Dr. Gridlock - Live Online wih Robert Thomson

Dr. Gridlock

Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, July 31, 2006; 1:00 PM

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post's new Dr. Gridlock , succeeding Ron Shaffer , who had tracked travelers' problems for two decades.

The Dr. Gridlock column receives hundreds of letters each month from motorists and transit riders throughout the Washington region. They ask questions and make complaints about getting around a region plagued with some of the worst traffic in the nation. The doctor diagnoses problems and tries to bring relief.

Dr. Gridlock appears in The Post's Metro section on Sunday and in the Extra section on Thursday. His comments also appear on the Web site's Get There blog. You can send e-mails for the newspaper column to drgridlock@washpost.com or write to Dr. Gridlock at 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

A transcript follows.


Dr. Gridlock: Fellow voyagers, it's a pleasure to join you on what's shaping up as an interesting day in local transportation.

I've just come from the Metro rail station at Reagan National Airport, where the transit authority was displaying some new rail car interiors. One was a test car that has some bench seating along the sides. Metro wants to put that on the rails today or tomorrow and see how you react to it.

Metro also had an example of the new interior design that will be entering service within a month. It's the one in which floor to ceiling poles have been removed in favor of seat to ceiling poles. The idea is to move us into the car, away from the congestion around the doors that riders find so annoying. I'll put something up on our Get There blog later today, describing this some more. Maybe I can show you a picture, too.

Also today, at about the time we wrap up this discussion at 2 p.m., a panel of experts commissioned by the state of Virginia will be releasing its recommendations on whether the new rail line through Tyson's Corner should be above or below ground.

We can talk about those topics, or anything else in transit and traffic that's on your mind today. I can tell you some of the things I've been up to during my first week as the new Dr. Gridlock.

Let's start off with some of the questions and comments that were waiting for me when I came in.


Washington, D.C.: Why Dr. Gridlock? Did you write a dissertation? Get an honorary degree?

Until you earn it, I think you should go by Mr. Gridlock.

Dr. Gridlock: I'm in the process of certifying myself. I've been making the rounds, trying to learn about what hurts, so I can make proper diagnoses. For example, I circumnavigated the outer loop of the Capital Beltway.

That was boring.

I'm closing in on another goal of riding the entire Metro system. Still have legs of the Red, Yellow and Blue lines to complete.

Been exploring Braddock Road, Fairfax Parkway, Route 7, the Ride On bus, the DC Circulator -- I know it's Cole's Notes, not "Grey's Anatomy."  I know you expect the doc to know our corner of the world on a micro level.


Rockville, Md.: Congratulations (I think) for becoming the next Dr. Gridlock!

Just an observation, but it seems like summer commuting is a good indication of what rush hour traffic would be like if more people telecommuted. Just taking off the vacationers from the roads during the summer seems to make a tough commute tolerable.

Dr. Gridlock: One thing I'm very aware of as I go out on test drives across the region is that I'm not seeing experiencing the agonies that so many of you have reported for so long. We've had a lot of people respond to our Get There posting by offering to let us accompany them on their commutes. I expect to be doing that.

For most of the past seven years, I've had a luxurious commute: Red Line from Silver Spring to Farragut North. I used to drive downtown, but it dawned on me that I was paying ten bucks a day to warehouse my car. When I started taking the Red Line, I figured I was saving about $750 a year. Must have been a lot more by the time I stopped doing that regularly.


Washington, D.C.: Welcome!

You've got big shoes to fill, but I am sure you are going to do great. Any word on when the Springfield Interchange will finally be completed? There were MAJOR backups this weekend coming from Washington, D.C. going south.

Dr. Gridlock: Thank you, I do indeed feel like I have big shoes to fill, and I'm trying to get smart in a hurry. I've been The Post's editor for local transportation issues for most of the past seven years, so I've got a broad understanding of the region's traffic and transit issues. Now, I'm trying to learn this at the level you folks expect.

Springfield Interchange is still on schedule for completion in late 2007. Our other big project, the Wilson Bridge, also is on schedule. Second span is to be completed in 2008.

But those two big projects have providing some of the big action this summer, as they progress. There's a lot of work going on at Springfield that has a high impact on travelers. Wilson Bridge opened the first new span over the past two months. That was a big disruption on two weekends as the lanes were shifted to the new span, but I thought it was managed very well.


Silver Spring, Md.: What is your view of the Purple Line's chances of becoming a reality (in our lifetime)?

Dr. Gridlock: When I was The Post's transportation editor, I used to ask the reporters to write a series called "Not In My Lifetime," describing all the road and rail projects that we've been teased about over the years.

Currently, I'm wondering if the Purple Line and Rail to Dulles will fall into this category. Both projects have serious financing issues. Both have issues about whether to tunnel. There are questions about whether the federal government will provide essential funding.

These are issues on want to stay on top of in the newspaper column and online.


Severn, Md.: Dr. Dr. Give me the news, I've got a bad case of gridlock blues.

Wondering if there has been any further news on the Metro expansion to BWI and all those stops along the way?

Dr. Gridlock: I just expressed my concerns about the Purple Line and Rail to Dulles. That goes triple for Metro to BWI. It's another project that would require gobs of federal money. How could Maryland suck up that much more money from the feds after the inter county connector and the Purple Line?


Clifton, Va.: What type of vehicle do you drive?? Other car and trucks in the family. I really think Dr. Gridlock should have a Ducati 999 in Ferrari Red.!

Dr. Gridlock: My editor, Steven Ginsberg, says I need to buy a hybrid -- that Dr. Gridlock needs to make a statement. Others say a hybrid, with a GPS, and satellite radio.

I drive a 1997 Toyota RAV4 SUV. I get the hand-me-downs in our family. My wife, who commutes from our inside the Beltway home in Montgomery County home to Baltimore, gets first crack at vehicles. When she builds up high mileage, she passes them down to me.


Wheaton, Md.: I figure that the high heat that is predicted for the next few days will require the trains to slow down, due to the tracks' tendency to expand with heat.

Dr. Gridlock: I see the heat advisories from VRE and MARC, when the temperature causes the freight lines that own some of the region's track to issue go-slow orders to the commuter lines. Seems like there have been an awful lot of them this summer. It must be hard to operate a commuter service when riders can't count on a schedule.

I understand the safety issue involved: That high heat can kink rails and create dangerous situations.

By the way, I'm an admirer of Train Talk, the alert system used by VRE to keep riders informed of such things.


Washington, D.C.: I'm curious. I know you've subbed in from Mr. Ginsberg on his blog when he's away. Do you plan to have your own Dr. Gridlock blog or do you plan to share with him?

Dr. Gridlock: Now that Steven has taken my old job as transportation editor, our plan is to share the Get There blog. Steven was on vacation last week. (He looks great. Tanned and rested for his new assignment.)


ICC in my backyard: Speaking of the ICC - do you think it will be built? How do you feel about it since you live in Silver Spring?

Dr. Gridlock: It's always been an interesting thing to me: The projects that soak up most of our transportation money don't necessarily have a widespread impact.

For me personally, ICC is in that category. We live in Silver Spring. If we want to go over to Bethesda, we take either East-West Highway or the Beltway. If we're going to Baltimore, it's Route 29 or I-95, and maybe sometimes the BW Parkway. I don't expect I'll drive the ICC, though it will be just a few miles from where I live.


Rockville, Md: Got to go .Will I be able to see responses later, and where?

Dr. Gridlock: We'll have a transcript posted. That's true of all our Live Onlines.


Inside the beltway: Are you going to do more columns on bike and walking commutes. We have issues too, you know -- like sidewalks closed for construction, and drivers who won't yield.

Dr. Gridlock: We get many such comments and indeed will be certain to pay attention to issues concerning biking and walking.


Washington, D.C.: Why was the new Wilson Bridge span designed with the same number of lanes as the old Wilson Bridge span? Size matters. What's up with that?

Dr. Gridlock: What you're seeing now is only half the action. The first of the two new spans is open. That allows the project workers to tear down the old bridge to clear room to complete the second new span. Once that opens in 2008, there will be more lanes on the bridge than on the Beltway approaches to it.

That's when you should really see some relief. For now, the advantage is that at least the new span has shoulders for disabled vehicles.


Re: Summer Commutes: I'm sorry to say I haven't experienced much relief in my evening commute home to Rockville from Tyson's this summer. At best, the relief is sporadic. Last summer (when I started this commute), I remember lighter traffic more days than not. Is anyone else noticing this?

Dr. Gridlock: I'm curious about that, too. I think summer traffic is generally down, but there are exceptions.


Bethesda, Md.: I read about how starting this fall all the trains on the Red Line will go to the end of the line during the weekend and non-peak hours. How about peak hours? It would be great if all the trains went to Shady Grove.

Dr. Gridlock: I believe that's the only change that's scheduled: That starting in October, trains will no longer turn back at Grosvenor during non-peak hours and on weekends. Maryland had to pay for the additional service.

The rationale I've heard for the improvement on the west side of the Red Line, as opposed to the east side where trains turn back at Silver Spring, is the extra development to the west that's increasing rider ship on the Shady Grove side.


"We have issues too, you know -- like sidewalks closed for construction, and drivers who won't yield.": Can I ask that the analysis of the issue present the problem from both sides? LOTS of pedestrians downtown think that the "Don't Walk" signs don't apply to them. They walk when it starts flashing and become livid if drivers don't yield--well, if it says "Don't Walk," the driver isn't supposed to have to yield (the pedestrian is!) None of us will ever get anywhere if BOTH sides don't cooperate.

Look at New Yorkers--they jaywalk like crazy, but no New Yorker is stupid enough to try to hold up oncoming cars (especially not taxis). D.C. pedestrians need the same common sense!

Dr. Gridlock: What do folks think of those "walk-don't walk" signs with the countdown timers? Are they helpful to pedestrians? Once in a while, I encounter one that seems to skip about 10 seconds. That makes it extra interesting.


Re: Summer Commutes: I drive from Tyson's to Silver Spring and it is just as bad during the summer as during the other parts of the year. But, what can you do? Congrats on the new position and thanks for taking the time to get to know us!

Dr. Gridlock: Thank you. That's just a killer stretch. So unpredictable, too.

One thing I'd like to hear about from folks is how they get their traffic information. When I visit our Fairfax Bureau, where transportation researcher Diane Mattingly is based, I look at the online traffic cameras before I leave home and before I leave the bureau -- not that there are all that many alternatives anyway.


Washington D.C.: I read that you rode the Circulator bus last week. I love the service, but I have two questions. First, the obvious, are they planning any more routes? Second, do they have any plans to better advertise and encourage riders to purchase tickets before boarding and then to enter by any door? It seems as though no one knows they can do this! I only know that you can by going to their Web site. It is a great system similar to London's bendy-buses, and it really speeds things up if the bus doesn't have to wait for a long queue to put their exact change into the fare box. I also wish they would put a SmartTrip scanner near the rear door so that those users can bypass the front and enter the rear. Thanks.

Dr. Gridlock: No definite plans at the moment for more routes or more hours. I think it's a great service and would like to encourage more people to use it. You'll probably see more about it on the Get There blog, and I might write about it for the Sunday Gridlock column.

Good as I think the Circulator is at making things clear and simple, they could still do more. I like your suggestion about the SmartTrip cards at the other doors, but bet that's an expensive addition. The service is pretty heavily subsidized already.

One thing I noticed is that if you don't know where you're going -- if you're a tourist, or taking a trip you don't usually take -- it's a bit hard to figure out your best stop from inside the bus.


Arlington, Va.: Can you please explain why anyone continues to drive inside the Beltway? I'm from the Midwest, where I've been driving since the age of 15, and since moving to the area I love the freedom of public transportation. With the D.C. Metro trip planner web site you can easily get anywhere in the Beltway. My friends tease me for this fondness of buses and metro, but I catch up on my reading, rest, and even nap while they sit in traffic polluting our environment. On top of that, I've met many interesting people and learned a lot about the region in just a few years here.

Dr. Gridlock: I'm a big fan of transit, but I do drive. For example, if my wife and I want to go to dinner in Bethesda some night, we're not going to take the Red Line V into downtown Washington and then back up to Bethesda. The bus connections would be problematic. Purple Line would make a difference.


Bethesda, Md.: I think it would be good for you to let readers know your positions on some of our regional transportation issues such as the Tyson's to Dulles Rail Project, the Bethesda to New Carrollton "Purple Line," adding HOT lanes to the VA Beltway, the ICC, etc.

Dr. Gridlock: I'll be telling you what I think on these topics and many others. Stick with me. Check the Get There blog. I'll put something up there today about the new rail car designs, for example.

We have Dr. Gridlock on page 2 of the Sunday Metro section, and hope to restart the Dr. Gridlock columns in The Post's Extra sections in late August.


I-270, Exit 1: Good afternoon and congratulations on becoming Dr. Gridlock. I imagine it's like being the next Dr. Who, you travel around and try to solve problems.

My question is about the column/chat itself. How does one measure the success of this enterprise? Has Dr. Gridlock ever remedied a traffic problem with local governments, or is success more a measure of the number of readers who informally exchange alternate routes, but mainly vent about bad traffic management and driving practices?

Thank you and best wishes.

Dr. Gridlock: This is a really good question. Ron Shaffer got some things changes. I hope I can help, too.

Getting some wrongs righted would be tremendously satisfying. Sometimes, though, you readers of the columns and the blogs and the Live Onlines help each other. I've seen you do that over the years through Dr. Gridlock.

You have tremendous power.


washingtonpost.com: Blog: Get There


Dr. Gridlock: Folks, despite having many, many more questions and comments to go, I think I'd better sign off for today. I want to get up a blog item about those new Metro rail cars and maybe post a picture of the interior.

Thanks for making this first foray such a welcoming experience. For all those readers whose notes I didn't get a chance to respond to today, please be aware that I'm reading them all and will take the advice seriously and try to find answers to the questions, so that I can respond in future discussions and columns.


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