Dr. Gridlock

Dec 12, 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.

Greetings, travelers. Lots of traffic and transit questions in the mail bag already. Let's go see them.

Please I asked last week and I know this is a very limited question but we are thinking of moving to Annapolis to be closer to my spouse's work. However I need to come into DC three times a week. Do you know anything about the reliability of the buses that run between Annapolis and DC?

I don't recall ever getting a complaint about the Maryland Transit Administration's commuter bus service between Annapolis and DC, but I thought I'd post this question early in case commuters want to respond.

This would be Routes 922 and 950, I believe.

My guess is that the parts of the trip along Route 50 in Prince George's go pretty well because of the HOV lanes, but the westbound trips in the morning could get slower after that.

Some commuters from the Annapolis area will come in on Route 50 and park at New Carrolltown Metro station to pick up the Orange Line, but the garage gets crowded early.

I drive a hybrid but do not have the special license plate. My morning commute takes me through Old Town Alexandria that designates the right lane of Washington Street as HOV 2. In a rush one morning, I went in the right lane for a couple of blocks and sure enough got pulled over. However, when the officer saw my Hybrid designation (remember, no special license plate), he told me "nevermind". Was he right to let me go? I didn't argue with him.

He could have given you a ticket. (And like you, I wouldn't have argued the point either.) Hybrid drivers on I-95/395 and I-66 are legally required to have the proper clean fuel tags to drive in the lanes. Just having a hybrid isn't enough.

I know, I know, they're working on the switches. But I may have to stop commuting via Metro if they can't figure out a way to make the trains smoother at starts and stops, it's literally making me sick to my stomach. Is there any hope at all for the end of manual trains?

Metro has made no announcement about plans to return to automatic train controls any time soon. But it's been a while since I asked, so I'll check.

Metro has been working on the train control circuits and other technology upgrades. GM Richard Sarles said he knows about the problems for the trains and for riders with manual control, but he won't go back to automatic before he's sure it's safe.

The automatic controls were a key issue in the June 2009 Red Line crash.

The switches, I think that's a separate issue from the crash, but their replacement also was an NTSB recommendation.

I complained last week about the abominable service times last week with the Red Line shut down;. This week's single tracking was just as bad. I took the Red Line to Union station in the morning with little problem and rode my bike to Anacostia from there. Coming back, I entered Potomac Ave and rode to Metro Center. There were two trains going to Union Station, 7 and 13 minutes respectively. I took the first as the conductor announced at Metro Center the train as going to Takoma, only to halt at NY Ave. My commute from Potomac Ave to Silver Spring was nearly an hour. Sunday I did the same and had better luck on timing taking only 45 minutes, but we were halted waiting outside Takoma for a good ten minutes waiting for a Shady Grove bound train on the single tracking. I thought Metro announced every other train going to the ends of the lines. They have to do a better job or I'm just going to stop riding period.

Let me first give you the Red Line single-tracking schedule for this coming weekend. It's the last weekend of single-tracking for the year. That will pick up again in January, along with the more disruptive maintenance work that involves shutting stations and transfering riders to buses.

I'll post the full track work schedule for the weekend on the Dr. Gridlock blog after the chat, but for now, because of our commenter, this is the Red Line schedule for this weekend as announced by Metro:

"The most significant work of the weekend will take place on the Red Line, where crews will advance efforts to stabilize a water main that runs through the mezzanine level of Farragut North Station. The heavy construction work requires that one Red Line track be taken out of service between Dupont Circle and Judiciary Square for the safety of workers and customers.

  • Red Line trains will operate every 20 minutes through the work zone, with service between Shady Grove and Glenmont.
  • Additional Red Line service will operate on Saturday and Sunday between the hours of 9:30 a.m. and 9 p.m., with trains departing every 10 minutes from Shady Grove and Glenmont. However, every other train from Shady Grove station will turn back at Dupont Circle; every other train from Glenmont will turn back at Union Station.
  • The last train departing Glenmont station will leave 11 minutes earlier than usual -- at 2:26 a.m. on Friday and Saturday, and at 11:26 p.m. on Sunday.  
  • Customers should allow about 30 minutes of additional travel time and expect crowding conditions."

I've been reluctant to recommend Metro on weekends for holiday shoppers, mainly because of the disruptions.

The thing about where the trains terminate: Whatever announcement you hear during the run from the operator, the Operations Control Center can decide to end the run at any point and send the train back downtown if the controllers see the platforms are getting too crowded.



Hello Dr. Gridlock: Are there any updates on the new connector from northbound 395 to northbound 295? An electronic message board on northbound 395 warns that the exit from 395 to Pennsylvania Avenue will close at certain times, but the schedule of closures is unclear to me.

I'll look for something specifically about those PA Ave exit closures. There are plenty of lane closings in the area of the 11th Street Bridge now as DDOT prepares for the opening of two of the three new spans sometime before the end of January.

These are the through spans, the ones that commuters will use if they -- just for example -- live in Bowie and commute to the Pentagon. But the new connecting ramps, the element that those commuters are most anxious to see, won't open at the same time that the two spans open.

The opening of the two spans will clear room to build those ramps. I'll have more about this on the blog and in the paper.

I have a flight on December 21st at Dulles at 8:19 AM. I have to check some bags. How early should I arrive at the airport?

Oh, you longtime readers know how much I hate to answer these questions because I don't want to contribute to anyone being late for a flight.

For the holidays, with the crowds of people who don't fly very frequently and may not be used to the check-ins and security lines, I like to reach the airport terminal entrance at least two hours before flight time.

Arriving at the Twinbrook metro station this morning, I just missed boarding a train which had just closed its doors. However the train did not leave the station since there were delays due to a sick passenger at another station. Of course the train just sat there without opening its doors nothwithstanding the temperature (about 32 I think). This would be bad enough but a disabled man in a wheelchair went to the first car and knocked, asking the train operator to open the doors. Not only did the operator refuse, after a few moments he emphasized his refusal and moved the train up the track by a few yards so the doors could not be opened safely. The train then proceeded to sit there at the station for another 10 - 15 minutes. The able bodied and disabled people were left on the platform in the cold while our fellow commuters sat a few feet away from us in warm half empty cars. But at least the operator made sure that the everyone got a real taste of what Metro really thinks about the comfort of its passengers.

There was a sick passenger at Van Ness, and that created delays up the Red Line.

I believe standard operating procedure is to keep the doors open as long as the train is at the platform.

I can only guess what was going on in this case.

If the operator had opened the doors again at the platform and then held there, I'd probably be reading complaints from riders about the operator keeping the doors open and everyone aboard freezing.

Hey Dr. G - Love the coverage and the chat. I'm one of those that does a daily commute from Springfield to Bethesda (and back) along the beltway. I know that its not going to be complete for a few years, however, I was wondering if it will gradually get better as progress is made? Ie will the opening/closing of ramps and lane shifts make things better or worse until the inner HOT lanes open? Seems like they are making good progress, but still lots to do. Thanks!

By this time next year, the Beltway high-occupancy toll lanes should be open. Drivers will see some improvements before the actual opening, as the work zones they've endured for several years get cleared up.

My Dr. Gridlock column on Sunday contained a letter from a Va. traveler concerned about what's going to happen at the northern point near Old Dominion Drive where the HOT lanes merge back with the general purpose lanes. Will that be a mess? the traveler asked.

I said I'm not sure, but have reasons to be hopeful. The HOT lanes operator, Transuburban, will have a strong financial interest in making sure the HOT lanes traffic doesn't get  backed up at the merge point.

But no matter what happens there, the Legion Bridge will still be the Legion Bridge and the skinny Beltway on the Maryland side will still be skinny.

Hi Doc - I live beyind Annapolis on the Eastern Shore - also 922 and 950 runs - and take the MTA buses every day. They are actually remarkably consistent. More so than Metro anymore, that's for sure.

Thanks very much for this response to our first questioner.

Metro is going to start running yellow line trains from here mid next year. I understand they need to change signs and maps. Why not start running the trains right now so that we can get the benefit sooner rather than later? I do not need a sign or a map to know where the train is going. At least a couple of trains and hour.

This is the first time I've heard from anyone anxious for the Blue/Yellow Line split to get started. I have heard from riders who are confused about what Metro has in mind.

Transit staffers are very concerned about the possibility of people getting on the wrong trains, or just about not understanding the reasons Metro wants to send some of the trains from Franconia-Springfield over what we now call the Yellow Line bridge into L'Enfant Plaza.

Metro thinks it needs all the time it can get till the middle of next year to publicize this.

As a daily user of the Foggy Bottom metro station, of course I am ecstatic about the three brand-new escalators. Now it would be great if the station manager would switch in the evening so that two up and one down (which is perfect in the morning) becomes two down and one up.

That certainly sounds like the right thing to do. (Stairway is scheduled to open early next year.)

I had somewhere to be yesterday (Sunday), knew there was track work and wanted to minimize the amount of time I was just sitting in the station waiting for a train. So I want to the trip planner on wmata.com. I arrive at the station to discover a crowd of people & a 12 minute wait for the next train! Apparently they didn't take their own track maintenance schedule into effect. So what's the point of the trip planner?

Trip planner is next to useless on a line undergoing weekend work. The technology can't adjust for the maintenance schedule. (It's not a real-time planner.)

I notice this on my commute everyday lately, and while it's not interfering with the commute now, who knows. Any idea what they're doing on the Mall there? They've got a whole large square dug up and plastic pipe hanging around.

That sounds like DDOT's Air Right Tunnel project. Just for the sake of a speedy answer, I'm going to paste in what I wrote on the Dr. Gridlock blog about this back on Sept. 30:

The District Department of Transportation this week announced plans to start construction on the Air Rights Tunnel project in Northwest Washington. The Air Rights Tunnel takes Interstate 395 traffic under Massachusetts Avenue NW, north of the Third Street Tunnel.

Construction is scheduled to start in October and continue through spring 2013. The project will rehabilitate the bridges over I-395 on H and K Streets and Massachusetts Avenue.

The bridge surfaces will be upgraded and improvements will be made to the drainage system, traffic signals, street lighting and sidewalks, DDOT said. Some upgrades will also be made in the tunnel below the bridges to improve the lighting and air exchange.

Construction is scheduled for 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. weekdays and may also occur on weekends as needed. At a minimum, DDOT said, one lane will be kept open in each direction on the bridges, and at least two lanes in each direction will be open in the tunnel.

Just a comment about the, I think they're called "fly over" bridges on the ICC. I must admit that my palms sweat a bit when exiting from the ICC to Route 29 North. At a couple of different points, it appears as though you're going to off into space. I'm not a fan of bridges as it is but these seem unusually anxiety inducing. Know they can't doing anything about them - not asking that they do; just wanted to make the comment.

Yes, the ICC flyovers at Route 29 and at I-95 are quite impressive -- I'm sure you're not the only driver experiencing anxiety.

My anxiety has more to do with what happens when we have our first ice storm.

Dr. Gridlock, isn't it hypocritical for you to argue that its fine for a hybrid driver not to point out to a police officer that he was violating the law by driving in HOV2 without the proper plate, but not to entertain questions from people that complain about people who insist on driving the speed limit in the far left lane?

I entertain all questions and comments.

And I think most travelers will forgive me for not insisting that the hybrid driver demand to be given a ticket.

Is the GW parkway work at Spout Run almost finished? I thought it was supposed to be done by mid-December. The loss of that one little lane from the Key to Spout Run makes evening traffic impossible.

I heard end of December. Here's what I wrote about the GW project on the blog this morning (and I have heard a lot of complaints from drivers about the lane closings):

Because of the rock stabilization project in the Rosslyn area, the northbound left lane of the George Washington Parkway is scheduled to close between 9:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. weekdays. One lane will remain open, the National Park Service says.

All lanes should be open between 5:30 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. and from 2:30 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. The park service is suggesting that drivers take Route 50 west, or exit the GW Parkway at Spout Run Parkway and take it to Route 29 south, then follow Interstate 66 west to reach the Beltway.

The stabilization project is scheduled to continue through the month.

Sadly, Metrorail service on any weekend on any line has degraded to the level of public transit in many other cities in this country: only take it if you have no other options. The planned station closings and single tracking are bad enough but the actual performance is even worse.

Taking Metro on weekends is difficult, and unfortunately it's going to be that way for at least several more years. There will be single tracking, and there will be station closings and bus bridges.

Dr. G, I walked into a meeting and people I barley know are asking me if I am the same Ken Richter of Rockville that posted in a recent article on the ICC. 1. Can you tell me which day this article appeared in the Post? 2. I have not had a chance to see they traffic merge onto 270 south yet but think it will change as more start to use it. 3. what thinking of expanding on the Md EZ pass fees for IIC as "Highway Robbery" I think of the poor or those who don't read well confusing NON CASH as FREE Shame they don't read the Post to know that their $6 RT to BWI with double to $12 with a 100% service fee to mail a $6 invoice. 4. Read the terms of the VA EZpass and it says it is for Va Residents but the rules don't preclude you from having one in another state. For example if I lived in Rockville and commuted to Dulles or Reston each day. MDT will be in a money maker with this new ICC

Hi, Ken, I believe your letter ran in my Local Living column on Thursday, Dec. 1. The Local Living columns are hard to track down because they don't appear online the way the Sunday columns do.

Is VDOT really going to be done with this project that has blocked the on-ramp from Rosslyn by the end of the month, as you say in your blog today? This project has wrecked my commute, and the resulting backups onto the TR Bridge make the bridge more dangerous to drive as well.

That's what the National Park Service says. (It's not a VDOT project.)

So, when WMATA started the practice of shutting down stations for weekend work, the way it was sold to the ridership was that by shutting down on the weekends, they wouldn't have to single track lines. Now, however, it appears that WMATA shuts down part of the red line on some weekends and single tracks EVERY OTHER WEEKEND. Did WMATA sell us a bill of goods? Will the single tracking ever stop?

I do think that Metro's plan about the station shutdowns for maintenance came across in a way that was overly optimistic about the impact on riders. It was easy to interpret the program as meaning that we were going to see fewer disruptions for single-tracking.

That certainly hasn't been the case, from the riders' point of view. We get both single-tracking and station shutdowns, and I can't tell from the comments which system bothers riders more.

Metro continues to use the economy as an excuse for the loss of ridership over the years, but a recent report shows that public transit ridership is increasing in most cities throughout the country. Furthermore, the DC area has not been hit as hard as other regions. When will metro come to accept that a decrease in reliability, accountability, and safety could be the reason for the loss in riders?

Metro officials aren't really sure what accounts for the ridership trends on either rail or bus. They don't have surveys that go that deep, so when they offer theories, they're making educated guesses.

Hello! I don't know if this is something you can address but.... In the last 2 weeks I have seen 2 cars driving at night (definitely after twilight) with headlights on but no taillights, on either side. Have you any idea how this is happening? In my ancient car, when one turns on the lights, both front and back ones go on. And here's a side question - if a person should happen to hit a car with no taillights on, from behind, what's the responsibility breakdown? :) Thanks!!

Guessing: Many drivers cars have the automatic daytime running lights. Some forget to turn on all the lights at night.

(I'm not sure abou the legal issue. Here again I'll make a guess: the lack of lights would be a mitigating factor, if it could be proven after an accident, but I doubt the following driver escapes responsibility for hitting the car ahead.)

How bad do we expect holiday highway traffic to be on Dec 23rd - heading west from DC?

Bad, but not as bad as the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. That's simply because travelers tend to spread out their December escapes more than the Thanksgiving getaways.

Speaking of that, if you could delay your travels until Saturday morning, you might well be better off -- but I know that's a hypothetical.

No matter what, drivers, please be checking on the weather not only at your starting point but also at your destination.

You wrote in a column a few weeks back asking about telecommuting and how it would really help the transit situation in this area. The problem is, too many bosses just can't get the idea that their employees are out of their sight for even a moment. My employer is one of these, and it seems we will need to wait until a new generation of managers takes over and allows for more flexibility. It would also help if we could publicly push more organizations to be more flexible and this may take a little naming and shaming. Name those employers that allow telecommuting with the hopes of shaming those who don't. Your columns would be a good place to do this in my view.

I agree that there are still many supervisors who can't believe their people are really working if they can't see them. That's a serious problem, because telecommuting is something we can really look to as a way out of the worsening congestion.

Employers not only have to endorse telecommuting, they have to make sure their supervisors carry out the policy.

It seems pretty unreasonable that Metro would need to close the Dupont Circle south entrance for 1 full year to repair the escalators. Am I missing something? Is there a good reason for this? Thanks!

I think the latest I heard was that it's going to be more like eight months for closing the south side entrance, starting in February. (That's still a long time, I know.)

The reason for closing is the narrow work space, and the fact that they think they can get the job done faster and more safely with a full closing.

Travelers, thanks for joining me again today, and I'll be back again next Monday, just before many of you start your holiday getaways. Stay safe with all your regular travels and holiday shopping.

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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