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Metro: Roads and Rails

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Lena H. Sun and Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 13, 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 writers Eric Weiss and Lena H. Sun were online Monday, Nov. 13, at 11 a.m. ET to answer your questions, feel your pain and share the drama of getting from Point A to Point B.

Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.

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Eric Weiss: Good morning, road and rail fans! We are at your service...

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Alexandria, Va.: Please tell me that whoever it was at VDOT who signed off on closing 395's HOV lanes last Friday in order to transport dignitaries to and from Quantico, was summarily fired. The lanes were still closed way past 6, when they were supposed to have been reopened, and as a result, my commute home was insane. Had the government not been closed for Veterans Day, it would have been even worse.

Eric Weiss: Yes, plenty of folks who were expecting a quick, holiday Friday commute were deeply disappointed.

VDOT said they made the call after much study and said that if they didn't use the HOV lanes to transport all visitors, the buses would have backed up on the regular lanes of I-95 and created a safety and traffic hazard.

And, by the way, President Bush helicoptered in...

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Bethesda, Md.: Hi, Lena, just a reminder that you promised to find out when we can use SmarTrip on Ride-on buses! Also, I saw an odd notice on a Ride-on bus this morning: it said that all SmarTrip fares will be full regular fare. If I'm understanding this correctly, when I get off the Metro and hop onto a Ride-on bus, I'll be paying full fare instead of the 35 cents I currently pay with a transfer. In the district, you can take a bus after the subway for a reduced fare with SmarTrip. Thanks for your help.

Lena Sun: Hi Bethesda. Yes, here is what I found out. Ride-On has installed all the necessary equipment on its buses to use SmarTrip, but there is another contractor who works for Metro who needs to do some more work on the software to get things going. The best estimate I could get was for first quarter of next year.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Sorry, I have to vent here about Amtrak...

What is the deal? I've been using Amtrak for the last seven years when I visit friends/family in New Jersey. It used to take about 2 1/2 hours. Well, now it says it takes more than 3 hours and, if I'm not mistaken, is more expensive than ever. Is this how they provide customer service, more money for a longer (slower) ride?

Amtrak is and always has been a bureaucratic dreamland of awful service and nasty attitudes. I for one am going to suffer through this holiday season and then start taking Greyhound for a much cheaper ride in just about the same amount of time. Three hours on a train to Newark, N.J.? Ninety bucks for ONE WAY? The bus usually takes 4-5 hours and is about 50 bucks round-trip. Train has always just been far more comfortable , but this is the last straw! Congress really needs to dismantle this thing and somehow get it privatized, because it is out of control.

Sorry for venting, but am I the only person fed up?

Eric Weiss: Yes, unfortunately Amtrak does not compete well on either price or service. But in fairness, the popular Northeast Corridor service subsidizes other less-used Amtrak services to obscure stations in key Congressional districts. And Amtrak is forced to charge users a much higher proportion of their costs compared to their more subsidized European brothers and sisters. And what about the federal subsidies to highways? We can go on and on, but I agree, a major disappointment to travelers...

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Washington, D.C.: I have recently been on the new Metro trains that have done away with the poles near the doors. However, these new trains are a problem for average and short people since you could be stuck in the door area with nothing to hang onto. The poles running horizontal near the ceiling are too high. Why doesn't metro take this into account and install some straps to hang onto?

Lena Sun: Hi Washington. That was my concern as well when I saw the newly configured trains. With the poles gone, the idea was that people would be able to move more easily into the middle of the train, and there are poles that run from the back of the seat up to the ceiling that you can hold onto. Have you tried that?

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Washington, D.C.: After its ill-managed overreaction a few years ago, Metro seems to have stopped enforcing the no-eating/drinking laws. I'm not talking about popping a few M&Ms here, there is not one commute where I don't see someone eating breakfast, or a sandwich, or slurping up a giant latte.

Besides not really wanting to smell my seatmate's sausage-and-egg sandwich, the other issue is cleanliness of the facilities, which is not good. Is there any chance Metro will start enforcing the law again?

Thanks.

Lena Sun: Hi Washington. This is one of the most common complaints that Metro gets so let's post this and hope the Metro folks will pass on to transit police.

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Chantilly, Va: I'd like to tell the VDOT engineer/s who redid the timing on Route 50 between Fairfax and Arcola that IT'S DONE NOTHING TO MOVE TRAFFIC BETTER!

With all the technology available today, you wouldn't think it'd be so hard to sync lights so that there's a smooth flow of traffic during rush hour. Evening rush in that area is a major parking lot, both east and west.

Who has an answer ?

Eric Weiss: Two answers:

First, it may take some drivers getting used to the new timing system, which switches around the left-turn arrow cycle.

Second, timing lights is not as simple as we might expect/hope. If two major collector roads intersect, which ones gets the priority?

Different jurisdictions are working on timing issues, which, along with clearing accidents faster, can go a long way cheaply in moving traffic more quickly.

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Fashion Centre, Va.: Oh, the horror! Please tell me this won't become the norm on Metro. Old rail cars are being partially outfitted with material from the new cars. For example, I was on an old brown, beige and orange car that had the new bubble gum pink carpet; one or two red seat covers; one or two blue seats covers; and the typical brown and orange seat covers, etc. Please, oh please, Metro, don't turn the rail cars into a color coordination nightmare. The old and new car colors are not meant to be mixed and matched. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to put on my beige shirt, red pants and pink tie.

Lena Sun: Dear Fashion Centre -- At some point recently, Metro ran out of the brown carpet and had to use the newer colors to replace worn out and dirty carpets. That's probably why you saw the new color in an older car.

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Beltsville, Md.: Wish people would be more courteous on the train landings. Because of shoulder pain I have to carry stuff in a tote on wheels. I have sometimes found myself accidentally pulling the tote over someone's foot, because people will not move aside, to allow a person to pass.

Lena Sun: Sorry to hear about the rudeness of others...

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Fairfax, Va.: Please tell me the idiot that retimed the lights on Route 50 has been fired also!

What's so hard about it?

Eric Weiss:

From VDOT's Joan Morris:

"There were a lot of gaps in traffic, and that's why we changed it on some intersections. Obviously we're going to monitor for a few months and tweak it to see if they made it better."

She asked what specifically do you see as the problem area or intersections?

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Alexandria, Va.: "VDOT said they made the call after much study and said that if they didn't use the HOV lanes to transport all visitors, the buses would have backed up on the regular lanes of I-95 and created a safety and traffic hazard."

Why isn't it a safety and traffic hazard when we're sitting in it day after day, mile after mile?

Eric Weiss: See Joan's response to Fairfax...

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Bethesda, Md.: Why can't Metro get its act together about letting customers know an escalator/elevator is out BEFORE they enter the station? Station managers should post signs or other warnings.

Grosvenor station (and there are probably others) has had a multi-month escalator project since the summer, and there is no sign what-so-ever letting you know the escalator is out before you enter the fare gates. By design, you can't use the elevator once you've entered the fare gate.

Also, why does it take six-plus months to rehab an escalator that is all of two stories in height? A store or shopping mall would never tolerate an outage lasting that long: It smells of poor project management to me.

Lena Sun: Hi Bethesda. Metro knows it needs to do better and you should be seeing better and clearer signs with more information very soon, according to the guys in charge of escalators and elevators. Also, the Metro Web site lists all the stations with escalators and elevators not in service.

I use the Grosvenor station on a regular basis so I know how long those escalators have been out. Metro says it can take 17 weeks to totally rehab an escalator because they have to rip everything out. I know this won't make you feel any better, but it until very recently, it used to take the London system 26 weeks to overhaul an escalator.

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To Beltsville: Those bags being pulled by people in crowded Metro stations are a real hazard. You can't see them for the crowd, and many times I have almost fallen over them. Maybe you should travel at non-rush hour times!

Lena Sun: Here's a reply to Beltsville...

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Chantilly, Va.: People still don't remember the courtesy of letting people off the subway before getting on. I'm a tall person with a good build and sorry to say, I've just about run over people trying to board as I'm getting off.

Lena Sun: So that was you who knocked me over the other day at Metro Center?

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Bowie, Md.: Any plans for the Maryland Dept. of Transportation to install jersey walls to separate the HOV lanes on Rt. 50 in PG County? These lanes have been there for over two years now, and since then, violators have blatantly been jumping back and across the double lines to pass HOVers on the right as they think the HOV lane is the left speed lane. I think jersey walls will at least deter violators because they could possibly funnel them into a waiting state trooper. Now, it's like the wild west.

Eric Weiss: There are no current plans to build Jersey barriers on 50 between the HOV lanes because there is no room, according to Maryland State Highway Administration.

SHA's Chuck Gischlar reports that the department did study adding separators it at the beginning of the project but it was decided against.

The department does work with law enforcement to reduce lane hoppers...

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Problem with Rt 50: The problem is that it's a virtual parking lot from 28 to Arcola. No gaps, just bumper to bumper, moving one light to another.

Eric Weiss: VDOT's Joan Morris called back and said off-peak travel times on 50 from Pleasant Valley to the Fairfax Parkway has been reduced from 9 minutes to 7 minutes after the changes.

Where do you think the worst problem is?

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Silver Spring, MD: Hello, Lena! I spy "Next Bus" signs, but how does this work? I thought we would have electronic signs on bus shelters and maybe even at stops that would tell when the next bus was coming, based on GPS data. Now it seems that one must use a PDA, or will a phone work? And is it based on real-time data? By the way, keep up the good work, your reporting has led to improvements!

Lena Sun: Hi. (thanks for your kind words.) The idea behind Next Bus is to let people know when the next bus is coming. It's the biggest complaint of bus riders. Metro has been working on this for some time, but it's taking longer because there are more bugs -- both human and technical -- that need to be worked out.

Eventually, the idea is for riders to be able to see these signs at certain bus shelters.

They are doing a pilot now on Metrobus routes 9A and 9E in Northern Virginia, F4 and F6 in Suburban Maryland and the 90, 92, and 93 in the District of Columbia using hand-held devices and via your computer. You can check it out on their Web site.

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The art of merging lanes: People in this area have lost the proper method for merging lanes. Coming off of an exit ramp, everyone is bumper to bumper, somehow figuring that the lane ahead will just accommodate five cars in a row in high-speed traffic.

Am I the only one that sees this?

Eric Weiss: Zipper, zipper, zipper, folks!

When two lanes intersect, alternate, one guy from the merging lane, one gal from the traffic lane and so on and so on. It's faster, more predictable and no one gets hurt.

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Washington, D.C.: I refuse to apologize to anyone with rollie-bags. I'm sympathetic to the person's shoulder pain, of course, but the vast majority of rollie-bag people do not realize that the luggage is an extension of themselves.

All too often they bang it into people in crowds (even when people like myself are trying to stay out of the way), they stop on the top and bottoms of escalators in order to pull up their handle, while forgetting that people are behind them. I could go on all day.

If you must have a rollie-bag for medical reasons, at least realize that it's a rather large encumbrance that takes up a lot of space and is not crowd-friendly.

Lena Sun: Hmmmm. Anyone out there want to chime in?

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Alexandria, Va., again: I think you misunderstood my question. VDOT closed the HOV lanes on Friday because the backup that the VIP buses would have created would be considered a hazard. It doesn't appear that the mile-after-mile backup that happens every single morning and evening, and every single weekend, is considered a hazard. Why not?

Eric Weiss: Faced with a light-traffic Friday. which also happened to be a federal holiday, traffic planners thought closing the lanes would be the safest and least disruptive option.

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Arlington, Va.: Will we EVER see "Walk to the left, stand to the right" signs on Metro escalators? It's an unspoken rule that desperately needs to become the spoken rule.

Lena Sun: Here's the problem. Metro is a system that operates in several jurisdictions. They all have different rules and regs regarding signage. That's why Metro can't simply put up large signs that say Walk Left, Stand Right.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Eric and Lena:

Not a complaint about Metro, but a compliment. I have lived in this city all my life (25 years) and I have to say Metro has never been better. These people who are complaining about small issues (the carpet color, food, etc.) must not know how bad it once WAS!! This is a huge improvement. Customer service has gotten better, the improvements on the train itself and the improved lighting in most of the stations is fantastic. I, for one, think Metro is moving in the right direction. It is no longer the embarrassment it was in the '80s and early '90s.

Lena Sun: Hi Washington. Nice to hear from you. I bet a lot of people would agree with you.

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First...: "...it may take some drivers getting used to the new timing system, which switches around the left-turn arrow cycle."

You'll have to explain that one to me.

Eric Weiss: Sorry. VDOT changed the order of several traffic lights on 50 so that the left-turn green arrow is activated at the end of the cycle instead of at the beginning. The changes are at signals between Pleasant Valley Road and Fairfax County Parkway.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: This is the third time I've posted this question between your chat and Dr. Gridlock's. I'm hoping the third time is the charm.

Didn't Metro announce that they were going to stop running trains on the red line that only went to Grosvenor, and run all trains all the way out to Shady Grove during rush hour? When is this going to start??

Lena Sun: Hi. I'm sorry you had to ask three times. If my one brain cell is working this morning, my memory is that Metro was only going to stop turning back trains during NON-rush hour, and that already started in October, I believe.

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Washington, D.C.: Something I have noticed about newspaper/Express readers on the metro...

I get off the metro at McPherson Square and many times I see people discarding their Express before heading up the escalator. A lot of people will throw their newspaper into the first trash can coming out of the turnstiles or the trash that is right next to the recycle can near the escalators. I just wanted to remind metro riders/Express readers to please hold onto their papers and put them in the recycle bins that are provided.

Lena Sun: Thanks. Lots of people don't even bother to take their newspapers with them.

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Metro Signage: Give me a break! They manage to put up signs about Big Brother style mutual surveillance but local zoning regulations prevent them from putting anything up reminding people to stand to the right?

Lena Sun: You got it.

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Washington, D.C.: The Q Street side of Dupont occasionally has the train arrival info interspersed with the elevator info on the electrical sign outside the fare gates. It's great! It helps to know whether or not you have to bolt for the train. Can we get them to do this in more stations? Also, I second the request for more poles that are short-people accessible.

Lena Sun: Yes, they want to do this in more stations. The Judiciary Square station near the National Building Museum also has this info... I think there are a couple more stations that will be having this kind of display OUTSIDE the fare gate in the coming months.

On the short angle: I'm with you. I'm 5-feet-2.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I agree that rollie-bags can be a nuisance for other passengers -- but so can backpacks, which many wearers swing around behind them with no apparent notion that the backpack nearly doubles their circumference.

How about we all just try to recognize, and minimize, our personal impact on others?

Lena Sun: Yes to that...

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Potomac Blue: I'd rather have the wrong color seat cushion than none at all... geez, if that's the only complaint about Metro that person has, they should count their blessings. (I think the mismatches are kind of cool actually.)

Lena Sun: Another vote for cushions.

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Mount Airy, Md.: I've been riding Metro to work for almost three years. We've been able to buy $105/month of Metro Checks (pre-tax deduction). Now they tell us we can buy up to $105/month for Metro plus up to $205/month for parking. This will help a lot, since the $105/month wasn't close to being enough to pay for Metro and parking 20 days a month.

They say the Metro and parking all gets added to our SmarTrip card. So, in reality, there is no $105 Metro/$205 Parking split--it's really $310 per month for both Metro and parking. Is that correct? Why not just market it that way, instead of the confusing $105/$205?

Lena Sun: That sounds right but let me check, or if someone from Metro is reading behind on this chat -- Lisa or Steven are you there? -- maybe they can jump in.

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N.W. D.C.: I agree with the poster who commented that Metro is getting better and better.

It's never good to generalize, but judging by the comments today, we are spoiled in this region by the quality of our mass transit.

When people complain about clashing interior design issues, or state their "right" to run over people's feet with a roller bag or push people over exiting cars, it's clear that the system is mostly working!

I grew up in the UK. People often assume that all Europeans have perfect mass transport systems, free of flaws and delays. Those of you that complain about a 13 minute wait for a train in a warm, dry metro station at the weekend, with (reasonably) accurate information about the status of the approaching train should try the equivalent Sunday night wait for a Strathclyde Regional Transport train in Glasgow on a windswept, dreary, exposed platform.

Lena Sun: Thank you former UK rider. We get lots of posts on this chat about how much better the European systems are.

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Alexandria, Va.: Any word on when all cellular phones will be able to work inside the metro tunnels? Hopefully this'll happen before some emergency occurs and I have to find someone with a Verizon phone if the train phones aren't working.

Lena Sun: The last time I checked, Metro officials were soliciting proposals from different kinds of groups so that ALL cell phones would work. I didn't get the impression that this would be a fast process.

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HOV lines on Friday: The real reason is not the safety issues, it's that they didn't want the VIPs to get stuck in traffic.

Eric Weiss: Such cynicism and it's still so early in the week!

You might be referring to an incident this summer in which the Secret Service wanted to close down the HOV lanes during rush hour so President Bush could attend a fundraiser for Sen. George Allen. VDOT objected and the president decided to take a helicopter instead.

When I asked about that, VDOT said that everybody who attended were forced to park at either the Pentagon or Stafford Regional Airport and then take a bus to the museum. The Decider in Chief helo-ed in on Marine One.

Wouldn't it be great if everyone could just fire up the Sikorsky and fly over the Springfield Mixing Bowl!

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Washington, D.C.: Oh Traffic Gods, please answer me! I've long wondered by metro trains sometimes honk a horn when pulling into the station. There's no oncoming traffic to warn. The noise is so loud and unexpected that it is startling -- I think it could cause someone to fall onto the track. Please Metro, there's no reason to honk unless someone is on the track! Thanks!

Lena Sun: Lots of times train operators are supposed to honk for safety reasons.

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While on the subject of being aware: I'm very short, and, if you turn and your backpack knocks me, it will most likely be a punch to the jaw. Please guys, remember what's on your back and take it off when on the train.

Lena Sun: A general theme today: being more considerate of others.

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Alexandria, Va.: What is the law on businesses blocking sidewalks downtown? I was walking back to my office to retrieve my car on Saturday night after the Capitals game and I noticed that on the other side of F Street from where I was walking, a club called "Platinum" had completely fenced off the sidewalk AND the jersey-walled walkway (part of the sidewalk is gone for construction) so that their patrons could stand in line. What the heck is up with that? Shouldn't the public be allowed to use a PUBLIC sidewalk?

Eric Weiss: I think there were so many fans eager to see, touch and hear the incredibly talented Kevin Federline, a.k.a. the former Mr. Britney Spears, who was at the club recently to plug his fantastically excellent new album.

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Washington, D.C.: I've been riding the subway, to and from work, since 1998, and for me, it's the best thing that could have happened. I can count on one hand the times that I was delayed riding the train. I think it's twice as crowded as it was when I started riding, but I think it's great. The only complaint that I have with it, is the escalators at the stations. It seems like there're wasting there money paying to keep them up, and the next day it's down again. Maybe they should vote to get rid of them, because half the time you have to walk anyway.

Thanks.

Lena Sun: There was a proposal to convert a few escalators to stairs but Metro board members nixed that idea pretty quickly.

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Bethesda, Md.: Hi,

You asked for our feelings about the ICC. It really makes me angry that future money is already bonded for the ICC, but at the same time the Maryland Transit Authority seems to favor the suboptimal bus solution for the Purple Line because we "don't have the money" for trains. I know that it is hard to get federal funding for new rail because the Bush administration prefers buses, but doesn't our state government have any backbone?

Eric Weiss: Financing for the ICC will be based on toll revenue, whereas new transit applies for a small pool of federal funds and state money.

Transit advocates complain that the rules are stacked against transit and in favor of new roads.

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Cell phones: People yapping on their cell phones on the Metro signals the end of society as we know it. How long has this person been riding Metro with no emergencies yet? What's the big deal? The fewer cell phones, the better, I say!

Eric Weiss: I totally agree. I hate it when others yap on their phones.

Although when I have to talk to my editor, I find it convenient.

I guess it is all about perspective.

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merging zipper: The key to merging is to align the speeds of the travel lane and the merge lane and to create space between cars in both the merge lane and the traffic lane = works smooth.

Try zipping your kids jacket by running up one side fast while holding back the other -- snarled forever.

Eric Weiss: And the kid ends up on the floor crying...

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Crystal City, Va.: What is Metro's official policy regarding bikes on Metro when elevators are broken? Should cyclists use the stairs or escalators in that case?

Lena Sun: Hi. I called someone at Metro to ask that question and he wasn't sure. If he gets back to me in the next three minutes, I will post. If not, I'll post it next time or forward the answer to Dr. Gridlock.

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Lena Sun: Thanks everybody. That's all we have time for today.

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