Dr. Gridlock

Nov 28, 2011

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.

I hope everyone enjoyed safe travels for Thanksgiving. I drove north on what I always refer to as the traditional route: I-95 to I-295 in Delaware to the Delaware Memorial Bridge. But then took I-295 north for Thanksgiving dinner with good friends in Cherry Hill, NJ.

All this on Thanksgiving afternoon. Decent traffic, but there were knots of congestion. One place there was no congestion:  I-95 Delaware toll plaza highway speed E-ZPass lanes.

But what was it like for those of you who drove off last Wednesday and came back Sunday?

Hi Dr. Gridlock, Is there an email address we can use to contact you?



Drove the ICC this past week and I've got to say I love it. I'm not sure if it saved me time (versus taking 495) during the "off peak" time but it was a nicer road, smoother ride, fewer curves, fewer exits, etc - things that make driving nicer. However, I know that the police are watching for speeders but please tell your readers this does NOT mean you need to drive 50 mph in the left lane.

Wow, I haven't seen anyone driving 50 in the ICC in any lane. 

The speed limit is 55.

I like the new segment. It seems more interesting to drive than the shorter part that opened in February.

Many of you suggested routes you'd like to see compared. Thanks, and I'll be testing them over the next few weeks so I can do a Commuter page feature in The Post  advising on what works and what doesn't.

Dr. Gridlock, I have read that Tommy Wells and Muriel Bowser have introduced a bill that would lower the general speed limit for the District from 25 mph to 15 mph. That is just insane. All it does is increase auto emissions and damage automatic transmissions. Please tell me that there's no chance for this bill to become law.

I understand the sentiment -- they want to protect pedestrians -- but that's a school zone speed limit, not a neighborhood limit.

I haven't asked police or ped safety officials about this yet, but I suspecdt they'd tell me it would be extremely difficult to enforce and probably not worth the cost of changing all the city speed limit signs.

I commute from DC to Silver Spring using the bus or the metro. I've been waiting and waiting for the new Transit Station to open but progress seems almost non-existent. What's holding up this project? Is there any chance we'll see it before Spring?

I heard by the end of the winter. The big hangup was back before the concrete and steel started to rise out of the pit. There were some issues about utility relocation. Since that got resolved, the project -- in my view -- has made steady progress.

But I understand travelers' impatience with this. The buses were relocated several years ago, and we'd all like to see them put back into a more convenient spot near the Metrorail station.

Dr. Gridlock, I wanted to provide you with an update. We take 295 around Richmond, which is wider and faster, as in 70mph almost the entire length. That also allows a stop at one of the WaWa's in the Hopewell area for cheap gas and good road food quickly. Back on 95, we divert onto 795 near Goldboro which eventually turns into 117, a local road but averages 55mph and lights are only for crossing traffic. Turn left onto Rt 40 past the Mt. Olive Community College and that's about 100 miles to home. My parents left around 1pm on Wednesday and made it to my house by 7:15. They said the worst part was getting through downtown Wilmington. They left Alexandria late morning on Saturday and made it home in just about 6 hours. Thanks again!

Thank you so much for getting back to me with that report, and I'm glad that worked out. Each fall, I collect such reports and use them to improve the guidance we give for the following year. (But first: I'll use travelers' updates for some pre-Christmas week postings.)

My brother had his iPad stolen right out of his hands while riding the Orange Line into DC from New Carrollton a couple weeks ago. It took place around 11:30 am on a weekday train with about 10-15 other passengers. My brother tried to chase the thief and yelled for help from others in the station, but people seemed very slow to realize what was going on and watched as the thief jumped the exit gate and ran off. The two booth attendants were completely oblivious. Metro transit police told him his best chance of catching the guy was to notify them if he saw him on the train again, which didn't seem particularly helpful. Why is this not being talked about more? It seems like awareness and vigilance on the part of the public would be an easy deterrent. Otherwise, crimes occur in broad daylight and we all just stand around and gawk.

Really sorry to hear that happened.

I think there has been a reasonable amount of publicity about the theft of electornic devices on Metro, including warnings from the transit authority.

For example, I just went over to Metro's Web site and found a warning on the home page. Metro police put out these security tips:

  • Remain alert and aware of your surroundings.
  • Carry your electronic device in your front pocket or a place where it is not easily seen or in easy reach of others.
  • Avoid using an electronic device near the train or bus doors. Many “snatch robberies” take place as the doors are closing.
  • Avoid using an electronic device on platforms.
  • If you must use an electronic device, protect it by holding it with both hands at all times.
  • Change the color of your earphones. White or red wires can indicate that you're carrying expensive equipment.
  • When parking at a Metro facility, take all valuables with you. Remember to remove your GPS and holder from the windshield.
  • If parking a bike at a Metrorail station, use a high-quality lock that cannot be easily broken.

Went to the Caps game on Friday, 11/25 and parked on the street about 3:30 for the 4:00 game. Didn't know that parking restrictions were in effect on the Friday after Thanksgiving. Came back to a $100 ticket issued at 4:01 pm for parking during rush hour. I know ignorance isn't an excuse but... A police officer I asked advised contesting the ticket stating that I didn't know parking restrictions were in effect that day. Any other advice? Seems that the Caps fan were sitting ducks last Friday.

That must have felt like the perfect topper on the afternoon after the loss to the Rangers.

I have no other advice. The Friday after Thanksgiving is always a regular day for DC traffic laws. DC pretty much goes with the federal holidays, and the Friday after Thanksgiving -- while it may be a day many people take off -- is not a holiday.

OK, VDOT and Fluor-Transurban have had 10 days to correct the signage approaching this horrible bottle-neck...why no action yet? The new lane configuration is better but certainly not good - and no new signs means it's not really an improvement at all. I am really tired of paying to ride the toll road and then running into this mess. It'll be worse when the tolls go up again in just over a month's time!

Tolls at the main toll plaza go up 25 cents on Jan. 1. I do think the suggestion about the signs indicating the restoration of the ramp lane is a good idea.

Your note led me to notice that the airports authority, which operates the toll road, is planning a public meeting for Dec. 6 to discuss operations and financing.

Here are the details:

Tuesday, December 6, 2011
South Lakes High School – Cafeteria
11400 South Lakes Drive
Reston, VA 20191

It's 5 to 8 p.m. and it's an open house format.


A good and a bad about the ICC. The BAD: Northbound on Georgia Ave. The left lane changes from through to left only for 200 West - THEN it pushes you to the left of two left turn lanes. With so little warning that getting over one lane is dangerous in moderate to heavy traffic. This either needs better signage or a redesign to keep the left lane as a through and have the ICC West turn lanes peel off. The GOOD: On Friday I took a longer loop from Rockville to Timonium so I could ride the length. The biggest issue was the exit from I-270 to MD-200 where it backed up a little. Other than that it was a fine ride. I for one am happy with the road overall.

Not the first time I've heard a complaint about what happens in the northbound lanes on Georgia just past Norbeck Road. Hope the Maryland State Highway Administration will look at that.

State highway and transportation authority officials said they'd monitor traffic conditions now that the additional segment has opened.

Thanks for the information about I-270 to MD 200. I've been worried about the opposite move: Connector to I-270 southbound.

It's hard to tell what's going to happen to traffic. We're still in a shakedown period. Tolling starts Dec. 5, and we'll also be in a holiday period. So probably we don't get a good idea about traffic till at least January.

Has the ramp to I66 eastbound to Roosevelt Bridge from Rt 29 in Rosslyn always been HOV-2? Just noticed big signs recently... Thanks.

Well, maybe not always, but I know I haven't heard of any change recently in any HOV rules in Virginia.

I was stuck in traffic on the beltway near Rockville, and a man got out of his car and asked to meet me for lunch. My friend had a similar experience, when she was stuck on the beltway near Tysons. Is this common. I have been reading about it and it's called traffic tie-ups, where people while waiting in their cars are planning meetings.. sort of a social networking...

That's a bit more social than I'd want to get. Anybody else experience this?

I saw your item yesterday about the 'traffic calming' project in Aldie. Can you find out who authorized this and how much it will cost? I drive through Aldie 10 or 12 times a week and have never seen anyone speeding in excess of the 25 mph limit. Indeed, I have never seen any attempt at police speed enforcement, probably because it would produce zero revenue. With all the real traffic problems in Loudoun County, why is money being squandered on this project?

I think the Aldie traffic calming project, being done by VDOT, will cost about $7 million.

It's being done with community support. Maybe things look different to pedestrians and local drivers than they do to drivers passing through the village.

Well, they've done it again - yet another "New Traffic Pattern" that backed up the DTR eastbound for miles this morning. I didn't see any news or notice about this, so any idea what the brilliant minds at VDOT have done this time? Getting to I-66E from the DTR is still a nightmare so clearly that wasn't part of the "fix." I love paying for the privilege of sitting in traffic at this debacle of an interchange every weekday morning! December 2012? SERIOUSLY?

I don't know of a "New Traffic Pattern" at the Beltway interchange other than the the ramp widening to the northbound Beltway we talked about earlier.

"Mark in the Morning" Berman, who does our daily traffic report on the Dr. Gridlock blog, reported this about 6 a.m.:  "An accident on eastbound I-66 at Chain Bridge Road is blocking the left two lanes and the left shoulder. There are already heavy delays approaching this spot."

Might that have had anything to do with what you encountered?

(The HOT lanes project is scheduled to be done at the end of next year, but some improvements in that Beltway/DTR work zone should arrive by spring.)

Every once in a while, I see a sign that tells about a new traffic pattern that will begin on some date in the future. While it might be nice to know, it would seem to me that it would be more useful if it could actually say what will be changing about the traffic pattern. Will a lane be closed, will there be a new lane added, or what? I realize these signs can only display a limited amount of text before they become more a hazard, but "New Traffic Pattern" just isn't very informative.

This on one of the electronic message boards? That often is frustrating. I think what the people who write out the messages are trying to do is convey some necessary information within the time it takes to drive past the signs, so they want to be very compact with the wording. Brevity is a virtue, but sometimes the signs are confusing.

Have the rules regarding parking at metro stations changed? I had parked at the station (unusual for me) and tried to leave using my SmarTrip but the thing said it was a negative balance. I was a little puzzled at that because I knew I had gotten my Smart Benefits as usual and it was only half way through the month. I got into a different line and paid with credit card. The next day, I checked my balance and it was positive. I went through the metro fare gates without difficulty. Then when I went to leave the parking lot again, I got the negative balance message! Now this past week, I ran out of my Smart Benefits money and loaded my own money onto the SmarTrip. Now I can leave the parking lot using SmarTrip. Have the rules changed?

Yes, the rules have changed. Your description reads like a case of parking benefits vs. transit riding benefits, mixed in with your personal purse, which can be used anyway you want. Your benefits office should be able to tell you exactly how this new division applies to you. But check out the story by Post Metro Girl Dana Hedgpeth:


Dr. G: Anecdotal, I know. But two customary 8-hour drives made by folks who I know. One from southwestern North Carolina to Baltimore area on Wednesday afternoon. Other from D.C. to northern South Carolina on Tuesday afternoon. Normal 8-hour drive made Tuesday afternoon: 11+ hours Normal 8-hour drive made Wednesday afternoon: just under 8 hours Just my contribution to the discussion.

I heard traffic was quite difficult Tuesday afternoon and evening, as it has been in recent years during Thanksgiving getaway week.  I think that's the new normal.

(Though I want to keep pointing out that the advice I give about getaways is based on historic patterns. Drivers can leave 20 minute apart and have very different experiences because of an accident, a lane closing, the angle of the sun, etc.)

Hello, Thanks for taking my question. I know that per Maryland law, speed cameras in MD can only begin ticketing at 12 miles per hour over the limit. What is the law in DC? Is there a set number of miles over where DC begins ticketing or is it decided on a case-by-case (or as it may be camera-by-camera!) basis? Thanks!

Maryland is unusual in giving that 12 mph buffer before issuing camera tickets. DC has no such provision. (And there's no restriction in either jurisdiction on the mph for an officer to write a speeding ticket.)

Memo to Metro: Many businesses, not to mention the government, let their workers leave early on the day before major holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas. As a result, rush hour starts much earlier on these days. 15 minutes between trains on the Orange Line this past Wednesday afternoon does not cut it folks.

A good point, and we'll probably have a similar issue on Thursday, Dec. 22, with the Christmas getaway.

Is there any means in Va to go about having a trafic light removed?

That's an unusual one. People are more often asking how to get a traffic light installed, and that can take years.

You can start the process by contacting VDOT (if you're in VDOT territory on traffic signals) but I'll bet it's going to take support from the local community and from the local rep in the county or city.

Dr. Gridlock, do you have a sense for what the current planned schedule is for when the "Local"/"Thru" configuration on the Beltway might be completed? (Recognizing that weather and the like can mess up any plans)

I believe the Wilson Bridge project is still trying to get that done by the end of the year, but project managers warned me the very last phase would be highly dependent on favorable weather and might spill over into the spring.

I should get an update and share it.

So can they do the same ont he ICC? Will this be a speed trap the whole distance? That ought to pay for it in five years or so.

There's nothing like that anywhere in the DC region, and I've heard no one suggest it. Not for ICC, Dulles Toll Road or HOT lanes.

Since I live on Norbeck Rd, I have been subjected to huge amounts of traffic as the state worked to finish the second phase of the ICC. I'm glad it is finally open, now I just need to wait and see how much a reduction in traffic it means once the tolls start to be charged. As an aside, I drove the whole length of the ICC this weekend. Wonderful road, but that 55 mph speed limit makes one wonder if the only reason it isn't 65 is so the state/count can make a bundle from speeding tickets.

The state assigns speed limits based on categories of roads and local conditions, among other factors.

I don't know what will happen over time, but I would not be pleased with a safety official who assigned the maximum possible speed limit to a brand new highway with no crash history to work with.

DR. Gridlock- I wanted to pass something to you in hopes that it could be sent quickly to VDOT for immediate improvement. When driving home yesterday on the Outter loop- the road surface near Braddock road was incredibly dangerous in that with the ight angle of the sun, "shinyness" of the road, multiple different surfaces, in the middle of a construction lane shift- the lane markings disappeared (they're there- but the paint does NOT show well at all). I was fortunate in that there were no cars around me- but I looked in my rear view mirror where I knew there was a pack of cars- I saw lots of cars swirving and what appeared to be 5 or 6 lanes "emerge" where it should have been 4- because cars simply didn't know where there lanes were.

Thanks, and I urge everyone to be cautious in the HOT lanes work zones along the Beltway and its interchanges. I notice several areas where the lane markings are not easy to follow and where the pavement is very rough.

Um....compare speed of traffic there to Upperville, which will be much the model for the traffic calming project. People most certainly do speed through Aldie, myself included, though I know I shouldn't. I don't speed through Upperville because it's nigh impossible with the medians and speed bumps. That little town DOES need it (and they could also really use some sidewalks), and I know it will be an incredible hassle on my commute, but I fully support it.

Thanks, I think people who live along Route 50 will appareciate your comments.

If a strange man got out of his car on the Beltway and approached mine on foot, I'd call 911. Just sayin'.

After locking your doors, right?

Yes - because it was (or had been) raining, and that makes people stupid.

Very good point. I want to make sure whenever I give suggestions on routes and timing that I remember to say, Check the weather forecast.

What's the deal with the new speed camera boxes on I-295 near Blue Plains? I was under the impression that the speed cameras either had to be monitored by an officer whenever in operation or include striping on the road to be able verify the speed by calculating the speed versus distance travelled. These new silver boxes are very sneaky, and in a locations that are very easy to exceed the 50 MPH limit.

I think Montgomery County is getting similar mobile devices.

(The white stripes on the road aren't used to calculate speed. That's done by the radar, not the camera.)

Travelers, thanks for submitting so many interesting questions and comments. I see some I'd still like to get to on the Dr. Gridllock blog, but need to break away from the chat now.

Stay safe, and as I said at the beginning, write to me anytime at drgridlock@washpost.com.


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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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