Nov 08, 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.

Got a gripe about a traffic problem in the D.C. area, annoyed with Metro's escalators, or just looking to vent about something another travel did? You've made the correct turn on the information superhighway today by joining our chat.

Also, we've reached the point on the calendar when we really need to start planning the November-December holiday getaways. I'm planning to write our annual getaway guide for this Sunday's Post Commuter page, so if you've got questions, or want to offer suggestions for what we should include, let's hear from you.

Any update on whether Congress will extend the $230 pre-tax transit subsidy or will it be dropping to $120 at the end of 2010?

Nope. None at all. You see Lisa Rein's story on this in The Post?


Can you explain how Metro can say that delays continue for only one direction on a Metro line? I can't figure out how delays in one direction won't carry over into another direction.

You're probably thinking of a specific example, and maybe you could write back and name it. But I can think of times when trains break down, or there's a sick passenger, and that backs up a line in one direction.

If you're thinking that those slowed-down trains are eventually going to be needed in the other direction, you're right. For example, there are plenty of times that Orange Line riders at places like West Falls Church and Court House are finding big gaps between their morning trains because of a problem that affected service toward Vienna.

But it's not an automatic problem. Sometimes, rush hour just ends before the gap between trains shows up on the other side of the line. And other times, Metro can put in a "gap" train to fill the void.

I know Thanksgiving is still a few weeks away but. . . We are driving from Arlington to Northern New Jersey for the holiday. I am new to this as this is my first year not taking the train. We want to leave Wednesday night, maybe around 7 or 8? Do you think traffic will be terrible at that hour? Do you have any other suggestions for either a time to leave? or a road to travel (instead of 95 to the GSP)?

I'm going to have some advice about this on the Sunday Commuter page that I've gathered from my own experience, some expert advice and -- most important -- reader contributions, but I know you don't want to wait.

Yes, I think the traffic will be bad on Wednesday night. Many, many people have learned that the Thursday traffic is so bad, that they head out the night before. I think you'd probably be better off if you could leave earlier Wednesday, or Tuesday night. (Others want to comment?)

Here are some of the routes we've suggested heading Northeast:

-- Route 50 across the Bay Bridge, to Route 301 to state road 896 (Churchtown/Boyds Corner Road) to Route 1 and Route 13. From there, they can reach I-295 and the Delaware Memorial Bridge.

-- Baltimore Washington Parkway to I-695 north around the west side of Baltimore to I-83 north to I-81 north, just east of Harrisburg, Pa. Follow I-81 north, then take I-78 east into New Jersey.

-- From I-95 north, take Route 279 toward Newark, Del. Turn  right onto Iron Hill Road. At the end, turn left onto Chestnut Hill Road. Then turn right onto Route 896 (South College Avenue). I-95 will be a quarter-mile down the road. (This would avoid the Delaware Toll Plaza, where there's been a lot of congestion lately because of the construction of the high speed E-ZPass lanes.)

Any updates on the status of this road project? Is there a completion date in sight? Seems like they have been working on this bridge for an eternity.

The bridge project is behind schedule. The original timetable called for completion of the rebuilding in February 2010. Project managers say it has been delayed till spring 2011, because of unforeseen problems with the utilities in the area, ground conditions and bad weather.

This is a long shot, but does anyone happen to know who was being escorted by *eight* police motorcycles and two black SUV's this morning, exiting the outer loop at Route 1 around 9:00 this morning?

Just sharing this in case anyone happens to have heard.

Hi Dr. Gridlock, You said something last week that has stuck with me: "Everytime you ride Metro, Metro loses money. The transit system is subsidized by the region's taxpayers, many of whom don't ride Metro." So does that mean that when a record number of people ride Metro, Metro loses a record amount of money? I can't reconcile that in my head. If a metro ran from Vienna to New Carrollton, and no one rode it, I get that Metro would lose money on that trip. But if a train is at maximum capacity, how can Metro lose money? The train operator and energy cost the same if there are zero riders or 1500 riders. (Add station attendants for big crowds to ensure things are moving smoothly, whose salaries I would also think are offset by the number of riders.) Please help me to understand how big crowds cost Metro money.

Metro certainly wants many, many people to ride. That's what the transit authority is in business for. But also, looking at it strictly from a revenue perspective, Metro loses less money when the trains are full.

But on average, passenger revenue covers only about tw0-thirds of the cost of a Metrorail trip. The recovery rate is lower for Metrobus.

Hi, Dr. Gridlock, I'm glad I live only a half-block from a bus-stop in DC since I depend on the bus to get around, but I do wish the bus's recorded announcement as it approaches the stops on either side of the street weren't loud enough to wake me up in my bed at night and early in the morning, and to disturb me at other times. It's not just that I vaguely hear a sound -- I hear every word clearly, through my closed 4th-floor window, every time the bus goes by in either direction: It's "Friendship Heights" for the west-bound bus, and "Farragut Square" for the east-bound. The announcements are so loud, I hear them in the mornings over the leaf-blowers in my apartment building driveway, and those things are painfully loud -- so you know the bus announcements must be mega-decibels loud to be heard above their airplane-engine-like whirr. I know noise pollution isn't your focus, but please, help me out here: No possible purpose is served by those announcements, given that they're made only seconds before the bus reaches the stop, so it isn't like someone has time to hear the announcement, leave home and get to the stop in time to board.

That must be annoying. I'm not familiar with talking buses that tell people the destination. At least, they're not talking on the routes I've been on lately.

Just a guess (and I'll try to learn more): It's something meant to help people with visual disabilities who might be waiting at the bus stop?

So what's the latest on the Ohio Drive completion? When can we expect traffic to go back to "normal" in the area?

This is what I've got from the National Park Service:

The old traffic pattern has resumed, following months of reconstruction along Ohio Drive near the Lincoln Memorial. The morning rush pattern now has both inbound and outbound traffic with all lanes open. The afternoon rush pattern now has four lanes outbound. There will be some single lane closures during off peak hours on weekdays.

Road closures will continue at night on weeknights. From 7 p.m. to 5:30 a.m, workers will be milling asphalt off the roadway that leads toward the Kennedy Center. Night time road closings occur between 23rd Street and Independence Avenue and Rock Creek Parkway.

On some week nights, westbound Independence Avenue will be closed beyond 17th Street. Detour onto 15th Street or 17th Street.

The final asphalt and road markings are scheduled to be placed this coming weekend. That will mean total closure of the road from the Roosevelt Bridge over the Rock Creek Parkway to Independence Avenue at 23rd Street. Work for this weekend's closure will begin at 11 p.m. Friday, and should be done by 5:30 a.m. next Monday.

Hi Dr. Gridlock! So, Metro's now released data that shows ridership has been down the past several months - and claim it is because of the economy. Do you believe that's the true reason behind it? Frankly, I don't. Maybe a little bit, but are they really not taking into consideration the massive fare hike that they instituted? For many, it has now become more economical to drive than to take Metro. To make things worse, we're starting to think forward to Metro's next fiscal year, where I read they may raise fares again. When will it end? I know the transit system needs money but I feel they will continue to drive (pun intended!) away even more riders if they keep increasing the fares. What are your thoughts?

Metrorail ridership is about the same as it was at this point last year. Metrobus ridership has taken a big hit. I think that's a combination of the economy and the fare increase on Metrobus. (About 40 percent of Metrorail riders get their transit fares paid for by the federal government, and the federal work force hasn't taken much of a hit in the aftermath of the recession. The bus crowd tends to be different.)

I don't know whether the fares will go up next year. I know that Metro's financial staff has a goal of avoiding either fare increases or service cuts. We're only three months into Metro's fiscal year, but the outlook isn't brilliant.

You'll remember that last year, the emergency surcharge imposed in the winter wasn't part of the financial forecast. It's just hard to predict where we're going at this point.

I wish Metro would report what escalators are actually operating, as I often find escalators not running that are not reported as being out of service for repair.

Yes, I've found that too. The escalator/elevator outage page on Metro's Web site lags behind reality in some cases. The page is best at keeping up with scheduled work, but not so good at keeping up with emergency shutdowns.

So Metro is supposedly going to reanalyze all their escalators for safety? I'm not trying to be snarky but don't half of them already not work? Also I heard there is someone who is in charge of the escalators in general. If this is true, how does this person have a job? He has to be the most under-performing employee in the organization's history. The excuses would be laughable if there wasn't serious danger for metro's lack of standards.

We've got a few comments on the continuing escalator problems, which got just a bit more interesting on Oct. 30 when the brakes failed on an escalator at L'Enfant Plaza. Now, Metro is rechecking all the escalators.

Let me post one more of your comments.

Dr. Gridlock, Every time there is a post about yet another major issue for Metro regarding escalators someone comments on the blog post with "David Lacosse (Manager of Escalators in Metro) needs to be fired immediately." This sounds like a legitimate suggestion - given the huge amount of negative press the escalators bring the system, along with the general increased liability to the organization from chronically faulty infrastructure.

Strictly by the numbers we have seen escalators availability drop from 93.6% in 1st quarter of 2006, 93.7% in 2007, 93% in 2008, 90.5% in 2009 to 90.2% in May of 2010.

Can you provide any insight into how the Metro Board views the system's escalators and David Lacosse's management? Last week you posted a quote that from Mr. Lacosse basically saying he doesn't have the budget to maintain the escalators to a state of "nirvana" - is that the official view of the Metro Board?

I'm not a fan of firing people in these situations. Some new person gets brought in, announces that now things are going to be different, commissions a study, shakes up the rest of the management, then we slowly discover that things are about like they were before.

I don't believe the transit authority devotes enough money and attention to escalator and elevator maintenance. By "attention," I mean this: There's not a single problem with the Metro escalator system that we didn't know about 10 years ago. The escalators are part of the transportation system, yet scores of them are out of service every day.

I recently moved out of the Silver spring area, and am not treated to daily updates on the status of the purple line. I know the election had some bearing on this issue... What does the future hold for the purple line?

The re-election of Martin O'Malley means planning for a light rail version of the Purple Line will stay on track, but there are still plenty of questions about where the money is going to come from to finance it.

Bob Ehrlich would have prefered a rapid bus system instead.


Last January's SmarTrip changes were supposedly postponed until this January. Any news if Metro will make any changes in January 2011?

No, no word at all yet. I was hoping that a plan would have been shared with the public by now, since Metro got that one year reprieve from the IRS and it's about to expire.

The morning cattle drive getting through the main toll plaza towards 495/123/66 is insanity and clearly not working. What, if anything, is being done to fix this nightmare?

I've heard of no plans to change the setup there. The situation you're talking about near the Toll Plaza is caused by the High Occupancy Toll Lane construction project.. That was a difficult area to begin with, but the construction has worsened things over the past few months. (And it's going to go on a lot longer.)

Dr. Gridlock,

I need to ask if you (or anyone who can help) thinks it is humanly possible (or worth it) to get from FedEx Field to Verizon Center on a Sunday afternoon.

Oh, it will be going from the Redskins game (start 1pm) and to the Capitals game (start 5pm).

Oh, and, it is the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Any thoughts?? Possible??? Thanks.....(originally born and raised in area, residing in NC)

Yeah, I think you can do that. I'd probably do it on the Blue Line, using the Morgan Boulevard Station, about 9/10 of a mile south of FedEx. I'd get off at Metro Center and walk east to Verizon. It would be kind of tight. Hope there's no overtime at FedEx.

Thanks for the article in Sunday's Post re: Fairfax County Parkway construction. That section of 7100 between Dulles Toll Road and Burke Center Parkway has been a mess for years-and it seems to me in reading the article, that Popes Head Road isn't receiving the attention it should. Do you know if that traffic light will be adjusted any time soon? A.m and p.m rush hour is terrible as a result of the timing of that one light (and the ones at the toll road as well). Thanks.

Thanks, We're talking in part about this feature I did for the Sunday Commuter page:

I'll ask VDOT about the Popes Head Road light.

Travelers, I've got to wrap up now, but please do join me throughout the week on the Dr. Gridlock blog. I'll post something there about holiday getaway issues. Remember you can write to me anytime at

Stay safe out there, and join me again next Monday.


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.
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