Dr. Gridlock

Nov 11, 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. I'd like to hear from some Metro riders about the trip to work. Driving the highways looked very easy during the morning peak, but Metrorail had lots of track work.

We've also got some questions about weekend driving and requests for updates on projects.

Doesn't Metro realize that many of us don't work for the federal government, and have to get to work  Monday? Yet once again, key portions of the Red Line will be closed for the never-ending track work, making it nearly impossible for some of us to get to and from work on time. It's one thing when it's a three day weekend for just about everyone, but this weekend isn't. Metro's short-sighted planning amounts to "rider be damned."

Dana Hedgpeth wrote a posting on the Dr. Gridlock blog about riders' complaints this morning.

I think I've seen complaints from every line, though they were affected in different ways. The Red Line stations between Shady Grove and White Flint were closed for the long holiday weekend for track work.

Two things combining to create a bad experience for riders today: The fact that it's a federal holiday, and transit service is normally scaled back on holidays to reflect reduced ridership; plus the weekend track work program, which Metro extends to include some Monday holidays.

As today's riders know, not all holidays are created equal. Federal workers make up about a third of daily ridership. Private employees share many of those holidays, like Christmas and New Year's, but not all.

Metro knows this. It has stats showing that while Veterans Day ridership is way below that of a regular weekday, it's higher than on other holidays, like MLK Day, President's Day, Labor Day or Columbus Day.

Columbus Day is the one that comes closest, and when track work has been extended on that Monday, riders complain.

Another factor is that Veterans Day experiences greater morning and afternoon peaks on Metrorail than do other holidays, though it's still no where near the typical weekday peaks.

I've got another comment coming up from an Orange Line rider.

I understand that WMATA needs to fix their infrastructure, but shouldn't their first priority be actually moving people around? I waited 25 minutes at Foggy Bottom on Saturday for a Vienna-bound Orange Line train. Also, they were only running 6-car trains over the weekend - normally if they have these long headways, they run 8-car trains to ease the crowding. And the Orange Line work was between Stadium-Armory and Cheverly, so why couldn't they run extra trains from Vienna and turn every other one back at Stadium-Armory? I think they're using trackwork as an excuse to save money and run a minimal amount of service.

This comment reflects Saturday service. Today, Metro is running extra trains between Vienna and Stadium-Armory, but it's still not the equivalent of a regular weekday's service.

I think riders won't experience another Vets Day like this -- and that's only partly because Vets Day isn't always a Monday holiday. Metro officials have heard the complaints of riders and say they won't have another cutback like today's on future Veterans Days.

How can VDOT continue to raise daily fees on EZpass area Srpingfield VA to Tysons Corner and no one complains? Today they reached the tipping point. $9.70 for a short 10 mile ride. Price gouging! Shame on VDOT. Aren't others distrubed by this gradual and steady increase in 'dynamic' pricing? Today, drivers were exiting in droves when they saw $9.70 Springfield to Tysons! SHAME on VDOT.

This question came in last Monday, but I had to cancel that chat to participate in a tour of several new Silver Line stations.

I did respond in a Dr. Gridlock blog posting, and also wrote a story pegged to the one-year anniversary of the 495 Express Lanes, but I'd like to address the comment here on the chat, too, since that's where it originated.

VDOT doesn't set the toll rates. They are set by the operating company, Transurban. The company has two related goals on the tolls: One is to make money, to recoup the huge investment it made along with the Fluor company in building the four lanes. Another is to manage the flow of traffic so the lanes don't become congested and drivers can count on a reliable trip.

I say they're related because Transurban needs repeat customers. The biggest part of its market is local commuters. Transurban, which has leased the lanes from Virginia for most of this century, needs them to be repeat customers.

That means they must be satisfied customers. That in turn means they must believe they're getting value for their money.

If drivers perceive the toll rates as "price gouging," they won't come back.

And a technical point: To fit the common definition of "price gouging," the customer must have no realistic alternative but to pay the artificially inflated price.

That's not the case on the Beltway. A driver always can use the regular lanes for free.

Robert, Early 2014 doesn't cut it. When do you think it will be? Or should we suppress our design for a hard start date in favor of making sure the system is safe? ~Jim & Andy Pierobon, Leesburg, VA

In my Sunday column, I said the Silver Line and the D.C. streetcar line are nearly done, but neither has set an exact date to open in the new year. I also said it doesn't much matter in the long run.

Each project has a lot to prove. And yes, the most important thing is that they be safe.

The Silver Line is 97 percent done. Moving into the punch-list phase. But then, Metro takes over and starts a testing phase. That testing phase will include satisfying the Federal Transit Administration that the line is safe to open.

There's no way of telling down to the week how long that will take, but I'm thinking an early spring opening is likely.

Will the ICC ever be extended to U.S. 1? If so, when?

Yes, it's likely to open to Route 1 this spring. The related work on I-95 should be done then, too.

Most of the Intercounty Connector work has been done where no highway existed before, so the impact on traffic was less than on most other highway projects.

My main gripe is the rough paving where the lanes were shifted on I-95. I'm worried about that during bad winter weather. Be real careful.

Does WMATA hate Veterans Day? Are we stuck in some kind of Groundhog Day? This morning, just like it was on Veterans Day last year, Metro was a total mess. They know how many riders will be using the system, they can look at the figures from last year, and they can look at ridership numbers during the recent shutdown. Closing 3 stations and 20 minute headway's on a busy weekday is appalling. Their planning department should be brought to heel and made to explain such terrible foresight. How, and why they are allowed to get away with such complete disdain and contempt for passengers who are paying way over the odds already, is shocking. I can''t wait for my commute home tonight. Thanks Metro.

Metro plans these long weekend projects way in advance. Still, it's difficult to see from the description of the work what's so urgent it couldn't be put off for a less disruptive time.

The most urgent thing I see on the work list is track circuit replacement, which I hope is going to lead to restoration of automated operation on the trains, something that was suspended after the Red Line crash in 2009.

Metro has not announced a date for that -- I mean, not even a year -- but it's possible the Red Line will come back first, since it's the only line that operates solo for its entire route.

I'd like to drive from Silver Spring to Charleston, SC. arriving about 10:00pm Friday, November 15th. What's the best way to drive there and what time should I leave assuming I make minmal stops?

I think the trip will take about nine hours. (Or, it would if I were driving.)

From Silver Spring, I'd swing west around the Beltway. You probably wouldn't plan on using the 495 Express Lanes at that early hour, though I'd keep the radio on for the traffic reports.

The biggest problem I can see on your route is the early part, getting through Northern Virginia on I-95, but if you're able to leave Silver Spring between noon and 1 p.m. or so, you should be okay.

That stretch of I-95 has been particularly difficult on weekends because of the 95 Express Lanes construction project, which shuts the HOV lanes for most weekends this fall.

You could swing way west to I-66, I-81 and I-77, but I don't believe there's any real benefit on that. It's many more miles, and there can be congestion along that route, too.

And given the midday hours when you plan to travel, I wouldn't swing east to use Route 301 as an I-95 alternative to the Fredericksburg area. It's a valid alternative to I-95 in Northern Virginia during peak periods in the summer construction season, but I doubt it would help this Friday.

Why sometimes on Metro's on-the-platform 'next arrival' electronic message boards, do they sometimes list a train as having 2 cars, or more rarely 4 cars? I have figured out that a 2 car train is always an 8 car train, but don't know if there is any significance behind these odd numbers (the trains themselves that arrive are always 6 or 8 trains).

Yes, it's been years since we had anything less than a six-car train. But I've seen similar messages on the boards. It's not the only misreading produced by the passenger information displays, which are based on old technology and need to be completely replaced.

Why is the city making it so difficult to read these timers? With the large snorkle style blinders, and angleing them so they can only be seen from a particular perspective, it seems they are harder to read than they should be.

I've seen some angled away from pedestrians intent on using the crosswalk, but that's not the way they're supposed to be placed. And you could use the 311 call center to report such a problem.

The District spent a great deal of time and money installing the new style countdown timers.

I was stuck in Thursday's Red Line mess. After waiting on a packed platform for 30 minutes without being able to board a train, I left and took a cab to work. When I emailed about the possibility of a refund, the response stated that "Metro is prohibited from providing fare adjustments due to delays". Do you know who (or what) "prohibits" Metro from issuing refunds? I asked WMATA but haven't gotten a response.

I think it's in the Metro Compact, the controlling document for the transit authority that was agreed to by the governments of DC, Maryland and Virginia. But I don't know the thinking behind that. rule.

Dr. Gridlock, if you ever decide to start compiling a list of the "10 Dumbest...", I suggest including: Drivers to have more money than brains and who don't read their owners manual, but drive with their fog lights on year-round. Particularly annoying are those luxury car owners who have the extra bright rear light (intended for parking on narrow European streets) that blind you when they fog lights are on. Serial bicyclists violators who are both apparently both blind and illiterate who continue to bicycle on the GW Parkway endangering motorists, their passengers, and vehicles. Left lane huggers who get in the left lane of I-95 near Boston and stay there all the way to Ft. Lauderdale out of fear of missing their left turn. Municipalities that eagerly raise revenue with speed and stop-light cameras but who can't spend any money to replace a two-century old system of painting (scientifically unjustified) fixed speed limits on wooden signs oblivious of traffic, weather, and road conditions.

Looks like you're on your way to a Top 100 list.

(By the way, thinking of lists, some of you will recall that I requested nominations for local traffic congestion mysteries. Thanks for all the responses to that. We got plenty to work with. The INRIX travel data company is working on the list, trying to solve the mysteries, and we hope to have something about this in The Post soon.)


Dr. G, As you and others recognize, the move by one Loudoun County Tea Party supervisor to move the Dulles Airport Metro station so far away as to make it unusable to those arriving or departing on long-haul flights toting massive luggage and (if arriving) sleep-deprived families and spouses must rank as one of the great stupidities of recent time. What are the odds of getting this decision overturned and putting the station where in belongs -- in the airport?

While I completely agree that the location decision is a mistake that will come back to haunt the airport and the Silver Line riders, I don't see it getting overturned at this point -- primarily because there was a lot more political juice behind the change than one supervisor.

It was a short-term political winner. But a future generation will make some political hay with outraged cries of, "Who's responsible for this?"

In the last few months I've been watching a lot of road renovation around Washington Circle, where Pennsylvania Avenue, New Hampshire Avenue, K Street, and 23rd streets merge, and which also affects 22nd St., 24th St., and access to and from the Whitehurst Freeway. A number of new traffic lights have been installed around the circle, although they aren't functioning yet. There are already traffic lights at three points around the circle, and it is a major chokepoint for traffic in that part of town, especially during the evening rush. I'm trying to imagine what additional traffic lights will do. Do you know anything about what's coming?

I think this is all part of the New Hampshire Avenue Streetscape Project, which began late last year and is in a very active phase around Washington Circle. The project is scheduled to be done in the spring.

I know a key goal is to improve pedestrian safety throughout the circle and think that's why you're seeing those additional traffic signals.


Thanks for joining me today. I appreciate getting so many questions during a holiday chat.

Stay safe out there, and rejoin me next Monday. (And let me know if you have any issues we should discuss about the upcoming holiday getaways.)


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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