Dr. Gridlock

Oct 14, 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, to a holiday edition of the transportation talk. I'm going to start with the questions and comments that would most benefit from your knowledge of local scenes. We've got both traffic and transit issues in the mailbag.

Is Beltway close to DC?

This question came in last Thursday, and I think was oriented to the hyped up non-event in which truckers were supposedly going to shutdown traffic on the Capital Beltway.

My sense was that the people trying to publicize the trucker parade were unclear about the location of the Beltway and the potential impact on traffic within the District of Columbia, which appeared to be their real target.

Anyway, it certainly looked like most truckers had better things to do. Anybody notice an effect on Friday?

The last few times I drove to Union Station The receiving area is clogged, thanks to recent renovation which eleminated lanes for cars. I now go through backside and park the car in the garage and walk to the platform to meet our pregnant daughter coming from NYC. What a hassle. Have or any of your reader found a better solution? Thanks KG

I've heard from other drivers who are not pleased with the new traffic pattern in front of the station. Me, I'm not pleased with the traffic pattern on Mass Ave in front of the station plaza. Eastbound drivers are trying to use three lanes, rather than the designated two, to enter the station.

I usually have bad things to say about Metro, but I am happy to report the Rosslyn elevators and second entrance are finally open. I took an elevator this morning and it worked very well. Lets hope that they don't have the same reliability as the new Metro escalators.

This note came in last week, just after the new entrance opened at the Rosslyn station. Jonathan O'Connell of Capital Business has been writing about the role Metro stations are playing in local development.

Developers today care deeply about being within a quarter mile of a train station, a model for transit oriented development -- as long as your transit system can support that increase in riders.

The elevators and escalators are an essential part of the people-moving system.

Metro says escalator reliability has improved. The system-wide stats support that. But many riders don't use the whole system. They care about a couple of stations. So the status of the escalators at L'Enfant Plaza or Gallery Place or Pentagon is a lot more important to them than the overall percentage of escalators in service.



Dear Dr. Gridlock; please settle this bet. Coming from Whitehurst Freeway onto K Street at 20th and K. Can you turn left? There is two straight arrows with the word ONLY by each one (in both lanes) and a sign on the right post that says 'no turns'. My friend says you can turn left when a lighted sign on the left post (that says no left turn) isn't lit. I think you aren't allowed to turn left there at any time. Your call?

Today, the Internet settles most bets. Back in the day when I started working for newspapers, the city desk frequently got calls from guys in bars who wanted us to settle their disputes.

Have one guy state the question. Give him the answer he favors. Then have him put the other guy on the phone. Give him the answer that he favors.

Get off the phone and let them fight it out.

These days, I have to act responsibly: I don't want anyone taking my word on what to do at an intersection I haven't observed in a while, and I have a feeling the signage and signals at 20th and K may have changed. So other readers may want to settle this bet.

But here's one thing: That sign on the right that says "No Turns" may refer to traffic on K Street's service road, rather than in the main through lanes.

If, as the commenter says, there are arrows with the word ONLY by each, that's what I'd act on.

What do you think will be open for passengers first: The Silver Line or the DC Streetcar?

Well, that might actually make a good bet. Neither the Silver Line nor the DC streetcar on H Street/Benning Road has an exact target date. The Silver Line is set to open early next year. Last I heard, the District Department of Transportation was still opening to open the streetcar by the end of this year, but that's getting kind of tight.

Both these transit projects need testing and safety reviews before an exact date gets set.

For the sake of debate, I'll go with the DC streetcar opening first, because it's a simpler operation than the Silver Line.

We are moving to Edgewater, Maryland next month. I work in Pentagon City. What route would you suggest? I think it would be fastest to take (from Pentagon City) 295 up to Route 50 and over to Edgewater, while my husband thinks I’m better off going south to hit the Beltway up to 50. I know traffic has worsened in DC and close to 295…any suggestions? Thank you very much!!

Well, my main suggestion is to try them both, doing each for a full week.

My guess is that you will settle on 295 via the 14th Street and 11th Street bridges from Pentagon City.

There are a few other options you could explore on the Maryland side, like Suitland Parkway, Pennsylvania Avenue, Route 2, Route 214 into Edgewater.

It would be worth your while to check traffic reports -- online or on the radio, before leaving Pentagon City, so you'll know if some traffic jam has made one option better than another on a particular day.


I tend to drive the beltway a lot at night and in the overnight hours, and have noticed that the off-peak tolls for the Beltway Express Lanes continue to go up. The lowest toll for the full length still doesn't go below $2.05, but I have noticed that see that low of a toll is becomming a rare occurrance. While I can't see the traffic over the full length of the lanes, I don't really see the demand to warrant these increasing tolls. Why would a company increase the cost of something that no one is buying? Overnight tolls for the lanes should be miniscule (5 cents a mile or less). Why are the tolls so high when there's absolutely no one on the road?

I'm going to do a posting on the Dr. Gridlock blog with the latest quarterly traffic report from Transurban, the company that operates the express lanes.

The stats show traffic volumes rising.

Transurban gets to set the toll rates. Transurban wants to make money over the course of a 75 year lease on the lanes.

I can't think of a good reason Transurban would set the rates so that the company did not make money. In other words, if the company's best price point at some hour was 5 cents a mile, I think they'd do that. If it was $2, I think they would do that.

One of the factors in making money over the course of a long lease will be that drivers think they're getting a fair deal, and getting their money's worth out of the drive. If drivers don't get those things, they won't use the lanes and Transurban won't make money.


Who is responsible for the road and who do I complain about traffic at Union Station KG

There are maybe half a dozen agencies involved in operating Union Station, but it was the District Department of Transportation that did the work in the plaza.

Was driving on a long street in the rain last week and came upon a car going erratic and slow. Up close, the car was completely fogged up and the outline of an elderly female driver clutching the steering wheel appeared. With the laws about driving and using a cell phone, I was reluctant to call for help in case I'd get a ticket for using my phone while driving and didn't want to stop to do it and lose her. What should I have done? I didn't do anything and it's been bugging me.

In Maryland, calls to law enforcement agencies are exempt from the cell phone law.

(If there were any question about helping an elderly driver in trouble while risking a ticket, I'd risk the ticket.)

Here is the no left turn sign in question, which would appear to indicate "No Left Turn" only when it is lit: http://goo.gl/mKBtIX

I saw, but it looks like the image date is May 2011. The commenter seemed to be describing something different with the arrows and the ONLYS.

(The Google street view is often very helpful. If I'm going to a new place, I like to check what the last couple of turns look like.)

I've been riding the metro nearly every day since late 2006, my question is about consistency of trains at stations (size, frequency). I try and get to Ballston station at the same time every morning (8:10), but despite being there at the same time every day the train situation seems to vary widely. I know that there are backups, and I'm not expecting to get on a scheduled train at the same time every morning but it just seems there's a randomness to what I see on the next-train board. Sometimes it seems there are alternating 6- and 8-car trains every three-to-four minutes, others only 6-car trains with 7+ minutes gaps, and still other times three 8-car trains in a row only a minute or two apart (and everything in between). Is there any reason for this seeming inconsistency in train size/time? Even if there's a slight variance in train gaps it seems it should be roughly consistent.

I think what you're seeing around 8:10 is the effect of the morning rush on the Orange Line schedule. As the trains from New Carrollton go through the crowded stations in downtown DC, some take longer than other to unload and load passengers. By the time the trains get to Vienna and turnback, the schedule is often messed up. That will affect the gaps between trains. Probably also affects which of the trains you see is six cars and which is eight, though there could be other issues there.

You're going to see another change when the Silver Line opens. I think you'll find it easier to board the Silver Line trains, at least at first, till ridership builds up. Meanwhile, the number of Orange Line trains will be cut back.

And here is a "No turns from main roadway" sign at 21st and K that seems to contradict the temporality of the previous no left turn sign: http://goo.gl/kBfQoK

I think the road rules could be different at 21st -- one way southbound -- and 20th, which is one-way northbound.

At 21st, you wouldn't want K Street drivers from the main lanes turning right and cutting across the service road traffic. And of course, you wouldn't want them turning left into a one way street.

(Again, I haven't checked out those K Street intersections recently, so don't you drivers be making decisions based on my speculation about signs.)

Has there been any more consideration of Phase II of the Silver Line project and the precise location of the Dulles Airport station? The recent WAPO article about the changes in bus schedules noted the need for the proposed Silver Line station to present a direct connection to the airport. Potential riders going to the airport are not going to ride if they have to transfer their baggage to another for of transportation (particually lugging up bus stairs) even for a 2 minute ride. Why would anyone consider an Dulles Airport station away from the terminal as a "cost savings" measure? They're spending billions already on this white elephant, at least they could do it right.

I've written many times that I think the decision on locating the airport station far from the airport terminal was a mistake.

Today's politicians get some political advantage from showing they're tough about saving money. They're not going to be hauling bags between the terminal and the station after the station opens a few years from now.

This is a false economy on a project of this scale.

PS: I've written some things lately about planned changes in bus schedules regarding the Silver Line. The most recent thing was about a DC proposal to end the Metrobus 5A route between L'Enfant Plaza and Dulles Airport when the Silver Line's first phase opens to Wiehle Avenue in the Reston area.

The District's idea is that air travelers would take the Silver Line to its terminal, then board a bus for the airport. I think this also is misguided, because it's inconvenient. But it's a separate issue from the location of the Dulles Airport Silver Line station.

Hello! I need to to catch an international flight leaving from Newark at 2:00 on December 25th. Working back from noon, is four or five hours enough from Gaithersburg? Or should I leave the driving to Amtrak?

I was thinking about Amtrak vs. driving recently when I was sitting on the platform at Newark waiting for an Amtrak Regional that was an hour an a half late.

Generally, I've had very good experience with Amtrak, but I'd hate to see you get stuck when you had a plane to catch. So on Christmas Day, when there's likely to be very little traffic. I'd drive.

And as many readers know from my previous comments on catching planes, I'm very conservative with my answers. I'd leave five hours for the drive, even though it's likely to take less time on Christmas Day, if the weather is good.

Thanks for joining me today. I have to break away now for a couple of missions, including writing up that blog posting about the HOT lanes usage I mentioned earlier in the chat.

Please join me again next Monday, and write to me at drgridlock@washpost.com.

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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