are no crashes along the route.  Highway traffic at that time of morning has been pretty good this month.

I'm not saying you won't have to slow down for stretches, but it's been much lighter than the rest of the year.

Has VDOT truly sold their soul to the devil? Does it really matter how many public comments their are against a project, because it seems like they all move forward anyway? How can VDOT justify turning existing free lanes into 24-hour toll lanes and force HOVs to pay a monthly EZPass fee to get an EZPass Flex transponder? Does VDOT realize how terrible weekend traffic will be on the I-95 corridor? It's bad enough now with southbound trips on Saturday midday and northbound trips on Sunday late afternoon taking between 2-3 hours between the beltway and Fredericksburg. Now they're going to take 2 lanes away from 90% of the drivers so some foreign company can make a quick buck. It would be one thing if this project was a new north-south limited access highway (something our region desperately needs), but instead they're effectively reducing the capacity of I-95, which is already gridlocked.

For I-95, I think VDOT should have looked at alternatives before locking into the HOT lanes program. This is different from the Beltway HOT lanes, which are brand new lanes. The I-95 project for much of its length is a conversion from HOV.

However, I don't see this being some big sellout to a foreign company. It's a huge investment in construction and operation in exchange for the 76-year lease.

When is this supposed to open? I am still on the fence about whether this was a gigantic waste of money. Thoughts?

Montgomery County should annonce a date soon. The hang-up, as you probably know, has been about the quality of the concrete pour.

I don't know about concrete. I do know that Silver Spring commuters have been inconvenienced for four years now, waiting for this thing to get done. It inconveniences people who park and take the train, people who ride the bus and take the train, people who go from bus to bus and people who are just walking around.

When it finally opens, this had better be good.

Has Metro released any details on how the RushMinus changes are benefiting commuters? I would hope that there's some tangible proof that these changes have benefited someone. For me, it's definitely a degradation of service.

No, and if Metro had, what would you make of an assessment that covered two months during the summer? Let's see what it looks like in September. We'll see regular-sized crowds, at a time when people who are going to change their commuting habits becaues of the new service pattern probably will have had a chance to do so.

I drove up I-95 to NYC last weekend, and noticed that construction on the I-95 Express Lanes north of Baltimore appears to be finished. However, I seem to recall that the new lanes are not scheduled to open until late 2013/early 2014. Am I misremembering the opening date for those new lanes, or is there something going on with the construction of the new lanes (lost funding, reduced interest, etc...)?

They started in 2005 and are scheduled to be done in early 2014. That's certainly a lot slower schedule than the ones for the Beltway and I-95 express lanes in Virginia. Out of all of them, I think the Beltway project is the most complicated.

I think we might be seeing the difference between a standard government project, with tolls meant to pay off bonds in Maryland, and a public-private partnership, where the company takes on the risk of the construction investment in exchange for the reward of the tolls. In other words, there's a profit motive in the Virginia projects, and probably a desire to get them online faster.

Why does Maryland SHA refuse to widen I-270 north of Montgomery County? Residents of Frederick are not going anywhere, yet we're treated like second class citizens with a highway connection crica 1970. The best we can get are some overpass maintenance projects, when in reality I-270 should have been 3 lanes to Frederick 10+ years ago.

Maryland has been slow on any major project to improve I-270 and the west side of the Beltway. There are studies and plans for the I-270 corridor, for both highway and transit, but nothing's going to happen anytime soon.

How would you prefer to pay for a highway widening? Would you go for the Virginia style HOT lanes?

One other issue, and this reflects an earlier comment from a reader: If you widen the lanes out west on I-270, you're going to increase the number of vehicles arriving at the Beltway, where the congestion is ghastly right now.

Is it safe to assume the the company profiting off the HOT lanes will be the ones responsible for their upkeep, and that VDOT can then focus money and effort to other regional needs?

I'm not sure there's a "safe" assumption to make about transportation financing, in any jurisdiction. The private venture in the HOT lanes will be responsible for their upkeep. But I haven't heard there's some huge pile of money waiting go get spent on other transportation needs across the region.

"However, I don't see this being some big sellout to a foreign company. It's a huge investment in construction and operation in exchange for the 76-year lease." Really? The only "investment" that's being made is paving shoulders, building 24 new lane-miles on the south end, and adding a few extra slip ramps and fly-overs. There was far more investment in the Beltway Express Lanes project (complete interchange redesign--I-66/I-495, brand new exit ramps in Tysons and Merrifield, and other minor interchange improvements) with far less upside for the operator (unknotting the I-66 interchange is enough to convince me that I will never need to use the toll lanes). The I-95 Express Lanes is a sweetheart deal with minimal investment from the operator with a huge upside on lanes that are already over capacity even during certain non-peak hours. Not only that, but because of this project, HOV-ers lose their incentives for carpooling because of the EZPass transponder costs, which will put more people into cars and compounding traffic for everyone else.

I think the Beltway is the more complicted of the two projects. With the I-95 project, the total cost is supposed to be $925 million. VDOT's share is supposed to be $71 million. The private partnership's share is supposed to be $854 million.

I'm not sure that carpoolers are going to be deterred by the $18 a year maintenance fee on the E-ZPass Flex transponders. One or two days of carpooling from Woodbridge to Tysons and back would cover that investment.

One thing I haven't seen and would sure like to see: A real plan for adding bus services that could take advantage of the new lanes on both the Beltway and I-95. I think the bus services -- or the lack of them -- will one day let us decide whether these really are "Lexus lanes."

Any ideas how late in the day the GT Pike tree removal will last? Will it severly impact post 5:30 or 6 pm traffic?

No, but I haven't heard about any lane closings for the tree removal project on Georgetown Pike.

I don't think more vehicles would bombard the Beltway if I-270 were widened to three lanes all the way to Frederick. Most Frederick residents are commuting to Rockville, Bethesda, Germantown, and Gaithersburg. A 3rd lane would just reduce the backups through the truck scales down to Germantown, a section of highway that's already prone to serious collisions and in deperate need of a safety upgrade. What bothers me most is that the overpass improvements that are being made right now in Urbana are not adding width to the existing bridges to allow for future widening. That means any widening project, if approved in my lifetime, would essentially redo all of the work that's being done right now (the same thing goes for the Beltway bridge over the Northwest Branch). Where's the foresight in our transportation projects? A few extra dollars spent now can save millions 5 years from now.

Do you think that's telling you about the prospects for widening either 270 or the Beltway in our commuting lifetimes?

I see no evidence of Maryland committing serious resources to such projects in the near future.

Why are you so pessimistic when it comes to securing highway funding? What happened to the days when state governments could present projects to the DOT and receive significant investment from the federal government? What about all of the stimulus money? I understand that a state can't build a new highway by itself, but if it's a necessary project, can't a state submit it to DOT for federal funding? I'd gladly trade the federaly funded and ridiculous Silver Line and Purple Line projects for a western bypass project and a new Potomac River crossing.

Yes, I'm very pessimistic about government highway funding.

People are determined to see improvements in the transportation system and equally determined not to pay for them. We have a perfect balance at all levels of government. It's hard to blame the Virginia government for pursuing private partnerships for its highway improvements, or for including tolling in the deals. Marylanders won't see any new highways built, or lanes added, without tolling.

I don't buy this argument at all for two reasons. First, as Dr. Gridlock pointed out, getting to ride with no toll makes the fee worth it. Second, and more importantly, I think the average driver who would benefit from an E-ZPass already has one (except for one zealot I know, but that's another issue), such that a driver who does not now have an E-ZPass and gets an E-ZPass Flex for use on the Express Lanes is likely to use that device SOLELY in the Express Lanes. If he does that and uses it solely in "HOV mode," the fee is waived. To me that sounds like a GREAT incentive for people to continue picking up slugs. Also, remember that the toll-payers have to exit back into the (very slow) local lanes just north of Edsall Road, whereas HOVs can continue on in the center express lanes. I think that's also a huge incentive for picking up slugs; consider, after all, that the "Bob's" slug line in Springfield has been booming for over 30 years due to the traffic on I-395 inside the Beltway.

I think that's a good additional point about the carpool incentive remaining for commuters going up 395 to places like the Pentagon. (Or the Mark Center, especially when that new HOV ramp gets built at Seminary Road.)

The HOT lanes network also is going to create a carpool incentive for people who live along I-95 and work at Tysons.

When commuters calculate their self-interest, the E-ZPass Flex isn't going to turn them away from using the HOT lanes.

If I am a family from FLA or Mass. passing through with the kids in the back seat (so 5 counting the dog) what sign tells me that I can't use the new HOV lanes because I don't have a transponder?

The signs that all drivers will see read this way:

"E-ZPass Express"





E-ZPass Flex


Any change in service is bound to have positive effects for some, and negative for others. Since a previous commenter was looking for someone who benefits, I offer myself in evidence. Fran-Spring <--> Judiciary Square / Gallery Place. If I catch a blue, I transfer to Red at Metro Center. If I catch a yellow, I can ride straight in to Gallery Place and walk a few blocks, or transfer to Red there after a shorter trip downtown.

I hear a lot from Blue Line riders who get on at Franconia-Springfield or maybe King Street and are going to Rosslyn or Foggy Bottom. They're definitely not winning in this thing. It's rare to hear from people who are trying to get to more central parts of DC who are benefiting from the extra Yellow Line trains.

That's just the nature of things. People rarely write to Dr. Gridlock to say how much they love their commute.

Dr. G., here's my problem with these. I live in Charlottesville and have family in Alexandria and Gaithersburg. I probably make a trip up that way once every other month, If I get the Flex and use it solely for carpooling in a month, I don't get charged a monthly fee. If I get a Flex and use it even once for not carpooling, I get charged a fee. if I don't use it at all, I still get charged a fee. Not sure it makes sense for me to get one, and now I'm losing access to roads I previously had access to.

Yes, if you use the HOV lanes now at off-peak periods, you will lose free access to those lanes. If you get the Flex, and use it once every other month, you'll almost certainly cover the annual maintenance fee.

But if you think that's a bad deal, you may well find that the regular lanes, the free lanes, will be less crowded -- at least initally -- once the HOT lanes open. They probably are going to suck in some drivers from the regular lanes who are willing to pay the toll.

Thanks, that's a very useful listing from the Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance.

A lot of what commuters need to know, related to our discussion today, is summed up in this line: "Please note: MOST of these projects have been under study for many years but have NOT yet been funded for construction."

Dr. G, I'm wondering what feedback you've heard about the Outer Loop in Virginia approaching the Wilson Bridge since the major roadwork wrapped up earlier this month. I've lived in Kingstowne since July 2001 and I've been astonished at the improvement on the Beltway (Friday afternoon I took the Beltway to Old Town and was cruising at a steady 70 mph the whole way....that's NEVER happened before!), but what I've noticed even more is that traffic on the surface streets like Van Dorn has improved as well. Could it be that people who used to bail out from the Beltway backup no longer need to do so? The one thing that I find odd is that there's no sign anywhere to tell people unfamiliar with the road that the THRU lanes have no exits in Virginia. I guess the idea is that because the signs list "LOCAL exits" and "THRU exits" and all the THRU exits have Maryland state route shields, the motorist should be able to figure it out, but I don't doubt a lot of the long-distance drivers on I-95 wouldn't know that square is a Maryland route shield. I've still seen people, including truck drivers, making last-second cross-gore lane changes to get into the "correct" lanes even though all the lanes will still take you to Baltimore and New York.

I haven't heard much in the past week since the THRU and LOCAL lanes fully opened on the outer loop. Again, I think that's the nature of things. People don't normally tell Dr. Gridlock how much they like something.

But when I drove the outer loop last week, the difference was really noticeable, and I've been watching the traffic maps and cameras each morning, and the difference is really noticeable there also.

I don't have the same issue with the guiding signs for THRU and LOCAL. For example, there's that one that says:

"95  495  THRU


I might have the opposite problem with that. Can't I get off the Beltway anywhere in Prince George's?


Thanks for joining me today.

There are so many questions and comments remaining about the HOT lanes and E-ZPass issues that I'll try to set up a posting on the Dr. Gridlock blog with some of them.

Our next chat won't be till Sept. 10. Stay safe, enjoy the rest of your summer commutes, join me on the 10th and tell us if you're experiencing September Shock.

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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