Nov 29, 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 back, travelers. Anybody get stuck at the Newark Toll Plaza? Send in any after-action reports you think might be helpful advice for the December getaways. Got any issues we should discuss about the impending changes in the SmartBenefits program? Or are you just dismayed about conditions on Rock Creek Parkway? Let's discuss.

Hi Dr. Gridlock -

Why is the expansion/rehabilitation of the Humpback Bridge - near the intersection of GW Parkway and 395 taking so godawful long?

I've seen Houston demolish and rebuild an entire multi-highway spaghetti bowl twice in much less time than the Humpback project is taking or will take.

thanks, Chris M on Capitol Hill

The bridge reconstruction project is behind schedule. It got started in January 2008. The original timetable called for completion in February 2010. Project managers say it has been delayed till spring 2011, because of unforeseen problems with the utilities in the area, ground conditions and bad weather.

While that's more than a year's delay, which is bad, the rebuilding on such a busy commuter route has not caused as much trouble as I thought it would. Looking back to what I was writing at the time this started, I see that I was recommending all kinds of twisty alternative routes that I thought drivers would be begging for. But I really don't hear much about detouring traffic. It's more, enduring traffic.

I70 and 270 were backed up from Cumberland to 495 well into the late night last night. Why is the only EW major highway out of the Capitol of the World 2 lanes? Its a disgrace!

I think drivers who took I-66 west of Gainesville are probably saying the same thing today. It's awful to be stuck in such backups.

But look, this sort of problem occurs a handful of times each year. What planners and budgeters in Maryland and Virginia have to consider is whether that justifies investments of billions of dollars in expanding highways.

Maybe it does, but I have a feeling most taxpayers would not support it.

Dr. G,

I would like to see the ban on bicycles on sidewalks expanded from the central business district to Capitol Hill and the Mall. There are so many more people riding bicycles in these areas because of all the new bike rentals.

I live on Capitol Hill and walk on the Mall a lot and it's becoming dangerous to be a pedestrian here. It seems like there are more cyclists than people on the sidewalks these days and I've had a number of close calls from cyclists passing from behind.

Is there any chance of the ban area being expanded?

I agree with you that this is a problem. I'd rather try to solve it through the program to expand bike lanes in DC.

I say that partly because I walk the downtown streets where bicycles are banned right now. Who could tell there's a ban? There are plenty of cyclists speeding up from behind pedestrians and narrowly missing them. They should slow down and be more careful. But I can understand why cyclists don't feel like mixing in with traffic on some of the downtown streets.

I left at 11 AM on Wednesday using 15 and 78 to Northern NJ and got there at 4 PM. No tolls, no traffic besides Harrisburg, and a nice scenic drive! No problems coming back either!!

I'm glad to hear that. Sounds like you made the most of timing and route for your getaway. Lots of people got stuck in miles of backups at the Newark Toll Plaza on I-95 in Delaware. We offered a few routes just to get around the toll plaza, but some drivers wrote to me and said that when the traffic backs up for many miles, it's difficult to get to those detour routes. Better, they said, to make a very extensive bypass, such as the swing up to Pennsylvania.

Hi Dr. G --

Any plans for re-opening lanes for the holiday shopping season in Tysons Corner? Leaving the business park area via Tysons Boulevard (and even International Drive) has become impossible thanks to the new left-turn Beltway entrance overflowing onto Route 123, which is now down to just TWO lanes at that point.

Last year, they re-opened the center lanes on 123 after Thanksgiving -- do you know if there are any plans to do something similar this year? There are a lot of unhappy commuters already.

I've talked to VDOT, the HOT lanes project and the Dulles Metrorail project about the holiday season in Tysons Corner. I'm just about certain that the way you see the Tysons road network  today is the way you'll find it through New Year's.

For example, the HOT lanes construction schedule allowed the project managers to open up those left lanes on Route 123 for the 2009 holiday season. That's not the case this year. They'll remain closed. And the new left-turn at the light from Route 123 onto the inner loop of the Beltway will stay as it is.

Route 7, where the Dulles Metrorail line is under construction, also will stay pretty much as you see it now.

This will be a difficult season for Tysons shoppers.

Why was there no access to the L'Enfant Plaza exit from Metro today? No alerts were sent saying that exit would be closed. Not only was the exit closed but passengers could not access the second set of escalators going down to the blue line.

I can tell you that Metro put out this announcement on its Web site last Monday:

"Metro will temporarily close the L’Enfant Plaza Metrorail station entrance at 9th and D Sts., S.W. starting on Nov. 26 through Dec. 8, due to a rehabilitation project in the promenade area adjacent to the station entrance. The entrance at 9th and D Sts. will reopen on Dec. 9.

"The entrances at 7th St. and Maryland Ave, S.W. and 7th and D St. S.W. will remain open.

"To alert customers of the entrance closure, signs and banners were placed at the entrance and e-alerts will be issued. Metro’s next train display signs will have a message on the closing and public address system announcements will be made."

More and more frequently I've noticed drivers on the road that do not have all of their tail lights working properly. The most frustrating tail light to be burnt out to me personally is the 'top' one, since I usually look at that for indication that the driver is braking. I know that drivers can be pulled over for having a tail light out and it is their responsibility to ensure that all lights on their vehcile are properly working.

But how often does law enforcement look for burnt out tail lights? And, if there were to be a rear-end collision accident, how much responsibility, if any, would be on the driver with the burnt out tail light? I realize that it would be very easy for the vehicle's driver to say that the light is now burnt out/damaged because of the collision. Maryland law places fault on the driver that "does the rear-ending," correct?

Drivers do have the responsibility for maintaining their vehicles' safety devices.  But there isn't much chance you'll get off the hook on a rear-end collision if the other driver's bulb was burned out.

There is one matched set normally used for up and down travel. There is also a third single escalator used during rush hour. This morning not one of the escalators was moving; the single escalator was actually blocked off. The single one has been down for weeks; I pointed that out to the attendant last week that the returning to function sign said it would be back in order by November 12 - that's two weeks ago. He didn't know when it would be returning to service. I just checked the subway web site, and now it's expected to return to service this Thursday; I wonder if I can believe that. One of the double escalators has often been turned off for weeks. I am not handicapped but I find it difficult to walk up or down a stopped escalator because of the height of the steps. There is an elevator but there is a lot of traffic during rush hour. At least they should have the decency to post accurate return to work signs and change the date if needed.

You've described a very common problem for Metro riders. In fact, I'd be surprised to find there are many transit users who haven't gone through a similar experience in 2010. I had a "Dear Dr. Gridlock" letter from a reader suggesting that Metro develop a program to add stairs between platform and mezzanine at as many stations as possible. I like that idea very much. Metro clearly can't maintain 588 escalators.

1. This is why we have annual inspections in Virginia. They check stuff like whether or not the tail lights are working. 2. If you don't drive too close to the car ahead of you, then you shouldn't have a huge problem braking on time. If all you can see if the top light, you're too close.

Good point about the annual inspections. In Maryland, you get your car inspected once and that's it.

I commute daily there, and to say there have been no alerts is false. They've had a huge banner up for at least two weeks, in English and Spanish. Granted, this morning I forgot about it, being on Monday morning autopilot, but that's my fault, not Metro's..

I'm sure many commuters found themselves in the same situation. We miss announcements, e-mails, banners. I've missed my regular station (Farragut North) a few times.

Do you know what's up with the slowdown between Friendship Heights and Bethesda? It's been going on for at least a month, but I can't find any information on the WMATA website, and the drivers never say anything about it.

Yes. There's a problem with the tracks in that section of the Red Line. It's not a big enough problem to require single-tracking, but enough so Metro ordered the trains to slow down until a fix could be done. It's been a few weeks now, so I'll check on what's up with that.

This isn't an unusual situation in the aging rail system. But I don't understand why Metro can't routinely announce why the trains are under speed restrictions. There's a policy to announce why a train has stopped between stations, but nothing about slowdowns -- which regular riders always notice.

Dr. G:

In spite of what Delaware told AAA about the Newark Toll Plaza, I'm glad to see that they decided to open the toll lanes during the holiday weekend. I and my family were spared that disaster thanks to the Pennsylvania detour to New England.

However, I cannot possibly understand why this project was allowed to happen as it is. When officials are planning such projects, do they consider the timing and road use?

Even with multi-year projects, I have seen instances where consideration was made to traffic flow so that the bulk of the work, or major closures didn't happen during peak travel times. Was that just happy coincidence or are Delaware officials that obtuse?

What's happening in Delaware is just a travesty and, frankly, a public safety hazard. Someone should be taken to task for this. Personally I wish they would just charge one big toll like New York does and be done with it. It's just not worth traveling through that state, this debacle notwithstanding.

Delaware is using federal stimulus money to build highway-speed E-ZPass lanes in the middle of the I-95 toll plaza. Those of us who drive I-95 are going to be very grateful when those open -- but it won't be till next summer.

While Delaware and the other transportation departments pull up the orange cones for the holidays, they can't do anything about the longterm projects -- the stuff behind jersey barriers. (See earlier response about Tysons Corner construction.) This will be the only holiday season -- I hope -- during which we'll have to endure the situation at the Newark Toll Plaza, but it is very painful.

What Delaware did at the peak of the holiday congestion was lift the tolls and let everyone through for free. That was a good move. Not sure whether it will be repeated. Don't look for an announcement before-hand.

Dr. G: Circumstances are forcing us to drive from (basically) Providence, MA back to Washington this January. I know you've posted advice on alternatives to I-95 before; can you link to them, please?

Thanks to my producer, here's the link.

Traveled north on 95 around 11 am on Friday--no significant Newark DE delay. Returned Saturday and again no delay southbound but a six mile backup northbound. I have been traveling 95 through Deleware for almost 40 years and it is amazing how they can't get it right. Since I was heading to Philadelphia, the toll plaza by-passes wouldn't work since they bring you back to 295 near the bridge.

There were significant delays at the toll plaza every single day during the Thanksgiving period, including on Thanksgiving Day. The worst times, I believe, were from mid-morning through late afternoon.

There most likely will be delays around Christmas time, but they may not be quite as bad, because people concentrate their Thanksgiving travel into just a few days.

We got into our car in Gaithersburg on Wednesday at 6:00 for the trip up to Philadelphia. As we pulled out of the driveway, WTOP told us that the Delaware tollbooth was opening up with no tolls being collected. We headed up 95 and it took us five minutes to get through the tollbooth. No traffic at all this year!

I'm glad you had that experience. You can see that not everyone did. In fact, many, many people did not. The Delaware toll plaza is no fun even under normal conditions. This year's construction of the highway-speed toll lanes has made it much worse. Still, I'm glad Delaware is doing this. Some fix was long overdue.

I drove on Tuesday (leaving around 2) from DC to SW Connecticut, using the route through PA for the first time, since I had heard of delays in DE. That route was definitely more interesting than the NJ turnpike, and took about 7 hours. The AMAZING thing was that I left CT on Saturday morning at 7 am, and made it back to DC in record time, only 5 hours and 15 minutes, and this was returning down the turnpike, and included 2 stops. It was really an amazing trip back on Sat!

Very glad to hear that. As I said to a previous commenter, you combined timing and route to good effect. I wish everyone could do that -- more and more people are trying to.

I take notes from you travelers each holiday season and use your reports to refine the getaway guides we publish.

Worst traffic I had this weekend was getting onto the inner loop of 495 from the Dulles Toll Road. As you know, there was one lane for the inner loop and two for the outer loop. They were very clearly marked (but many felt like they could ignore them) but there was a fender-bender blocking the lane so we had to merge into the outer loop lanes to get around it.

This is a very, very bad spot this fall and is likely to continue to be bad for quite some time. The lane pattern accommodates the construction of the High Occupancy Toll lanes.

Travelers, thanks for joining me today, and a special thanks for all your post-holiday reports. There were some questions I couldn't publish because of a tech glitch. But I'll copy them and see if I can post them on the Dr. Gridlock blog this afternoon. (Especially one I got about SmartBenefit changes, something I hope to review for you on our Sunday Commuter page.)

Write to me anytime at

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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 the Get There blog, as well as in the Metro section of The Washington Post.
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