Dr. Gridlock

Sep 09, 2013

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, to our first chat of September. Are you  noticing any signs of the changes we label "September Shock"? It actually takes a couple of weeks for the "shock" of more congestion on the roads and rails to sink in on commuters.

We have plenty of questions and comments already, so let's go.

Why are gas prices in Northern Va. so much higher than the rest of VA? Wasn't the VA gas tax lowered July 1st.? VA was supposed to then have the lowest prices amongst DC, MD and VA. Recently I bought gas in Charlottesville for $3.12, and Harrisonburg for $3.25/gal. while in northern VA , most stations are in the $3.65+ range. Are we being ripped off ?

What happened was that Virginia eliminated the state gas tax, in favor of financing transportation through other taxes. So any impact of that would be felt statewide.

Maryland, meanwhile, raised its  gas tax. Have you travelers noticed the effect of these changes? I'm not sure. I haven't done any surveys myself, and haven't seen any.

Construction looks about completed on new high speed elevators in a location across the street from the Rosslyn Metro entrance. Is there any word of when they will become fully operational?

I'm not sure what the start date is, though I believe it's behind the original schedule now.

WTF with the bag check at Smithsonian Station on Wednesday during the evening rush hour. Approach the station about 6-8 police suburbans parked outside, I'm every one carry anything nefarious failed to notice that and head to another entrance. Approach the turnstiles and they they are a good dozen of our finest with a couple of tables set up, no one being screened. This should be fun I say to myself and decide to watch the free show for a while. Group of about 50 students with matching tee-shirts, most carrying backpacks walk by, none of them are stopped. Then after they and a few more people (several with wheelie bags) pass we get lucky contestant number 1, guy 30-40ish years old with fanny pack and accompanied by a woman wearing a head scarf and pushing a stroller. Ok maybe they were only picking on very 75th person. Then contestant #2 appears, solo male less than 30 people later. He too is male 30-40ish with small back pack, also obviously not-local (guide book in hand dead giveaway. Being 3 credits short of my master degree in statistics I am now intrigued by trying to spot the randomness of this process. I am trying to keep a rough idea of the ratio of local/tourists, male/female, ages, what people are carrying. We then get lucky winner #3, south-asian male 30-40ish speaking call-center English and Hindi. Only conclusion I can arrive at is that it near the end of the fiscal year and someone is afraid of turning back money they didn't spend by the end of the year. Pull the bonus of scaring all the tourists.

This is the Metro program that treats transit riders as terror suspects. Metro launched it several years ago because everyone else was doing it and because it got federal money for it.

I've never heard a case made that this is an effective way of deterring actual terrorists. I think you can make a better case that it intimidates riders.

This is not a reasonable search.

Making this left turn is now illegal (it used to be ok after and before rush hour). This backs up traffic all the way back to the Whitehurst Freeway. Do you know if there has ever been a green left arrow proposed as this is a major interesection to head north? It was changed this summer and i dread the traffic after Labor Day as the backup will probably be all the way to Canal Road due to this change. Thanks.

This question/comment came in on Aug. 22. So some of you travelers may have had experience with the post-Labor Day traffic on K Street.

I may not be understanding the situation correctly. If the left turn now is illegal, why is traffic backing up? (And I have no idea whether a left arrow has ever been proposed for that intersection.)

I commute using S buses on 16th St and many times I have noticed that the drivers drive as they feel. Sometimes they drive so slow that you wonder whether you should have just walked home. Sometimes they drive like a scene from the movie '2012' starring John Cusack. I am neither in hurry to get to afterlife and nor do I have all the time in the world. I am hoping these drivers are already getting some training to standardize their driving. I also have concerns about too many stops on the same route. There are stretches on this bus route where there is a stop every block. It adds to travel time and discourages people from using buses. I think WMATA is not doing a good job of promoting buses.

Have you tried the S9 limited stop service? The bus managers are always trying to balance out the desire to serve as many people as possible with the goal of keeping the buses on schedule. Many routes have more stops than are desirable for keeping the buses on schedule.

I think Metro does a pretty good job promoting the buses. Metrobus managers are often out in the community discussing the state of service and looking for ways to improve it. There's a set of hearings coming up next week on the latest proposals.

Any idea what is the story behind the construction redoing the H Street trolley tracks between 4th street NE and Union Station? Why wasn't original track placement going to work, and why didn't they realize this when they were first designing and constructing the tracks?

The tracks were put in as part of the H Street/Benning Road Great Streets initiative a few years ago. This was long before there was a solid plan to operate the street cars. The idea was that the streets wouldn't need to be torn up twice, once for the Great Streets rebuilding and then a second time for the streetcar tracks.

Things are pretty much going that way, but not entirely, and certainly not at the Hopscotch Bridge on H Street north of Union Station. The tracks were laid before there was a definite plan on where the streetcar line would terminate.

Dr. G, From my office to the Express lanes is typically about a 5-minute drive, which typically enables me to hear the WTOP traffic report...but not always. Yesterday was one of those days that was 'between the 8s' so the only data I had to make a 'Go-No Go' decision about using the Express lanes were the pricing numbers from the Express Lanes near the on-ramp - they were significantly higher than normal, which would indicate that using the Express Lanes would save me time over the typical Beltway traffic (going north on the Inner Loop to Tysons and the Dulles toll road). Imagine my surprise (and other reactions) when the regular Beltway traffic was flowing just as freely as the traffic in the Express Lanes. I recognize that the owners of the Express Lanes have a vested interest in being quick to raise the rates,. Is there anything that compels them to be reliable and consistent with their fluctuating rates - either contractually or pragmatically? Peeved

What compels them to be reliable and consistent is their desire to have repeat customers. The tolls are set by a computer, which relies on sensors along the express lanes route.

This is one of the few situations where a consumer can see exactly how the competition is doing. All you have to do is look to your left or right to see the traffic in the express lanes vs. the regular lanes.

The problem many travelers have -- the complaint I've heard the most since the lanes opened in November -- is that drivers can't make the instant cost/benefit analysis at the decision points on using the lanes. They don't what's ahead in the regular lanes.

On the Dr. Gridlock blog, this morning, I noted that VDOT has put up a new sign on I-95 North in Dumfries that lets drivers see the travel time in the HOV lanes vs the regular lanes. VDOT did this to encourage solo drivers to stop off and pick up passengers or take a bus to use the HOV lanes.

I wish we could have that at places where drivers must decide on express vs. regular lanes.

EZ-Pass an exact change have NOTHING in common to merit their using the same toll lane - . Move the Exact Change folks to the Full Service Lanes where they belong (they both have to STOP) to prevent the jockeying for position and rear end collisions caused this mismatched sorting of drivers. Virginia is the ONLY state on the east coast that mixes EZ-Pass drivers with those paying any form of cash. Why does Virginia do this? Tim in McLean, VA

As someone who drives all over the Northeast, it very much surpr4ises me to hear that Virginia is the only state with E-ZPass/Exact Change lanes. That doesn't match my memory.

I certainly am glad that toll authorities have added more E-ZPass only lanes and highway-speed E-ZPass lanes in recent years. That was a real breakthrough for drivers on I-95 in Delaware, for example.

I avoid lanes that mingle E-ZPass and cash, for the obvious reason that you don't get the benefit of having an E-ZPass. But I hear from many local drivers who don't want to get E-ZPasses and need those cash lanes.

I have certainly noticied the septermber shock around 5:30 AM. The MTA commuter bus is full before everyone can get on and the BW parkway has slowdowns. During the summer, the bus was never full and there was no traffic on the parkway. This had added about 10-15 minutes to my commute in the very early morning.

Yes, I think the impact on bus commuting shows up pretty early in September. The boardings take longer when the passengers return, and of course, the buses get stuck in the same traffic as everyone else.


Did someone forget to communicate plans for yesterday? I needed to be in DC by 12:30, but listening to the radio, I discovered track work on the Orange Line and lane closures due to a Triathlon in DC. Both I-66 and the Orange line were out when it comes to transportation. Virginia doesn't have a lot of options. I used I-395 and still found traffic crawling along...

Metro put out its schedule for the weekend last Monday. Many news outlets, including the Dr. Gridlock blog and the Post Metro section, had items warning about the traffic congestion likely to be generated by the Nation's Triathlon on Sunday.

Today's warning: The afternoon commute will be slower and more congested for many because of the football season home opener at FedEx Field. Kickoff is scheduled for 6:55 p.m.

I live in a small college town far far away that has never had commuter bus service to a large town about 26 miles away. Well, starting a week from today, we are finally getting new commuter bus service! I am stoked! Do people in the D.C. metro area get this stoked when new bus service is announced in their area?

I think expanded bus service is one of the few ways to improve commuting for today's travelers. A lot of the other new stuff that transportation planners talk about will benefit a future generation of commuters.

Bus service is more flexible to start and stop. Without increasing the transit budget, you can shift buses from underperforming routes to routes where people need either more service or a different type of service (like limited-stop buses in places where the regular routes stop every block).

It's actually a bit misleading to say VA eliminating the 17.5% gas tax will make prices lower automatically. The whole story is that the gas tax is gone, yes, but now there is a new 3.5% wholesale tax on gas. So according to economists, the effect on prices can vary. Sometimes prices will be cheaper, but during times of volatility in oil prices we could actually see higher prices than if the gas tax was left in place. Don't forget also the higher sales tax now in nva- 6% vs 5.3% elsewhere in VA.

Looking at the prices doesn't necessarily mean the regular lanes are congested. The prices are adjusted to maintain flow on the express lanes - the sensors are on the express lanes and the price goes up if the express lane traffic slows. There are no sensors on the regular lanes that feed information to the express lanes. There easily could be a case where the regular lanes are jammed but if few people are getting onto the express lanes, then the prices will stay low. Likewise, the next day a lot of nervous commuters might jump on the express lanes resulting in high prices when the free lanes are wide open. This system could be improved. I have two buttons. 103.5 has traffic on the 8s. 99.1 has traffic on the 1s.

As commuters search for ways to make the lane choice, some not that you can judge the state of the regular lanes by the price of the toll lanes. If the toll lanes price is high, it means that lots of drivers are using them, so assume the regular lanes must be jammed.

I do see the logic, but it's a bit of a bank shot, and an imperfect way of making a choice.

Better bets: Listening to the traffic radio reports while on the go, and checking the 495expresslanes.com Web site before leaving home or office. The express lanes concept takes advantage of technology, but for them to work as intended, travelers have to take advantage of the available information, and most don't.

I've gotten to the point where I almost always take the express lanes. The exception is if I'm driving really late at night.

I've used them enough now so that I almost always get some time saving. The regular lanes may not be crowded when I enter the express lanes -- in fact, they almost never are -- but almost always, there's a point along the way where they do get congested, and I benefit from the more reliable travel time. Helps in getting to appointments on time.

I take the N4 Farragut Square metrobus everyday. Its getting more and more crowded and as a result a lot of the drivers are letting 4-5 people stand in front of the "yellow standee line." If the bus had to suddenly stop, there is a great likelihood that these people would be hurt. Should I report this to WMATA when it happens?

I do think that's a dangerous situation, but I feel a bit for the bus operator. I often hear from travelers who are outraged that a crowded bus passed them by. The driver might have realized that there wasn't any more room for passengers to ride safely.

I work in McLean and live in Silver Spring so I have the dreaded commute home each night. With the earlier kick off for MNF, will it be 10x worse? I'm debating taking the Chain Bridge home...

I think the worst traffic related to the game will be in the Landover area starting about 4:30 p.m. Of coruse, all of our normal p.m. commuting problems are in place. If you would normally take the Beltway home to Silver Spring, you certainly know what I'm talking about: One of the D.C. region's worst p.m. commutes through the Bethesda bottleneck.

As someone who a)commutes to Tenleytown from Gaithersburg and b)doesn't own a car, I'm at my wits end of how in the world I can get around the proposed Metro closure at Medical Center. The J9 wouldn't work, because the trafic would be a nightmare. MARC doesn't go anywhere near Tenleytown. Shuttle buses would also be caught in Medical Center/Bethesda NIH, Betesda Naval traffic hell. Maybe River Rd/Seven Locks could work as a ion between Tenleytown and Grosvenor, That would necessitate higher speed limits on River Rd in the District and a total disregard for NIMBY neighbors. Any ideas?

Metro is about half a year away from making a decision about what to do on the Red Line tunnel problem that my colleague Dana Hedgpeth has been writing about. I'm sure Metro managers are hearing comments similar to this from many commuters. This is likely to make them very cautious about the extent of any disruption.

But I'm just going to speculate here for the sake of discussion: Any shutdown of the Red Line would have to be accompanied by a massive increase in bus service along the Wisconsin Ave./Connecticut Ave. corridors, plus an outreach effort to encourage people to telecommute, or to divert to another transit option, like using stations on the east side of the Red Line in some cases.

Don't look for any transportation official to encourage driving as an alternative.


What time do I need to leave NW DC on Friday evening to arrive in Manassas on time for a 7:00pm event? There will be two of us in the car.

So you'd be using the HOV route on I-66. The HOV lanes move pretty well -- at least compared to the regular lanes on 66 outside the Beltway, which are just ghastly -- but I'd allow an hour and a half for the trip on a Friday evening.

(Some travelers are going to think I'm conservative on that. I tend to add buffer time when people tell me they have an appointment to keep. I'd rather make them early than late.)

This happens at the entry and exit gates on the Dulles Toll road. Really stupid, especially since in the full lane the toll collector tosses the coins into the basket. Lots of times the full lane is faster than the E-Z Pass/Exact Change lane.

There were several stories while you were gone about leaks and mud under the tracks at the Friendship Heights and Medical Center stations. There was a fair amount of discussion about the possibility of shutting down those two stations and Bethesda (between the two) for over a month. I hear there are studies going on about that and that Berliner has been vocal about the impact of such a closure. I use the Bethesda station and can see evidence of leakage on the station walls. Would closure for leaks interfere with the schedule for escalator replacement and the station renovation? I'm wondering if I should be considering taking the bus to work at Union Station, consider driving or finding a new job. All the plans together sound very intimidating. Any calming thoughts would be appreciated.

I wouldn't be changing jobs just yet. As I was saying in the previous response, the public reaction will push Metro to minimize the extent of the disruption. And I was glad to see Roger Berliner getting involved.

Not sure how it would affect the escalator program. It's possible that the escalator replacement could be coordinated with a shutdown, resulting in a speed up of the escalator work.

Is the one mile walk to Fedex field from the Morgan Boulevard metro station walkable? In the past, Danny blocked access citing "safety" concerns that really had to do with maximizing parking revenue.

It's an easy walk for anyone in okay shape. Sidewalk is real good. (I don't remember any time when access was blocked. In fact, I don't see how it could be blocked. And team has an interest in having some fans get to FedEx by transit, to reduce the number of angry drivers arriving at the stadium parking lots.

Left Tysons @ 6 last Friday for a concert at Jiffy Lube. 66 was bumper to bumper all the way to Haymarket. HOV lanes were slower than the regular lanes. I can't believe people do this every night!!

For sure, I-66W is one of the worst p.m. commutes in the region. Might be the worst. (I never get to do it in the HOV lanes.)

I hear sometimes from I-66 drivers who can't believe what they're seeing on those travel time signs. They consider the travel time estimates way too optimistic. I have to agree with them.

Two suggestions for your questioners who need more information to decide which lane to use: 1. WNEW (99.1 FM) now has traffic reports every 5 minutes during rush hours, regular reports on the 1s and beltway specific reports on the 6s. 2. Waze is the best navigation/traffic reporting app out there (even if you aren't using the Beltway in Northern Virginia), hands down. I recommend it to all my friends and no one has had a negative thing to say about it. Just get a car charger so it doesn't drain your phone's battery, plug it in, turn it on, and go. With some creativity, you can even position it so you can safely see the screen and the colored traffic advisories without a proper mount.

I've heard from many travelers who have good things to say about Waze. What bothers me about any traffic app is having people stare at the screen and get distracted from the traffic that's right ahead of them.

When I use Waze, I'm in the passenger seat.

The new ramp to the 11th st bridge from SB 295 seems to have made things worse at the East Capitol St exit. Even in non-rush traffic, there is a grinding slow down about a mile before the S. Capitol St Exit. Drivers stay in the exit only lane until the last moment blocking the exit for local traffic. This slow down continues well past that exit. I rarely use the link to the bridge but instead continue to get off at S Capitol. What can be done about thos?

The traffic on DC 295 South is really bad each morning. One of the slowest routes in the region. I'm not sure that the new exit from 295 to the 11th Street Bridge is the source of the problem you're seeing farther north at East Cap.

There's certainly a problem now on the 11th Street Bridge where drivers coming off 295 have to change lanes so they can continue on the SE/SW Freeway. That's going to continue till next year, when a new freeway lane will become available.

Travelers, thanks for joining me today. I'll be back with you again next Monday for the chat, but write to me any time at drgridlock@washpost.com.

Stay safe, however you're traveling.

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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