Dr. Gridlock

Dec 17, 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 to our last online chat of 2012. I notice some holiday getaway questions in the mailbag, but we do have a variety of issues to get to today.

Going from Arlington to Richmond on Saturday morning. What's your best prediction of what the traffic on I-95 will be like? How about for the return trip on Tuesday?

I think it will be heavy going south on Saturday morning. But this is difficult to predict, because people have so much more flexibility with their December holidays than the Thanksgiving holidays.

But here's what I expect: Many people who have the entire week off won't feel in such a rush to head out on Friday night. And that also will apply to some who are making this a four-day weekend, with Christmas on the end. (They might return on Wednesday morning.)

The thing about I-95, of course is that it's not just an escape route for people in the D.C. area. Many from the Northeast will be using it as a holiday escape route to warmer climes.

If you're coming back Tuesday, Christmas Day, that's definitely going to be the better of the two trips. Tuesday evening might get a little heavy, but it still will be a lot better than Saturday.

Making these sorts of calculations about Thanksgiving getaways is relatively easy compared to the December holidays. Each year is a bit different -- though Christmas and New Year's almost always create long weekends.

I am a regular Metro rider at Franconia/Springfield and am adjusting to most parts of RushPlus. However, the problem remains that trains pull into the station, turn off their destination signs and you are left to guess whether it's a Blue or Yellow until about 30-45 seconds before they close the doors. It's particularly frustrating when a)it is cold outside and b) there are two trains waiting with their doors open. Is there anyway to convince Metro to leave the direction signs lit? Kathy Kirkland

I don't see a good reason a train operator would need to turn off the destination signs, unless just maybe Metro isn't sure where to send the train till the last minute. (What I'm thinking of here is that the operations center monitors the crowding on the platforms and could alter a train's route -- though I think it's pretty unlikely.)

Do others experience the same thing that Kirkland is describing during Rush Plus?

Is there a reason the escalators in the Metro are slower than standard speed? Just curious, thanks.

Here's a link to Lori Aratani's interesting story about the Metro escalator lab, where engineers and technicians try to figure out solutions to the chronic problems:


I think the speed is a safety issue, rather than something meant to ease wear and tear. Aside from the danger of tripping, there's the bigger problem of landing a lot of people at the end of the escalator in too short a time for them to move away.

That's one of my pet peeves about visitors: Some get to the bottom of escalators and stop to admire the view or figure out where to go next.

Our next big encounter with them will be during next month's inauguration.

Orange Crush commuter here. Metro's announced Silver Line plan will cut back service to the outer reaches of the Orange Line (Vienna, Dunn Loring, WFC) to a level BELOW what it was before Rush+. This, combined with further cuts to Blue Line service, is totally unacceptable. The Rosslyn tunnel is clearly inadequate to support all three lines. Why doesn't Metro just eliminate the Blue Line entirely during rush hour and route all those riders into the city on two branches of the Yellow Line (Franconia and Huntington) instead? Connections to Rosslyn and points west could be provided via enhanced Metrobus service. Throughput of the Rosslyn tunnel would actually be increased with switching delays no longer occuring. Presumably the Yellow Line bridge can handle additional traffic as well. The orphan Arl Cemetery station could be serviced by non-rush hour trains and buses. This would be a much more efficient way of moving passengers, which I thought is what Metro's job is.

For all, we're talking about the impact on the existing rail service of adding the Silver Line around the end of next year. The commenter is rightly pointing out that the stations on the far west side of the Orange Line will have fewer trains. The reason is that Metro plans to add 10 Silver Line trains per hour during peak periods. And no more than 26 trains per hour can get through the Rosslyn tunnel.

I wrote about the impact on Blue Line riders in my column. (Most recently on Sunday.) I plan to write about the overall impact on next Sunday's Commuter page in The Post's Metro section.

Okay, Blue Line riders bound for the stations on the west side of DC and for a transfer at Rosslyn to Vienna-bound Orange Line trains aren't going to like the idea of killing the Blue Line service during rush hours.

While I think you're probably right that the Yellow Line bridge over the Potomac could handle more trains, I'm not sure that many more trains could be added from L'Enfant Plaza on, where the Green Line joins that tunnel. for the trip north through DC and into Maryland.

While Metro board members made a point of saying that they expect enhanced Metrobus service between Pentagon City and Rosslyn, I doubt this is going to be much comfort to the Blue Line riders.

Also, I think it's not feasible to cut off Arlington Cemetery from rail transit for that many hours a day, even though the station is lightly used compared to the others we're considering.

Now, what I'm saying is, it's tough to figure out how to rearrange service when four of the five existing lines link with other lines. (Only the Red Line is separate from any other.)

I do think the Orange Line riders at the far west end have a legitimate beef, just as the Blue Line riders do. Metro is planning to divert many bus routes to the new Silver Line stations and away from the Orange Line. Also, the transit authority expects some driver/riders will simply find it more convenient to use the Wiehle Avenue station at the end of the Silver Line. But that's counting on a lot of people to change their habits.

In my infrequent driving on 495 from Reston to Springfield and back (non-rush hour), I see little use of the new lanes. Has there been any survey on use yet? Right now it seems they're pretty much unoccupied.

No surveys yet. I think we'll see one in January. I think it will take about three years to figure out whether the HOT lanes are a good idea. I think the answer will be yes.

It's impossible to evaluate them after a month. (This is about what I said when we talked early on about Maryland's Intercounty Connector, our other new toll road.)

The key thing about the HOT lanes right now is that drivers are having trouble doing an instant cost-benefit analysis on whether they should use them. For most commuters, they're seeing the signs with the toll rates long before they know for sure that it's money well spent. By the time they know that -- by the time they're stuck in Tysons congestion, for example -- it's too late to enter the lanes.

I know that many refer to the HOT lanes as Lexus Lanes but I've used them on occasion and I'm certainly not driving a Lexus. The first time I took them was to get home quickly to take an elderly family member to see her sister who died 3 days later. Time was critical and I really appreciated having the option. I would have paid much more than the $1.80 the toll cost me.

The example you gave matches what the planners have been telling me for years is the way they expect the new lanes to be used: Most people won't drive in the express lanes regularly. They'll do it when they've got an important place to be, and they need to be at that place on time.

In my previous answer, I talked about the difficulty in making the instant cost-benefit analysis. But in this comment, we see that not all drivers find themselves in that position. Some know before they walk out the door that paying a couple of bucks in exchange for a reliable trip is going to be worth it.

One of my employees has reported the same issue at Franconia/Springfield with not being able to tell if a train is blue or yellow during morning rush.

Thanks, and I will ask about this. The theme of my column on Sunday was that travelers need more information to make decisions about their commutes. I used the Blue Line riders as a transit example and the HOT lanes drivers as the road example.

With the Blue Line, I was focused on the platform information signs, but the signs on the trains are another good example.

I've missed the reason why Silver doesn't terminate at East Falls Church. Could you enlighten me? Thank you.

There's one practical reason: Turning back trains at East Falls Church would require a massive and very expensive reconstruction  of the tracks and the platform. Even then, I'm not sure you could do turnbacks efficiently enough to prevent delays on the inbound Orange Line and the Silver Line, and avoid dangerous crowding on the East Falls Church platform.

Is there any chance the Express Lanes toll will go any lower? The lowest rate I've seen for the entire length of the lanes has been $1.65. While it's not an absurd amount of money, it does seem to be pretty high when there's no traffic on the road at say 4 AM. I would think the tolls would drop to 5 cents a mile in the overnight hours, but that just hasn't happened yet.

Don't you think most overnight drivers would consider 70 cents too high if they think traffic in the regular lanes will be free-flowing all the way?

The operator of the toll lanes has a 75 year lease. I don't believe any financial decisions are going to be made quickly -- certainly not after a few weeks of experience.

For an average driver, there's not much incentive to using the new lanes overnight, but some drivers traveling at night might feel more comfortable using these closely-monitored new lanes, where a breakdown is likely to get a quick response.

I've noticed that just about every day I drive on the beltway, I see a tractor trailer pulled over in Express Lanes (even during weekends on nights when traffic is not bad). Truck drivers drive for a living, and many drive all over the country and experience signs in many different metropolitan areas, yet they can't seem to understand the signage prohibiting them in the Express Lanes. While I think some may be using the lanes to circumvent traffic, most are probably using them unaware of the prohibition. The variable signage leading up to the main entries has been altered to say "3+axle vehicle prohibited" but I wonder if that is standard langauge that can prohibit traffic, obviously it is still confusing to many truc drivers, because they are still trying to use the lanes. Has Transurban considered prohibiting all commercial vehicles (except busses) to make is clear that trucks have not business being in the Express Lanes? I know they want to allow small delivery trucks and the like, but is it really worth the hastle and confusion that the ambiguous signage is creating?

I think we'll get to the point where there are no more truck violations than on any other highway.

We do seem to have a certain number of people -- truckers and car drivers -- who aren't paying attention to signs. It's the level of driver inattention that really bothers me.

As for banning commercial vehicles, the problem would have to get a lot bigger than it is right now for that to be worthwhile. The express lanes will be a boon to local companies and their patrons awaiting service calls and deliveries.

Who is responsible for operating the overhead traffic signs in the Beltway Express Lanes corridor? I find the information, when actually provided, extremely inaccurate. Does VDOT operate those signs or does Transurban, and I'm not talking about the ones providing tolling and specific Express Lanes information?

The overhead signs in the regular lanes are operated by VDOT. What I find is that the overhead signs can be a significant help -- if they're telling me what I need to know.

If they're telling me about heavy congestion ahead in time for me to make a decision about an alternative route, that's great. If they're telling me to Report Suspicious Activity, they're useless -- unless I 'm doing something suspicious.

What is wrong with WMATA? Don't they know by now that giving an overly-generous end date that results in a project completed on time is preferable to multiple missed deadlines? If they had just said from the beginning that the elevators would be out until January, we all would have grumbled, but we would have gotten over it. Instead, they're two months past a deadline we all knew they couldn't meet, and people are defacing signs out of frustration.

If Metro is going to make adjustments, I'd rather the adjustment be to get the jobs done on time, especially when we're talking about something at a busy station like Bethesda, where two elevators are undergoing modernization.

I know the problem: Rebuilding elevators is time consuming, and the workers don't always know what problems they're going to discover till they take the things apart. But Metro knows that too, and has know it for years.

Why don't the overhead signs on the Virginia Beltway display travel times? Is it too difficult to determine travel times, or are they not allowed to display them because of all the Express lanes signs?

VDOT is slowly expanding its travel time displays. I wish all such programs in our region were advancing more quickly and that the signs were more widespread, because I find them very helpful.

I know that VDOT planners -- like traffic planners everywhere -- are concerned about the number of signs in any given stretch of highway, and about information overload. They can contribute to distracted driving.

I commute by a commuter bus. Sometimes the person if front of me decides to recline their seat depriving me of my space. Kicking their seat sometimes helps but I cannot fine a way to make them give me back my space. Any suggestion? I have no idea why someone would recline their seat on a crowded bus.

I guess the same reason they do it on airplanes. I find it very annoying, but am not sure the best response is to kick the seat. It's just as likely to make the person more determined to leave the seat reclined, and he'd probably be muttering something about having paid the same amount for the seat that you paid for yours.

Ive seen it many times in the AM rush hrs. When the drivers announce the color, you typically see half leave the train before the doors shut or transfer at Van Dorn. its annoying to not know what color of train you are boarding. I dont need to be on the yellow so please tell me if I am on it or not.

That's certainly fair.

I think if I had gotten myself comfortable, I'd probably wait a couple of stops before transfering rather than rush out into the cold, but then again, I might not be able to get a seat up the line.

On Sunday, I was headed on N/B 123 by Tysons Corner Center, and the electronic sign for the HOT lanes said the toll to I-66 was 35 cents. I think that's quite low.

We were talking earlier about the $1.65 toll off-peak to do the entire 14 mile route. If were were getting on the express lanes right now at Gallows Road, we'd be paying 35 cents to I-66 and 65 cents to get up to Westpark Drive in Tysons, maybe for some midday holiday shopping.

I don't believe rates like that are keeping people out of the lanes.

Has anyone else noticed that, since they rolled out the rush plus changes, metro seems to be having trouble zippering together the yellow and green lines at l'enfant plaza? I feel like I frequently sit on the platform there (where I change from yellow to green) and, instead of alternating, two or three trains of one line will come through the station. I regularly have a five or six minute wait for my into-the-city green line trains during the morning rush hour, too.

I've wondered about that. Metro's operations center had plenty of experience melding the Blue and Orange lines at the Rosslyn tunnel. But Rush Plus created more traffic going into L'Enfant Plaza. Seems like that was bound to make traffic control for the Yellow and Green lines more difficult.

I am suprised on the amount of trucks I see in the HOT lanes. Just about every day I see one during my commute but I don't always see the police going after them. Any reason why they let some drive past and pull some over? The trucks I see most often are the box type trucks. I have seen a few 18-wheelers and they are almost always on the shoulder getting a ticket.

Smaller trucks are banned from the express lanes. I'm glad you've seen the 18-wheelers pulled over. I've seen that too. They are banned.

If Virginia State police are being paid by Transurban to conduct enforcement on the Beltway Express Lanes, does Transurban receive any part of the fine levied to a violator (HOV, speed, safety, or truck prohibition)?

Transurban signed a deal to operate the lanes, not the state courts. Tickets are just like any other tickets issued by state law enforcement.

Transurban does pay for the extra state police patrols in the new lanes. I like that. Saves money for Virginia taxpayers.

Thanks for taking my question. I'm heading to BWI on the 24th for a 2:00 PM flight. Should I expect unusually heavy traffic? Also, if BWI's long-term parking is full, what are my alternatives?

Yes, you should expect moderate traffic, crowded long-term parking lots and long lines at security. (Of the three, I think the highway traffic is the least of the worries, given that so many drivers already will be where they're going by then.)

I don't recall BWI ever running out of long-term parking, even during a holiday week. Couple of things to check.

This BWI parking page:


And the BWI Twitter feed, which will have reports on parking status:


For trips of just a few days, I like to use the daily parking garage. It's a few bucks more per day, but if we're away for just a few days, I appreciate the convenience and the shelter from the weather.

For trips of just a few days, I like to use the daily parking garage. It's a few bucks more per day, but if we're away for just a few days, I appreciate the convenience and the shelter from the weather.

How do I request a refund of the toll I paid to ride in the Express Lanes last week from Jones Bridge to the northern merge point? There was no indication on any of the signs that the lanes were not moving, so I chose the lanes to speed my trip home. I got onto the lanes, went about 500 feet, and crawled along at 10 MPH for 3 miles. I was guaranteed a 45 MPH average speed in the lanes, and did not receive that service. How do I go about requesting a refund, and how do I get my money back on my EZPass, because I will NEVER ride in the Express Lanes again after last week's experience and won't need the EZPass anymore?

From my Sunday tips column: "A driver with a question about the invoice should call 855-495-9777 or e-mail customercare@expresslanes.com."

Travelers, thanks for joining me today. We need to break away now, but I've got a bunch of comments remaining about today's two main topics: The impact of adding the Silver Line and how the Beltway HOT lanes are working. Those are the two topics I hope to add to the Dr. Gridlock blog in the next couple of days. Plus, we'll post some more guidance about holiday travels. Since the next time we chat will be in 2013, have a very safe and happy holiday season.

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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