Dr. Gridlock

Nov 19, 2012

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. I figure there are two big travel issues for us this week: The Thanksgiving getaway and the opening of the 495 Express Lanes in Virginia.

I'm going to start with some Thanksgiving questions, so you can add your thoughts.

What will be the best way to drive to Philadelphia from Lanham, MD on Thanksgiving Day?

On Thanksgiving Day, I'd just make it a straight shot north on I-95. Traffic should be light, though there could be some small pockets of congestion.

I've driven north on I-95 to New Jersey several times on Thanksgiving Day and have not encountered serious traffic. And of course, it's especially light compared to Tuesday and Wednesday.

The weather forecast also looks good for Thanksgiving Day travel.

Now, if this is something you do a lot, you could instead to east on Route 50, get over to the Eastern Shore and follow Route 301 up to Delaware. You can link up with I-95 that way. It's a more scenic drive, though it's a few more miles.

Check that route among the others in my annual holiday getaway guide: http://wapo.st/W0rAII

Your note in yesterday's column suggested that the old rule to travel on Tuesday to avoid the peak of Wednesday travel doesn't work anymore. But you didn't say when the "new Tuesday" is -- or, rather, when the "new off-peak" is. Is there any time slot that will give us a chance at a hassle-free trip? Or do we just have to accept all peak, all the time?

Yes, there is, but you've already missed it. I say that not to tease, but because I drove up 95 on Saturday morning and back down 95 on Sunday morning. Two great trips. However, Friday night was very heavy on I-95 in the DC area.

My conclusion: If I had a very flexible schedule and could take all or most of Thanksgiving week off, I'd head out on Saturday morning.

Monday evening, Tuesday evening and Wednesday evening all will be crowded with long-distance Thanksgiving traffic. Bob Marbourg of WTOP was telling me, It just depends on when people can pull their kids out of school.

Thanksgiving Day is good, for trips of reasonable length.

Really late night or really early morning trips are okay over the next few days. But as I wrote yesterday, watch what your body clock is telling you. It may be telling you that you should be asleep when you're behind the wheel and need to be most awake.

Why are the I-95/395 HOV restrictions in effect for three hours in the morning (6am to 9am) but only two and a half hours in the afternoon (3:30pm to 6pm). With the expansion of what's considered rush hour around here, I think it would help matters to put restrictions in place at 3pm. It gets so clogged up around the Springfield Interchange at 3:30pm with stragglers trying to get off just before the restrictions. I-66 has afternoon restrictions in place from 3pm to 7pm.

VDOT set the hours based on traffic studies. Perhaps it's time to reevaluate them.

So, did you find the ONE CAR that used the HOT lanes this morning? I think the number of accidents caused by people trying to avoid going into the HOT lanes exceeds the number of people who actually used them. Way to go Virginia!

I was the one car. I took three trips in the HOT lanes this morning.

Actually, I did see a few other cars. For some reason, they always appeared in clusters of three.

I heard that some drivers got confused and caused crashes. I didn't see any of that. In fact, all three trips were uneventful.

Most of the connections to the 495 Express Lanes are at interchanges. It's only at the ends that a driver can slide from the regular Beltway lanes onto the express lanes.

At the interchanges, I had to really concentrate on finding the express lanes entrances and avoiding getting onto the regular lanes.

Approaching from the north, on the outer loop, I had no trouble recognizing the express lanes entrance. I must have passed at least four signs announcing them, including the last one with the toll rates on it.

I just got a car, and now I realize I should get an EZ Pass -- but where should I get it from to get the best deal? I live in DC, which doesn't sell them (I don't think). So should I do Maryland, Virginia or another state? I don't expect I'll be using it a lot, but I'd like to have the convenience when I do (probably six times a year). Thanks!

We've talked about this a lot as Maryland and Virginia imposed monthly account maintenance fees on their E-ZPass customers. The fees aren't very high, but some drivers like to avoid them, especially if they use the passes just a few times a year.

Many drivers suggest accounts with Delaware, which doesn't charge a monthly fee.

As the E-ZPass system becomes more popular, the trend is toward charging fees to maintain the accounts. So it's unclear how long the freebies will last.

Why did #@*&^#$ VDOT allow the lanes to be opened up the Saturday before Thanksgiving? There have already been numerous accidents. I am predicting that folks backing up on these lanes causes gridlock from Boston to Miami on Wed by 1400hrs!!!! Why not open the lanes the first Sat in Dec? Huh VDOT??? Another bonehead move by the morons in Richmond. Secession from VA by NOVa is the only answer. NOVA funds every road proeject in VA!

I'm not sure what would be different on Dec. 1. Drivers who can't pay attention to the road and make dangerous, selfish maneuvers will always be with us.

The project managers wanted to open over a weekend when traffic would be lighter than during the week.

There have been some crashes and dangerous lane changes. My experience is that any driver paying reasonable attention to the road ahead will have no difficulty with these new lanes.

After driving past the new HOT lanes over the weekend, I have to wonder why Transurban did not get the speed limit in them set to 65 mph like it is in the I-95 HOV lanes. During the 80% of the week (assuming 6 hours a day of rush hours) that there is no congestion to speak of on I-495, why would anyone pay to use the HOT lanes when there is literally no reason to do so? It seems like Transurban is keaving money on the table, and we will spend 80% of the week driving past four completely unused lanes on a major highway.

With all those left-side entrances and exits for the express lanes, 55 mph seems like a very reasonable speed. Drivers can decide for themselves whether they want to use the lanes. It's an option some drivers will take from time to time.

I wouldn't just the new lanes for quite a while -- and certainly not based on one morning commute.

One thing to watch for is whether they wind up causing extra congestion on the routes that intersect with the Beltway. Will there be any unintended traffic patterns?

How bad will the trip north (to NJ) be on Wednesday? We plan on getting on the road at noonish. Are we insane for even thinking about doing this?

You will have lots of company on Wednesday. It's not as bad as it used to be because people spread their trips out more. But it's still one of the worst traffic days of the year on the highways.

One thing about longish trips on the holidays is that even if you get away from DC in good shape you still have a decent chance of winding up in somebody else's rush hour.

(We've been talking about E-ZPasses. If I used my E-ZPass only on Thanksgiving Wednesday, I'd consider it a good investment.)

I understand that the new HOT lanes are confusing and people don't want to pay the toll, but backing up is not the answer. Does that count as reckless driving given the sheer disregard for other drivers?

They're lucky if reckless driving is the only charge. I said in a blog posting yesterday that a driver who backs up on the Beltway deserves to have his license confiscated and his car impounded.

If someone is willing to risk lives to save a $1.50 fee plus the toll to the nearest exit, they have no business being on our roads.

My husband and I are going to Virginia Beach for Thanksgiving, and we are leaving late Tuesday night in hopes that our 10 week old will sleep the whole way. Should we return late Saturday night or early Sunday morning, in the hopes that we have a calm ride. We'd prefer to leave Sunday because it means more time with family, but I'm nervous that 95 will be awful coming back into to DC. Thanks.

You're right to be nervous about that return trip. I-95 approaching Washington can be really awful at the end of a weekend -- evenif it wasn't a huge holiday weekend.

I think you'd be in pretty good shape if you left really, really early on Sunday.

And please note what I said in the earlier response about paying attention to your body clock. With a 10-week-old, you're probably pretty tired already, and now you've got a long drive at a time when you'd normally be trying to fall asleep.

Pay attention to how alert the driver is. Try to change drivers regularly. Take rest stops.


Will the northbound lanes on the GW parkway be shut down on Thanksgiving morning, as part of the rock stabilization work? My typical route from the city to the Montgomery County suburbs is 14th street bridge to GW to beltway. But if the lanes will be closed, I can take Canal Road to Clara Barton. Just like to know ahead of time.

The road workers in the DC region take a break for Thanksgiving. They won't be out stabilizing the parkway rocks on Thanksgiving morning.

However, that left lane on the northbound parkway is closed for the during of this project, so you would have to deal with that. (Still, the Thanksgiving morning traffic in that area is likely to be very light.)

You may have not had problems, but about 6 years ago I drove from Rockville to Long Island and there were some very, very bad spots on 95. The worst was north of Philly (closer to NY), but it was not an easy drive by any definition. Delaware tolls were bad. I left around 10 AM. Leave earlier than that if you can.

The I-95 tolls in Newark, Delaware, used to be the main thing we talked about on the Thanksgiving getaway. It was one of the worst bottlenecks on the East Coast.

Last year, Delaware put in four highway-speed E-ZPass lanes, and the traffic is infinitely better. I think this is my favorite federal stimulus project.

Um, no Thanksgiving five days later? There are a lot of extra people traveling this week that don't normally drive through and don't know about these new lanes, causing extra confusion.

Most of that traffic goes around the east side of the Beltway and crosses the Wilson Bridge. (And that route is better this year thanks to the full opening of the THRU and LOCAL lanes.

What the early opening has done for local traffic is provide two new ways of getting in and out of Tysons, something that shoppers might appreciate this weekend.

Why wasn't there a grace period to allow drivers to get used to the new lanes?

Because they wouldn't be getting used to the new lanes if they weren't operating the way they were designed.

The purpose of the dynamic tolling is to regulate the flow of traffic and maintain a fairly constant speed. If drivers crowded into the express lanes for a free ride, they wouldn't be getting acquainted with the HOT lanes experience. They'd probably just be jamming up the access points and creating a bad experience for everyone.

Hi Dr G., Do you know anything about the construction on Rock Creek Parkway just before P street (as one is headed south)? I'm curious as to what they are doing and how long the project will last. It is a bit of a delay in the mornings. Tthanks.

I think that's the work that the National Park Service says will wrap up in January.

It's basically a roadway rehabilitation project.

The HOT lanes strike me as a good place for a variable speed limit. I do have some concern about whether it would be safe to be going 65 to 70 mph in the right-hand HOT lane next to stopped traffic in the left "free" lane. Sure, people shouldn't cut through the barrier, but they also shouldn't swerve all over the place at the lanes' beginning.

I think the experiment with a variable speed limit on the outer loop approaching the Wilson Bridge showed that drivers are perfectly willing to ignore it.

I'd like to see how this variable toll works out. Will raising the toll really drive down congestion, and will driving down congestion really allow for a reliable drive at a constant speed?

The white bollards certainly don't provide the protection that a jersey barrier does. The project managers like the bollards because they provide flexibility in emergencies. You don't want to hit them in your car, but a slow-moving fire truck or ambulance could roll over them. Or in an emergency, police could remove a section of them and direct stalled traffic into the express lanes.

Why are folks using the lanes when there is NO traffic? Doesn't make sense to me to pay to use lanes with no benefit. Last night at 10:00 pm there were a handful of cars in the HOT lanes. Same thing with this morning at 10:00am. Is it just so they can say they've used them? Anyone out there that did this and can explain?

Some folks might just have wanted to test them out off-peak before trying to use them at rush hour.

Those two new access points for Tysons could prove useful to shoppers anytime during the holiday season.

Some people might even like the idea of driving in lanes that don't allow big trucks, and that have a dedicated set of safety patrol vehicles.

I dont have an EZ PASS yet but I live around Tysons Corner and am really looking forward to the new lanes. I am mostly excited about the new access points. I travel the beltway off-peak so I was pleased to see that going one or exits should only cost me 30-70 cents. This seems worth it when traveling to Tysons Corner if I can avoid sitting a few badly timed lights.

When I first heard of the HOT lanes a few years ago, I pictured drivers going the full 14 miles, end to end, and paying a big toll.

But that's not really the way they're designed. It's a lot more complicated than that. Most users are likely to go just a couple of exits. Many will use the segment in the Tysons area. Those new access points at the Westpark Drive bridge and Jones Branch Drive should be popular with office workers and people going shopping.

So there are a variety of potential uses for the new lanes and a variety of potential users.

Do you expect the Bay Bridge to be backed up on Wednesday? Do you have any advice for the best time to try to cross?

Wednesday will almost certainly be a very heavy day on the Bay Bridge. Tuesday will be somewhat better. Construction on the bridge will stop on Tuesday.

If you try it on Wednesday, go in the morning. (That's pretty much like everything else we're saying about Wednesday: The earlier you can leave, the better.)

IWe need to pick up some friends at Reagan National at 9AM on Wed, the big Travel Day. We live in Annandale. Should we drive to a metro, hope to find a parking space, metro to Reagan National, Pick up our passengers and metro back with them and their luggage to the car and drive home? If so, which metro stop would be the likeliest to have parking? OR... Should we just leave early and drive to the airport, drop one of us off to pick up the passengers and circle the access roads until they emerge from their plane? Thanks.

I think you're likely to be okay driving and using the hourly garage space across from the terminal.

If you go to this Web page before leaving home, you can check on the availability of parking spaces:



How will the toll lanes know that there are 3 people in the car? What technology will they use? How is it done?

To get the free ride, you need the E-ZPass Flex transponder, developed for this mission. The toll gantry readers the Flex, meaning that it knows you're claiming the free ride for carpoolers. The state police see the same reading, and can look to see how many people are in the vehicle. If they can't count to three, they could stop the vehicle. Fines for cheaters are pretty high.

What happens when (if) it snows this winter? There is no longer a left shoulder on the regular lanes to put the snow in; will it instead take up one of the regular lanes? And where will the snow in the right HOT lane go?

I talked to VDOT about this. They've got a new type of truck -- it's called a flusher -- to spray brine into the area where the white bollards are. I saw it. It's like a power washer on the front of  a tanker truck.

In the HOT lanes, the snow will be pushed to the left, where the shoulder is. On the regular lanes, it will be pushed to the right. The plows and the flusher will come through as a train. You won't be driving along side those trucks, so there won't be a chance for a driver to get power washed.

VDOT is obligated to treat all the Beltway lanes the same. No preference for the HOT lanes.

To the reader who asked whether to buy EZPass from MD or VA, only VA offers the type of EZ Pass that lets you signal that you meet the carpool requirements to ride for free on the new HOT lanes, right?

That was the case originally, but now you also can get the E-ZPass Flex from the Maryland E-ZPass program.

Here's a link to the Maryland E-ZPass Web site:



You don't have to circle the airport until your party arrives. There are designated lots for waiting, called "cell phone lots."

Good point. Here's a link to a Web page that would help drivers with the location of the cell phone lot at Reagan National:



Would you please remind DC pedestrians to cross at the cross-walks and only when the signal allows. With the daylight gone, jaywalkers are harder to see and - not sure if it's because of the cold - seem to be increasing in numbers. I can't tell you how many times I've had to slam on brakes because I see people where they shouldn't be. Thank you!

Not a Thanksgiving comment, but especially good as a reminder during the holiday season, when we have as much distracted walking as driving.

Doc, Doc, Doc - those of us who live on the Eastern Shore REALLY wish you'd stop directing folks to take 50 across the Bay Bridge to Rte 301 to get to Philadelpiha. Do you know how bad traffic is on holiday weekends as it is? In additio to all those of us who live there year-round, almost everyone with a Shore property heads to their vacation homes for holiday weekends, and getting around in our own communities becomes impossible as people try - desperately and infuriatingly - to find alternates to Route 50. So please give us break! Please?

I think people should respect local roads. But they have as much right to use Routes 50 and 301 as anybody.

Hi, This is probably a little out of your expertise but I'd love the advice anyway! I was talked out of driving up to Boston for Thanksgiving and am flying up out of Reagan on Wednesday evening instead (flight is around 5:30). Any thoughts on how bad the security lines will be and when I should get there? And how bad the metro trip (from King Street) will be along the way? Thanks!

If the flight is around 5:30, you should be fine on Metro -- cause you're going to leave early, right? Security lines have gotten a lot better in recent years, but one of the issues around holidays is that you have a lot of inexperienced travelers who need reminders about some things that experienced travelers have now internalized about security lines. Also, this is the season when people start to transport a lot of gifts in their carry-ons, and that can complicate security.

Will Metro reconsider running track work on Veterans or Columbus Day? My g-d, the schools were open too!!! Just because the Feds are closed doesn't mean that the majority of riders aren't still using the system to get to and from work.

Metro General Manager Richard Sarles was unapologetic about the crowding that occurred on the Veterans Day Monday. He said it was necessary work. So I wouldn't be looking forward to a change in policy.

I'd say about 9 out of 10 people roll through stop signs if they don't see any traffic coming. Don't police officers see this - or do they just not care? Seems prettey dangerous, particularly with so many pedestrians in this area.

I'm sure you see the same with people making right turns on red without coming to a stop. With the police, you're most likely to see tickets issued during enforcement campaigns rather than as a day to day thing.

Dr. Gridlock, National Airport has an excellently placed cell phone waiting area. The Annandale host should be able to drive to National shortly before 9, wait in the waiting area, and receive a cell phone call from the friends when they're ready, then just swoop in, pick them up, and drive home.

Lots of people have written in to recommend the cell phone waiting area. Thank you.

I'll be driving alone with my infant to New Jersey (meeting husband there), and was thinking of leaving just at his bedtime so he'll sleep in the car and I'll not be up super late. Will leaving DC at 7.30pm on Tuesday be okay traffic-wise, or should I go at some point on Wednesday morning instead, or earlier on Tuesday? Thanks for the advice!

Tuesday evening will be very crowded. If a person did Tuesday evening and Wednesday evening -- and God forbid anyone should have to -- the traveler probably wouldn't notice too much difference in the traffic. Earlier on Tuesday, or very early on Wednesday, would be better than either evening.

I agree, but I also think the experiment with a national 55-mph speed limit showed that drivers were perfectly willing to ignore that, too, and for the most part nobody obeys 55 on the Beltway when the traffic is clear enough to go that fast. I think people might respect a variable speed limit if it were installed from the start and if it were applied properly without an artificial 55-mph cap.

My experience is that drivers have no problem with any speed limit. They routinely ignore it. They have a problem with enforcement of the speed limit. They hate that.

What's been published about the cost structure of the new express lanes in Virginia? Is there a max-min range?

The minimum should be about 20 cents a mile, with really light traffic. There's no cap on the tolls. They can go as high as necessary to limit the traffic flow. But project managers anticipate that the average driver at rush hour will pay $3 to $6. (The average driver isn't going the full 14 miles in the express lanes.)

Two reasons. Got on at Lee Highway instead of having to go around to Arlington Boulevard, and having few other cars in the lanes made for a stress-free drive. The toll was only 70¢, which is less than the cost of one can of Coke from a machine.

Yep. That new Lee Highway access point should also wind up being pretty popular once more drivers discover it.

The security lines at Reagan are atrocious--not enough staff or equipment. Whoever says otherwise has not flown in the last year. Give yourself an hour for security--you will need it.

Thanks for the tip.

Dr Gridlock, If your DC resident gets an EZ Pass from Delaware, it won't be a flex, so he couldn't ever do the HOV thing in the Express Lanes. If he's ok with that, then that's good advice. If he's not, he may want to seek another solution.

Flex for carpoolers is available only from the Virginia and Maryland programs at this point.

Thanks for joining me for the getaway week chat. I have to break away now, but I'll try to address some more of those getaway concerns on the blog very soon. I hope I can also get to some more of your questions and concerns about the express lanes.

I always urge you to be safe out there, but try extra hard this holiday week and join me again next Monday.

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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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