Dr. Gridlock chat

Sep 24, 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.

Beautiful day for traveling, isn't it? But a look at the mailbag shows that many of you aren't quite so happy with local traffic and transit conditions.

Metro apparently stayed open an extra hour last night because the Madonna concert ran late. Who paid for that? Why would Metro turn away paying customers who plan to attend Nats playoff games by not agreeing to stay open late for home games? I would think that thousands of fans riding Metro would more than cover the cost of staying open late, about $21K I believe.

Verizon Center paid for last night's extra hour of Metro service. Same deal in place for tonight's show.

(If you're going, here's the service advisory from Metro: Following the concert, Madonna fans will be directed to Gallery Place or Judiciary Square stations to board their trains. Entrances at all other Metro stations will close at their normal times, but customers will be able to exit at all stations during the additional hour of service.)

Nats can pay for extended service if the team chooses to, but I don't see any reason the taxpayers should have to pick up the bill for that.

The cost per hour is about $29,500. The Nationals did sponsor a late closing for Metro after a Sunday night game against the Phillies in June; 445 people rode the trains after midnight. As Dan Steinberg pointed out on the Sports Bog, that meant it cost the Nationals more than $62 to get each of those fans home.

Apparently the escalators are all out at Bethesda. Coupled with the long term work on the elevators at that station means no way in or out other than hiking what may be the longest climb in Metro's system. Shouldn't that warrant an advisory for riders? There's nothing on WMATA's website unless you drill down to the elevator status page.

I wouldn't walk up or down the long escalators at Bethesda. That's a killer either way. Escalators aren't meant to be used as stairs.

The platform electronic signs should roll through the elevator outages. Train operators should be announcing the status of major outages before riders reach the station, but even then, it's a big inconvenience if riders have to travel to the next closest station and ask for a shuttle back.

The two elevators at Bethesda are scheduled to be back in service on Oct. 22 after modernizations. Metro's Web site shows one of the big escalators out of service through Wednesday.

I'd certainly send out alerts if all three of the big ones were out.

Dr. Gridlock, can you or the chatters give me some idea of the delays that repair work on Memorial Bridge is causing in the morning rush hour? I have a flight out of National the first week of October, and I need to know how much more time to add to my drive there. Thank you.

I had a little bit about that on the Dr. Gridlock blog this morning: " Tthe National Park Service is repairing sections of the Arlington Memorial Bridge. From 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. weekdays, watch for lane closings in both directions, which may cause traffic delays. This work is scheduled to be done in November."

You said you had problems during rush hour. Was there work underway, or was it a construction zone that narrowed the travel lanes?

How did this rock stabilization project get scheduled as soon as the school commuting crush is back in season? There was noticably less traffic on the parkway all summer, but now that school is back we should close a lane in order to stabilize the rocks? Didn't they already do this last year? Seems insulting to me that they tell VDOT they are going to clear the workzone every day and then put up cement barriers to block a whole lane for their construction equipment. As far as I can tell there was never any intention to free up that left lane during rush hour.

The work last fall was temporary work to make the area safe until a long-term fix could be devised and a contract let. That's what we're seeing now. It would have been nice if that could have started during August when traffic is light, but even if it had, the work would still be underway now. It's scheduled to go till the end of the year.

During last week's chat, I misstated the left lane situation: The left lane is closed all the time. Outside of rush hour, the middle lane may also be closed. Obviously, this creates a difficult situation for drivers at just about any hour.

Dr Gridlock, You never gave me an answer last week. How much longer do we have to put up the right lane being closed? What is frustrating is there is never any work being done to justify this clsoer. You might want to check it out.

If it's the area where the sound wall is under construction, the work is done at night.

There are going to be work zone issues at the Beltway/I-66 interchange for many more weeks because of the express lanes construction.

This has been one of the most -- maybe the most -- complicated part of the project, and planners have been saying for years that it would be one of the last parts finished before the lanes open late this fall.

Sigh. So, did the county announce last week the opening date has been pushed back to spring 2013, at least? I'm not looking forward to another winter of trudging up and down the hills in the dark, crossing busy streets in the mush. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/maryland-politics/post/silver-spring-transit-center-wont-open-for-a-while-county-official-says/2012/09/10/77fb1190-fb89-11e1-8adc-499661afe377_blog.html

The posting by Post reporter Victor Zapana says it won't open for at least a few more months. The issue remains the same: Montgomery County doesn't like the concrete work, but the contractor says it's fine. In the next few months -- supposedly -- that issue will be resolved.

Victor pointed out that the project is 97 percent complete. But the whole thing is now two years behind schedule.

It's not so much that people who use the Silver Spring station are so anxious to use the new transit center. I think they mostly want to end the years of long walks and confusion that resulted from the displacement of the old bus stops and the Metro Kiss and Ride area.

Saw electronic signs this weekend saying new traffic pattern on or around 9/26. What is going to happen Weds?

I'll check with VDOT, because I don't know of anything scheduled to happen on Wednesday. The only change in the 95 HOV pattern that I know of that's coming up soon is this:  The ramp from the I-95 southbound high-occupancy vehicle lanes to the regular lanes south of the Fairfax County Parkway will close permanently. The Virginia Department of Transportation said this is being done to create room for construction of an additional travel lane for the 95 Express Lanes, the high-occupancy toll lanes project.

This is worth calling to your attention no matter what, because it means drivers who use that ramp will need to prepare mentally for using other ramps, either before or after the one closing.

Doc - how could any engineer who holds a certification (that should be pulled) have allowed the previous ramp from 495 south onto 123 south into Tysons be shortened? The merge area is shorter, less sightline, and even more dangerous than before. That says nothing about the backup onto the beltway, jamming not only those exiting but also traffic from the dulles toll road attempting to get onto 495 south. They easily could have added a lane dedicated from the ramp to international drive - with a barrier - and decreased the merging traffic five fold. Is this just a ploy to force people to take the HOT lanes 1/2 mile?

I'm not sure how easy that would have been, but I do understand that this will continue to be a difficult area after the 495 Express Lanes are complete.

I haven't seen any evidence that VDOT encouraged a design that would make traffic worse for the benefit of the 495 Express Lanes project.

It's certainly true that the express lanes operators anticipate that Tysons will be a major part of their market, with three HOT lanes exits there.

Did I really see a story saying that DC is going to deploy stop sign cameras? Does the city not make enough money on their other photo enforcement devices? These cameras are notorious in California for making millions because vehicles not only have to completely stop, but must stay stopped for more than a second in order to avoid detection. When is DC going to admit these cameras are for revenue generation, not safety? How many collisions occur because someone slowly rolls through a stop sign?

Police Chief Lanier said on WTOP that there would be eight to 10 in D.C. by the end of the year.

I'm not sure about this program. On the one hand, I see drivers throughout the region who merely slow down for stop signs. That's dangerous and an obvious violation. (Was there anything more basic in high school driver ed than the fact that "Stop" means stop?)

On the other hand, the city government has not handled the camera program well. The first word about this new program came out as part of the mayor's budget presentation. The budget isn't about traffic safety programs. It's about costs and revenue.

If you want travelers to buy into the safety aspect, don't unveil the program as part of a budget.

What is the duration of this project? Evening rush is excruciating.

Late December.

I was the person who sent in the question about Memorial Bridge. I wasn't clear enough -- I was asking whether to expect delays during the morning rush hour, not that I had encountered them. Sorry for the confusion.

Because the scheduled work starts at 9:30, I wouldn't expect delays during the morning rush.

Metro had an alert about that very early this morning, with the usual bus service offer. They then updated to say that the escalators were working. Does the poster know that they stopped working again?

One of the things about escalator outages at the stations deep underground is that knocking out one more escalator makes a huge difference to riders. The Metro status reports depend on the station managers and the maintenance staffers calling in so Metro can post an updated advisory.

If that doesn't happen in a timely fashion, it can affect a lot of people.

Really? How does that work? Does they send you a video in the mail, because that's the only way they could prove that you didn't actually stop?

From what I understand about how the California system works -- and I haven't seen one in operation in California -- it's more like a speed camera than a red light camera. I understand your point about the video. The basic question is, If you get a ticket and think it was issued in error, how could you defend yourself in traffic court?

Now that it's almost October, do you have news on whether WMATA will be done with escalator replacement at Dupont South?

Metro told us at the start of the year that the south entrance would be closed through October for the escalator replacement. I haven't heard anything to suggest it's off schedule.

A few times a week I take Pennsylvania Avenue to get onto the northbound lanes of the Anacostia Freeway. Several times this busy intersection has been shut down by accidents involving large vehicles (tractor trailers, dump trucks) running into smaller vehicles in the two left turn lanes. This intersection really wasn't designed for these larger vehicles. Has there been any discussion of limiting the types of vehicles that use this intersection? It seems clear that allowing this is bad for traffic flow and possibly dangerous. I know things should clear up when the northbound lanes of the 11th Street bridge open, but it's a terrible situation right now.

We should be really close to the opening of the ramp from the outbound bridge onto northbound 295. Then, I hope, very few drivers will have any need to take PA Ave to that left turn onto 295. Certainly, no truck going from the Southeast Southwest Freeway to 295 would want to do anything but follow the new ramp.

As someone who walks more than I drive, I would implore the DC Government to include cyclists in their use of stop sign cameras. I can't tell how many close calls I've had with cyclists who treat pedestrians in a crosswalk as part of an obstacle course.

I also see many cyclists blowing through stop signs and red lights. I don't believe they'll be caught in any camera system that takes pictures of license plates. (Which, of course, includes our current red light cameras.)

According to the 495 Express Lanes website, vehicles using the express lanes without an EZPass are sent a bill in the mail for the tolls incurred while in the lanes with an additional "administraive fee." How much will that fee be?

It will be $12.50 tacked onto whatever the toll was at that hour.

This isn't like Maryland's Intercounty Connector, which allows drivers to use either E-ZPass or the video tolling system that takes a picture of the plate and then sends a bill that's one and a half times higher than the toll.

The 495 Express Lanes are designed to be E-ZPass only, so they'll tack on that stiff penalty if you violate the E-ZPass rule.

Just wondering whether there is a definite end date for the south entrance escalator renovation for Dupont? The signs in the station only say "closed till October 2012." Also, is the next step to close the north entrance to do similar escalator work?

No, I guess after October, even the transit authority will agree that Dupont Circle riders will have suffered enough. There's no plan to do a similar shut down to replace escalators on the north side.

(As you know, Metro policy generally has been to fix escalators, rather than replace them. But the fixes often don't work out so well -- as you also know. So the latest long-term capital plan includes more replacements than ever before.)

Why did the inner loop of the beltway between I-66 and route 7 get an extra lane (continous exit only from the I-66 merge to route 7) but the outer loop did not? Traffic engineers seemed to have enough foresight to do it on one side of the highway, but not the other, and it's not for a lack of space since it's one of the few places along the new roadway where there's an extra wide shoulder.

Way back when the HOT lanes project was being planned, VDOT highlighted the improvements that would occur at some interchanges as a side benefit of the project.

Those indeed are coming to pass, but when the project is done, drivers will discover that there were limits to these improvements.

This was basically a project to add four HOT lanes to the Beltway. And I think they will help with Beltway traffic. But they're not going to solve some of the other problems drivers have with the I-66 and Dulles Toll Road interchanges. That will take a lot more money than Virginia has invested so far.

I've read that cyclists are encouraged to use the "Idaho Stop": Treat a stop sign like a yield sign, and a red light like a stop sign. I think that's reasonable -- and you wouldn't be "blowing through" stop signs if there are pedestrians there.

There certainly are advocates among cyclists for the Idaho stop, which isn't really a stop.

One of the things I do, because it's in the nature of my job, is to hang around intersections and watch out drivers, walkers and cyclists behave. It isn't pretty. It's generally not the kind of behavior that suggests people are thinking, "Could I hurt somebody if I do this?"

I was originally skeptical about the Beltway Express Lanes being able to make money for the contractor. However, now I understand how these lanes are going to be a serious cash cow. I was driving south on the outer loop on Sunday midday through Tysons, and there was a vehicle that broke down in the left lane. I'm guessing that he had just broken down, because it was only backed up about 1/4 mile, and I got through in about 5 minutes. However, I went back northbound on the inner loop about an hour later, and that same car was still stuck in the left lane because there was no shoulder to push him to, and the outer loop was backed up all the way past the American Legion Bridge. I assume that the guy was stuck longer because it was a Sunday, but if it happened during rush hour, it would have backed up significantly faster and further even if someone came by to help him within a few minutes. The lack of a left shoulder on the main lanes is going to be a boon to the contractor, and I wouldn't be surprised if help were artificially delayed to help line the pockets of the Express Lanes contractor.

I don't see this as a vast left-lane conspiracy. Too many people would have to be involved, and somebody would spill it.

But I think your marketing scenario is correct. The HOT lanes operators aren't looking so much for steady customers. They're looking for drivers who have an occasional problem getting stuck in traffic and will pay to get out of it.

I'm looking foward to seeing how these lanes actually work. (I guess it's a bit like the way the Capital Weather Gang looks forward to the arrival of a storm.)


Dr. Gridlock - I was surprised that you didn't call out the letter writer in yesterday's column who was complaining about people stopping to yield to pedestrians/cyclists in crosswalks with the legal right of way. The only person causing a problem in the scenario described in the letter was the letter writer - if he was driving the speed limit and following the cars in front at an appropriate distance stopping safely should be a non issue. Undoubtedly he was not and was chagrined about having to slow down and share the road with others. On a side note the pedestrian crossing on the GW parkway just before the Memorial bridge is in an area with a 25 mph speed limit. Just because everyone is driving 50 through there does not make it ok or safe nor does it mean pedestrians and cyclists owe an apology to obnoxious drivers for asking for a safe way across.

The letter writer wasn't complaining about drivers stopping for pedestrians or cyclists in crosswalks. The writer was complaining about drivers stopping for people who want to cross. There's no requirement to do that.

(On the other hand, drivers absolutely have an obligation to stop for people who are in the crossing ahead of them. We can parse the language of laws, but there's a moral obligation not to drive a car into someone, or even risk doing that.)

Drivers can be surprised when other drivers hit the brakes ahead of them. It's just a fact of life, even though they should be maintaining a safe stopping distance.

What I meant to be the bottom line in that column item was this message to drivers: "They should always be prepared to protect themselves and others on the roads."

What's up with the red asphalt on 66?

It's VDOT's way of making a better distinction between the regular travel lanes and the shoulders in an area where drivers can travel in the shoulders during peak periods but must avoid them at other hours when they serve as breakdown lanes.

Doesn't it just confuse the issue to have different toll roads handle this differently? I suppose if you live around here you are familiar enough with it, but I'm sure out of towners will likely be confused, not only between the ICC and Hot lanes, but also with whatever the policy is in their hometown. I can see some pretty upset people feeling ripped off when they see that $12.50 fee show up later. At least it's not one of those ridiculous Italian tickets.

I was thinking about this recently while driving along the Garden State Parkway at a point in New Jersey where the lanes straight ahead are E-ZPass only and the lanes off to the right are for a toll plaza that takes cash.

Drivers seem to be able to deal with that. The Beltway express lanes will have lots of signs telling drivers that if they get on certain ramps, they'll be going onto E-ZPass only territory.

There are more questions and comments here that I'd like to address, but I'll have to break away now, then look for some key questions, comments and themes to try to post later on the Dr. Gridlock blog.

If you want to follow up on the issues raised today -- like the Metro escalators, or the Beltway HOT lanes, which were among the top topics today -- drop me a note at drgridlock@washpost.com.

Stay safe out there, and join me again next Monday. (Maybe we'll be talking about October traffic to Nationals Park?)

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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