Dr. Gridlock

Dec 05, 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. Tolling resumed today on Maryland's Intercounty Connector, and I see a few questions about the new highway, as well as many about other road and transit issues.

How embarassing is it that Metro had to have a press conference to celebrate the repair of escalators at Union Station and Foggy Bottom? Is it really necessary to celebrate metro doing what its supposed to do, at a snail's pace? On top of that, escalators at Foggy Bottom have already been reported as out of service.

Riding Metro can be pretty depressing with so much stuff torn up for repairs and so many weekend disruptions.

I've said several times that the general manager and other top transit officials need to be out there highlighting when something goes right and we have some progress. GM Richard Sarles has done that on several occasions, such as when Metro added trains for the Cherry Blossom Festival crowds or added new buses to the fleet.

Let's take the Foggy Bottom example. Those are the first brand new escalators installed in 15 years. The Foggy Bottom entrance has long been a source of rider complaints because of the busted escalators.

I like the idea of a senior Metro official coming out and saying, We know this has been a problem, we did something about it, and thanks for your patience while we were doing it.

(And, of course, the leaders need to be out there when things go wrong, too.)

I often smell a strong burning plastic smell in the Virginia Square station and other stations. The odor often makes me feel lightheaded and has induced an asthma attacks.What is the origin of these toxic fumes and how come nothing is being done about it? The fumes are not healthy for riders especially children and pregnant women. The Metro station workers are also at risk due to prolonged exposure. Thanks

I think that might be the odor that goes through stations when a train operator applies the brakes too hard. It's pretty nasty.

Last Saturday I was on Elm St. in Bethesda planning to make a right turn. Traffic was heavy and the right lane toward the corner is a designated "No Parking" zone. I driver was parking his car in the zone and I pointed out to him that he was in a no parking zine, blocking traffic. We exchanged unpleasantries, during which he asserted that it is "perfectly legal" to park for a short time in a no parking area to drop off something. My understanding of the law is that one can stop or stand/wait in a no parking area, with the driver remaining in the car and prepared to move if necessary, but once you leave the car you are parked and in violation of the law, especially if you are blocking traffic. Who is right on this one?

Yes, No Parking, No Standing and No Stopping are different things. Certainly, if a driver gets out of the car and walks away, he's left a parked car.

The holiday shopping season will test travelers' patience like no other.

I think it would be great to have a Marc Manager online chat. They have so many meet the Marc Managers at various stations that I am sure most riders don't attend or go to because they are in a hurry to board their train. What do you think?

Thanks for the suggestion. We're looking for readers' ideas about guests for chats and topics for the "Hangout with Dr. Gridlock" video shows that we're planning to do. (We did the first one last month on holiday getaway issues.) I think out next one, the one we hope to do this month, is likely to be about Metro.

Greetings: I received a parking ticket on Veteran's Day - 11/11/11 - at the National Harbor. I had consulted the Post Holiday guidelines before and was under the impression that parking in PG County was free with the exception of New Carrolton. My ticket is inexpensive -- $15 -- if paid before 12/11/11. I have tried to contact the authorities without any luck. My choices -- pay the ticket or go to court in PG County (far from my home in Montgomery County and on, no doubt, a workday). The principle of this angers me. If indeed I parked legally, it's very frustrating to have to pay this ticket. Please Advise

I have no idea whether you were parked legally or not.

Loved it and will use it on weekends, but I'm wondering if there is any way the driving public can get the fares lowered? It's way too expensive to serve the purpose of getting cars (and trucks) off local roads, even if it is much faster.

The board of the Maryland Transportation Authority can change the toll rates with, I think, 10 days notice.

The peak rate of $4 from end to end strikes many drivers as pretty steep. But my guess is that it will be a while before the authority makes any change in the rate. There's just not enough experience with the brand new road to tell how it's going to be used -- and how often.

Dr. Gridlock- I know that during road construction you will have temporary lane markings with lesser than ideal quality. HOWEVER- there are parts of the beltway near Braddock Road where the paint is so faint that there are literally no lanes (in most parts of heavy work they've done solid lines but here there are still the dashed lines), and I can only imagine that at night and during bad weather that they disappear even more. Just wanted to point this out in hopes that somebody at VDOT could be notified to fix the problem before its too late.

Yes, I've driven back and forth through the HOT lanes work zone on the west side of the Virginia Beltway and know there are parts where the lane markings are faint and difficult to follow, especially in bad weather or darkness.

It's not like you can just go straight and be okay. The lanes shift in many areas.

As the weather gets colder, it's getting more and more difficultt to apply lane markings -- but I agree that the lack thereof is a problem for drivers.

This weekend was absolutely miserable in terms of transit. I live at Silver Spring and I had several errands to run on Saturday, taking me from Anacostia to Pentagon City to Silver Spring back to Capitol Hill. I understand maintenance needs to be done, but closing 1/3rd of the Red Line is NOT the answer. We pay extra to rent near the Metro and when we're denied the use of the public transit which was the reason we rented where we did, the question of location becomes moot. There were five people directing people coming out of Ft. Totten including a supervisor getting paid to stand around and do nothing. Same situation at Silver Spring, at least five people telling riders the subway was closed. At the very least, WMATA should have provided direct express buses from Ft. Totten to the individual stations, instead of having every bus stop at every station. So much waste and bad management. I'm starting to think it's time for Sarles to go.

That was the last big disruption for the year. Metro has some single tracking maintenance coming up this weekend, but no station closings.

Metro closed the eastern side of the Red Line. I find the shuttle buses particularly difficult when that happens, because they have to wind their way through local streets, with plenty of stop signs and traffic signals.

I can't speak to what particular workers were up to at the stations. Metro generally does a pretty good job setting up the shuttle buses and staffing for these planned disruptions. It's the unplanned ones that the transit authority really needs to work on.

As a concept, I don't mind Metro stationing a decent-sized group of employees at each station for these planned disruptions. If it turns out there's a problem, like a lot of confused riders, it's tough to shift employees among the stations to respond when there's no train service. (That's typically the key problem during one of those rush hour emergencies.)

Exit 9 on 270 Northbound is a pain in the behind under the best of circumstances. But it seems to have gotten worse now that folks are merging over trying to get to the ICC as well. From 5 pm on, it often looks to be at a virtual standstill. I don't have any grand ideas for how to improve it, but I'm wondering if Maryland has any plans to do something down the road.

I wouldn't advise the Maryland State Highway Administration to do any long-term planning based on anything that happened in the almost two weeks when the ICC was free.

Now that tolling has started, traffic on the ICC is likely to be lighter. Meanwhile, it's tough to say how much extra traffic in the area around I-270 interchanges is generated by holiday traffic.

I-270, though, is a long-standing pain, just as you say. Maryland needs to figure out a plan soon for managing that traffic.

During the free period of the past week, I used ICC 200 to commute to work. It's not a time saver for me given that my regular route takes approximately the same amount of time - give or take for congestion and accidents. BUT it's a huge chunk of change for me to commit to using ICC 200 daily. So for now - I'm back to my old route and will not switch to that lovely ride from 95 to Georgia Ave due to cost. Any consideration to commuter rates? A monthly fee perhaps? Then I'd be interested. Maybe others would support a monthly rate.

I think a commuter rate is a good idea, because it would be fair to give a break to regular users, and because it would encourage use, and therefore generate more revenue.

There have been two changes in the tolling system since the ICC opened: One changed the Video Tolling charge from a flat fee to 150 percent of the toll in effect at the time. (That brings down the cost for many drivers.) The other was to eliminate the monthly Maryland E-ZPass fee of $1.50 for driver who used their passes a certain number of times the previous month. (I think it's at least four times.)

So I don't see why there could not be further adjustments in the tolling system, but again, I think the transportation authority will do it based on experience, and there's not enough of that yet.

Just have to say that I love the ICC. Yes, I am aware of all of the issues surrounding its construction and I hate it that we're losing so much land to roads but what else do we do? Until all of our businesses and the feds are in line with telecommuting and flexi-place, people have to get from one place to the other. Also have to say that while I think 55 is a bit low, I don't see folks traveling at that speed. I know that I set my cruise control for about 63 and don't worry about the police. Truthfully, if the speed was raised to 60 or 65, people would be going 70 or 75 - and that's much too fast.

Based on what I hear from drivers and see while driving the connector, the speed limit doesn't bother them. It's enforcement of the speed limit that bothers them.

I do hope the connector proves its value by reducing traffic on the lesser east-west connecting roads north of the Capital Beltway. But clearly, it's not going to be a model for other projects in Maryland. If it's a model for anything, it's the idea that governments can't afford to build more than one of those things in a generation.

So what else can we try? I'd say, transit and managing the lanes that we already have. (Like better lane management on I-270.)

Have you done any experiments with the ICC yet to determine how much time it can save?

I've collected a bunch of suggested routes from travelers. (Thanks to all who sent them in, and keep them coming.) I'm about to begin testing them with the idea that I'll write them up for a Commuter page feature (page 2 of the Sunday Metro section) in January.

One interesting letter I got recently was from a driver from Virginia who used the HOV lane (legally) up I-270, cut east on the ICC and then went up I-95. That driver figured it was worthwhile. Another took the ICC from Potomac to Baltimore and then came back using the I-95 Beltway -- the traditional -- route. That driver thought it didn't save time, though that was on a Saturday.

I am under the impression that solid lines between lanes means changing lanes is not allowed. However, there are periods on the Beltway with looooong stretches of solid lines that, if followed as interpreted, make traveling to my destination ridiculous. For example, if you take the ramp from 66-E to 495-N, you end up in the left lane. The lane markers are solid from where you merge on the Beltway to beyond the exit ramp for Leesburg Pike, which is my usual exit. Am I supposed to interpret this as it is not legal to get take 66-E to 495-N to Leesburg Pike, since I am not allowed to change lanes? Or is it really okay to change lanes, even when the lane markers are solid?

Drivers are supposed to cross solid white lines only in emergencies, but I totally agree with you about the difficulty of entering the inner loop from eastbound 66 then trying to get all the way over to exit on Route 7.

(You know, one of the big benefits of the HOT lanes project is that it will eliminate the left-side ramp. When the project is done, there will be a flyover ramp from 66 to the right side of the Beltway, making it much easier to get off for Route 7, and making everyone safer there. You can see that flyover ramp under construction now as you drive on the old ramp now.)

Saturday night we went down south of Alexandria to see the legendary Christmas lights at 1601 Collingwood Road (WELL WORTH the trip for those who haven't seen it). I noted how many people slow to a crawl in the road to stare, and one guy just parked his car in the lane of traffic. Please, folks, pull off the road to get out of the way of traffic, and please TURN OFF YOUR HEADLIGHTS as a courtesy to people who might be taking pictures. Because it's inherently dark out if you're looking at Christmas lights, a photographer has to use a much longer exposure, and your headlights can really mess up a picture.

Seems like a very reasonable request.

It's steel dust. I recognize from my time working in machine shops in Detroit. You get the same smell when using a grinder on steel.

Thank you. This is on the earlier question and complaint about the odor in Metro stations. It's not only an unpleasant odor, the steel dust also is a source of the grime in the stations.

Sorry if I'm "beating a dead horse" but I'd like request further information from you. According to my parking ticket, my infraction on Veteran's Day was an "expired meter." This is CORRECT - sort of. I parked in a legal spot but I did not put money in the meter because it was a Federal holiday. Are you aware of laws that would have required me to pay for street parking during a Federal Holiday in PG County? I still do not understand why I received a ticket and how to address it. I have contacted both the Revenue Authority and the County Council rep for District 4.

I don't know what the revenue authority's rules are for parking payments on federal holidays.

I see this about contacts:

Requests for hearings must be received within 25 days of the citation
issuance date.

To request a District Court Hearing, you must write to:
1300 Mercantile Lane, Suite 108
Largo, MD 20774.
After 25 days, your opportunity to request a hearing has passed.


I'm just curious which of these 2 projects, the train to Dulles through Fairfax County (which I think is called the Silver Line) or the ICC, was a better use of taxpayer dollars? Thanks.

Too early to tell. And they're very different projects. I'll make a guess: In 30 years, people will say the Silver Line was a better value, because it focused development in Tysons Corner and out along the Dulles Corridor to Loudoun County, and that generated more jobs and tax revenue than the ICC could produce.

Metro has the right to boast on this one. A major pain (with 7-10 minute waits at rush hour to get out of the station) has been eliminated. Sure, they should have designed it with more escalators to begin with. But they didn't. And now the problem is fixed. Huzzah! metro did something right!

I think the eventual solution will be to have a second entrance for such a busy station, but there's no timeline for such a large expense.

Another central MoCo resident chiming in to say that it was a nice ride when it was free, but we likely will not be driving it except *maybe* for very occasional weekend trips involving I-95. Even then, the fact that it drifts south makes it less helpful, as most of our outings are to Baltimore or NYC.

Yep. I think there are plenty of drivers who feel the way you do about it. The number of regular users is likely to be limited unless the rush-hour tolls rates come down. But I do think there will be plenty of times when drivers will find themselves late for an appointment, or just feeling like, today, they don't want to slog through all that traffic, and they'll take the ICC.

Drivers will just make a logical calculation: When is my time more valuable than the toll?

I drove it twice last Wednesday for the sake of exploring and I agree with the people who say 55 is much too low, but I also agree with the point you (Dr. Gridlock) made a week or two ago about how it's probably better to start with the speed limit too low and then raise it once they see how the traffic does. A couple of the curves are fairly sharp unbanked curves that might pose issues for trucks. I set my cruise control right about on the 100 km/h line on the speedometer (the slowest at which I can shift to 6th gear comfortably) and had no issues, including not getting pulled over by the cop who paced me for at least half a mile near the tunnel. I DID notice that Maryland drivers are still Maryland drivers....the right lane was wide-open and everyone except me was driving in the other two lanes even if they weren't passing anyone. If I'd been inclined to try to see how fast I could go, all I had to do was to stay in the right lane.

I think it's a good idea to keep right on the ICC. There aren't any left-hand exits.

I love the iCC. Not only does it save me time (Olney to New Carrollton) but the drive is less stressful; no more stop and go traffice up and down NH Ave to the Beltway.

Ah, but will you love at 25 cents a mile now?

The person said "please TURN OFF YOUR HEADLIGHTS as a courtesy to people who might be taking pictures" Do you really want people turning off their headlights while driving on a street? I'll keep my headlights on and I don't care if I screw up your picture. I want other people to see my care while driving.

I think the writer was referring to people who pull over and park and leave their lights on. I don't know why anyone would turn off their lights while driving.

Doc, Hear anything yet about potential improvements to the MD portion of the beltway from the American Legion bridge to i-95 in college park. A glance at google maps traffic during a rush hour shows how people truly suffer commuting through here, in any direction. I'm glad I don't have to do it, but whenever I'm heading northeast or northwest from falls church, I get stuck, and I hate it.

It's awful. There are some limited plans, like creating longer collector/distributor lanes. But nothing dramatic, like the Virginia HOT lanes.

Am I the only person who thinks the emperor has no clothes on when it comes to cable cars? How can installing an entirely new system that requires tearing up roads and installing overhead wires beat additional bus service? Am I missing something? Many thanks.

You don't mean cable cars like San Francisco, right? Sounds like you're referring to the streetcars planned for DC and along Columbia Pike in Arlington.

The streetcars would carry more people than buses, and provide a smoother ride -- things that would expand ridership. Also, the streetcars and their stops are a way of focusing development in a community.

Not a question, just a comment. The traffic flow on the inner loop of the beltway during the evening rush hour at the I66 interchange has improved 1,000% since the left exit from the inner loop to I66 west was closed at the end of Sept. This is something that should have been done 40 years ago.

I'm glad to hear that. The HOT lanes project is going to bring some improvements for all drivers, including those who have endured the past few years of disruption. The project is scheduled to be done by the end of next year, but some of the improvements should open before that.

Travelers, thanks for joining me today, and I'll be back next Monday. Stay safe out there.

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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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