Dr. Gridlock

Nov 18, 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. At start time, I see some questions and comments about Metro's delays, Thanksgiving getaway traffic and Beltway HOT lanes. So I'll begin with them.

So I'm sure you'll get thousands of complaints about the recent red line difficulties (rightfully so) and I have a related question/complaint. I'd weathered the delays and sardine trains twice in the past week, so on Thursday morning after standing on an increasingly crowded platform for 20 minutes I finally gave up and left. But to add insult to injury, I still got charged the $2.10 base fee for rush hour, even though I never when anywhere at the fault of the metro. Is there any hope of getting the metro to change this policy - say when there are delays at a certain station over X minutes you can enter and exit at the same station for free with a Smartrip card? I can't imagine this would be very hard to program. And it would reduce my frustration greatly.

In this particular case, I'd apply through Metro's customer service line for a refund, because the SmarTrip technology is at least smart enough to detect that you were caught up in the Red Line delays.

If it happened again like it did to you last week, I think I'd go to the station manager and asked to be let out through the gate.

This year, Metro installed those new electronic signs at the kiosks that are supposed to warn incoming riders about delays ahead, so they can make a decision not to go through the fare gates in the first place.

Do riders find them helpful? Do the notice them?

I have to travel from Olney to just south of Richmond for Thanksgiving and unfortunately can't go down on Wednesday night. Is there any way to avoid the expected traffic jams for this trip on Thanksgiving morning other than leaving before it gets light? Would it make more sense to go over to 301 and down than try to take I-95?

If you can leave Olney very early on Thanksgiving morning, I'd go south on I-95, rather than continue all the way east to Route 301. I don't see 301 being a time-saver early Thanksgiving morning.

I was just answering a question sent in by another traveler who is wondering about traffic northbound from the DC area on the Tuesday night before Thanksgiving. Tuesday night is getting pretty heavy for getaway traffic. The Maryland Transportation Authority advises waiting till 11 p.m., though I urged my letter-writer to consider the effects of driving when your body clock is telling you to sleep.

There was a lot of "oops" moments when the HOT lanes first opened as you mentioned in your write up over the weekend. While driving on the beltway Saturday night from Maryland towards Springfield- I saw somebody enter the lanes- only to slam the brakes and go into reverse to try to get out of them. Has there been any thought of putting anti-reverse spikes down? Is that just asking for too much trouble to stop people from potentially reversing into 60mph traffic? Or is it just just happening that much anymore and I caught a rare glipse?

I am so sure that the Virginia Department of Transportation has never, ever considered reverse spikes on the Beltway, whether for the 495 Express Lanes or any other exit.

Oh, the humanity!

Long-time readers know that I think anyone so careless of human life as to back up on the Beltway shouldn't have a driver's license. But spikes that permanently disabled stupid drivers would only increase the jeopardy to the innocent drivers coming along afterward.

Whenever the Red Line breaks during the morning rush, I have the same question: why can't Metro run more buses down Connecticut Ave? The scheduled buses are so full that they don't stop to pick up new riders. When you live in the District, you have two options: (1) body slam your way into a packed train, or (2) wave at buses as they pass.

The buses on the Connecticut Avenue Line are scheduled to run six minutes apart at the height of rush hour. That's pretty good for a Metrobus route, but apparently not good enough to meet the demand, even on normal days.

During a fiasco like last week, Metro will send out advisories noting that there are Metrobuses near the rail stations, but this isn't much help, because the buses along the prime commuting routes are so easily overwhelmed.

Metrobus officials are fairly responsive to customer demand. They've just been through a round of public meetings designed to get feedback on proposed changes in dozens of routes across the region, and the Metro board is likely to approve the results on Thursday. (I don't believe changes in the Conn Ave Line are among them.)

Riders should tell Metrobus officials where they want more service, because I think the officials will pay attention. However, there are limits on what they can do. The upcoming changes I was talking about reallocate resources from under-performing routes to ones where the demand is greater. They don't add buses overall.

When they see that it's a seriously long delay, why don't they run eight car trains? Certainly they had enough time to realize how long it would take and to make the adjustments.

The delays went on an incredibly long time, but I think not long enough to rearrange the train sets without causing an even worse disruption in service.

Metro does position some "gap" trains to enter service during emergencies, but as with the Metrobuses, there are limits. When there's single-tracking at rush hour, the inbound trains are going to stack up waiting their turn at the entry point to the single-tracking zone. That's going to mess up the schedule all along the line.

(By the way, I think there are more eight-car trains assigned to the Red Line at rush hours than any other.)

I see Metro is touting that the red line is "on time" something like 93% of the time. I guess the problem is that when it's not on time, it's REALLY not on time. But I also wonder about how they measure "on time". How late can a train be and still be considered "on time"?

Metro uses a liberal definition of "on time" that probably doesn't match your boss's definition of "on time."

Under GM Richard Sarles, Metro developed quarterly reports that track its ability to meet standards. This was a good idea, but it's the type of report that most meaningful to a staffer waiting a performance bonus than it is to a rider awaiting a train.

To a rider, one morning's big delay washes out scores of unremarkable rides. In the quarterly or annual statistics, it's just a blip.


I received a speeding ticket in the mail from last September, after my sister and I were traveling back to NJ from our Grandfather's burial ceremony at Arlington Nat'l Cemetery. My sister was driving at the time, and I was in the passenger seat. We were going 57mph in a 45mph zone, and I noticed the speed limit kept jumping between 45 and 55. I sent a letter to explain, noting that my sister was driving, and they just sent a new letter saying that my letter admitted to the infraction. Any advice?

I'd pay the ticket. My guess is this happened on a DC freeway? The speed limits do change, and that's annoying and hard for many drives to follow, but from a practical point of view, I think there's not much of a case for overturning the ticket.

(I should end with my usual caveat: I'm not a lawyer. I'm just a guy who writes about traffic. A lawyer might see this differently.)

When will the Silver Line Metro open?

There's no start date. The new line should open early next year, and my guess is late winter. Two main things must happen: The Washington airports authority, which is responsible for building the line, must certify that the construction is done. Then it must turn the line over to Metro, which must do its own testing during which, along with the Federal Transit Authority, it will certify that the line is satisfactory and that it's safe to begin passenger operations.

That's a lot of important steps, and a lot of little problems can develop. That's why there's no exact date for starting.

Dr G: Gridlock and pedestrians crossing when they shouldn't is a big problem downtown. DC sometimes has people out directing traffic but this is rare. My question is why the BIDs don't have people directing traffic. I know several people who don't come downtown because of the traffic. The BIDs have information people who help lost tourists but I wonder why they can't direct traffic especially during rush hour. Is there some law against this? The area around Farragut Square is particularly bad. Thanks!

I would absolutely not ask the BIDS to get into the business of directing traffic. However, I absolutely would favor a great expansion of the District Department of Transportation's staff of traffic control officers. They're the people you see now in the middle of the intersections, risking their lives to get you through safely.

The ones I see -- like at Mass Ave and 12th Street NW -- do a very good job. There's just not enough of them for all the intersections where they are needed at rush hour, and they don't stay at them long enough.

I noticed that signs showing the Silver Line were up at Ballston this morning. Is Metro not worried that riders might get confused and start looking for trains that are going toward Tysons now?

Yes. Lynn Bowersox, the Metro official leading the marketing campaign for the Silver Line, has noted the concern that riders can get confused if certain types of information are deployed too early.

The problem is that they can't make all the wayfinding changes at the last minute, just before the Silver Line opens. We had this same issue with the deployment of the Rush Plus signs and maps last year.

I understand that the law requires cars to stop for pedestrians in crosswalks. But I increasingly see bikes waiting in crosswalks expecting traffice to stop for them. Don't bikes need to follow the rules for cars -- and wait for a break in traffice like a car would?

Bikers are required to obey the same traffic laws that car drivers are required to obey. A driver -- or a biker -- should stop for someone in a crosswalk.

The definition of "in" gets tricky, and we've talked about this. The enforcement people I talk to say the pedestrian or cyclist needs to be in the act of crossing to meet the definition, as opposed to waiting on the curb and thinking about crossing.

I like these discussions because they can heighten our concern for each other in traffic. But I don't want there to be any implication that we get to decide who it's okay to hit.

This will not be the only question posed on this. But the major delays every morning (and they are every morning now) need to stop. While I understand that the lack of maintenance in the past has been a significant source of the problems that Metro is tackling now, the problems are still the current problems and they need to be fixed yesterday. What can we as riders do to make Metro more accountable? How do we keep making sure that our fund go to improving the system to make it more reliable, and not to covering debt or rising pension costs that are crowding out the service that Metro has to provide? Metro runs a transportation system that is not reliable right now, but if it were reliable would be receiving lots more money. What can we do?

Metro is receiving lots of money: $5.5 billion for rebuilding the system. That's outside of annual operating expenses. Among other things, this is financing the work that disrupts service on weekends, and will continue to disrupt weekend service at about the present rate till 2017, when the pace should slacken.

It's also financing the purchase of new rail cars, which we think should ease the current rate of train breakdowns, particularly be getting us better brakes and door systems -- along with better air conditioners.

On your question about exercising influence: I think riders have done a miserable job exercising influence on Metro operations. But the system is set up to make that difficult. The Metro board of directors is not elected, at least not as Metro board members. They are appointed to the board by the jurisdictions that comprise the Metro compact. They're responsible to the jurisdictions or officials appointing them, not to the riders.

I've noticed lately that my Smartrip card, which I got about a year or two after they were introduced, won't register at some fare gates. This hasn't been a huge problem; I just switch gates. So, is it the card, the gate card reader, or both?

Many of us have had problems with individual fare card readers. If that's what's going on, I think it's not a problem with your SmarTrip card.

I've had my card about as long as you have, and it still works fine -- despite the occasional problem with a faregate reader.

When something goes wrong with a card, it might be because it's been bent by accident. Sometimes that will happen to folks who keep the card in their wallet, and put the wallet in their back pockets.

Who should I contact about a frozen toll display sign for the Beltway Express Lanes? I sent a comment through the Express Lanes website, but have yet to receive anything beyond the automated response. It's been over a week since I sent the comment, and the sign (first outer loop sign just south of the Georgetown Pike) has been frozen and displaying the same toll rates for nearly 2 weeks. Also, if I were to use the Express lanes, could I claim that the first sign, which has been typically showing lower toll rates in the afternoon than the sign right before the entry, should be what I'm charged to ride in the lanes?

Your toll rate is locked in when you enter the express lanes. The longer your trip, the more you pay, but the rate per mile won't change after you enter the lanes.

I'm not sure what the protocol is on sending responses. My experience is that the toll lanes operators have been very responsive to customer complaints, but you might also try the VDOT help number: 800-FOR-ROAD.

To check on current tolls or historic tolls, you also can go the the operator's Web site, at www.495expresslanes.com.

I was returning to town from Dulles airport during rush hour last Tuesday afternoon and noticed several trains sitting idle on the new tracks. I was a little baffled that Metro would have trains that they could afford to just have sitting around doing nothing. Why doesn't Metro use every available train for service?

Metro officials say it took some doing, but they do have enough cars available for both the Silver Line testing and the normal operations of Metrorail.

That's good, because anything else would just add more delay to the start up of the Silver Line.

We are taking the 6:00 AM Amtrak to Providence, RI on Thanksgiving Day. I know this is subjective, but do you know whether Thanksgiving is usually a heavy train travel day in the Northeast (we usually fly on Thanksgiving and it's pretty quiet)? We are worried about getting a parking spot at the BWI Station. Also, should we expect any congestion at 5:30 AM on I-95 North on Thanksgiving Day?

I think I-95 at that hour will be no worry at all. The parking at BWI Station is another issue, and not really related to the number of travelers on Thanksgiving Day itself. You'll be competing with all the people who have parked during the previous four or five days for their holiday getaway.

BWI's regular lots do fill up around the holidays, but then the airport opens up overflow lots, with shuttle services. Watch for the signs as you're approaching the airport, or tune your AM radio to 1040 to pick up the parking reports.

Last week was tough. While I was able to soldier through on Monday and Thursday, Wednesday was so bad that I ended up not getting to work. When I got to the station, the sign said hale hour delays, while not good sounded doable. At Bethesda, there is no way to see the platform until after you're through the fare gate. There was a jam packed train and the platform was over two-thirds full. The folks coming up the stairs were leaving after being unable to board a train after an hour and a half. I turned around and followed them out, called work and burned a vacation day. Under previous management, when things got this backed up, exiting through the same entrance where I came in, would result in no fare being charged. Any chance the current, apologetic management will bring this practice back? Have they release numbers of how many riders gave up and left the same station they entered?

Paul Duggan reported that Metro probably will wind up crediting back $1,000 to $2,000 in fares by the time all the complaints have been processed. I haven't heard of any plans to change the fare gate system.

I haven't seen any figures on how many riders gave up and left. Metro should be able to tell how many SmarTrip riders exited the station, but I think that probably would combine people who never got on a train with people who were exiting trains.

The Metro e-mail, text and Twitter alerts all were making it plain that there were big problems on the Red Line. My recollection is that the feeds indicated delays of about a half an hour, but many, many riders were reporting delays of a lot longer than that.

This was a problem that Metro needs to correct. People at least need to be confident that they're getting accurate information they can act on, even if acting means taking some alternative form of transportation to work.

I sent a similar e-mail to the operators of the Beltway Express Lanes, but I'm wondering why it's taking so long for tolls to hit my EZPass account. On most occasions it seems to be taking 5 or more business days for charges to appear on my account from trips on the Beltway Express Lanes. Charges for the Baltimore tunnels and even a recent trip on the PA Turnpkie, NJ Turnpike, and Lincoln Tunnel all hit within 24 hours on my EZ Pass. I have a VA EZPass, so you would think charges in the state would hit sooner. The exact opposite is true, and it's pretty consistantly taking 5 days or more for tolls to appear. In fact, I haven't taken 1 trip in the Express Lanes where a charge hit within 48 hours, and that was during the first week they were open.

What is the point of the I-66 HOV lane west of the Beltway? My family unfortunately had to take a trip that way during rush hour in the afternoon. The HOV lane was slower than the non HOV lanes. I moved out of the HOV in order to drive faster.

The point of the HOV lanes is the same everywhere: They're supposed to help our air quality by encouraging people to share rides. They do that by offering a faster, more reliably timed trip.

I'm not sure why that would be on I-66. I don't get to use that lane, because I'm almost always driving solo on I-66. I don't recall doing better over the entire route than the drivers to my left in the HOV lane.

The I-66 HOV lane is quite crowded compared to some others, like Route 50 in Maryland, so the I-66 HOV traffic does slow down very often. Plus, it's pretty easy to cheat when there are no lane barriers, so that just adds to the congestion in the HOV lane.

I expected traffic to get a bit worse after daylight savings time ended. The time change moves the sunrise and sunset into my morning and afternoon commutes. But, last week was much worse than usual. I got stuck sitting in traffic for much longer delays than usual. Although, I don't enjoy cold weather, I now look forward to the cloudy skies to cut out one source of traffic problems.

It sun does take some getting used to after the time change. I've become more sensitive to this after asking readers to suggest their highway traffic mysteries -- the points where highway traffic slows down for no apparent reason. Some travelers speculated that various slowdowns might be caused by the sun angle, or an uphill grade.

Travelers, thanks for today's discussion. Our transportation team will be writing all week on the Dr. Gridlock blog. And you can contact me directly at drgridlock@washpost.com.

Stay safe, and rejoin me next Monday, when I have a feeling we may talk more about the Thanksgiving getaway plans.

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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