Dr. Gridlock

Dec 02, 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. As we start, I'm looking at a range of comments on traffic, transit and biking issues, but there are a bunch of notes concerning Metro's plan to increase fares and fees next year. So I'll start with that hot topic.

Seriously? Metro wants to charge us MORE for this crappy service? They should be giving us a discount.

Paul Duggan laid out the basics of the Metro plan in today's Post: Add an average of 10 cents to the cost of a typical train ride and change the standard bus fare to $1.75, regardless of whether a passenger pays with cash or a SmarTrip card.

The cost of parking in Metro lots and garages, now $5 a day in most places, would go up by 25 cents.

Fares were last increased in 2012, so this would mean two years between fare increases.

Metro officials will put on a big press this Thursday when they present the new budget to the Metro board to show that service has improved.

So Metro wants more $$ from riders (and it doesn't matter how much). I'm glad I'm not Richard Sarles right about now.

Sarles will be the one to present the Metro budget, with its fare increases, on Thursday. He and other Metro officials will say that the rail and bus systems are in better shape and that many improvements have been -- and are being -- made in customer service.

It's tough to say right now what Sarles's legacy will be, but I think it's entirely possible that he'll wind up being viewed as the guy who saved the transit system in the nation's capital.


Sarles is quoted in today's article as saying "Three percent is a little lower than inflation." This is demonstrably untrue. Inflation is currently about 1%. So, if he can't even tell the truth about that, why should we believe anything he says? Furthermore their performance metrics are apparently completely untied to reality. In my commute I find that escalators are chronically out of service. That situation is no way improving. Brand new elevators at Rosslyn were out of service within about a week of opening. The total lack of accountability is Metro's biggest problem.

I also noted that quote about the inflation rate. I'm not sure whether he had some more specific rate in mind, like maybe a rate of inflation in transit fares, but the national inflation rate is indeed about 1 pecent.

On Metro metrics: The transit authority uses system-wide performance statistics to assemble its quarterly Vital Signs reports. (There's a new one coming out this week.)

In my Sunday column, I noted some of the problems that arise when using overall stats. Basically, your experience may vary. In the stats, a mezzanine-platform escalator at a lightly used station counts for as much as a mezzanine-street escalator at Dupont Circle.

Why does Sarles call the fare increases "modest" when Metro has, by far, the most expensive fares in the nation? Metro needs to work on accountability and efficiency before asking riders to shell out more cash.

I think when he refered to "modest" increases he was talking about adding 10 cents to the average ride.

I don't have a nationwide survey of fares. Metro says its average fare would be $3, with the new fare increase. The rail fare is certainly a lot higher than New York, Chicago and Boston. I think the bus fares for Metro are lower.


For a guy who has used the old and new Woodrow Wilson Bridge for 20 years, it was nice to have a few years without congestion. But thanks to the local governments for blowing a billion dollar investment so that we can shop a little more. All these new developments right next to the bridge have brought the bridge back to its good old days of being congested all the time. Keep up the good work (yes I'm being sarcastic.)

The Tanger Outlets opened at National Harbor last month and are very likely to be a new factor in holiday shopping traffic.

I did a blog posting with some traffic survival tips for holiday shopping in the D.C. region.

Currently WMATA is required by statute (RSIA of 2008) to have positive train control implemented by December 2015. My understanding is that they are not on track at all with the deadline. When will WMATA meet its statutory and fundamental obligations to improve safety for its riders? (Also, why can't some drivers operate the trains without herky-jerky movement?)

I've asked Richard Sarles about this. He will not say when the trains will be restored to automated control. Not even a target year. He said that any target announced by him would create undue pressure to meet the target, when the safety of the system should be the only goal.

Assuming that people in Tysons are willing to use Metro (and not willing to spend who knows how long to take a bus to a Metro station), it seems that many of them would just end up driving to the Vienna station and parking there. Have Fairfax officials given any thought to this possibility?

Metro and Fairfax County have given a lot of thought to where trains riders are likely to wind up. When the Silver Line opens, the Fairfax Connector and Metrobus routes will be rearranged to divert riders from the outer Orange Line stations and make it a lot easier for commuters generally to reach the Silver Line stations.

But on your point about Vienna: I don't see why any commuter in his or her right mind who doesn't drive to Vienna now would start doing so when the Silver Line opens. There will be fewer Orange Line trains leaving from Vienna.

Pardon my naivete, but does NY really have commuter service on weekends? As far as I know, VRE and MARC do not run on those days. Thanks.

MARC is scheduled to begin limited weekend service this Saturday.

My recollection is that Metro North in NY has always had weekend service. In U.S. transit, there's New York, and then there's everything else.

Any idea if Metro will provide the weekend closure info. to you as they did in the Post back in June or so? Having it for 6 months out was a HUGE help. We want to avoid the 2013 debacle when the Dupont Circle station was closed ON the Dupont Kalorama Museum Walk Weekend! Thanks.

I hope that this month we will seen the January-June listing of major track work. Metro's pattern for the past couple of years has been to release the major track work schedule in six month increments.

Major track work is the kind that closes stations, splits lines and requires shuttle buses. Those projects take so long to plan that Metro can put out a listing well in advance.

But you still need to watch for adjustments in that schedule and also for the lesser sorts of projects that require trains to share tracks around work zones.

Lists of the minor projects usually come out on the Monday of the week when they will occur.

A couple of articles this weekend (about Montgomery County and Columbia), re-introduce the question about what "transit" means for suburb-suburb trips, for which the obvious answer is "buses, if you can keep them out of traffic delays." Other than lack of lanes, what are the major barriers to creating better bus service outside the peak-most trips and hours?

One obstacle, of course, is money. Buses are amazingly expensive these days, but even more expensive is the cost of setting up systems -- dedicated lanes, bus priority signals at intersections, etc -- that will make buses attractive to riders who would otherwise drive.

Another obstacle is bureaucratic. The agency that operates the buses generally isn't the same agency that controls the streets.

Another obstacle may be community opposition. Not everyone likes the idea of adding bus services close to where they live, especially if it means removing lanes now used by cars or otherwise impeding the flow of car traffic.

Me, I think more buses and bus lanes are great ideas. The region is going to get more populous. If everyone drives, traffic will eventually grind to a halt. We don't have space to add many new roads -- and talk about community opposition there!

If MD is going to charge $8.00 for a toll EZ pass owners should have full speed lanes at least! gripe over

Absolutely! You sound like a person who might have been on I-95 over the Thanksgiving holiday when the lanes were very crowded.

Delaware and Pennsylvania eliminated many toll plaza bottlenecks when they created highway-speed E-ZPass lanes. In Maryland, E-ZPass drivers can get stuck in a knot of congestion before they reach the toll plaza lanes dedicated to E-ZPass customers.

WMATA's website warns, "Buses replace trains between Rosslyn & Pentagon," and states that the affected lines are Blue and Yellow. Why would the yellow line be affected? I have out-of-town guests arriving at National Airport and want to know whether they'll be able to take the Yellow line into the city.

I think that might be an example of a change from the original schedule, which went like this:

Blue, Yellow lines: Buses replace trains between Braddock Road and Pentagon City.


Metro has updated that major track work schedule for this coming weekend so that buses replace trains between Rosslyn and Pentagon only. (Arlington Cemetery station will be closed.) My guess is that staffers simply haven't removed the Yellow Line marker from the major track work list.

I'm sure this comes up every year, but why can't the tree lighting ceremony be conducted on a Saturday? It would be a great family event and would save thousands of commuters from experiencing an extra difficult drive home.

I asked the National Park Service about this one year, and as I recall, the answer was that they've always done it this way.

For the rest of us, it makes no sense to schedule a big ceremony on the Ellipse to begin at 4:30 p.m. on a weekday.

It's happening again this Friday. And sure as Santa Claus arrives on Christmas, the annual tree lighting ceremony is going to disrupt rush hour traffic in the heart of D.C.

Submitting early and repeating a question I sent before but never got an answer to. Why did Metro eliminate the negative balance option? With such a confusing price structure, it's easy for someone to have wrong amount on their card and at rush hour, the gates get clogged with people who aren't able to exit. Is Metro so cheap that the idea of someone leaving with a $2 negative balance was costing them any revenue? People who do that will have to pay up next time they use the system. This is worse than when they took away the option of paying $20 and getting credit for $22. Wish Metro would bring that option back given how expensive Metro has gotten.

When Metro lowered the cost of a SmarTrip card from$5 to $2, it also imposed a new restriction on exiting with a negative balance on the cards. Now, if you owe Metro more than $1.50, you can't go through the fare gate and must add value at the Exitfare machine.

It's to limit cheating. With the card price that low, some people with a bigger negative balance would just go through the faregate, throw away the card with the debt on it and buy a new card.

Metro has increased the headway for what is considered an on-time train. Therefore, it did NOT improve performance. Why does the Post continue to overlook this fact?

Why is there such a disparity between the subway fare in NYC and DC? Is it ridership? Funding? Management? I am not opposed to rate hikes, when they are warranted, but I am not sure Metro's proven they deserve an extra $1 a week from me.

Metro has a low rate of subsidy compared to many other major transit systems in the United States. Rider fares make up the difference.

The Federal Triangle metro has 9 escalators, 3 at the train level, 3 at the mezzanine and 3 leading out into the Reagan courtyard.. In the morning 6 (2 at each level) are operating to get the morning volume of commuters out of the station. My concern is in the evening only 3 escalators (1 at each level) are operating to get the volume of commuters down onto the rail platforms. I have seen arguments, frustration, running from one end of the platform to the other because of the congestion created by the inadequate escalator resources for regular commuters. I shared my concerns with Mr. E. Bingham, the station manager and was met with defensiveness and the complete dismissal that my concerns were valid. It does not make logical sense that escalators and traffic flow are supportive of the morning commute pattern but not in the evening. This is an accident/incident waiting to happen. Any help or insight to Metro's logic would be appreciated. Rochele Kadish

The escalator directions are a frequent topic during our chats.

Generally, Metro's priority is to get people out of the stations rather than to speed their entry onto already crowded platforms.

It's safer to have a crowd waiting on the street, where at least people can spread out, than on a platform.

So in the afternoon rush, you may approach a bank of three escalators at street level and see that two are coming up and only one is going down.

(My scariest experience with a subway system was on the BART platform outside the Oakland Coliseum after an A's game. The escalators sped us up onto the platform, where we were gradually shoved to the edge by the surging crowd while waiting for the next train. So I'm sympathetic to Metro's approach.)

Why is it that any proposal to build a new road, rail, or otherwise increase capacity always faces opposition? Do people honestly think that traffic in the DC area is good? It seems they can always come up with some excuse, from the argument that building roads only leads to more construction growth to the fact that it will only move the problem to a new intersection or that it will have a negative impact on the environment. Come on, cars going 5 mph causes just as much environmental impact. If you want to say NO to construction, offer another solution that will solve the problem. Doing nothing is the wrong solution.

For any transportation project, there are many, many people who care a little bit about it, and a much smaller number of people who care very deeply about it. The latter group generally lives along the route and fears being hurt by the construction and its aftermath.

They are very effective at blocking, or at least delaying projects.

This is certainly not the only reason we don't have more transportation improvements. For many years, there was no money. But Maryland and Virginia are about to experience a surge in money for such projects because of this year's changes in their tax laws.

With metro set to increase their already pricey fares in 2014 and with the tax subsidy to drop heavily, I am guessing more people will drive or bike. I think more employers need to offer telecommute options to take strain off metro and roads. What can people and policy makers to do to encourage more of the latter? Not all of us are Federal employees who get free transit up to given amount and these fares really get expensive. Nearly $10 a day to commute from close in areas of Silver Spring now.

Telecommuting has increased over the past few years, and it's largely because federal agencies have become much more open to it.

Today, it's the private employers who need the attitude adjustment on telecommuting. Employees need to go to their bosses and their HR departments and make this case.

Is there enough reliable ridership to make this kind of infrastructure practical? I live in a subsurb and go to other suburbs pretty irregularly. In contrast I do take the bus from a suburb to DC every day for work.

Depends on which suburbs you're talking about. For example, I think a good case could be made for bus rapid transit between Rockville and Tysons Corner, or between Gaithersburg and Rockville. But as the commenter is aware, there are many suburb-suburb routes that just couldn't provide the ridership and it would make no sense to invest money in such routes.

Any idea how WMATA will estimate the additional cost of Metro expansion needs if a DC height increase is approved? WMATA estimated its 2040 needs at a scary $26 billion in 2012, and a significant DC density increase would have to increase that figure.

Tough calculation. I would think an increase in the D.C. height limit would offer the potential of putting people closer to their work sites. This would tamp down Metro costs.

Meanwhile, we're likely to need that new track at Rosslyn and a new tunnel through downtown D.C. whether or not the height limit is changed.

Many have labeled Metro as very expensive. For the train portion, it is has to be one of the highest in the country. But for the bus portion, where one can ride multiple vehicles unlimited for 2 hours for just the base fare, it has to be one of the cheapest. Most of the attention is paid to the train portion, which at maximum fare approaches commuter rail prices elsewhere.

Throwing away a card with negative balance of $3 or $4 and then buying a new $2 card is a lot of time and trouble just to save a couple of bucks. Now with negative balance option gone, we have a lot of exit and entrance gates blocked by people whose balances aren't positive-usually accidental and thus it impedes the flow of passengers. Dumb move by Metro.

I'm curious to hear your take on this. It seems that whenever I am coming back to DC from Vienna via 66 to 495 that there is a lot of congestion right before the express lanes. Do you think that the signage around there may be causing people to slow down? Is it signed with adequate distance and clarity to give people a clear picture of what their options are?

If I'm getting your scenario right, you're talking about where I-66 East meets the Beltway. Before the express lanes opened, I found that area to be one of the worst traffic bottlenecks in the region. It still can be pretty bad. But I think the opening of the express lanes did improve things for many drivers.

One difficult would be for drivers in the left-side HOV lanes who don't want to use the express lanes, which have the left-side exit to the Beltway. Those drivers need to move across traffic to reach the exit with the regular lanes onto the Beltway.

Signs are always an issue -- do we have too few, or too many? But the issue with signs and congestion usually shows up in the first few weeks after a new thing opens. Then the regular crowd gets used to it. I think that pattern held true after the express lanes opened a year ago.

Thanks, everyone, for joining me today and exchanging views. I hope to do some blog postings on the Metro fare increase issues. And I'll be back here for another chat next Monday.

Please write to me any time at drgridlock@washpost.com, and join me again next Monday. Stay safe and be patient with the holiday shopping crowds.

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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