Dr. Gridlock

Dec 19, 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.

Welcome, travelers, and thanks for joining me for our last chat of 2011.

The "additional" lane after the plaza going to the Beltway toward Maryland seems to be about a quarter mile in length. What/when is the next step which may ease the morning rush mess before/during/after passing through the plaza?

I wouldn't call it an additional lane. It's simply the removal of the work zone that had been blocking the left lane since the spring.

There's still going to be a lot of work on the HOT lanes project at the Dulles Toll Road/Beltway interchange into next year.

One thing I'm looking forward to there is the opening next year of new flyover ramps that will take traffic from the Airport Access Highway onto the Beltway. That will mean that drivers in the airport lanes don't have to cut across all that DTR traffic to reach the Beltway. That should be an improvement for everyone.

Can you provide an update on where Congress is with the transit subsidy? Thanks.

I spend most of my time playing in traffic, so I don't know the ins and outs of congressional action, but so far, there's been no extension of the transit benefit.

Unless Congress acts before the end of the year, the pretax transit benefit will drop from the current $230 a month -- a benefit provided under the federal stimulus act -- back to its previous level of $125 a month,

This uncertainty about whether Congress will act is especially vexing for employees and employers who must set up their payroll a month ahead of time.

I live in Aldie, and while the roundabouts that were constructed 2 years ago do quite well in moving traffic, the roundabout at Gilbert's Corner has become the scene of quite a few accidents. From my experience driving through it multiple times each day, some cars entering the roundabout from Rt. 15 mistakenly feel they have the right of way, which is not the case, as all traffic has to yield to cars already in the roundabout. There is just one lane of traffic to enter the roundabout from Rt. 50, yet for some reason Rt. 15 traffic splits into 3 lanes...one to veer off to Rt. 50, one to go 'straight through' and another for cars going the other direction on Rt. 50. Seems like the multiple lanes are giving the false impression that Rt. 15 travelers have the right of way. I see at least one, if not two accidents there per week. Loudoun County police have been out lately, camping out in the center of the roundabout, but has there been any real discussion of changing the design of the roundabout, or adding flashers, or anything like that?

I haven't heard any discussion -- this would be VDOT -- about changing the design of the roundabout. I understand the problem you're describing and see it at other roundabouts, or traffic circles, along the East Coast.

It's especially problematic when drivers think their road has the heavier traffic, and must be the dominant route, so they must have the right of way.

Traffic rules are pretty consistent on this: Traffic already in the roundabout has the right of way. Others must yield.

The roundabouts have several advantages. They're better at keeping traffic flowing than traditional traffic signals. And when crashes do occur, they tend to be at lower speeds.


Coming back into town last nite & was STUNNED, lost & misdirected. Wanted to take the usual exit of Pennsylvania-West that takes you across the Sousa bridge. And 695?? I know of that highway in Baltimore, but here?? What idiot placed those signs with no suggestions about previous exits?

I think what you encountered were lane blocks and detours associated with construction of the 11th Street Bridge. The new inbound span opened over the weekend, and the new outbound one may open later this week.

We do have a short stretch of highway in DC -- pretty sure it's on the west side of the Anacostia -- that's 695, but I never saw it marked as such before.

When driving across the 14th St. Bridge North on I-395 into DC, on the right, there are what appear to be "guard towers." In the top windows of these towers, there is a reflective glass that appears to display psychodelic colors straight out of a Jimi Hendrix album cover. Is there a purpose for these towers? What about the reflective glass? Is someone watching traffic on the bridge? Seems like it could be distracting to drivers!

That's the old operator's tower for the 14th Street drawbridge. The bridge hasn't been raised since the 1960s, so during the rehab project on the bridge, the District Department of Transportation did an artistic makeover on the tower. Haven't heard others complain that it's distracting.

I believe the law in all jurisdictions is, yield to pedestrians in crosswalks (where there are no lights). However that law is universally ignored in Virginia. You take your life in your hands if you walk across the street without yielding to the cars. One driver cussed me out yesterday when I was walking across a street - he had plenty of time to slow down or veer. What can be done about this?

You're correct. Drivers should be yielding to pedestrians in crosswalks. (There doesn't need to be a sign there saying so.)

Hard to enforce. Police throughout the region have an annual pedestrian safety campaign called StreetSmart in which they pull over cars that violate the law. Sometimes they set up stings in which an offcer steps out into the crosswalk and other officers pull over the cars that fail to yield.

But violators far outnumber enforcers.

Hi there, My husband and I will be taking 95 South from Arlington to Durham, NC either Friday or Saturday. I'm thinking we leave Friday at 11:00 AM or 9:00 PM, or Saturday at 5:00 AM. Which departure time would give us the lesser headache? Thanks and happy holidays!

I wouldn't do the 11 a.m. Friday and am leaning toward the 5 a.m. Saturday.

The 11 a.m. Friday would probably get you clear of DC without too much trouble but you'd run into more traffic later on as you drove south.

Saturday's problem is most likely to be mall traffic, so if you left at 5 a.m., you should be in pretty good shape.

(The Christmas weekend getaway isn't usually as bad as the Thanksgiving getaway, because travelers spread out their trips more.)

Do you know why the Mass Ave entrance escalators are backwards at Union Station (i.e. the up escalator is on the left leaving the station and the down escalator is on the left entering the station)? This causes a lot of unnecessary zig-zagging every day when a trainload of MARC passengers entering the mezzanine directly from Union Station meets a mass of Metro riders trying to exit the system.

This is just a guess: Metro might be thinking that people coming down the escalator should be closer to the fare vending machines.

But yes, there's still a lot of crossover traffic. Would MARC riders be better off using the other entrance to the Metro station, the one over toward First Street?

After reading in the Dr Gridlock column that Metro receives relatively few complaints, I decided to submit some suggestions via their website. I spent a lot of time completing the online form, composing my comments so they would be clear, constructive and useful. When I clicked the "submit" button, I received a system error. So I tried again. No luck. After the third try, I gave up and decided to write to you. If Metro is serious about wanting rider input, they need to get a web form that works.

I think you might have seen something on our Dr. Gridlock blog by my colleague, PostMetroGirl Dana Hedgpeth, who covers the transit system. I haven't written in my column about Metro getting relatively few complaints.

(Though I don't doubt the truth of that, and not just because they have problems like the one you encountered. I think many people just stew, and don't submit complaints.)

Metro's Web site does have tech problems from time to time. I've used that comment form, too, and have gotten answers back from Metro.

The new bridges that carry Little River Turnpike traffic over 495 have been completed early (great job!). But the bridge that carries the east bound traffic is still configured for two-way traffic with 5 very narrow lanes . . . the west-bound traffic was moved to the west-bound bridge some time ago. To my uneducated eye, with a few hours work, the temporary dividers on the east-bound bridge could be removed and very narrow lanes repainted to provide full-size east-bound lanes. Or do they anticipate that two-way traffic will once again be restricted to one bridge?

That sounds like the HOT lanes project. I'll check.

(A bunch of things are getting done ahead of schedule. But the entire project isn't scheduled to be done till late next year.)

RE: The Dec 12 Q&A with the passenger who stood outside closed train doors at Twinbrook while the train sat in the station: The train operator could have opened the doors again prior to departing the station to allow additional passengers to board the train, rather than sitting for several minutes with the doors open the entire time. Apparently, Metro employees are incapable of -- or aren't permitted to -- think, or many common passenger complaints could be alleviated.

My thought on that was different. I think Metro's rules are that the operators must keep the doors open the entire time the train is at the platform, whether it's the regular "dwell time" for passengers to get off and on, or a delay.

Hi, long time rider with a question. I've noticed that in the past two years it seems that when trains malfunction or things happen like smoke in a tunnel it takes FOREVER for metro to rectify the problem. It's not unusual for a simple smoke issue to result in a 30+ minute delay. Also, when a train is offloaded due to a malfunction it now means either it must be moved and/or single-tracking will occur around the station. This used to be a delay of about 15 minutes, TOPS. Now it is a 25+ minute delay, or so it seems. Case in point, today, 12/15/11, going from Shady Grove to Dupont Circle took forever due to a malfunctioning train in Am U station. We sat for at least 30 minutes, all the while trains were passing us. Upon arriving at work I can confirm the trains coming from Silver Sp were in fact not delayed. This tells me that metro decided to hold up the trains coming from MD to allow the trains coming from DC to move as scheduled. What sort of moron would make such a decision, oh wait, sorry, forgot we're talking about metro employees. My train did finally arrive at dupont at 8:11 am. I understand there's more to the system than we fully understand, but I also have ridden more than a dozen subway systems and know many people who relied on other subway systems daily and they all I have agreed that handling problems like metro does seems unique. Would a broken down train in NYC result in a 35 minute delay? One more question: why do exitfare machines not accept credit cards? Absolutely ridiculous, and at least if they're not going to take CCs they need to place a WORKING atm within access. Thanks for your time, -soon to be ex-rider of 25 years.

(I'm assuming both "today" and "12/15/11" are correct, and that this was a question/comment submitted in advance of our chat.)

I'm not sure what the reason was for the delay on the train at Tenleytown-AU. Half hour does seem like a long time if it was a mechanical problem. If a door is busted -- and that's just about the most common problem -- the operator would likely tell everyone to get off, then get the train moving again.

Metro has been stationing mechanics around the system so that it can get help to trains more quickly. Sometimes, the operations control center will tell an operator to get going again, even with no passengers aboard, and a mechanic will get aboard at an upcoming station, try to fix the problem, and get the train back in service.

Setting up single tracking disrupts travel in both directions. It's something Metro does frequently, but not instantaneously. It would be better to get the busted train moving again, rather than set up single-tracking.

I believe you stated by Christmas 2012, the HOT lanes will be open on I-495, and that will be great. But do you have any word with the slalom course will be wrapped up? Right now, traffic constantly switches from the left (original alingment) to the right (new alingment) and back multiple times, and the shifts are extremely difficult to see at night in the rain. When will the entire length be on the new alingment?

I think that won't happen till late in the project.  VDOT and the builders have been trying to move the project along as quickly as possible. That's why theyve been opening up sections of the new outer lanes, and closing off the corresponding portions of the inner lanes so they can be converted into the HOT lanes.

Progress isn't consistent because the interchanges are so complex to rebuild. That's particularly true at the Dulles Toll Road and at I-66.

So I think the weaving -- and the need for great caution on the part of drivers -- will continue for quite a few months still.

I asked this a couple weeks ago, but it was right at the end of the chat, so I figured I would re-submit in advance of this week's chat. My question is when/if the contractor for the Mixing Bowl improvements will finish cleaning up the 'completed' portions of the project. Specifically, on the right side of I-95 North just before the left exit for the Outer Loop, the right shoulder suddenly, and without warning, disappears. For about a hundred feet, you lose any shoulder at all because there are a bunch of temporary Jersey Barriers where the lanes used to head off to the right. There is always debris piled up against the barriers but in the travel lane, and they seem to have been knocked around recently so that they are out of line. This stretch of the project was 'completed' at least a year ago, probably more like two years ago, but I've seen no effort to make the contractor actually finish and clean up. Do you have any insights from VDOT?

Nope, no idea. I'm not familiar with that particular spot. But I can tell you that any driver can report a road problem like that by calling VDOT at 800-FOR-ROAD, or using the online comment form here:


We need to be Vermont this weeekend. Are better off leaving Friday or Saturday. Have a Happy Holiday

Happy Holidays to you and to all travelers.

I think Saturday is likely to be better in general, but the exact time is important.

On a long drive up to Vermont on Friday, you're going to encounter somebody's getaway/rush hour/mall traffic.

Leaving real early Saturday -- notice the traveler above who was thinking about 5 a.m. Saturday -- would probably do the trick. (But everybody, be sure to check the forecast for the entire route. The weather late this week is a bit unstable.)

So the Orange line today was running at least 11 minutes apart (that I know of) during the height of rush hour. Should we generally assume metro is as understaffed as most offices this week and next and assume non-rush service?

No change in rush hour schedules this week. I often get complaints about the gaps in morning rush hour trains on the Orange Line from the folks toward the western end of the line.

No matter what the schedule says, trains passing through downtown get bunched up routinely, so by the time they get out to Vienna or West Falls Church and turn back, there may be big gaps.

OK, we have two lanes back to the Inner Loop...but as vehicles in those lanes are crawling along at less than 5 mph this morning, the two lanes on the right heading to the outer loop AND the two lanes to the left heading to I-66 are full of cars going at least 40 mph. Please tell me that the final planned configuration for traffic flow here will result in a more equitable and balanced flow - that's the only way to make sure this is a safe interchange. P.S. - the signs still aren't quite right for the latest lane configuration.

The people at VDOT and their private partners building the HOT lanes have never told me they expect the project to end traffic congestion at the interchange. They do expect the traffic flow will be a lot better once they're done late next year.

For example, I don't believe the project is going to eliminate the slowdown going from the eastbound DTR onto the inner loop. I think having the flyover ramps from the access highway to the Beltway will mean that fewer drivers will be trying to get from the far left to the far right after the toll plaza, and that should help everyone, including the drivers in the middle heading for the inner loop ramp.

Dear Dr. Gridlock -- The problem of merging HOT lane and non-HOT lane traffic somewhere north of the Dulles Toll Road will undoubtedly lead to locally reduced speeds on the HOT lanes, perhaps even to stopped traffic. Will that mean increased tolls for drivers who enter the HOT lanes, regardless of where they want to get off? or worse yet, closed HOT lanes at I-95?

A reader and I were talking about this in an recent Dr. Gridlock column. The reader was concerned about the merge from the northbound HOT lanes back into the general purpose lanes.

I'm concerned about that too, but mainly because it's a new merge point, and that's always a problem for traffic.

Transurban, the company that will operate the HOT lanes, doesn't foresee a big increase in the total volume of traffic heading north on the inner loop.

What Transurban would like to see is a bunch of drivers who now use the general purpose lanes deciding that they'd have a better ride if they shifted over to the HOT lanes and paid the toll.

But Transurban has a big stake in avoiding any backups in the HOT lanes at the merge point, or anywhere else along the HOT lanes. Traffic congestion destroys the selling point for the HOT lanes.

So it's likely that if there is congestion at the merge point, and traffic is backing up toward Tysons Corner in the HOT lanes, the toll rate for that segment will rise till the congestion goes away.

I'm driving DC to an hour north of NYC. I can leave Wednesday evening or anytime Thursday. What would be the best two options?

I love talking about the holiday getaways. For many, I think, the trip itself is a break from the routine, something we can plot a course for and compare alternatives. And everybody is trying to get someplace they want to be, not just some place they have to be.

In this case, I'd suggest Wednesday evening rather than anytime Thursday. East Coast traffic will be heavy this week, especially for drivers heading northeast of the DC area. Evening travel is likely to be less worse than daytime travel.

Dr. G- Will there be improvements to the exits from 66E to the Beltway (inner and outter) when all is said and done? I'm thinking more about dedicated exit LANES. They don't exist right now, and that area is already a mess. With the elimination of the left hand exit- I see this becoming just as messy as the "New and improved inner loop to 66 East/West Exit (that's sarcasm about it being *improved*)". By any chance, has VDOT published extensive lane maps for what the intersction will look like when the project is done?

I think you might get some of your best map views by going to this page and clicking on the links for the interchanges:


It seems like good progress was being made in October/early November on the stretch of the beltway between Telegraph Road and the Eisenhower Ave. Connector. It looks like the bridges are done over Cameron Run and Telegraph road for the new beltway express lanes. However, since Thanksgiving, almost no visible progress has been made on the beltway. It seems like one more layer of pavement, and finishing up the divider would permit the express lanes to open, and beltway would go from it's current 3 lanes to 5 lanes. Why can't they just finish the beltway and eliminate the gridlock which has been occurring every day for the last 2 years? This project has been taking forever, whereas the beltway HOT lanes being constructed seem to be moving much faster than this project. 

Early this year, project managers were holding out hope that they could get the Beltway lanes done by the end of this year, but they warned me that if they had a lot of bad weather, completion would have to wait for spring.

They had a lot of bad weather.

The very end of the Beltway lanes part of the project involves paving and lane marking, things that need the weather not to be too cold. The most recent thing I heard was that the THRU lanes would be done this coming spring, and the LOCAL lanes in the summer. The last things are those bridges.

Positives and negatives of MD 200 aside, when is it going to show up on GPSs? Neither of ours even show the portion that opened in April, let alone the rest of it, and this is after several downloadable map updates having been released this year. Do you know if the Maryland DOT has to submit something to have the road register as being open to these companies, or do we just have to relay on the GPS makers checking for updates on their own?

Yes, they do, but I think they already have.

By the way, I notice that Google Maps has the entire open part of the ICC now. (After the first segment opened in late February, it seemed quite a while before it showed up on Google Maps. But I can't get the directions to give me a route that includes the ICC. Try asking Google Maps for the Rockville/Baltimore directions. Tell me if you get any version that includes ICC.

When get onto the ICC from 95, my tire pressure light comes on. When I exit onto 270, the light goes off. The same thing happens in reverse on the return trip. We are speculating that MdDot used a porous asphalt that is somehow affecting my tire sensors. Is this logical?

Wow. That's the first I've heard of such an issue. (But does the porous asphalt explanation really make sense? First, what would be the benefit -- to anyone -- of porous asphalt? Second, how likely is it that Maryland used a type of paving that you haven't encountered anywhere else in your travels?

Any thoughts on the best time to head to Philly on Friday, 12/23? Should we expect to encounter excessive holiday traffic heading north?

Yes, you should expect to encounter holiday getaway traffic and mall traffic heading toward Philly on Friday. I'd do very early or very late to spare yourself some of that.

(And based on reports I got at Thanksgiving -- and my own experience -- I wouldn't fear the I-95 toll plaza in Delaware, now that the highway-speed E-ZPass lanes are open.)

The Washington Post recently reported that the estimated cost for the trolley to run along Columbia Pike in Arlington to Skyline Center is at least $261 million. Columbia Pike currently receives excellent Metrobus service. Will that Metrobus service be reduced to force riders to the trolleys? There is precendent for that. WMATA has reduced Metrobus service as it opened more Metrorail stations. The Post article claimed that trolleys will carry more riders than buses. Do you have any figures to back that claim?

I don't happen to have any figures in front of me for Columbia Pike streetcar ridership.

I do know that supporters of the project say the streetcar line should operate more efficiently than the current bus service.

I guess at some point after the streetcar line opened, Arlington and Fairfax could decide to cut back on their subsidies for the Metrobus lines, but I think the most likely adjustment in bus service would be on connector routes. They'd be trying to funnel more riders toward the streetcar service. (Nothing wrong with that. In Maryland, I'd expect similar schedule and service adjustments to blend bus service with the Purple Line transitway.)

Travelers, I've got to break away -- which I'm reluctant to do, because this is our last chat of 2011, and because of the Monday holidays, I won't be back with you here until Jan. 9 -- but I'm hoping that I can get to some of your other questions about local travel and long-distance getaways on the Dr. Gridlock blog over the next two days.

Wishing you great holidays and safe travels.

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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