Jan 10, 2011

The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock, Robert Thomson, was online to take all your questions about Metro, traffic throughout the region and other transportation issues.

Welcome, travelers.  Seen the predictions for snow on Tuesday? Judging by what the Capital Weather Gang is saying at this point, it could be challenging for commuters. But in the here and now, I see a bunch of questions in the mailbag about Metro and some about driving. We'll get to those, but bring on anything else you want to talk about today.

Starting in December, WMATA has a notice on their web page that service to some bus lines would be increased. If you read the notice, it stated that WMATA is paying for this by reducing service to other bus lines. However, no details about which bus lines were going to have service reduced was provided. Two questions: 1). What bus lines saw a reduction in service? 2) Why does WMATA think that secrecy will get it good will from farepayers and taxpayers?

I agree that the emphasis was on the improvements, highlighting the extra service and streamlining of service on some popular routes, such as the J buses between Silver Spring and Bethesda.

I recall that Chris Zimmerman, the Metro board member from Arlington at the time, could not vote for the resolution because he said he didn't know enough about the cuts.

Other board members said the cuts were not significant or had been approved by the town of Greenbelt after a lot of discussion.

Cutting service and adding service is normal at Metro. It's done several times a year.

Why have the SmartTrip lanes disappeared at Pentagon City? It seemed like they were easing some of the back up that occurs at the turnstiles there.

Metro decided a while back that the SmarTrip express lanes weren't working out. Not enough people were using them so the other lanes were getting even more backed up.

I thought they were a good idea, and was sorry to see that it wasn't working.

Who controls the information that goes on the Metro PIDS and is it unique to each line or is it standard for all (arrival information is obviously unique to each station). This morning I got stuck at Dunn Loring with a major delay. The woman talking to me overhead must be related to Charlie Brown's teacher because it took 4 renditions for me to realize the delay was out by me (and apparently at my station). The speakers were just fine - she just spoke way too fast and never spoke clearly. I looked to the PIDS to catch me up on what I was missing and for 5 solid minutes I learned time and again that there is going to be track work this weekend at Rosslyn/Foggy Bottom. While I appreciate that information I am also quite certain that 100% of the riders were more interested in the current delays because none of the people around me could figure out what she was saying. If they could make the PIDS more unique to each station (or maybe even just area of the the system) that would be fabulous. Because today was a lesson in futility trying to figure out what was going on.

If there's a problem on a line, the PIDs are less reliable. There's infomration going from each train to a central system. The computer brain analyzes the location of the trains and makes a calculation about the arrival time at the next station. If there's a delay -- like a stalled train -- it can throw off the calculation.


I recall hearing at the end of last year that Smart Benefits would be changing because because of some IRS rule. Basically, smartrip cards would now hold $300 for any use, while the monthly smart benefits amount would act more like a debit account and could not be used for parking. So far, I haven't seen any changes and have not heard of any delays in the implementation. Do you know what's going on?

I know this is confusing. Several major changes were supposed to occur on Jan. 1 but each got postponed. However, during the new few months, the SmartBenefits program and your employer should be implementing the IRS rule, which requires that you separate the benefit amount that goes to transit parking and the amount that goes to transit riding. You'll have to fill out a new form provided by your employer to make this happen.

Once that takes effect, you'll have a monthly amount dedicated just to riding that you can't use for parking. And you'll have an amount dedicated to parking that you can't use for riding. If during the course of the month you come to the end of one of those two accounts, then the system will start deducting from your general fund -- that's the amount up to $300 that you put on the card at the fare vending machine.

All this is still going to happen.

The progress on the new 9th Street Bridge is impressive, but it's still a traffic nightmare because of a poorly timed traffic light at the T Street, NE end of the bridge. While there's virtually no cross traffic, especially from the Amtrak side, the light allows each side its own cycle while traffic backs up well onto Brentwood Parkway. Don't the traffic engineers ever monitor and correct these situations.

I didn't ask specifically about that light -- I will. Generally, the project managers tell me that yes, they are monitoring the signals all along New York Avenue through the construction zones. When they see a problem, they will adjust the timing.

My employer says Metro has yet again delayed implementing SmartBenefits changes. That means I'm locked out of the new $230 limits for rail and parking purses. Can this be true? My HR dept says Metro will be phasing it in for employers on a case by case basis...

There was bound to be a lot of confusion about this. The changes that were supposed to take effect on Jan. 1 had to do with the expiration of a stimulus bill provision and the imposition of a long-standing IRS requirement.

Then, just as we were sorting that out, it all got postponed. The $230 limit on the transit riding benefit will remain for the rest of 2010.  Some employees already had adjusted their benefit downward to restore the old $120 monthly limit on the transit riding benefit when Congress passed the extension. Now, they've got to go back to their employers and get the higher amount restored.

Separately, the IRS gave another one-year extension on the more complicated provision -- the one about how we have to state how much of our benefits go for transit riding and how much for transit parking. The SmartBenefits program isn't planning on waiting the full year to get us in compliance. So make sure you're asking your own benefits office what's up with this part.

Ain't that the truth. Was walking from the garage to Grosvenor and check on my smartphone. Reloaded the page 3 times (as sometimes the cache data are stale) and it said 9 minutes each time. Get to the station and the train is pulling into the station.

I've had a somewhat similar experience: The Post's Rockville bureau overlooks the Rockville Metro station. Sometimes, I call up the Metro Web site and look at the train arrival times posted on the Web site. Then I look down at the platform. The Web times would be a minute or two off from what I was looking at on the platform.

I can tell you one bus route that was cut: the N8. One entire loop was discontinued, and the frequency of the service overall was reduced as well. It was VERY hard to find this information, and in fact I only learned it because my bus didn't show up one morning. When it comes to obfuscation, in my opinion Metro could give lessons to anyone.

While there was a good deal of information on the Metro Web site if you drilled down deeply enough, I did hear from riders concerned that at their bus stops and on their buses, they weren't seeing any posters or fresh timetables that indicated the new schedules.

I realize improvements are being made between Springfield and Woodbridge on I-95, but what improvements are on the drawing board to help traffic between Woodbridge and Fredericksburg? This stretch of I-95 was nearly intolerable last summer, and I fear that it will only be worse this summer. Is there any hope of an extention of HOV lanes or perhaps a widening to 4 lanes along this very busy stretch of I-95.

The main plan that VDOT has on the table is to put High Occucpancy Toll lanes along I-95 and 395. That plan has been stalled by the economy and by an Arlington lawsuit.

Meanwhile, the High Occupancy Toll lanes on the western side of the Beltway are proceeding.

Along I-95 and 395, there's no other big plan for traffic relief.

Dr. Gridlock, Maybe you can clarify something for me regarding handicap spaces in Virginia: My understanding is that the zebra stripes immediately adjacent to a handicap parking space is, in fact, part of the space. Thus, parking is prohibited for those without a valid placard/plate. However, in my apartment community, maintenance employees regularly park their golf carts within the stripes between 2 handicap spots. When I've confronted apartment management about it, I essentially get a response of "there's nothing wrong with what they're doing." Who's right in this matter? If I'm correct in my understanding, what can I do about it? Thank you.

There is something wrong with that. The area immediately adjacent to the parking space is meant to help people with disabilities get in and out of their vehicles, not to make it easier to park golf carts.

In your jurisdiction, there should be a government office that aids people with disabilities. If you write to me at drgridlock@washpost.com and tell me the name of your community, I'll see if I can narrow that down for you.

Lately Metro fare gates are out of whack. A lot of them don't seem to accept Smart Trip cards. What is going on?

I'm wondering if you might be experiencing the problem that began in the summer as Metro was upgrading the faregate software to handle more complicated SmarTrip transactdions (like passes).

The faregates respond more slowly now when you tap your card. When I'm standing in line, I notice that some people move their cards around, like they're trying to find the right spot.

I think that's not helping.  It might be slowing down the little computer brain even further. Just hold the card down on the target and wait for the barriers to part.

Is the Post planning on doing a story on this traffic disaster waiting to happen? VDOT is not adding any additional infrastructure to handle a near 50% increase in traffic to this already difficult to travel to part of the area. Do people who now drive along I-395 really know what's going to happen to their commute when that gigantic bulding opens this fall?

Your right that the Mark Center is on track to be our biggest local transportation problem related to the BRAC moves. The Post has done a bunch of stories about this.

You'll spot them if you Google "Washington Post Mark Center." But here's a link to one:


Hi Dr. Gridlock: How does Next Bus take into account final destination of buses on the same route but with different end point. I used Next Bus this morning to check to see when the next 42 going to Metro Center would arrive and was told the next two buses (in 4 mins and 8 mins) would bothe be going there - needless-to-say the next two buses to arrive were both ending at Farragut Square. It was pretty frustrating!

Route variations have been one of the problems bus riders have been telling me about since the latest version of Next Bus came online. But it's only one of several significant issues that are keeping this important system from having the desired effect, which is to make bus service more predictable.

You saw earlier in the discussion that the platform information displays in the stations have problems? The issues with Next Bus -- where routes are complicated and buses often get stuck in traffic -- are even more extensive.

What I'm talking about is people not being able to use their Smart Trip cards to get in or out of Metro. Pieces of paper are taped over the Smart Trip reader. At some stops you're down to one or two gates that will accept them.

No, I don't know what that's about but will check. Another traveler says that it's happening at Dupont Circle and College Park. Same description of the problem that you gave here.

So, the Metro police have plenty of resources to harass their ridership with meaningless, time-wasting bag searches, but they don't have the resources to protect people who are being violently assaulted in the stations or having the cars broken into in the parking lots? Seems to me that there are plenty of real crimes happening right now that they could be focusing on instead of imaginary ones they are fighting ineffectively anyway. Surely having visible police present in the stations and maybe on the trains now and then would help to keep us all a lot safer than searching the bags of law-abiding citizens.

Planning security strategy based on what government grants are available really bothers me. Why do we now have the police checking riders bags? Because Metro got homeland security money to pay for that.

Why don't we have enough transit police officers to cover the 86 station rail system and the buses? Because Metro doesn't have the money to hire enough officers.

(Readers of my column know that I think the bag inspections are an unreasonable violation of riders' privacy rights. This new policy makes all riders suspects and randomly selects riders to prove their innocence at the check points. But for years, I've urged Metro to hire more police officers to protect the trains, platforms, parking areas and buses.)

What should have been a short commute this morning from Pentagon to Gallery Place was an absolute mess. I got to Pentagon metro at 8:30 this morning, well within the "busy" times of WMATA (I certainly got upcharged the rush fare), and I have an 11 min. wait for a yellow line train. On top of that, when the yellow was next in line, the next two trains were going to both be blue and so the next yellow after the one I was trying to get was going to be at least another 11 min. (per the PIDs). And then the yellow train comes and it is so packed that people can't even get off the train let alone get on. The only reason that I and two other people from the platform made it on is that we literally shoved onto the train at the last minute (a total of 5 of us made it onto that car). If I hadn't made it onto that train, I would have had to wait over 20 min. for a train. This is NOT abnormal because they can't seem to get the trains to alternate during rush hour. which is great if you happen to hit the second one of the same color and that's the color you want because there won't be many people on the train but this is ridiculous. Why should I have to pay rush hour fares let alone peak of the peak fares when I have to wait 20 min. or more for a train?

Metro still has that plan to add more service between Virginia and the eastern side of downtown DC via the Yellow Line bridge. I expect that to come back before the Metro board pretty soon.

Has Metro placed more 8 car trains into service the past few weeks. Nine out of my 10 trips last week were on an 8 car train and I also had one this morning. I usually arrive to stations around the same time every day in the AM and PM, and rarely had an 8 car train in any direction until recently. If they have added more 8 car trains, I am very pleased.

There have been more eight car trains on the Red Line since last summer.  Metro felt that it would be better to cut the total number of trains at rush hour and use the extra cars to create more eight car trains.

I'd like to hear from more riders about how that's working out. Write to me at drgridlock@washpost.com.

Is Metro phasing them out at other stations or only at Pentagon City? Was a notice posted about the phase-out? Thank you

No, Metro did not post notices about the phase out of the Express Lanes. It was a pilot program at certain stations -- Navy Yard was one of them, at the Half Street exit for Nationals Park.

Are there more weekend closures planned for Fairfax County Parkway and US-50? I use US-50 in that area on a daily basis and found it inconvenient to take the long way around this past weekend. I wish they could just get a waiver from the county to let them make a little noise overnight instead of having to close lanes during the weekend. Will there be more weekend projects in the near future?

No further weekend projects have been announced. I'll check. Wouldn't be surprised to see something like that again because of the Fairfax County Parkway/Fair Lakes Parkway interchange construction program.

I very much doubt VDOT will see a waiver on noise restrictions. I haven't seen that done on other important projects in Northern Virginia.

Dr. Metro - you have again slipped into the mode of spending 90% of your effort and column inches on the transportation mode that moves fewer than 10% of our region's commuters daily - namely Metro. It's an easy target...I understand. We all fret about the safety, even those of us who are occasional riders. But the roads (Beltway, I-66, Toll Rd, I-270, etc) and the problems there have a much bigger negative impact on our area with wasted time, increased pollution, more injuries and deaths. Just because you can't lump these bigger problems into one simple category (like we do with Metro) doesn't mean they don't deserve the appropriate attention. Can you please swing the pendulum more toward the real big transportation problems around here?

I think you'll find that in my Sunday and Thursday columns, my online chats, Dr. Gridlock blog postings, and Sunday Commuter page features that I pay a lot of attention to driving issues, which indeed concern a majority of travelers in the DC region. This coming Sunday, for example, I'm planning to write a Commuter page feature about the latest developments for drivers along New York Avenue.

Meanwhile, Metro does tend to make a lot of news and get a lot of my readers really annoyed.

Travelers, thanks for joining me again this week. (I was having some computer problems early on today and was a bit slow answering questions and posting comments.)

For the Dr. Gridlock blog, I'll see if I can get some updates about several projects -- such as RC Parkway -- that readers were asking about today.

Write to me any time at drgridlock@washpost.com, and stay safe out there.


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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