Nov 15, 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.

Welcome, travelers. We'll be talking about holiday routes, Metro salaries, the ceiling at Farragut North and many other topics on the local travel scene.

I read your holiday travel guide yesterday. However, why didn't you include any alternates for traveling south on I-95? I saw avoiding I-81, but nothing about 95. Is it because there are no alternates?

Thanks for checking out the annual holiday getaway guide on Sunday's Commuter page. We can't squeeze any more maps and text onto that page. I've been going with the routes that I get the most questions about, then following up with more discussions about routes on the Dr. Gridlock blog. For example, I still need to discuss potential alternatives for those heading west through Pennsylvania that avoid Breezewood.

About 95 south: I must say, I haven't got a really good alternative. Some travelers recommend going west on I-66, then picking up Route 28 to Route 17 and back onto 95. Others say that's a waste of time.

On the east side, some drivers like taking 301 south across the Potomac and reconnecting south of the DC region with 95.

Would others like to comment on that?

Here's the online version of the getaway guide:

Inquiring minds want to know: 1) Why are the Red Line trains going so slowly for the first mile or so when heading north out of Friendship Heights? 2) When is the ceiling at Farragut North going to be fixed? Trains have only been going about 10 MPH when leaving Friendship Heights, going north, for about two or three months. And the ceiling at Farragut North was supposed to have been fixed in a matter of weeks -- about a year ago. What gives?

Several weeks ago, Metro discovered a problem along the track bed near Friendship Heights that needs fixing. Till Metro can assemble the parts and schedule the work, trains are ordered to slow down in that section. (I don't know why operators don't announce this.)

Farragut North: Michaelangelo would have had that ceiling done by now. I think Metro workers discovered problems they hadn't anticipated that relate to the water pipe system above the ceiling. That required some inter-agency coordination. That's going well, isn't it?

Everyone always talks about either service cuts, or price hikes. Why are the salaries of Metro's employees not being analyzed? I remember stories in the past about bus drivers making six figures with overtime, which for an unskilled profession sounds laughably high. Obviously this not something Metro would suggest, but from the awful performance history, I can't imagine there is anyone who is really irreplaceable.

Metro has been cutting its personnel for several years now and plans to do so again this year. The more jobs it cuts, the more opportunities there are for overtime among bus drivers, train operators and escalator mechanics. That boosts their income.

It still doesn't leave Metro without a budget shortfall. We could have one again this year.

Hello - Has Metro announced any additional bus service to the airports (the 5A and B30 buses to Dulles and BWI, respectively) as they have in years passed for the Thanksgiving weekend? Thanks for the info.

Good question, and I'll check. But no, there haven't been announcements yet on the 5A and B30. As you note, extra service was added last year around the holidays.

What is one supposed to make of a mass transportation company that cannot even be trusted to safely and effectively operate its elevators and escalators? This long-time rider suspects that conspicuously malfunctioning escalators are only the most recent sign of the system's more general decline. (In light of recent revelations, is anyone reassured that the fatal collision of last year will not be repeated?) Should Metro be expanding its routes when it cannot seem to effectively operate its existing lines?

I think that's a fair question. Metro officials have focused intensely on making sure there's no repeat of the Red Line crash. Notice that the trains still are not back under automatic control, since the controls were a major issue in the crash.

Meanwhile, I think Metro needs to consider its elevators and escalators as part of its basic transportation system. Metro has known about its escalator problems for more than a decade, yet it hasn't given enough attention to that side of the operation.


If driving on an interstate and you see an aggressive driver or somebody driving dangerously, is it worth trying to report that person to the State Police? There are times where I've seen people drive so carelessly that I know if a trooper were around they'd nail the driver. But what would reporting something like that do, if anything?

Here's something from the Maryland State Police, and my recollection is that it's the same for Virginia State Police:

"Make note of the highway that you are traveling, the direction of travel, color, make and license number of the vehicle. If you have a cell phone dial #77 and this will connect you with the nearest state police barrack. Give the dispatcher your name, phone number and the above information. Follow the directions of the dispatcher and a lookout will be given for the vehicle. Do NOT attempt to keep up with a reckless driver - it will only put your safety in jeopardy."

So, we learn in today's paper that the bulk of Metro's escalators have a poor design that makes them susceptible to problems and hard to maintain. Why don't they just replace them with newer, better-designed models? Instead of throwing all this money into trying to keep the bad escalators running, wouldn't it be smarter in the long run to just replace them? They often completely strip out the escalators when they do those overhauls and take it down to the bare concrete. It seems like it ought to be possible at that stage to install new escalators at that point.

Ann Scott Tyson, who has been covering the escalator issues all year, had a really interesting story in today's Post about the problems with the Westinghouse model that makes up about 80 percent of Metro's escalators:

It must occur to many readers that what needs to happen is a complete replacement of those escalators. But we're talking about 80 percent of 588 escalators. It's not like  replacing the escalators in a Macy's store. This would be a huge investment over many years. There's no money to do that -- unless maybe they decide not to replace the 300 oldest rail cars.


Any word on the delayed changes to SmarTrip that are supposed to begin in January?

No, there isn't. Last year, Metro announced the planned changes -- the thing with the SmartBenefit "purses" -- on Oct. 27, and we all went nuts because employees and their personnel departments were having trouble figuring out what to do and implement the changes in time. Then in December, Metro announced that the IRS had granted a one year extension, till January 2011.

Metro seems to be cutting things even tighter this year.

At the staircase next to the escalator to the platform that is being repaired (with the big black box), this is also contributing to the mess: The turnstiles/gates that lead you to the stairwell next to the elevator are set in the opposite direction of how people navigate the staircase - for instance, if you are coming from the platform up to get out, folks head to the right to walk up, but the turnstiles are set so you have to cross at the top of the stairs to the left to get out of the station, thereby crossing in front of those who are trying to rush down the stairs to get around the big black construction box to get to their train. A simple swap of the in/out flow at the gates might ease this somewhat, at least until construction is done.

One of many places where people have to mix in what appears to me to be a counterproductive way.

(The commenter is refering to what a letter-writer and I had to say in my Sunday column about the escalator/elevator situation at Union Station: )

As recently as 6-8 years ago, it was an under-50 minute trip at 6 a.m. or earlier from Montgomery Village Ave/I-270 to the Watergate. It's been 1 hour 30 minutes/1 hour 40 minutes (at best) for at least a year or two. And the drive from the I-495 split onto the access road to the merge at Clara Barton Parkway it's easily 15-20 minutes if you hit the access road after 6:30 (for a half mile or so trip). So question...just a comment.

The western side of the Beltway in Maryland is a real problem. There's plenty of action on the Virginia side, with the HOT lanes construction, but nothing comparable in Maryland. There's a study, but you won't seen any action for years. No money.

I think people -- voters -- are less demanding about transportation solutions than they were earlier in this decade, but I can't explain why.

I witness another escalator accident on Saturday evening, but don't see anything about it reported in the Post. At Vienna Metro, a large crowd was heading up from the trains to the exit when the escalator suddenly reversed direction. I was waiting in line to get on the escalator and jumped to the side when I realized everyone was heading back towards me. People starting yelling, "Back up! Back up!" because the crowd waiting to board needed to get out of the way, fast. The escalator was moving slowly enough that it didn't look like anyone lost balance, but there was potential for a lot of people to get hurt. It was a scary situation.

I think you're the first person reporting what sounds like a very serious incident. Please tell us more (exact time, for example) and we'll pursue it. Send us a message at: or

I've been driving on Route 66 for almost a year now and am irritated daily by HOV "violators." Based on my non-scientific sample, anywhere from 1 in 4 cars to 1 in 2 cars are single occupancy. I realize there are exceptions to the HOV restriction, but all these cars can't be taxi cabs, clean fuel, Dulles patrons, law enforcement, or motorcycles. I recall a Post article two or three years ago where folks basically taunted the law and said "they'd do it again and again." I don't get it - don't these folks have any respect for the law? I see state police constantly on ramps (thank you!), but I'd welcome a traffic jam every now and then if police would simply be inside the Beltway and pull violators over. I'm sure this has already been discussed at great length , so what are the solutions?

None of the HOV systems work well if the HOV lanes are not separated from the general traffic by barriers. Many people won't obey a traffic law if they think they can get away with disobeying it. (In my job, I do things like stand at intersections and watch how many drivers come to a full stop -- or at least almost a stop -- for Stop signs or when they're making right turns on red. It's getting scary.)

I think Virginia state police do try to enforce the HOV rules, but the number of violators overwhelms enforcement. By the way, the police know that when they do enforcement, they not only create traffic jams that defeat the intent of having HOV lanes, they also create a dangerous situation for all drivers because of the resulting congestion and braking.

I understand the need to block lanes on 123 North (and South) to do things on the 3 billion simultaneous projects they're working on there, but currently the left lane is removed on 123N and the only thing there in that lane is the sign that tells you the lane has been removed. If that was a low-traffic area it wouldn't matter, but given the volume that passes through there, I'd rather see them taking lanes away only when it's REALLY needed. With the Christmas shopping season coming up, the need for that wasted lane is going to be even more urgent.

If I remember correctly, the left lane on each side of Route 123 at the Beltway closed in the spring for 18 to 24 months, while a new Beltway bridge is built above 123. (This is for the HOT lanes project.) I don't believe there's going to be any change on that through the hoilday season.

I know you have written about alternate routes but I really like to stick with what I know so well. Do you think if I leave DC for New York at 6am on Wednesday and come back at 6am on Sunday, I can beat the rush? I personally think the Sunday after Thanksgiving is the worst travel day of the year for driving.

I don't believe you'll have 95 to yourself, but do think you'll be okay, unless there is a bad accident somewhere along the way. People are spreding out their holiday getaways more and more.

These past few days, I've gotten a bunch of questions about whether it's best to travel on Thanksgiving morning rather than try to escape on Wednesday. Yes, I do think Thanksgiving morning is better than Wednesday, or even Tuesday night, but do keep track of the weather forecast if you're going to cut it that close.

Also, I like the commenter's point about sticking with what you know. We try to offer reasonable alternative routes, but if you can get away at a very off-peak time, why not stick to the highway you know best that has the most lanes? (Answering myself: Many people on the northeast routes hate the 95 tolls.)

Stockholm Syndrome

People don't seem to be identifying with their captors on the highways and on Metro. I think they just don't believe there are any solutions that won't cost them a lot of money in taxes or fares.

Doc -- I disagree with the poster who believes 25 to 50 percent of I-66 travelers are HOV violators. Most of the single occupant cars are hybrids. I am one of them. The hybrid exemption that I enjoy has created a ton of congestion on 66. That is just a fact. Also, many single occupant drivers do come from Dulles where they have "faux" business, such as checking P.O. boxes maintained for that express purpose, in order to remain legal. If the hybrid exemption was lifted and the Dulles business exemption was more strictly enforced, 66 would be virtually empty. Not that I am advocating for that.

The hybrid exemption in Virginia was meant to encourage people to buy hybrids. They no longer need that encouragement and the exemption should have been allowed to expire years ago.

For the last few years, I've avoided the travel rush, but this year I will have no choice. I am headed to Upstate NY off of I-81 near Syracuse. My options are BW Pkway to I-83 or taking I-270 to U.S. 15 to I-83. This could be useful for anyone going to Central PA or NY. Thoughts?

During our discussions last year, I heard good things from some travelers about the US 15 option. But I just hate that holiday traffic on I-270 up to Frederick. Then there are just as many who hate I-83 just north of Baltimore.

This is what leads so many people to tell me: Know the options, but remember that at the holidays, there are no undiscovered shortcuts. Timing the getaway is more important than the route.

But what's the cost difference between replacing an escalator altogether and continually repairing the old one? If they are already doing an overhaul anyway how much does it cost to simply replace it rather than refurbish a bad design?

I haven't priced escalators lately. (In my house, we're content to use the stairs.) But I do think Metro needs to be careful about picking a type of replacement escalator if it decides to go that way. It would be committing to buying more than 500 units over many years. (You wouldn't want to buy one model this year, then start buying another model two years from now. One of the key problems now is that there are so many different types of parts to replace in the escalators and elevators, and sometimes Metro has to make the parts itself.

I was cycling on the K Street service road on Sunday afternoon when I was approached from behind by a motorist who repeatedly honked her horn and threatened to run me off the road. Despite the fact that the main road was clear of traffic, this continued for *five blocks*. I then made a right turn, and watched the motorist accelerate down the service road with no apparent intention of turning or parking. I'm not very familiar with the area -- so why was it to the motorist's advantage to drive across the city on the service road instead of K Street? Does the service road allow you to avoid a traffic signal or something similar? If the K Street service road is unacceptable for cycling, then what IS an acceptable crosstown cycling route?

That's just plain weird. Don't be looking for the logic. (And don't think of that one as representing any class of drivers you're likely to encounter on K or any other street.)

Travelers, thanks for joining me again. Come on back next Monday, and we'll make our final plans for the Thanksgiving getaway. (Hope we don't have any fresh escalator incidents to talk about.)

Stay safe out there, and follow us on the Dr. Gridlock blog during the week. I know I'll have some more postings related to the holiday getaway.)

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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