Sep 27, 2010

The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock, Robert Thomson, was online to take all your questions about Metro, traffic throughout the region and other transportation issues.

Welcome, travelers. I hope your commute wasn't too soggy. This wet weather will be around for a while. Check with us throughout the week on the Dr. Gridlock blog for updates about travel in the D.C. area.

I see a mix of topics in the mailbag. Keep 'em coming.

After months of walking and driving down Pennsylvania Ave NW (admittedly not often during rush hours), I finally saw someone using the bike lanes - albeit a roller blader. Does almost Mayor-elect Gray have a plan to reverse Fenty's ill-conceived bike lane project? Thanks.

I've seen some bikers at off-peak hours, but haven't watched at rush hours. My main concern was whether pedestrians and bikers would intersect in unfortunate ways in the middle of Pennsylvania, but that didn't appear to be a problem.

Do you think autos are having a problem? (That wasn't apparent at the off-peak times when I was watching.)

I don't recall anyone establishing a quota for how many bikes needed to use the new lanes in the early going to consider it a success.

To the best of my knowledge, Gray has not said anything about reversing the bike lane program. It's not exactly a radical effort. Many big cities are trying to make their streets friendlier for cyclists and walkers, just as DC has been doing.

Certainly, Fenty is better known as a cyclist than Gray is, but that doesn't mean Gray would shift policy on this.

Do you folks think he should?

The intersection of Georgia Avenue and Randolph Road north of Wheaton has been under construction for many months. Road crews are constantly changing or blocking lanes month after month as well as tearing up the road surface. Why can't they just do what they need to do and then finish up - why is this seeming to take FOREVER with no end in sight?

I believe what you've been seeing is utility relocation work, in advance of the long-anticipated reconstruction of that bottleneck at Georgia and Randolph. Utility relocation really annoys travelers. It tends to be disruptive and it lasts a long time. (Utility relocation for the Dulles Metrorail line through Tysons Corner took a couple of years and required frequent lane closings. Utility relocation at the Silver Spring Metro station for the new transit center frusrated a lot of station users because they didn't see a building coming up out of the ground.)

The utility work at Georgia/Randolph should be done by the end of the year, I believe.

For over a week now the Metro message boards have been out of sync on the Red Line. The sign may indicate a train is arriving or boarding when there is no train in sight. The arrival times have been off about two minutes (if it says 3 minutes it really is 1 minute).

I notice I'm getting many more complaints than usual about the accuracy of the message boards. (There are always some, and the message boards never seem free of problems.)

I saw a problem on Friday on the Green/Yellow Line platform at Fort Totten: I was waiting for a Yellow Line train to King Street, and the board showed two trains: a Green Line train in 5 minutes and a Green Line train in 18 minutes. The first train to arrive, two minutes later, was a Yellow Line train.

Others experiencing more than the usual inaccuracies?

Is Metro planning any major work over the Columbus Day weekend? I need to get to Dulles, so I am trying to figure out if the Orange line is going to be messed up.

Yes, Metro has a big project lined up for the Columbus Day weekend. I'll give you full details on Sunday's Commuter page in The Post, plus I'll do something on the Dr. Gridlock blog before that, but basically, Metro is going to shut McPherson Square and Farragut West for the entire three-day weekend. The Blue/Orange Line platform at Metro Center also will be shut. Metro workers will be replacing track switches at McPherson.

I drive from DC to Laurel/Columbia every day. I have no problem with the new hands-free law in Maryland but I am wondering why there are no signs along the highways alerting motorists. If this is really a safety campaign and not a way to generate revenue, why is the state not posting signs? Remember "click it or ticket?" There were signs and commercials with law enforcement officers. Is it legal for states (or cities, in the case of DC) to create a new driving law without posting signs? 

I imagine there will be signs once the law takes effect on Friday, just as DC has signs for its hands-free law.

I'm not an expert on laws, but I doubt states or municipalities are required to post every new traffic law they pass.

The Post's Ashley Halsey III had an interesting story about the issue of cell phone bans:

Yesterday I attempted to get on the Yellow line train at Archives/Navy Memorial and waited almost an hour -- I finally took the Green train to L'Enfant Plaza and switched to blue to get home. I understand they were doing track work, but one Yellow line train an hour?

That's different from what the schedule was supposed to be during the day on Sunday. There were supposed to be two Yellow Line trains per hour. This is what Metro said:

"Yellow Line trains will operate approximately every 30 minutes between the Huntington and Mt. Vernon Sq/7th St-Convention Center Metrorail station. ... On Sunday, September 26, Yellow Line trains will depart the Huntington Metrorail station at approximately 11 minutes and 41 minutes after the hour and Yellow Line trains will depart the Mt. Vernon Sq/7th St-Convention Center Metrorail station at approximately 21 minutes and 51 minutes after the hour."

When I worked in Crystal City maybe 10 years ago, handicapped-tagged cars parked for free; you couldn't GET a spot for all of these "handicapped" cars. When Arlington instituted "everyone pays", all of the cars disappeared - it was a modern day Lourdes! Everyone was healed! Imagine that! Cheaters are the lowest form of life.

The Post had a good story today by Annys Shin, headlined "Drivers skirt rules on disabled parking." Here's a link:

Our latest round of discussions about this started a week ago, over the story about the woman who's car disappeared near the convention center after she used a handicapped tag -- issued for her husband, who wasn't with her -- to park in a handicapped space. She wasn't towed because she abused the handicapped spaced, but many, many people focused on that issue.

Is there any evidence that the use of HOV and HOT lanes actually reduce traffic delays? Sure, on a good day, the HOV lanes may be moving faster than the main lanes of traffic, but did they actually help? I would think that if the HOT lanes increased tolls to cut down on the number of people using the lanes, that they are really pushing people to the other lanes of traffic or onto sidestreets that are not capable to handle the increased volume of traffic. People complain about the number of HOV violators, but I think that any time they try to enforce HOV rules and setup to stop violators, that all of the lanes of traffic suffer from extra delays (both because people like to see who got stopped and because violators try to merge out of the HOV lanes to avoid getting caught.) I firmly believe that traffic on I-66 and Rts 29 and 50 in Arlington County would all benefit if ALL HOV restrictions were lifted on I-66. Let people use any/all available lanes of traffic and select their lane based on destination and not try to merge over several lanes of traffic to get in and out of the HOV lanes. And, if traffic was able to flow better on I-66, fewer people would bail out onto Rte 29 and US-50, causing delays on those roads.

HOV lanes and HOT lanes -- where they've been tried -- certainly speed traffic flow in those lanes. They almost certainly reduce travel times in the general purpose lanes just because their construction added lane capacity to the highway.

I think HOV lanes cannot be converted to general purpose lanes under the terms of the federal aid that supported their construction, at least not without federal approval.

One reason we need HOV lanes: We need lanes where buses can have priority. I think a big part of our future congestion fighting program will be encouraging people to take buses, and there has to be an incentive in time saving.

Ohio Drive W has been closed down from 6-10am for a while now. I recall reading previously that it would be open by August--it's nearly October. Any information on when it will be opening back up for the morning commute?

Are you saying that Ohio Drive is completely shut to traffic between 6 and 10 a.m.? That's certainly different from what the National Park Service has been telling me.

There should be "two lanes of inbound traffic only."

I don't recall hearing an August date. What I remember from the NPS announcement in April is that the project would be completed in the fall.

I grew up in the DC area and moved back a year or so ago. Ever since I got back, the Metro rides have just been awful and give me and my companions motion sickness. Is it because they're manually operated now?

Either that or you're just out of practice. The trains have been under manual control since the June 2009 crash on the Red Line, and they'll stay that way till Metro thinks it's got the automatic train control system fixed and safe. so we don't have another crash.

Meanwhile, some operators are better than others at driving the trains. Many people have written to me with complaints similar to yours.

What can be done about panhandling on the Metro? I use the Archives station and there are two panhandlers who seem to frequent the station. The first announces loudly that he's available for work so that he can buy food. He was there two different days last week. The other walks up to a person and hands them a note asking for money---he is there less frequently, but I have still gotten to recognize him. I'd rather not leave the platform to look for the station manager because a train will probably come while I'm gone.

Metro doesn't want panhandlers in the system, but it's a question of a transit police officer actually spotting someone engaged in that activity. I understand why you don't want to leave the platform to report it. That's probably the way almost everybody feels. One suggestion:

If you've got a phone with you, call the transit police at 202-962-2121 and tell them what you're seeing.


Thank you for taking my question. We have lived along 270 at various locations since 2002, and it seems that our commute into DC is getting longer and longer (in clock time as well as psychologically!) no matter what time we leave in the morning. The last couple of years have been extremely bad, to the point where even the HOV crawls now. Is there a ripple effect going on from distant roadwork somewhere? Is the population of northernmost Montgomery rising? Are folks commuting longer distances to much-needed jobs in a tougher economy? Any large-scale explanation would help make it feel just a little easier.

All those things, I think. The only transportation improvement I can think of that's helped I-270 inbound was the doubling up of the exit ramp for the Dulles Toll Road in Virginia. (That's how much volume we have heading from I-270 onto the Beltway and across the Legion Bridge to VA.)

The Maryland State Highway Administration is studying possible improvements for I-270. Could be more HOV, could be express toll lanes, could be the Corridor Cities Transitway. Whatever it is, it's a long way away. There's not much money around for big new transportation projects after the Intercounty Connector.

I know this isn't strictly a traffic/transit question, but I don't know who else to ask. This summer, driving over the Bay Bridge, I've always seen 4-6 large ships seemingly anchored in the Bay just south of the bridge. Other years, there would occasionally be a ship, but not always and rarely a group; any idea what's been happening with Bay ship traffic this year?

I'm not aware of anything different this year. Just a guess: There's some issue for those ships with getting dock space, or the unloading schedule or the supply chain farther down the line. Sometimes it's just cheaper for the owners and operators to keep goods on an anchored ship for a little while than to bring them into a dock and unload them.


I may need to start commuting from the Baltimore area to downtown Washington. How reliable are the MARC trains? I'm particularly interested in the evenings. If something goes wrong in the morning I can always drive, but if trains are canceled in the evening I'm stranded.

Delays and cancellations on MARC are not unusual. I don't get many complaints from commuters that they've been completely stranded in DC, rather  that they've had to wait for another, crowded train.

Would this help as a preview? Sign up for the MARC alerts on the line you expect to take. See how often you get a notice about a service disruption and figure how you would deal with it in reality:


Who should be contacted about installing a camera to deter red light running? Connecticut Ave. heading south at Porter has a left turn arrow that is constantly ignored during rush hours as well as other times. It presents a serious danger to pedestrians and vehicles. Thank you from Cleveland Park.

That's going to be the responsibility of the District Department of Transportation, which has a very active pedestrian safety program.

To report the problem, use the Mayor's 311 communication center. But it sure wouldn't hurt to let your local Advisory Neighborhood Commission or your council member know about your concern.

Last week two escalators and the elevator were out at the Wheaton stop. One escalator wasn't usable and the other was stopped. The third was running in the down position. Metro gave NO warning that this was the case, and therefore unloaded a bunch of strollers and people unable to walk the nearly 200 stairs. Thankfully I am able bodied, but still, it's a climb. Of course station managers were nowhere to be found. Can Metro really run only one escalator in the down position? Man, I really hate Metro.

First of all, the busted escalators are one of the biggest problems we have in the system. Communications about busted escalators are another problem. I think many of you know that Metro keeps a list of the out of service escalators on its Web site, which is progress. But that's not always up to date, and really, how many people are going to check that status page before they get on the subway?

Many of you know from our previous discussions that if one escalator is busted, or under long-term repair, the one next to it will be turned off so people can walk up or down. (Walking up is really difficult at some of the deep stations.)

Sometimes, Metro tells me, there are problems with the escalator machinery and an escalator can't be made to go in the opposite direction from the one you see it going in. (I kind of doubt that's always the case.)

What about another bridge over the Potomac? *ducks*

I just don't see that happening in time to help anybody but the youngest commuters among us. First of all, there's no money around to do that. Virginia doesn't have it. Maryland doesn't have it. The feds maybe someday could scrape it together if both VA and MD were united in asking for it.

Maryland wants to protect the undeveloped areas of Montgomery County. Virginia's state government is in favor of another river crossing, in theory. You wait till a specific crossing point gets named, then see who stands up for it.

They've been screwed up on the Orange Line too. I arrived at my station the other day only to find out that the train that was supposedly arriving was already gone.

You remind me of another thing I've noticed: When you look online for the Next Train arrival times, they don't necessarily match up with the real arrival times at the platforms.

What's the status of Virginia's HOV exemption for hybrids/alternative fuel vehicles? Does it still have an expiration date or has it been made (more or less) permanent?

Yes, it has an expiration date of June 30. Every year, it has that same expiration date and every year, the General Assembly extends it till the next June 30. I think that pattern is unlikely to change.

Travelers, I've got to split now. Thanks for joining me once again. Among the questions/comments I didn't get a chance to push out today are a few asking me for updates on specific projects or suggestions with directions. I'll look for answers and see if I can respond to you on the Dr. Gridlock blog over the next couple of days.


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.
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