Dr. Gridlock

Feb 02, 2015

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. I'm going to start with a Metrorail service question. But I've got some on driving issues also. There are some questions where I could use extra help from you in figuring out what the problem is.

Two Metrorail related questions for you today: 1) Why can't Metro adhere to their published wait times during weekend track work? Instead of 16 minutes on the Red Line as claimed, waits were regularly 20 minutes or more, including some up to 45 minutes. After all this weekend rebuilding, you'd think they could finally deliver their paltry weekend service as promised. 2) Why are there multiple unannounced speed restrictions on the rails this weekend and today? I know a train I was on between Braddock and Reagan was moving at a crawl for a large portion of that trip, and there are several others today on the Red Line and on the Blue between Van Dorn and King Street. The weather isn't even all that bad!

Hardly a weekend goes by when I don't receive some complaints about the Metrorail schedule.

This weekend actually involved a relatively light schedule for the track work. Only the Red Line and the Orange Line should have been affected, and only on Saturday.

On the Red Line, there was track work between Wheaton and Silver Spring. For Saturday, trains were scheduled to leave the ends of the line every 16 minutes. There were extra trains in service between Silver Spring and Shady Grove from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

On Sunday, the Red Line schedule was supposed to be normal, meaning 20 15 minutes between trains. [Corrected to reflect the timetable on Metro's Web site.]

In my experience, and that of people who write to me, the weekend service doesn't match the schedule. Despite Metro's efforts over the past several years to make the weekend schedule predictable -- and available on Trip Planner -- the trains often don't seem to keep to the advertised schedule.

They still get bunched up at the points where single-tracking begins and ends, throwing things even more off schedule.

Please comment if you've shared this experience on weekends.

On question 2, I haven't heard about speed restrictions between Braddock Road and Reagan National, or Van Dorn and King Street. I have heard of trains operating under temporary speed restrictions following track work in certain areas. But I don't know if that was the case in these situations.

 

Do they really need to shut down the street every day, especially during sporting events? Its making the neighborhood very hard to travel around on the weekends. Is there a schedule we can view in advanced?

I think what you're describing is the District Department of Transportation's Third Street Tunnel project, which is having effects on Mass Ave and H Street NW, near the tunnel.

This is all part of the very lengthy and large project to put a deck over I-395 in that area.

It's one of the biggest projects in the District, and will take years to complete.

DDOT has a Web site that lists the schedule for traffic disruptions.

Yesterday while I was driving I heard a WTOP traffic report say that apparently there had been a wrong-way driver in the I-95 express lanes but that police caught him before there could be an accident. Later, however, I saw VDOT had retweeted something that seemed to imply people were entering the lanes southbound in Newington when the lanes were pointed northbound. Do you know anything about this? If any of it is true, I'm a bit surprised it's not a bigger story in the local media. The notion of traffic going the wrong way in there is scary, to say the least!

I didn't hear the WTOP report. I did see a Twitter message from VDOT to the express lanes that was a forward of a message from a traveler.

The traveler's message said: "Traffic entering express lanes @ Backlick Rd headed south are meeting one-way traffic headed north."

So this morning, I asked express lanes spokesman Mike McGurk if he would check on whether there was any problem with the express lanes ramp gates on Sunday.

He wrote back to say he had confirmed their was no problem with the gates: "All appropriate entry ramp gates were in the down position to prevent access." 

I asked Virginia State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller if she had any reports about drivers going the wrong way in the 95 Express Lanes on Sunday.

She checked through police reports, and said that at 5:43 p.m., state police had received a report that a tan Toyota was  traveling south in the northbound lanes at  Exit 166B. "By the time the trooper was able to get to there, no vehicle was located."

I think that might be too late in the day for those of you who heard something on a WTOP traffic report, and she's checking further.

Did any of you drivers actually see a vehicle going the wrong way, or an entry ramp with the gates up when they should have been down? As the commenter says, this indeed would be a big deal.


Dr. G- What is the meaning of the "Do Not Enter - Local Traffic Only" sign on the corner of 13th St SE (as you head N from Pennsylvania Ave SE) between E St SE and D St SE? There are no houses on the street -- only the Watkins Rec Center and the odd/unused International Graduate Univ. Does it mean that you can only drive on the block heading north if you plan to park on the street? What is "local traffic?" I live just a block or two away and have to go a several blocks out of my way if I cannot use 13th St. SE. I consider myself "local" in that I am local to the neighborhood. Is my use permitted?

I don't want to give you an answer that could lead to a ticket, because I'm not familiar with the background on that particular sign at that location.

I do known that many neighborhoods in the D.C. region ask for and get "Do Not Enter -- Local Traffic Only" signs because they have a problem with commuter traffic traveling through the neighborhoods at high rates of speed. As you note, the signs on the corner of 13th Street SE are near the Watkins Rec Center.

If the neighbors are concerned about the children using the center, that would be a reasonable thing. But again, I don't know the background for that particular location.

For each tolled trip, the EZ pass site "Transactions" view provides a "plaza" code and a lane number, for both entry and exit. Dr. Gridlock, do you know where the numbers come from, i.e., how the lanes are numbered? For example, for one trip from Turkeycock to VA-289 I apparently entered in lane 3 and exited in lane 4. On another trip from VA-289 the system says I entered in lane 3 and exited in lane 2. I would expect my entry and exit lanes near VA-289 to be identical both ways, and I don't understand where lane number "4" comes from on a three-lane highway. Any ideas? By the way, if anyone is baffled by the cryptic plaza codes in the Transactions view, I just found out how to decode them. Just hover your mouse over the code, and you'll learn that "LRS" means "95 Express Start (near SR 236)"!

Based on a related discussion about the express lanes that we had last Monday, I think there may be some in the audience who understand the coding far better than I do. So please send in comments about this.

Was there ever a definitive answer on whether a screwdriver is needed to open the emergency exit doors on Metro as the DCFD said?

This is something that came up in connection with a report from DC emergency responders about the evacuation of the Yellow Line train stranded in the tunnel near L'Enfant Plaza.

I think it was a specific reference to a 3000 series rail car.

I've seen nothing further about this so far in the investigation. But there are many things that we won't understand till the investigation has gotten farther along.

Among the key things I'd like to understand are why one group of fire fighters was proceeding down the Green Line tunnel, rather than the Yellow Line tunnel, where the stranded train was? Why couldn't the operator move the Yellow Line train back into the station, which is Metro's preference in such circumstances?

Why did it matter whether the passengers inside the train could open a particular door when firefighters carry a special key that allows doors to be opened from the outside?

What happened to the idea that metro signs would always include a blue train? More often than not, you kind of just have to assume the next blue train is 10+ minutes behind the three orange/silver trains coming. I thought Metro was going to fix this for blue line riders?

Write back and tell me what station you're concerned about.  I recall Metro saying that the signs would be adjusted in the stations where it would matter to Blue Line riders -- where the information would help them make a decision about which train to board.

That made sense to me, because if it's not useful to Blue Line riders, then changing the signs is just an annoyance to the riders waiting for another line.

But maybe there is a problem at one of the stations where the change should have been made.

Had a really pleasant Metro operator for Silver Line ride this morning. She made everyone smile with her enthusiasm. What's up with that?!?

I've had that experience, too. Really doesn't take much for the operator to connect with passengers, and judging from riders' comments about this, the effect is very positive.

Sure beats being yelled at for touching the doors.

The Metro alerts and advisories page over the weekend only mentioned Red Line trackwork on Saturday. Yet on Sunday there was single tracking in the Takoma/Silver Spring area. Does that not get mentioned? It did explain why the "Next Train" web page and on-platform displays were so incorrect. As I waited for a train at Silver Spring, there was no information posted for about 10 minutes, then it said Shady Grove 15 minutes, and about 3 minutes later, a train going to Shady Grove arrived. alerts page I visited (the information is changed to the upcoming week) http://www.wmata.com/rider_tools/metro_service_status/rail_bus.cfm?nocache

This is one thing I'm checking on: The Metro announcement didn't say the track work was limited to Saturday. It said the impact of the track work would be limited to Saturday.

With the Red Line trains following their normal schedule for a Sunday, they would be 20 minutes apart. In theory, that might have put the trains far enough apart so there would be no impact on travel. The trains should be far enough apart so that they wouldn't get stacked up waiting to take turns through the single-tracking zone.

That's a theory. It's also a theory that this means Trip Planner for Sunday should have been accurate on the Red Line train times.

But as the commenter points out, the "Next Train" signs on the platforms are going to be thrown off by the single-tracking.

All this is way too complicated. Given that this has been going on for years, and will continue at least another couple of years, riders need better and more consistent information about the weekend schedules.

But isn't that more where more than half of their ridership comes from?

It's a relative thing. As I expect you know, there are some weekends when service on all lines might be disrupted from 10 p.m. Friday through the system's closing at midnight Sunday. And some of those line disruptions will require passengers to get off trains, board buses and then reboard trains.

I love Metro despite its well publicized problems and the recent tragic accident. Ran into an issue yesterday at Gallery Place when the doors closed on a car emptying out. It took two burly men holding the doors apart so the rest of us could exit. What would you do in this case and should we report it?

Yeah, I'd report that to Metro customer service, giving the number of the rail car. Could be the operator needs some retraining. No reason to close the doors before everyone who wants to get out has gotten out.

Since the red line crash 6 yrs ago, Metro trains pull to the front of the platform. Why hasn't Metro put signage at busy stations recommending that passengers move down? Every rush hour, people unfamiliar with the system wait at the wrong place, then when the train arrives the crowd moves down 50 yards and everybody tries to crowd onto the last car, creating a huge bottleneck on the platform.

Do any of you recall a time after the Red Line crash when there were loudspeaker announcements saying the trains would stop at the fronts of the platforms? Train operators made those announcements also, as I recall.

The commenter makes me realize that I haven't heard those announcements lately. Like the commenter, I notice that many people wait toward the end of the platform, and then have to rush forward when a six-car train arrives. (These can't all be tourists, can they?)

I try to avoid standing where the sixth car train stops, because it gets so crowded with people rushing forward.

If there is an accident in the HOT lanes, like there was last week near Springfield, and cars in the HOT lanes are stuck watching the regular lanes pass on by while waiting for a tow truck to clear things up, are the tolls reduced/waived for the affected vehicles?

Depending on the exact conditions, one of several things could happen: The toll might shoot up to waive off drivers thinking of entering the lanes, or if it's really bad, an advisory might be posted saying there's an accident ahead.

I don't believe there's a procedure to automatically remove the toll for any driver who already is in the lanes. So in that case, I would contact the express lanes customer service office, tell them what happened, and ask to have that toll refunded.

Hi Doc - First, thank you for all that you do for all of us drivers, metro riders, cyclists, bus riders, and pedestrians by providing us with so much great information. On the plan for HOT lanes on I-66 inside the Beltway, I know you have alluded to the potential for elimination of the hybrid exemption. As someone who takes the 267 toll road and pays $2.50 each way to access I-66 in my hybrid during rush to get to and from DC, I am very concerned about paying an additional toll. Hybrid drivers for years paid an extra $$$ fee (tax) just for driving a hybrid and those of us who take 267 have been disproportionately paying for the Silver Line construction via massive toll increases, not to mention we endured year of highly disruptive construction. And hybrids cost more to begin with. And now we may lose the exemption? What is the forum for addressing this with policymakers, please?

I'd contact my Virginia state legislator, but at this point, I think the General Assembly is through with extending the hybrid exemption.

The original idea was to encourage people to buy clean fuel cars, for a limited period. But legislators pushed the exemption years beyond the termination that was originally planned for this incentive program.

The hybrid exemption will not apply in any of the HOT lanes.

Besides your legislator, you could also comment to the VDOT planners working on the I-66 project. Use this link to the I-66 project Web site.

 

I just moved from Centreville to Arlington County and I'm glad I'm away from the I-66 corridor. I imagine construction of the proposed HOT lanes west of the Beltway will be just as bad or worse than then years of pain we endured when the Beltway was widened. I guess these proposals would mean that travelers would lose the free access (outside of rush hours) to the Monument Drive and Stringfellow Road left exit ramps, right? Also, any idea on when they are supposed to be done installing the new gantries and implement the active traffic management system? I hope VDOT gets their money's worth if they plan to tear everything up in two years to start the HOT lanes project.

There are many issues still to be resolved about the HOT lanes plans for I-66, both inside and outside the Beltway. But if Virginia is consistent with its other operations, there would be no free access to any part of the I-66 HOT lanes -- ramps included -- for drivers who did not meet the carpool requirement.

[By the way, I should have noted for the previous commenter asking about the hybrids that the VDOT plan for outside the Beltway is still a long way from being reality. So the driver could expect to keep going in that hybrid at least into 2021 on I-66 outside the Beltway.]

Meanwhile, the Active Traffic Management program -- the one with the new gantries -- is supposed to become active early this year. I think it may prove to be particularly useful during the many years of rebuilding on I-66 outside the Beltway, and even with the HOT lanes system installed, it should still be useful to drivers.

There are a couple of spots on 66 where the Red X signs are in bad locations as they're actually over exit lanes. One example is just before Nutley Street heading eastbound. The shoulder lane is an exit lane open to traffic at that point, but there's a Red X sign over that lane just before the actual exit. It was actually taken down quite a while back, but it reappeared in recent months. It causes confusion, something that's definitely not needed on that road. Who would be in charge of taking it down?

That would be the Northern Virginia regional headquarters of VDOT. One method of contact is to send them an e-mail at: novainfo@vdot.virginia.gov.

I'm not sure what the traffic engineers would say on this. My recollection is there's a point at the exits where the shoulder lane ends and the ramp for exiting traffic begins. I think drivers who have been using the shoulder lane need to be aware of the exiting traffic and yield to it.

Hi Doc -- As they consider HOT lanes, has VDOT checked out 66 inside the Beltway during rush lately? It isn't that bad if we are talking about the morning rush headed east and the afternoon rush headed west. The HOV and hybrid restrictions work. If I leave my house in Tyson's at 8:00 am, take 267 and go through the main toll plaza to pick up 66 east, I am at my office next to the Verizon center in 35-40 minutes about 80% of the time. Tuesdays and Wednesdays can be 10 minutes longer in the morning. The worst stretches are around the toll plaza in the morning and getting into and out of downtown. They are not on 66. I just don't see the problem and I commute this way every single day and have for 4 years. So what is the concern?

The concern is what's going to happen by 2040. VDOT's projections are for considerably more traffic by then.

Also, there's a concern about what happens to eastbound commuters in the morning rush at I-66 and the Beltway, with all those vehicles that don't meet the HOV rules for travel inside the Beltway.

Now, I'm not arguing that HOT lanes are the solution for inside the Beltway. This is a new proposal and it's difficult to assess.

You could argue for HOT lanes inside the Beltway by saying that once those lanes become HOV3 at rush hours, there will be extra capacity to sell to the non-HOV drivers. And that revenue can be used to enhance commuter bus service and carpooling.

But then, is there really that much extra capacity, and how high would the tolls have to be to maintain smooth traffic flow?

If it's HOV3, and few non-HOV drivers are willing to pay a toll, what's that going to do to traffic at the I-66/Beltway interchange and to the alternative eastbound routes?

 

So nobody's taxes support these roads? The residents pay for plowing and street repair?

I think you have a good argument there. These aren't private roads. They're taxpayer supported. I remember one traveler advising me not to refer to "cut-through traffic," because it stigmatizes drivers who have as much right to use the streets as anyone else. (Of course, it would help if everyone obeyed the speed limit on neighborhood streets.)

Some late questions about the Metro catastrophe: We have heard that the passengers were plunged into darkness. Do the cars have battery-powered emergency lighting, as building codes require for just about every public building? If not, why not? Do the tunnels have emergency lights? If someone walked into a tunnel (foolishly or otherwise) and the trains resumed moving, would there be enough clearance at the sides for the train to pass him by safely? With the train stopped in the tunnel, could an empty train have been moved -- from either direction -- to connect to the stopped train so passengers could transfer directly from one to the other through the cars? Apparently a train was stopped in the L'Enfant Plaza station; could it have been off-loaded and sent to rescue the trapped passengers?

I think it's "yes" on all the lighting questions. The cars do have emergency lights. There are lights on the side of the tunnel opposite the third rail.

One issue with a self-evacuation is that once a passenger opens a door and exits, the train operator has no idea where that person is. Maybe in the trackbed ahead, maybe not. So the operator shouldn't be moving the train once people start self-evacuating.

We don't know why the stuck train didn't move. The investigation has not revealed that yet. But there are procedures under which a following train can be off-loaded and used as a recovery or rescue train for a stranded train.

My initial reaction to the question about the express lane entry and exit lanes is "who cares." It doesn't make any difference in the toll rate. But I think what the other user might be seeing has to do with I-95's lanes being reversible. There's a lot more stuff up there on each gantry compared to the Beltway. I suspect, though I cannot confirm for certain, that "lane numbers" 1 to 3 refer to the northbound direction and "lane numbers" 4 to 6 refer to southbound. The lane number tells you which particular E-ZPass reader read your transponder as you passed under the equipment. The reason I suspect all this is (a) logic and (b) on two occasions when I entered the northbound express lanes from the Franconia-Springfield Parkway my statement lists entry lanes 1 or 2, but on three trips when I exited the southbound lanes at that same place it lists lane 4 for all of them (suggesting to me lane 4 is the left lane southbound, as I'd be in the left lane in order to take that exit).

Based on my observation they are always listing the next Blue Line at McPherson Square in the afternoon. I have noticed that once an Orange or Silver line clears at the top, another will appear before the Blue Line that was already listed. Makes sense to me and it seems to be working. I'm not sure where the previous poster is not seeing that behavior.

Thanks for the observation. McPherson is one of the stations where it makes sense to always have the next Blue Line train listed.

Thanks all for joining me today. I've got some remaining questions/comments that I hope to publish via the Dr. Gridlock blog this week.

Please come back with more questions and comments next Monday, and stay safe.

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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 the Get There blog, as well as in the Metro section of The Washington Post.
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