A New Beginning for Old Problems

By Bob Thomson
Sunday, July 30, 2006

When Ron Shaffer began "Dr. Gridlock" almost 20 years ago, he described the transportation column's mission like so: "We'll try to find out why bad situations exist and what is being done about them."

Complaints began to pour in from readers concerned about double-parking at rush hour, jammed intersections, blocked travel lanes, inadequate highway signs, poor planning and weak enforcement.

"The roads are hopelessly behind the population growth," Ron's readers told him. People wondered why the region had spent billions of dollars on the Metro transit system without providing enough parking for those wanting to use it.

"This column," Ron concluded, "seems to have hit a nerve, with hundreds of people writing to complain about traffic and ask that some problems be examined."

Readers today may note that the list of complaints from 1986 is familiar. As we restart the column today after Ron's retirement, my hope also is that people will find our mission familiar: to identify problems and figure out how to make things better.

I've been a newspaperman for three decades and spent the past 18 years working as a Metro desk editor at The Post. For most of the past seven years, I've edited stories about transportation issues, including the Dr. Gridlock column. Now, I'm no longer just commuting. As soon as I turn the ignition key or smack my SmarTrip card on the Metro fare gate, I'm on the job, seeing what we're up against.

Recently, I joined a group of reporters on a tour in Montgomery and Prince George's counties led by Maryland Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan. He showed us some of the obstacles to building the Bi-County Transitway -- what many of us still call the Purple Line -- between Bethesda and New Carrollton.

Looking down from Spring Street, just northwest of the Silver Spring Metro station, we could see the narrow corridor between office and apartment towers through which a new light rail or rapid bus system would have to travel.

We drove along Wayne Avenue, University Boulevard and Sligo Avenue to see some of the troubles that would confront engineers -- and local residents -- if they lay a new form of travel across densely populated neighborhoods. Later, I crossed the Potomac to explore Tysons Corner, where planners and politicians are confronting the potential consequences of sending a new transitway through dense development.

But there also was an encouraging scene: the opening of the first new span of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and the closing of that rusting, crumbling, 45-year-old bane of travelers. I watched from the Washington Street overpass on the very hot afternoon of July 15 as a bridge worker doffed his hardhat to the first southbound vehicles.

The region can still do big things.

Yet Washingtonians who are bottled up on the Beltway or crushed on the Orange Line remind us that progress can take many forms. In "Get There," our transportation blog on The Post's Web site, we asked for comments about the biggest improvements travelers have experienced. This was pegged to the new span's completion, but few of the responders cited a mega project like the bridge or the rebuilding of the Springfield Interchange.

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