Dr. Gridlock

Dec 03, 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. Let's get to your traffic and transit issues. I think I see some that could benefit from group discussion, so I'll try to post them early.

When is the connector between the east bound freeway and north 295 going to be opened? The 11th St bridge project website says by Thanksgiving but that didn't happen.

No, it got slowed down a bit. New target is later this month.

The HOT lanes should have been dedicated commuter bus lanes, with cars allowed to travel on them for a fee (people wouldn't gripe about unused roadway). The commuter buses would work like Metro trains, spread out stations with giant parking garages, a long time between stops, and you get on and off the bus quickly like at a Metro station. Easy to adjust buses to demand. The stops would have to be in the center of the Beltway for quick on and off like the West Falls Church station. The E-Z Pass transponders have made this possible. Too many cars? Raise the fee.

Isn't that pretty close to what we have? Fairfax County is on the verge of launching several commuter bus routes using the Beltway HOT lanes. Meanwhile, cars use them for a fee and carpoolers (HOV3) can use them for free as long as theyhave the E-ZPass Flex transponder.

The HOT lanes were built largely with private money, which was put up in exchange for the right to collect tolls. Virginia did not have the money to build four new lanes of any sort on the Beltway. It's difficult to imagine a private company building dedicated bus lanes. The revenue just wouldn't be there.

Also, I really doubt the Beltway is a good spot for placing a string of bus rapid transit stations. You'd want to have parking areas for commuters. Where would they be and who would pay for them?

Has anyone else noticed that the Hot lane project has introduced a new evening traffic jam going north on 95 onto 495 towards Tyson's Corner? It's distressing that in order to get around the backup at Braddock Rd, once half way through it, that I have to pay the hot lane tolls just to proceed on an otherwise clear beltway.

You mean there's a backup on the inner loop between Springfield and Braddock Road during the evening rush? I've been driving the HOT lanes and looking at camera views pretty regularly and have not noticed this. Have others encountered it?

Today they were reinstalling the speed camera on Clara Barton near Arizona and suspiciously the orange "Trucks Entering" sign has reappeared even though construction next to the boat house was long complete. It seems they have put back the sign to justify the speed camera.

I can't think of a reason D.C. police would need a Trucks Entering sign to set up a speed camera location.

Dr. Gridlock, Two questions. 1. I will need to leave from Arlington around 6 p.m. for the game tonight. For Sunday games, I ordinarily drive through town to FedEx field. Would you recommend this approach during rush hour? 2. Coming home, I always take the Sousa Bridge to enter onto the SE/SW freeway, but I understand that this ramp was just permanently closed. Is that so, and if so, what is the pathway from either East Capitol Street or Pennsylvania Avenue onto the SE/SW freeway to get back to Arlington? Thanks.

I think that if you leave at 6 p.m., you're going to have a very slow trip through DC. But then, at that hour, just about any commuter route is going to be crowded.

On the way back, you are correct that the westbound lanes of the Southeast Freeway near the Sousa Bridge are now closed. So to reach the SE-SW Freeway, you'd want to take the ramp from Pennsylvania Avenue SE onto southbound D.C. 295, stay right, and then take the ramp onto the 11th Street Bridge, which will lead you to the SE-SW Freeway.

The transit alternative would be to take the Blue Line to Morgan Boulevard station and walk nine-tenths of a mile north to FedEx.

When METRO first went full speed forward into the system rebuilding, they were very organized, listing out weekend major track work months in advance and the weekday and weekend less disruptive (single tracking) track work at least a week or two in the future. The first to go was the advanced weekday/night and single tracking weekend schedules (down to just a current week), and then the major weekend work has not been updated in 6 months, with just the rest of December listed on the site. Now i'm noticing there are no current weekday/weeknight track work advisories, yet my friend who has the TXT service alerts says he's still getting txt's about weekday work. Why have they dropped off the ball with this? What can be done to get the advanced notification back? It's been very helpful knowing more than a day in advance of these closures because they've allowed me to plan my time around the availability of transit. Not knowing the plans is causing me to just plan to not use METRO at all for anything.

I'll check. I haven't seen anything about major track work beyond December, though I have no doubt that it's coming.

For all: The "major" weekend track work -- the kind that closes stations, as opposed to the single-tracking -- is listed on this Metro Web page:


I look at this alerts/advisories page to see announcements about other track work:


There's none listed there right now.

All right, so the honeymoon period appears to be over as the tolls for the Express Lanes have steadily increased over the last week to a more realistic $2-$3 during "normal" rush hour. I'm not sure if it's a function of the Express Lanes or seasonal decrease in traffic between Thanksgiving and Chrstmas, but I've noticed that I can travel in the free lanes at the same speed, with more space around my vehicle, than those paying to ride in the express lanes, even at peak rush hours. I look to my left and wonder why the single-occupant luxury vehicle to my left travelng at the same speed is paying $2+ to arrive at the same place at the same time.

This is different from what I've been seeing, in driving the lanes, watching the traffic cameras and checking the toll signs.

The highest rate I've seen for tolls was at 7:55 a.m. Thursday, when the board at the inner loop entry point in Springfield read $2.65 for the full 14 mile trip up to the Dulles Toll Road area, $1.70 to I-66 and $2.20 to Westpark Drive in Tysons.

At the same time, the tolls at the north end heading south read: 30 cents to Jones Branch Drive, 95 cents to I-66, $1.80 for the full trip to Springfield.

In between, at Gallows Road, the sign read: 55 cents to I-66, $1.05 to Westpark Drive, $1.50 to Springfield.

At rush hours, I see plenty of congestion in the regular lanes in Tysons, and nothing really bad elsewhere. I thought the work day for traffic in the regular lanes was during last Tuesday's rain. Seemed like more drivers got into the express lanes then.

Otherwise, the traffic in the express lanes remains light. There are times when I don't see any cars at all in the camera views. Other times, I see clusters of cars in the lanes. My guess is that they've just been released after waiting at a red light at one of the interchanges.

Can others share their recent experiences with the regular lanes or the express lanes?

Are jurisdictions under any obligation to publicly post--presumably on speed limit signs--that the SL is being enforced by speed cameras? There's a camera that monitors speeds in the tunnel under K Street, around the 2200 block, but I have seen no posting or warning for it on the SL signs there.

Yes, there should be a "photo enforced" sign somewhere around there, before you get to the camera.

You can see a full list of the authorized camera locations here: http://mpdc.dc.gov/node/216362


I read the blog on Dr Gridlock this morning about the guy that was struck by the incoming Metro train into Union Station. What I don't understand is why someone from Metro isn't always down on the platform making sure that people are standing away from the edge of the platform. You would think that would be a priority with them since there have been so many suicides occuring at various metro stations. I have seen many people stand too close to the platform and even walk in front of people standing near the raised tiles at the edge of the platform just to get around people.

We're talking about this story by Mark Berman:


I would love to see more Metro personnel on the platforms during rush hours at Metro's busiest stations, which would certainly include Union Station -- though the Red Line platform at Gallery Place can be a particularly scary place.

I don't understand why so many riders feel the need to plant their feet on the granite edge trains pull into the station.

It would help to have more Metro personnel to urge people to stand back -- even though the point of standing back seems so obvious.

But I'm not sure how much an employee could do to prevent someone from deliberately getting onto the tracks as a train enters the station.

Does the poster mean Canal Road near Arizona? There is a yellow "photo enforcement" sign up, but I haven't seen the camera anywhere.

Yes, that's the spot. It's one of the authorized zones for cameras that appear on that DC police Web page I posted a little earlier. Police may move the cameras from authorized site to authorized site.

You may miss them for a while, but they can come back.

The morning commute up the Parkway from Alexandria to the 14th St bridge has inexplicably turned from an easy drive to a stop and go crawl in the last week or so--is something going on farther up the parkway that is causing this?

Others will probably know more about this, but I feel like I've seen extra heavy congestion on I-395 N and across the 14th Street Bridge lately. Could that be leading to stop and go on the northbound parkway?

There's that left-lane closing in Rosslyn for the rock stabilization project, but that's been there for a while.

I still am not able to get a walk signal to cross over Glebe. The button on one side makes a noise when you push it to request a signal, the one on the other side (west) doesn't make a sound. Very dangerous to cross. I hope this chat isn't highjacked by one topic like last week's.

For travelers who encounter such problems in VDOT territory, call 800-367-7623. If it helps you remember, it's 800-FOR-ROAD. (That never helps me remember. I always have to look it up.)

Not sure what VDOT is smoking or if they used another of thier wonderful computer simulations but I dont see how they can clear snow from inner loop of the beltway from I66 to the Maerican Legion Bridge since there is no room to put the snow they push off the lanes. In a moderate to heavy snow fall I dont care if they ahve this sprayer to melt the snow since it aint going to work. With traffic its a disaster wiating to happen. The outer loop is a liitle better since there are some areas where they can depoit snow. I have the root programmed into my GPS to use White's Ferry or Rt 15 cause traffic in major snowstorm is going to bring the beltway to a stop just like the road between Moscow and St Petersburg. VDOT doesnt have a clue. Snow removal is going to be a total disaster for first couple of storms. VDOT will then say oops our computer simulation did not predict this type of driver behavior and we are all screwed! They cant remove snow from the outer loop and inner loop of the beltway between the American Legion Bridge and I66. And VDOT better be billing FLour at above market rates!

The little median with the white bollards between the express lanes and the regular lanes will certainly be an interesting challenge for VDOT in a snow storm.

In the express lanes, the plow trucks will push snow to the left, where the shoulder is. In the regular lanes, the plows will push it to the shoulder on the right. A new truck, called a flusher, will be spraying -- maybe more like power-washing -- the area where the bollards are.

It's not like they're going to wait for six inches of snow to build up and then send the spray trucks through. They're supposed to be operating frequently to avoid the build up of snow.

Today was the first day with no construction on the GW Parkway since I started commuting from Arlington to Bethesda. It was mighty smooth sailing this morning!

I'm glad to hear you had a good trip. The National Park Service says this about the rock stabilization project:

The left lane on the northbound George Washington Parkway remains closed between Key Bridge and Spout Run. Additional lane closings may reduce the number of travel lanes to one between 10 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. weekdays.

This a question related to one about double white lines from last week (and in July). I assume that the same "don't cross" rule applies to a single solid line, as at the point where the on-ramp from MD 355 S joins the Inner Loop. However, on the portion of this on-ramp where the line between it and the Beltway is still solid, there are at least two signs that tell drivers to merge right because that lane will end in (number) of feet. These seem to contradict the solid line if MD law says that drivers shouldn't cross it. There was even a new, larger sign with similar added in this section several months ago. (Perhaps because people were obeying the solid line and waiting until the short dashed line section to get over?)

In driving around the DC region for the past quarter century, I have never seen motorists having any difficulty crossing solid white lines.

The spot you're talking about is indeed a difficult merge, because the drivers from Rockville Pike need to look right, into the inner loop's fast lane, to find a spot to merge.

The solid white line is very long there. Many drivers see an opportunity and take it, even before the solid line ends.

I commute to work by bike. There has been resurfacing starting on E Street and down Pennsylvania Avenue that has erased the bike lane designation. Cars are using the bike lane as regular roadway and for turn lanes. When will the bike lanes be restored and is there hope for a temporary measure to maintain the bike lane as a safe riding option?

I had heard about the problem with cars making U-turns in the Pennsylvania Avenue bike lanes but not about the resurfacing, so I checked just now with DDOT spokesman John Lisle.

He said that DDOT repaved  Pennsylvania Ave for the inauguration parade, and is in the process of restriping it. The most complicated part of the restriping is the bike lanes, he said.

DDOT is hoping to get it done this week, since the forecast calls for warm weather. (Project managers always tell me that the very last part of road work is highly dependent on good weather, for the paving and striping.)

In the meantime, he said, DDOT has advised cyclists that the safest path on Pennsylvania is the curb lane.

Hey Dr. G, In September, I always anticipate an increase in traffic loading on 395N at the Pentagon and leading onto and across the 14th Street Bridge that usually lightens again back to a normal load/flow sometime in October. This year, it seems like the load has sustained, or even gotten heavier, also jamming with folks trying to enter the HOV lanes on the left. Do you know what gives? Is it my imagination or is there some project that's impacting the travel that will be completed (hopefully soon!) and translate to a lighter load? I'm travelling between 6:40 - 7 am. Thanks for your insight!

I don't know of a project in that immediate area that would affec traffic at that hour. This is just a guess: The park service has a rehab project on the Memorial Bridge that has slowed commuter traffic. Might some drivers be changing their normal pattern and going for the 14th Street Bridge instead?

What is going on on the Memorial Bridge? How long will that lane be shut down?

It's a National Park Service rehab project, supposed to be done by the end of the month.

On different Dr. Gridlock posts and articles, it is mentioned that the Rosslyn Tunnel is at capacity. Is it single tracked or double track? If it is double-tracked, I can understand how the switches that direct trains to Franconia Springfield or Vienna might decrease the capacity of a two-track section a little bit. Even with the slight decrease in capacity, if a two-track tunnel under the Potomac has capacity issues, wouldn't a two-track tunnel under Downtown have just as many capacity issues?

The Rosslyn tunnel is known as the bottleneck because that's where the two lines -- the Blue and Orange -- come together. It's the merge point. Metro says there are as many trains using the merge point at rush hour as there can safely be.

I think we talked about this when we talked about what we'd do with unlimited financial resources. One of the key things would be to build another tunnel under the river and through downtown DC to add train capacity.

Is there a reason why the word "Toll" rarely appears on any of the Express Lane Signage? The only place I've seen that word is on the sign that describes the difference between the EZPass and EZPass Flex. I understand the using the EZPass logo is clear to most, but shouldn't there be some sign to indicate that users are entering a Toll Road?

No reason the word "Toll" can't appear on signs. It does for the Intercounty Connector signs in Maryland.

Of course, I've gotten comments from Maryland drivers saying they find those ICC signs confusing.

I think what the express lanes operators had in mind was conforming with federal rules -- as in, they can't have a sign that says HOT lanes -- and limiting the number of signs and the language on the signs to avoid distracting drivers.

To get into the express lanes a driver passes at least three signs, including the one that gives the toll rates. I guess it's possible a driver won't know what an "E-ZPass" is, but in that case, I'd probably just avoid using the lanes, wouldn't you?

I have found one of the unsung benefits of the new Hot Lanes to be that I cruise along in them while the people in the free lanes beside me are busily dodging cars that are merging or exiting or changing lanes or waiting till the last minute to decide they are getting off on Rt 66. For my pittance of a toll I serenely drive along knowing that I don't have anyone running me off the road. And as for the cost...well, if you have ever had a Starbucks coffee then I don't want to hear complaining about a 30 cent ride on a beautifully paved road.

So far -- and it's real early -- I haven't seen toll rates anything like what we were worried about, when we talked about drivers maybe paying $20 for the full trip. I do think they'll rise as more drivers check out the lanes.

But when I look at the traffic cameras and see drivers crawling along in Tysons while others are crusing in the express lanes, and I look at the toll rates and they're something like a dollar or two, I think about how I'd pay twice as much to pass all those other cars.

The construction going south around the Mass Ave entrance is difficult to navigate. Any word on completion?

The National Park Service says the rehab project should be done by the end of January.

Robert, I'm going to the game tonight, coming from Richmond and leaving at about 3. Do you think it would be best to take 301 and then cut over on Route 5? or Route 214? Also, where do you think the best cash lot would be considering my entrance route?

I think I would just come on up I-95 and get off at Arena Drive. (I wonder if cash parking will be particularly competitive tonight, with Giants fans driving in.)

For the poster who wanted to know why folks use the HOT lanes: Even if they are running the same speed as the normal lanes, you don't have to worry about changing lanes to get around slow drivers (or to get out of the way of maniac ones). There are fewer merges. It's an all around less stressful drive on the beltway, which for me is worth the cost. And of course, my paying to be in the HOT lanes means one fewer car in the regular lanes. FWIW, I drive a Hyundai Elantra. I always laugh when I hear them referred to as Lexus Lanes (especially when most of my trips cost less than $1.)

Those are good points, but I would urge drivers to be extra careful in the express lanes until people learn the pattern.

"I guess it's possible a driver won't know what an "E-ZPass" is, but in that case, I'd probably just avoid using the lanes, wouldn't you?" Sure, but at least on the ICC it says "No Cash" and "Toll" on the signs leading up to the toll road. The Express Lanes signage, aside from the display of toll rates (which for non-local drivers might as well be written in Greek) and the EZPass logo, there's no clear indication that the lanes are toll lanes. I just think drivers are being thrown a lot of information in a short amount of space (much of it repetitive), yet the most important information (the fact that the lanes are a toll road) is not clearly display.

It's true there's no place it says, "Toll."  The only use of the word is in the sign that says "HOV3 + E-ZPass Flex NO TOLL," but that's also part of a sign that says, "ALL USERS, E-ZPass REQUIRED." So if I know an E-ZPass is required, and I don't have an E-ZPass, why would I be steering into those lanes?

Thanks, travelers. You gave us some good issues to discuss, and you gave me some good questions to pursue. Write to me any time at drgridlock@washpost.com.

Stay safe, and rejoin us next Monday.

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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