Dec 06, 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, travelers. We've got quite a diverse bunch of questions and comments in the mailbag today that involve both traffic and transit.

On Sunday's Commuter page, I wrote about the upcoming changes in SmartBenefits for transit users. We'll talk some about that for sure, and there's other issues about getting around in December.

Dr. G, how long is the usual wait to receive a speed camera ticket in MD & DC? It's been about 5 weeks since when I thought I might've been nabbed in MD, but no ticket yet, and it's been about 2 weeks since a possible run-in with the infamous work zone camera on DC 295. I'm rather embarrassed since I haven't gotten a speeding ticket (of any type) in 14 years.

Five weeks is pushing the envelope. It should take about a month to receive a ticket -- if you're going to receive a ticket. The reviewers toss out a lot of them for various reasons. Maybe the plate number isn't completely visible on the camera view, maybe the camera malfunctioned, maybe it's not clear which vehicle was going over the radar's limit.

I don't know of any alternative to waiting to see if a ticket arrives in the mail.

[Here's more information about the speed cameras in D.C.]

I'm going to the Caps game Thursday night and I usually drive from my office in Foggy Bottom to the Verizon Center with no problem. However, the National Tree lighting event is Thursday night and traffic is usually pretty bad for this event. Any suggestions? I usually take Metro from Shady Grove. Are the Red Line night time delays still taking place? Thanks.

The annual tree lighting ceremony on the Ellipse is scheduled for 5 p.m. Thursday, and the Caps face off at 7 p.m. at Verizon Center. I'd rather walk across town than have to drive through the traffic that evening, and I'd certainly prefer to take Metro to Gallery Place-Chinatown, despite crowding and delays before and after the game.

[For more, see this morning's post on the week ahead in traffic and transit.]

I would be a lot more impressed with Metro's commitment to keeping food and drink off trains if station managers and metro police had a week of "dump your drink" with garbage cans outside the fare gates for all the coffee mug toting commuters. In NYC, transit police arrest folks for putting the feet on a seat, but outside of the famous Fawn Hall arrest decades ago, I have seen nothing that convinces me that metro is serious about no food on trains.

Have many of you noticed the "Not a Diner" posters in the stations? I think the posters are pretty good, and could get people's attention. At least, they're more visible than the printed signs in the rail cars.

Transit police do tell people not to eat, and they do issue summonses. But any rider can tell you that enforcement has not been very effective, because we see people eating and drinking, and we see the aftermath in the debris left aboard the cars.

Are the paper fare cards going to be eliminated in the near future?

No. Metro has been creating incentives to switch to SmarTrip. Since the summer, it has cost more to use a paper fare card -- a negative incentive. But there are no plans to eliminate the paper cards completely.

On any given day at least half of the fare gate readers at Dupont Circle (South) don't accept Smartrip cards. This morning, only two exit gates were accepting Smartip cards. This has been going on for months. I'm curious to know why this problem persists.

I hadn't heard about a specific problem at Dupont Circle. In the past, there certainly have been problems affecting particular stations' fare gates because of software issues.

Metro continues to work on upgrading the SmarTrip electronics in anticipation of the new SmartBenefits program that begins to take effect in January.

If you're having a repeated problem with a particular fare gate, tell the station manager.

Under the Smart Benefits program, funds are only supposed to be for travel to/from work. How does it know this? If a person stops to do some shopping on the way home, maybe between the bus and train and was out of the system for an hour or something, would the last part of the journey still count as going home? Even if the trip wasn't direct? What if you need to come in to work at a strange time or day?

You're right that the SmartBenefits program is designed as an employer-provided break for commuting. With the rise of various smart cards in transit systems across the nation, the IRS has been trying to get better control over how people use their benefits.

But no, there's no way the SmarTrip system is going to be able to tell when you're commuting and from what point to what point. Nobody from the IRS is going to hunt you down for using your SmarTrip card on a Christmas shopping expedition at midday. However, you are going to be using up your transit benefit faster than you otherwise would, and could reach a point where you have to add extra value at a vending machine.

I am aware of the new rule for a max of $120 per month. And, I understand that these funds will no longer be deposited from the vending machines but rather at the entry to metro. However, I'm still confused about what happens with funds already on the card--kind of a rolling balance. Will that only be tapped once the funds are depleted from the deposited amount?

Say you have a "rolling balance" of $50 and deposit $100 per month into the program. Once you use the $100 that was deposited in the account for that month, would it then tap the rolling balance of $50--or would it use the $50 rolling balance first and then get to the $100 that is deposited per month? If the new system uses the rolling balance funds first, then how do you know this?? (It may kick the balance too high whereby I would lose the rolling balance because there could be funds left over since the system used the rolling balance first.) I hope this makes sense. Thank you.

Sounds like you understand the upcoming changes very well. I admire that. I wrote a Q&A feature on this for Sunday's Commuter page. Here's a link:

But I know I haven't told everybody all they need to know about these two big changes in SmartBenefits that take effect in January.

For one thing: Yes, you're right that the program's intent is maintain your transit riding and parking benefit balances in the cloud rather than on your card. But Metro tells me that when you go to the stations  for the first time on Monday, Jan. 3, you should still be using the vending machines to download your benefits.

But on your question about the rolling balance: If you put $50 of your money on the SmarTrip card at a vending machine, it's going to stay there. If it's there at the end of the month, it will be there at the start of the next month.

Whatevery you assign as your transit benefit -- up to the new monthly limit of $120 starting in January -- that's what the fare gate is going to tap first. When that's gone, then the fare gate will start to tap into your $50 reserve.

Hi Dr. Gridlock, I live in downtown Silver Spring and have a question. In a few months I have to take a flight from BWI for work. What is the best way for me to get to BWI (no car) from Silver Spring? Should I go to Union Station and take Amtrak, cab it from Silver Spring or is there a way to take MARC from the Silver Spring station. I always see MARC trains while I wait for metro, but I really have no idea how it works there. Thanks.

No, you can't take MARC to BWI from Silver Spring. That's the wrong line. You'd have to go to Union Station.

I didn't see you mention taking one of several airport shuttles to BWI. That can be pricey, but I've always found them reliable and efficient.

One thing to consider is take the Red Line to Fort Totten, board a Green Line train to Greenbelt and catch the B30 express bus to BWI. I've used it and always had a good experience.

Hi Dr. G. Any idea when (realistically) Metro trains will make it to Reston - both Weihle and the Town Center?

There's a big difference between the target dates for those two stations, even though they're in the same area. Wiehle Avenue Station will be the terminal for phase one, the part that's supposed to be done in late 2013 or early 2014. The project people are hoping to complete phase two, through Reston and out to Dulles, in 2016.

Saturday I was driving back to into Virginia on the Beltway in Maryland and one of the electronic signs read "12 miles to I-270 - Travel time 13 minutes. " I have seen that done in other states and was happy to see it here finally. I wish they would continue to do that as it's very helpful to know there are no backups ahead. I'm not sure why some people see that as a distraction but not the "Report Suspicious Activity" messages.

I totally agree with you. The time and distance reports are among the best uses for the overhead message boards. Some people thought they were distracting. I don't see it. The information is easy to absorb and very helpful.

Certainly, it's more helpful than posting "Report Suspicious Activity" along with a phone number. I tried to think whether I was doing anything suspicious, and by then, I'd forgotten the phone number.

In London (UK), the amber light on traffic signals operates on pre-red AND on pre-green lights. It eliminates the slow "get going" delay experiencd in the USA. Why not adopt this traffic management system here?

In my travels, I have not noticed that U.S. drivers have a lot of trouble coming off the line when the light turns green.

I know the amber light system you're describing and have seen it in Europe. I found it helpful when driving a standard transmission car, but can't think of much use for it if I'm in an automatic. But tell me if I'm missing something on that.

I hope you take my question as I will be at a conference all day when this discussion is live. I am a planner and even those this is a few weeks ago, I want to know my options now. I will be leaving Old Town Alexandria on December 23rd to head to family in Wilmington, NC. I was planning on leaving around 2 in hopes of beating some of the traffic but now I have to make a pit stop at the Raleigh Airport to pick up my sister. What time would you attempt to hit 95 to make it RDU for 9:30? Of course, weather could change everything but I need to know how much vacation time I need to take now. THANKS!!!

I always get real conservative when I hear there's an airport pickup or delivery involved in the planning. For your trip, I don't see much choice other than the standard Interstate trip down I-95 and then along I-85. I'd give it seven hours. That's a couple of hours longer than it should take under normal circumstances. But I do believe you'll be joined on the Interstates by many holiday getaway drivers on the afternoon of Dec. 23. Most people will have Dec.24 off.

That said, it shouldn't be as bad as the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Plenty of people will be off already by the time we get to Dec. 23.

Traveling down Connecticut Ave in the morning has gotten a lot worse with the construction at the park entrances on 24th Street and Cathedral.

How come the D.C. police are so lax in their enforcement of the no-stopping regulations during morning rush hour? There are almost always vehicles parked or trucks delivering something.

That's a pretty common complaint on many DC rush hour routes, morning and afternoon.

I don't see that being solved with the DC police. What I'd like to see is a bigger budget for the District Department of Transportation to increase its force of traffic control officers.

The speed camera situation in the District is out of control. It was bad enough to have speed cameras dumped all over commuter routes, but now the new "Construction Zone" cameras with ridiculously low speed limits is beyond inane. I love the Kenilworth Avenue zones where the limit is 35 mph with DC cops wasting taxpayer money and ignoring real criminals while they sit there waiting to screw people with $300 fines. The worst though is the 30 mph limit at the supposed "construction" at the beginning of the SE/SW freeway eastbound and the end of the freeway westbound. Honestly, you will get run over if you go under 40 on either side of 395. What's next 15 mph on Constitution Avenue?

I think there's good reason to question some of the locations for the DC speed cameras. (I don't have the same questionsa about the placement of the work zone cameras in Maryland.)

More generally, I think it's just fine to have police enforce traffic safety laws -- and if traffic safety enforcement can be a source of government revenue, I think that's fine too.

My husband is considering a job in Herndon, VA -- very near Dulles Airport. I currently work in Bethesda, MD -- off of 270N, Exit 1. To what area would you suggest we relocate for the minimum commuting time for both of us?

Potomac or McLean. Those are the first options that occur to me -- as long as you're top goal is to split the commuting pain. You probably have many other considerations -- as would I. If you base the decision purely on geography and the level of congestion on nearby main roads, you're both going to have bad days -- you'll feel like you're equalizing pain, rather than getting any gain.

We live in DC, but my teenage son attends school in Maryland. He takes the metro home, usually during rush hour, and pays about $5 in a one-way fare from Rockville to DC - $25/week. There seems to be no discount that applies to him, since the DC discount fare only applies to kids who live in DC and go to school in DC. Have I missed something??

No, you haven't. The reason the DC discount exists is that DC taxpayers subsidize it for their public school students. There's no subsidy for going outside the District, and the other jurisdictions have no similar programs.

I am a private sector employee who contributes to my own pre-tax dollars to transit. Here are my deadlines: 1. For January and on, I can contribute $120 pre-tax per month. 2. Until I am notified by my employer, my money can be used for parking and transit, and it will roll over month to month. My employer may notify at some point that money will not roll over, but that will not occur automatically on January 1st. Is this correct?

Everybody who uses SmartBenefits should now check with their own employers to see what the deal is. It could vary somewhat from employer to employer. The things that will be the same are that the transit benefit cap will be $120 a month, the parking benefit will be $230 a month and we have to divide our transit and parking benefits into separate accounts for IRS purposes.

But beyond that, different employers can administer the program in different ways.

Not question that what you want your employer to do is to roll over any unused benefits that came from your salary.

Dr. G, I know that you can use I-66 inside the beltway as a solo driver if you are going/coming from Dulles without penalty. My question is- what do you need to have as proof that was why you are there? I am picking/dropping friends up from Dulles, so I myself am going nowhere but I am using Dulles Airport to pick people up that are. What would I need to have in case I'm stopped? Would their itinerary suffice?

Yes, I think that should be sufficient. Also, it's pretty unlikely that you'd be stopped anyway. Most of the enforcement activity occurs on the ramps, where it's clear who the violators are.

I liked the older ones that had the rat saying "are you going to eat that?" I thought it drove the point home that it's not an arbitrary rule.

Yes, I liked that one also for the same reason. I think we still have the rat posters in the system, but I'll bet most people have gotten used to them by now. These new diner ones are big, and in color.

Travelers, my producer, Mark Berman, and I have to sign off now.

I've got plenty of your unpublished questions and comments still in the mailbag. I think I can use part of this afternoon and part of tomorrow morning for further responses on the Dr. Gridlock blog.

Among other things, I think I have enough information stored up to answer some of the questions you're asking about the SmartBenefits changes.

Write to me anytime at drgridlock at washpost [dot] com, and stay safe till we talk again 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 the Get There blog, as well as in the Metro section of The Washington Post.
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