Dr. Gridlock

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Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, October 2, 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.

He was online Monday, Oct. 2, at 1 p.m. ET to address all your traffic and transit issues.

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.

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Dr. Gridlock: Hello, travelers. Let's talk transportation. I thought the recent highlights -- or low lights, in some cases -- included Dan Tangherlini's decision to withdraw as a candidate to be the permanent general manager of Metro in favor of becoming the D.C. city manager under Adrian Fenty. Fine for D.C., but a big loss for the regional transit agency.

Speaking of Metro, the transit authority unveiled the new SmarTrip express lanes at five stations this morning. I see some comments on that coming up.

Last week, the Virginia General Assembly disappointed those of us who think the state government needs to have something to do with preserving the sanity and safety of travelers in the Washington suburbs.

Let's go to your comments and questions.

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Germantown, MD working in DC: Jeers to Metro's "One step forward, two steps back" style: debuting its SmarTrip express lanes on the same day that Mayor-elect Fenty stole the best candidate for its general manager post. The board members responsible for keeping Tangherlini in job limbo should have their jobs put under the microscope for stifling innovative and responsive faces within Metro.

Dr. Gridlock: There's no way this makes Metro look good. Dan Tangherlini was widely regarded as a leader who brought a fresh approach to the region's transit operations. Heck, just for riding the trains and buses, he deserved public acclaim.

Metro board Chairman Gladys Mack, who was at Anacostia Station this morning for the formal unveiling of the new SmarTrip express lanes, said his leadership was important because, there had been "a disconnect between customers and the authority." Amen, say the customers.

"What now?" we all ask. Metro has no deadline for the search it must now undertake to choose a permanent leader. At best, this is a loss of momentum. At worst, it's the loss of the best candidate for the job.

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washingtonpost.com: Fenty to Name Interim Manager Of Metro as D.C. Administrator (Post, Oct. 2)

Dr. Gridlock: Here's a link to The Post story, provided by our producer, Paul.

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Crystal City, Va.: Because some on the Metro board wanted to search for a better candidate, the best person to head Metro in years has decided he'd rather work for D.C. for less money. I'm sure that move will do lots to attract only the best and brightest to apply to run Metro. I'm preparing for more years of mismanagement and a worsening Metro system because this region can't make an obvious choice!

Dr. Gridlock: I'm guessing that Tangherlini looked at the two jobs and thought he could make a direct and immediate contribution working for one boss, the D.C. mayor. He would have had a long-term impact on Metro, as well. But in the case of the transit authority, he'd be working for the District, Maryland and Virginia.

Too many bosses?

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Arlington-East Falls Church: How does the Virginia representative to the Metro board get selected? What is the best way for Arlington citizens to register their disgust at losing Dan Tangherlini to the D.C. government?

Dr. Gridlock: Arlington residents, I'd say you'd want to get in touch with Chris Zimmerman. He's the Arlington County Board chairman and also Arlington's representative on the Metro board.

Zimmerman is one of the region's leading advocates on transit issues. He also was among the Virginians on the Metro board who opposed the District and Maryland representatives who wanted to make Tangherlini permanent as general manager and skip the nationwide search.

The Virginians involved in this had expressed concern for following the selection process the board had outlined earlier, and also about whether Tangherlini -- whose background was in the District government -- would be sufficiently committed to regional concerns, like developing the rail line to Dulles.

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washingtonpost.com: Metro Unveils Express Lanes at Faregates (AP, Oct. 2)

Dr. Gridlock: Another useful link provided by our producer. This is a story about the new SmarTrip express lanes that opened today at five Metro stations where many riders pay their fares with electronic cards, rather than paper cards.

I think it's a great idea. The gates are distinctively marked. They take only SmarTrip cards. But there still should be enough gates for people with the paper cards.

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Arlington, Va.: Hey Doc,

I'm normally a Metro commuter, but I have to leave Thursday afternoon for a wedding in Ohio. I am heading to Pittsburgh first, so I have to go up I-270 and I-70 before I can switch to I-68. I'll be picking my wife up from her job on upper Wisconsin Ave., and we're hoping to leave the city around 4. Is this early enough? Will the traffic heading north be manageable? How long of a delay should we account for? Will being HOV help us?

Thanks for the help.

Dr. Gridlock: With that timing on a Thursday afternoon, I think you should be fine. HOV should help. I-270 has HOV-2 northbound, which you'll qualify for, beginning at 3:30 p.m.

I'm thinking it's unlikely that you'll get jammed up anywhere, though I'd keep the radio tuned for traffic reports.

Anyone disagree with my conclusion?

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Bicyclist Helmets: My husband and I bicycle frequently on the local trails, and are dismayed/disgusted/horrified at the number of people who ride without helmets. This extends particularly to those parents who are not only helmet-less, but allow their children to ride without them, including tots in trailers, on training wheels and on tricycles. I believe Fairfax and Arlington Counties require helmets for the under-14 set, but the problem extends to Maryland and other Virginia counties. A cyclist whose unprotected head hits the pavement is nearly always critically or fatally injured. (I'd be curious to know if the two cyclists killed in the last two days were wearing helmets.) Can you find out what the various jurisdictions policies are with respect to helmets? Can you encourage police bicycle patrols on these trails to cite the parents who are so negligent?

Dr. Gridlock: I don't know what the helmet rules are in the various jurisdictions, but I'm hoping some of the many bicycle advocates in our region might see this question and write in during the chat.

It would not occur to me to ride a bike without wearing my helmet. My sister out in California -- a much better biker than I am -- has spent much of her career helping to rehabilitate the victims of head injuries. Motorcycles and bicycles have helped supply her with clients, much to her regret.

She's very safety conscious. She'd like me to wear a helmet when I'm driving my car.

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Rockville, Md.: I only use Metro maybe one or two times a month. What is the most convenient way for me to get a SmarTrip card? I thought they were only available at Metro Center and I don't want to take a trip there to get one.

washingtonpost.com: Metro's online sales office (wmata.com)

Dr. Gridlock: I got my SmarTrip card online, and I think that's the easiest way to do it, though the stations with parking facilities have machines that dispense them.

We've got the link to the sales office here.

SmarTrip was a terrific innovation. I hate having to try to slip those paper cards into the fare gates. The cards cost $5, then you can load them up for a couple of weeks worth of trips if you want. Good on buses, too. And they automatically account for train to bus transfers. Just a much easier system.

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Rockville, Md.: "She'd like me to wear a helmet when I'm driving my car."

I never thought of it, but it is a good idea.

Dr. Gridlock: Another rule of my sister's: She knows I like to listen to audio books. But she won't buy me an audio book that I haven't already read. Her theory is that she doesn't want me to be concentrating on what happens next in the story and miss the fact that the light up ahead has turned red.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: I moved to Gaithersburg a few months ago, and consequently now exit the Red Line at Shady Grove every afternoon. I am constantly amazed at the pushing, shoving, and overcrowding that occurs trying to exit the platform. It's like the running of the bulls, but with briefcases and high heals.

Is Metro planning to improve the death trap that is the platform exit at Shady Grove? I'm surprised no one has been seriously injured exiting that station. Has no one complained? Of all the discussions here and in the Express about Metro, I'm surprised I haven't seen anything about this issue.

Dr. Gridlock: Sadly, the situation doesn't sound all that different from other Metro platforms at rush hour. People in our region travel long distances in crowded conditions -- on the roads and on the rails. They're frazzled coming in, and they're frazzled going home.

Metro does have staff on many of the more crowded platforms, but there's always going to be a limit to what one or two employees can do. Short of stationing riot police on certain platforms, I'm not sure what would work to control people's behavior at one of the more stressful parts of the day. More reliable schedules to decrease stress? More train cars to give people more breathing room?

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Motorcycle Commuting: I have asked this question in the past and never been answered, so here goes again. I frequently see motorcycles parked (all day) in between cars and meters. These bikes are not paying any parking fees and they seem also to be ignoring the time limits (this is on K street between 9th and 13th). Is this legal?

And, this question for you or for other motorcyclists who might be participating...are there any economical parking lots for motorcycles in the Convention Center/Franklin Square area? It seems to me that if three motorcycles can park in the space taken by only one car, there should be some discounts somewhere, but maybe that's just wishful thinking.

Thanks!

Dr. Gridlock: I'm not aware of motorists getting a free ride -- or park -- in downtown D.C.. Even harder to believe that the city's most efficient patrol staff is ignoring the opportunity to write parking tickets.

But I could be wrong about this, so I decided to ask the group. Bikers out there able to help the questioner on this?

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Marbury, Md.: Arlington, Va., may want to consider leaving earlier since it is a Thursday before a holiday weekend.

Dr. Gridlock: Good point for our questioner concerned about the getaway time from the District for the trip to Pa. I had forgotten that this is Columbus Day weekend coming up. It's not one of our bigger holidays, nonetheless, our transportation writers at The Post have noticed a trend of leaving earlier -- like Thursday -- for what used to be a three-day weekend.

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Southern Maryland/Prince George's: Is the Purple Line on the drawing board for Southern Maryland? We need relief and building roads is not the solution. The Green Line was at capacity in the first week. We are willing to take mass transit.

Dr. Gridlock: Purple Line -- either a light rail or a rapid bus system -- is planned as a link between Bethesda and New Carrollton. And if we're lucky, we'll actually see that built. It's still an open question.

No plans to push the Purple Line down into Southern Maryland. More rail cars are coming to the Green Line, along with the others, as Metro's 6000 series cars are put into service. They're arriving a lot more slowly than many of us would like.

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McPherson Square.: Had my first experience with the SmarTrip lanes this morning and loved it! But I am concerned that it won't really help that much -- there will still be clueless tourists with large bags blocking the lanes until they figure it out. Any idea if there will be an effort to put overhead signs above those gates, with instructions ("SmarTrip users only, no paper Metro Cards...") so that riders can see which lanes are which before approaching?

Dr. Gridlock: Your note reminds me of the early days of E-ZPass on the highways. Took motorists a while to figure out where they needed to be. Took the people who plan toll plazas a while to figure out where to put the express lanes and how to mark them. Some are still struggling.

Metro is going to conduct a six-month trial of these new SmarTrip express lanes and will react to experience and to customer comments.

My take on this, based on looking at the setup at Anacostia Station this morning, is that people with paper cards will steer clear of the SmarTrip only faregates, because they're clustered together, painted blue and have a pretty large sign over them. But let's see what happens. It's a good idea to try this.

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Petworth: "motorcycles parked (all day) in between cars and meters."

Not legal, and will get both the bike and the car (in theory, although in practice it is often only the bike) a ticket if the meter-people come by.

"are there any economical parking lots for motorcycles in the Convention Center/Franklin Square area"

I've never found one - they all charge car rates. There did used to be a bank of bike meters over there though. Those are more affordable if you can get one of those spaces.

Dr. Gridlock: A response to our previous question about parking motorcycles in downtown D.C. Thank you.

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Reston, Va.: RE: Helmets on bikes

I guess I'm one of those people who doesn't wear a helmet on bikes. I understand for motorcycles, but I am a recreational biker and only take it out for small trips. I never wore a helmet as a kid.

Mark my words, in 10 years, we will all be REQUIRED to wear helmets in cars. You heard it here first.

Dr. Gridlock: I'm not pushing for a new law on this. People should choose safety. The safest biker in the world can't account for the biking habits of other bikers on a trail, motorists on a street or those tiny obstructions that send you flying.

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Arlington, Va.: How much did these SmarTrip only gates cost us? This seems like a solution to "problem" that doesn't exist. I use fairly busy stations like Ballston daily and I have never had to wait longer than 30 seconds maybe to get into or out of the station. How about spending the money on fixing the escalators or adding more train cars...things that are real problems in need of a real solution.

Dr. Gridlock: Cost $50,000 for this six-month pilot program at the five stations. I think rail cars are a bit more expensive.

I've seen enough letters to Dr. Gridlock complaining about bottlenecks at the fare gates and suggestions that Metro try express lanes to think that this is decent little customer-friendly experiment.

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Washington, D.C. - Helmet while driving my car: Funny, I've actually done that! I happened to have my brightly colored, yellow motorcycle helmet in the back seat of my car a few months back while on my way to pick up a friend downtown. I pulled up wearing my helmet much to my passenger's confusion and delight. I actually drove around most of the day wearing the helmet and looking at people's reactions on the street and at stop lights. Although hilarious in appearance, I actually felt much safer!

Dr. Gridlock: I think that when my sister was first inspired to make that suggestion about driving with a helmet, it was back in the '90s, when I was driving a Geo Tracker with a canvas top. Looked to her like a gas can on a rollerskate. She was worried.

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Baltimore: The frequency of Dr. Gridlock columns online seems to have gone way down. How many columns are planned to appear each week? I enjoy reading them.

Dr. Gridlock: Thank you, Baltimore. There actually are more Dr. Gridlock outlets than ever before. (I can hardly keep up.) We have these Live Onlines every other Monday, we have the daily Get There blog, a column on page 2 of Sunday's Metro section, which appears on the Web site, and a Thursday Extra column in The Post that also appears online.

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Centreville, Va.: While I have a great deal of respect for what Mr. Tangherlini has accomplished in his short time on the job, and I can understand his frustration with the expanded job search process that the Board elected to undertake, doesn't his acceptance of the D.C. chief job validate the concerns of the VA board members in some way? Namely, that he cared more about D.C. than about the Metro system as a whole, particularly regarding the Dulles extension. Taking a lower-salary job to focus on running the District seems consistent with that.

Dr. Gridlock: I think that's a decent argument, and we'll probably hear that during the next couple of days from the Virginia side. But Tangherlini said in today's story by David Nakamura and Lena Sun (the one we linked to up above) that he would have taken the Metro job "without batting an eye" if it had been offered.

Throughout his tenure, and during my couple of chances to chat with him, I never detected a District bias. Certainly, he cares about the city and should do a great job as city administrator, but I don't see how that ruled him out for the regional job.

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Vienna, Va.: Re: SmarTrip: "Good on buses, too. And they automatically account for train to bus transfers." Alas, not true on the Fairfax Connector, which so far isn't accepting SmarTrip cards.

Dr. Gridlock: No, indeed. I should have specified that I meant transfers to Metro buses. I hope we're not too far from regionalizing the use of SmarTrip cards just as the use of E-ZPass has spread among the states.

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K Street: As of last week, there are now people directing traffic at various intersections (I know 20th and K is one) during lunchtime. What is the reason for this? Were there traffic problems at this time of the day?

Dr. Gridlock: The District's Department of Public Works has a squadron of traffic monitors, but I thought they worked the downtown intersections only during the morning and evening rushes. I'll check on whether the program was expanded.

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Washington, D.C.: Any news on the city of Washington changing its policy on sidewalk closure due to construction? I'd love to follow the lead of New York City by requiring construction companies to provide sidewalk access under a canopy during construction.

Dr. Gridlock: The District has a policy that allows not only sidewalk but also lane closures for construction. (Across L Street NW from our newsroom, a project has taken the sidewalk and the two right lanes. I haven't heard any discussion of changing the city's policy, much as I'd personally be in favor of that.

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Washington, D.C.: I'm the guy that actually wore his motorcycle helmet while driving my car in downtown D.C. I wonder... is it illegal to actually do it. I did notice my peripheral vision was somewhat limited. I wonder if I would get a ticket if I happened to be spotted by the police.

Dr. Gridlock: We have many traffic laws, but I doubt our leaders have gotten around to that one. I think you could paint your helmet hunter orange and still not get stopped.

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Alexandria Va.: Hello Doctor,

One question, one comment:

Q: I notice that William Euille is on the WMATA board for Alexandria. He's been a positive influence in Alexandria for bike lanes etc. Where did he come down on the Tangherlini debacle? I'd like to register my disappointment, but don't want to pillory an innocent man.

C: I can only see those SmartRip gates confusing the heck out of our biggest bottleneck makers - the hapless tourists. Not such a good idea...

Dr. Gridlock: Mayor Euille is one of the non-voting members of the Metro board. I'm not sure where he stood on the general manager issue.

About the SmarTrip express lanes, I still say let's see what experience shows during the next six months. (Besides Anacostia, the express lanes are at New Carrollton, Vienna, Bethesda and Pentagon City.)

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For Pittsburgh driver: No! Avoid the 495/270/70 mess by taking 66 West to 81 North to Hagerstown. It's maybe 10 miles longer, but a lot less stressful.

Dr. Gridlock: Another response to our Pa.-bound driver. But I must say, it's the first time I've heard I-66 recommended as less stressful than just about any alternative.

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Blue/Orange Line: I have noticed recently that throughout the Virginia/DC portion of the system that I ride on every day, has often smelled horribly of rotten fish. I've confirmed this with co-workers who travel on the same route. Is this something that's being investigated/addressed? It seems like this is harmless though annoying, but what if it were noxious chemicals being spread throughout the entire system like this?

Dr. Gridlock: I haven't noticed this in my travels, but am curious about whether others have.

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Bethesda, Md.: Have D.C. police given up enforcing the cell-phone law? Every day we see violators (usually) in the left lane holding up traffic. D.C. could balance its budget if it enforced this law!

Dr. Gridlock: I see violators everyday, too. Most worrisome to me is watching a driver make a rapid left turn, spinning the steering wheel with one hand while talking on a cellphone with the other.

Still, I'm not expecting the police to catch the majority of violators. I think it's that phenomenon we've all experienced: "There's never a cop around when you want one."

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Re; Bike helmets: I hope this gets in in time: Do the safety conscious know about the studies regarding the LIKELIHOOD of an accident while wearing a helmet? You're less likely to have that accident in the first place if your senses are unimpaired by that salad bowl on your head, obscuring (to some degree) peripheral vision and hearing.

So before we go advocating new nanny laws, please consider that the helmetless are not stupid: they're just playing a different set of probabilities than you.

Dr. Gridlock: I'm not advocating new nanny laws. But I'm old enough to recall the argument against wearing seatbelts that had to do with the impairment issue: "If I have an accident, I want to be thrown clear of the car."

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Arlington, Va.: So now that Mr. Tangherlini has decided not to stay with METRO, who are the leading candidates to replace him? Who would want to come in and try to run a dysfunctional organization, from the very top to bottom, like METRO?

Dr. Gridlock: Metro so far has set no deadline for this wide-open search for a new general manager.

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D.C.: I was hit (on my bicycle) by a taxicab on Friday night. No injury, thankfully, but I would like to see there be some consequences for the taxi driver, who drove off even after I told her that she had hit me.

Do you have any experience with the DC Taxicab commission? Is that the right place to start?

Dr. Gridlock: I think the commission and the Metropolitan Police Department. No one looks fondly on a driver who leaves the scene of an accident.

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Alexandria, Va.: Dr. Gridlock -- Thanks for taking my question...I am concerned about an incident that happened this morning on the yellow line. A women who appeared sick passed out in one of the cars while we were stopped in the Pentagon station. We pressed the emergency call button and notified the train operator, but he still attempted to close the doors and move on. We held the doors open, and eventually through the passengers waiting in the platform, the operator got the message to stop. We told the train operator and as many WMATA employees we could find that there was an emergency, and at least two people on the train dialed 911.

During the entire time we sat on the platform, no emergency responders who could administer first aid showed up. This was about five to seven minutes. WMATA employees carried her off the train, but I didn't see any paramedics or health professionals.

I found this incredibly disturbing...first of all, where were the medics? We were underneath the Pentagon, there had to be medics nearby. She was carried off the train, when nobody knew why she had passed out or if she should/could be moved. And the emergency comm system between the car and the operator was like trying to talk into a McDonald's drive through. So I guess my question is: what the heck happened there? Is this standard procedure? And should I start carrying a first aid kit with me on the train? And also, if she is reading, everyone on that train was very concerned and hopes you are well!

Dr. Gridlock: I'll check with Metro on this incident. Hadn't heard about it before reading this comment.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: I currently participate in Metrochek through my employer. Our administrator recently told us that Metro is moving away from the paper Metrocheks in favor of the SmartRip cards. Normally, I would be in favor of this as a means of reducing waste. However, I use my paper Metrocheks to purchase a weekly Metrorail pass. Currently, there is no SmartRip equivalent to this. Using SmartRip daily for my commute between Shady Grove and Farragut North would cost $26 more per month than my paper weekly pass. Does Metro have any plans to implement its various passes on SmartRip cards? In addition to the obvious cost savings from not having to use so much paper, but would also provide a value-added benefit to Metro customers.

Dr. Gridlock: We're using that electronic system for our Metrocheks here at The Post, and it works pretty well, once you get used to using the fare card machines to add your monthly benefits onto the SmarTrip card. But I don't know that Metro is considering your issue about the weekly passes, and I'll check on that. Some of the questions I've either posted without an answer or haven't posted but see here I'll try to answer during the week on the Get There blog.

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Washington D.C. (Van Ness): Hi Dr Gridlock: Between, Cleveland Park and Woodley Park on Connecticut Avenue(near the Klingle Bridge), there are signs indicating that the lanes are going to shift. (Actually the lanes were supposed to shift on 9/22, but they keep pushing back the date). What are they doing there? And how long will it take to complete that project?

Dr. Gridlock: I'll check for an update on the work DDOT wants to do on the Klingle bridge. But as I recall, the repair program sounded like it would be relatively low impact at first and then expand to have a greater effect on traffic. And the work was going to take a while.

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WDC: So, if Dan Tangherlini actually DOES become Fenty's chief city administrator after the election, what are the chances that I can send in my resume to become Metro GM? I mean, I ride the rails every day and am two years younger than Dan. And I live in Maryland. And yes, I am serious

My personal feeling is that what Metro REALLY needs is someone to run it that has a frame-of-reference totally outside of the established bureaucracy, and is an ordinary day-to-day commuter just like the other million-or-so bus/rail riders. Where can I sign up?

Dr. Gridlock: Beware of what you're asking for. A couple of months ago, I asked Tangherlini what was the most important thing he had learned about the job. The most important thing, he said, was that "it's really complicated."

Thanks, everyone, for the many good questions and observations. We'd better quit now, or we'll never got home tonight. Safe travels.

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