Dr. Gridlock

Jul 25, 2016

The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock, Robert Thomson, will be online to talk about Metro, traffic throughout the region and other transportation issues.

His special guest today is Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn.

Welcome, travelers, we've got a slight delay to deal with some technical issues, but Secretary Rahn should be with us very soon.

Welcome, Secretary Rahn.

Back in February 2015, as you were starting the job, The Post's Katherine Shaver quoted your outlook this way: "We have to focus on needs, and recognize that we don’t have the resources­ to deliver on all the wants.”

A year and a half down the road, what needs have been addressed and what remains to be done during this term?


Glad to join the online chat.  Technical difficulties.  Getting answers to momentarily.

You and Gov. Hogan visited Montgomery County last week to describe the plan for investing $100 million in innovative ideas for improving traffic on I-270.

Given the extent of the congestion problem on I-270, ideas would have to be REALLY innovative.

What standard of congestion relief will the applicants have to meet?

To answer your first question on what Maryland is trying to accomplish:

The greatest need that unfortunately will not be met in the Governor’s first term is regional congestion.  DC has managed to become the single most congested area in the county.  The problem has evolved over time and solutions also will take time.  I believe we will have to look at all transportation modes in order to have a positive impact on congestion.

I have no expectation that this $100 million project on I-270 will restore traffic to free-flow speeds.  My greatest hope is that we can at least keep people moving instead of being parked on I-270.


MDOT’s SHA is looking for the Design-Builder to provide implementable, practical, bold and innovative solutions to reduce congestion along I-270.  The winning proposer will move the most vehicles, fastest, farthest for $100 million.  

The highway problem I hear most about from Maryland travelers in the D.C. region is the congestion on the Legion Bridge and the west side of the Capital Beltway through Bethesda.

The Virginia state government wants to talk about it -- and so do a lot of my readers. Any hope for those folks?

Following discussions last year, Secretary Layne and I agreed to focus on how to improve traffic congestion over the American Legion Bridge.

We added $6 million for a Tier I NEPA congestion relief study.

The effort investigates the long-term regional mobility needs that this section of the Capital Beltway supports.


The project limits will extend from the northern limits of the VDOT 1-495 HOT lanes to the southern limits of the 1-270 Innovative Congestion Management project, including the American Legion Bridge.

Please describe what travelers should prepare for during the construction phase of the Purple Line light rail project. Is there a traffic mitigation plan?

There will be impacts on some highways during particular phases of construction.  We have attempted to minimize those.  However, given the level of traffic in the region, any impact will ripple throughout the transportation network.

I am interested in how changes are made to the smaller MD state roads.

If I understand correctly, all numbered roads are managed and maintained by the State Highway Administration (SHA), which makes any decisions regarding speed limits, location of traffic signals, width of sidewalks, etc., for these roads.

If local elected officials suggest a change, and SHA decides against it, is there any process of appeal or way to arrive at a consensus?

One example I am thinking of is the decision to install a traffic light where pedestrians can safely cross the state road. In recent years local suburban communities have promoted and facilitated non-automobile travel such as walking and biking. But sometimes these large state roads are barriers (wide, high speed), and making it challenging (or dangerous) to walk to the grocery store a few blocks away, or use a trail nearby, if it means trying to cross one of these roads.

Has the SHA modified its policies/criteria for traffic signals or speeds to accommodate these local efforts, or are there changes within DOT that could improve how SHA works with local communities? Thank you.

We are committed to working with local communities to the extent possible.  We do have a responsibility to balance the needs of all users of our transportation system from pedestrians, bikes, waterways, railways and cars.  Our priority is always to improve safety where possible.

Intersections, traffic signals, crosswalks, and school zones are implemented according to national standards.  


According to the latest US Census Bureau reports, the Baltimore Metro Area is the 21st largest in the country, and is home to about 2.8 million people.

The Washington metro area is the 4th largest in the country and is home to 6.1 million people. Together with other parts of Maryland and Virginia, the DC/Baltimore area is home to 9.6 million people. This region is larger than the Bay Area.

 Yet travel in-between the two hubs in impossible using public transit after 10:30 pm going northbound and 9 pm going southbound.

Both WMATA and the MTA's local services understand that life continues into the late night hours for many residents and work with limited resources to provide core late night service.

Why can't MARC do the same and offer later service between DC and Baltimore?

First is we are guests on CSX and Amtrak's rail lines.  Our number of trains, number of stops and hours of operation are all negotiated with the owners of the rail.  We are currently operating at the maximum allowed.  

That is what is exciting about a Superconducting Maglev.   This project is being developed by the private sector and I am encouraged by their progress.  The right of way for the Maglev project is along a route that has been in existing since the mid-1800s and not impacted by other rail companies.

Secretary Rahn, as a daily MARC commuter that sees trains on the Penn Line filled to near-overflowing on a daily basis, what are your plans for MARC in the future? Can we expect to see either longer trains or more frequent service at any point in the future?

The length of our MARC trains are greatly influenced by the platform lengths at our stations.

Is there any update on extending MARC Penn Line service north towards Delaware in the hopes of connecting MARC service to SEPTA service in Wilmington with service to Center City Philadelphia?

I have had people talk to me about this, but we do not have active plans to extend MARC to Delaware.

Does MDOT have a database of which state highways are missing sidewalks, particularly in Prince George's County where pedestrian fatality rates are so high?

Not all state highways require sidewalks because they are not appropriate to the kind of traffic traveling on them.

You've announced plans for an I-270 Innovative Congestion Relief project and have been vocal about wanting unique solutions. How will you balance the desire for never-before-tried innovation against proven congestion-busting solutions? Can a facility like I-270 really be a place to experiment given it's high volumes?

"Congestion-busting solutions" would entail expenditures in excess of $8 billion and would not see a shovel in the ground for 10 to 15 years.

There are technologies being used around the globe that can provide benefits in the very near term that are far more cost effective.

Our transportation resources will not support "congestion-busting solutions."  The time has come for us to look for a different approach that is based in reality.

The 495 managed lanes in VA have proven to provide a congestion free alternative. Could they be continued over the bridge and in Maryland?

Maryland also uses tolled express lanes on I-95 north of Baltimore and found them to have a beneficial impact on traffic flow. However, in Virginia and Maryland, these express toll lanes require substantial upfront state investment into the projects that will typically not be recovered.

Transportation technology is becoming the wave of innovation in society similar to the Personal Computer or Smartphone. What transportation technologies are you considering for the immediate future and in the longer term to make transportation more sustainable?

Connected and autonomous vehicles will provide greater capacity on our existing infrastructure.  Within the next 10 years, I believe this technology will be common place.  There are also technologies like the Hyperloop that could fundamentally change how we travel.

On a recent trip up northbound New Hampshire Ave (MD 650) from MD 410 to I 495, on a weekday at about 2:30 pm, I was repeatedly stopped by red lights at intersections that were a block or two apart.

Frequent stops waste time and gas and harms the environment.

Does the state have a plan to coordinate traffic lights to minimize such stop and go? Has SHA looked at MD 650 specifically? Thanks.

Montgomery County maintains all the traffic signals on state highways in the county.  The county is currently exploring technologies to better coordinate signals into an actual synchronized system.

What is the status of the reconstruction of the Reversible Lane Control System along US 29 between MD 97 (Georgia Avenue) and Sligo Creek Parkway?

Last I heard the construction was stalled despite having already installed some of the replacement equipment.

Meanwhile drivers continue to face daily congestion along this corridor. Why has the SHA not found the means to complete this much-needed project?

I do not have an update on US 29. 

Ever since the transportation center opened, the traffic signals do not seem to be timed correctly. Northbound on Colesville Road during the evening rush the traffic is awful. The backup continues through the intersection (especially East-West Highway) so that the east/west traffic waits for a number of lights to pass. The buses try to leave the transportation center and block Colesville Road since there is no room to leave because of the red light. Is there a plan to readjust the traffic lights in this area?

I will forward this to SHA to discuss with Montgomery County.

We keep hearing about the need for dedicated funding for Metro. Do you support this, and if so, what kind of actual work is being done to get it accomplished?

This is an issue that needs to have a consensus in Montgomery and Prince George's counties first. 

Why is Maryland so against improving traffic flow by allowing bridges to be built between the American Legion and Rt. 15 bridges? If you want to control growth, can't you just restrict exits?

First, Maryland owns the Potomac River to the high water level on the Virginia side.  Therefore, any bridges over the Potomac would be nearly 100 percent Maryland's responsibility, making any new bridge very expensive.

Second, finding a crossing whose route is acceptable to both Virginia and Maryland would cause the bridge to be so far north that it would provide limited relief to American Legion Bridge.

The rapid growth in Calvert and St. Mary's counties has overwhelmed the capacity of the 2-lane Thomas Johnson bridge. Planning and funding appear to be woefully slow. What is the timetable for replacement?

Our biggest issue is that we have bridges that are older and will require replacement sooner.  The Thomas Johnson Bridge is in good condition, but does not handle traffic adequately.

Hi Secretary Rahn, with gas prices so low why not increase the gas tax to pay for major transportation projects such as adding express lanes to 495 or increasing capacity on 270?

Governor Hogan does not support tax increases of any kind.

Just an observation having driven from Quebec to DC yesterday. From Canada through most of New York, slower traffic (including trucks) kept right and the faster moving traffic would stay left until they passed the slower vehicles, moving right as soon as a spot suited their speed. The flow was smooth even though traffic was pretty heavy. As we got into lower NY and through to DC, vehicles would squat in the left lane, creating huge fluctuations in speed, slamming of brakes, and generally more aggressive driving maneuvers to get around the squatters. Especially with high-volume traffic, this makes driving so much more pleasant and far less white-knuckle.


270 is a lost cause after those "side" lanes were put in 30 years ago. I assume they were meant to make express and local lanes but they, instead, cause terrible traffic. Going North at 28, you have cars entering 270 from Falls Road trying to get to the left to go 'express' while you have cars going right leaving 'express' trying to exit onto 28, while you have cars trying to continue north. With all that slowing and merging you get terrible traffic. Trying to go South from 370/200 West, you have 1 windy, dipping exit lane and then a couple of hundred feet to merge left across 3 lanes of traffic to get to the 'express' lanes. The 'local' lanes have to go but that's impossible since all the overpasses have supports where the 'express' and 'local' lanes split so we're stuck with this and things will get worse. Any ideas on how to solve it?

Vehicle weaving is a significant cause of congestion and crashes.  I am not willing to write off I-270 as a lost cause.  We have a responsibility to provide the best system we can, which we are attempting to do with the I-270 Congestion Management Project.

HI Mr. Secretary -- There is a large push to get people walking in Bethesda-Chevy Chase. But getting around on foot often involves crossing the extremely busy commuter corridors of Massachusetts Ave, River Road, Wisconsin Ave, and Connecticut Avenue. Many pedestrians have stories of extremely close calls. I know that you are looking at Massachusetts Avenue and possible River Road, but why not look at the safety issues for all these corridors? Wisconsin and Connecticut have scary intersections too. My kids ask me to drive them rather than walk because they don't feel safe, even when we have the "right of way" in the crosswalk. What plans do you have for pedestrian safety?

Pedestrian Safety is a significant issue for Maryland.  Each year, we have more than 100 pedestrians killed on all highways, state and local. 

We do invest Safe Routes to School funding to improve the safety of our school children.  Unfortunately, we have more wants than funding. 

I commute to Bethesda from Silver Spring for work, and most days take the beltway. As I get off the turn at exit 33 to Connecticut Ave, there are potholes that have been there for years. I've written to both the State and Montgomery County to have this fixed, but I have not received a response, and the road is still in disrepair! who is responsible for this?

Here is a link to tell you who repairs your roads and how to report a state highway issue:


It was great joining you Dr. Gridlock.  Thanks to you and all your readers for the great questions!

And to readers: Thanks for joining us today. 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.
Pete Rahn
Pete K. Rahn is Maryland's transportation secretary, appointed to the post in 2015 by Gov. Larry Hogan (R). Rahn also has led state transportation departments in New Mexico and Missouri. In Maryland, he directs the state's highway and transit operations.
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