Dr. Gridlock

Apr 04, 2016

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. People have a lot of questions and comments about the possibility that Metrorail's rebuilding program will become more disruptive, possibly including the shutting of lines, or line segments, as Metro board Chairman Jack Evans suggested last week.

We'll start there.

Let's put aside that the Blue line riders are kicked again and again and again, can you help me understand how shutting down that one line would help when the vast majority of it shares tracks with either orange/silver or yellow?

Let's just be clear on this at the start: For now, we're not looking at a plan to shut down any line. Metro GM Paul Wiedefeld said last week that he's a month to six weeks away from presenting his long-range maintenance plan "to ensure safe and reliable service. "

In his comments at last week's Metro summit among business and civic leaders, Evans talked about the possibility of closing lines or segments of lines for needed repairs.

He referred several time to the hypothetical possibility of shutting the Blue Line for a lengthy period to speed up the rebuilding.

I don't know what Wiedefeld will come up with, but I very much doubt he'll wind up shutting an entire line. I'm thinking the same thing the commenter is.

Only the Red Line operates completely independently of the others. The Blue Line, just to follow along with that hypothetical example, operates independently only where it goes through Arlington Cemetery. Otherwise, it shares track with other lines.

Evans's job was to get the region's attention on what needs to be done with Metrorail. He did that. Wiedefeld's job is to come up with the plan.

Jack Evans certainly started a firestorm when he mentioned the possibility of using this approach to "fix" Metro. I would hope that if they were to seriously consider this, they would disclose - in some detail - why the $5B plan to do this work on off time isn't close to solving the problem.

You can't just throw this kind of $ away without some sort of detailed explanation can you? If nothing else, you want to assure people you know what went wrong and you've taken that into account in future plans.

But if Metro were to show its cards about what went wrong, won't that inevitably come back to PEOPLE - employees and Board?

Inadequate scope of work and planning, inadequate skills of those doing and managing the work, productivity lower than expected, etc.

At some point aren't names going to have to be named or at least job functions named that just didn't get the job done?

There's a strong need to say what and who messed up so we can have confidence that this doesn't turn into Groundhog Day....

The Metro staff routinely reports to the Metro board on what's been done during the five years of rebuilding -- the switch replacements, track bed rebuilding, tunnel repairs, platform reconstruction, escalator replacements, rail car rehab and rail car purchases, and on and on.

When Wiedefeld presents his own strategy, I think it's going to be based mostly on what he thinks needs to be done urgently and what the region will tolerate in terms of disruption.

But if he's going to ask riders to accept something more disruptive than what they've been through during the past five years, he will need to make a very good case for what will be accomplished.

This is just my take on why we don't feel better off now: The planners underestimated the work involved in rebuilding Metrorail and overestimated what could be accomplished in the narrow windows of time overnight and on weekends.

Metro has consistently failed to spend all the money available in its capital budget for the rebuilding.


How is it possible for Metro to spend the money and resources the past four years and apparently have nothing to show for it expect angry customers/former customers? And since Paul Wieldefeld and Jack Evans have admitted that the current rebuilding effort is not working/has not worked why are they still continuing the work and bleeding more money? Wouldn't it make sense to suspend the rebuilding effort until a new workable plan is developed?

Evans and Wiedefeld are clearly dissatisfied with the state of the rebuilding program, but they didn't come anywhere near saying that Metro has nothing to show for it.

I don't see what sense it would make to suspend the rebuilding program till a revised plan is in place.

Just demolish the whole thing. It can never fixed or made safe.

Metro is the backbone of the D.C. region's transportation system. We're lucky it got built. We can't do without it.

It has to be fixed, and eventually, it will be fixed.

So, what has happened with next bus and what will replace it? All weekend, we got messages when trying to use next bus that WMATA was no longer working with nextbus after 3/31/16. This makes taking the bus much more uncertain!

In early March, Metro announced that it would "eventually" replace NextBus with another service, called busETA. I didn't realize that "eventually" meant April.

See Luz Lazo's story about the replacement service.

I like the new thing, at least in theory. It looks like it's going to show you where the buses are. With NextBus, you just had the prediction about when the bus would arrive, and the estimate could be way off.

Here's a link to busETA.

But it should be showing up for you when you use Metro's mobile Web site as well.

Anybody have experience with it yet?

Hi, I read the Sunday Outlook piece on 5 myths about bicycling. One quibble -- the "myth" that more bicycles won't help reduce traffic and emissions seemed to really just be making the point that it is unlikely that large numbers of people will bike-commute, and gave as one reason the fact that many people live "10 miles or more" from work. I bike-commute from spring through fall 11.5 miles each way, and it takes me about ten minutes longer than my Metro commute. My husband bike-commutes 10.5 miles each way and it is significantly shorter than his Metro commute (35-40 minutes vs 1 hour). I think many people don't realize that biking is actually not inefficient -- particularly since you are getting your exercise in as well, which saves time elsewhere.

I think the D.C. region needs to incorporate commuter biking into its transportation thinking. We talked about this during the winter, in the wake of snow storms when the trails weren't cleared.

People need to have more options in getting around, and biking should certainly be one of them. It's not just for recreation, splendid as that is.

I do find that advocates for any form of travel -- driving, transit, biking, walking -- can get quite passionate, and in the process may oversell the benefits of their chosen mode.

There are plenty of good reasons to support long-distance cycling. This form of commuting doesn't rise or fall on its ability to reduce congestion or clear the air.


Dr. Gridlock, Every single week day from 9:00 to 9:30 am cars illegally idle / park in the right lane of 14th Street along the National Mall, clogging rush hour traffic and CLEARLY breaking the law. These selfish acts delay thousands of commuters from getting into DC every day and yet DC police are never anywhere to be seen. Can you please get DC's finest to actually enforce the law?!?! Thousands of commuters would thank you! Thanks for keeping your loyal readers informed and entertained!

I don't do a lot of driving in that particular time or space, so I'd like to ask if others experience this same problem on 14th Street at the Mall.

For enforcement, I think the better bet is the traffic control officers with the District Department of Transportation and the tow trucks with the Department of Public Works.

I don't see the D.C. police doing much traffic enforcement on  a routine basis.


Why isn't Metro able to create a schedule that allows the trains to move between stations without holding - sometimes for minutes at a time, defined as "momentary" by Metro somehow - in the tunnels or at the stations themselves? Seems like a smart person with the right equation could figure this out pretty easily, no?

Metro has a lot of trouble making the trains run on time, even without a disruption of the type that requires single tracking. One of the routine problems is the "dwell time" at stations when riders are exiting and entering.

The trains dwell longer where the platforms are more crowded and get out of sync. (Same thing happens to buses at bus stops.)

One specific problem that many of you will recall is that Metro planners overestimated the number of trains they could squeeze into the tunnel between Rosslyn and Stadium-Armory once they added the Silver Line.

One of the standard solutions is to put more spacing between the trains. Of course, that means fewer trains on a line.

I might be alone in this, but I'm really starting to admire this guy. He just wants to seem to get stuff done and make the system better and safer. And he doesn't seem to be courting applause. So far, so good in my book! --Daily Metro Train Commuter

I agree with that -- though it's early yet.

His biggest test so far was deciding to shutdown the entire rail system when he determined that those faulty power cables amounted to a credible threat to passengers.

That could have gone really badly for him, if it had turned out to be a horrible day for commuting across the D.C. region. So it was a bold step not only to fix a problem, but also to send a message that he wouldn't tolerate safety lapses.

Dr. G, there is an operator on the Orange Line who loves to say "Thank you for riding Metro, the best ride in the nation." CAN YOU GET THEM TO MAKE HER STOP?

When WMATA started their 5 year rebuilding process they created a Twitter account, @MetroForward, to communicate exactly what was being accomplished and how it would affect riders. That account abruptly stopped giving riders updates in September 2013. Why? Did they suddenly decide riders don't deserve to be part of the process?

When Metro puts out its schedule for upcoming track work, there's a short explanation of what work is planned for each line. But there's nothing I know of in Metrorail that comes anywhere near what the New York City subway does to keep riders informed about work projects.

Here's one example from the NYC subway website.

I think the lack of this detailed information is a big problem for Metro. And it's not just a question of a Twitter account. The rebuilding strategy continues to be very disruptive. Meanwhile, the whole region was counting on it to revitalize the rail system. But riders -- and the community at large -- just can't tell what's been accomplished.

Worst case scenario: an entire line is shut down. What are the possible fall-back options for those who must get to work and rely? I.e. those of us who go from Bethesda to Union Station. Like myself.

This is a key issue for any discussion about the possibility of closing a rail line segment.

Let's just take Bethesda-Union Station as a hypothetical.

The region cannot offer a realistic alternative to the tens of thousands of rush hour commuters who travel that part of the Red Line. It's just not happening.

There aren't enough spare buses and drivers to handle anywhere near that many transit riders. Even if there were, putting so many extra buses out on routes like Wisconsin and Connecticut avenues, and the east-west streets downtown would bring traffic to a halt.

We've done well with teleworking, but there aren't enough people able to telework every day for a long period to compensate for the effect of shutting that part of the Red Line.

Also -- and this was an issue when the potential shutdown topic was discussed back in 2011 -- you can't ask that many people to routinely travel to an open Metrorail station instead. In most of the region, the lines are so spaced out that there's no realistic alternative.

Dear Dr. Gridlock, I need to drive from Vienna to Baltimore to visit my mother. I hate driving on the beltway and it makes me sweat profusely. Can you tell me when the best time to drive would be (least traffic, daylight hours)? I'm very flexible as to what day I can make the drive and don't mind paying for hot lanes if it's less traffic. My mother and I thank you for your help! Nancy C.

Many people share your dread of the Beltway. Back in 2001, Katherine Shaver and Leef Smith wrote a story about this phenomenon. Some will do just about anything to avoid the Beltway.

But if you're willing to deal with it, I'd suggest leaving Vienna between 10:30 and 11 a.m. Take Route 123 north through Tysons to the inner loop. When you get beyond the Legion Bridge, you might want to stay left for I-270 north to the Intercounty Connector. It's a toll road, but you're paying for an easy trip east to join I-95 North for the rest of the trip to Baltimore.

There are other routes, but I think that would be the least stressful. (Not that any is without stress.)


Love your columns and chats but I have to say no Boswell chat on Opening Day? My life is empty! But seriously, with the game starting at 4, is Metro making any accommodations for rush hour or hoping it all works out?

Tom Boswell, the great sports columnist, would normally be online at about the same time I am. When I saw he didn't have a show, I just assumed he was tied up with opening day work.

The Nationals home opener is set for 4:05 p.m. Thursday. I included some tips for getting to Nats Park in my weekend preview, in time for the two exhibition games. But I'll do another blog posting this week to expand that.

This is about the worst time to start a game, in terms of the impact on both traffic and transit. Metro normally adds some trains on the Green Line to get fans to and from the stadium, but it's limited in what it can do around rush hour.

Also, a key way to prevent dangerous overcrowding on the Navy Yard platform before games is to hold the Green Line trains so they don't open their doors into an already large crowd.

Fans also are familiar with the shuttle system Metro uses after games, running trains between Anacostia and Mount Vernon Square to clear the Navy Yard platform as quickly as possible and get passengers to the transfer stations at L'Enfant Plaza and Gallery Place.

Wait--Metro consistently fails to spend the money dedicated to rebuilding, but they're constantly broke? Where's all that money sitting?

Metro has financial problems, but it isn't "broke." The stress is on the operating budget side. That's what Jack Evans talked a lot about last week. (He probably wishes people paid more attention to that than to his statements about the possibility of shutting lines.)

The operating revenue comes from fares and from the subsidies provided by the region's governments. Evans foresees the operating budget going up, but he doesn't believe Metro -- given the state of service -- could ask riders for more money. So where's it going to come from?

I've been surprised by the level of resistance people have shown to a regional tax to help create a steady funding source for Metro. The basis of this opposition seems to come from people who don't use Metro. Are there any easily accessible numbers that you can provide that demonstrates that even if a reader, personally, never uses Metro, they benefit from its existence? I just can't imagine all those people who now use Metro all of the sudden ending up on the roads. To me, it's quite apparent that every rider of Metro saves a driver time and money stuck in traffic.

You raise many good issues here. The debate over whether Metro should have a guaranteed revenue source often gets down to whether Metro can demonstrate that it's wisely spending the money it already gets. And Metro officials like Evans and Wiedefeld acknowledge they need to show it.

In terms of Metrorail's role in the regional commute, yes, there are stats on how many hundreds of drivers would be added to the roads if we didn't have the train system.

But I think to many of the region's taxpayers who don't use Metro, that's meaningless. They don't live near a Metro station and don't work near one.

Maybe, for example, they live in Olney and work in Gaithersburg. It's tough to sell them on higher taxes for Metro because Metro takes cars off their routes to work.

Also, I'm not sure that it's as exact an equation as "every rider of Metro saves a driver time and money" because it's not clear that every rider who drops out of Metro turns to driving. Metro ridership has declined significantly in recent years, but overall, traffic hasn't gotten worse.

I stopped using MextBus a few years ago when it started getting glitchy. Now I use the Bus Track DC app, which works much better than the WMATA app ever did and also has the benefit of including Circulator and Metro trains.

That's interesting. Where does Bus Track DC get its Metrobus data?

Showed up at Rosslyn Metro to catch the Circulator. After 25 minutes, two showed up together. And then the first one waited five minutes before it started off again. Isn't Circulator supposed to run every 10 minutes?

Yes, 10 minute headways is the goal, which would be great, because with that frequency, you don't need to bother looking at a schedule. But I often experience a wait of more than 10 minutes on various Circulator routes. They get stuck in traffic just like Metrobuses.

There are apps for that, as the previous commenter noted.

When is this region going to do some more long range planning to address the issue of lack of capacity across the Potomac River. Since the completion of the new Wilson Bridge, there has not been any talk or planning of additional capacity across the river. As of today, the crossings are already inadequate, and the possibility that the Memorial Bridge may become unusable in 3 years will further handicap the region. To me, this is a problem that needs to be addressed immediately. Whether it be increasing rail capacity or standard vehicle capacity, this region is on the verge or paralysis in the next 10 years if something is not at least in the planning stages soon (1-3 years).

The most hopeful thing I've seen recently is Virginia's interest in talking with Maryland and the District about the Potomac crossings issue.

But there's no plan -- and certainly no financing -- for doing anything whether it's with roads or transit.

yeah that's all well and good, question though. how do I drop my 3 kids off at daycare, then after work and picking them up how do I go to the Giant and carry the groceries... on a bicycle? We need people thinking this through realistically, not pie in the sky I'll always be 25 without a family thinking.

There's no single way of getting around that has to work for everybody. For the foreseeable future, most people in the D.C. region are going to drive, just as they do today.

But that's not a case for abandoning transit, biking and walking as part of the travel network.

While I have not seen this in the morning because I avoid 14 Street, could this be an issue from the slug drop-off point? 14 and Constitution is a MAJOR slugging hub. Unfortunately many drivers do not pay attention to how they disrupt traffic.

It might be. I thought the District attempted to partly deal with this congestion problem by asking slugs to move away from the location near 14th and Independence to a spot a bit farther north. (This is on the southbound side of 14th.)

I used the new app this morning and stood by with no bus in sight as the bus was "approaching" and then "departing" according to the app. Sigh. Another nuisance is that you have to manually refresh the page which was actually a bit annoying in practice. I'm sure I'll get used to it and just hope that this morning was a fluke...I actually had pretty decent experience with the nextbus system in the past.

Thanks for the info.

I found NextBus worked well on some routes and at some times. But it could get thrown off pretty easily in the most congested areas.

And then there were always the ghost buses. Sorry you continue to have that experience with the new system.

It's the only way we'll get the regular maintenance AND the service we need. We are the nation's capital. Let's start acting like it and building accordingly.

I agree this would be ideal, but you're talking about many billions of dollars and many years of disruption. I think we're unlikely to see it.

Wow, cranky! Personally I enjoy the taglines and bon mots. Even if it gets repetitive, it's harmless and allows the conductor to show a little personality.

I agree with this comment about the train operators who put a little extra into their messages. And much prefer that style to a scolding about keeping away from the doors.

My husband was a on an Orange Line train when the train operator announced, "Welcome to Retro Rail, I mean Metro Rail..." :D

Hey, at least you can understand them! The thing I do not understand is why, when a train stops in a tunnel between stations, the operators like to say "stand clear, train moving." "Stand clear"? Who's out there in the tunnel to do that?!

I concur about the parked cars on inbound 14th st for the times specified by the original poster. Same can be said for delivery trucks just after Constitution on 14th in the morning. Also, on the outbound commute, Henry Bacon Dr. always seems to have cars parked in the right lane of 2, jamming traffic back onto Constitution in the evenings, 5:00 - 6:00pm.

Dr G, I know it is an often discussed item in your chats, but the "myth" about bike riders breaking more laws than cars made me laugh. It is not a myth based on my anecdotal experience as a pedestrian and metro commuter. Bicyclists routinely break laws, essentially every day I see something (this morning including the Bike Share rider going the wrong way on one-way I St because it made his then ride ON THE SIDEWALK easier), and that is with many fewer bike riders than cars. If cars broke rules at the same rate...wow. And while I am aghast at the speeding that goes on, going 60 in a 55 zone is not the same as running red lights into pedestrian crosswalks or going the wrong way on a one-way street.

I talk a lot about how often I stand around intersections and just watch how various travelers behave. That's part of my job, and I'm always learning something from it.

Based on a decade of doing that: I think no type of traveler is any more or less likely than any other to obey our traffic laws. If there's any trend, it's that people obey the laws they think they absolutely have to obey or risk a ticket or crash.

I might have suggested I-66 to US 50 through DC and then onto 295/BW Parkway. But regardless, I assumed the writer will be making a round trip. Would you advise her to wait until after rush hour to return to Vienna?

The traveler was looking for less stress, so I thought keeping to the suburban highways would be a better bet than going through DC traffic.

Return should definitely not be done during rush hour. There would be a bottleneck in Bethesda, probably continuing down through the Tysons Corner area.

Thanks for joining me today. I appreciate all your comments on these topics. There were many more comments about the Metrorail situation than I could publish. So I'll take some of them as the basis for a Dr. Gridlock blog posting this afternoon.

I hope to hear from you again next Monday, so stay safe.

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 the Dr. Gridlock blog, as well as in the Metro section of The Washington Post.
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