Missing connections on Metro

Saturday, March 19, 2011; 7:11 PM

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Metro's efforts to improve safety and infrastructure are right, but Metro doesn't do nearly as well with communications and coordination for its customers.

At Eastern Market last Sunday, the messages about trains going downtown via the single track changed six times in less than 15 minutes. Then the Green Line connection from L'Enfant Plaza left just as passengers arrived, rather than waiting one minute to coordinate.

How hard is it to manage such systems? We always hear the operator say the train is holding for schedule adjustment. Is that just for Metro's convenience or can we customers benefit?

- Peter Levine, the District

Dave Kubicek, Metro's acting deputy general manager for operations, said Metrorail does try to coordinate the arrival times of trains at transfer stations, not only for the convenience of individual riders but also because a smooth transition limits crowding on the platforms.

Clearly this doesn't work as smoothly as anybody wants. Missing a connection during rush hour isn't so bad, when another train will be along in several minutes. But on weekends, the sight of those red lights receding down a tunnel tells a rider he's in for a wait of maybe 20 minutes.

Kubicek said coordinating trains is made more difficult by the intensive weekend maintenance program. Last weekend and again this weekend, work zones have been set up on every line but the Green Line, so train schedules are disrupted.

The work included a complete shutdown of the Orange Line between East Falls Church and West Falls Church. While the work zone is far to the west of downtown Washington, the effects of the disruption on train schedules can ripple back along the line.

Here's my hope: Metro's planning and operations staffers have shown over the past several years of the track work program that they learn from experience. They try to accomplish several fixes at once when they set up a work zone. And the shuttle buses that get riders around work zones operate more efficiently than they used to. Perhaps Metro also will be able to master the communication and coordination needed to avoid missed connections.

HOV hours baffle driver

This letter follows up on our discussion about the use of Virginia's high-occupancy vehicle lanes.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I drive in on Interstate 66 until the Vienna Metro station where I try to find parking. If unable to do so, I continue on to the Falls Church station. I bought a Toyota Prius and got the clean fuel plates from the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, so I could use the HOV lane.

I do find it almost as crowded as the regular lanes. The exception is the long stretch from Gainesville past the Manassas exit to Centreville. The HOV lane really helps in the morning, there. After the Exit 53 for Route 28 north, all lanes run faster and often the HOV lanes are the most crowded for several miles.

A puzzling aspect of the Interstate 66 corridor is the HOV lanes with different hours inside and outside the Beltway. It makes sense for the HOV restriction going west in the evening to end at 6:30 p.m. inside the Beltway but stay in place until 7 p.m. outside, since that's the direction the cars are flowing.

But during the morning commute, all of I-66 west of the Beltway has the HOV lane run until 9:30 a.m., yet inside the Beltway, the HOV restriction ends at 9 a.m. So for a half-hour every day, a whole string of HOV drivers crosses the Beltway and hits a jam of non-restricted vehicles.

- Carl Toepel, Prince William County

I-66 commuters have plenty of reason to gripe as they approach the Beltway in the morning and encounter some of the worst congestion in the region. The conflicting HOV hours are just one example of conditions worth reviewing.

Joan Morris, spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Transportation, said the eastbound hours certainly can be looked at during the state's study of I-66 inside the Beltway, scheduled to begin in June. As part of the study, Morris said, VDOT will examine the HOV times and occupancy requirements.

Virginia needs to break that I-66 bottleneck. Back when the far left eastbound lane became HOV outside the Beltway, in the early 1990s, Morris said, VDOT decided to open the shoulder to traffic so other drivers wouldn't lose a lane. But that old solution has been overwhelmed by a Niagara-like flow of traffic.

The reconstruction of the I-66 interchange for the Beltway's high-occupancy toll lanes may well be part of the answer, but just part. There's got to be a bigger solution encompassing the entire I-66 corridor.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer's name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or e-mail drgridlock@washpost.com.

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