Dr. Gridlock

Oct 26, 2015

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. As we start today's chat, I see plenty of questions and comments about our most vexing local travel issues. I'm going to start with several about traffic management issues. But keep your thoughts coming. We've got a lot of ground to cover.

Do you think Virginia really has a plan for the south end merge for the hot lanes? Regular readers of this chat will remember commenters predicting exactly what has occurred but VDOT wasn't smart enough to prevent the problem so how are they going to be smart enough to solve it?

Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne says that traffic planners are trying to figure out what to do about that bottleneck, but so far, no plan has been announced.

It's the one place I can cite where the HOT lanes concept isn't working and it needs to be fixed.

 The most likely solution would be to extend the HOT lanes merge farther south. Because of the local road configuration in that part of Stafford County, that sort of short-range solution is difficult to achieve.

A long-term solution would be to extend the express lanes south to Fredericksburg.

I drove on I-66 and the Green Arrow was on the far right lane. Traffic was moving at speed. Is this the new norm? I thought the Green Arrow would only be used on the weekends when traffic was backed up and the extra lane was needed. I sort of like the idea of it always being a Green Arrow unless the lane is blocked.

VDOT staffers still are getting used to this new tool, called Active Traffic Management, which they launched this fall.

But it seems to me that if you saw the green arrow on, and traffic was moving at speed, then the system was working.

The complaints I've gotten about the early going with ATM are from drivers who encounter very slow traffic and are vexed that the red X is displayed, indicting the breakdown lane is closed to traffic.

Either way, a driver passing through any particular zone on I-66 may not be aware of everything the controllers are seeing in their monitors. The slowdown may be for a relatively short distance, which in the controllers' view might not justify opening up the breakdown lane.

Also consider the possibility that there may be a car broken down in that lane.

What is being done to alleviate the evening rush hour backups at the Wiehle Reston Metro garage?

The design for traffic there is horrible, and it will get a lot worse once the office, condo and hotel above the garage open next year, not to mention the extremely large footprint building next door, where construction has started.

It sometime takes 15 minutes or more to get out of the garage and onto Wiehle Avenue, which is a block away, due to having to merge with all the exiting buses, the poor timing of the traffic lights, etc.

Most people trying to use the Kiss and Ride area bail out and either turn around or drop off and pick up passengers a block or so away. If I need to be picked up from there, I have family members pick me up a few blocks away, to avoid the gridlock.

The facility as is, does not work during evening rush hour. Sure, it will be better when the final Silver line stations open 4 years from now, but until then, it is a traffic nightmare. I have not seen this addressed anywhere. Even though I only live 5 minutes drive time (2 miles) from the Wiehle station, it really makes more sense time wise for me to drive 20 minutes away to the much better designed Vienna station garage and lots. I have not seen this addressed anywhere. Is Metro aware of this issue?

Congestion around the Wiehle Avenue garage is indeed a problem, and it's a problem for the Fairfax County government, which built and owns the transit garage.

The garage was very popular right away, and now is pretty much full on weekday mornings. Many commuters target the problem with getting in and out of the Kiss & Ride area. And they say they've learned to make drop offs and pickups on the nearby roads, which isn't good for safety and overall traffic flow.

"We're not done," Fairfax Transportation Director Tom Biesiadny told me last week. His staff is aware of the problem, but so far,  the county has no specific plan to remedy the congestion drivers encounter.

During rush hour, there is supposed to be no standing or parking along southbound Henry Bacon Drive connecting Constitution Ave to Lincoln Circle and Memorial Bridge. Yet every evening, there seem to be multiple cars (often taxis) and/or buses parked there, which worsens the backup onto Constitution. I assume that the Park Police are responsible for monitoring this stretch of road. What'll it take to get someone out there to shoo off or tow the scofflaws?

Yes, the Park Police are aware of this problem, and have been for years, at least since that tour bus parking area was added on Bacon Drive. But there's still not enough enforcement. Basically, you'd have to have a park police officer standing there at every afternoon rush hour.

A few years back, the Pennsylvania legislature and Turnpike Authority planned to implement tolls on I-80 but this was rejected by the FHWA because the tolls wouldn't be used exclusively on I-80. How does this mesh with the plan to toll I-66 inside the Beltway where tolls would be on existing general-purpose lanes as opposed to purpose-built lanes such as on 495?

VDOT's I-66 HOT lanes plan inside the Beltway would mesh fine with those federal standards. Among the issues: Virginia needs to find a way to keep its HOV traffic moving. This is a serious problem on I-66 and the feds expect it to be corrected. One of the corrective programs the Federal Highway Administration accepts is creation of HOT (high-occupancy toll) lanes that vary the toll to keep traffic free-flowing.

Also, the VDOT plan keeps the revenue from the I-66 tolling in the I-66 corridor for transportation improvements that would aid I-66 commuters.

It's been a while since the summer maintenance took so many 8-car trains out of service. Is metro actually returning more 8-car trains into service now that we're well into fall? Also, specifically on the red line on the few 8-car trains that are running its evident that the ATC hasn't actually been implemented (as evidenced by the herky jerky stops at each station). Any updates on these two items?

All these programs are going way too slowly. Also too slow is the arrival of the new rail cars.

There are more eight-car trains than we were seeing in the summer when there were two issues: the special safety check on the 4000 series cars and the extended maintenance program on the worst-performing cars in the fleet.

The automatic train operation on the Red Line is still an off-peak thing. Here again, this is taking way too long. Yes, we absolutely, positively want this system to be safe, because its failure led to the 2009 Red Line crash. But that was six years ago.

More generally, many riders are legitimately discouraged about all the improvement programs Metro has announced in recent years. They hear about all this stuff and can't see any positive impact on their daily commutes.

Meanwhile, we continue to have new problems, like the slowdown on the Blue, Orange and Silver lines because of the power station fire at Stadium-Armory.

I have an idea to alleviate platform crowding during the rush: since the "northwest" and "south" escalators are connected by a walkway, make one set of escalators down only and the other set up only. That way you can control foot traffic on the walkways via cones. The fare gates for each station entrance themselves would still allow people to both enter and leave but the flow of people would be more efficient at getting people onto or off the mezzanine. Right now, especially the "Connecticut/K" south escalator is jammed with people where one escalator is keyed off. This just feels dangerous somehow, like an accident waiting to happen.

There's definitely a crowding problem there at peak periods. I'm not sure how well the part about controlling foot traffic with cones would work and wonder if riders who use Farragut North could comment on this idea -- or suggest other solutions.

Hi - I am an NY resident and drove my family (of 3) to VA last weekend. I was charged $14.05 to avoid the horrible traffic in the regular 95/395 S lanes in VA by taking the HOV lanes, because I don't have the EZ Pass Flex transponder with the switch, even though we met the requirement of 3 people in the car. NY State doesn't offer the EZ Pass Flex, but I need to have a NY transponder so I can get my resident discount on the NYC bridges and tunnels. What does the VA DOT suggest I do, other than paying outrageous tolls even though I meet the HOV requirement, or sit in the omnipresent traffic jam?

The Flex transponder is available only through the E-ZPass agencies in Virginia and Maryland. The express lanes system in Virginia was designed to help local travelers, especially weekday commuters.

Northern Virginia is the only place in the country that uses this particular system, so I doubt of other states and agencies that are part of the E-ZPass system would consider it worthwhile to supply drivers with Flex transponders.

So long-distance drivers have to make their lane choices based on paying the toll.

Returning home yesterday afternoon on I-95 S from New York, we discovered via Google Maps that I-495 had a huge traffic problem on the north side toward I-270. However, as we drove along I-95 from Baltimore the signboards only displayed the mileage and drive time to I-495, and none warned drivers that a big traffic issue awaited them at that junction. We're infrequent drivers along the I-95 corridor in Maryland, so I'm interested to hear whether these signboards ever display useful information for drivers, or if Maryland traffic authorities take Sundays off? I can imagine solo drivers or anyone whose navigator doesn't recheck traffic reports as vigorously as mine had a terrible surprise.

I've had a similar issue with the signs while coming south on I-95. When the message board system is working well, it's great, because before the decision point at the Beltway, the signs would advise on travel times to Virginia via the east side or the west side of the Beltway.

But I should note this, too: I take it from the wording of your comment that you went with the Google Maps information and avoided the potential issue near I-270, on the west side of the Beltway.

It was smart to have someone monitoring the traffic maps. But I notice that the the color coding on the maps doesn't always match what I see in traffic camera views at the same moment.

Dr. Gridlock: i am not a fan of the speeding camera program in DC, but i do see the need for some enforcement that DC seems to ignore. i cannot help noticing how drivers in DC do not move for emergency vehicles AT ALL. When folks do move, there always a caravan of cars taking advantage of folks moving over and following the ambulance or fire truck to avoid traffic. Has DC investigated ticketing those cars that don't move or follow recklessly behind emergency vehicles? I would assume the technology would be on par to the school bus cameras. this could just be my own personal issue, but it is just another issue that irritates me driving in the City.

I -- and many of my readers -- agree with your observation that this is a problem. And in fact, it's a problem regionwide, not just in D.C.

I'm not aware of any form of enforcement camera that -- as yet -- is capable of capturing violations in this sort of dynamic situation. And I think it would be unfair to drivers, at present,  to target this behavior through automated enforcement.

But it's not like I can think of another solution. It's rare that a police officer would be present to see the bad behavior.

The article by Moriah Balangit highlighted the large number of passing stopped school bus violations. To my mind, however, the issue is no completely one sided as I point out in my note to Moriah, which immediately follows. Do others share my views on this subject?

Note to Moriah Balangit: I was both astonished and appalled at the numbers of violations of the school bus passing law reported in your article today. Obviously, the summonses should be given the same administrative treatment as red light violations. In my mind, however, a major factor leading to these violations is the obstructive behavior of many bus drivers who seem mindless of the traffic which accumulates behind them.

I cite three examples of this behavior which I have observed. First, closing the bus door leaving everyone safe inside but leaving the red lights flashing while the bus pulls out, preventing the traffic passing. Second, stopping for extended periods after closing the doors but still flashing the lights. Third - and this applies on rural routes - failing to pull off to the side when feasible on narrow, two lane roads (often using the lights as in the first two cases to increase the annoyance and frustration caused by this thoughtless and inconsiderate conduct).

If bus drivers were required to give some reasonable recognition of other users of the road and their convenience, the number of violations might decrease of itself. I fear, however, that the increased penalties and readier enforcement may lead to ever more cussedness and obstructive behavior on the part of the drivers seeking to uphold their little empires of power over others in their lumbering vehicles. Malcolm Keen Fairfax Station

I'll tell you my reaction: While I appreciate the momentary frustration, there is absolutely no justification for any driver passing a school bus that has its flashing red lights on and the stop sign displayed. That's just not our call to make.

Meanwhile, I hope the Virginia General Assembly can do whatever it takes to fix the problem with the law that has blocked this camera enforcement program.

What a traffic mess in MD last week, what with two accidents on the Bay Bridge, another in Annapolis on Rte. 50 Friday, and the closure of Rte. 29 earlier in the week. What was up with folks??

It was indeed a mess. The Grid Spouse works in Annapolis and her travel plans were affected by the Bay Bridge and Route 50 situations. But it's part of daily life in our congested region, where not all driving skills are above average.

There are several TV ads running attacking candidates for supporting tolls on I-66 which indicate that it might cost seventeen dollars to use the road. How much are we really talking about here?

It should be noted that the number of one in car drivers on this road (and most others) really jams up the road and the prospect of tolls might cut the jams down ever so slightly.

I hope you'll check out the blog posting I did this morning on the I-66 politics. But here are a few points:

First, the I-66 HOT lanes plan is a very fair topic for debate in an election campaign. In fact, there would be something wrong if legislative candidates were not in touch with this topic.

That said, some of the candidates who are attacking their opponents on the tolling issue are doing the voters a disservice. What they're doing is taking a complex issue in 21st century travel and turning it into Hard-working families in the outer suburbs versus Arlington joggers, which it's not.

I don't recall hearing a legislative candidate of either party speak out in favor of the inside the Beltway tolls. (There may be someone out there that I haven't heard.) Nobody likes paying tolls. It's difficult to explain the concept of dynamic tolling, where the price varies to maintain the flow of traffic. And it's difficult to explain why highway widenings don't wind up helping commuters in the long run.

It's possible that a solo driver would wind up paying $17 for a round trip of about 20 miles on I-66 inside the Beltway. That's VDOT's estimate for the maximum toll at the peak of the peak of rush hour in each direction. And you'd also have to drive the full length of I-66 inside the Beltway, so you'd most likely be a solo driver coming from outside the Beltway and heading to work inside the District.

You'd also most likely be doing something you're not doing now. Few solo drivers don't have legal access to I-66 inside the Beltway at peak periods.

The problem is no different than it was before when the HOV ended at Rt234 - just moved further south. The main issue is that for some reason VDOT likes ending lanes BEFORE a major interchange and not after. If the HOT lanes were extended past the southbound entrance at Garrisonville road it would solve a lot problems. What did they think would happen when you went from 5 lanes to 3 at a point where many people get on and off of 95?

I think they thought there would be congestion, but it wouldn't be as bad as it turned out. (As you're suggesting, there's congestion at almost any point where lanes merge. The 95 Express Lanes don't go as far south as the original plan called for. The original plan was better in that the merge would have occurred where the overall traffic volume wasn't as high.)

Hi Dr. Gridlock, I'm wondering why the Red Line always seems to have the most breakdowns. Is it because it's the oldest track? I live on the Blue/Orange/Silver so I don't take it too much, but I was just curious.

The Red Line certainly has a lot of breakdowns, but I don't have any figures showing it has more breakdowns than the Blue, Orange or Silver lines. So many things break down -- train doors and brakes, switches, cracked rails (like this morning), little fires, big fires, sick customers and on and on.

I have heard rumors VDOT and Transurban are in discussions about I-395 Express Lanes. Is this true?

I'm not aware of any discussions. And I don't see why VDOT would want to go there right now.

Personally, I think it could be a good idea to extend the HOT lanes north into the District, and have the District create it's own HOT lanes on the bridges and the Southeast-Southwest Freeway.

I live in East Falls Church. We fear that if the tolling is implemented, neighborhood roads will be used to avoid the tolls.

Even without the tolls, Lee High and Washington Boulevard are major arteries for drivers heading into D.C. Can only imagine what will happen if there is tolling toward Tysons. Despite what planners are hoping for, the vast majority of commuters won't suddenly turn to a bike or a bus if this happens. What do you think?

I think this is a totally legit issue to be concerned about. Huge transportation plans like the HOT lanes tend to have unintended consequences, defying what traffic studies show.

The VDOT traffic study on the I-66 impact is showing that I-66 inside the Beltway would have little traffic impact in the peak direction, but it would have more impact on local roads in the reverse direction.

That's relatively easy to understand. Drivers in the reverse direction today are not subject to HOV restrictions. In 2017, a solo driver heading from Arlington to work in Tysons Corner would have to pay a toll for a drive that today is free.

On your last point about the commuting alternatives: The VDOT plan doesn't anticipate that a "majority" of commuters will suddenly bike or bus. But it wouldn't take all that many people shifting their method of travel to have a big impact on the congestion we see today.

Secretary of Transportation VA is not Eastern Germany. Sorry Comrades only Arlington County and its commies march in lock step with the Gov and his corrupt cohorts. Massive planning just wont work.

Which General Assembly district are you running in?

I wonder if the same traffic planners who created the I-95 bottle neck are the same ones working on the I-66 Hot Lanes? Comforting thought.

The bottleneck at the south end of the 95 Express Lanes is indeed a problem that needs to be fixed. But the vast majority of drivers  who tell me they use the HOT lanes system say they like it, that it performs exactly as billed, offering a trip of reliable length in exchange for a toll. They don't use the HOT lanes every day, but they do use them when they need to be on time for work or an appointment.

I frequently (as in practically every time I use the road) see people making U-turns in the median on I-295 North just north of the Beltway. I don't believe there are any signs there banning the turns, but is this practice legal? It certainly can't be safe!

Make a U-turn on an interstate? That's not legal. But it may be insane.

"Basically, you'd have to have a park police officer standing there at every afternoon rush hour." - That sounds like a solid plan, any chance the Park Police would actually do it?

I'd like it, but I don't believe the park police are going to pull an officer on that shift from other duties five afternoons a week, which is what I think it would take. And it would have to be an officer standing there, yelling at the bus drivers to move on. You couldn't park a cruiser or a tow truck in that lane.

I routinely ride along Jefferson and Madison when bicycle commuting to and from work. It is normal to see the majority of buses parked there with their engines running. It seems very wasteful and does not provide a pleasant experience in terms of sound and smell for tourists and locals in this area. Is there any sort of ordinance against it>

They shouldn't be idling for a long period of time while parked. That's against DC law.

More of a response to that commentor- but a delay of 30 seconds should not be that painful. Yes, it is annoying to sit there when you can see the doors close, but if you're thinking that 30 seconds is critical so you can be somewhere on time, you should have left earlier. Kids unfortunately do stupid things, and I'd rather the bus driver allow them extra time to get far enough away from cars that likely don't think about their safety as much than race to turn the lights off.

Yes, I agree completely with your assessment.

Most school bus drivers do not care who is behind. They should let drivers pass at each stop.

On the other hand, I completely disagree with this assessment.

Are the rails being replaced as part of the $5 billion dollar rebuild?

Yes, that's part of it. When I write up my Friday posting called "Traffic, transit tips for the weekend," I try to list what work is being done on each line. All the parts of the track bed have gotten work. Fixes for tunnel leaks, track circuit replacement -- new rail cars. There's a huge list of things being rehabbed.

But again, many of us think that by now, the program should be showing very visible results. And it's not.

I disagree with your comment that there are very few legal solo drivers on I-66 inside the Beltway because that doesn't take into account every third car being a Prius with only one person inside. Have anyone proposed removing the Energy Efficiency tags in an attempt to reduce congestion? I don't know if we would need tolls if we actually tried full HOV-2.

Enforcement of the existing rules is considered a big problem on I-66. VDOT officials say they see no way to have a significant impact on cheaters without going to the enforcement mechanisms provided through a HOT lanes program. That's what they did on I-95, and they say it's greatly reduced cheating there.

I think VDOT officials would disagree with the assessment that one of every three cars on I-66 inside the Beltway is a hybrid with the proper clean fuel tags.

But there are a lot of people who used that technique to buy their way into the HOV lanes. The HOT lanes program would eliminate the hybrid exemption, which should have been ended years ago, as originally intended.

Thanks for joining me today. We'll have another discussion next Monday at noon, so I hope you're rejoin me and bring more questions and comments.

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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