Nov 22, 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, to our pre-Thanksgiving chat. There are getaway questions in the mailbag, but also issues about Metro, Rock Creek Parkway and other transportation problems.

Dr. G, I made a quick trip to Philly this past week and noticed that traffic at the Delaware toll plaza is a mess due to construction. At about 4:00 pm on Friday, I noticed that the northbound traffic was backed up for several miles. Going southbound at that time of day was not as bad, but for a good distance all the traffic to the toll plaza was funneled into two lanes, EZ Pass to the left and Cash Only (or so the signs say) to the right. You are almost at the toll plaza before it opens up into several lanes. What a mess! If you are traveling for Thanksgiving, this may be a good year to get off 95 to avoid the toll.

The Newark Toll Plaza on I-95 in Delaware is absolutely going to be a huge problem during this week's peak periods for holiday travel. The Delaware Department of Transportation is urging drivers to seek alternative routes.

What's going on: Delaware is using federal stimulus money to build highway speed E-ZPass lanes in the middle of the toll plaza. All of us who have E-ZPass are going to be happy about that -- when they open next summer. In the meantime, the construction is limiting the number of toll booth lanes open at the plaza. And there's a serious squeezing down of the E-ZPass lanes right after the toll plaza going northbound.

If you look on our Transportation home page, you'll see lots of advice about the holiday getaway, including advice on avoiding the Newark Toll Plaza. Here's the address:

I need to drive from the Pentagon to Silver Spring (White Oak area) and back Wednesday afternoon or evening. This is never a fun drive but I am particularly concerned about getting caught in holiday traffic. Normally I try and go around 3:00 to beat rush hour, but am concerned that will be peak get-out-of dodge time. I can't go any earlier, but could go later if necessary. Any suggestions? My usual route is to avoid DC and go GW Parkway to 495 to 29.

I think there's no route on the Wednesday afternoon before Thanksgiving that's going to keep you out of heavy traffic between the Pentagon and White Oak. On your usual route, I would expect very heavy traffic on I-495, the Beltway's inner loop, from the Legion Bridge around to Silver Spring.

An alternative would be to take the 14th Street Bridge and I-395, exit at Pennsylvania Avenue, stay left on the Sousa Bridge and take turn left onto 295 up to the Beltway's outer loop and take that to Route 29.

I say it's an alternative, and at that hour it might be better than the inner loop on the western side of DC, but you should still be prepared for a long trip.

Can anyone else offer a suggestion for this drive on that day?

I don't know if you have noticed this or not but whenever I have ridden Metro and they come into a station, come to a complete stop, and then when everyone is ready to depart the doors to the train don't open right away. It seems to be 15 or 20 seconds before the driver decides to open the doors to the train. Lately it has been happening alot and I don't understand why the driver doesn't open the doors to the train once it has come to a complete stop.

I haven't noticed a longer delay than usual on opening the doors, so I'm posting this comment fairly early in case other riders would like to make observations.

I recall that the train operator's controls for the doors are by the window. So if it's a center platform station, the operator is going to take at least a few seconds to get across the cab and open the doors. But of course, the controls have always been there, and that wouldn't explain a recent delay.

I'm driving from Arlington to Staunton to on Thursday morning. How early should I leave? How bad will the traffic be?

Thanksgiving morning? I think you're going to be fine at any hour. I do notice that more and more holiday travelers -- clearly fed up with Tuesday and Wednesday departures -- are leaning toward Thursday, as long as the trips are relatively short. But it's still not a matter of getting up before dawn to make the Thursday trip.

One important thing: Do keep track of the forecast. We are likely to have bad weather later this week.

I am traveling from Arlington to the Poconos on Wednesday (near Lake Wallenpaupack) and am trying to avoid as much traffic as possible. I was thinking of doing I270 to US15 to I81 and leaving around 630 in the morning. Do you think that's a recipe for being stuck in traffic and is there a better time/route? Thanks!

For a Poconos route, I like that -- and your timing of departure. Forecast for Wednesday is pretty good. (Thursday, there's a decent chance of rain.)

That I-270 to US 15 route comes up a lot when I ask travelers to make suggestions on alternative holiday routes in the northeast.

My husband and I are heading to Ohio late tomorrow afternoon - better to take the Pennsylvania Turnpike or 68 through West Virginia? Sometimes we've hit bad weather at the higher elevations in Western Maryland and WV during this time of year, so I'm a little leery of that route. In addition, any chance we'll miss traffic by leaving tomorrow afternoon? Thanks!

We've had a bit of a debate on the western routes over the past couple of years. Many travelers hate having to sit at the stop lights in Breezewood to make the transition onto the Penn Turnpike, so they suggest I-68 as an alternative. Then others raise the issue that ou did: the weather in the mountains. I know there's a 30 percent chance of rain in the DC area on Tuesday, but am not sure what the mountain forecast is. That would certainly be a factor.

But I've done the turnpike to Pittsburgh and on to Ohio a few times. Seems to me that's also a route that involves concerns about winter weather.

Other comments on these two routes?

A suggestion for folks using this route: When you get to the Harrisburg area, take PA-581 around the west side of the city to I-81. It's a much better (and newer) road than I-83, which loops around the east side of the city, and it often makes for a faster trip. Looking at a map might make it appear that you're going in the wrong direction due to that slight jog west, but don't let that put you off.

Thanks for this suggestion. (Every year, I collect advice from travelers about the getaway routes and stockpile it, either to add route guidance we've already shared or to update conditions.)

Does leaving later in the evening (after 8:00pm) make a difference in getting across the Bay Bridge Wednesday?

For sure, later would be better.  Not sure how far you're going -- some people use the Bay Bridge for their routes up US 301 to connect with I-95, and others use it as the gateway to the Hampton Roads area to the south. Wednesday, afternoon and evening, you'll have these long distance travelers plus regular commuters who live on the Eastern Shore.

I would also listen to WTOP as you travel and consider some alternatives if your route get backed up. For example, if Pennsylvania Ave/Sousa Bridge are backed up, you can follow the SE/SW freeway to DC-295 (Anacostia Freeway) south, go down one exit to Suitland Pkway and do the double-clover leaf to come back onto DC-295 northbound. And if the outer loop is backed up, you can get off MD-295 at MD-410 (East West Highway), and take MD-410 over to NH Ave and then NH north into White Oak.

Good advice all the way. I'll post some links on our Dr. Gridlock blog for current traffic information, but I highly recommend that people listen to the regular reports on WTOP while they're driving.

Conditions change all the time. People write in and ask, How long is it going to take me to get from here to there. I can give you a sense of some of the obstacles and suggest various routes, but how long it takes in the DC region depends on current conditions.

Dr. Gridlock, I travel southbound on Connecticut Avenue during the morning rush to get to my job near the White House. Traffic usually moves along the stretch between Cleveland and Woodley Park, unless there's car or delivery truck tying up the right lane onto Calvert. However, it appears that for whatever reason, work is being done along Cathedral Ave near Rock Creek and I'm assuming the traffic backed up along this stretch of CT Ave during the morning rush is somehow related. Last Monday, the 15th, when this roadwork first started was awful and since then, the congestion has eased, but traffic is still gridlocked along this stretch. Do you know how long they'll be working on Cathedral Ave? Should I consider cutting over to Mass Ave instead?

This is something we've tackled in the Commuter Page and on the blog. Here's the skinny on Rock Creek Parkway:

Last week, the National Park Service began an 18-month reconstruction project along Rock Creek Parkway, and many commuters in the Woodley Park area were howling in confusion. The Post's Mark Berman, who knows the area well, offers this advice:

During the morning rush, the Cathedral Avenue and Woodley Road ramps to the southbound parkway are closed. Between 6:30 and 10 a.m., traffic can enter the Calvert Street ramp (adjacent to the Shoreham Hotel) and proceed to the southbound parkway.

If you can't get onto Rock Creek Parkway in this vicinity while it's southbound-only in the morning, you might want to consider hopping on the roadway at a later time. Try heading south and jumping on at P Street, for example. It might take a little while to head south on Connecticut or Wisconsin avenues as you make your way to P Street, but at least it gets you onto the parkway.

(And for you in particular, Connecticut Avenue traveler, I'd expect these delays to be a fixture during the two-month first phase of the RCP construction. I'd advocate heading to Mass Ave or Wisconsin and cutting back over to Connecticut; if you take Wisconsin south to Q or P streets, you can hop back onto Conn Ave near Dupont, or just head south on a side street as you will be closer to work.) 


I've done this trip more times than I can count, mostly on the Turnpike but several times on I-68. I prefer the Turnpike because the stops -- for restrooms and food -- are more available, convenient, and predictable. Of course, it also depends where in Ohio -- for central Ohio, it's a pretty even choice in terms of time (so I assume that's where the previous chatter is going) -- the Turnpike is clearly better for northern OH and I-68 for southern.

Thanks for this response to our westbound travelers.

My holiday travel starts via 495 to 270 to 70 to 68... Any recommendations for alternates (additional mileage not a concern if movement is consistent) to avoid potential congestion?

Got some more comments for you from other travelers on the westbound way. I'll try to push those out quickly.

(I-270 is a baddie during the getaway period.)

I've driven the PA Turnpike and I-68 routes to Ohio many times. Both mountain areas can be hazardous in bad weather, but the PA turnpike has heavier traffic and narrow shoulders. You didn't mention your destination in Ohio -- I would take the PA turnpike if your destination is in the Greater Cleveland are or a community near the Ohio turnpike. For north-central Ohio, I would take I-68, I-79, I-70, I-77, and US-250 to the new US-30 highway. For points south, take I-68, I-79, and I-70 to your destination.

Being from Cumberland and heading there on Friday, I have heard that they are doing construction/paving work on the section of I-68 running through the city causing unexpected delays. They hope to have this done by the weekend, but thought I would throw it out there for the commenter traveling to Ohio and anyone else heading west considering that option.

Thanks. Speaking generally about road work, Maryland and Virginia and Delaware and every other place I know of will suspend their road work Wednesday through at least midday on Monday. That will help, but they don't pull up the concrete barriers and the lane shifts -- the long term stuff -- you'll still have to deal with that. (And remember, those Maryland work zone speed cameras are active all the time.)

One way to split the difference on the "Breezewood v. I-68" debate is to take I-68 to just east of Cumberland, then take US-220 north to Bedford, where you can pick up the Pennsylvania Turnpike. It's a pretty good road and it's not a long drive at all (just under 30 miles), although some people would no doubt be put off by driving on a two-lane road. A map might make it appear that using US-219 up to Somerset is more direct, but it's not a faster drive. Much twistier road with fewer passing zones if you get stuck behind a truck.

Any ideas how bad the NJ Turnpike will be on Wednesday afternoon? How many playlists am I gonna need on my ipod??

Pretty bad, most especially in northern New Jersey. E-ZPass will sure help. Turnpike has those wonderful highway speed E-ZPass lanes. Of course, that won't do much good at the popular exit ramps.

One general issue about the tolls on the Northeast routes: It's great to have E-ZPass but the holiday getaway lanes get so crowded that you'll be mixed in for miles with all the people heading for the cash lanes. That will be very true at the Delaware toll plaza.

Please refrain from recommending 301-S as an alternative to 95-S. On a daily basis the road is heavily congested. It takes me at least 40 mins to get from the Waldorf city limits to Brandywine/301 intersection and that's on a good day! 301-S will not be able to handle additional holiday traffic until the roads are expanded which doesn't seem like anytime soon.

Thanks for the warning. Many travelers are so fed up with I-95 south that they'll try just about anything as an alternative, and I have had people recommend 301 and the Nice Bridge as a way to head south on the eastern side of the Washington region. On the west side, some will take Route 28 from Manassas down to Route 17.

Delaware wants people to avoid I-95 on Thanksgiving. Um. What?

The toll plaza is a huge source of revenue for the state of Delaware. If the transportation department is telling people to avoid the toll plaza during the holiday getaway, you know it's going to be bad.

I read your T-day travel summary, but still a little uncertain. For the first time in years we are travelling for Thanksgiving. Is going south toward VA Beach reasonable on Thursday morning? Is an early start mandatory? Thanks.

Yes, it's very reasonable. I'd start early, but it's not like Tuesday and Wednesday, when we advise real early starts to get people past the rush hour traffic that will be mingled with the getaway traffic.

Hi Dr. Gridlock, Sort of a reverse holiday travel question for you - my family is driving from Ohio (Lorain, to be exact) to visit me here in DC over Thanksgiving. They are leaving at 2:30pm due to work constraints. Any idea if they'll hit any significant traffic? Thanks!

You mean 2:30 on Wednesday, I'm thinking. Yes, somewhere along the way, they'll hit significant traffic. By the time they get to the DC area, though, things may be calming down on I-270 heading toward the Beltway.

Why does the WMATA believe that we are to be transported at their convenience, when in reality the system was built for our convenience? This mentality is reflected and well documented, from the attitudes of the station managers, the bus drivers, maintenance of escalators and stations, 20 minute wait times on weekends. With the rate increases we don't see any improvement in reliability of service...for example Saturday night from Silver Spring to Gallery Place, I waited at Silver Spring for 15 minutes before a train appeared on the PID...saying 8 minutes before the next arrival. Granted, work was being conducted at Rhode Island, but 23 minutes? From bus drivers who are texting and not fired in spite of no tolerance policy, to the rampant disregard of the no food or drink rules (count how many commuters have coffee every morning)...the level of service on Metro continues to deteriorate. Where is the accountability? Where is Mr. Sarles?

The transit autority does indeed have lots of problems. You've barely scratched the surface. I wouldn't blame them for the fact that people are eating and drinking in the system, though. Accountability on that one has to start with the riders.

Hi. I've been trying to avoid the horrendous traffic I've encountered on my last couple drives to Westchester County (holiday and non-holiday). My plan is to leave DC tomorrow evening around 7pm. Do you think this is a good game plan? If not, what would you suggest?

I think you'll be in pretty good shape, compared to the alternatives. I also hate driving across Westchester, with the never-ending highway construction. The worst part now, as I recall, is around White Plains.

Not sure what your destination is. Some travelers prefer to go farther north, rather than cross the Tappan Zee Bridge. They cross at Newburgh, NY.

How do we think traveling North on 95 from Richmond to DC will be on Friday morning? Afternoon? We need to be back by 5 and are wondering when the best time to chance it would be, or if we should take a different route altogether. Thanks!

On Friday, morning or afternoon, I'd stick with I-95. It might not be pretty for traffic, but it won't be anything like Wednesday or Sunday. And it's the biggest, widest highway you'll have.

How can we get the Park Service to set clear rules about when you can enter the parway at Woodley Park and get the Park Police to follow them? The NPS Press Release says its open until 10 am but the Park Police shut it down at 9:07 today and sometime prior to 9:15 every day this week. How do they justify closing it completely at all much less earlier even than the usual 9:30 transition time?

This situation on the Rock Creek Parkway in the Woodley Park area has frustrated lots of drivers during the past week. This was a sleeper project. Often, when high-impact projects are about to begin, traffic officials will explain the upcoming work to reporters so readers and viewers can have lots of lead time in adjusting routes and schedules. That didn't happen in this case.

Here's the very latest that I have from the park service about the schedule. This is from an advisory that went out Friday night:

Between 6:45 a.m. and 9:30 a.m., Monday through Friday, traffic will be able to enter the Calvert Street ramp (adjacent to the Shoreham Hotel)from southbound Connecticut Ave., at Calvert Street, and proceed to southbound Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway toward downtown Washington. The Calvert Street ramp will be closed to southbound traffic at all other times.

Park Police officers will be present in the construction zone at
all times to assist with traffic direction.

Beginning at 9:30 a.m., traffic direction will be reversed to proceed in a northbound direction on the same Calvert Street ramp (adjacent to the Shoreham Hotel.)  During all other times of the day, including PM rush(3:45 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.), traffic will be able to proceed northbound only on the Calvert Street ramp to Calvert Street N.W.

After 9:30 a.m., traffic will be able to proceed northbound only onto Cathedral Ave., N.W. to Woodley Road and onto Connecticut Avenue NW. There will be no access to the Calvert Street ramp and the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway from southbound Cathedral Avenue, N.W. at all times during this phase of construction.

This jibes with my experiences on Rock Creek Parkway. No matter what time they are supposed to switch lanes from being one-way only to going in both directions, it rarely seems to switch right at that time (even when you account for their usual transition times, they seem to switch it up occasionally). It appears that your best bet during this construction is to just add more time to your commute. Sorry if that's not more helpful, but with construction work like this (and with the potential for the delays to lead to a fender-bender and even worse delays), you're better off leaving 20-30 minutes earlier. 

Travelers, I know there are a tremendous number of Thanksgiving getaway questions and comments left here, but I've got to break away now. (I need to talk to some Maryland highway officials about the plans for dealing with winter weather this season. That's going to be my Commuter page feature this Sunday.)

I've got a copy of all the unpublished questions and comments and will focus on addressing as many as possible on the Dr. Gridlock blog over the next 24 hours.

Have a safe Thanksgiving.

Readers: Make sure to check out the Transportation page for a roundup of our suggestions for holiday travel. We've got tips for people taking planes, trains and automobiles.  And tomorrow you can chat with Lon Anderson of AAA Mid-Atlantic. Submit questions early here.

Travel safe, everybody. 

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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