Dr. Gridlock

Nov 25, 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. It's our last chat before Thanksgiving, so I want to get to as many of our getaway issues as possible today. but as we start, there also are a bunch of questions and comments about other traffic, transit and biking concerns.

We head to Richmond every Thanksgiving, and every Thanksgiving we try to leave at a different time and end up stuck in endless traffic. This year we have a baby so we're taking an extra vacation day and leaving tomorrow late morning-ish. Since we're leaving so early I'm tempted to take 95S instead of our usual 301S route, though the weather might change my mind. Do you think we're ok to take 95 tomorrow midday?

That's smart to begin your getaway so early, and given the timing, I'd go with I-95S rather than Route 301, but the most important thing will be to monitor the weather forecasts.

This goes for everyone planning a getaway, no matter what your direction of travel. Even leaving midday Tuesday, drivers are likely to encounter this big weather system, which won't leave the DC area till late Wednesday/early Thursday.

It may start and end as a wintry mix, but the heavy rain in between is the main event. It's going to slow you down, along with everyone else. Plan on extra travel time. Or consider leaving tonight or Thursday morning.


Hi Dr. Gridlock - I plan to leave for Western Massachusetts early on Thursday morning for Thanksgiving. It's the first time I'm making this drive on a holiday weekend. What's the best way to get around the NYC area? Do you think traffic will still be a nightmare on Thursday? Thanks!

Check some of the Northeast travel tips on this year's Thanksgiving getaway guide.

But if I were doing this trip long trip on Thanksgiving morning, I'd consider taking I-95 to the George Washington Bridge and through the Bronx.

This isn't a route I suggest lightly. The Cross Bronx Expressway can be a vision of hell if the traffic is heavy, which it often is. Plus, it's torn up in places for construction.

But the Thanksgiving morning traffic should be on the light side. (I never refer to New York traffic as flat-out "light.")

An alternative I've often used is to go north to the New York Thruway and cross the Hudson at the Tappan Zee Bridge. I do that when the traffic reports on radio and on the Grid Spouse's smartphone say there's heavy traffic on the GW Bridge and Cross Bronx.

Another potential bottleneck: If you pick up the Mass Pike at Sturbridge.

Taking the RD toward Shady Grove today, my train had two lengthy delays because there were two separate offloads in front of us (Union Station and Judiciary Square, I think). When I transferred at Gallery Place, I encountered the most crowded platform I've seen in six years. While delayed I looked at wmata's website and the website indicated no rail delays/alerts/advisories. My question, then: Do delays caused by offloading not constitute an alert /advisory/delay for wmata's system? If not, what does? I'm finding that Twitter (including your feed) is far more reliable than wmata's alert/notification system.

I received several similar messages from riders caught in delays on the east side of the Red Line during the morning rush.

The communications angle was a curiosity to me also, because I saw no e-mail alerts from Metro about the problem. Meanwhile, I did see a string of alerts via Metro's rail Twitter feed, @metrorailinfo.

This is what I mean:

Metrorail Info @Metrorailinfo  
Grosvenor-bound Red Line train offloading at NoMa. Next train directly behind. 7:06a #wmata
Metrorail Info @Metrorailinfo  
Grosvenor-bound Red Line train offloading at Union Station, door problem. Next train directly behind. 8:36a #wmata
Metrorail Info @Metrorailinfo  
Shady Grove-bound Red Line train offloading at Judiciary Square, door problem. Next train at Union Station. 8:48a #wmata
Metrorail Info @Metrorailinfo  
Red Line passengers expect residual delays as trains resume normal schedule & spacing. All trains are moving. 8:56a #wmata
Why do I see these alerts in one format and not another, and under what circumstances do I see any of them?
Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said that the general idea is that the rail control center generates alerts to riders when it calculates the delay will be at least 10 minutes. Metro officials think sending alerts for delays anticipated at less than 10 minutes would just annoy riders more than they already are annoyed by the delays.
But among the different types of alerts that can be sent out, the e-mailed alerts are considered most useful for riders before they start their trips.
Stessel said electronic alerts are not meant to substitute for the sorts of communication that are supposed to be working once riders enter the system: The electronic signs at the kiosks and on the platforms, the station speaker system and the operator's announcements on the trains.
Of course, that's a description of a world that's a lot more perfect than ours.
Did riders caught in this morning delay hear or see messages inside the stations and on trains? 

While stuck in a back up on the outer loop last night, I saw 2 impatient vehicles drive over the dividers and into the express lanes. I also saw that an emergency vehicle that had passed me in the regular lanes had popped over into the express lanes. I also saw at least two of the dividers had been knocked out and were laying in the middle of the express lanes. 1. Will those dividers cause damage to vehicles either driving over them or laying in the lanes? 2. Who should be called for dangerous items in the express lanes? State Troopers or Express Lanes? 3. Do those people that drive over the dividers get charged the rate from the next exit, the whole length of the express lanes or not at all? I think a $50 fine for stupidity but that's me.

If I saw a driver creating a dangerous situation like that for other drivers by knocking over the lane dividers, I'd call Virginia state police by using #77 on my cell phone. (The only think I would use a cell phone for while driving.)

But officials with Transurban, the company that operates the HOT lanes, tell me that replacing knocked down posts has not been a big issue in the year since the experss lanes opened.

They're probably a bigger issue for the car driver who rolls over them. They're designed so that an emergency vehicle -- like an ambulance or a fire truck -- can get over them. But they're tough enough so that they're very likely to damage a car.

To go from Bethesda Md to National Harbor,is 295 a viable alternatice to 495.?Thank you.

I'd take 295 rather than the Beltway on that route, as long as it's not rush hour. DC 295/I-295 can be one of the most congested routes in the region at rush hours.

For years, there have been improvements to the road and overpasses on DC295 - but it seems the new Anacostia River crossings hav slowed down rush hour traffic - in the AM and PM - instead of making it better. Is there an end in sight - and once the end arrives, is there any chance traffic will flow more freely?

This should get better by next summer, as long as the source of the problem is what I think it is.

Many drivers on the inbound freeway span of the 11th Street Bridge have to change lanes at least once to line up for the Southeast-Southwest Freeway toward downtown DC and Virginia. That backs up traffic significantly and affects the freeway approaches to the bridge.

When reconstruction of the freeway on the Capitol Hill/Navy Yard ends next summer, there will be an extra through lane onto the freeway from the bridge.


...to Northern NY on Wednesday afternoon/evening. I'm already resigned to huge traffic backups just due to volume. But is it likely I am going to hit a lot of the white stuff anywhere on the route? Unfortunately I have little flexibility with my departure time

This is exactly what I'd be worried about on a late-Wednesday trip through higher elevations -- in any direction from DC -- and it's something the Capital Weather Gang and other forecasters are watching closely. But the exact storm track, the temps and other conditions are not settled yet.

I think the Capital Weather Gang is planning a new posting for this afternoon with an update on Thanksgiving travel conditions.

Generally speaking: Plan on even more extra travel time because of the weather -- even if it's just rain.

I am going to be going to the Skins game tonight, and I am trying to figure out how best to get home to Columbia Pike. Is metro going to be open late after the game tonight? If so, would it be better to catch a cab from Pentagon City or Clarendon? I am assuming the 16 buses won't be running regularly.

There aren't any changes in Metrobus service, but Metrorail will be open late to accommodate football fans leaving the stadium and heading down to the Blue Line's Morgan Boulevard station. Riders will be able to make all transfers.

(Danny pays to OT.)

How does D.C. plan to plow the dedicated bike lanes this winter, and where do they plan to put the snow? It seems to me they're going to have the same problem as the Lexus Lanes in Virginia. Has the District revealed its plans yet?

I don't believe there are any plans to plow the bike lanes. That's my recollection from listening to Council Member Mary Cheh's hearing on DC snow preps last month.

I don't know of any jurisdiction in the DC region that plows bike lanes.

With the Beltway HOT lanes, I think VDOT learned something from the very limited experience with snow and ice last year. The express lanes are less traveled than the regular lanes, so VDOT can't count on the extra assistance that traffic provides in melting the snow. If we have a significant snow this winter, VDOT may need to pay more attention to the express lanes in terms of brine treatments and plowing.

We live in Annapolis, so normally when we are heading to Virginia Beach on a holiday weekend we will take 301 to 17 all the way down. Unfortunately, my MIL is having surgery on Tuesday, so we need to swing through NoVA on Tuesday night and leave for Virginia Beach midday Wednesday from the West side of the DC Beltway. Would it make sense to skip 95 entirely and go a bit out of the way, going west to 29 South, to route 3 in Fredericksburg, before cutting over to take 17 the rest of the way down?

You could do that, or you might be able to save a few miles by taking Route 28 -- rather than Route 29 -- to link up with Route 17.

In either case, you're swinging far enough west so that you're adding miles to the traditional route down I-95.

Many travelers say they'd rather do that than get in I-95 during a heavy travel time. But that's the thing: Many people will go for this alternative for their Thanksgiving travel. It's not necessarily a time saver.

And here again: Watch that weather forecast for Tuesday night and Wednesday.

Driving up to Rochester NY on Wednesday- we usually take I-83 to US-15 to I-86 to I-390, but that seems to be the bullseye for snow forecast. Any thoughts on alternate routes would be appreciated. Would it be better to pickup I-81 in Harrisburg and take that up to the NY thruway and approach from the east instead?

I see your concern, and am very glad to see you're taking the weather forecast seriously. The east vs. west route is a little bit more fine-tuning than I think we can do just now, so keep watching the forecast.

In either case, that's going to be a long and very difficult trip -- even if all you encounter is heavy rain. If it would be feasible to do the trip on Thursday, you might be better off. (I hope you don't have to turn around and come back right away.) The Thursday through Sunday forecast is much better than Tuesday-Wednesday.

What is the best way to commute on metro on the day before Thanksgiving. Last year it was my worst commute ever. I asked a station manager on Thursday this week and was told. Rush hour starts at 3pm. There are many people in DC that are released early or leave early on Wednesday. Last year I left at 1pm along with many others and the commute was not pleasant. I ended up walking the last 3 stops then wait for another train after my train had been offloaded. (considering we pasted at least 2 stations that had been passed by offloaded trains) Does Metro really think Rush Hour starts at 3pm on the day before Thanksgiving? I tried posing to the Metro comments and after a lengthy comment I hit submit and "an error occurred try again later" I'm frustrated. Thanks!

Metrorail isn't planning on extra service on Wednesday afternoon. Metro officials say that, historically at least, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving is a relatively light travel time. (A lot of people have left work by then.)

There will be extra service on Metrobus B30 from Greenbelt to BWI Airport and on Metrobus 5A to Dulles Airport.


Not sure where the OP lives but here's what we do. 270 Nrth to 15 North to 76 East to 81 North/East (76, while a toll road, aviods 581 at Camp Hill PA which tends to always be under construction). 81 to 84 East to 87 North (at Newburgh NY) and exiting 87 at 21A (to 90 East) into Western MA.

Thanks. This is for the original poster planning the getaway to Massachusetts.

On this route, I'd watch out for the higher elevations in PA and the Berkshires in western MA, because of the weather forecast.

Was planning to leave around 1 pm on Tuesday or 6 am on Wednesday. Now worried about both with weather. Will break of dawn Thursday be much better?

Let me show you the Capital Weather Gang's description of Wednesday into Thursday for the DC area, but note that the Gang will be updating this:

Rain gradually decreases in coverage and intensity during the day Wednesday, but may end as a brief period of sleet and/or snow, especially north and northwest of the District.  Temperatures near 40 (40s east of I-95) to start the day may fall back into the 30s during the afternoon – but they’re unlikely to fall fast enough to cause icy roads (still, we’ll keep an eye on this).  If there’s any consolation for travelers, it’s that the truly heavy precipitation falls the night before, and just another 0.1-0.3″ of rain is likely during the day. Accumulating snow doesn’t seem likely. But strong winds could be an issue, coming in from the northwest at 15-20 mph with higher gusts. Gradual clearing, windy, and cold Wednesday night, with lows 24-28 (suburbs-city).

Also note -- as the driver bound for Rochester did -- that this is a big East Coast storm that will have different effects in different areas at different times.

Of course Virginia needs to kick in and plow the HOT lanes heavily. It's not just that these people are paying for those lanes. It's that they also have the political juice to make things miserable for all those in VDOT. Plowing bike lanes, on the other hand, is ludicrous. Nobody important uses bike lanes in the winter. If you're DC governnment, you can very easily afford to blow off the granolas who want to bike without a hint of concern.

When I lived in Montreal, the city had snowplows for the sidewalks. That made sense. In Montreal. The D.C. region doesn't get enough snow to justify the expense of additional equipment to plow all types of lanes -- or sidewalks.

I submitted the question earlier about the delay and lack of email notification. Unfortunately, I do not have a smart phone or twitter, so I could not have seen the twitter alerts. My total delay was at least 15-20 minutes, so I do not understand how Metro calculated that it was less than 10 minutes. The train was held for 1-3 minutes at every station between Silver Spring and Union Station, and at several points between stations.

What Metro is saying is that riders should have been able to see electronic signs in stations and hear announcements in the stations and on the trains about this morning's Red Line situation.

Whether this happened, I don't know. I'm familiar with the quality of station and train announcements.

Also, Red Line riders will note that there can be a big difference in the estimated delays as reported on Metro's electronic alerts and what they actually experience.


I concur with the commenter as the commute home last year on Wed before Thanksgiving was bad since they didn't have enough trains to accommodate everyone going home early.

I have a 7:30p flight out of BWI tomorrow afternoon. I never fly out of Baltimore--and the Tuesday before Thanksgiving to boot . . . how much time should I leave to drive up and get through security (coming from NW DC)? Thank you!!

Long-time readers -- as well as the Grid Spouse -- know that I'm very conservative with my airport arrival time estimates.

So in this case, I'd leave NW DC by 3:30 p.m., even though BWI is a very convenient airport.

If this is a shortish trip -- no more than a few days -- I'd consider parking at the daily garage, rather than the uncovered long-term lots. It will cost more, but you may wind up appreciating the cover.

The security lines at BWI are well-managed, but at Thanksgiving, you have many travelers who are relatively inexperienced with them and with the rules on what you can take through. So allow extra time for that.

A lot of shopping centers have two or three way stops where traffic entering the shopping center does not stop. I was entering one such shopping center this weekend. Traffic at the stop sign was taking turns and I guess the cars didn''t realize that incoming traffic has the right of way because they kept taking turns when the light turned green and a flow or cars entered. It was a dangerous situation for the first driver who had the right of way even though another driver thought it was her turn. I understand they don't want traffic to back up onto the main road, but I find such intersections to be dangerous. A driver entering should proceed with caution, but slowing down may signal to others to take their turn.

Shopping center lots and garages are particularly tricky during holiday time. Partly it's the volume. Partly it's the distraction. Partly it's that people may be on a once-a-year visit to these places. And, well, partly it's because you don't have to be an Einstein to get a driver's license.

I worry most about pedestrians, because they're the most vulnerable.

We all blame Metro for the lack of progress that customers can see, but it seems that the upgrades to the PIDs, the new lighting rolling out to all underground stations, and the removal of carpeting from the 5000/6000 series railcars is going a long way to changing that perception gap. I LOVE the new L'Enfant mezzanine lighting - it completely changes the feel of the station.

These are all good things. But it's difficult to measure overall progress. Red Line riders, for example, have endured many bad rush hours lately. To them, better lighting at L'Enfant Plaza is meaningless -- as are overall stats about rail system reliability.

Besides making the trains run on time, Metro should do more to give riders benchmarks for measuring the progress with the long-term rebuilding program.

You've talked before about how where 1 lane ends and merges into another lane, whether it is better fro traffic to alternate (the zipper merge) or if people should get over from the lane ending earlier than at the end. My pleas is to not start that debate up again, but for those that wait until the end to merge, will you please put on your turn signal? Yes, I know you will be merging, but it is a simple acknowledgement from you that you know you are merging in front of someone else, and that it is your lane that is closing. I would be happy to let you in front of me, even if you are "butting" in line, as long as you signal your intention.

I'm all for restoring the lost art of signaling lane changes. (How hard is it to flick that lever?)

The commenter is talking about the grand debate on whether it makes more sense to have drivers merge as soon as they're aware of a lane ending or to have them wait till they get right up to the merge point.

A bigger issue than turn signal use -- much as I endorse that -- is the speed of the traffic in this situation. The last- minute taking turns pattern, the zipper merge, works best when traffic already is moving slowly. 

Thanks for joining me today. If you have other questions or comments on Thanksgiving travel, write to me at drgridlock@washpost.com. I'll be doing some more Dr. Gridlock blog postings about getaway issues -- as well as watching the Capital Weather Gang's forecast.

I hope you enjoy Thanksgiving, even if just traveling from the couch to the dinner table. Let's get together again next Monday and discuss travel issues that arose over the holiday.

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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