Dr. Gridlock

Dec 10, 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. A quick glance tells me we've got quite a variety of travel issues coming up today. I've seen at least one that I want to post early to benefit from a group response.

I know the 11th Street Bridge project is supposed to make things better, but for the past few weeks every morning 295 north from the Beltway to the 11th Street Bridge is a virtual parking lot. It used to be that if I got on the road by 6:45 I'd have a crawl up to the Naval Research Lab and then it would open up again but now it's slow all the way to the bridge. By 7:30 it's terrible and it's not clearing out until after 10 a.m. sometimes. This morning at the worst WTOP's map had a 38-minute drive time! I place a bunch of the blame on drivers who take the 11th Street Bridge exit from DC295 south and then proceed to change lanes the entire length of the bridge. There's no flow on the bridge anymore unless you're leaving DC295 south and exiting for the Navy Yard. The Pennsylvania Avenue closure has certainly not helped things. Please tell me there's something positive coming in the near future that will make 295 slightly bearable again!

In a blog posting this morning, I asked travelers what they think is going on with 295.  I see morning traffic congestion from the south, just as they commenter described, up to the 11th Street Bridge.

I also see it from the north around the junction with Route 50, and then on south to just past Benning Road. Sometimes, there's an accident. Sometimes, there's bad weather. But other times, there doesn't seem to be any specific cause. Do you see any lanes closed at rush hours? There shouldn't be.

On the Capitol Hill side of the Anacostia River, the westbound lanes of the Southeast Freeway just west of Barney Circle have been closed for reconstruction. But it doesn't seem to tie in with the congestion that this commenter and others have described.

The 11th Street Bridge project keeps opening new ramps, many forming links that commuters have wanted for decades. Many are looking forward to the upcoming opening of the ramp from the freeway span to northbound DC 295.

Perhaps more drivers are using 295 because of the new 11th Street Bridge connections?

What other explanations might there be?

Dr. Gridlock, I'm a regular commuter on the Dulles Toll Road, and in the evenings, it's usually been a pretty smooth ride from the toll plaza westbound. Though starting in the fall, I've noticed it slowing down significantly, particularly up to Reston Parkway, and I can't determine why. My best guess is the Dulles rail construction, but very little of that has spilled onto the roads. Could you theorize on what might be causing these backups? Thanks!

The District's 295 isn't the only route where other drivers and I think we're seeing more traffic congestion.

With the Dulles Toll Road, I don't believe this is related to the Metrorail construction. The only place right now I see that being a big factor is along Route 7 in Tysons.

So here again, do other travelers think they know what's generating the extra congestion?

I'm traveling through (or possibly around) D.C. right after Christmas, Boston to Richmond and coming back through New Years weekend. Should I brave 95 south/north or just go all the way around ( 81- 64) ? I used 95 south on an August Saturday this summer and it took me 5 1/2 hours to go the 100 miles to Richmond, and I thought Boston traffic was bad! Thanks in advance - Steve From Boston

Mark Berman and I are going to do a holiday travel forecast for this Sunday's Commuter page. But forecasting the December holiday travel patterns is more difficult than doing Thanksgiving. People are more flexible at Christmastime, for various reasons.

The upside is that there's no point when traffic is likely to be as heavy as what drivers saw at Thanksgiving -- or on a summer weekend.

I think there might be some extra long-distance traffic on Dec. 26, as some families that spent Christmas at home head off on vacations. But for Steve, that shouldn't be enough to force him on that wide swing west using I-81 and I-64.

Also, I'd be thinking about the weather. I rather not send travelers to higher elevations, where the rain we experience on I-95 could be sleet or snow on I-81/64.

Road work shouldn't be a factor on any of those routes during the holiday time period.

I normally take the beltway to I-66, but the exit ramp to I-66 was backed up. Since the traffic on the beltway seemed to be moving, I decided I would try taking the toll road instead. I was fine until I got about a mile before the exit for the toll road when things came to a standstill. Traffic in the Express Lanes was almost non-existant. The problem was, that anyone already on the beltway has no way of getting into the toll lanes. They are only of benefit to people who get into the express lanes when they get on the beltway... and not all access points to the beltway include ramps to the express lanes. As a result, they are NOT able to solve the problems of backups on the beltway.

Yes, we've been talking about this a lot. Many drivers see the same problem. At the point where you know how valuable the express lanes are, you can't get on them.

I've suggested that when people are home or at work and about to leave, they check the express lanes Web site, at www.495expresslanes.com, and look at the real-time traffic conditions and the toll rates.

But the commenter here was already on the Beltway and observing a problem at the I-66 interchange. There is no way this driver would know about this issue farther north, unless maybe it was part of a WTOP radio traffic report. Also, even if the radio report came on right that moment and informed the driver of the congestion in Tysons, there was no easy way for the driver to get from the regular lanes to the express lanes.

Drivers have suggested that additional signs be placed before the express lanes access points to indicate the level of traffic congestion ahead in the regular lanes.

I like that, as long as the signs could be designed so they don't overwhelm drivers with information and create a new traffic problem in themselves.

But that still wouldn't have helped the commenter here.

Just want to give a kudos to the DC DOT for painting the west bound-bike lane on 1100 New York Ave., NW. The intersection on 11th/New York/ I Street seems a bit less trecherous to us bike commuters with the more visiable bike lane.

I also like the green paint being applied to mark bike lanes in D.C. I still worry about safety issues in the L Street bike lane, but think we're probably still in the adjustment phase.

I called Metro's NextBus, and it was horrible. I was staring at my bus stop number but the machine uses voice prompt software which couldn't be recognized over the traffic noise. If Metro is listening, the FIRST thing you should hear is "If you know your bus stop number, ENTER it now. Hit the pound key when you are done. Para Espanol ..." Note ENTER, not speak.

I've had both good and bad experiences with Next Bus. I'm not crazy about anybody's voice recognition system. (Some of them are for traffic information sites, and I'm especially uncomfortable with them. Drivers may get so fixated on getting the system to recognize what they're saying that they stop watching the road ahead.)

I do use Next Bus to get readouts on my smartphone, but I agree with the commenter about the effect of traffic noise on the phone voice recognition.

Many have complained about making "Lexus Lanes" just for the rich folks to drive on, and for foreign companies to profit from. But isn't it true that all of the other lanes and ramps have been completely rebuilt, repaved and upgraded, all without taxpayer expense? I'm amazed that there is enough potential profit in the express lanes to pay for all these other improvements and upgrades. Not to mention the fact that carpools can use these lanes for the minor cost of $1/month for transponders.

The Beltway does have some new things and some rebuilt things that Virginia would have been unable to finance without the private investment. And the private investment was possible only if Virginia allowed the private company to recoup its investment through tolls.

That's all good. But the central purpose of this project was to build high-occupancy toll lanes, not to fix every problem with the Beltway. So some problems remain. The slowdown getting from the Dulles Toll Road to the outer loop in Tysons is one example.

I think it's going to be several years before we can figure out if the HOT lanes are a success as a transportation project. Among many other things, we need to see if carpoolers and bus riders take advantage of them.

I drove over the Telegraph Road bridge that goes over the Metro tracks this morning and it looked like it was getting much closer to completion. Is there any additional work scheduled in the next week and do you know when it might be finished? (hopefully soon, it's been quite a pain!)

I know that there's still work underway at the Telegraph Road interchange -- still some lane closings -- but that the project managers have been very hopeful that they'll get the major work done by the end of the month. That would still leave some small items to complete, and they do have till June to finish those jobs.

But barring unforeseen circumstances, the major disruptions from this long project should be over by the end of the month.

I was away for 7 days so I don't know if anyone addressed the article I entered as my topic. I find it difficult to understand why the signs for the new lanes on I-66 aren't yet available. Did somebody forget to put the work order in? VDOT has had 2+ years to make these signs. Why isn't this unacceptable? It is to me!

I do think the signs should be up by now. But the signs are supposed to remind drivers not to cross the solid double lines.

Now, unless drivers made their own personal driver's licenses, they should already know that.

I can get on the Inner Loop of the Beltway from US-50, but there doesn't seem to be a way to get into the Express Lanes. Is there a way to use the Express Lanes if your entrance doesn't have Express Lane access?

You would have to get down to Gallows Road. When you're already in the regular lanes of the Beltway, the only place to slide over onto the express lanes is at the northern and southern ends.

By the way, since we've been talking about this a lot, it's not like the planners did this on a whim. One of the reasons for the setup is that the easier it is to reach the express lanes from the regular lanes, the more difficult it would be to maintain the reliable speed of the express lanes, which is what users are paying for.

What is the status of this project? Are all northbound lanes open again? If not, when?

The National Parks Service says it's done and you should find all lanes open.

I have noticed over the past 2 months an increase in traffic on the inner loop going across the WW bridge. It is not due to any accidents on the road or any other type of rubber necking? Any idea why this surge all of a sudden? Has there been any road closings which has redirected traffic across the bridge.

In the second half of this year, many road projects have completed significant work that should have a positive impact on traffic. I'm counting parts of the 11th Street Bridge project, the Wilson Bridge project (THRU and LOCAL lanes fully open) and the 495 Express Lanes among them.

So why aren't more drivers telling me good things? Instead many of you are seeking explanations for why traffic seems worse.

Is it possible we're seeing some unintended consequences? For example, are the improvements at the 11th Street Bridge sending more commuters along routes on the east side of the region are more drivers using 295 for trips that also include using the Wilson Bridge?

So, with the news that Blue line trains will be running at 12-minute intervals during rush hour, what are the chances that WMATA will waive rush-hour fares for riders who use it to travel to and from the West End? I know it's not very likely. I find it appalling that this is taking place. Those 12-minute intervals will grow to 15 (and more) when all the extra volume requires more time at each stop.

There's zero chance Metro is going to cut your particular fare when the Blue Line trains go to a 12 minute headway.

For those who haven't been following this, we're talkinga but Metro's plan to accommodate the Silver Line when those trains start running at the end of next year (approximately).

Metro planners think the only way they're going to get the Silver Line trains through the Rosslyn tunnel at rush hours is to further reduce service on the Blue Line.

Blue Line riders who need to go through Rosslyn have been complaining about the cutback in service that began this summer, when the schedule was reduced so that they'd see trains six minutes apart, then have a gap of 12 minutes before the next one.

The new plan certainly doesn't make them any happier: It will have Blue Line trains running 12 minutes apart all the time.

Where is the relief? e.g. Inner Loop afternoon rush is still a standstill from 66 - 270

You'll see relief in the regular lanes only if more drivers start using the HOT lanes, and there aren't many using the HOT lanes yet.

Some don't want to pay tolls, even if it means an easier trip. Some can't get on the express lanes at the point where they realize the traffic ahead is bad. Some don't have E-ZPasses, which are required in the new lanes.

The one place where the traffic maps are less red and more green since the HOT lanes opened is along the inner loop northwest of Springfield during the morning rush.

Robert, greetings. Can you tell me approximately when the construction work on Rock Creek P'way southbound just below Connecticut Ave. will be completed?


The bigger issue with Nextbus is that it is so frequently wrong. The regularity with which I watch my bus count down from 10-8-6-4-2-1-0 minutes only to have that number start counting back up (or for no bus to show up at all) is ridiculous. This is literally a 3-4 time per week occurrence.

Indeed, that has been a problem from the start. Now, I do find NextBus helpful most times when I'm sitting in the newsroom and I want to figure out when the S9 is supposed to reach the corner of 16th and M. Sometimes, though, I'll walk over to the stop and take another look on my smartphone and see that the bus is supposed to be a minute away. And then a few minutes later, it's still supposed to be a minute away. And then I look down 16th Street and see it a block away, where a disabled rider is trying to get aboard in a wheelchair.

There's some normal stuff like that the system isn't designed to factor in.

Then there also are the ghost buses. You'll be looking at the readout saying the bus is arriving, but there won't be any bus. Then you'll look back at the readout, and now it says the next bus is 10 minutes away.

Maybe a decrease in Metro ridership means an increase of traffic.....??

That's possible, if a decrease in ridership is caused by commuters switching to driving during weekday rush hours. It would have to apply to particular routes that seem more congested lately, like I-295/DC 295 and I-395.

I know the 11th Street Bridge project is supposed to make things better but every morning 295 southbound from B/W Parkway is a parking lot. DDoT has expanded the Pa Ave entrance ramp NB. I already witness the awfull conditions NB 295 from the Beltway on my way to work in Charles County. Are there any plans to widen 295 in both directions after the 11 street project is completed??

There's no plan to widen 295.

On many mornings, I check the rush hour traffic maps. It looks like the very bad traffic starts to break up just south of Benning Road, well before the 11th Street Bridge. I don't know what accounts for that.

The big thing -- I think -- that would add to traffic northbound on D.C. 295 would be the opening of the ramp from the outbound freeway span of the 11th Street Bridge. That hasn't happened yet. (We're hoping to see it open by the end of the month.)


Metro is clearly run by buffoons, so my question is what can we as residents/riders do to help improve this situation? Advocate for new leadership? Boycott Metro? I want DC to have a funded, well run, well maintained, useful public transit system, but I don't know how to help make this a reality. Thank you.

I don't see much rider activism, the kind that would put pressure on the board members and on the governments that appoint them to be more customer-oriented.

Board members spend more time debating station names than they do asking questions about the Silver Line plan or about why Metrorail shut an hour early when the clocks turned back this fall, or about most other service issues.

There is a Riders' Advisory Council, and its volunteers give a lot of their free time to trying to make the system better, but I don't see much rider support for the RAC, and it has the drawback of being a creation of the Metro board.

With all the talk of the Blue Line reducing service, I ask the question "Why does the Silver Line have to go to downtown DC?" Why not do airport to airport service? Wouldn't that be easy to do, especially since there are 3 tracks at DCA?

The original goal of the project was to create a rail link between Dulles Airport and the urban center, meaning downtown DC. And that's still a key goal.

I'm sure the airports authority would have no objection if the DC region wanted to finance a rail link between Dulles and Reagan National, but to me, that seems a little pricey for a very limited ridership.

Among other things, we'd have to rebuild the junction at Rosslyn so that it could accommodate trains coming from the Orange/Silver Line tracks onto the Blue Line tracks in the direction of Franconia-Springfield.

I think you'd probably need to do some widening of the track bed between Pentagon and National so you could accommodate three lines (Blue, Yellow Silver) at rush hour.

You think that would be worth it?

Dr - have you heard any negative comments on the B30 bus route? I landed at BWI on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, just in time for one of the every 20 minute buses. The large group waiting for the bus said 2 had already passed them by (we were at the second/last pickup point). I ended up waiting an hour and 20 minutes until a bus came and picked the group up. In that time 3 buses passed us (one stopped to say that he 'wasn't picking people up going that way' - as if there is any way to go from there BUT to Greenbelt) and 1 stopped but left once it reached capacity. My flight from MI took less time!

All my experiences with the B30 have been good, but I've never used it at an ultra peak time like the Sunday after Thanksgiving. On days like that, just getting a shuttle bus to the parking garage can be difficult.

I use the RideOn app on my Android phone. Fairly accurate for what it is. It is very useful for figuring out when I leave the house and which street I catch a bus on.

The thing about NextBus services: They're goal is to help us deal with the unreliability of printed bus schedules. Why are printed schedules unreliable? Because the buses get slowed by traffic congestion.

What throws off the computer brain behind NextBus system? Traffic congestion.

Has WMATA considered simply NOT running the Blue Line under that Potomac at all during rush hour? It seems like they are trying to provide some level of service to the 'old' Blue Line but it seems like running those three lines through the tunnel will never be flawless and doesn't seem to work (save time) anyway.

Metro officials said they considered several alternatives, but they were either impractical logistically or didn't fit the ridership patterns that Metro anticipates.

Metro can't easily turn back Blue Line trains at Rosslyn, so no benefit there.

I've noticed that sometimes the way the road is constructed can lead to more congestion with the same number of cars: for example a sharp/blind turn or an incline and turn that makes you feel like you're driving into the sun. the latter situation happens on the new 295 south ramp, just after the 11th street bridge I believe. could it be something like this that is causing the issue on 295 N in the mornings? And, follow up, is there corresponding congestion in the evenings?

The worst congestion that I routinely see around the 11th Street Bridge is northbound on I-295 in the morning rush. And that's the area that so far should be benefiting the most from all the construction.

Sometimes, I see traffic congestion on the ramp from southbound DC295 onto the inbound bridge. (That' s the ramp that opened during the summer. ) But that's less frequent.

That's a pretty tight area, around the bridge, and there's lots of construction still underway that might be slowing traffic.

It might also be the newness of all this. Some drivers might be getting used to the pattern. Some drivers might be testing new routes, and they'll either decide that they work, or that they should go back to their old route.

Hi Doc - How do I contact VDOT to beg the to restore an EZPass Only lane on the far right of the West Bound Main Toll Plaza for those who wish to exit immediately to Rt. 7/Leesburg Pike? Right now, the EZ Pass Only lanes are on the far left and it is virtually impossible to SAFELY use them if you intend to use the Rt. 7 exit. You need to cross in front of all of the other lanes in a very short distance. Totally unsafe. But it is so unfair to be stuck in lengthy Full Service & Coins Only lanes on the right when, in fact, I do have an EZ Pass. Please help!

I think that would be the airports authority, rather than VDOT. I agree with you about the set up. When you've got an E-ZPass, it's ridiculous to wait in those long lines on the right side.

Lately, I've been targeting the middle lanes -- not the E-ZPass only lanes on the left, but the ones in the middle. I figure I'm splitting the difference. They're less crowded than the far right lanes, and I still feel that I have enough room to get over for the Route 7 exit.

This weekend was abysmal. I took a train home from Georgia Avenue to Pentagon City, expecting to transfer at l'Enfant Plaza. Nope - all Green Lines stop at Archives, so I have to take a shuttle bus (!) to l'Enfant. And the automated announcements warned that there was no Green Line service from l'Enfant, but skipped the fact that there was no Yellow Line service. I can't wait to leave this city. Metro on the weekend has collapsed.

This past weekend's maintenance schedule was particularly disruptive for riders. Every line was affected. Several disruptions involved switching from rail to shuttle buses and back. Part of the Yellow Line was redirected along the Blue Line route.

Metro officials continue to assert that the pace of this is necessary. But I don't see why so many people continue to ride on weekends. Sure some people have no choice, but several hundred thousand?

Do you know if there was a lag between opening of HOT lanes elsewhere before they began to be more highly used? what if they just are never used?

It's difficult to compare the Beltway HOT lanes with other HOT lanes or express lane operations. Peter Samuel, the editor of TOLLROADSnews.com was pointing this out to me. Our lanes have several unusual complications. One is the carpool option, for which drivers need a new type of E-ZPass to get the free ride. The other is the setup we've been talking about today: the number of access points involving interchanges.

Commuters will figure out what's best for them, but I think it will take time.

Travelers, thanks for sticking with me all this time today. It's been very interesting. I'll try to answer some more questions and publish more comments on the Dr. Gridlock blog over the next couple of days. (And as usual, there are plenty of comments I couldn't get to today.)

This is likely to be the worst weather day of the week, with conditions improving into the weekend. Still, be careful out there and rejoin me next Monday.

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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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