Metro: Roads and Rails

Steven Ginsberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 26, 2006; 11:00 AM

Do you think Metro has grown unreliable and become downright unpleasant? Or are you happy with your commutes on rail and bus? Does the thought of the intercounty connector (ICC) keep you up at night or does it seem like it's long overdue? And what of the moves by Maryland and Virginia to encourage the private sector to build road projects, such as widening the Capital Beltway?

Washington Post staff writer Steven Ginsberg was online Monday, June 26, at 11 a.m. ET to answer your questions, feel your pain and share the drama of getting from Point A to Point B.

Steven Ginsberg's Blog: Get There

Special Report: Building a New Wilson Bridge

A transcript follows.

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Steve Ginsberg: Hello everyone. A total mess out there today. Tell me all about your commuting woes today and feel free to e-mail me throughout the day--and week--at ginsbergs@washpost.com.

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Vienna, Va.: With problems created by non-working traffic lights in DC, one would think officers would be promptly deployed to help with gridlocks. Why can't DC learn that after heavy rains, these problems happen without fail. The failure of Metro system due to rain and flood and the failure of DC police to be proactive are a disgrace to this international city.

Steve Ginsberg: You're right that this seems to be a recurring problem for the District. I can remember one other Metro flood off hand, but maybe I'm forgetting others. Not sure if I would yet classify it as a disgrace. There is a limit to how much water any facility can take on and it rained in the range of 5 to 8 inches in a short period last night.

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Fairfax, Va.: First, I wanted to commend you on your bravery for conducting this chat today...I expect people have a lot of heated emotions about Metro traffic this morning.

And secondly, if it keeps raining, can we expect the problems to just keep getting worse and worse?

Steve Ginsberg: Thanks. I signed my pledge to be here for better or for worse, in sickness and in health and I reckon I'll get it all today.

And, yes, from what I'm hearing this morning we can expect problems to get worse over the next few days. It's expected to keep raining for several days, which will surely overwhelm already strained rivers and waterways. I've been told, for instance, that the Potomac is supposed to crest Thursday.

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Kingstowne, Va.: Two-hour drive downtown this morning instead of the usual 35 minutes. What's interesting to me is how everyone in the DC area turns into an instant moron as soon as there is a problem on the roads. The other day I was saying to a friend how driving here is different from driving in Europe because over there, they do not necessarily post speed limit signs, yield signs, etc., because drivers are presumed to know the law. In the US it is very much the opposite--drivers are presumed to be too stupid to know what to do if there is no sign.

A morning like today simply confirms it in my mind. What in the world makes people think that it is OK just to sail right through an intersection if the traffic lights aren't working? "I don't have a red light, so I get to go." BS. I know the law that makes an uncontrolled intersection a four-way stop by default has not been well-publicized, but come on....people CAN'T really be THAT stupid.....

Steve Ginsberg: It does get dangerous out there when the lights go down. Some people seem to get that "teacher has left the room" giddiness about it and ignore all traffic laws. What can I say? Be careful out there, especially where pedestrians are concerned.

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Arlington, Va.: Steve:

There's a terrific technology out there called a sump pump. When there is really heavy rain, it pumps the water out of low-lying places, like basements and Metro tunnels. I have one and my basement is dry. I thought Metro might appreciate the heads up, especially because we get heavy rain around here from time to time.

Steve Ginsberg: I'll let them know.

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Clifton, Va.: Made from Clifton to One Liberty plaza without a problem. Traffic was light kind of like a snow day. No problems and no issues. Just want to beat the storms going home. This weather pattern happens around this time of year every few years or so.

Steve Ginsberg: Wow. And I just heard that there was some flooding in Clifton, though apparently not on your drive.

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Washington, D.C.: Today's commute was poorly organized. I normally do not ride Metro and today of all days I choose to ride. I entered the subway system at G. Morgan and my final destination was suppose to be Farraget North. We were informed the route would end at Smithsonian and those needing to go further should exit at L' Enfant with shuttle service to Metro Center. There were no shuttle buses but an extremely long line awaiting shuttle service. Today reminded me why I stopped riding Metro. (I walked from 7th and Maryland to 18th and C Street NW - fortunately the weather was in my favor.)

Steve Ginsberg: Oy. I'm sure you were not alone in this. As Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said earlier today, a Metro train can carry 600 people and a Metro bus can carry 60. Those numbers don't add up well when the trains go down.

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Arlington, Va.: Before people start to spout vitriol on how ineptly Metro handled things today, it might be helpful for you to remind them that the rain last night could be called 'biblical' without much hyperbole. With the mudslides, flooded expressway tunnels, and power outages, I think Metro should be commended for providing as much service as they have this morning. Sure, it was a little crazy, but at least I got to work this morning.

Steve Ginsberg: Another view on Metro. I wish I had more information at this early hour about what caused the flooding, whether something broke down or whether it was just too much rain for the system to handle. If anyone at Metro has the time to follow this chat today, maybe they can fill us in a little...

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Alexandria, Va. - to stick up for Metro for 2 seconds: Please understand, systems of any kind, be they Metro or highway or your very own house - they are built for the 99.9 percent conditions/solutions. Your house isn't built to withstand an F5 tornado. Why? Because its not likely to happen in this area, in fact, houses in Tornado Alley are not built this way. A Metro system cannot possibly be built to withstand all the possible permeations of once-in-a-century weather. We got eight inches of rain in an 18 hour period. This cannot be considered normal. So don't say, this happens all the time, because it doesn't.

I had just as miserable a commute this morning as everyone else on Metro, but I design houses for a living and know that its just not economically feasible to design systems around the fringe possibilities

Steve Ginsberg: Another show of support for Metro.

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Washington, D.C.: Two things -- first, I think people are so quick to jump on Metro during an emergency and I really don't think that's fair. We get this much rain how often? Of course there will be delays. Suck it up and live with it.

On another (perhaps similar note) I just wanted to note that I recently got a new job and have been taking the 66 bus downtown everyday. It is by far the most reliable bus I've ever been on. I can leave the house at 7:20 and the bus comes at 7:22 everyday, religiously -- even today. So mad props to this bus line. It makes my life so much easier.

Steve Ginsberg: Mad props are always welcome.

I think the frustration with Metro isn't just about today. Most people recognize that this kind of flooding is rare and extreme. But people have become fed up after a couple of years of seemingly rare and extreme problems with Metro, whether they be caused by nature or Metro managers. There's a certain sense among riders that they don't know exactly what they're going to get when they enter the station, which is just the opposite of what a subway should provide.

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Richmond, Va.: I'm supposed to come up to DC today for an HR Conference at the DC convention center. Do you know if one can drive into DC? Are parking lots open?

Steve Ginsberg: One can drive into DC. I drove around the city a little this morning and was even by the Convention Center and found little trouble in that area. The bigger problems seemed to be for people heading west through the city on roads like U Street, which was jammed.

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19th and K St., Washington, D.C.: Chaos on the Metro this morning coming in from Virginia on the Orange line. Took 45 minutes to get from Courthouse to Farragut West, though a huge piece of that was waiting on the station platform with hundreds of other people.

Here's my thing: the announcements from Metro, whether on the platform or inside the car, were barely intelligible. Can they not find someone who can speak slowly and clearly, to explain the problem, explain where it is located, and explain what to do about it? Also, this would be the perfect time for big signs outside the gates that tell of the problem - there were a lot of people who were pissed off to have gotten thru the gates and then found out about the huge delays.

Finally, Metro NEEDS to do a better job of explaining where the shuttle busses are located. I know a number of people who said that they wanted to take a bus, but that there were NO Metro personnel directing them to a location for busses.

Why can't these guys get this stuff right? Are there NO contingency plans?

Thanks for joining us in our frustration/amusement/resigned acceptance this morning.

Steve Ginsberg: This is the other thing that frustrates people about Metro. Many people understand the flooding, but not the response to situations like this. These are the times when you want Metro to be your best buddy and what people often find is that Metro is completely confused, adding a second layer of frustration to the situation.

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Clifton, Va.: I talked to my sis who lives out in Gainesville near Nissan Pavillon. She had to drive in since VRE was down and got to her office near the MCI center without a problem and was at her desk a little before her normal starting time of 7 a.m. Little creek in Clifton right before you get to RR tracks probably overflowed.

Steve Ginsberg: Hearing from a lot of people that the commute was better than normal because many people stayed away. The general trend in Washington is that commuters adjust well when they have a little heads up, like they did today.

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Oxon Hill, Md.: I think that Metro has finally let alot of people down! I know that they have gone down hill in the WORST WAY!!!! There are never seats on the trains, the trains are "ALWAYS" broken. I am not a happy commuter and I now HATE the Metro Trains, and I 'I'm sure I'm not alone. They are always making promises to make all these great changes but I have yet to see any of them. Sum it all up "METRO TRAINS SUCK".

Steve Ginsberg: Rage on buddy!! We do many things here in the Roads and Rails chat and one of those things is to help our fellow commuters deal with their rage. Our hope is that it saves everyone else from their wrath.

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Metro employees - thumbs up / management - thumbs down: Today's 15-20 minute ride from Braddock Rd to L'Enfant was a 90 minute ordeal. To their credit, Metro had its employees out in force answering questions and directing people. However, this couldn't make up for the fact that they just didn't have the resources (trains, busses) available for the volume of traffic which was swollen like the Potomac with drivers who wanted to avoid the roads.

Steve Ginsberg: Another view from Metro.

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Washington, D.C.: Have the Yellow/Green lines reopened between L'Enfant Plaza and U Street? Just checked out Metro's Web site and it's not real clear.

Steve Ginsberg: At this hour, the only station that remains down is Federal Triangle.

By the way, the best Metro commute today was on the Red Line. Perhaps the Red Line curse has ended.

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Downtown, Washington, D.C.: So I head down to the platform at the McPherson Square station this morning to get to work at Federal Center Southwest. The sign says the status of the next train is "Arriving," and sure enough, I see a literal light at the end of the tunnel. But it just sits there. And sits. And sits. Eventually, the sign says trains are suspended between McPherson Square and Federal Triangle. Going back upstairs and catching one of the 30 busses isn't that much of a hassle and it actually gets me closer to my office than the Federal Center station does, but couldn't they have told me AT THE TOP OF THE STATION, BEFORE I PAID?

Steve Ginsberg: This is one common sense complain we're hearing from tons of Metro customers: tell people before they get into the station.

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Arlington, Va.: What's the word on the afternoon commute????

Signed,

Desperate

Steve Ginsberg: I wish I could tell you more about that now, but it's just too soon to tell. Drop by my blog, Get There, this afternoon and I'll fill everyone in on what they can expect.

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Alexandria, Va.: This morning was the commute from hell. I took the yellow line into DC and had to get off at L'Enfant plaza to take the shuttle to Gallery Place due to flooding at the Archives station. It was a complete disaster with no organization or method. We waited in line to board a shuttle and when we got to the front, the bus was full. The next bus would pull up at a different place, so everyone at the front of the line would end up at the end of line. I waited for over an hour. I told a Metro security officer that there needs to be some sort of organization and he replied, "I can't do anything about this," then proceeded to yell at passengers to get out of the way. You literally had to put your manners aside and push and shove your way onto the bus.

Steve Ginsberg: Jeez, that sounds awful. It's hard to imagine why there aren't set plans in place for every station. At some point, every station will have a problem and shuttle buses will need to be used. There should be set spots where they arrive so customers know what to do (and don't kill each other.)

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Bethesda, Md.: Word to the wise. If you live and commute in the DC area and a major weather pattern hits the area, be it rain, snow, whatever, you should expect to add time to your commute. Period. Why people think their lives and commutes are immune to this is beyond me when you think of how smart people living in the DC area are supposed to be in the first place.

Steve Ginsberg: We are smart, yes, and also a little spoiled. We like things the way we like them and bristle when we don't get what we want. Still, most of the complainers have legitimate beefs that could be avoided if some people used a little more of their supposed brains.

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Washington, D.C.: It seems that everytime something goes wrong with Metro, a core group of "apologists" emerges to make excuses. Sure, we got a lot of rain in the last 18 hours. So what? It's not that hard to have a proper pump or other drainage system to handle large amounts of water. I have two pumps in my basement and they are doing a great job. I don't need them more than once every couple of years, but it doesn't take a genius to figure out that the DC area occasionally gets heavy rain.

Moreover, Steve is right. Metro seems to have one "unusual" calamity after another. It's time to stop making excuses and demand some fixes.

Steve Ginsberg: Well, Metro experiences seem to differ depending on location. Some people found lots of help from Metro workers and felt good about their commute while others were jerked around by bus drivers and other Metro folks and felt doubly victimized. The differences of opinion reflect an agency that has yet to find a consistent groove.

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Sump pumps in Metro: Some Metro stations are below the water table, meaning that there is nowhere to pump the water except into the sewer lines (which sometimes are -above- the track level). It's not like a house sump pump, where you can just pump the water down a hole in the ground. In a Metro station, if the outflow lines are near capacity, or if the inflow of water exceeds the outflow capacity, you can have all pumps working and still fill with water. As someone else said, the system is designed for "most" conditions; what we have here is clearly a rare extreme.

Also, I've lived in DC my entire life and I can count on one hand the number of times I've had my Metro travel prevented by a flooded tunnel. Metro experiences many problems but flooded tunnels are very rarely one of them.

Steve Ginsberg: Another view on sump pumps.

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Fort Washington, Md.: Something that Metro did this morning that I thought was so stupid was, unload an already crowded train on the Green Line at the Navy Yard around 8:10 a.m. Nothing was wrong with the train. The train proceeds down two stops to L'Enfant Plaza Station and turns back around headed back to Branch Avenue. Many of us had to wait also hour and a half to catch another train after letting five trains pass because they too were all over crowded. I want to know why did Metro do that? That really was a dumb move.

Steve Ginsberg: I don't understand that either.

I've just been informed that Metro chief Dan Tangherlini will be online here today at noon, right after this chat, so please return then to pose all these questions to him.

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Fairfax, Va.: Is it possible that on days when everything is just terrible, and we have major highways and roads closed, that they could suspend HOV?

Looking forward to seeing how this afternoon/evenings commute goes.

Steve Ginsberg: They do occasionally suspend HOV. Would it have helped today? Was your commute more crowded than usual? Many people had better commutes than normal.

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Washington, D.C.: Tried to go from Dupont Circle Red line to Federal Center SW on the Orange line. Waited three blocks to catch the shuttle bus to L'Enfant Plaza at Metro Center. Was told the bus was going to Smithsonian and L'Enfant. Sat in traffic for 30 min. to get to Smithsonian. Half the bus, got off, and new people got on. Confusion at the back of the bus where I was because the new riders said they were told the bus was going to McPherson Square and then Metro Center. Sat in traffic for another 45 minutes with no announcements on our destination. Finally arrived at McPherson square, in the opposite direction of L'Enfant. I got off, but there were still at least 20 some confused riders and tourists in the sweltering bus hoping it'd go to L'Enfant. What a mess.."sorry for the inconvenience" is all Metro can say...

Steve Ginsberg: Extreme floods can be understood, but this is the sort of thing that drives people crazy about Metro. All I can say is grab an umbrella and walk.

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Washington, D.C.: I love the sump pump whiners. "I have a sump pump at home and I never flood!" It's classic Washington--limited personal experience extrapolated into a mandate for change.

Steve Ginsberg: That's pretty funny.

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Clarksburg, Md.: 35 minutes from Clarksburg to Tysons this a.m. via 270. I wish it would rain like this every day, but I tend to be selfish and self-centered.

Steve Ginsberg: Another happy driver today.

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Arlington, Va.: The sense of entitlement that people in this area have is incredible. I expected a long commute this morning and got it, but it was frustrating. I sat in traffic on the GW Parkway for 25 minutes waiting to get onto the 14th Street Bridge. Of course I was pretty steamed to see the cheaters come out of nowhere and jump into the line- who do these people think they are? I couldn't believe their nerve- "I'm TOO IMPORTANT to waste my time sitting in traffic, so I'll cut people off left and right." Boy, if only I had a carton of rotten eggs with me...I'm not prone to any sort of violence but those people deserved it. I only hope karma will take care of them eventually.

Steve Ginsberg: I'm pretty sure karma will take care of them just fine. I'm sure their lives are hell and saving a few minutes in traffic won't make them much better.

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Waldorf, Md.: Thank God for TELECOMMUTING! If your office will allow you to do this, Federal folks, jump on it! I'm working offsite, hit ZERO traffic, and getting my job done w/no road rage! I hope my boss is reading this!

Signed - a happy USDA employee working offsite today!

Steve Ginsberg: Well la-di-da for you. Aww, I'm just kidding. The ability to telecommute is awesome if your bosses let you do it. Why more of them don't, I don't understand.

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Upper Marlboro, Md.: I too, had a horrific commute this morning (New Carrollton with 5 bajillion Amatrak/MARC passengers; hike from Smithsonian to Metro Center, MC to FWest no problem). My biggest frustration with Metro(EACH and every time there is some kind of service disruption) is POOR COMMUNICATION. The station managers often seem as baffled as the riders, and that really adds to the confusion and frustration of the riders. I experienced the same thing as one of the early posters re: the shuttles -- NO clear direction as to where the bus would stop, NO clear direction on where the bus would be going, just mass pandemonium. Metro needs to get on the stick and come up with a good plan of action when these situations arise (as they will again). Clear shuttle stops, extra personnel on hand to manage the crowds and communicate with the riders. I just don't think that's too much to ask. (Signed, Dreading the Commute Home)

Steve Ginsberg: It's not too much to ask. Metro needs to be in charge in these situations and what we're hearing is that in many places it was anything but.

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Steve Ginsberg: Another chat note: VDOT spokeswoman Joan Morris will be online today at 2:30. Ask her everything you want to know about problems in Virginia and also be sure to ask her if she's worried about her house flooding again.

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washingtonpost.com: Interim Metro General Manager Dan Tangherlini will be online Monday, June 26, at Noon ET with the latest information on conditions in the Metrorail and Metrobus systems.

Virginia Department of Transportion spokesperson Joan Morris will be online Monday, June 26, at 2:30 p.m. ET to update road conditions and offer suggestions to commuters for this afternoon's rush hour.

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Why'd they close Constitution Ave., Washington, D.C.?: As an ex-Orange line rider, I have sympathy for my friends underground. Know that today's commute in from Arlington by road was a mess too. It took me 10 minutes to get from North Arlington to the GW parkway, and then an hour and 10 minutes to get from there to 15th and G NW, as the Key, Roosevelt, and Memorial bridges were all gridlocked (even more than usual!). This seems to have been caused by the closure of Constitution Ave. between 17th and 15th Streets NW in front of the Elipse, which rippled backwards from there. While that'd make sense if trees were down or the road was flooded, you could see clear pavement all the way from 17th to 15th.

What gives, and are they going to have it re-opened in time for evening rush?

Steve Ginsberg: Not sure why they closed it but will get that answer on my blog this afternoon. I do know that it snarled traffic all over downtown this morning and made the ride into the District pretty much awful.

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Orange Line: For most of the late winter and early spring Metro was a consistently tolerable, even pleasant, mode of transportation. However, in the last month, service has taken a flying leap in to what seems to be an endless abyss! A more than 10 minute wait for a train during rush hour is now practically the norm, they are no longer running empty trains through Stadium/Armory every 2 minutes after Nats games (the last game I was at, we had to wait 10 minutes for an Orange Line to Vienna and when we got on, not only was there no AC in the car, there was no air circulation of ANY kind! I'm surprised no one passed out!), and stations signage is rarely accurate.

Also, I'm signed up for "METRO Alerts" on both my work email and my cell phone - however half the time I get them, there is no delay, and when there IS a delay, I never get an alert. Or I'll get an alert on my phone and not my email! Who monitors these things? I'm thinking about discontinuing the alerts because they're so useless!

Steve Ginsberg: And you didn't even mention the floods. Wow!

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Arlington, Va.: I love the view of the person who attacked the sump pump issue. It's classic Washington -- don't offer any facts or insights, just accuse the other side of ignorance and "limited personal experience."

Steve Ginsberg: At least you guys are making me laugh.

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Washington, D.C.: Have to dispute your comment that the best commute was on the Red Line today. I had just gotten on the Metro at Union Station when the operator announced it was being off-loaded because the train was experiencing mechanical problems. It's these kinds of routine problems that cause the extreme frustration with Metro.

Steve Ginsberg: Well, it's all a matter of perspective. What you describe is the best commute I've heard on Metro all day. I'm not saying it was good, just better than all the rest.

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Steve Ginsberg: Okay, everyone. It's time for me to get out of here and go find the answers to many of your questions. Please check the Post web site and the Get There blog later today for updates about the evening commute and what we can expect over the next few days. Please also e-mail me at ginsbergs@washpost.com with any of your thoughts and tales about today. I welcome them all.

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