The Washington Post

Dr. Gridlock

Dec 09, 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. At the start, we have questions and comments about winter driving, Metro fares, the Silver Line, DC residential parking, and I-95 tolls. Keep them coming.

I had a relatively uneventful drive in to work today, save for one annoyance. People, could you pretty please clear the snow/ice off of your roofs/trunks/flatbeds? There's nothing like my heart skipping a beat at 6 a.m. because a massive slab of icy snow from your roof smacks my windshield at 65 mph.

This is the most common complaint I get during winter weather. And especially in the type of winter weather we had over past 24 hours. When I was clearing my car this morning, I could use my arm to push big sheets of ice off the roof. Thought about effect of an ice sheet sailing into the windshield of a following car.

Other complaints I noticed: Drivers passing the plows. What's the advantage? Drivers perform a dangerous maneuver just to get ahead of the people clearing the roads for them.

And: People not treating a darkened intersection as an all-way stop. Doesn't matter if your side has more lanes or more traffic. It's still an all-way stop.

Winter driving skills may again be tested on Tuesday. The Capital Weather Gang says National Weather Service has issued a Winter Storm Watch. Gang plans to have an update around 2 p.m.

I think a teen's driver's license should be tied to the school closings. If the schools are closed due to weather, the license should be suspended for the day unless there is an adult in the car. This would keep the teens off the road in bad weather conditions.

Teens are more likely to be in crashes, and they're likely to have less experience with winter driving than older people.

I think the practical problem with your suggestion would be the inability of police to enforce such a rule. On a day when the weather is bad enough to close schools, officers are going to have their hands full with other missions.

Some DC blocks do not require a DC permit to park more than two hours. Sure, I look for signs..and know a couple of spots. But, is there a map of such areas ? When the ones convenient for me are full, where can I go next?

The commenter is talking about the Residential Parking Permit program in DC. The only guide I can find quickly isn't a map, but a listing of blocks where the RPP program is in effect. Use this link to see the pdf list.

This is outside the DC area, but since so many Washingtonians drive here, I thought it might be of interest. Last week, I drove north on I-95 and paid a toll of $8.00 to drive that short stretch in Delaware. Driving south two days later, I was charged $4.00. This did not appear to be "dynamic pricing," since the signs were painted. Do you know of any reason for this unorthodox arrangement?

This is a mystery to me. I can tell you that Delaware does not use dynamic or variable pricing at the Newark toll plaza. Also, the toll there is $4 each way.

The $8 toll on that route is at the Maryland Transportation Authority toll plaza just beyond the Tydings Bridge on the Susquehanna River. That's the one you pay northbound on I-95, but there's no toll on the southbound side.

The Maryland and Delaware toll plazas are pretty close together. We were discussing recently that E-ZPass drivers -- in fact all I-95 drivers -- would benefit if Maryland did like Delaware and created highway-speed E-ZPass lanes to improve the flow of traffic.


The reason why I am asking this question is because whenever I have an issue with my smart trip card and need to go to the station manager there is never one around to help me. I stand there wondering how long I will have to wait until I see a station manager and it is usually at a time when I am in a hurry to get on metro. I have been chaulking it up to yet another example of metro's crappy customer service. By the way had no problems getting into work this morning thanks to the Marc train I ride they were more or less on time this morning.

The stations are staffed as long as Metrorail is open. You may not find the manager in the kiosk. In fact, Metro officials are encouraging the managers to get out of the kiosks at rush hours and be more accessible to riders.

I like the idea that they should be moving around and helping people, rather than appearing to be barricaded in those little turrets.

Considering the ice and rain, I was totally expecting a longer than normal commute this morning. Instead, I was surprised by lighter than usual traffic and I actually made it to work in less time than normal. Not that I want it to snow more often, I do like the effect it had on the commute.

For road crews, this was pretty close to being the perfect storm. It started on Sunday, a light travel day, and it started as snow, so the brine treatments that the highway trucks put down could have their maximum effect. Also, there was plenty of warning.

Many governments and school systems made the right call this morning by deciding either to close or to open late. There's no winter storm prep that's as important as that.

Keep all these things in mind as you begin to look at the potential impact of the Tuesday storm forecast by the National Weather Service.  Governments and school systems will again need to make smart calls. People who can telework should think seriously about doing that on Tuesday.


The metro bus schedule on the web does not match the one at the bus stop. Which one is right? The arrival time of the bus is not regular enough to tell. Please advise.

Well, that's a puzzlement. Can you write back and tell me what route you're talking about? My inclination is to think the online schedule is correct and that the bus stop schedule hasn't caught up with a change.

That reminds me: Metrobus officials say the NextBus real-time arrival predictor is getting better thanks to an upgrade in the vehicle locating systems aboard the buses. Anybody have a good or bad experience with this lately?

I was reminded today about how much I hate those slippery metro tiles! I love the new ones at Fort Totten... when does the rest of the system get this vast improvement?

Metro officials have a delicate way of expressing this: They say the new tiles have a "greater co-efficient of friction" than the old-style tiles, meaning you're less likely to wind up on your butt when the tiles are wet.

Many of the outdoor platforms now have the new-style tiles, which have other advantages, as well. They should last longer and be easier to replace.

I don't know of a target for replacing the old tiles. (One of the main things I complain about concerning the rebuilding program is that Metro doesn't give us target dates for various parts of the program. This would be good for the riders and good for the transit authority.)

As the usual complaints about WMATA's fares being higher than everywhere else start to flood in, it is important to remind everyone that Metrorail takes you much further than the subway in New York, Chicago, or Boston (as examples). If you compare the fares between systems for comparable distances, you will find that WMATA is about on par with other systems.

Paul Duggan wrote a story for Sunday's Post comparing fares on the major U.S. subway systems.  At fare increase season, many people write to me and suggest that Metro go to flat fares.

I can't imagine that happening, because of the transportation politics involved. Flat fares would benefit suburban riders who take long trips. Their fares would drop. This would happen at the expense of riders -- usually riders in the region's core -- who tend to take shorter trips. They're fares probably would go up under a flat fare system.

Metro and BART have distance-based fares because they can. When they were built in the 1970s, the technology existed to use this kind of system. Century-old systems started out with flat fares and never changed.

Will trains run past midnight for New Year's Eve, even though it's a Tuesday? I didn't see it listed on WMATA's Holiday Schedule, but I can't see why they wouldn't want to provide the opportunity for people to get home safely on this imbibing holiday.

I haven't seen the annual announcement yet, but it's standard practice for Metro to stay open two hours late on New Year's Eve, meaning the train service would continue till 2 a.m. New Year's Day to get people home safely.

When we get that confirmed, we'll post something on the Dr. Gridlock blog.

Also, I notice that SoberRide, that great program that gives adults a free taxi ride home as an alternative to driving drunk, will be operating Dec. 13 to Jan. 1.

I heard a story on WAMU this weekend about the proposed fare hike. The reporter said that Metro plans to give its employees an 8% wage hike. 8%? Really? Wow. That sounds mighty generous. Some of the public they serve would love even a 0.8% wage hike. And if Metro staff are being given that kind of pay bump, then at least the customer-facing staff should be held accountable for how they treat members of the public.

Here's a link to the print version of Martin Di Caro's WAMU story. And here's a link to Paul Duggan's story on The Post on the fare increases, budget hikes and wage increases.

Metro officials seemed pleased with the new contracts. They haven't always reacted that way over the years. I think the big thing t them is that employees are starting to pick up part of the pension costs.

Huh??? The New York Subway runs all the way out to Far Rockaway, well beyond JFK Airport; it also goes down to Coney Island, up to the northern end of the Bronx, and out past the Van Wyck. Queens is somewhat under-served due to projects that were cancelled during the Depression, but on the whole, New York's subway will take you much further than the Metrorail will. A major reason for that is what Dr. Gridlock noted recently: The first IRT line opened in October 1904. The subway then grew with the city as the outer boroughs were more heavily developed (well, Staten Island isn't served by the subway, but that's because a tunnel from Bay Ridge was scrapped due to cost). It's not really fair to compare the subway in New York or Boston or London to the DC-area Metrorail because Metrorail is an attempt to graft rail transit onto an already-developed area. That's a very different, and much more difficult, task than it is to expand transit AS an area develops.

One of the key points Paul Duggan made in his story was the difficulty in comparing these systems.

Having grown up on Staten Island and worked in Manhattan and Queens, I can wholeheartedly agree with the commenter that you can travel forever on public transit in NYC.

At Farragut North, which I guess is underground, the tiles between the escalator and the turnstiles are often slick because of umbrellas and whatever else gets tracked on shoes. Will metro replace those tiles as well, or do they consider this an underground station that doesn't need the improvement?

Metro eventually will replace all the tiles. I think it's most important to do this on the outdoor stations, directly exposed to weather, but the commenter points out a good reason to do the entire job.

Generally speaking, I think the tiles at the underground stations are in better shape than the above-ground ones, but they still crumble, and are just as slippery when wet.

I use the Wilson bridge on a lot of weekends, and I've noticed slow traffic to get off at the new outlets at National Harbor. Is this going to be the new normal, or will it get better after the holidays?

You've got combination of the novelty -- the outlets just opened in November -- and the holiday shopping season. That should ease up, but there still will be off-peak traffic going to National Harbor.

MWAA keeps blaming ATC software issues with causing delays with finishing the Silver Line. However, no trains presently use ATC, and there has been no announcement of when ATC will return. How does a software issue of a system not being used make any sense as a reason for delays? Also, I have some of the shakiest drivers I've ever had riding the Blue Line the past few weeks. I don't understand why WMATA won't give a timetable for when ATC is estimated to return. There's no reason to hide when they estimate ATC will return, which makes me think they have no idea when ATC will return, an alarming thought for such a major safety issue.

I think Metro officials could give us a better idea of when they expect to return the trains to automated control. And I don't mean an exact date. How about a year?

However, it's very difficult to argue with the airport authority's concern for making sure the ATC system for the Silver Line will work right.

The process of opening the Silver Line is complicated by the fact that the airports authority is building it, then turning the keys over to Metro to operate.

The contractor must satisfy the airports authority that the line was built right. Once the contractor and the authority have worked out their issues, then the authority will turn over the line to Metro for testing. Even if Metro testing goes smoothly, there are bound to be a few issues that must be worked out between Metro and the airports authority before Metro -- and federal overseers -- declare that the line is safe to operate for passengers.


Dr. Gridlock, For the second time is as many weeks I was coming up the Bethesda escalator and it stopped dead with a jerk at about halfway up. Do you know what causes this? The first time it happened there was a crew working and I asked the guy at the top if he really needed to stop it and he replied that he didn't do it we did. Is there some kind of weight limit or something? This is awful especially for people like me who have knee issues.

I don't know what caused this to happen during your rides, but there are a few things that can stop an escalator suddenly -- even if the system is working right.

For example, a suitcase, a stroller or a walker placed on the moving steps can bring the escalator to a halt if the object smacks into the comb at the end of the escalator.

Last week, my husband was traveling north on 11th St NW at around E St. and spotted a parking place about to open up. He idled with his blinker on waiting for the spot. 11th Street has a bike lane, which he blocked as he waited -- and a cyclist stopped and was adamant that he could not stop in the bike lane. He is sympathetic to cyclists, but wasn't sure where he should have waited. Do you have a view on protocol in this type of situation? Should he have kept his car completely in the regular travel lane? Thanks!

Under D.C. law, it's illegal to stop, stand or park in a bike lane.

I have definitely noticed an improvement in the predictions generated by NextBus in the last few months. I used to get regular ghost buses or wildly inaccurate predictions, but it is pretty close to perfect now.

I've just accepted a job in Baltimore and will be commuting 3 days a week. I have to get to Union Station from Columbia Heights, then take the MARC. Any tips from Dr. G or the other chatters about how to make the best of a long commute?

Audio books.

I and other people in my office have noticed that the turnstiles often miss charging fares. Those of us in my office who use the metro only for work commute and get smart benefits have tracked this several time. the average slipage seems to be about 6-8% so maybe collecting the fares due rather than raising fares would be better. I only use metro for work, I can tell you within 5-10 minutes every time I use in during the month and calculate the fares and then how much is taken off by the end of the month. Its ridiculous.

So, not one comment about the opening of the Silver Line being pushed back (again) to late March 2013? These people have known for years the intended open date and still couldn't reach it. Well, at least Bechtel got to have their Xmas party at the Tysons Corner station. I won't get to see it until unneccesarily freezing for the entire winter waiting for a bus. Where is the accountability?

Officials haven't set an opening date for the Silver Line -- not March or any other date -- but it's definitely taking longer than they hoped. Delays cost Metro revenue, but Metro's chief financial officer said this isn't going to be a big problem in the transit budget.


I use my smart trip card for commuting and parking all the time. Any reason why airport parking operators don't use this or something similar for business fliers?

The next generation of transit fare payments will be a system that lets you use a regular credit card. So I think it's the Metro side of this that's going to change first.

And that makes sense: Eventually, you won't have to carry an extra card, the SmarTrip card, but can use your standard credit card to pay for all travel expenses.

Check your email. I have all my email read before I get to the office and finish up on the train. That means I spend less time actually at work.

For our Washingt0n-Baltimore commuter.

Problem with the Metro fares is that they are unfairly weighted station to station and disproportionately punish people on the MoCo side of the Red Line. Until the end of October my commute was from Glenmont to Capitol South for $5.25...understandable, long ride, lots of stations and a line switch. Now I just go from Shady Grove to Bethesda for $4.25. Seriously?! All I got was a dollar?!

This was a big issue with the last round of Metrorail fare increases in 2012. The overall average fare increase masked some really big station-to-station fare increases, because of the distances involved.

Metro officials say they've reduced the effect of that in their new formula.

Also helpful on a long commute... podcasts! You can listen to radio shows such as NPR for free even if out of reception range by subscribing to their podcasts.

I would be curious as to the routes the led to the earlier poster's conclusion that Nextbus is getting better. Last week, at 16th & Eye around 9:30pm the projected arrival for S4 was 48 minutes and S2 was 24 minutes, and 5 minutes later an S2 arrived. Also last week, several midday weekday requests for Route 23C in Crystal City towards Tysons didn't show any predictions at all for a route that runs every 30 minutes. And the Friday bus that showed up relatively on time was new enough to have the GPS capability.

I have the NextBus app and it generally works very well, except for the F8 Bus I catch on Jefferson St in Hyattsville at 7:08am. My bus doesn't appear. I can see all of the other F8 buses on their route, but not mine. It shows up pretty much on tim every day, but I am wondering why my bus is the only one not appearing on the app? Does the driver have control over the GPS?

I think the driver can control whether the bus's GPS is on or off.

It is very frustrating (not to mention very crowded) to have only six car trains servicing the blue line. Is there the possibility of increasing to eight car trains during heavy rush hour traffic? How does Metro plan for the blue line to handle further decreased service when the silver line opens?

The Blue Line needs more eight-car trains at rush hours. When the Silver Line opens, Blue Line trains will be scheduled to operate every 12 minutes, whether at peak or off-peak.

One thing Metro is doing that I think is a help, though not a big solution: The passenger information signs at some downtown Orange/Blue Line stations are being adjusted so that riders will always see when the next Blue Line trian is scheduled. They can figure out whether it makes more sense to take an Orange Line train to L'Enfant Plaza and take the Yellow Line to Virginia, rather than waiting for the next Blue Line train.

Longer-term solution: A new set of tracks through Rosslyn.


What sort of fools are running Metro--thinking that they should spend money to advertise the fact that their buses break down every 8260 miles, when we would never tolerate that sort of "performance" from our own cars? Surely there must be some way for Metro to spend that money on actual improvements instead.

The figure I see in Metro's latest Vital Signs scorecard is 7,915 miles between  failures on buses. Metro says that's an improvement over the same July-September period in 2012.

Does Metro have the technology to have station announcments occur automatically in cars instead of having train operators have to talk and drive--something we know from auto research causes crashes because of distraction? I think you have written that the idea behind train operators announcing station names is to keep them awake, but aren't there ways of doing that that do not involve talking and driving? Perhaps ONLY anouncing the next station right when they close the train doors and before leaving the previous station? I assume that other cities have automatic train station announcements and think we would have heard if there was an epidemic of train operators falling asleep as a result.

The next generation of rail cars, the ones that will start arriving next year, will have automated station announcements. But they'll also have new displays of upcoming stations inside each car.

Some airport parking operators, such as preflight parking at BWI, do use an ez-pass style transponder for payment.

Besides the pricey boat or riding my bike?

Not an easy trip from Alexandria today, but you could take Metrobus NH1 from the Branch Avenue Metrorail station.

Thanks for joining me. I need to break away to write up some travel tips for the storm we're expecting on Tuesday.

Stay safe in all this bad weather, and join me again next Monday. You can write to me any time at


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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