Metro should improve its information systems along with its equipment

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Anyone who must keep an appointment on the weekend has to be crazy to use Metrobus or Metrorail services. Bus schedules have been changed, and Metrorail is always subject to delays, not to mention the nonoperating escalators.

Who suffers from this mess? Certainly the downtown businesses and restaurant do. The only beneficiary is the D.C. government, as the number of fines increase for motorists from the suburbs trying to indulge in the pleasures of our capital.

Metro is broke, literally and figuratively. Repairs will be costly, but there is no alternative.

Nelson Marans, Silver Spring

DG: The letter pulls together two statements that are equally true: The repairs that Metro is making are necessary, and they’re a royal pain for riders.

Metro’s leaders say we’ll begin to see that the ride is getting better, but they also say there’s no end in sight for the disruptions caused by the repairs.

If these repairs, and the resulting travel disruptions, are going to be a routine part of D.C. transit life, Metro should focus more attention on softening the impact.

The letter writer mentions the out-of-service escalators. Here’s an area in which Metro is paying more attention to both engineering and customer service.

The new capital budget calls for replacing more than 90 of the escalators, which frequently break down and aren’t worth refurbishing. That’s better engineering. But Metro also has been providing riders with more timely information about which escalators are out and when they will be back in service. That’s better customer service.

Now, how about moving on to the train and bus schedules? If these disruptions to upgrade equipment are going to be routine for years, we need a communications system that gives riders the information they need to compensate for them.

Give us a Trip Planner that adjusts to the off-peak and weekend schedule changes. Under normal circumstances, Trip Planner does exactly what its name implies. It tells people who use the feature on Metro’s home page at www.wmata.com how to get from one place to another in the most efficient way via transit.

But it doesn’t account for all the schedule changes. Give us passenger information displays in the stations that actually show when the next train is coming.

The system we have now relies heavily on schedules and is too easily fooled. Give us a Next Bus system that’s reliable enough for riders to trust, even when heavy traffic inevitably throws buses off schedule.

Gaps on I-66

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Recently, the Virginia Department of Transportation did a great job in resurfacing the Interstate 66 corridor in the Fairfax-Vienna area.

However, on the eastbound section of the highway, they left four or five strips unpaved. It would seem to a novice that this creates a weakness in the overall structure of the pavement that, even when patched with new asphalt, would leave areas that would more easily break up later.

Why were these not resurfaced?

W. Eugene Morris, Fairfax

DG: They’ll be back.

Last April, the Virginia Department of Transportation started a $48 million resurfacing project along 61 / 2 miles of I-66 between the Capital Beltway and Route 50. Many drivers didn’t see the lane closings for this work because they took place overnight.

The VDOT said a job this big, done mostly at night, would take more than one paving season. The work should be done by the fall.

Why so long?

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I was glad to read that the VDOT expanded westbound I-66 to three lanes where the inner loop of the Capital Beltway merges onto it, so that traffic will flow more smoothly.

My question is this: Why did it take so long to do something about this? The VDOT closed one of the exit lanes off the inner loop back in October, and ever since, that stretch of I-66 has been just terrible during periods of higher traffic.

There also was a very delayed response from the VDOT in fixing the lanes and signs after passing through the tollbooths on eastbound Route 267 and continuing onto the Beltway. The area was an accident waiting to happen for months.

Claire Westbrook, Fairfax

DG: Many drivers wrote in about those problem interchanges, wondering whether anyone was really trying to help them.

The two Beltway interchanges are part of the work zone for the 495 express lanes. They both were — and still are — two of the most complicated parts of the project, because of the many bridges and ramps within such tight spaces.

Last year, the project managers made moves they thought were necessary to hasten completion, but they made the already bad traffic even worse.

Many months go into making such plans, which affect the safety of drivers and the costs of the project. Then it took more months to ease the unwanted consequences.

Why? As is typical on any road project, the VDOT and the contractors monitored the results of their moves to gauge the impact. Engineers know there’s a period of adjustment as drivers get used to any traffic change, so it’s rare that you’ll see big adjustments based on little experience.

With the Beltway interchanges, the uproar among drivers was considerable, and fixes were needed. But this isn’t like moving furniture around the living room, where you can just move it back if you don’t like the new layout.

So the fixes took more months to plan and execute. One of the arguments against quick fixes is that an improvement for one set of drivers can botch things up for others.

To create more room for inner loop drivers heading to westbound I-66, the VDOT temporarily removed one of the ramp lanes used by outer loop drivers heading in the same direction. Because neither of those interchanges is in its final configuration, we’ll spend more time examining changes, and probably more unwanted consequences, until the work is done at the end of the year.

 
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