Dr. Gridlock

Sep 26, 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. Anybody going to the I-95 HOT lanes meetings in Virginia this week? I'll post a reminder about the meeting schedule on the blog.

But let's get started with your traffic and transit issues.

Here is a question that maybe you can answer, why are there so many cops handing out tickets on the ICC during rush hour. My wife takes it both directions as a way to get to her workplace in Howard County from our home in Germantown. She states that every day she sees at least three cars pulled over in each direction (six total) every day both coming and going. That seems a bit excessive, not that I am defending speeding, but why do six cop cars have time to sit on the ICC all day when I see HOV violators every morning, people doing 60 mph on side roads and aggressive drivers all day on 495 and 270?

Wow, that's a lot more police cars than I see during my trips on the ICC. I definitely see them, though.

It would be swell to have even more on the Beltway, I-95, 270 and Route 50 to catch speeders and other aggressive drivers, and HOV lane violators.

I do believe there's a good reason to have extra patrols on the ICC: It's still a work zone. I see construction trucks and workers on the sides of the roads fairly often. And it's an easy place to speed because of the light traffic.

I've always wondered why a Metro line was not run down the middle of 395 instead of the HOV lanes. With the opening of the BRAC building at Seminary Rd., and the horrendous traffic it will bring, it seems that a Metro line there is an even better idea now. The land is available and would require minimal tunneling work, there are several sites along the way that could be used for stations and it would serve the huge residential population along that corridor as well as those traveling from outside the beltway to the BRAC building. The line could start at the Pentagon, have stops at Shirlington (the abandoned Ourisman facility and surrounding area), Seminary Rd. (somehwere near BRAC), Duke St. (Landmark Mall which has tons of parking but is in need of help) and end at Springfield at the current station. Win--win for all. Is anyone looking at this?

By the way, has anyone seen a traffic impact on I-395 at Seminary Road from the relocation of federal workers to the Mark Center?

While I'd love to see the region add more transit, there's no active proposal to expand Metrorail except for the construction of the Dulles line, which still doesn't have the financing in place for the phase that actually gets trains out to the airport.

For the I-395 corridor, we could certainly use more transit, but I think you might have better luck pushing this as a light-rail idea, since that would be cheaper.

Would you not want to bring the HOT lanes up along I-395, if the governments could work out a plan to do that?

You took this question a few months ago and nothing has changed - why does WMATA no longer publish daily ridership information on its webpage?

Yes, I thought that was a great resource. I think it was very labor-intensive for the Metro media relations staff to do that Web page, so the publication of the daily ridership numbers was suspended last spring. I hope the staff eventually can revive it.

During the past month, there have been a lot of changes to the ramp from the Inner Loop to I-66. It is my understanding that the left exit will close shortly. Last week, the traffic getting on to the Inner Loop from Rt 50 seemed to have shifted further right and the merge onto 495 was just a few yards before the exit to I-66. I hope this is only temporary as it will make it almost impossible for cars to get onto I-495 as other cars try to access the ramps to I-66. There needs to be a better way for the traffic to get on and off I-495. On a related note, will Rt. 29 be getting access to I-495 and I-66 with the work being done in the area?

The left exit from the inner loop to westbound 66 is supposed to close around the end of this week, though there's still no exact date. I think the heavy rains this month slowed the schedule for the Beltway HOT lanes project.

It's not just a question of closing the exit. The ramp on the right side has to be expanded to handle the extra volume.

I don't recall any part of the HOT lanes plan giving Route 29 access to the Beltway or I-66.

I contacted metro last week about a bus driver that decided to bypass a bus stop. I received an email that same day about them looking into, but since then have heard nothing. That wasn't the first time that a driver has chosen to pass up the stop. It's also not the first time that I've heard nothing about what they're going to do about it. You would think that they'd be more concerned about bringing in revenue. People not getting on the bus are people who aren't giving metro in the money. Should I contact metro again about the situation or wait a little longer for them to respond back to me?

I'd contact them again. Drivers do sometimes bypass stops if the buses are full, or the supervisors are trying to spread out the buses because another one is very nearby. But this shouldn't be a regular thing.

Dr. Gridlock, Thanks for the columns and chats! I've noticed over the last few weeks that the next train arrivals on WMATA's website and the feeds to my Blackberry have been inaccurate. That is, they don't match the overhead displays at the stations, nor do they reflect the actual schedules of the trains. I've just been noticing this casually (haven't made a systematic review) so just wanted to see if others had experienced this as well before I reported it to Metro. Thanks!

I think most riders would recognize your description of the signs. Many have seen the times off, or the destinations off, or the number of cars off. But there have been times when this was very widespread and reflected a specific problem with the tracking system rather than just the routine inaccuracies. I don't know if that's the case now.

Are others seeing this problem consistently?

Metro is proposing some bus cuts, includnig to the L1/2/4 line. According to Metro, on-time service for that line is 57%. In my experience, that is a generous on-time percentage, but nevertheless the lower usage is related to the poor on-time performance. The last two times I have taken this line, the next bus was scheduled to arrive in 5-10 minutes and buses were supposed to run every 12-16 minutes. My wait times were 45 minutes and 55 minutes. Obviously, anyone with other options would use those to avoid such poor service. I think the bus system is designed to fail because the scheduled time for the route was the same regardless of time of day, day of week, holiday schedule. That means that Metro is not accounting for traffic in their bus scheduling. Do you agree this is a problem? P.S. Specific informaiton about the proposed bus service cuts was very hard to find on their web site; I found it through a Washington Post link.

For all, here's a link to the listing I did this month about Metro's proposed changes to routes and schedules:


These are the ones that will be the subject of public hearings in October, and then would have to be approved by the Metro board for implementation by mid-2012.

Here's the proposal for the L buses:

L1, 2, 4 (Connecticut Avenue): Eliminate L4, reroute L1 via Virginia Avenue NW between C and 23rd streets NW, reroute L2 to Columbia Road instead of 18th Street NW and to Dupont Circle underpass to Connecticut Avenue and Farragut Square, increase running times; average weekday ridership: 4,220; average Saturday ridership: 2,205; average Sunday ridership: 1,497; on-time performance: 57 percent.

This list is not related to the transit budget. These changes, unlike those we often see proposed in the winter/spring as Metro prepares its operating budget, are intended to improve service in a variety of ways.

The Metro officials in charge of the bus routes would love to make the service more reliable and to handle more passengers on the heavily used routes. They would be disappointed if the changes they're proposing here caused a decrease in ridership.

This week, Metro implemented a smaller set of changes to bus routes and schedules with the same goals. You'll find a list of them on the Dr. Gridlock blog in a posting called "The week ahead."

This is the link to the blog:



As much of the DC area is becoming a very expensive place to live, many people are using long-distance commuting. While I applaud MTA for having long-distance commuter buses such as from Hagerstown and Frederick and MARC runs all the way out to Perryville or Brunswick, we longer live in a 9 to 5 world. People work all sorts of crazy hours today. MTA recently announced hearings on 3 new MTA bus routes that essentially duplicates service already available (though that other service would involve transferring), Wouldn't it make more sense to use that money to expand the above-mentioned bus and MARC routes to operate all day six days a week? I actually e-mailed MTA about asking for expansion of the MARC and bus routes and they said they had no money; yet they are proposing three new rush-only bus routes. Thank you for listening.

It's essential that our regional transportation system expand bus and commuter train service. That's proving difficult. For trains, it's partly a matter of getting space on the tracks that they share with the freight trains. But the answer they're giving you about having no money also is realistic.

Right now, I believe, the MTA is concentrating on expanding service where there's the most demand and its almost guaranteed that the extra service will be heavily used. I'm not sure that at the moment they're in a position to test out new routes.

I notice Metrobus hasn't been doing much of that lately. The extra service I mentioned in a previous response is mostly aligned with routes that already are heavily used.

Any advice on the best way to do an Annapolis to Arlington commute? Am I right that driving to metro and then taking the train in is the best way? Or would taking NY ave right into town and 395 to the 14th street bridge not be as bad at I'm thinking? Friday evening's slog out 50 practically sapped my will to live but the driving-metro combo is not speedy, either.

I think there's no really satisfying way to do that commute. The best thing to do is test several methods over a period of a few weeks and see which feels best to you. Also, it's possible that you'll wind up just liking the ability to alter your pattern from time to time.

For taking Metro, get to New Carrollton fairly early, because the parking garage tends to fill up.

For driving, you might try Route 50 to 295 south to the exit for Suitland Parkway and then loop back onto 295 north for the 11th Street Bridge and I-395 and the 14th Street Bridge.

The completion of the two new through spans on the 11th Street Bridge will mean improve that trip, filling in the missing link on the highway connection.

Can you explain how the times are calculated for the flashing red hand for pedestrians? I have always thought that signal turns from white walking person to flashing red hand when a person moving fairly slowly no longer has time to cross the street safely; that it is a "do not start crossing" signal. But, using two streets I crossed this morning, the signal going across I street and H street (at 17th) are very very different in length, though the distance is about the same. Going across I street, the signal turned to flashing red at about 23 seconds. At H street, it doesn't change until about 8 seconds. In both cases, the street can be crossed at a casusal stroll in about 12 seconds. I understand that the time allocated to crossing in total is determined to keep the cars moving properly, but shouldn't the switch from "go ahead and start crossing" to "you might not have enough time to cross now" be determined only by the size of street?

Yes, I think you're stating the general idea correctly -- or at least, you're stating the way I understand the idea. So I'm not sure why there's that variance.

Different jurisdictions use different systems, but within one jurisdiction, such as DC, the standards should be the same.

(Once the red hand starts flashing, we're not supposed to start crossing, no matter how many seconds remain, but I've rarely seen pedestrians go by that.)

Excuse the Rant but I switch trains from Orange line to Green/Yellow every day. Going up to the platform where I catch the Green/Yellow I can't wait for the next train because I can't get through the THRONG that take up the entire platform to get to the trains!!! Please People, watch where you are going and let people cross so they are not late for their next train and work!

The transfer station platforms are really crowded, and not just at rush hours. The Nationals have played their final home game of 2011, so that should ease congestion on the Gree Line a little bit. (Of course, now we have hockey and basketball to crowd Gallery Place.)

Those areas boarded off for work zones don't help either.

Will the HOT lanes continue to be reservible like the HOV lanes are? Or will the HOT lanes run in both directions like they are building on I-495? Further, is HOT only during the rush hours or will it be 24/7?

They'll be reversible, like now, and they'll be HOT all day, seven days a week.

Is this some sort of strange experiment to see how you much you can make a mass-transit system unusable and unfriendly before riders just give up. Almost everyone I know has pretty much given up using Metro at anytime other than rush hour. I understand the need to do track maintenance, but the constant single tracking on top of already large headway times makes using metrorail on a weekend a complete waste. As much as I want to go into DC, the idea of it taking 60-90 minutes to do what the sign says is a 34 minute ride is rediculous. I'll start giving metro my money on the weekends and evenings when the system becomes rideable again.

That won't be for at least a few years. It's discouraging. And you can't use the otherwise helpful Trip Planner on Metro's Web site, because it doesn't account for the single-tracking delays.


Sorry Dr G, I don't buy the "work zone" argument. There is so little traffic on the ICC that it's obvious the cops are there to make money from people speeding on a wide open road. I don't condone speeding, but have one police car available for each mile of that road (it's 6 miles or so, correct?) is absurd. Those resources could really be useful elsewhere.

If Maryland is raising revenue by catching and fining speeders and other aggressive drivers, that's a pretty smart use of government resources.

(Yes, it's about six miles now, till the rest of it opens either late this year or early next.)

I am frustrated by the frequency with which I am required to purchase a new SmartTrip card. Every now and then my card will just stop working... sometimes it will magically start working again a few days later... sometimes it is dead for good. No clue what is causing this, but it's getting annoying and I'd sure like WMATA to figure out a technology that doesn't fail so easily.

Agreed. Metro is trying to figure out a replacement for the SmarTrip cards, but that's primarily because the company that makes them is getting out of the business.

SmarTrip cards don't get demagnetized, as paper fare cards do. They can break, though, or be defective. Or there may be a problem with the fare gate software.

Last week both my husband & I got $40 speed camera tickets from cameras we did not know existed. Mine was on River Road as I was returning to the office having picked up Chinese food on a Monday afternoon. His was somewhere near the Transfer Station in Gaithersburg at 9 am on a Saturday morning. He was driving my car, so it looked as if I had two, but I pointed out the time & date! Anyway, neither of us was driving recklessly or carelessly, so, although we can afford $80, I am bummed about it. I was basically going with the flow of traffic. Why must they do this? I can see doing it by a school, but the Gaithersburg one was near no school.

I always tell people that if they think the citation was issued incorrectly, they should fight it. I once wrote about a couple in Silver Spring that got a citation for going 100 mph, when there was no way they possibly could have done that. Changes were made after that to tighten up the program.

But in this particular case, I"m not seeing cause for a fight.  The citations are issued when the radar detects the vehicle is going at least 12 mph over the posted speed limit. Lots of people talk about going with the flow of traffic, and I understand why it's a bummer, but I doubt many police officers who stop speeders accept the "going with the flow" argument.

I live 5 minutes from the Mark Center and haven't seen a huge increase in traffic; then again, I rarely go in that direction during rush hour or during the day. The few times I have been near there, the traffic seemed comparable to before. I have seen more shuttle buses though.

I haven't gotten any mail yet from drivers complaining about increased traffic near any of the BRAC sites in Maryland or Virginia.

Not recently. I noticed this was a consistent daily problem several months ago.

Thanks for this response to my question about the train information displays. Here again, I haven't gotten mail recently complaining about this problem. I did some months ago when the computer system was malfunctioning.

"Are others seeing this problem consistently?" Yes, I have my station bookmarked on my iPhone. I check it as I'm walking from my car. This way, I know if I can casually stroll, walk quickly, or really hoof it to make the next train. For the past few weeks, it has been showing arrival times 2-3 minutes earlier than actual. The number of trains, number of cars, etc are correct but each one is 2-3 minutes off.

So here's a complaint (thank you) about the online times. I've seen this, too, for individual stations. Our Rockville bureau overlooks the Rockville station, and I would have the Metro Web site up showing the arrival times for Rockville station. They were consistently off by a minute or two.

How long will the RT 50 in Courthouse Arlington construction go on for? I know they do most of the work at night, but that road is treacherous driving at night with the torn up road and merged lanes.

Yes, thanks, you're right. There will be a connection between the  HOT lanes and Route 29.

If this is happening to you a lot, don't keep them in your pockets or other places they are subject to bending. They don't have magnets in them - they have circuits. If you're constantly bending the card back and forth the circuits are also getting bent and eventually get weak and break. That's my theory anyway...

Yep. I think that's good advice.

Travelers, I've got to sign off now. There's a bunch of questions and comments left that I think I can post on the Dr. Gridlock blog, including some more responses to previous comments by readers or questions that I raised. So please check in for that. I'll be back online next Monday. Stay safe.

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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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