Dr. Gridlock

Oct 03, 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. Today's first comment is very long, but I think the topic of Metro's midnight closings is on the minds of lots of people as the Nationals prepare for playoff games at Nats Park on Friday and Saturday.

The commenter makes a proposal toward the bottom, and I'd like to know what you think. (I'll give you my response right after the comment.)

I submitted the following letter to Metro. Not sure if it will do any good. But at least I tried:

Dear Metro, I'm writing this commentary to you in response to your Midnight closing hours. I totally disagree with this policy. This is the city where the President resides, as well as Congress and other political leaders. This is also a city with nightlife and culture. There are concerts, sporting events, clubs, bars, and restaurants.

All of these places are supported by employees that work into the wee hours of the morning or late. Many of our first responders, police, EMTs, hospital workers, doctors, lawyers also work late hours. Yet you are making it difficult for these employees that may be coming to the city from outlying areas, to be stranded without an inexpensive way home.

As you may know, as with many sports and entertainment venues, the event goes on past midnight. As you may also know, postseason sporting events is a whole different challenge than other events only known to the participants.

For example, a Springsteen concert that ends at 11:30 is only known by the fans that go to it. The baseball playoffs are televised are nationally and internationally bringing all that attention to the nation's capital.

The Nationals are in the playoffs. What the postseason  entails are late starting games due to television contracts. Therefore games will be starting at between 8 and 9 pm.

Now a baseball game lasts between 3-4 hours. This would put the game ending between 11pm and midnight. By keeping your midnight closing hours, this would mean that fans and workers who take Metro to the game, would have to leave about the 5th inning of a 9 inning game.

How does that look on a televised game to have half your attendance leave because Metro refuses to compromise on hours? Do you enjoy spending over $200 for an event, only to leave at half time or intermission? How about the loss in pay of those workers who can't work a full shift because their only way home is Metro.

As for myself, I take Metro to work every day. I can't go back to Vienna Metro, drive in and make the event on time. I can't drive into town because there is no parking at my building. So I must take metro to work and to the game. If you keep the hours as they are and I stayed for the game, it would entail an 60 dollar cab ride back to Vienna Metro where my car is parked.

My friend from Germantown, it would cost even more! Hotels close by cost even more! I have a suggestion.

Metrorail is open Weekdays from 5am to midnight. That means you are closed for 5 hours on weeknights. On weekends you are closed from midnight to 7am or 7 hours.

Why not make those 5 hours from 1:30 am to 6:30 am and from 1:30 am to 8:30am respectively? Provide buses to make up for the hour and a half later opening time. After midnight you can only exit at certain stations and close stations as the last train goes through them.

This way, people can get home from their jobs and their events via metro and you wont have the embarrassment of people getting up and leaving on internationally televised event. I look forward to response on this suggestion. Sincerely, Carol L. Allen Manassas, VA

I don't like the midnight closing on weekends. It's one thing to tell people they have to drive to Jiffy Lube Live in the outer suburbs. It's another to say they'll probably be driving to events in the core of a region with one of the nation's biggest transit systems.

But if the Metro general manager, Paul Wiedefeld, says those extra hours for maintenance are necessary to help fix the system and make it safer, then that gets top priority.

Back in 2011, when the weekend maintenance disruptions got more aggressive, we were told that the work on weekends and at night and midday would be enough to get the system back to a state of good repair.

That was a miscalculation. Let's not miscalculate again.

Now that we are 4 months into the SafeTrack surge, the scuttlebutt is that (not surprisingly) many additional maintenance issues have been discovered and that some of them will need to be addressed separately. Will there need to be a second "SafeTrack" period, with major service disruptions, to address these issues? I am finding it quicker to commute between my home in Vienna and my office in Winchester than to commute between Vienna and DC these days.

I think by "scuttlebutt" the commenter may be referring to the reports coming out of the Federal Transit Administration: Federal inspectors report a mixed bag on Metro SafeTrack improvements by Martine Powers.

Couple of things: The inspectors are finding some problems unaddressed during the SafeTrack projects so far. Metro inspectors are going through the same process, like a punch list following a home improvement project.

Those issues must be attended to.

But I'm not sure that completely addresses what the commenter is asking about. SafeTrack -- I keep saying this -- is not going to fix Metro. It's a speeded up track work program, compressing three years of already planned work on the track bed into about a year.

That's a good thing. But no one at Metro suggested that the end of SafeTrack early in 2017 was going to be the end of the repair work on the tracks. And no one told us that the track bed was Metro's only operating problem.

It's going to take a long time. (That's one of the reasons I'm inclined to keep the midnight closing, despite the inconveniences.)

I entered and exited Dupont circle within 9 minutes on 9/23 (there was a train issue, so we caught the bus). I've been charged $2.15 and can't see that it was credited at all, despite the fact that this seems to be within the 15 minute grace period. Am I looking in the wrong place for my credit (I can't find it anywhere)? Are other people seeing the grace period work and verifying that it's actually free?

The commenter followed up that message a couple of minutes later and wrote:

"Oops! It's under "product delivered" and I was credited the proper amount to adjust for the transfer to the bus. Glad to see it's actually working!"

And I'll show you a similar question next.

Hi -- WMATA announced earlier this year that if you enter a station, but exit within 15 minutes, you won't be charged at all. However, I have done this twice at Woodley Park -- after realizing that the next train wouldn't be for 15-20 minutes -- yet was charged $1.75 both times. What happened? Thanks...

You won't see the credit when you exit the fare gate. Metro says it takes about 24 hours to show up in your SmarTrip account. And if you've got SmartBenefits, you won't see the credit till the start of the next month.

Speaking of confusing stuff with SmarTrip: Did anybody have the same problem this morning as my colleague Lena Sun, who told me her SmarTrip card showed practically no balance when she tapped it, even though she knows she's got a big balance on the card?

SmarTrip customer service told her later that yeah, this may happen to riders at the start of a month. It make take several taps before the correct balance appears.

Over the past several weeks, I have noticed a new, yellow border or frame around several stop light signals along my normal commute. What is the purpose of the change?

I think what you're describing is a reflective backplate, meant to make the signal more visible at night.

Where do you see them?

But changing them to have "later" opening times is not the answer. Many of us go to work early, and 6:30am is too late. I already can't take the metro to the airport for early morning flights; this would affect morning flights as well. If we allowed this, what about all the marathons that need early morning starts? The MCM is one of the big runs in our country, and it didn't get a waiver either. I don't have a solution; it's terrible for everyone. I just accept and hope that the repairs are better for Metro as a whole.

By the way, the Nats playoff games are set for Friday and Saturday, but the exact timing isn't clear yet.

Back in the late 70's it was designed (as you can tell from the system map) to move people from the suburbs into and out of the city during regular business hours. DC wasn't a 24X7 town back then. What we're dealing with in the "early" closing during concerts, football and baseball games, and other late day events, is a fundamental design flaw. Fixing that flaw would probably require something like running one (or two?) "express" tunnels (and tracks above ground) next to the current tunnels on all the lines in order to be able to run at late hours while still being able to shut down tunnels for maintenance. The problem with fundamental design flaws is that they tend to be between very expensive and impossible to fix.

You may recall that Metro and regional leaders have talked about the possibility of building a new Potomac River crossing and a new tunnel through downtown. But such ideas seem to be going nowhere right now.

I have a question, is there a lack of driving requirements, driving schools, driving tests in the DCMA? Ever since having moved down here three years ago, I've been in a number of almost accidents and one actual accident. I've watched people ignore the rules or the road, constantly drift between lanes, be confused as to what yeild means etc etc. I used to the think that Ontarians were the worst drivers in North America, but then I met Virginians. So, my question remains, what makes DCMA drivers so bad?

I think drivers around here are about the same as drivers elsewhere in the US and Canada. (I lived in Montreal for five years.) See ...

Dr. Gridlock's advice to new drivers: Don't drive like Mom and Dad

In that and some follow up columns, my readers and I have discussed some rules of the road people tend to forget shortly after passing their driver's license tests.

The suggestion that Metro open at 6:30 am on weekdays in order to stay open later is such a bad idea. I assume that the writer has not used Metro in the early opening hours on weekdays. I am one of those who commutes in very early after Metro opens. The trains are not empty at 5:15 am. There are probably more people taking Metro from 5 - 6:30 am than the writer realizes and Metro probably would not be able to provide enough bus service to make up for opening later.

I think Metro would have a better shot at providing extra bus service late at night than during the early part of the morning rush.

What I have never seen in this debate is the cost of operation per rider on an hourly basis -- i.e. cost of operation / number of riders. Any idea?

Back when Metro would stay open late or open early, it would charge a standard fee to the organization willing to pay for that extra service. Back in 2014 when the Nats were in the playoffs, my colleagues Nick Anderson and Paul Duggan reported the standard Metro fee as $29,500 per hour.

But keep in mind that the issue now isn't cost. Metro is saying it needs the extra time for maintenance.

Hey, Doc! 18th St NW has been closed at N St NW just before Dupont Circle since Friday, I think. Any idea what kind of road work is going on there, and how long it might last? I checked the DDOT website and didn't see anything, but I might have been looking in the wrong place. Can you suggest a good source of info for road closure/construction projects in DC? I can alter my commute route a bit, if this is going to last this week. Thanks!

Terry Owens, the spokesman for the District Department of Transportation, is helping me out on this one. He says it's emergency work by DC Water. Not sure yet how long it's supposed to take.

As a follow-up to last week's chat (I was on travel so I missed it) I always presumed it was spelled BEECH Dr. Ya know, like the trees, since it's so heavily wooded.

This was about how Beach Drive is named for Capt. Lansing H. Beach, the Army Corps of Engineers officer who supervised the original construction in the late 1890s.

As last week developed, I sensed that commuters were making adjustments to the new traffic patterns created by the closing of Beach Drive. What was your experience?

DDOT made some adjustments. Faiz Siddiqui wrote about how a set of stop signs got put back in operation on Cathedral Avenue.

Is there any reason why sidewalks in D.C. and its surrounding suburbs just end? I've found this to be particularly true when walking through areas like Silver Spring, Wheaton, and Northern D.C. I'll be walked down the sidewalk and it will suddenly end. Any idea why these bizarre design choices have been made?

I think what  you're seeing reflects the construction pattern of the mid 20th century, when cars ruled. Developers and transportation departments of that era assumed that people were going to drive any time they needed a quart of milk.

Times have changed. The Complete Streets coalition is pushing that along nationwide.

Would midnight closing really be so awful? When I first moved to DC in 1999, Metro always closed at midnight. Granted, DC wasn't as vibrant a going-out destination at that time, but there were still plenty of late-night club, bar and concert patrons in Adams-Morgan, Dupont Circle, U Street, etc., and we managed to get home after midnight using buses and/or taxis as needed. Today, there's also Uber and the like. Sure, it would have been better to be able to use Metro, but we made it work, and I bet today's folks who work and/or party late could make it work as temporarily needed to fix the system.

What we're really talking about is the new midnight closing on Friday and Saturday night's and the proposal to close at 10 p.m. on Sunday, plus the ban on extending hours for special events.

We got through the summer okay with the midnight closings, despite the inconveniences for events such as the Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen concerts at Nationals Park.

Numerous times, I've been on a train that has arrived at a platform, stopped for a few seconds, then started moving again but only seemingly inches. Why does this happen? Most times they manage to announce "Stand clear, train moving," but on the times they don't and it's crowded, everyone lurches forward, in some cases off their feet.

Most Metrorail riders will be familiar with this one. The train operators are required to stop at the front of the platform -- not in the approximate area of the front of the platform but right at the marker.

I like to hold on to a railing till the doors open, to make sure I don't get tossed.

Can VRE and MARC run special trains? They won't go to every metro location (my VRE line in VA goes to Crystal City, Old Town, Springfield, and then points south), but it's something. VRE runs special trains for Christmas and the 4th of July, so I assume it's possible.

That's an interesting idea. I'll make a guess, though: They do those special trains when they think they can get a sufficient number of passengers to make it worthwhile. I'm not sure they could anticipate that many riders late Friday and Saturday nights. Also, wouldn't you have the problem of getting those fans to the commuter rail stations in the first place?

Why can't Metro have rotating early closures that change on a set schedule? For example, the Red Line could close early the first weekend each month; Green Line the second weekend; Yellow/Blue in VA third weekend; etc... That way most of the system could be open late and buses could replace the closed section. It's not like they are going to be doing track work on the entire system at the same time every weekend!

People should make suggestions like this to Metro, which is soliciting comments and plans a public hearing on the closing hours this fall. (None of this would be permanent till July.)

I'm thinking that riders would not take to the idea of a variable schedule. It's been my experience that they hate the uncertainties they face now, especially with the disruptions on weekends.

For more than month, Yellow line trains have generally been turning at U street apparently due to a mechanical problem at Mt. Vernon square (http://greatergreaterwashington.org/tag/separate+Yellow+Line/). How much longer will it take to complete repairs? It's causing significant delays for commuters because the Yellow line trains are taking significantly longer to complete their runs decreasing throughput. Also, there appear to be continued speed restrictions between Braddock Road and King Street further constricting throughput.

A track circuit issue developed in early August at Mount Vernon Square, and Metro started making the Yellow Line turnbacks at U Street instead. This change was pointed out to me by a commenter a couple of chats ago.

I don't have a date yet for completion of repairs, or anything new on the speed restrictions, also imposed pending track repairs.

Can you elaborate on the article posted earlier about WMATA just "winging it" when directing traffic through work zones? Who is responsible for this sort of planning and has there been some accountability (not saying fire anyone but putting in place new procedures to ensure this gets planned correctly)

I think "winging it" makes what the federal inspectors observed a bit more whimsical than it actually was.

Before any special project -- SafeTrack or a standard weekend rehab program -- the Metro managers work out what they think is the most efficient way to navigate trains around the disruption. Then it's up to the people in the Rail Operations Control Center to carry out the plan.

But they are going to make adjustments in real time, the same way air traffic controllers do with the flights coming into and out of an airport.

With SafeTrack, the traffic pattern goes better some days than others.

What the federal inspectors observed probably won't sound so remarkable to everyday riders. They know that sometimes there's a big gap between trains and then sometimes there's one a minute behind another.

We saw that Metro planners overestimated how many trains they could get into the Rosslyn/Stadium-Armory tunnel when they added in the Silver Line trains. We see that on even an ordinary weekend, they train pattern on a disrupted line becomes irregular.

Metro has yet to find a way to make the trains run on time, under just about any circumstance.

Why does this happen? My girlfriend found herself at Van Dorn but boarded a train to Huntington. If it was announced it wasn't clear and the internal signs weren't changed.

Speaking of train disruptions ...

Sometimes, the people in the Rail Operations Control Center will change the designation of a train because of some problem on the lines, or crowding at stations ahead.

My most frequent experience with this comes at Rosslyn, when an Orange or Silver Line train becomes a Blue Line train and heads toward Springfield.

Sometimes there's an announcement. Sometimes not.

The reality is that the government can't keep grocery stores from closing so now we have fewer stores to walk to--Giant at Rockshire (Hurley), Magruders in Rockville, Safeway at Loehmann's, Safeway at Twinbrook (to be replaced by Lotte). The government may want to see walkable communities (I grew up in one) but there has to be places to go to--in Prince George's I understand it is even worse than in Montgomery)

In my Silver Spring neighborhood, I can walk the half mile to the grocery store. That wasn't true when I moved there in 1989.

One of the biggest changes I've seen in transportation in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast is the growing awareness of pedestrian needs and the desirability of creating walkable communities.

People who suggest taking Uber because the Metro has closed early clearly don't understand that a lot of people can't afford that. People who work last shift at a restaurant certainly can't depend on it as their way to get home. Even as someone who with a good office job, I can't take Uber from Wolf Trap all the way back to Rockville, even if I'm only paying for lawn seats.

Is there a way for Metro, or some other enterprising group, to have large buses leaving the Nats games, bound for a few select Metro stations? If I owned a charter bus company, I would be doing that! Sell tickets ahead, charge a modest fee, and people would pack the bus.

That's a very good idea. What I like is that you're talking about taking people from one place where a lot of people board to destinations where a lot of people would want to get off (Metro lots and garages). You'd have to do something special like that, rather than just add buses to normal Metrobus routes.

The VRE stations - L'Enfant, Crystal City, King Street, and Springfield - are next to the Metro stations. So if you're going to the game that night, you can park at Springfield in the morning instead of say, Van Dorn or Huntington, or Uber from there to where you parked that AM or live.

If the game really does go very late, past Metrorail's last trains from Navy Yard, I'm not sure how many fans would want to walk up to L'Enfant Plaza, or if there would be enough Uber to meet the late night demand.

So you think that metro riders who would like the option of using the system late at night (especially after a Nationals post season game) would rather never have the option than sometimes have the option. Further they really could always have the option (even if it was much slower) if Metro ran buses to get the relatively few passengers to the stations they were prioritizing work on that night. This thinking is why Metro ridership is down. Metro management (especially the board) as well as funding problems are Metros problem and closing the whole system early won't solve it.

I think Metro riders would like the option of not crashing, or finding themselves stranded on a smoke-filled train.

Drivers in this area most certainly are not about the same as drivers elsewhere in the US and Canada. I've bounced around the country over the years, but I've never seen such abysmal driving as I routinely see in the DMV. my observation and that of the original commenter is echoed by Allstate's 2015 Best Drivers Report, which found Alexandria, DC, and Baltimore among the 11 worst large cities in terms of driving.

What if Metro was to completely shut down on some or all weekends to catch up on maintenance work instead of early closings on weeknights? The whole thing is so bad that most locals don't ride it anymore on weekends. It's just used by the tourists to visit the sites. That would greatly free up work time

Metro ridership is down on weekends, but you still have hundreds of thousands of people riding.

You'd want to balance their needs with the need for repair. The highway folks do the same thing. That's why you so rarely see a full closing of a roadway, such as we have now with Beach Drive.

Another thing about shutting the entire system on some weekends: Metro probably can't deploy enough workers and equipment through the entire system to make that be an efficient use of time.

It used to be that after 9:30 am or so and until 3ish, the Beltway moved at speed between the toll road and 270. Now, there's no such thing as lighter traffic at any time, making my off-hours commute from Reston to Gaithersburg (and back) a nightmare. Do I have to quit my job? Do you know what's fuelling this?

You must go pretty far back. I don't recall times in recent years when I've had an easy trip between the toll road, or I-66, and the Bethesda area on the Beltway.

I think Virginia transportation officials are very interested in doing something about the traffic between where the Beltway HOT lanes end and the Legion Bridge, but of course, any solution would involve Maryland, and there's not much going on there.

The schedule on the Nats website says we are the "B" game for all three starts, meaning the games start around 3:30 or 4:00. So unless there is another 18 inning game, it doesn't seem like there will be a Metro issue, at least for this first series.

I see where some 8 p.m. games are set, but everything I'm looking at for us is "TBD." But I know you're making a key point here: We may not have any Metrorail issue at all in the first round.

You asked for feedback on the Beach Drive closing. The part I use to commute -- from East West Highway south to Tilden -- isn't closed yet, but I will say my commute home is fantastic now. The traffic light at Tilden & Beach now has a left arrow for those turning north from Tilden onto Beach, which greatly decreases the back-up to that intersection in the evenings. My guess is that the Virginia drivers are taking alternate routes, removing them from that intersection too. I like it so far, at least until the construction moves to the northern section of Beach!

Thanks very much for the feedback.

I moved here from Chicago which offers overnight bus service 24/7. With enough lead time why can't METRO adjust its budget and resources to offer a similar service to replace late night METRO on the weekends. I live in Rockville and a bus from the city which stopped only at the METRO rail stops after midnight would be a welcome compromise between no service at all or full rail service after midnight.

If Metro winds up adopting the midnight closing as a permanent, or semi-permanent thing, then something should be done to help the late night riders and an owl service is a good idea.

I keep seeing this suggestion that locals don't use the metro on weekends. The significant percentage of us without cars who need to get from point A to point B on the weekend certainly use it. And while we don't want crashing smoke filled trains we also don't want to leave halfway through a playoff game. Wiedefeld has done a good job on the whole but he doesn't seem to see shades of grey...he needs to start. And those with cars for weekend use should consider that not everyone has one and that many of us need the metro even broken and sad on the weekends

I want to add another voice to say I agree, that having grown up in the Midwest and spending several years in the NYC area, I find that drivers around the DMV are the worst I have ever dealt with. It isn't that they are more rude or more aggressive than anywhere else, it's that so many seem to not even know what the rules of the road are. My husband, who is from this area, has told me that there is no actual road portion to the driver's test in MD, or at least not when he was a teenager in the 1980s. Not sure if that is still true, but it both horrified me and explained a lot.

Maryland definitely has a road test for new drivers.

A lot of commenters are throwing around Uber as if it was a quick and inexpensive option for everyone. Maybe if you live in the city and don't own a car Uber is a good alternative but for those of us who either live in the suburbs or live in town and need a car to get to work etc....uber is a costly option especially when it is in surge pricing mode (which is frequently). If the METRO board has the same attitude about Uber as many people here do you may as well toss out the mission statement for public transit which is to provide affordable transit options for people and just privatize the system

I carpool on 66E in the mornings, and since the recent SafeTrack efforts, 66 is completely congested, with roughly half of (non clean fuel) cars with single drivers. Would you tell me who to ping in order to get some HOV enforcement out there? I sympathize with those who hit the roads due to the metro work, but I managed to get a carpool together and I wish everyone would follow the rules.

Enforcement generally is done by the Virginia State Police. They have several problems: Any enforcement slows down traffic and jeopardizes the safety of the troopers and the commuters, and it's difficult to separate the cheaters from the people with exemptions.

Thousands will be driving into Arlington for the Army Ten Miler and Marine Corps Marathon. Let's also open metro up early for large race days, I can't imagine what traffic and parking will be like for those two events. There are only two or three large races, and a smaller Cherry Blossom 10 miler and the Rock and Roll Marathon in the Spring. The inflexibility of Metro is maddening.

The Marine Corps Marathon planners already have made adjustments because Metro won't be opening early for this year's race.

As you and other posters mentioned, DC is a much more vibrant city than when the Metro was first conceived. But now so much has been built up around, and dependent upon, the Metro stations themselves. The Nats stadium has been a boon for the Navy Yard neighborhood, but there is not enough parking for everyone to drive. If the midnight closings are permanent, do you see the city slowly "contracting" to what it once was, a less vibrant city? Will more sports events, concerts, etc. relocate to the burbs over time?

We talk about this midnight closing as being "permanent." But nothing in the transportation system is permanent. I certainly think Metro will come out of this ugly phase it's in now, and after sufficient repairs and reforms -- and more investment -- be able to extend hours again.

Thanks for joining me today. I particularly enjoyed our discussion of the Metro hours, even though in the first round of the playoffs, we may wind up worrying more about the effect of afternoon shadows on batters than the Metrorail closing.

I'll be away next Monday, but back with you on Oct. 17. 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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