Dr. Gridlock

Sep 26, 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. We've got two projects now with a big impact on commuting: SafeTrack and the Beach Drive rebuilding. I'll start with a question about Beach Drive.

Why is it called Beach Drive?

That wasn't the first question I expected to get today about Beach Drive in Rock Creek Park.

And anyone looking to work on a tan is going to be disappointed.

This from an overview of the Rock Creek Park road system written by Timothy Davis of the National Council of State Historic Preservation Officers in 1996:

"Beach Drive was originally constructed between 1897-1900 under the direction of Capt Lansing H. Beach of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers."

The report goes on to describe construction of the drive as an engineering marvel, much praised at the time because of the difficulty factors in building something in that location that would be usable without destroying the delicate landscape.

What say you all about the impact of the Beach Drive closing that began last Thursday? The trouble spot for me on Thursday morning was the area around Connecticut Avenue and Calvert Street NW. Don't do it my way. How have others fared?

Today was the first day I've made the adjusted commute from Takoma DC to Georgetown (typically via beach drive and rock creek parkway). Have to give some credit to the DC DOT for: 1) adjusting (it seemed) light timing at the detour (intersection of tilden @ beach, and tilden @ conn ave 2) placing traffic control officers at key intersections along Conn ave (will they be there every day throughout the construction?). We gave ourselves 1.5 hours, instead of the typical 45 minutes, and it may have even taken us LESS time than normal. Wow! (though I am sure others had more difficult/trying experiences).

On Thursday morning, I also saw a bunch of DDOT traffic control officers deployed to cope with detour traffic, and since then, I've noticed their presence in traffic camera views of critical intersections.

DDOT can move to traffic officers around based on experience with the detours.

I think drivers will make adjustments based on experience, taking different routes and trying different travel times.

One break on any big road project in the District is that the city has a grid pattern of streets, allowing many drivers to bail out and try alternatives, and also a subway system.

I live in NC; I used to have a Maryland EZPass for occasional trips to the northeast, but I switched to a fee-free one from NY State when Maryland started charging monthly fees. Last weekend I went through the Fort McHenry tunnel twice and I noticed that there is a $1 discount ($3 instead of $4) for holders of a Maryland EZPass--but not for holders of EZPasses issued by other states. Does the EZPass arrangement actually allow setting different rates based on the issuer of a pass?

Yes, and plenty of tolling agencies offer discounts for different types of frequent use. The discounts often provide a break for commuters.

Just as a sampler, look at the Chesapeake Expressway Discount Program, special E-ZPass programs for Massachusetts drivers and commuter plans for New York drivers. I didn't spot anything that looked like it would help an occasional traveler from North Carolina.

I was on one of the 7000-series trains on the Red Line to Glenmont, and noticed one of the doors malfunctioned (they didn't open and the status light was flashing continuously). What was annoying is that people on either side had to move to other doors to enter and exit the train. What *wasn't* annoying is that the train wasn't taken out of service, nor the rail car sealed off. It meant that a lot of people who would have been offloaded from the train were not. In short, one set of faulty doors didn't cause a much bigger problem.

The 7000 series cars now are arriving at the rate they were supposed to be arriving. Kawasaki seems to have got its act together at the assembly line in Nebraska.

Hello Dr. Gridlock, I braved downtown last weekend to attend the National Book Fair. While I was waiting for a train at Pentagon City, I was once again confounded by the train arrival signs at the platform.

When I arrived at the platform, the sign stated that green line trains would be arriving in 4,6, and 17 minutes: no yellow line trains at all. The signs remained that way for two minutes without changing.

Then the times and destinations blinked out and were replaced by mysterious lines and dashes for all three trains.

These hieroglyphics remained for ten minutes. Finally, the sign changed to a green line train arriving in 3 minutes, and a Yellow line train arriving in 5. What happened to the other green line trains? Does Metro release trains into the wild to go hither and yon?

Does a train vanish into thin air like a Harry Potter Night Bus?

This phenomenon has become more and more common in the last year. Perhaps there is a sensor that the trains are tripping? Please help alleviate my frustration.

On a side note, I hate Metro's refusal to post arriving trains in the upstairs area. Yeah, I know they say they don't want people to rush, but guess what? After I have missed far too many trains by strolling downstairs, I now hurry every single time I hear a train going in my direction, for fear I will miss a train that I could have easily caught, and so I don't have to go through another cycle of mystery lights.

Thanks, Barbara in Springfield

That problem with the next train signs on the platforms is very common. I'm sure many, many weekend travelers recognize it from their experiences on rail lines that have stations closed or single-tracking zones.

The computer brain behind the next train system can't deal well with disruption. So I suspect that Blue and Yellow Line riders at Pentagon City may have been dealing with the effects of a single-tracking zone between Braddock Road and Reagan National Airport. (There's no reason I know of that a Green Line train should have arrived at Pentagon City.)

On Barbara's second point: Metro does black out an upcoming arrival so people won't run for the train. I know many rides think that's a big Nanny. (I'm curious about whether riders can detect the sound of a train going in their direction. My ears aren't that sensitive. But maybe I'm listening for the wrong thing?)

What happened last Friday night? It took me almost 3 hrs to get home. I can't believe how messed up things were in the downtown core. What has all this SafeTrack work gotten us when the problems originated in places already covered by prior surges?

I think SafeTrack probably had nothing to do with Friday night congestion in the middle of DC. My guess is that it might have been the preps for Saturday morning's opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture at 14th and Constitution.

Any chance that Metro's new megaphone info system will once again be in place at the Franconia Springfield station again? We're once again back to no information about when the next train is due to leave, what color it is, etc.

I'm very disappointed to hear that. It seems so ripe for a permanent solution, a problem that affects a lot of riders each morning and can be dealt with rather simply.

Any ideas why this section of track needs so much longer for repairs than the other areas subject to SafeTrack delays? Ironically, at least part of the affected area is in the district of Fairfax County Supervisor Cathy Hudgins, a long-time Metro Board member. If the rails in her district are so much worse than anywhere else, of what use has she been on the Metro Board?

At 42 days, the Vienna-West Falls Church project is indeed a long one if you're trying to commute on that route. The time period is more noticeable than on some of the other projects because the work crews will move from one track to the other and call it a single project, rather than splitting up the work into separate projects.

The geography of the 15 SafeTrack projects is such that many of them affect stations in Fairfax County. When Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld goes out to a station and holds a press conference to remind riders about upcoming work, Cathy Hudgins is often with him. I think that's admirable. She's a Metro board member and a locally elected supervisor, but she's not running away from something that disrupts travel for her constituents.

If the Nationals playoff games start later for nationally televised games or go into extra innings, does Metro have any plans to extend the 12 AM closing time. For what it is worth, I attended the Redskins home opener where Station attendants were announcing the last train would leave at 11:10 PM. If that were the same for Nationals Park, it could cut things pretty close.

Major League Baseball has not announced times for the first round of playoff games. But Metro officials have been firm about not altering Metrorail operating hours for special events, so the crews have more time to work on the tracks.

The Marine Corps Marathon already has made adjustments because it can't get an early opening for the runners this year.

Do the megaphones help in some places? At Union Station and Gallery Pl, they seem to cause more confusion because no one can understand what the person is saying (which is frustrating if you need help).

I think megaphones help. Over the years of Metro disruptions, I've complained about the lack of megaphone use. To me, it's an obvious way to get news to a target audience.

What I don't like: Deploying a lot of transit staffers to a platform and have them wait for people to walk up and ask specific questions; having Metro rely on electronic alerts to relay information to passengers on trains and platforms.

All trains at Reston-Wiehle East leave off passengers on the North side track. Then the trains goes "out of service" and moves to the pocket track beyond the station. Then the train returns to the station and picks up passengers on the South track. Wouldn't that be a simpler solution to the Blue/Yellow dilemma at Franconia-Springfield than employees with megaphones?

That's an interesting idea. My concern is that extra train movements would mess further with the schedule for the riders at Springfield, and that it's simpler to have a staff with a bullhorn and an arm to point could solve the problem.

(During the SafeTrack disruptions at Springfield, I thought the staff did a very good job getting riders on the right trains.)

Can you *please* stop taking questions about extended Metro hours for special events?! Metro has been very clear that they're not going to do this. Full stop. Maybe just a disclaimer at the top when you open the chat? That way people get the info, and the rest of us can focus on questions that don't actually have answers yet.

Over the years, I've come to realize that people don't memorize what I write.

Since SafeTrack started, I've gotten a lot of questions about whether Metro is going to modify its service hours for particular events, like road race, football and baseball -- or the holiday shopping season.

Ok they finished resurfacing Monroe Street between 12th and South Dakota. Driving on the new smooth surface was a bit disconcerting, for many drivers but I am happy to say that they are replacing the old covered over pothole with brand new one. Serious Doc its been less than a month since they resurfaced the road and already the utility companies are digging if back up. Does not appear to be emergency work, at least based on the pace of the work.

This is an all too common frustration for travelers, the apparent lack of coordination between road work crews and utility companies -- and not just a DC thing.

The next SafeTrack surge is the Red Line closure from Fort Totten to NoMa. This was bad enough to begin with but adding in the Beach Drive closure will put even more pressure on 16th Street and other arteries. Has additional attention been paid to this, for example is MARC adding train cars again, extra buses, etc.?

We're talking about the SafeTrack shutdown scheduled for Oct. 29-Nov. 22, which I agree will have a big impact on commuters, both transit users and drivers.

The Beach Drive closing eliminates one segment of an important north-south route and is likely to add to congestion on the east side of Rock Creek Park.

Transportation agencies have not yet announced specific plans for easing the impact, but I expect there will be extra MARC and Ride On bus service, as well as extra Metrobus service. I expect a lot of the displaced Red Line riders will go over to Greenbelt and take the Green Line to downtown DC. (I wouldn't deal with the Metro shuttle buses if I could help it.)

Is there any evidence that the "surges" are resulting in fewer issues with the tracks in the areas where the projects have been completed?

After each surge, Metro issues a progress report, but while helpful for getting an idea what went on, the reports are light on detail.

What you're looking for is an important accountability measure, but I think you'd need to measure a significant time period, comparing, say, six months to six months, before you had a meaningful result.

You'd also want to be sure you're looking for problems based specifically on the type of work performed.

I continue to be concerned that riders and the public generally think SafeTrack is going to fix Metro. SafeTrack is a speeded up version of a track work program already in the works. There are lots of other things Metro needs to fix.

I don't think folks can tell specifically whether a train entering the station is going in their preferred direction. Speaking for myself, I can hear whether a train is entering the station, and will just hurry down to the platform *in case* the train is going in my desired direction.

Maybe some people can tell the direction if they know the location of a track crossing where the train rumbles across. I can't think of other tips about direction.

I have particular trouble in transfer stations, where you can hear the noise from a different set of tracks.

Once I get far enough down into a Metro station (approaching the turnstiles), I can usually hear which side an arriving train is on.

As a fed going to Metro Center from Wheaton...do I brave the closure and transfer to the Green Line for a month? Take the 33/38 to the west side of the Redline? 33 to Kensington, MARC to Union and RL to Metro Center? Which of these do you think may be the least painful?

"Least painful" is the right way to state the goal. This isn't going to be easy.

With 33/38, you're talking Ride On, right? That's a decent idea for getting to the west side of the Red Line to complete a trip to Metro Center.

I think it's unrealistic to expect a lot of people to make more than one transfer for this disruption.

Keep watching for the supplemental services as they're announced. (That usually doesn't happen till we get close to the start of the disruption.)

Beach Drive: My colleague Lori Aratani takes driving routes west of Rock Creek Park. Last Thursday, she had a very tough time with the Connecticut Avenue traffic. This morning, she tried Reno Drive and had a much better experience. We're not sure whether that's a better route, or if commuters have made adjustments since last Thursday, or if it's just a Monday lighter commute thing.

Rather than the new Museum, I'm pretty sure it had to do with this (from WMATA's page): 5:06 p.m. A Largo Town Center-bound Blue Line train at Metro Center reported a piece of burning infrastructure. Orange, Silver and Blue Line train service was temporarily suspended between McPherson Sq & Federal Triangle for approximately 35 minutes. Service was restored with single tracking for the remainder of the service day; Silver Line trains operated between Wiehle-Reston East & Ballston to mitigate delays. Passengers experienced delays up to 75 minutes.

That certainly would have been disruptive for Silver, Orange and Blue Line riders. You think it would have added a lot of traffic to the homeward rush from downtown DC?

I used Franconia-Springfield every morning and I've taken to using DCMetroHero.com to figure out which train is likely to leave next. It's not perfect, but it gives you a pretty good sense of when trains are due and when they're set to leave.

That's a good tip. I wish people didn't have to depend on that sort of thing and could just know which train is which way to turn when they reach the platform.

There are several choke points around downtown that disrupt traffic for blocks. A big one is the block along Massachusetts Avenue outbound between 10th and Ninth streets. During rush-hour, with no curb parking, you have three lanes of L Street merging with three lanes of Massachusetts Avenue into a total of two lanes on Massachusetts. Even in non-rush hour, it's four lanes merging into two. But traffic in the left lane is often stopped by taxis and other cars turning left mid-block into the Marriott Marquis, and it's often stopped in the right lane by cars waiting for the right-turn arrow at Ninth Street. What a mess, as should be obvious to anybody who looks. Why can't the right-turn arrow at Ninth Street be timed with the straight-ahead green, and why can't left turns into the hotel be prohibited (there's another hotel entrance on M Street that taxis could use)?

My plan is to transfer at Ft Totten to the green line. I use a cane and am oldish, so maybe I'll get one of the special seats....and maybe not. Can't rely on that any more.

Does anyone else think the seats on the new 7000 series are really uncomfortable? For 10 minutes, it is not too bad, but for 45 minutes I find them very painful. Did they design them this way on purpose so that people wouldn't sit in them too long?

I don't recall getting other complaints about the lack of comfort in the new seats. They were designed to make the maintenance easier.

Use the doppler effect (pitch change) to tell which way it is going.

If you think you can, then you will rush. I can't tell. So I run for all of them.

I'm 6'8" and I can't stand at either end of the cars—the ceiling reaches the bridge of my nose. I know the ceiling is lower because the AC is on top now, but it's kinda rediculous. Did Metro know that the 7000 series trains would be shorter on the inside?

Okay, now we have complaints about standing as well as sitting in the new cars. Others?

Hi Doc, My children attend school in Northwest, but we live at the southern-most tip of the city. Why is always such a challenge for us to navigate getting the kids to school as we attempt to cross the Anacostia - no matter which way we go? It takes us 1 hour or more to get to school and work. Is there an easy way to commute from East of the River?

I don't know an easy way to do that. You're talking about crossing through the heart of one of the most congested regions in the country during the morning rush. (Good parent, making that sacrifice for the kids.)

I just wanted to say in a public forum, hoping the right people might see this, how unnecessarily frustrating it is that police don't move fender-benders out of the roadway. As a twenty-year DC resident, I've spent countless hours in miles-long back-ups only to finally find a lane closed for....just that??? I can see the safety issue, but we all also know it's 100% certain traffic will slow dramatically to rubberneck anything going on with police lights.

My experience is different: I see local transportation agencies as well as the police encouraging drivers to move their cars out of the travel lanes after fender benders. But I also see that any vehicle stopped on the side of the road -- emergency vehicle or just some guy changing a tire -- will cause traffic to slow for miles on a highway.

What do you recommend for people who cannot Telework or take a bike as has been recommended in lieu of Beach Drive. Metro has been terrible so that is not reliable. I tried to take Connecticut Ave and Calvert, but the traffic is very heavy there. Any suggestions?

The Red Line can certainly be unreliable, but if I had the option of taking Metrorail vs driving down Conn Ave month after month while Beach Drive is closed, I'd opt for Metrorail.

But you might try getting beyond Conn Ave, the way my colleague Lori did this morning, and come down Reno Road.

I think Friday afternoon's meltdown had more to do with an arcing insulator on S/O/B at Metro Center compounding existing switch problems left over from the morning than the museum opening, but I could be wrong...

Why access lights on the Glebe Road entrance ramp for East-bound I-66 on in the afternoons? I understand the principle behind these lights -- facilitating merging --- but they are on randomly, and seemingly unnecessarily, in this particular place. I drive that way most work days, and when the lights aren't in use, everything is just fine, everyone merges onto 66 easily and traffic flow on Glebe and Washington is ok. But when the lights are in use, traffic gets seriously backed up on both Washington Blvd. and Glebe Road -- in all directions, and the whole intersection becomes a mess. (And it's odd -- there are 2 lights, but only 1 lane of traffic is supposed to be merging) There seems to be no rhyme or reason for using these lights in the afternoon/evening. Please explain! thanks

The control lights -- a "ramp metering" system -- are now part of the Virginia Department of Transportation's Active Traffic Management system on I-66.

The controllers are looking at the traffic flow well beyond what you can see from the entrance ramp. They use the red lights to space out the traffic. This helps prevent congestion at the merge point but it also helps the flow down the highway.

Sometimes, there's no issue with the traffic flow, so the controllers don't have the red lights on.

So if they're doing their job right, there's little reason you should see the difference between a time when the lights are in use and when they're not. It should work either way.

Would the S9 and Silver Spring be a good alternative for the fed? Direct to Federal Triangle area and only one transfer.

If you're not familiar with the S9, try it now, before the SafeTrack disruption starts. During the morning rush, you'll probably see that things are fine till the bus reaches the Columbia Heights/Mount Pleasant area, then the trip gets really slow.

Once you clear that area of 16th Street NW, the trip will go more smoothly. But you will need to add extra travel time beyond what the S9 timetable says.

For those of us who like or need a little lower back support, the way the 7000 seats curve away from the lumbar region can result in a painful ride.

I can't stand those new seats! The few times I've ridden them on the Orange Line to VA, my back is killing me by the time I get to Virginia Square and I ride all the way to Vienna. I wonder if the designers consulted any ergonomists when designing those seats?

Thanks for joining me today. I'll try to follow up on the Dr. Gridlock blog with a couple of issues from the unpublished questions and comments. For example: The traveler who asked for a timetable on the road work slowing trips on Oxon Hill Rd and Indian Head Hwy.

Please join me again next Monday. And stay safe out there.

In This Chat
Robert Thomson
Robert Thomson is The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock. He offers therapy for that most intimate relationship: the one between you and your commute. You can read his work on the Dr. Gridlock blog, as well as in the Metro section of The Washington Post.
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