Dr. Gridlock

Nov 26, 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. Sorry for the late start. Had some tech problem on my side.

What's the analysis on the Express lanes impact on side roads where there are entrances and exits to the Express lanes? I was on 29 west tonight where a light was added for the entrances and exits and traffic on 29 was backed up for miles. The light was incredibly short for those on route 29. I can't imagine this is the only road being impacted by the added lights for entrances and exits.

I've been hearing some complaints about the traffic signals at the access points. I know that VDOT engineers are looking for such side effects and can make adjustments to the lights.

The HOT Lane signs telling me the toll cost should also estimate the time savings so I can make an informed purchase. I won't pay $1.50 to save 10 seconds but I might pay to save 10 minutes. (This probably applies to ICC too...). Why don't they do this?

That's too much signage for the average driver to read. Same reason that drivers don't see more than three toll rates at a time when there are many more access points. Driver might not ever see toll rate to the driver's destination.

Using express lanes requires more planning than most of us are used to before we hop in our cars.

Useful information about traffic conditions here:



For the past month I have observed police cruisers in Md and Va with lights flashing at bridges . Many of the bridges have been not significant bridges. Just stationed there with lights flashing. Kind of unusual. Any ideas as to why?

Nope. Haven't seen that myself while driving around.

I was wondering if there was an update on opening the ramps from the 11th st bridge outbound to I-295 north? I saw construction equipment still there yesterday so I assume that's not quite done yet. My partner commutes from downtown Anacostia to Tyson's corner, so she has to get to 395, so I'm also curious about the ramp from 11th st to 695 Westbound -- I saw they had paved it, will it be open soon? Finally anxious to see the ramps from I-295 southbound to the local bridge, and from the local bridge to I-295 north to open. All these ramps were supposed to be open by Thanksgiving -- any updates? They look like they're almost done.

I remember writing "around Thanksgiving" for the outbound one to northbound DC 295. It's not quite done. Should be in next couple of weeks.

I saw someone backing up on the GW parkway because they missed the exit for 495 last week. It was pretty empty at the time, but that's still incredibly dangerous. If that wasn't bad enough, I saw people backing up on 495 because they had accidentally entered the HOT lanes. It won't kill you to have to pay $4 or $5 one time, but backing up on an interstate highway might. Are the police doing anything about this?

There are extra state police patrols in the HOT lanes. Still, that's 14 miles of lanes, or 28 if you count both directions.

It's hard to think of anything more selfish than risking people's lives because you got in the wrong lane.

Was surprised to see that Metro was operating a full weekday schedule (with full fares and parking) on the Friday after Thanksgiving? I'm not complaining because I'd rather pay a little more for less crowded, more frequent trains but why run a full schedule on Friday but insist on weekend schedule for Columbus Day and the like when everyone but federal employees has to work.

Yes, that's interesting. Many riders waiting on jammed platforms on the Monday of Veterans Day weekend because of reduced service and track work disruptions. Metro GM Richard Sarles said the maintenance program was absolutely necessary and no accommodations could be made.

But service was normal on Thanksgiving Friday, which seems like it would have been a splendid opportunity for track work and an off-peak schedule.

My family lives in Northern NJ, so I'm frequently traveling between NOVA and NJ. Any idea on when the construction to widen the highway between the merge and exit 6 will be complete? I'm curious how much longer I'm going to have to suffer through it.

Yes, that's quite the project on the Turnpike in the middle of New Jersey. Reminds me of our Beltway HOT lanes in that it involves adding lanes on the outside of the highway. Even with all travel lanes open, there's still rough pavement, lane shifts and no shoulders. All that slows traffic.

Supposed to be done in 2014.

How do I get from the Express Lane onto I 270? Do I need to merge with the regular 495 traffic first? Do you merge on the left or right?

The express lanes end north of the Dulles Toll Road. At that point, the express lanes drivers merge right to join the left side of the regular lanes.

I hate that type of merge, because it requires the merging drivers to look over their right shoulders for high-speed traffic.

One thing about this merge: There's a long stretch when drivers in the express lanes and drivers in the regular lanes can see each other. If they're decent drivers, they should be able to line up for a smooth merge. (If.)

Since Transurban is footing the bill to enforce HOV rules in the Express Lanes, do they get all or part of the fines levied to violators?

Transurban is indeed paying for the state police patrols in the new lanes under a contract with Virginia. But that doesn't make Transurban a separate state with its own legal system. The police are there to enforce all the state's laws and tickets they issue are to be handled just like tickets on other Virginia highways.

Dr. Gridlock, I'm curious to know your take on last week's media firestorm about the Express Lanes' southern end. Obviously the string of crashes merited coverage, and obviously any time a new road/ramp/whatever opens it's important for the managing authority to keep an eye on things and tweak the setup as needed. But I thought some of last week's reaction was a bit over-the-top because it seemed like there was a bit of a rush by some (not you, BTW) to condemn the whole thing as somehow unsafe or a disaster. It sure seems to me that rushing to judgment based on two weekend days and two commute days in a short work week is very premature. (I do set aside the comments by some Post readers, such as "Ferguson_Foont" who filled the comments on Express Lane articles with diatribes against the project, because I think when someone clearly has an agenda he forfeits any claim to credibility.)

So I'm driving back and forth in the new lanes on opening day, and I've got the radio on and I'm hearing about chaos and carnage on the lanes. And I'm looking around and seeing ... nothing. For long stretches of time, I'd be the only driver in the HOT lanes, getting on and off with no trouble whatsoever.

So I would have noted that the crashes were limited to a particular area. However, I certainly would have noted that they were occurring and that VDOT was making adjustments to further warn drivers where the lane entrances were. That meets the test of news.

My current concern about the HOT lanes has more to do with how drivers are adapting to the access points at the interchanges along the way. Are the lanes causing any unintended consequences for nearby traffic that should be addressed?

At this point, I'd say yes: I've heard from many drivers who think the signal lights need adjustment. Drivers also are complaining that when they are westbound on Route 7 they get surprised when the left lane becomes a turn lane.

I've been away since the opening of the new lanes ... is there an "average" price that folks have been paying? What would one expect to pay to go the full 14 miles? What about 1/2 way?

Commenter 1995hoo and I were exchanging notes about that on the Dr. Gridlock blog this morning. He said he'd seen the toll as high as $1.85 for the full 14 mile trip. That was last Tuesday morning.

The highest I've seen is $1.65. That's what it was for much of this morning's rush. We haven't seen much variation over the week. For example, the toll from Gallows Road to Westpark Drive in Tysons was 65 cents during this morning's rush, same as it was during the morning rush one week ago.

The HOT lanes operators have said that they expect the average toll collected will be $3 to $6, but I'm sure they're talking about a long-range projection, rather than what we're seeing in the early going.

As a non-HOV driver approaching 495 on I66 east, when can I move over to the HOV lane to access the 495 express lane? If I go past the "regular" 495 exits, I'm in violation of 66's HOV. I don't actually see myself using the express lane, but it would be useful info. Thanks!

Get over to the left as soon as you see the signs for the express lanes.

This is another area I'm concerned about. Not because anybody's going to get a ticket for moving into the left-side HOV lanes but rather because I worry about all the lane shifting that may occur in that zone near the Beltway interchange.

It's a difficult area in the first place. VDOT has added solid double white lines in some areas to get people to stop weaving in and out. But outside of those areas, drivers will have to move right so they can use the right-side exit ramp to the regular Beltway lanes.

Maybe it is because I grew up using toll roads like the Garden State Parkway and the NJ Turnpike, but I think the 495 Express Lanes are great. Using them this AM instead of the Inner Loop saved me almost 20 mins. Paying tolls may be a culture clash for this region, but I think people will come around when they see the advantages. I only wish the lanes extended further north and closer to the Legion Bridge.

I think toll roads are very likely to be the way of the future in the DC region and elsewhere unless a lot of people are willing to see the gas taxes go up.

The DC region's drivers aren't used to tolls, and they certainly aren't used to seeing tolls used to manage traffic congestion. It's a lot to get used to.

Meanwhile, Maryland needs to come up with some plan for managing traffic north of the Legion Bridge. That was true even before the HOT lanes were added in Virginia.

This morning the "scheduled" 8:02 Blue Line Train towards Largo at Pentagon City never showed up (I arrived at the station at 7:58, 10 minute wait). Last week, the same thing happened with the 8:26 "scheduled" train. Is this more punishment for Blue Line riders? Give us a handful of 8 car trains but spread them even farther apart, and fail once again to accurately update the trip planner/schedule? Is that the great Silver Line idea they've come up with?

You're far more trusting of Trip Planner than I am.

When we tested the Rush Plus service last month, I found it very difficult to compare what I was seeing on the platform message boards with what I had seen in Trip Planner.

What I'd worry about concerning the Silver Line is how Metro is going to get those new trains through the Rosslyn tunnel at rush hours. Metro officials have yet to announce how they're going to do that, but say they haven't ruled anything out. So I'm curious about whether the addition of the Silver Line will mean even fewer Blue Line trains going through Rosslyn.

Running late for a flight at BWI in mid-October, we drove across MoCo on the ICC. We don't have an EZ-Pass, so expected to receive a bill in the mail. We haven't. We'd be happy to pay up, but can't figure out how. What to do? (We live in Va.--is that the reason we haven't gotten a bill yet?)

I'm not sure how long it takes to get the bill for video tolling. It's supposed to be mailed to the registered own of the vehicle at the address that appears on the vehicle registration, and I think it's a matter of weeks, but not sure exactly how many.

I think it's that WMATA follows the federal calendar, not that that makes sense.

Metro does largely follow the federal calendar. As many riders pointed out on Veterans Day Monday, the federal calendar does not necessarily reflect their commuting schedules.

You are assuming that the workers doing track work don't have lives themselves. That they don't have family to travel to on Thanksgiving weekend. No, they should give up everything in their lives so that they can do track work on the Friday after Thanksgiving. Also, we should make they work every day from midnight to 4am. Yes, I'm being sarcastic.

I've seen this on I-66...troopers and local police on the bridges over the highway. Pretty sure it's for POTUS or some other diplomat/gov't official with a motorcade about to head that way. Keeps anyone from being a threat from the bridge.

Thanks, re the pervious question about seeing police on some local highway bridges.

It typically takes at least four weeks.

Thanks, and that makes sense. It's got to go through a back off operation that views the image of the license plate then tracks down the registration, then mails out the bill.

I just drove I-66 yesterday. At the Dunn Lorning Metro Station, there is a sign that permits non HOV to access the HOV lane to get on the I-495 express lanes. I have no idea how well it works in the morning rush hour, but the sign is there.

Original poster here. Just wanted to say that I've been worried about the lane shifting at the 66 West/495 split, too. But so far, it hasn't been an issue, & I'm there at rush hour (about 8:30 to 8:45). Hope this remains true!

I had the same experience - it took a couple of months for them to send me the bill. I live in VA too.

It seems a lot of folks out there have either forgotten or never learned the rules of the solid white line. In Tyson's on International Drive and Greensboro it is usually a cluster of people 3 lanes deep trying to get left to turn onto 123. Who can I contact to request some kind of physical barrier to be put up to prevent 'late cutters' that just make the back up worse?

I think I might start with VDOT's customer service phone line: 800-367-7623

The real cash cow is going to be the 95 south HOT/HOV extension to Fredericksburg. I would definitely pay to use those lanes if it meant I could go 45-55mph the whole way on a Friday afternoon/evening. Do you know when that project will be complete and open to traffic?

Late 2014.

I thought that wasn't reliable AT ALL for rush hour? People are better off using the real time arrivals page of their website for rush hour estimated arrivals.

While I wouldn't rely on Trip Planner, I have had some good luck with it. It's just that it seems to depend on that: luck.

So I also check the next time arrivals page on the Web site and the electronic alerts, as well as the platform signs.

Speaking of the real time arrivals on the Web site, it's a bit like checking the 495 Express Lanes Web site for the toll rates. Thanks could change between the time you check from home or office and when you arrive at the train platform, or the HOT lanes access point.

With the HOT lanes, you could always decide to get in the regular lanes rather than pay the toll, but when you arrive at the Metro platform, you're kind of stuck.

I don't understand why the express lane rates don't drop to virtually nothing during times when the regular lanes are moving freely. Driving on 495 a few times this weekend, I saw a decent amount of traffic that was moving at full speed, but the express lanes were completely empty. I would gladly pay 10 cents to be in a more empty lane, but would not pay $1.60 to go the same speed as regular traffic. I have to imagine Transurban knows the economics to maximize profits, but it seems some people paying a tiny amount is more than nobody paying.

My understanding of the toll-setting scenario is that it's based on the speed in the various segments of the express lanes rather than on a comparison of the speed in the express lanes vs. the speed in the regular lanes.

The lowest toll I've noticed so far was this morning's 30 cents to go from the outer loop to the Jones Branch Drive exit.  (If I worked in that northern part of Tysons, I'd probably pay that toll, not because of any calculation about the traffic congestion in the regular lanes vs. the HOT lanes but just because the Jones Branch exit would give me a more direct route to the office.)

I am sure it is frustrating to Metro drivers to have nearly empty trains on Black Friday, and to contend with overflow crowds on Veteran's Day and Columbus Day. While Metro serves a lot of federal workers, its purpose is to serve the population in this area. Customer service, people!! Go with a Saturday or Sunday schedule on Black Friday (no track work), and do a regular schedule on those two holidays that only feds seem to get.

I think I've got a contrasting opinion coming up.

I'm not sure what options Metro has regarding holiday schedules, but it seems reasonable to follow the federal calendar, given the high portion of riders who are either federal employees, contractors, or work in the private sector for a company that follows federal holidays and closings (which a LOT in this area do).

Isn't this a catch-22? If they do work, the system will appear crowded and the waits will be unreliable. If they don't do the work on days when ridership is expected to be low, you'll see empty trains. My thoughts on the matter are as follows: 1. Mid-line trackwork requiring bus bridges, single tracking, and 20 minute headways on days such as Columbus Day and Veterans day is a mistake, but doing it at a few end stations (i.e. Silver Spring to Glenmont) would have a marginal effect on the system as a whole. 2. Establishing a policy of no major trackwork when the federal government is open on weekdays isn't an unreasonable policy and standard to set. That said, WMATA's trackwork notices could be much better. The MTA in New York gives notice far in advance of even just single tracking or local trains running express. WMATA only gives notice on Monday for the following weekend for anything "minor." It is on the calendar long before, they could tell the public.

Many good ideas there.

35 minutes to go 2.3 miles from the Main Toll plaza to the Inner Loop of the Beltway. That was this morning. For this we're going to pay even more money come January 1st? Related question for the Express Lanes - if the contractor fails to meet the 45 MPH target - either through mismanagement of the traffic or accidents - do the drivers get charged less? Or even charged nothing? Plus, how would police get drivers stuck on the Express Lanes out and onto the main lanes?

There was a Beltway crash up by the GW Parkway. It caused extensive backups on both loops and affected traffic coming from the Dulles Toll Road onto the northbound Beltway (inner loop).

It's interesting that the express lanes have been open one week and already drivers are trying to figure out how to dodge the tolls. The 45 mph is a federal standard for HOT lanes operations. It doesn't mean that if a driver's spedometer shows 40 mph the driver is going to get his money back.

The white bollards can be removed by emergency responders so that traffic can move from the express lanes to the regular lanes and vice versa in emergencies. (And drivers wouldn't be charged a toll if they were directed from the regular lanes to the express lanes.)


I have a problem with toll roads paying for ads. In theory, the toll roads need to collect tolls to pay for the road. When they are spending money for other things, they aren't using the tolls as expected. Why should my toll dollars go towards getting more people to use the road?

I think most of the toll revenue will wind up paying off the bond holders since the lanes were built largely at private expense in exchange for the toll revenue.

Seems to me that the private operator would have every right to advertise the lanes under the financial agreement with the state.

The main line of I-395 concisely states distances and times to get to places further south. It is useful information and can be digested quickly. No reason the same type of signage could not be used for the HOT lanes.

I agree that those signs are valuable, and I get complaints about them. Drivers write in to say that they only cause traffic congestion as drivers slow to read them.

Umm...yes, actually, if you take a job that requires weekend & holiday work -- like police officers, firemen, Wal-Mart clerks, and (gasp!) Metro maintenance worker, you should expect to adjust your holiday plans and make your family aware that YOUR JOB requires you to work a different schedule than MOST other people. And yes, that may mean working over Thanksgiving weekend, so that the vast majority of people don't have to be inconvenienced by your holiday plans. Metro blew it by scheduling work on days that most people have to work (Columbus Day and Veterans' Day).

I recently heard that the only idea to improve traffic for 270 is to add bus-only lanes. Could they not have brought this up when they were planning the almost-done improvement to the bridges? Two out of the three bridges will need more work if they do this, and what is your opinion about whether this approach will work? Mine is no.

I think this idea has more of a chance of working than the commuter bus route between the I-270 corridor and Tysons that fizzled about 10 years ago. Few commuters rode those buses because they got stuck in traffic along with everyone else.

But if a bus lane is added, then it ought to be supported by a sufficient number of buses to make it a realistic alternative for commuters.

I think the lag time in Maryland has more to do with a lack of money than anything else.

Thanks, travelers. And once again, I'm sorry about the late start today. I tried to publish many responses, and tried to keep my responses relatively short -- and you know I can go on and on about this stuff.

With the express lanes, I'm planning to write a review for The Post Commuter page on Sunday, Dec. 9. Before that, I'll probably write some more blog postings about them and look at some of the issues you've raised today.

Stay safe out there, so we can do this 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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