The Washington Post

Dr. Gridlock

Sep 30, 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. Initial questions and comments are about the federal shutdown, this morning's troubles on Metro, escalator issues, left-turn enforcement cameras and ferries for commuters.

Some look like they are prime for your additional thoughts, so I'll start with them. But we're open for any comments on local transportation issues.

What will happen if the Federal Government shuts down and those workers impacted by the shutdown stay off the road and Metro tomorrow? My guess is that it will be like travel in an unfamiliar place. People will actually be able to drive at the speed limit and get to their destination on time.

Here's a summary by Lori Aratani of what the commute probably would be like if a shutdown occurs:

The federal shutdown is not expected to have an immediate impact on service for commuters or airports. If anything roads, trains and buses may be roomier since so much of the federal workforce will not be on the job. However, a lengthy shutdown may result in cutbacks in service as officials adjust to reduced ridership.

To stay up with all the latest news about the impending shutdown, check The Post's live blog. (Seems like almost all my colleagues are working on some aspect of the shutdown story today.)

I went back and looked at The Post's newspaper story about the first day of commuting during the federal shutdown in January 1996. This is how Alice Reid's story began:

The Beltway has been breezy, the parkways a piece of cake.

Yesterday Washingtonians, at least those who were working, finished off a week of rush hours that actually moved, of grid that unlocked -- mostly, say the traffic specialists, because large parts of the federal government were shut down.

While drivers may have loved it, the shutdown, which kept about 110,000 local federal workers at home, was costly for the region's Metro system. It lost about 25,000 riders a day. That translates to at least $ 55,000 a day in lost fares.


If the government shuts down does that mean the circulator is shut down too? If not why doesn't it qualify like WMATA.

The D.C. Circulator should be operating as usual. Mayor Gray declared all city services "essential." That also means the D.C. parking rules will be in effect.

Dr. Gridlock, I commute between Sterling and Bethesda every day, and what has usually been an hour-long, reasonably smooth commute has turned into a nightmare. I don't know if it's the combination of back-to-school traffic and the end of summer, but getting down the Dulles Toll Road in the morning has become unbearable. Wait, I'm wrong--trying to drive on 28 during morning and evening rush is the worst. It seems like, on a dime, someone flipped a switch to the "Crazy" setting for Washington traffic. Dare I ask, do you anticipate things to ease up in the coming weeks, or will we have to endure this intense volume of immobile traffic indefinitely? Sincerely, Frazzled commuter

Traffic has become worse on many highways in the D.C. region since the  end of vacation season. I routinely check the traffic maps and cameras between 7:45 and 8:15 a.m. on weekdays.

This morning, for example, traffic looked awful on southbound Route 28 to the Dulles Toll Road, and again was ghastly where the toll road traffic exits for the Beltway's inner loop.

Many other yearround bad spots get badder as September progresses. Things tend to stay bad till we reach the start of the holiday season in November.

I can't always explain -- or get any experts to explain -- why traffic seems to get worse in a particular area where there's no new road work or lane blockage. Our most recent discussion like this was about the inner loop of the Beltway in Maryland approaching the Wilson Bridge. Nothing about the highways or the bridge changed recently, but traffic still seemed worse.

Came across this article last month which relates to this issue: So, the problem seems more widespread than anyone thought. Scottsdale, AZ has a left turn photo enforcement program:

This comment follows up on a discussion we had last Monday about whether there should be left-turn enforcement cameras to monitor intersections in the D.C. region where left-turns are prohibited at certain times.

Thanks for the link to Scottsdale. I looked at that just now, and it's very interesting. Seems like it's a variation on the traditional red-light camera. In other words, it records a violation when a driver making a left turn enters the intersection on a red light.

That's probably a bit different from what the original commenter had in mind.

Received a request in the mail to do an online transportation survey, which I was happy to do. There were a lot of questions and at one point a series of questions that asked about allocating funds across bike paths, sidewalks, metro, buses, roads, and ferry's. There was no "comment" box anywhere and I am left wondering: ferry's!? Who takes a ferry anywhere in this area and why would I want upwards of 10-20% of the annual transportation budget to go to ferry service? Am I missing something?! I have been in this area since 2001 and I have never heard of anyone taking a ferry to get to work. Do you know anything about this? Do you know who I can contact for more info?

I grew up in Staten Island, NY, so you know I've had experience riding ferry boats. I love 'em. Can't think of a better way to commute than by taking a short cruise across the water.

I'm not familiar with the survey our commenter is referring to. (Can the commenter send another message about that?) The only operating ferry I can think of used by commuters in our region is White's Ferry on the Potomac. But there have been many studies over the years about creating a commuter ferry between Woodbridge and D.C. -- specifically, the Navy Yard area, as I recall.

I think that's a great idea -- as long as it could be properly promoted to attract riders. The speed and convenience would have to be competitive with VRE, commuter buses and carpooling. (And I'm not sure what government would assign 10 to 20 percent of transportation spending to a ferry. I haven't heard such a figure.)

"That translates to at least $ 55,000 a day in lost fares." That was 17 years ago. I wonder how the fare rate today compares to 17 years ago (I was taking the metro then but can't remember). That lost of revenue will really help Metro with repairs etc in coming months and years.

Yes, I think Metro's prime concern in a shutdown wouldn't be service issues -- since there would be fewer riders -- but rather the substantial impact on its operating revenue.

(Most of the repairs are in the capital budget, with the revenue coming from taxpayers.)

Dr Gridlock, when there's a major delay like there was this morning, why don't the station staff come down to the platforms to help manage the loading process? At a couple points on my train this morning the driver came on the intercom and asked for cooperation/help during offload/load as with the crowds on the platform he couldn't see if the doors were clear. Of course riders need to be aware and follow instructions, but since there are staff actually at the stations, it seems to me that this would be a better use of time than having them all at the fare gates talking to each other...

Orange and Blue Line riders had a tough time this morning because of a train problem at Metro Center.

I've said this before: It's really important for Metro to have more staffers on the crowded platforms at rush periods to direct people.

And it's not just a question of the number of staffers. They must also be trained and equipped (I mean bullhorns) so they can be very active in directing the crowds. Sometimes they stand around and wait for people to ask questions. That's helpful, but far from enough in those situations.


This AM [Wednesday, Sept. 25] at Medical Center. Two of three escalators stopped (or broken). Elevator broken. Third escalator going DOWN!!! Are they waiting for someone to die of a heart attack and/or tumble backward taking out a dozen other people forced to slog up one of the deeper escalators in the system?

That is absolutely a problem. (I wonder if anyone went to the station manager and pointed that out?) It's difficult to walk down one of those really long escalators, but it doesn't match the potential danger of walking up.

I learned that lesson at Dupont Circle. All the north-side escalators between the mezzanine and the street were out of service, and I boldly began to walk up. I got about three quarters of the way before realizing that this was a really, really bad idea. I'll never do that again.

I and the many, many people who use the Federal Triangle Metro stop desparately need your help. What is happening is this, two of the three escalators on both levels are set for going up during the whole evening rush hour. This was changed during last winter for some unknown reason. This has caused unnecessary congestion. I have kept track of how many people are going down the two single escalators and how many are coming up the one and even have a picture. Here is a sample for three days. 9/12 4:10pm 9 people going down, 0 people coming up 9/17 4:17pm 16 people going down (note: 5 people in line waiting to get on), 2 people coming up 9/24 4:14pm 7 people going down, 0 people coming up This has been the same pattern, numbers for months. I wrote to Metro and the response I got was they did an analysis and the configurations were evaluated and modified to reflect the most efficient usage. I believe there could be other escalators set this way too. Its unbelievable they are that stupid (actually, its not). Please help us!!! You'll make a ton of people very happy!!

I think this situation is different from the Bethesda case we just discussed. That was probably a mistake, with that very long bank of escalators.

With Federal Triangle and many other busy stations: Metro's approach is to limit the crowding on the platforms at rush hour. In other words, they make it easier to get out of the station than to get into the station.

I see what they mean: Crowding at rush hour is inevitable, but if you're going to have a crowd, it's a lot better to have it on the street than on a narrow platform.

I don't believe this is "stupid." But I also know this safety policy annoys many riders. It should at least be explained better.

Federal Employees are expected to report for 4 hours tomorrow

My colleagues are building an agency by agency list of the shutdown impacts. It's really complicated, varying a great deal depending on the agency. And it's also evolving, but I don't see anything yet that reflects a four-hour work day.

(If that did happen, it would be a hardship for commuters. Metro would be stressed by a midday rush hour. But so would the roads, especially where we have reversible lanes.)

VA announced last year they would proactively manage I66 traffic. This specifically included opening the bonus lane outside of scheduled HOV to accommodate heavy traffic. That hasnt happened to date. Why has this changed, WHat are they doing to improve I 66

Gov. McDonnell announced in February that VDOT would start construction this year on an active traffic management system for I-66, to be completed in early 2015.

It's basically a system of sensors, cameras and variable message boards and signs that will allow operations managers to better control the flow of traffic -- as long as drivers actually look at the information signs.

One component of active traffic management will allow the controllers to open up the shoulder lanes any time that appears necessary to ease congestion, in either direction.  There will no longer be a need to limit shoulder use to certain pre-set hours.


Any idea on the timeline for the renovation of the Maryland House rest stop on 95? At least I saw a little bit of activity there recently, but it seems like it is taking forever and not much is visible from the road. Will we have this important facility back in use in our lifetime (I am not 25, so I am hoping that we are talking months, not years!)

North of Baltimore, the Maryland House service center is closed for reconstruction. Drivers on I-95 north will need to go 14 more miles to reach the Chesapeake House in North East, Md.

When the Maryland Transportation Authority closed it last fall, the authority said it expected to reopen the service center in fall or winter of 2013, so they're still within their original time frame.

I've got a couple of messages from you folks about federal workers showing up for four hours on Tuesday. I'm going share them with you, but please treat it as raw data. I'm not in a spot right now where I can check on that -- cause I'm talking to you.

Pentagon Civlians are coming in for 4 hours tomorrow to shut down if the CR isn't passed. Military will continue to work without pa y, Contractors depending on the year of the money applied to their contract. FY 13, they worik; FY 14, they don't work.

I remember that from the 2011 shutdown guidance - all employees must come to work on the first day of the shutdown to tidy up loose ends, set out-of-office messages, etc., and that is supposed to take no more than four hours. I haven't seen it written as a hard-&-fast 4-hour rule.

What's so laughable about it is that it's only to shutdown--in effect, change your email and voice mail vacation message--something you can easily do from home. But if you don't show up, you don't get paid for those four hours. Ridiculous.

The elevator/escalator outages at Medical Center are particularly shameful because that stop is used by so many wounded military people at Walter Reed. I follow the blog of Taylor Morris, who is a wounded quadruple amputee. His friends had to carry him piggy-back style up the escalator. I don't know why it's not more of a priority to keep the escalators and elevators working at that stop.

Does the Circulator have a different funing stream outside of WAMTA that put its operation in question or was it an error that its service was threatend by the possible government shutdown?

The Circulator bus is part of the District Department of Transportation. Because the District's budget is subject to Congress, we did think that it should have to shut down if the feds went out. At that point, we also thought that the D.C. parking rules would not be enforced.

But then Mayor Gray declared city services "essential" and that changed the equation -- we think. At present, the city plans to operate the Circulator and enforce the parking rules.

You can take a ferry "water taxi" from downtown Alexandria to National Harbor, and can take the "baseball boat" to Nats games in the summer. It's not a lot, but it's something. I'd love to see the service expanded to go from Alexandria into D.C. on a regular basis.

Yes, so would I. It's only in very recent years that DC is starting to make better use of its waterfront. Expanding ferry service is part of that.

(The commuter ferry would be a different thing. If it worked right, the ferry would not be a pleasant alternative, but rather an important link for at least hundreds, if not thousands, of daily commuters.)

It's more dangerous given tourists blocking the escalators of people trying to catch trains. And I haven't seen Fed Triangle dangerously overcrowded in the five years I've worked at EPA.

What is the purpose of the Orange line to Largo rush plus service? I commute from New Carrollton to Ballston and in the evenings by the time a OL to NC comes to Ballston, by the time it gets downtown the train is packed? Please provide your insight. Metro ignores my requests for a respnse.

Metro added the Rush Plus Orange Line service to Largo to compensate for the cutback on Blue Line trains to Largo at those peak hours. When the Silver Line opens, those trains will go out to Largo. So the Orange Line Rush Plus service will be ended.

When VDOT adds an shoulder lane of the beltway from the Express Lanes to the American Legion Bridge, will that lane be available during the AM rush, or just PM rush? The Express Lane merge is having in increasing impact on traffic headed from Tysons into Maryland in the morning. A trip that used to take 5-10 minutes now can take upwards of 30 minutes, and the collisions occurring as a result of the poorly designed merge have become a weekly occurrance.

The new left lane on the inner loop will be open for traffic during the afternoon rush once a $20 million conversion project is done in late 2014.

I don't like left-side merges. But I'll tell you what my experience has been: When I drive the northbound Beltway in the morning or afternoon rush, either in the express lanes or the regular lanes, I don't have a problem with that merge.

So far, the traffic volume in the express lanes has been light.

Same when I look in at the traffic maps and cameras each weekday between 7:45 and 8:15 a.m. I see extremely slow traffic moving from the Dulles Toll Road to the inner loop and there are slow sections north across the Legion Bridge into Bethesda.

I just don't see a problem at the express lanes/inner loop merge.

I did have one problem on the express lanes north of Tysons that I wrote about recently: I took the Jones Branch Drive entrance onto the express lanes at 6:20 p.m. and immediately got stuck in traffic. It had backed up onto the express lanes from the merge point, where all lanes of the inner loop were stop and go.

There was no problem with the merge itself, because all traffic was moving so slowly. And the jam continued to the Legion Bridge. So I can't attribute the cause of the backup to the express lanes merge.


Doc G, Two parter: Does the new MD gas tax make bring the Purple Line closer to actually happening? Is it all dependent on when/if the federal govt provides matching funds? When will we know more? What's the latest for the Silver Line? Is it still on track to open in January? When will we know more? Thanks.

You ask a lotta questions. Yes, the MD gas tax increase makes the Purple Line construction more likely. It still needs a big infusion of federal funds. We don't know about that yet.

The Silver Line could open in January. No guarantees on that. The Dulles Metrorail project will turn the line over to Metro, which will conduct its own tests, and I believe the Federal Transit Administration has a safety role in that, too.

Once everybody is satisfied, the line can open.

Apparently my agency will give us instructions only this afternoon about the 4hrs for 'orderly shutdown' expected tomorrow.

I've been checking with a few of my colleagues during the chat, but have not yet encountered anyone familiar with this four-hour plan.

As you feds know, this whole thing is very complicated, and the rules will vary a lot by agency. So we're still not sure what predictions we can make about the Tuesday commutes -- including whether there will be a substantial midday commute thrown in.

Our folks keep updating the live blog, the main news stories on The Post home page and the page that goes agency by agency.

I'm thinking that some of these variations will be reflected in your commuting experiences. For example, I-395 may be its usual crowded self, but you might find parking within DC a bit easier than normal.

Is the elevator out or service too? It's set wrong and inconvenient if there's a long queue - but can't people take the elevator?

Going just by Metro's list: The transit authority doesn't show an elevator out of service at Medical Center. There is one out of service at Bethesda.

In the event of a shutdown will Canal Road (and Connecticut Ave) still follow the usual rush hour routines?

Yes, they would, and 16th Street NW too. But none of these things -- even the shutdown itself -- seem like done deals at this hour. So folks should check in late in the day, especially on the live blog. On the Dr. Gridlock blog, we'll focus on the basic commuting issues.

Independent from Rush Plus, the existing maps indicates ALL Yellow Line trains go to at least Ft. Totten. Yet they don't. Many in the afternoon Rush Hour terminate at Mt. Vernon. The map makes no reference to this. Can you explain this situation?

Of all the Rush Plus changes, I thought the Yellow Line was the toughest to understand. At rush hour, the regular Yellow Line trains from Huntington go only as far north as Mount Vernon Square. The Rush Plus Yellow Line trains go from Franconia-Springfield to Greenbelt.

At off-peak hours, the Yellow Line operates between Huntington and Mount Vernon Square.

The map can't show all the detail. (Or completely explain the Red Line turnbacks at Grosvenor and Silver Spring.)

That's what made the destination signs on the trains so important for riders.

If there's a shutdown, will i66 HOV restrictions be lifted?

I don't anticipate VDOT making any changes in its HOV rules on Tuesday.

Pg 15 of the OMB guidance: B. Orderly Shutdown Q8: How long should "orderly shutdown" take? AS: Ordinarily, furloughed employees should take no more than three or four hours to provide necessary notices and contact information, secure their files, complete time and attendance records, and otherwise make preparations to preserve their work. OMB Circular A-ll requires agencies to provide OMB with written justification for the conduct of orderly shutdown activities in excess ofa half-day. While it may be appropriate in limited circumstances for some employees to take longer to assist in shutdown activities (e.g., seeking court continuances or stop-work orders on pending contracts), these may not be necessary in the event that a very short period of a lapse in appropriations is anticipated. Agencies should make every effort to prepare for these needs in advance of a lapse so that orderly shutdown activities are minimized.

Thanks for joining me today. I must break away now. We'll keep updating the Web site with shutdown news. And thanks for all the tips about the four-hour issue.

Stay safe, tomorrow and all 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 his namesake blog, as well as in the Metro section of The Washington Post.
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