Dr. Gridlock

Nov 07, 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.

Welcome, travelers. This week, I'm working on the annual holiday getaway guide for Sunday's Post Metro section, so if you've got any questions or comments on holiday routes, let me know here or at drgridlock@washpost.com.

But there are plenty of questions and comments about local driving and transit, so let's get to them now.

Is it really going to be fully open before Thanksgiving? Will it be worth the insanely high tolls to shave time off of a trip to BWI from the intersection of 270 and 370?

The ICC is scheduled to fully open on Tuesday, Nov. 22. That will give ICC drivers access to and from I-95 and Route 29.

There's a free introductory offer before the tolls take effect on Dec. 5, so you can take advantage of this for the Thanksgiving holiday trips.

Yes, I'd certainly use it to get from 270 over to 95, or back. I'd use it even if I had to pay the toll if I needed to get a reliable trip to the airport during the holiday period.

Hello Dr Gridlock: Some good news, for a change. The construction & lane blockage on the 395 North bridge is finally complete. The road has been nicely paved. My commute time into the city has halved. On 395 South, at the end on the bridge near the VA state line, there was for many years a very nasty section of road comprised of nothing but potholes and very bad patch jobs. Every night on the way when I hit that patch I cursed a blue streak as my wheels got a little bit more out of alignment. But now that section has been fixed and is as smooth as a baby's bottom. No more cursing on the way home. I am truly a happy commuter now. To all who are in the midst of commuter hell, do not despair. Relief will come, eventually.

Most of the bridge projects in the DC area are rehab projects. So commuters go through a lot of delay because of lane closings, then they wind up with the same bridge when the work is done. That was true on the 14th Street Bridge. The main thing drivers notice is the repaving. But hidden from view, they've got a major transportation connection that will last a lot longer than it would have without the rehab.

One exception: The new 11th Street Bridge spans over the Anacostia will represent a significant improvement in the transportation system.

It happens all of the time, the traffic reporters forget that roads like US-50 are in both Maryland and Virginia and have intersections with the beltway in both states. Sometimes, it is possible to tell from other references which one they are talking about, but other times it isn't. Is there another way that traffic reporters can mention the roads that will give everyone a clear indication if they mean the portion in Maryland or Virginia. I know there are a variety of other roads that also intersect in multiple places.

I know what you mean. You could say the same about I-95, or 495, or Route 29, for example.

The radio traffic reporters do a terrific job. They have to absorb a lot of information quickly during the breaks and then convey it quickly during their reports.

(I've sat and watched Bob Marbourg do his reports on WTOP. It's amazing. He's working the phones when he's off the air. Doesn't take many notes. When he gets on the air, he just starts telling you what he knows. He's not reading from anything. I couldn't do that.)

One thing I notice from travelers' comments and my own experience while driving: If we're properly focused on the road ahead of us, we may miss some of the locating information in the traffic reports. We may miss entire references to the roads we actually care about. Marbourg told me he tries to locate the road first for his listeners, trying to get their attention before he starts talking about the problem.

There's a whole set of communication issues that I don't experience as a writer.

When will the extra lane they created be open to traffic? I'm so sick of the backups that occur because of the Glebe Road entrance/merge! Thanks!

I believe you're talking here about the first of VDOT's spot improvements on the westbound side of I-66, where VDOT is extending the merge lanes to create what amounts to an extra lane for a least a portion of the Interstate inside the Beltway. That spot improvement is scheduled to be open by the end of the year, as I recall.

Is there any effort to increase enforcement against cars double parking in bike lanes. I was riding up 14th street Saturday night and a couple of restaurants have decided that the bike lane is actually a valet parking waiting area. They had the lane occupied for a whole block with empty cars waiting to be parked. Something tells me that should be illegal.

Yep. That would be illegal. Have you called the D.C. police about it?

Who determines where bus stops are located? Do they actually visit the sites? Are the locations of stops coordinated with the governmental entity in which the stop is located? I ask this because some bus stops are not where riders can or will safely cross the street or the crosswalk/light is farther than most people will walk or not in alignment with human nature, i.e., taking the shortest distance to arrive somewhere--the bus stop is on the side of the street without the crosswalk (stops along Veirs Mill Road are a case in point). I notice that at some Metro stations iron fences have erected in the street nearby to keep people from crossing anywhere but at the intersection. I get the feeling that the convenience of cars is considered first before pedestrians--I'm a driver but I worry about the increase in pedestrians jumping into traffic or running across the street after getting off a bus.

Basically, "yes" on all those questions, at least in theory. The transit agency and the local jurisdictions coordinate on the locations of bus stops. But they don't always turn out to be in the safest or most convenient stops, and they can be moved. Some of the recent efforts in DC and Montgomery County to improve pedestrian safety have involved the relocation of bus stops, or other traffic realignments designed to slow down cars or make drivers more aware of the presence of pedestrians.

I'm driving up to DC this weekend from Charlottesville, and wanted to know the best way to avoid traffic (ha! as if that were really possible). Is I-95 as bad as everyone complains during an early Friday afternoon (1-2 pm)? Or is the smarter route to drive on more of the beltway on 66 East? Thanks so much for your advice!

Traffic on a Friday afternoon is going to be bad on pretty much any highway in the DC area -- although it's considerably worse during the summer travel months, and we're beyond that. I wouldn't get too fancy about this, and probably would stick with 95 if your destination is DC, just allow yourself extra travel time north of Woodbridge.

You could come up Route 29 to Gainesville and then pick up eastbound I-66. That would be a more scenic route -- the Route 29 part, anyway -- but you'd still hit pockets of congestion.

Last week I asked you about the state of the western side of the beltway in Maryland - you said you were going to be speaking to some planners about its future. Any news?

No, not yet, but I'm hoping to make this the subject of my Sunday column.

Apparently, Metro is doing some kind of track work on the yellow line during the day on weekdays. But I only know this because I checked the WMATA website -- there are NO announcements in stations, and if there are posters, they are small and I haven't seen them. It is simply unacceptable to significantly slow down yellow line service after 9 am and not be more forthcoming about it. I know 9:30 is the official end of rush hour for Metro, but many of us commute later and had no way of knowing this was happening. In the past week, I have gotten to work MUCH later than usual and have had to seek out very annoying alternate routes. Today at about 9:45 I waited a good 20 minutes for a southbound yellow line train at Gallery Place. Not sure what can be done about this, but I needed to vent!!

Every Monday, Metro issues an advisory about the weekday and weekend track work schedules, and we publish that on the Dr. Gridlock blog. Just before the chat started, we put up an advisory for this week.

A lot of the midday and late-night work doesn't cause delays in the schedule, because the trains aren't scheduled to run that often anyway -- at least, that's Metro's opinion. I notice that riders often have a different perception about schedule adherence during track work.

Reminds me: The high-impact thing this week is that a disruption on the Green Line between Southern Avenue and L'Enfant Plaza is scheduled to begin at 10 p.m. Thursday and continue till the midnight closing on Sunday. Metro considers this a three-day weekend because Friday is Veterans Day.

Is anything further planned for Route 66 west at the Beltway or is the current configuration with the now daily backup from the I495 on-ramp what we are stuck with?

Travelers have been commenting on this for several weeks now, ever since VDOT permanently shut the left exit from the inner loop to westbound 66 for the HOT lanes construction.

Jamie Breme at VDOT told me that the traffic pattern on I-66 west at the interchange is still a temporary one. Workers must demolish the old bridge piers for the now-closed left exit from the Beltway before they can build the final lane configuration for the area. The old bridge piers are in the way of the future lanes, she said. Once the bridge piers are gone, crews will start to build the new lanes. Ultimately, there will be three through lanes and one HOV lane for I-66 at the interchange. Expect to see that next spring.

Doc, Last week you had a condescending commenter provide a description of the current construction configuration at the Inner Loop/I-66 West interchange. While we all understand that worker safety is important and that the orange signs and cones indicate the configuration is temporary, the real problem is that it appears that no consideration was given for commuters in this interim state. Any engineer worth his salt would know that the current configuration is a recipe for disaster, trying to cram four lanes of traffic into two. Why couldn't they leave the left exit open until they have completed sufficient work to allow an additional lane or two on the bridges over the beltway? The latest wrinkle in this traffic nightmare is that now construction often closes one lane of the two lane ramp, causing even further back ups. Once again, why was the left exit closed before the new exit was completed? Last week's VDOT apologist doesn't explain.

I found last week's description very helpful and not at all "condescending."

This whole HOT lanes construction is a mightly hassle for drivers in a 14 mile work zone on the western side of the Beltway in Virginia. There was some good news over the weekend with the opening of the new Beltway bridge in Tysons and the restoration of the right-side ramp to the inner loop from northbound Route 123. But aside from that, there's not been much joy for drivers.

The next thing I think drivers will like is the completion of the flyover ramp from I-66 onto the inner loop. That will eliminate the tension of having to join Beltway traffic from the left side there. I believe we'll see that by the end of the year.

But for months to come, drivers at the Beltway's I-66 and Dulles Toll Road interchanges are going to remain in the midst of uncomfortable situations because of the work zones.

I have regularly had to wait up to 10 minutes for the next red line train (towards Glenmont) to arrive during rush hour (7am during the weekday). This seems unusual for the red line, particularly when there are 3 or 4 trains arriving in the other direction (Shady Grove) and don't seem to have the same lag in train arrivals. Thanks for taking the time to answer my question!

I'm not sure where you're waiting to catch the train, so I have to give you a very general answer. The Red Line is Metro's busiest, and the schedules can get messed up pretty quickly during the rush hours. Trains get bunched up, then there's a big gap. Orange Line riders notice this also out on the western side. Any train moving through downtown DC during the peak periods gets slowed down.

Metro tried to deal with Red Line delays by slightly expanding the gap between trains to prevent bunching, and by creating more eight-car trains for the rush hour service. I think that helped, but it didn't solve the problem of bunching.

Given all the problems that have happened recently, like the rosslyn fiasco, don't you think station names should be the LAST on the board's priorities?

It was interesting to watch some board members squirming on the issue of station names. They are under a lot of pressure from prominent local interests to add the names of those interests to the station names. 

Do riders really care deeply about adding "Holy Cross Hospital" or "NoMa" to the names of stations? Is this really intended to help people get where there going, or to promote political interests?

The board has spent a huge amount of time on this -- and it's going to come up again, because the map will have to be redone a second time to get the Dulles Silver Line names on it.

Is Next Bus working? I called the number on a bus stop at 6 am this morning, it answered and then silence. Tried it again, same result.

I sometimes have trouble with the Next Bus phone system. Not sure if there was a special problem this morning. Problems occur with the equipment aboard individual buses, or with the bus drivers' use of that equipment, or with the computer that interprets the information from the buses.

Love your chats, and I have two questions I'm hoping you can help with. Do you think the ICC will be of any use to those of us commuting from Laurel/College Park to, say, the Bethesda area? Second question pertains to a news story I (almost) heard on WTOP the other day, when they were about to discuss whether the ICC has improved traffic in our area. I didn't get to listen to the discussion but since I ride the beltway every day I'm painfully aware that congestion seems to have gotten worse, not better, so I had to laugh. What do you think?

If you're as far north as Laurel, I do think there will be some days when the ICC would help on a trip over to Bethesda -- but I probably wouldn't take it all the way over to the western end, where I'd have to come down I-270 or Route 355 to get to Bethesda. I'd probably get off at Georgia Avenue, thinking of the ICC as a way around the  Beltway outer loop bottleneck between College Park and Georgia Avenue.

If my starting point was College Park, I'm afraid I wouldn't see much benefit from the ICC.

I'll make a gas about that news story you half heard about the ICC: It may have been an account of a new traffic study in Montgomery County. Among the study's many conclusions was that there's been no apparent benefit so far from the ICC. But I don't make much of that. The ICC is only partially open, and that part just opened at the start of this year. I think we need to wait and see what it's like a few months after the whole thing is open.

I'm planning to do a couple of reports on our Post Commuter page about the ICC this month and maybe next too.

Thanks for joining me. I've got to break away from the chat now. But hope to address some of your concerns on the Dr. Gridlock blog today and tomorrow -- including the one from the traveler asking about the early morning trip to Dulles Airport, and more about the opening of the ICC.

I'll be back next Monday. Stay safe out there.

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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