Dr. Gridlock

Oct 03, 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. The traffic/transit scene is very active again this week, with VDOT closing a Beltway exit for the HOT lanes project, DC making changes in its Circulator bus routes and Metro planning some station closings for weekend maintenance projects.

What's on your mind today?

I know you've addressed this issue before but it's still unclear to me if it's legal or not to make a left turn at a light that has a left-hand turning signal that's turned red, while the light on the through-road is still green. I'd appreciate your weighing in again on this.

Don't do it. The red arrow pointing left is the controlling signal for you even if there's a solid green ball for the through traffic.

We had a discussion fairly recently about flashing red arrows pointing left. Drivers see some in Maryland. That one means stop before making the left and proceed when it's safe.

On the radio this mornign I heard something about a ramp to westbound 66 being closed from the beltway- but they weren't specific on the details. Could you perhaps try to key us in to what's happening?

Sure. This is an important change in the traffic pattern on the Beltway in Virginia. For years, there were two exits from the inner loop (I-495 North) for westbound I-66. One exit was on the left and one on the right. The Virginia Department of Transportation has closed the one on the left, to make room for a work zone for the HOT lanes project. All exiting drivers must now use the one on the right, which has been widened.

It's going to take drivers some time to get used to this, and there's likely to be extra traffic congestion because of it.

We need sources of funding other than unfair and outrageous tolls on Dulles Toll Road for Phase 2 of the Silver Line of Metro.. Citizens deserve a panel to think outside the box. For example: Couldln't the Silver Line qualify for Homeland Security funding as a vital airport link as well as an evacuation route in case of emergency? Thank you.

I agree that it's not fair for so much of the burden of financing phase 2 to fall on Dulles Toll Road drivers. (I'm not saying it's wrong to use toll money on the project, since it's likely to result in taking a lot of cars off the Greenway and DTR, benefiting toll road drivers.)

I think the Homeland Security idea is a bit of a stretch. Why isn't the state of Virginia kicking in a good portion of the money? Dulles Airport is one of the state's greatest transportation assets.

Hi, I'm wondering how it is that radio stations ask drivers to call them and tell them when they come across traffic problems. I'm not going to punch in their phone numbers when I'm going 5 miles an hour!

I've been in Bob Marbourg's studio at WTOP when he's providing his weekday traffic reports every 10 minutes. As soon as he's done with each report, he's taking constant calls from drivers reporting on traffic problems.

The drivers provide a lot more information a lot faster than the traffic cameras and the police scanners -- which he also has in front of him.

Many, many drivers do call in with very helpful information. (I hope they're all using hands-free devices.)

Hi Dr. Gridlock - Where can I find up-to-date info about Chain Bridge closings? I have the DDOT schedule, but this weekend, I took detours to avoid Chain Bridge, only to find that the bridge was open yesterday afternoon. I could have saved myself a lot of time, if only I had known that. Did they cancel the repair work because of poor weather? And how can I find that out in future? Thanks!

Yes, I will check. I think the schedule we're all going by was developed in August. It listed a set of weekends through December when there would be weekend closings till 5 a.m. Mondays. But apparently they're either ending earlier than Monday mornings or perhaps not happening at all on some weekends.

During the evening rush hour, why do so many people stop in the shoulder of the HOV lane of 395 South in the area around the 14th street bridge? I drive this frequently and continue to be puzzled by how many cars I see parked.

They're waiting for the HOV restrictions to end at 6 p.m. i think it's a dangerous practice. Plus, the drivers could get tickets for it. There shouldn't be any stopping in the shoulders expect for emergencies.

By the way, next Monday is the Columbus Day holiday, and the HOV rules will be suspended.

Taking to heart the service delays on the red line this weekend, I decided to take the S-line service from Silver Spring to DuPont on Sunday afternoon. It took two hours. This is unacceptable. I waited in the cold for 50 minutes at the Silver Springs transit station for a bus to come, and once one came, the backup was so bad that it had to stop at every stop going down 16th. The frustration is getting unbearable because there is nothing one can do. Complain on the Metro website? Why bother. I have never received a response to any complaint about service. And, things are getting worse. Have you ever tried to take the 70 at 7pm? Service that is suppose to run every 15 minutes quite simply doesn't. Besides give up on the bus system, there is nothing to do. I'm pretty much at that place.

That's certainly a problem. A trip from Silver Spring down 16th Street to the Dupont Circle area should take about a half hour. The S2 and S4 buses should be leaving Silver Spring about every 15 minutes or so.

I don't know of any street festivals that would have been a factor in the Sunday service.

The 70s line down Georgia Avenue underwent some changes in late September intended to make that route more efficient, and on time.

Sometimes, I've recommended that bus riders check the NextBus system for updates, but I continue to get complaints about its inaccuracy.

Regarding complaints to Metro: I often hear from people who have gotten responses via customer service. They may not like the responses, but they get responses.

Last week, they shifted the onramp from US-50 onto the Inner Loop of the Beltway to a point just before the ramps for I-66. I know the left exit to I-66 is now closed. Was the lane shift for US-50 a temporary move or is it going to stay? I get on I-66, but I am concerned that the current location of the ramps will cause a backup for traffic from US-50 if the traffic on I-66 is backed up. The one nice thing about having the left exit was that traffic from US-50 was getting on after any backup.

I think what you're experiencing with that shift occurred because the new lanes on the outer edge of the inner loop have opened in that sector, and a new work zone is being created on the inner edge, where the HOT lanes will be. So there's a traffic shift to the right.

There's not too much that's final yet about the traffic pattern along the Beltway between Springfield and the Dulles Toll Road. The HOT lanes project still has more than a year of construction.

One thing that is final: That left exit to I-66 isn't coming back.

Sunday's paper made reference to escalators at the Wiehle Ave Metro stop. Please don't tell me that Metro hasn't learned from their mistake and plans to make all of the new Metro stops escalator-centric? The new stations should all have primarily stairways, not escalators. Please Metro, you've already screwed up by not tunneling under Tysons and not going with an underground station at Dulles Airport. Don't screw up with more escalators!

Yes, there will be at least two escalators at each of the new stations on the Dulles line out to Wiehle Avenue. There also will be staircases.

I've lived here 35 years and I have never once taken the right exit for I-66. How will I ever cope ? God do I hate the hot lanes project.

Drivers are bound to forget that the left exit is closed. This is a tough one, because by the time they see that it's closed, it's too late to get across to the right side. They'll have to continue north and loop around to come back to I-66. There are warnings on the variable message boards, but signs are easy to miss when you're on a driver that you do routinely.

The HOT lanes, though, are adding four lanes to the Beltway and making some significant improvements at the interchanges. I think drivers ultimately will find this an improvement, after construction is done around the end of 2012.

Hi Dr. Gridlock! Sousa Bridge (local) commuter here: any updates on the 11th St bridge project? Last I heard, the freeway ramps were on track to open in "fall". Well, it's fall. I guess the meat of my cuestion is this: when will it get easier for me to cross the Sousa bridge after work? I live just on the other side of the Anacostia, and it's often so bad that I walk home from the Potomac Avenue metro instead of crawling across the bridge on a bus. Thanks for any info.

I haven't heard any change from the fall schedule -- which means they've got till December. I would cut them some slack, though, because of the very unfavorable weather this year. Many projects got held up because of all the rain.

But once the two new commuter spands open, you should find traffic a lot better on the Sousa Bridge. There won't be any more reason for Md-Va commuters to use the Sousa Bridge to make that left turn to get onto northbound 295.

Then after another year, the new local span is supposed to open, making it easier to get between neighborhoods on either side of the Anacostia River.

I am writing regarding the light on Georgia Ave and Hemlock Street, near the DC/Maryland line. There is a walk signal that is activated by a button (there is otherwise no traffic light that stops traffic). When you hit the button, the signal is activated and the walk signal gives someone 30 seconds to cross Georgia Ave. The problem is how it stops traffic. For the first ten seconds, the light turns a hard red. For the last twenty, it blinks red. Every day when I cross this street, motorists get into fights, because no one knows what to do with that last 20 seconds. Some think blinking red means stop too and therefor these motorists refuse to go, while others think the difference between hard red and blinking red means that a car can start back up. No one knows how to treat this system, and go forbid you are the person crossing the street with 20 seconds left on your cross walk not knowing whether cars are going to stop or go. What is the rule? More important, as I can empirically testify that no one knows what to do having crossed this street daily for 6 months, why is a light system that causes such confusion in place. It is scary to cross Georgia there.

That's called a HAWK signal. It stands for High-intensity Activated crossWalK. (I have to look it up everytime.)

Many people cross Georgia around that spot, and there's a long way between the regular traffic signals. Still, the District Department of Transportation felt that installing yet another traffic light was not the best, safest solution.

So DDOT went for what's still a relatively new style of signal, this HAWK. It's dark until activated by a pedestrian hitting the button. When it goes solid red, all traffic is supposed to stop and the pedestrians cross. A flashing red means drivers can proceed after stopping before the crosswalk.

Drivers are supposed to stop for pedestrians in the crosswalk anyway. The red light was an added safety factor.

If it's flashing red and the driver has stopped before the crosswalk and there are no pedestrians in the crosswalk, the driver should then proceed.

Has MetroBus reduced the number of busses on the 38B line? The last few business days, one of the most crowded busses on the route (East from Ballston to Farragut Square) which hits K Street at about 8:40am, hasn't been running. The two busses that bookend this one are now incredibly packed and you either choose getting to work really early or late.

Metro did make some changes in bus routes and schedules in September, but the 38B -- a very popular route known as "the Orange Line with a view" -- was not among those affected.

I think it's unlikely that Metrobus planners would cut service on this line. It's also not on the list of routes that would be affected by the bus service changes designated for public hearings this month.

Might this be happening just because it's fall, and the ridership has surged now that everyone is back at work?

Hi Dr. Gridlock - Debris in the narrowed lanes arund the I-495 HOT Lanes construction corridor is getting to be a big problem. Overturned barrels, those black rubber barrel "feet," overturned cones and random construction shrapnel is making a bad area worse and even more unsafe. Combine that with the barely visible lane markings all along the construction zones -- but worst in Tysons -- and it is a recipe for more accidents, what with earlier nightfall and soon ice and snow upon us. I do not understand why the VDOT contractors can't clean up after themselves. And why VDOT won't paint in lane markings, even if they are necessarily temporary. Please shed some light here. Thanks!

I haven't noticed the debris problem on my passes up and down the HOT lanes construction zone -- all 14 miles of it. But I certainly have noticed the rough pavement and the faded lane markings in many sections. Plus, there seem to be more lane shifts than ever. Sections of the new lanes on the outer edges are opening and corresponding sections in the interior are being blocked off for new work zones.

One thing I have to say: I think drivers still go way to fast and do way too many land shifts going through the work zones. (That's if they're not stopped altogether by lane closings.)


I was in New Jersey recently and once again had to use their turn right to turn left lanes. Why does New Jersey use them? They require more land. If the approach works, why hasn't it been adopted in other parts of the country. If it doesn't why haven't they gotten rid of them?

Yes, I think they're called dog-leg turns, and I can't think of any in the D.C. region. They are meant to help safety and traffic flow by eliminating left turns, but they sure do take up a lot of space and they're use would therefore be limited. I'm not aware of any campaign to eliminate them where they exist in New Jersey.

Doc -- Thank you for all of the info you've provided on the MegaMess Construction around I-267. I understand that the current configuartion is as good as it is going to be at least until late spring. One suggestion: Can't VDOT provide lane markings for the area immediately past the main Toll Plaza on I-267? You come through the gate and there is no guidance, just a wild west of racing forward (or inching, depending on the time of day) for several hundred yards until the lane divisions become clear. Is this normal or a result of the construction? Thanks for any insight.

My recollection is that the eastbound lanes right after the toll plaza were always a Wild West of creative driving, but I'll check with VDOT on the lane markings.

One thing I like about the improvements scheduled to open there in 2012 is that the Dulles Access Highway drivers will have their own flyover lanes, so they won't have to move right across all those lanes of toll road traffic to reach the current Beltway exits.

Could you please provide a summary of (or a link to) the newly enacted traffic laws in MD, and when they'll take effect? Thank you.

Here's a link to a story by The Post's transportation writer, Ashley Halsey, about the new laws in MD and DC that took effect Oct. 1:


I used to sit through a lot more traffic before my company moved 3 years ago, and I used to use my phone's Blutetooth headset and the voice dialing feature to dial the WTOP Traffic hotline if I saw a lane (or lanes) shut down or something like that, to tell Bob and my fellow commuters exactly where the blockage was. (Then again, I found that by the time I got to where a jam or disabled vehicle had been reported earlier, half the time it was gone by the time I got there, and alternate routes got a lot slower due to the report.)

When I was commuting in the greater New York area back in the 80s, I used to head for the highway that the radio reports identified as a trouble spot. Everyone listened to the radio reports, but the information in those days could be a bit stale by the time the radio reported it. So I'd get there and find the highway not only clear of any impediment but also traffic-free.

I do believe times have changed, and the traffic reports on the radio, or online or on TV are a lot more up to date -- in most cases.


Dear Dr. Gridlock, The situation at the FB/GWU metro stop is potentially hazardous. There is a single exit from the station and currently a single escalator operating. One morning very recently it was the case that the escalator was working, but folks for some reason were standing on both sides and not walking, so there was a substantial bottleneck as passengers coming from the trains pushed against one another to move toward the exit. It took no less than 10-15 minutes to get out of the station. What are authorities doing to manage the potential problems this kind of bottleneck can cause? On a related note, will metro EVER post signs that clearly state for folks to stand on the right and walk on the left? Thanks.

As of this minute, Metro's escalator report shows one street-mezzanine escalator out at Foggy Bottom. That whole replacement project -- replacing the three street escalators and installing a staircase and adding a canopy -- is supposed to be done by the end of the year.

I've always wondered why those people don't just exit at the Pentagon and go wait in the car park there. I've done that a few times. Just watch the clock and head to the highway on-ramp at 5:59 PM.

My theory is that many of them just do it out of habit. I've passed them waiting along the shoulders and then had a relatively smooth trip all the way in the general purpose lanes. I don't believe they would have gained time on me by waiting till 6.

Dr. Gridlock, I'm wondering if you might know the answer to a question about the new HOV ramps currently under construction at the Springfield Interchange. I sent an e-mail to the HOT lane project people and haven't gotten a reply, but before I e-mail Steve Titunik directly I thought I'd ask you. Do you know whether the new ramps will be tolled? I thought the HOT lanes were to begin/end between the Springfield Interchange and Braddock Road, slightly to the west of the Robinson Terminal, but someone recently told me they will actually begin/end just east of the Springfield Interchange, roughly where the two I-95 flyovers join/leave the Beltway. If that's correct, then there might be a toll to use the new ramps, and I have indeed noticed the toll-collection gantries in place just west of the main portion of the Springfield Interchange. I also noticed that the new signs on the Inner Loop near Van Dorn for the HOV ramps (which are mostly covered-up with plastic) have open spaces where it looks as though VMS signage for toll rates could be put in. So do you know what the story is? If I'm coming back from DC at night in the express lanes and I want to exit to the Beltway towards Van Dorn, will I be charged a toll (since I don't plan to get the switchable transponder)?

I'll double check on this, but my understanding is that when you go past the gantry for the HOT lanes you not only have to pay the toll if you're not carpooling but also may get a ticket. When the HOV lanes and ramps become high-occupancy toll, they'll be that way all the time.

But we do have some time to clarify this: There's more than a year of construction left before the HOT lanes system starts.

For the last two weekends, DDOT's Twitter feed announced that the weekend work ended early and Chain Bridge was open for Sunday traffic. Also, WTOP radio made the announcements as well. Hope this helps the commenter.

Thanks for that advice concerning the weekend closings schedule.

Easy way to remember: Federal standards provide that a flashing red light (regardless of whether it's a circle or an arrow) is the functional equivalent of a stop sign. Any driver faced with a flashing red light is required to come to a complete stop, yield to anyone to whom he is required to yield, and only go when the way is clear. Of course, the pedestrian who is skeptical that drivers will do this is a smart pedestrian. It's not much good to be "right" if you're "dead right."

Good advice. Thanks.

New Jersey "right turn to left roads" are called jughandles. They actually make sense and ease traffic congestion if done correctly.

Jughandles! Thanks! And here's a report about them from the Federal Highway Administration:


Used to live in NJ and loved the jughandle turns. Think of the roads like a major highway-- the left lane is the fast lane and keeps moving no matter what, while slower cars and turning backups always occur on the right. Pretty easy system, but I know I am biased because I grew up with it.

They are easy to use, once you get used to them, and they can have a postive effect on traffic. I think they'd be used sparingly in very built-up areas because they take up so much turf.

I can think of three of those in the DC area, all in Northern Virginia: (1) Soutbound US-1 at Fort Hunt Road. Traffic coming off the Beltway has to go around a right-side jughandle to turn left onto Fort Hunt Road. (2) Both eastbound and westbound Duke Street outside the mail sorting facility just east of Telegraph Road (I forget the name of the cross street; it may be Dove).

Sparingly, maybe, but still used.

It's the standard just about everywhere that the wide area just beyond a toll plaza has no lane markings. Consider the toll plazas you pass through if you take the I-95 route to New York. It's to allow traffic to sort itself back into the lanes via a reasonable process rather than artificially attempting to dictate who must go where. (Prior to the E-ZPass days, for example, I always went all the way to the right at toll plazas, where all the trucks go, because there were fewer vehicles there and I got through faster. But you can be sure I moved to the left after paying to get around the slow-accelerating trucks.)

Now, I understand that, and it makes sense. I can think of places that do have lane markings, and they can be an issue.

One place I'm thinking of: Southbound at the Delaware Memorial Bridge toll plaza. If you're in the EZ-Pass lanes on the left side, it's a difficult merge as the marked lanes condense.

I can't stand the traffic here anymore...I'm moving to Florida and get a little bungalow by the beach! We (and the politicians) just talk about problems but there are never any REAL solutions.

I sense anger. Don't drive angry!

Thanks so much for joining me today. We had a good range of topics, and of course, I didn't get to all of them, so I'll try to work with some for the Dr. Gridlock blog. Write to me any time at drgridlock@washpost.com.

I'll be away next Monday, but back on Oct. 17.

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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