Dr. Gridlock chat

Oct 01, 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.

Welcome, travelers. Let's go to your questions and comments as we begin October.

Dr. Gridlock, If money were no object, in your opinion what one transportation-related project - new or improved road, bridge, metro line, high speed train line, etc. - in the greater D.C. area would have the greatest positive impact on transportation?

I would create that regional network of rapid buses that we're always talking about. What I want is something that has the potential for a high impact on living commuters, not people who will be commuting 40 years from now.

The thing on your list that I'd be least likely to pick is high-speed rail. Huge investment. Unrealisticly high ticket prices.

Very curious what one project others would pick.

I'm hoping you can answer a question for me about cars merging on to the GW Parkway northbound from north Old Town Alexandria. Commuters driving north on N Washington St, which turns in to the GW Parkway, have the option of taking the (parallel) bypass road E Abingdon Dr. The bypass road sens you to a traffic light right at the merge point on to the GW Parkway. What I notice time and again is that commuters deliberately run the red light when the coast is clear. Presumably, they think they're turning right on red. But it's not really a right turn--it's a merging of two roads. Do they have the right to turn right on red? I often feel pressured to go through the red light when others do, but I never give in. Help!

I'm not seeing how that's a right on red. Looks more like a straightforward merge point where the ramp is controlled by a traffic signal.

The drivers who go through, do they first come to a complete stop and use their right-turn signals?

Dr. G: More an observation than a question. I've noticed in the past couple of months an increase in street parking restrictions in the Dupont/Logan/U St/Shaw area. I appreciate the need for local residents to have parking, but as this becomes a growing entertainment district, it seems counter-intuitive to restrict more parking areas to residents only 7 am-midnight, both weekdays and weekends. There are no parking garages (unlike in Arlington or Bethesda), Metro's availability on nights and weekends is limited, cabs are unreliable and it seems there's a strong effort to drive out alternatives like Uber. I'd think new businesses would want more ways to accommodate patrons.

I think it's something the Logan Circle residents worked on with DC Council member Jack Evans. I think it's a reasonable thing to give top priority on parking to people who live right there.

Is there a reason Metro will apologize for "any" inconvenience during a delay, rather than for "the" inconvenience. I mean, I doubt they actually think delays might *not* be an inconvenience, but who knows...

It reminds me of when politicians say, "I apologize to anyone who was offended by my remarks," when it's obvious that any reasonable person would have been offended.

Longtime riders get annoyed with the stock phrases that are used in announcements. I'll bet that for many of you, the phrase "Thank you for riding Metro" comes to mind.

Hi Dr. Gridlock. Do you know why traffic on 495 North between the 395 interchange and Braddock Road is getting worse? It is now a common occurrence that traffic to be backed up pretty far down the entrance ramp from 395 to 495. Is this because of the HOT lanes constructions? All of a sudden a couple of weeks ago the traffic got really bad on a regular basis and I'm not sure why.

I'm sure there are others who experience this traffic. Can you also comment?

I don't drive that stretch everyday, but I do try to look at the traffic maps and cameras every morning. From my driving and map-looking, my view is that it's been very bad for a long time. It was bad in the spring, and it was bad over the summer -- even during the big vacation weeks when total traffic should have declined.

I attributed it to a combination of high volume and the 495 Express Lanes construction.

For all the attention given to the Blue Line lately, those trains are still going through McPherson Square half empty every afternoon. Yet for some reason Metro is running eight-car Blue Line trains. Meanwhile, Orange Line service is as bad as ever. This morning, as far out as East Falls Church, I had to wait through five trains before I could actually get on one. In the 20 minutes I was waiting, there was not a single comprehensible announcement explaining the delays. During afternoon rush, Orange Line trains are often running six or more minutes apart and they are as packed as ever. Honestly, in the interest of providing customers who are paying the same fares an equivalent level of service, more resources should be diverted from the Blue Line to the Orange.

Mark Berman and I are planning to do some more tests of the Rush Plus comments we've been getting about the Blue, Orange and Yellow Line service.

I'm sure most of you know that the complaints generally come from Blue Line riders who say they want service put back to the way it was before Rush Plus began in June.

One thing that has surprised me: I've published many of their letters and comments. But I rarely hear from Orange Line riders. Since there's no more capacity in the Rosslyn tunnel, what the Blue Line riders are asking for is a cutback in the Rush Plus level of Orange Line service.

Riders are normally pretty jealous about the level of service on their line. That's why I was surprised I haven't heard more from the Orange Line riders. A comment like the one above, or one that basically says, "We needed that extra service on the Orange Line," has been rare.

It has occurred to me that when the Silver Line opens, Metro may have to make it or the Orange Vienna branch a shuttle that terminates at East Falls Church stations during rush hours. The decreased Blue line service through Rosslyn is only 3 trains in every 54 minutes (assuming every 3rd train is rerouted as yellow and the trains from Franconia-Springfield leave every 6 minutes). How can this be enough? A few years ago there was a 2-to-1 ratio of Orange to Blue line trains in every 6-minute interval passing through Rosslyn; it was basically a 6-car Orange train immediately followed by a 4-car Orange train to take the overflow, then a Blue line train -- every 6 minutes. I don't know if that is still done, but that is what would be needed if the Silver Line replaces that second Orange train in every 6-minute interval. The "missing" Blue Line service would allow for delays, and maybe the ability to avoid a shuttle service; but my guess is that within 6 months, one of those trains into E. Falls Church will become a shuttle, and Metro will wish they had built the Silver Line into W. Falls Church, which already has a center track to use as a shuttle terminal.

This is an excellent question, and one that should be on the minds of Blue and Orange Line riders. I've asked Metro officials about the Silver Line plan, and they say that various options still are on the table and they haven't worked out a plan.

I think Metro officials are not certain what the ridership will be on the Silver Line, and that's understandable. Will some riders change their habits and use the Wiehle Ave station at the end of Silver Line's phase one? Bus routes will be changed. Some of the routes that now go to West Falls Church will instead go to Wiehle Ave.

That suggests trains that now originate at Vienna can shift over to the Silver Line. And indeed, Metro does plan to at least shift those three-per-hour Rush Plus Orange Line trains over to the Silver Line.

But Metro officials anticipate that at rush hours, Silver Line trains will operate about every seven minutes.

I can't make the math work on that. I sure can't seen any restoration of the pre-Rush Plus level of Blue Line service.

(By the way, I think there's no scenario that allows Metro to turnback trains at East Falls Church and operate any kind of shuttle service during rush hours, when trains are crowding the tracks there.)


Why doesn't Metro label trains during their weekend shutdowns? Several times this weekend on the Green line, I saw passengers confused by trains that were just labeled "Special" with no color identified on the front. One lady rushed off a train at L'Enfant Plaza because she thought it was Yellow line and other guy was about to try to transfer because he didn't know the train was going to go Congress Heights. Wouldn't it have been more effective for Metro to put Green line to Southern Ave? I'm seen that done with the Orange line when it's stopping at West Falls Church and it seems to works fine.

I don't see any good coming from labeling trains "Special." When Rush Plus began, Metro officials made such a big deal out of telling everyone to watch the destination signs. They know how important they are to riders. More important then the line colors on the trains.

Weekends can be confusing, too, when a line is split and Metro reconfigures a service pattern to compensate.

Any updates on the escalators at the South exit? Thank you.

No. Metro is still saying they'll be done by the end of this month.

Unless BRT is done right (i.e. separated rights-of-way, really, really frequent headways, etc.), it is doomed to failure as an effective and fast means of transit. It will also do little to alleviate overcrowding in the core of the Metrorail system. What would make far and away the greatest impact on regional commutes is the oft-dreamed-of Separated Blue Line, which would expand access to Metro in the downtown core including areas like Georgetown, Logan Circle, and H Street, help streamline existing service along the downtown Orange/Blue track (which would become just Silver/Orange), create an additional Potomac crossing which is long overdue, and allow for more and better connections from Union Station, which deserves to be a true transit hub for the city. It'll be a billion-dollar project, but worth every penny. Additional Metro lines that open up new neighborhoods of DC to more density and development - particularly northern areas like 16th St. Heights - would also make a huge difference. And in what is a fast-growing city, there's no substitute for the speed of underground heavy rail.

That's a very good choice. And it's something that will have to be done, and is essential to the region's future. (See my earlier comments about Rosslyn tunnel issues.) The reason that wasn't THE one that I picked is the length of time it would take to get it done, even with unlimited money.

If I had the money and human resources, I'd work on something that obviated the need for so many of us to commute in the first place. Better virtual work environments . . . holograms of my colleagues shooting out of my iPhone while I work from home.

Good choice. This also makes a great deal of sense. It would have a very high impact on workers, would be relatively low cost and would have benefits that ripple through the entire transportation system by easing pressure on the roads and rails.

Satellite office sites -- Washington is a city of equal-earning couples, and there's no transportation solution when an Arlington-employed bride marries a Landover groom.

I like this one, too. You commuters are good.

This idea about the working couples comes up all the time whenever I get into a discussion about how we should live near where we work.

People have two legit concerns -- at least two -- on this. One is that people in this region often change jobs. Are they supposed to move everytime they change jobs?

The other is the idea of the working couple. That one hits close to home. I work at The Post. The Grid Spouse works at The Baltimore Sun (transportation reporter). She wound up with the long commute, about 35 miles each way by car.

People like to complain, rarely like to compliment?

I suppose that's part of it. People generally don't write in to Dr. Gridlock to say how much they like our transportation system.

But they do write in quite frequently to defend something they think is legitimately theirs, like a level of service in transit, or a share of the road.

That's why I thought that when so many Blue Line riders wrote in to say, We want our trains back, that Orange Line riders would say, But we need them!

Purely selfish, but I'd love to see another rail added to the Brunswick Line. Friday night in addition to the usual signal problems, we also were slowed down because of freight traffic and the Amtrak train. We share the rails with freight trains and the heavy traffic creates problems morning and evening. With another rail we might even be able to have trains in both directions during the middle of the day.

I'd love to see us expand the entire commuter rail system -- VRE and MARC lines -- and make them independent of the freight train schedules. In fact, I'd rate that among the essentials for the region's future. Another huge expense, though.

I commute through there everyday from Van Dorn to Bethesda. Part of the problem is that there is a lane lost before Braddock Road and traffic merges from the left lane as it disappears. This causes a backup on the left side. Another part of the problem is that there are MANY drivers from 95 that cut across the lined area before the legal 95/495 merge. That means that those of us who are driving straight through on 495 are constantly slamming on brakes to avoid hitting the illegal lane changers that we can't see through the barriers. (Can you tell this is a pet peeve of mine?) This causes a back up on the right side. No matter where you go, there is a slowdown so people change lanes back and forth making things even worse.

Wow, that's a tough slog for a commute -- Van Dorn to Bethesda.

Thanks for that from-the-road view. It's a good description.

During the work on the Beltway lanes between Springfield and Telegraph Road, I thought well maybe some long-distance drivers are choosing to use the west side of the Beltway instead of the east side to avoid the construction. But no, now that the Beltway lanes are open on the east side, I haven't seen any traffic reduction on the west side.

That adds support to your description -- that the problems are not temporary ones.

I do hope you'll see some benefit through there when the express lanes open.

I ride the Orange and had noticed a difference (for the better) with the Rush + service during the summer. Unfortunately, the past few weeks have been as crowded as it was before. Maybe it's because of the delays that have plagued Orange lately, and people aren't willing to wait 2-4 min for the next train (which may turn into an extra 20 or more min), but it's definitely not as much of a "plus" as it was during the summer.

I was getting letters throughout the summer from Blue Line riders, and I told them that we'd be doing more Rush Plus tests, but they urged me to wait till the fall -- like now -- because they thought the overall ridership was down during the summer and we wouldn't see the true badness till the fall.

(Metro didn't have a very good September, did it? Repeated problems on several lines during rush hours.)

Dr Gridlock, Are there any plans to promote consistent treatment to the crosswalks from the stretch starting at the Kennedy Center and continuing to the circle at Arlington National Cemetery? Some of these crosswalks are bound with Stop signs, some aren't, and for many drivers/tourists through the stretch who are unfamiliar with the area, it is completely confusing - which makes it dangerous for both groups.

I know that around Memorial Circle, near Arlington Cemetery, the park service has been working on a safety project for the crosswalks. The points where the GW Parkway and the Mount Vernon Trail intersect have been very problematic over the years.

Baby lanes...if you have a baby or young child, you get a special lane where you can go as fast as you can to get home before the tantrum starts.

I think that might turn out to be a name people apply to the HOT lanes (when they're not calling them Lexus lanes.) Planners always talk about how they expect the new toll lanes to be used by people who need to get to day care before the extra fees kick in.

(I assume that when you refer to tantrums, you're talking about the children rather than the drivers. But maybe we'll start referring to the regular lanes as the tantrum lanes.)

Before Metro even thinks of adding any new lines they should expand the existing system to accomodate a third track at least throughout the District and the inner suburbs. The short-sightedness of Metro's original design continues to haunt us daily.

A third track would certainly help us. Since we were going with the unlimited funding idea, I'd still prefer the separate tunnel through downtown. You could have rail connections between the tunnels for more flexibility.

I do think there are many ways that the original planners of the system now look short-sighted. But I'd cut them some slack. Read "The Great Society Subway" and see various points back then where you'd feel like throwing your hands in the air and saying, This will never get built!

Meanwhile, our generation is making it's own short-sighted decision. Ex.: The Dulles airport station will be located where few air travelers will use it.

Short-term: 1 new lane between exits 67 and 71 on I-66. Basically continue the extension on westbound past 69 and a whole new lane east bound. Long-term: additional Metro between Arlington & DC. Also, a new line between Dunn Loring and Red Line in Montomery County along Beltway somehow.

Our original commenter proposed unlimited funds, but didn't say anything about unlimited power. I think you'd run into some intense transportation politics on the I-66 plan.

I think more Metro lines have to be in the region's future -- including more service in the core, as opposed to pushing the spokes farther out into the suburbs.

We've talked from time to time about a rail line following the Beltway, but political leaders and transportation planners seem lukewarm, at best, on that. There's some talk about rapid buses, or even light rail, over the Legion Bridge, but nothing about a Metrorail line.

You know, we still have those transit lanes set aside but unused on the new Wilson Bridge.

I haven't complained or complimented because I don't see a difference with RushPlus. I am terrified, though, of what the Silver Line will do to Arlington commuters. Maybe turn Blue Line from Franconia to Rosslyn to a shuttle? That would tick them off, but make more room for more needed Orange Line (and Silver Line) trains.

Metro added three Orange Line trains per hour at peak periods and it hasn't made any difference? If that's true, the region's taxpayers could be saving some money on Metro service.

The shuttle idea -- maybe not Franconia all the way to Rosslyn, but perhaps Pentagon-Rosslyn? I don't understand how Metro maintains the current level of Blue Line service through Rosslyn while still adding all those Silver Line trains.

Once the Silver Line opens, simple math would indicate that there will be fewer trains originating from Vienna. It would also seem to me that there cannot be a Silver Line train going through EFC every seven minutes. Best case scenario is one train from Vienna and one train from Wiehle every eight minutes (four minutes apart). That means that the Vienna train will be full when it gets to EFC. Six months after opening the Silver Line it will be hard for anyone from EFC or closer in to get on a train.

I think today's Orange Line riders, East Falls Church to Rosslyn, will be at least as well off as they are today because of the Silver Line trains. They'll link up with the Orange Line tracks at East Falls Church.

Vienna-West Falls Church riders, not so much. They're bound to have fewer trains because of the need to make room for the Silver Line.

I'm growing concerned on the proximity of the Beltway Express Lanes EZPass sensors to the left "free" travel lane. Why were the sensors placed on the actual highway? Wouldn't it have made more sense to install the sensors on the ramps to the Beltway Express Lanes? Not only that, but at those points, traffic would be theoretically travelling slower, making it easier to ensure accurate detection. What am I supposed to do if my EZPass gets tagged for being in the lanes when I'm not actually in the lanes at all? Is there a place to file an appeal for an incorrect toll charge?

The sensors are being tested now to work out any bugs. (Drivers may see the test vehicles using the express lanes.) And yes, there will be a way to challenge a charge.

I think the location of the sensors on the lanes as opposed to the ramps is to limit the number of sensors -- and therefore the overall cost -- and to help with the enforcement program.

Mine would be I-95 going through the city center as originally designed. Of course the I-695 project certainly helps a lot, but this has got to be the only metropolitan center that doesn't have direct highway access for nearly a 3rd of the suburban population. It's bad enough that only HOVs can access the city from the west, but at least VA residents can come in from the south. Maryland residents are relegated to local roads or one of the "parkways" that are far from ideal.

Here again, I think the issue is, okay, you have unlimited money for your idea, but not unlimited political power. I can't imagine political support for putting an Interstate through the middle of DC would be any greater now than it was a half century ago, when it was blocked.

In DC, who do I report a dangerous intersection to? The signalling and striping is just very confusing and drivers are confused when trying to go through it. It's at Georgia and Missouri NW

It can be very confusing there. Drivers frequently go through red lights. I think it's mostly inadvertent. The District Department of Transportation is the DC agency responsible for that sort of thing.

Fully fund Metro so riders pay a single, reasonable fare. I simply can't believe that you need a computer or smartphone to figure out how much your fare will be on Metro. It's a problem that should have been fixed LONG ago. Also, the fact that a single subway ride now costs more than a footlong at Subway is ludicrous.

I've noted political problems for some of the other dreams, but on this one, if you had unlimited money, you certainly could have a flat fare on Metro.

Politically, you must have rail access to Arlington Cemetery -- that's why the line is there in the first place - Politics.

Sure, but "rail access" could be defined as a train shuttle between Rosslyn and Pentagon with a stop at Arlington Cemetery, right?

I would have to say an eastern bypass. Trucks account for such a large percentage of the vehicular traffic on I-95, even during rush hour, and most of those trucks are just passing through the region. I-81 represents a significant detour for most truckers travelling the NE Corridor. A bypass of the region to the east (perhaps including parts of I-97 and US 301 with an improved Harry Nice Bridge) would represent a viable alternative for interstate commerce through the area.

With this one, I think we're back to, Okay, you have unlimited money for the engineering and paving, but unless you have unlimited power, you're not going to overcome the opposition of various jurisdictions that don't want to get paved over.

Add a new bridge into VA and underneath it another tunnel for the orange/blue line.

I can see the cost-savings of doubling up on road and transit but am not sure that in terms of routing you'd want the rail and road crossing at the same point. You'd probably want the rail crossing close to the region's core, while you'd put the road crossing farther out.

I've driven in high-occupancy/toll lanes in Miami and they worked fine. If the overhead tolling equipment read transponders from cars in the "free" lanes, you can be quite sure we'd have seen lots of reports about it, but there haven't been any such reports. True, Florida uses a different system (SunPass, which isn't compatible with E-ZPass), but the basic operation is the same. There's no reason to think they'll be charging people who aren't actually in the express lanes on the Beltway.

Since transponders and sensors aren't new technology, it does seem that we would have heard about such a problem. Still, it's something I'll watch for when the lanes open later this year.

Does VDOT realize they are artificially decreasing the effective capacity of the most heavily trafficed highway in the region with their plan to convert the reverseable lanes into High Occupancy Toll Lanes? Was there no vocal dissent to this plan from local leaders and citizens? Did people not understand how these lanes would work? Do people in Prince William County and points south understand that gridlock on I-95 is going to exponentially get worse when these lanes open except for those that can afford to pay what are obviously going to be obscene tolls? As if I-95 isn't already a parking lot on summer weekends, when these lanes open, it's going to be a nightmare!!

I've gotten a few complaints about the conversion from HOV to HOT, but I had expected a lot more.

Travelers, I've been scrolling through a lot of good comments and forgetting to look at the time.

So I need to close out the chat now. But thank you for raising so many interesting issues and offering your view on some of our big concerns about congestion and travel time uncertainty on the roads and on Metro.

I'll be away next Monday, but back on  Oct. 15. In the meantime, write to me at drgridlock@washpost.com.

Stay safe.

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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