The Washington Post

Oct 18, 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. Today he discussed blocking the box, four way stops, Metro escalators and more.

Welcome, travelers. I was off last week, for a trip up to Maine. Picked up some things I hope to share with you when we do our annual preview for the November/December holiday getaway period. But I see you have some more immediate concerns. Let's get to them.

Last week was a disaster with the new traffic patterns. Are they seriously going to have this disrupted for two years?

A few weeks ago, I was talking to one of the construction managers on the HOT lanes project -- this was just after touring the Beltway/I-66 construction zone. It seemed amazingly large and complicated, so I asked if it was the biggest construction challenge on the HOT lanes project.

He scoffed. He said it paled in comparison to the work in Tysons Corner, particularly at Route 123, where the HOT lanes and Dulles Metrorail projects intersect.

VDOT officials refer to that area as ground zero for Northern Virginia construction disruptions.

Many of you have watched the rapid evolution of that zone. The changes that affect travelers are coming quite rapidly now, and heading toward a peak of impact on Routes 123 and 7. Yes, it will continue for about two years.

I think I should do a Commuter page feature for The Post Metro section sometime in the next few weeks to provide everybody with updates.

Chatters, please share your concerns about the impact of these big projects.


Any idea when Metro trains will be placed back in automatic?

No. We knew that it would be a while after Metro received the report from the NTSB on the Red Line accident investigation. Metro officials said they would carefully review the NTSB recommendations and implement them. They they would assure themselves that the signal system was safe, and protected from the signal problem that led to the June 2009 crash.

I've heard no prediction on when that process will be complete. Are you asking because you feel rattled around by the manual control of trains? You think the operators have gotten any better at driving during the past year?


Will Constitution be open WB during the evening commute?

No word on that yet from the District Department of Transportation.

This morning, westbound Constitution remained  closed between 9th and 12th streets, but the eastbound lanes were open.

DDOT was suggesting that drivers use Pennsylvania or Independence as alternatives.

We'll update the status on the Dr. Gridlock blog.

I just got a car for my two daughters and gave them a copy of an old Dr. Gridlock article dated Oct. 7, 1993 that is titled "Keeping Things Safe After the Accident." This useful article describes requirements for drivers in DC, Maryland and Virginia after an accident has taken place. For example, "what information is required by law to be exchanged at the scene of an accident?" and "if there is an injury, do the police have to be called?" I bet many of your readers don't realize the answers are not the same in the three jurisdictions. Since the information is 17 years old I would like to have it updated in a future Dr. Gridlock article.

How in the world did you preserve that column all these years? We're certainly pleased to hear that you did. That column was written by my predecessor, Ron Shaffer. It predates our online presence for a few years, so I had to go back in The Post's internal archives to find it.

I'll do what you suggest and review the information, with any necessary updates, in an upcoming column. I do think much of it is still true.

For the group, Ron noted this anti-gridlock bit of information:

Q: If there is no injury, should the cars be moved out of the way of traffic?

A: Maryland: Yes. District: Yes. Virginia: Yes, but drivers are required to stop as close to the scene as possible without impeding traffic.

Then he went on to describe some of the differences in what the DC area jurisdictions recommend or require after an accident. The key issue, of course, is whether anyone is injured.

At Nicholson Lane and Rockville Pike in North Bethesda, the lanes shift more than one full lane's width while crossing Rockville Pike eastbound. Nicholson Lane is not angled in the direction of the shift, and anyone unfamiliar with that intersection will probably (and often does) drift into the lane to the left, either heading directly into the WESTBOUND lanes, or forcing other drivers into head-on traffic. I've submitted service requests with the State Highway Administration and the county DOT, and neither seems to be taking it very seriously. Can you help me get them interested, or at least tell me which one should be responsible for the markings at that intersection? Is it the county, since technically you're driving on Nicholson, or is the the state, since you are on a state route while you are crossing it?

I'm familiar with that intersection more as a Pike driver than as a Lane driver, so let me go over and take a look. You're thinking there should be guide lines painted on the pavement to help drivers steer correctly across the Pike?

I was just looking at a Google satellite view and can see why you'd be concerned about that.

I'm not sure whether Maryland or Montgomery County would have the final say, but imagine they'd work together on something like that.

If anything, Metro is getting worse at driving these things. I usually do not have any sort of motion sickness, but I keep finding myself nauseous on these rides. I wonder if the herky jerky driving style is starting to wear out machinery faster, causing... well, more herky jerky driving.

Yes, Metro officials acknowledge way back on 2009 that manual control would lead to more wear and tear on the rail cars -- as well as on the passengers. The trains were designed to run automatically. Humans aren't as good at stopping and starting. The braking equipment can get worn down more quickly this way. The wheels can require rounding more quickly.

Despite that, Metro has kept the trains in manual control because officials think it's still safer than returning them to the automatic control that displayed its flaws in the Red Line crash.

Many people write to me to say they experience the same symptoms that you describe.

Dr. Gridlock: Last week, again, Metro's Red Line single-tracked and otherwise ran really slowly from DC to Rockville. I almost missed the last bus home. If I had missed it, taxi fare would be about $15. If there's no Metro alert in my e-mail (so I can't reasonably expect a big delay), will Metro reimburse this cost if its delay causes me to miss my ride home?

I'm sure all of our fellow Metro riders realize how quickly the transit system would run out of money if it compensated riders for delays.

The most frequent version of your question that I hear is:  The rush hour service wasn't as frequent as scheduled. Will Metro give me back the extra money I paid for the peak fare?

Again, as if you hadn't guessed, the answer is no. (Does anyone know of a transit system that routinely compensates riders for slower than normal service?)

I had my own complaint this morning about the lack of alerts: There was a switch problem on the Red Line between NY Ave and Rhode Island Ave. It slowed service and jammed the trains and platforms, but I saw no advisories from Metro about it.

Scheduled maintenance is easier to track. At the end of each month, Metro announces its plans for the coming month. We post that information on the Dr. Gridlock blog and then repeat it periodically.


The new-ish traffic light on Duke St/Little River Tpk between Beauregard and 395 seems to slow down rather than improve traffic flow on that busy road. It's worse than ever on weekends. Can something be done?

I'll ask VDOT about it.  Signals frequently need adjustments, especially if they've recently been installed. And the timing should be adjusted to account for the difference between weekday and weekend traffic patterns.

But I should also note that many times, and in all jurisdictions, the signal timers will note that they can't manufacture time. If they add green for drivers in one direction, they've got to take it away from drivers in another direction. Also common: Pedestrian calls on signals can throw off the traffic flow.

Have there been any new stats released for Metro since the fare increases? Are they getting the revenue, ridership that they expected even with the fare increases? I ask because I feel like Orange line trains aren't as crowded as they used to be, I wonder if the fare increases pushed people back into their cars...

I haven't seen revenue estimates since the fare increases were fully implemented in August. Metro staffers do report such figures to the Metro board each month. But it's a bit difficult to get a sense of how things are going until a few months have gone by.

I thought the fare increase most likely to change some people's habits was the peak of the peak fare. That might get some people to ride earlier or later. But the trend in past fare increases is that ridership goes up.

I think economists would say that Metro is inelastic when it comes to fare increases. Keep in mind how many thousands of riders get government subsidies to cover the fares.

Who is responsible for the debacle now eastbound (morning, right after toll plaza) AND westbound (evening, before toll plaza)? They've created a disaster in both directions with their new lane configurations (two lanes to the airport westbound, with thru lanes disappearing without signs or lane markings? BRILLIANT!). I expect this will continue until 2015-2020, as per VA's usual pace with projects? MWAA and/or HOT - thanks for the privilege of paying for additional 15-20 minute delays each way.

If I'm picturing this correctly with you, this is work for the HOT lanes project, tying in with the Beltway. It's going to continue till late 2012. All the ramps connecting with the Beltway are being reconfigured to accommodate the new Betlway lanes.


Are there any studies being done on I-95 in the Woodbridge-Dumfries region? It seems like that area would greatly benefit from more mass transit.

VRE would like to add more service in the I-95 corridor. Nothing likely to happen with Metrorail in our lifetimes. Virginia leaders would like to add HOT lanes to I-95 and use them as a pathway for enhancing bus services.

Dr. G: I just want to say that you were remarkably restrained replying to the writer of the nasty letter about work zone cameras that was published in the print edition last week. I loved the way he displayed his ignorance by saying you "hide behind a stupid nickname" when, of course, your full name is all over the column, blog and web site. I know I couldn't have kept my temper when confronted with such foolishness, but you are obviously a better man.

Gives me a chance to say to you all that I appreciate everybody who goes to the trouble of reading the columns and blog postings, taking them seriously and responding to them. There's no requirement that people agree with me. I like to get into back-and-forths with readers.

Of course, I know what you mean about that particular letter. As I recall, it mentioned something about my left of center views. That was interesting, because I hadn't thought of issues like speeding in work zones as being part of the political spectrum.

The primary reason for that new light the prior user mentioned had to do with pedestrian traffic between the two shopping centers on either side of 236. It's at the corner of 236 and Oasis Drive. There has always been a crosswalk there, but with no lights. The crosswalk also has a bus shelter on the south side. It's never been a safe pedestrian crossing. There's no politically correct way to note the other issue, so I'll just say it--that crossing also sees a high number of immigrants who seem unaccustomed to the high speed at which vehicles travel in that area, especially with the I-395 interchange, and so there was serious concern about whether someone was going to get pancaked (especially at night). All of these considerations were major reasons why the new light was put up. Improving traffic flow had nothing to do with it, unfortunately. A pedestrian overpass would have been better, but it also would have been too expensive.

Thanks very much for describing the scene. Pedestrian safety, of course, is a prominent issue all across the DC region. Traffic engineers continue to test new strategies, and they're not always popular with drivers, because -- no matter what the strategy -- they involve getting people to slow down.

Have you heard anything about VDOT re-timing the light at Oak St. and Gallows Rd.? I know they don't want to promote people using that route around the Idylwood bridge closure, but the reality is that the cars are taking it anyway and back up quite a bit during the afternoon and only 4-5 get through the light, which affects the residents of this street anyway.

This has to do with the Oak Street bridge reopening and the Idylwood Road bridge closing as part of the HOT lanes project, right? (Idylwood Road is supposed to reopen late this year or early next.)

I recall that VDOT was concerned about the impact of traffic on the local residents during this detour period and that the signal timing was part of the package.

This is the sort of thing that the HOT lanes project managers monitor, and they do make adjustments. (But I'm not sure if they'll want to adjust by making it easier for drivers to do what they were trying to discourage in the first place.)

How long is that stretch of the left lane on 50 West going to be unavailable?

Not sure. Will check.

Thanks for joining me again this week, and please come back next Monday. In the meantime, stay safe in your travels.

Write to me anytime at


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 Dr. Gridlock blog, as well as in the Metro section of The Washington Post.
Recent Chats
  • Next: