Dr. Gridlock

Jun 27, 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. My first look into the mailbag shows questions and comments about the July 4 getaway, travel on July 4 itself and -- of course -- about Metrorail's SafeTrack maintenance.

Let's start with some of the getaway issues.

Took me almost six hour to travel from Williamsburg to Fairfax. Only saw one traffic accident, and that was on I64, around 3:30 PM. Was my experience a preview of Fourth of July weekend?

I notice that many travelers obsess about the traffic south of DC. They're right. It's awful. There are plenty of getaway bottlenecks for drivers, but nothing slows holiday travelers  like the highways south of the Capital Beltway.

So yes, I think this weekend's experience on a Williamsburg-Fairfax route would be a good preview of the difficulties drivers will face on a three-day holiday weekend, which many people will convert into a four-day weekend.

The Virginia Department of Transportation has studied the historic traffic trends. Here's what VDOT says:

  • Based on the traffic data, I-95 northbound is expected to see periods of heavy congestion on Friday between noon and 6 p.m., and on Monday between 10 a.m. and 10 p.m.
  • Heavy congestion is expected on I-95 southbound on Friday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., Saturday morning until noon, and Monday between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m.
  • Moderate to heavy traffic is expected on I-66 in both directions for most of Friday and on Monday in the late evening. A similar trend is expected on I-395.

I'm going to be in Williamsburg the weekend of July 9 through 11. Since it's on the way to the beach I'm worried about traffic. Is leaving Baltimore that Friday night the best idea? If so, how late to miss the rush? Or is Saturday morning manageable?

Late Friday night should be better than Saturday morning. You can see that in what the VDOT folks say.

This blends with the advice I consistently get from travelers, who say timing is everything. At holiday time, there are no undiscovered shortcuts, so don't count on being able to maneuver around traffic congestion at peak periods.

But if you're planning a late-night escape, please remember that your body will be telling you it's bedtime. Try to get some rest before departing and take frequent breaks along the route.

Plane leaves BWI 6:30 this Friday, so we need to be there 3:30-4. Any guesses how bad Interstate70 eastbound will be July 1?

First, I like the fact that you're talking about getting to the airport between 3:30 and 4. So often, I hear from travelers who are looking to fine-tune their airport arrival times when I'm thinking they should do just the opposite and build in a lot of buffer tie -- especially on summer weekends, and extra especially on summer holiday weekends.

I would count on encountering extra traffic on I-70 after about 11 a.m. on Friday. The trip would be even slower if we happen to have bad weather on Friday, so be sure to track the forecast.

The expected traffic madness is people coming into DC for the July 4 holiday, right? And then leaving again Tuesday morning? So the fact that we're leaving town this Thursday evening and coming back on Monday means we should be okay?

Around here, we have all kinds of traffic madness. In fact, some research on holiday getaways shows that the traffic on Thursday afternoon and early evening can be as bad, if not worse, than the traffic on the Friday afternoon and early evening.

Thursday can be bad because you get a mix of the regular commuters and the getaway traffic.

Early Friday morning tends to be a pretty good time to launch a getaway.

For July 4 weekend, look for a surge of long distance travelers on Thursday and Friday afternoons -- both leaving DC and heading into DC for the long weekend.

Then look for a separate surge coming into DC for the fireworks, then heading home after 9:30 p.m.

Any suggestions on when would be a good time to head up towards CT from the Baltimore area this weekend? We were thinking Thursday evening might be best as I assume the roads will be very busy starting by Friday morning.

Continuing my theme: If you do Thursday evening, it's best to plan on late Thursday evening, after about 8 p.m.

And let me say, because I probably haven't said it in a couple of weeks, that I just hate driving in western Connecticut. I'm not sure there's any time -- maybe 2 a.m.? -- when drivers do not encounter heavy traffic in that area, and it's certainly a factor in summer weekend planning.

I'm traveling from Alexandria to the Outer Banks on Saturday, July 2. I'd heard there is construction in several stretches along I-64 south of Richmond. What is the best route to avoid this construction?

South of Richmond is stretching the edge of my expertise on getaways, so I'd welcome advice from other travelers on this question.

But rather than write in "Hic sunt dracones," like early mapmakers supposedly did to cover Terra Incognito, let me again offer some info straight from the Virginia Department of Transportation.

First of all, VDOT will suspend construction projects from noon Friday through noon Tuesday. But also for those heading south:

  • I-64/I-264/I-564 HOV diamond lanes – HOV restrictions will be lifted on all HOV diamond lanes on Friday, July 1 and Monday, July 4.
  • I-64 reversible lanes − Lanes will operate on the regular schedule with no HOV restrictions on Friday, July 1 and Monday, July 4.
  • I-64 Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel (HRBT) – Local traffic to Virginia Beach is encouraged to use the I-664 Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel (MMMBT) as an alternative to the HRBT. To Virginia Beach, take I-664 south to the MMMBT. Then take the Portsmouth/Norfolk exit (exit 15A) to I-264 east to Virginia Beach.
  • Travel to Outer Banks – Local traffic to the North Carolina Outer Banks should use I-664 and the MMMBT to save time. From I-664 south, take I-64 west to exit 292, Chesapeake Expressway/I-464/Route 17. Keep left to continue to the Chesapeake Expressway (Route 168), and take Nags Head/Great Bridge (exit 291B) to the Outer Banks.
  • Highway Advisory Radio (HAR) – Tune to 1680 AM to stay informed on Hampton Roads traffic, travel conditions and construction information.

This stretch was never a picnic, but I heard about how much worse the Express Lane terminus made it, and have avoided it since they opened. I finally braved it on Saturday, to go from Nova to Kings Dominion. Checked my route before I left at 8:30, and it was wide open. However, there was an accident blocking the left lane of 95 just past the express lane ending, which happened sometime after I left, essentially resulting in five lanes going down to two. It took over three hours to get to KD, which should be a 90-minute drive. I know I, for one, am not heading on any more weekend outings in that direction until this mess is fixed. At what point will Virginia start to see this as an economic inhibitor? I can't imagine I'm the only one in Nova (or the MD suburbs) who simply won't go into central/southern VA for weekend trips anymore.

VDOT does have a plan to ease the bottleneck at the express lanes/regular lanes merge around Garrisonville Road in Stafford County. But it's not going to help you at all this summer.

The plan is to push the express lanes about two miles farther south to get beyond some of the congestion. The new merge point will be into the left side of the regular lanes.

This is supposed to be done by summer 2018.

In the meantime, the southbound merge is likely to be really bad on summer Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings.

You wrote on Sunday that "aware commuters are leading us through this." I would like to add: KUDO's to you for helping us be aware commuters. THANK YOU.

Some folks who read our chat get annoyed when I spend a lot of time addressing travelers' concerns about Metro's SafeTrack disruptions.

They're right that my colleagues and I obsess about this. But right now, it's the biggest thing going on in local transportation, and we've come nowhere near addressing readers' concerns.

This morning, I did another blog posting: SafeTrack affects travel to D.C. events this week.

It has tips for getting to Nationals Park and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival during the disruptions.

As the commenter said, I praise what I see the aware commuters doing to help themselves and others during these disruptions. Those aware commuters crave information.

On a recent trip through L'Enfant Plaza station, I watched four trains of 7000 cars pass through in about 10 minutes. On my daily Orange Line trips, I have yet to see one 7000 train, ever. This also includes the Blue and Silver lines while waiting at the L'Enfant platform. Changing to a 7000 car at L'enfant emphasizes the contrast between old and new. Earlier you had stated that WMATA has to spread new cars throughout the system, and it would be unfair e.g. to put all the trains on the Green line. But that appears to be exactly what WMATA is doing. (Perhaps this isn't really a transit rule, for example MBTA bought all new Boston Blue Line cars only, they would only work on that line) While we ride those stinky tattered 1000 (and original 4000) series cars daily, why don't orange/silver line folks get the same treatment that green line customers are entitled to every few minutes?

It would be unfair if Metro planned to put all the new cars on certain lines. I think it also would be a violation of federal rules against that sort of transportation discrimination.

Right now, the new trains aren't being used on the Silver, Orange and Blue lines because of a track problem. This was first reported by Martin Di Caro. There are two spots where the new cars lose contact with the third rails and come to a stop. Metro GM Paul Wiedefeld says Metro now understands the problem and is working on a fix.

You can see Martin's story here.

Dr. G, with all of the additional time that Metro is closed, why do the escalators still not work, tiles and insulation hang from the ceilings of stations for months, the cars are dirty, and trash still lines the sides of tracks? One would think that Metro could take advantage of this additional downtime time to do this maintenance and remedial work too. Unless, of course, they've either run out of money or employees. What's the story???

The SafeTrack program is no more or less than what the name implies. It's a program to make the tracks safe.

Metro does have money in the capital budget for other improvements, such as continued work on the escalators and the purchase of the new trains.

But the SafeTrack program is designed to put a lot of people to work on specific sections of track.

One of my concerns about SafeTrack is that riders and the business and civic leaders who are adjusting to the disruptive program are going to figure -- naturally enough -- that this much pain ought to result in an equal gain. And their idea of an equal gain is a Metro system that's fixed.

SafeTrack by itself isn't going to fix Metro. There's nothing in SafeTrack that, for example, deals with door and brake problems on train cars.

SafeTrack -- assuming it works -- is going to leave us with a 40-year-old subway system that has the sort of rail bed that 40-year-old subways are likely to have if they've been properly maintained.

Is that enough?

It seems that the powers that be in Virginia responsible for transportation view their jobs like weathermen - report on it but don't do anything about it. The traffic issues to/from Williamsburg are nothing new. Neither are the delays on 66, 495, 395, etc.... When are they going to actually fix it? Not a study, not a new lane for two exits. Not a new bus route. An actual fix. If they can't fix it, move aside so somebody else can. We used to build highways in this country, now we just build toll booths.

In the D.C. region, it's VDOT that has been the most active in recent years on dealing with travel problems. That's both on traffic and on transit.

The biggest traffic and transit projects are in Virginia. The most extensive effort to reform the way transportation money gets spent and put it on a more rational basis is in Virginia.

Just came back from three weeks in Bavaria, 10 days driving around, a week long bike trip, and a few days at either end in Munich.

It was an eye opener, even for someone like me, who was stationed in Germany more than 40 years ago and who vacations in France frequently. First, the Munich airport is ugly but big, bright, and efficient (no long security/passport lines); the rental cars are even there, not out in the boonies.

Second, there are two trains the roughly 35 miles into town, every 15 minutes, costing about $12. That means there's a train every seven minutes. Third, public transportation is everywhere.

Both Munich and Nuremberg have street cars and subways, and out in the country there is a dense network of buses and trains: one day was so rainy we couldn't cycle, but we needed only one bus transfer to get from the front of one hotel to the next, even though it was in a tiny, tiny town.

Fourth, bicycles are everywhere, there are dedicated cycling lanes in both Munich and Nuremberg, and there's a dense network of cycling/walking trails out in the country.

Fifth, both Nuremberg and Munich have extensive no-car zones in the center of town, both jammed with pedestrians.

Sixth, the roads are in excellent shape, free of potholes, kidney jarring joints, and the like. In congested areas, there are speed limits marked for each lane on the autobahn to keep traffic moving (and it does!), and, bonus! the driver of our charter bus at the end of the cycling trip proudly pointed out that despite heavy rain, there was no spray coming off cars and trucks--the pavement was designed in some way to absorb water.

Finally, I won't even comment on how slower traffic always stays to the right on the autobahn. Will someone kindly explain to me why we keep voting into office political hacks who keep us from having such nice things?

Thanks for the detailed description. I get many very interesting communications from the well-traveled people in the D.C. region who see ways our transportation network could be better.

Romanes eunt domus!

You said that VDOT is planning to push the express lane merge further south by 2 miles. Won't this just take the congestion 2 miles further south? It doesn't really seem like this is much of a plan. Are there any serious plans to alleviate this horrid I-95 traffic corridor? Is there any talk of widening I-95 south to four lanes past the Occoquan bridge, that seems like it is always bottle-necking and low hanging fruit to fix.

No, there's no talk of that. No money for a project like that.

Meanwhile, the extension of the express lanes will ease the traffic problem, but it's unlikely to solve it. Wherever you reduce the number of lanes on a major highway, you're almost certainly going to create a bottleneck. Pushing the merge farther south should, at least in theory, draw off some of the heavy traffic around Garrisonville Road so that the new terminus becomes less of a bottleneck.

In your previous response today, you said the express lane merge is going to be on the left side of the regular lanes. I thought they were moving the merge to the right lanes. Otherwise, won't there still be a merge problem into the 95 fast lane of traffic?

I hate left-side merges on general principle. The merging drivers have to look right to see on-coming drivers in the fast lane. Everyone needs to slow down and be extra cautious.

But it's cheaper to do that rather than have a flyover ramp that brings merging traffic in on the right side. That's the setup now for the Garrisonville Road exit: a flyover ramp that takes traffic from the express lanes in the middle to the right side of the regular lanes.

Hi Doc - I think a NoVa legislator recently voiced my biggest fear as a commuter from the Tysons area to DC: that all those folks who drove during the first surge on the Orange line are NOT going to get back on the train post-surge. Last week was just as bad in the morning on I-66 as it was during the surge earlier in the month. I think people decided that driving an hour into the city was no worse than Metro even when Metro is running "normally." Any data yet on this?

I think it's going to be a while before we see traffic data that the researchers think is really solid. They're being cautious on this, knowing that they have to account for seasonal variations, weather, crashes and so on. Plus, commuters do different things on different days.

One thing about changing commuter habits: The SafeTrack program goes on for 10 months, and it's very disruptive. But it's not continually disruptive to the same set of people.

I think it's unlikely that commuters who were inclined to take transit in the first place are going to permanently change their habits because of disruptions that last two weeks to a month.

Some may. And I always say folks should do what works best for them. But I do think it's unlikely that a lot of transit users are going to decide they love driving on the Dulles Toll Road and I-66 during rush hours.

Loosing contact really??? What a line of bull. Its all about DC getting the newest cars first and not MD and VA, have Metro prove to you that this fault really exists with 7000 series cars.

Hard to keep that Green Line out of MD.

If we get a reasonably early start (8:00 a.m. ~), what would be the best route to take? Should we expect a sizable amount of residual traffic from the 4th? Thank you.

Maine is one of my favorite places. The GridSpouse and I go up to Bar Harbor every October. It's where we spent our honeymoon.

Long drive, even if your destination is in southernmost Maine.

We've tried a variety of routes, trying to start the getaway before 8 a.m. Every single one of them involves getting into traffic congestion at some point.

You're likely to encounter some residual traffic from the July 4 weekend. But I think the bigger issue is simply getting into other people's rush hours at some point or other along the route -- no matter what the route.

One thing we've learned to do is listen to all-news radio in the NYC area while keeping a traffic app open to plot alternative routes through or around the city.

But our most likely route in the NY area would be up the Garden State Parkway to the NY Thruway, across the Tappan Zee Bridge, up I-684 to I-84 to I-91 in Hartford, then over to the Mass Pike at Sturbridge, around I-495 to I-95 up to Maine.

There are plenty of variations on this, and I love discussing them, but really, I don't recall any being traffic-free. And as I said before, we almost always encounter a wall of traffic in western Conn., no matter what the route or time of day.

Any recommendations for routes if I'm planning to drive to Woodstock NY on Friday afternoon/evening? I assume I should avoid NYC if possible?

Love going to Woodstock. My favorite time up there is Christmas season, but it's a treat any time.

No reason to go through NYC. In fact, that would be out of the way.

One route travelers often recommend to me, to avoid I-95, is to go clockwise around the Baltimore Beltway, then take I-83 up to Harrisburg, Pa., then I-78 to I-287 to the NY Thruway and on up to Woodstock.

I do think you may encounter traffic heading north on the Thruway on a Friday afternoon/evening, but it should be manageable.

We're planning on departing NoVA at 8:30pm Friday evening and driving to the east tip of Long Island, NY. We've done this before and made outstanding time but we've never tried it on a holiday weekend. Can we hope to expect the same smooth trip as we've had on past non-holiday weekends? (I hope so!!)

Which fork? Are you taking the ferry from Orient Point or going to the Hamptons?

(Just curious. Doesn't make much difference for a route getting through the tough part, which is the NYC area.)

Sounds like you have much better luck on your trips than I do. As I said in a previous response, NYC is where we've got the dial tuned to all-news radio for the traffic reports and an app open for route advise.

As a long-time New Yorker with a fondness for eastern Long Island, I think you've probably picked the best travel time for what's likely to be a very busy weekend on those routes.

FWIW, when I was in grad school near Boston, I would typically drive at eh start of each academic year. My route of choice was basically what you suggested for Woodstock: I-83 up to Harrisburg, Pa., then I-78 to I-287. Often Mass Pike to go east. Avoid I-95 as much as possible.

I often use the route you cite to Woodstock to get to points in New England. Actually, I take I-81 out of Harrisburg and connect to I-84 in Scranton, then hit the Thruway and then pick up I-90 in NY, which becomes the Mass Pike. I bypass NYC and Connecticut entirely. Yes, it is longer on the map, but when I figure in rush hour traffic I believe I come out ahead.

I like this route, even though, as you say, it's longer in miles for some popular destinations in New England and you have the tolls on the Thruway and Pike.

Gives you a nice look at the Berkshires, too. Maybe stop off in Lee or Lenox. Stop off for a show at Tanglewood if you're fancy-free.

A long time ago, I learned that making left turns anywhere, but particularly where there isn't a designated turn lane is both dangerous and inefficient. I wish that other people would learn that as well. In particular, I'm wondering if you have any insight about the people who will cede the right of way to a left hand turner and will block up 10 cars behind them while they decide it's necessary to extend some undeserved and dangerous courtesy to the left hand turn vehicle? Can you help get the message out to stop this and save us all a lot of headaches? Thanks.

I believe in courteous driving, but I don't believe a driver should block the following line of cars to let an oncoming driver make a left turn.

I don't see that as safe, or particularly efficient for the overall traffic flow.

Now, I'm a guy who almost always let's the aggressive knucklehead merge when his lane is disappearing. (Drives the GridSpouse nuts.) So you know I'm not one to claim privilege with those left-turning drivers.

You just can't tell if the left-turning driver ahead of you is going to recognize what you're doing as you slow down and stop so the other driver can make the left.

You don't know for sure how the drivers following you will respond. You don't know if the left-turner might have something else to worry about, like a pedestrian about to cross the street.

We are thinking about heading to the Philly area Saturday morning as our traffic strategy. Think it's a good idea over any time Friday?

Saturday mornings are tough in metro areas like Philly. There are a fair number of drivers using exactly the same strategy you are to avoid the Friday traffic, plus you're dealing with some beach and mall traffic on part of that route from the DC area.

The times I think would be best: Early Friday morning, late Friday night, early Saturday morning.

"....SafeTrack -- assuming it works -- is going to leave us with a 40-year-old subway system that has the sort of rail bed that 40-year-old subways are likely to have if they've been properly maintained. Is that enough?" ====================== Is that really what we'll get? Fixing the tracks doesn't address the problems in the stations that should be relatively easy to fix, even by unskilled temporary help: replacing burned-out light bulbs, cleaning grime from light fixtures, picking up trash, etc. And it's just incomprehensible that escalators should continue to be problems for years on end. Will those things be fixed?

All those things should be fixed as part of any program to draw people back to the transit system and provide good customer service. Money for all those things is in the Metro budget.

SafeTrack is a track work program.

I'm traveling to Newport RI this weekend and plan on taking I-95. I plan on departing at 2:30 AM however. I assume I won't encounter much traffic leaving at that hour?

Newport was one of my favorite destinations when the GridSister lived there. When I got to Rhode Island, I used to split off from I-95 onto Route 138 for the scenic trip into Newport. (I think it's also fewer miles than going via Providence, too, but of course, there are more stop lights and intersections.)

I favor these overnight departure times that you and others have been talking about for getaways on the holiday weekend. I don't believe you'd encounter an excessive amount of traffic, not even in western Conn., with a trip at that hour.

Just be sensitive to your body clock and take breaks along the way.

Do you think the idea of allowing only even or odd numbered last-digit license plates to drive on certain days on congested roads (i.e. the whole highway system) would fly here?

No. And I've heard and read that it doesn't help that much with traffic over the long-term. For one thing, many drivers have two cars in the family. So they just take different cars on different days, depending on which plate works on that day. (And then some people just acquire an extra set of plates and use them.)

Please don't be "courteous" and stop so I can turn. Just keep going and get out of the way. I can't see through/above/around your giant SUV with my little hatchback to see the traffic in the other lane or that decides to go around you. Please don't block the box but don't stop for no reason either.

Hi. When Metro is single tracking on the west side of the red line, what impact should I expect that to have on my Wheaton-to-Union Station commute? Thanks!

Let me start by telling everyone about the impact on the east side of the Red Line. That might be interesting for those who so a similar Wheaton-Union Station route.

You need to worry about early August and most of October -- especially the October one, when there's a shutdown between Fort Totten and NoMa, spanned by a Metrobus bridge. For that one, you might even be better off switching to the Green Line at Fort Totten and then coming back onto the Red Line at Gallery Place, or even walking over to the Union Station area.

There is one project on the west side of the Red Line: Continuous single tracking between Shady Grove and Twinbrook for two weeks in mid-August.

All these projects have effects on the rest of the lines. The single-tracking ones tend to throw off the train schedules on the rest of the line. Plus, Metro spaces out the trains more. So you can wind up with longer waits, more crowding and an erratic schedule.

As long as you are skipping Manhattan by cutting across Staten Island, your worst traffic will be the standard 95 stuff and the Hamptons traffic. You can't avoid that. I did it once (not all the way out to the Hamptons) on Thanksgiving and was so exhausted by the end I was physically shaking. No promises.

The route I've done the most often is NJ Turnpike to Outerbridge Crossing onto Staten Island, then up to I-278 and across the Narrows to the Belt Parkway to the Southern State to the Long Island Expressway.

But that's not exactly a traffic avoidance strategy. I-278 is just ghastly, and often, so is the Belt Parkway. Yet I'd still take the Belt over I-278 north to the LIE within NYC.

I am driving up to the Adirondacks on Thursday and have been trying to figure out the best time to leave to avoid NYC traffic on the New Jersey turnpike. I was thinking of leaving around 6AM or maybe 7AM, but I wasn't sure if leaving that early would lead to me hitting the tail end of the morning rush. Any suggestions?

I like the fact that you're thinking about what happens when you hit somebody else's rush hour. Everyone should think through the entire trip, not just the start.

On your route, I'd care most about missing the NYC traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike. So I might give up some hours at the start of your trip for the sake of missing the NYC rush.

You know, we can plan and plan, and then one crash on the route means you've got to go to Plan B or C.

And that's an important thing we haven't discussed: It's always good to have a couple of options in mind for various route segments before you start. Much better than trying to wing an alternative route once you've run into trouble with Plan A.

Thanks for joining me today. I wanted to extend the discussion because of all the getaway questions, but I've still got some unaddressed. I'll try to get them into a getaway posting on the Dr. Gridlock blog.

Stay safe, and be patient on those getaway routes.

We'll skip the chat for next Monday, since it's a holiday for almost everyone. I'll be back with you on Monday, July 11.

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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