Dr. Gridlock

Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, November 6, 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, Nov. 6, 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.


Dr. Gridlock: Greetings, travelers.

In earlier chats, some of you were asking about the traffic control officers that you had started to see working some downtown intersections. I apologize for taking so long to get back to you:

Those are traffic officers from the District's Department of Public Works, the same officers who work the morning and afternoon rush hours. At the point where their shifts overlap, they now work 16 downtown intersections at midday. Lots of whistle blowing.

Let's get to your questions and comments.


Arlington, Va.: Dear Dr. Gridlock,

Today, during my morning commute, I was cut off by a taxi cab, forced to slam on my brakes, nearly in a serious accident, and then the offender flipped me the bird. I took down all of the taxi cab identification and went to the D.C. Cab Commission Web site to lodge a complaint, only to find one link on the Web site which was about taxi cab rates. I am incensed that there is no place to give feedback on cab drivers. Do you know of a way to lodge a complaint? I went to the police department Web site and had no luck there either.


Dr. Gridlock: These are the rules for filing a complaint with the D.C. Taxicab Commission:

It must be in writing.

You can take your complaint letter to the Taxicab Commission at 2041 Martin Luther King Jr Ave SE, Room 204.

Or you can fax it to (202) 889-3604.

Or you can e-mail it to dctc@dc.gov.

You should get an acknowledgement letter from the commission. The cab operator also gets notified and is asked to report to the commission.


Greenbelt Gal: So, when are Yellow Line trains supposed to be extended from Mount Vernon Square to Fort Totten? Or does this already happen during the hours when I am not riding the trains? Thanks for answering.

Dr. Gridlock: Not quite yet.

Starting in January, Metro will extend the Yellow Line service up to Fort Totten. This is an experiment in better serving the neighborhoods in that part of the District. It is scheduled to last for 18 months, during which Metro will evaluate the impact.


Arlington, Va.: Most of those traffic-control persons don't have a clue as to what they are doing. I've observed them at Connecticut and K for weeks. What do they get paid, anyway?

Dr. Gridlock: They get paid $33,000 a year to put their bodies between us and oncoming cars and trucks.

I understand why pedestrians and motorists are vexed by the traffic officers. We're not used to seeing them at all these downtown intersections at midday. Many of those intersections are confusing enough. Any part of K Street is confusing. We're used to obeying electronic signals and don't instantly adjust to whistles and hand signals.

But I hope that over time, this system works. Pedestrians in particular need all the help they can get crossing those streets.


Bethesda, Md.: Are bicyclists required to maintain a minimum speed when they are on area roads? Thanks.

Dr. Gridlock: Bicyclists are supposed to obey the traffic laws, but I'm not aware of any minimum speed law. I get the feeling you must have encountered at least one biker dead ahead when you wanted to get someplace quickly.

I can tell from the letters I get that this is one of the top sources of tension among drivers, and among bikers. Their feeling is that they've got as much right to the road as you do.



I have a reserved sticker and park in the reserved section of the Shady Grove garage each day. The number of people without stickers who park there seems to be getting out of hand, and sometimes makes it very difficult for me to park if I don't get there until fairly close to 10 (when the reserved status ends).

One day last week I parked at 9:20 a.m., and counted 24 (twenty-four!) cars without stickers while walking from my car to the stairs. Is there any way to ask Metro police to tighten up enforcement of reserved parking? Those of us who pay for our stickers every month would greatly appreciate it.

Dr. Gridlock: I know those reserved spaces are a source of frustration to many of you. Mostly, I hear from folks who think there are too many of them. They enter a crowded garage before 10 a.m. and tell me that the reserved spaces are the only ones left. They think they're going completely unused, so they say Metro should reduce the number of them, to make more unreserved spaces.


Fairfax, Va.: Are there any plans to pave the stretch of I-66 from the Beltway to the Route 50 exit any time soon? Those 7 miles are some of the worst on any interstate in the metro area for congestion and potholes.

Dr. Gridlock: That's a real bad stretch. And I agree with you that it's about as bad a stretch of pavement as there is in the region. But I'm not aware of any repaving coming up anytime soon. The big news on I-66 is farther out. The widening project between Sudley Road and Route 234 bypass is wrapping up and those new lanes will be open to traffic. Then early next year, the next phase of widening to Gainesville begins.

But again, I'm not aware of any relief coming closer in.


Silver Spring, Md.: Despite the many many government employees who all get Election Day off, are all the transit systems still planning on running normal schedules for the rest of us in the private sector? (As rare as we are in Washington!) No bizarre holiday schedules for Metro or MARC or anyone?

Dr. Gridlock: I haven't noticed any of our transit agencies cutting back service for Election Day, but remember that this Friday is the federal observance of Veterans Day. Some transit agencies will cut back on service on Friday, but Metro will run a regular weekday schedule


Herndon, Va.: Any idea what the real HOV enforcement hours are on the Dulles Toll Road? It seems that anytime after 5:30 p.m., west-bound traffic in the HOV lanes is at least 2/3 violators...and I never see any police efforts to enforce. The posted hours are up to 6:30 p.m., but now that it's getting darker earlier it's even tougher to catch these folks.

Dr. Gridlock: That few?

I know the way it's supposed to work, but then, so do you:

The far left lane between Route 28 and the main toll plaza is for carpoolers of two or more, Monday through Friday, 6:30 a.m. to 9 a.m. eastbound and 4 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. westbound.

Enforcement of the HOV rules is a constant problem across the region, not just on the Toll Road. I got some letters recently from motorists who travel Route 50 in Maryland and notice that the supposedly 24-hour HOV lane is quite popular with solo drivers.

I don't know a good solution for this, other than walling off all HOV lanes so violating the rules becomes more difficult.


Washington, D.C.: What was up with the closing of the 395 tunnel this weekend? Was it a big secret because there weren't any signs up (or postings on washingtonpost.com traffic ) until about halfway through the day...There are a bunch of different ways to get around this but only if you know about it. Once you got past Maine Ave., you were stuck going to a jammed up S. Capitol St. or 6th St. SE. What was the deal???

Dr. Gridlock: I should have put this in our Get There blog on Friday. The reason the tunnel was blocked off this weekend was that the District Department of Transportation was trying to improve the road surface to reduce skidding in wet weather.

The plan was to remove the cobblestone surface along about 460 feet of roadway in the tunnel and replace it with asphalt paving that would limit skidding.


Anonymous: "They enter a crowded garage before 10 a.m. and tell me that the reserved spaces are the only ones left."

But...that's the -point- of the reserved spaces! They're for people who can't necessarily arrive early enough to get a regular spot, so they buy the right to park in the reserved spaces after the regular spots fill up. I mean, duh.

Dr. Gridlock: Most of the writers don't have any problem with the concept of the reserved spaces. They say there are too many of them at some garages. So many, they say, that a good number never get used. They want Metro to cut back the number of reserved spaces so that it more closely matches the demand at their lot or garage.


Waiting to get on the Metro: I've had to wait for multiple trains to go by before I can get on one at the Woodley Park Metro station. Is something going on? Are there more commuters or fewer trains? Today I literally had to wait for two trains to pass to board and this happened last week as well. I'm not being ridiculous. I don't expect a seat or anything. When I mean I have to wait I mean that I can't squeeze onto the first few trains that go by. What's the deal?

Dr. Gridlock: I was just checking with Steven Taubenkibel at Metro. Neither of us knows of any unusual situation on the Red Line lately. Not sure if you're riding at peak or off-peak.

We are getting additional cars on the Red Line as part of the shipment of 50 new 6000 Series cars that will be spread out through the system. (I think it's 12 to the Red Line, if I remember right.)

The Red Line is the most heavily used, and it can be vexing to wait at some of those inner stations, like Woodley Park. Sometimes, it helps to move along the platform. Cars in some sections of trains can be consistently packed, while others can be relatively uncrowded.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Doc!

I hope you have had a good weekend. I may be moving to Baltimore soon because of a much LOWER cost of living. However, I am keeping my job here in the District. I hear that MARC is horrific, and traffic is of course, traffic. Any plans to improve MARC rail service? I am under the opinion that as MARC gets better, more people will move north to Baltimore because the costs of living is so much cheaper.

Dr. Gridlock: Most of the problems I hear about on MARC occur on the Brunswick Line, which brings people into Washington from the west. You'd be on the Camden or the Penn. I'm not saying that makes it a picnic, but it almost certainly beats driving.

Our suburban rail systems, MARC and Virginia Railway Express, both need a lot of improvement. This region is going to grow tremendously. It's the one thing we can count on. We need a fully developed transportation system to match that growth.


Washington, D.C.: I'm hoping you'll put this out there as a public service announcement. Bicyclists are supposed to follow ALL traffic signals, just like a car. This includes stop signs. There was a bike commuter who blew through a stop sign (at a pedestrian crosswalk) this morning and nearly ran a woman down!

Dr. Gridlock: The writer refers to that previous exchange we had about bikers and drivers.


Washington, D.C.: I cannot tell you how many times I have hailed a taxi in front of my office, with taxi drivers insisting that I tell them where I am going before they will tell me that they are available.

Knowing that the "cherry picking" occurs, sometimes I will get in the cab and then tell them. Twice I had taxi drivers insist that I leave the cab because they have a scheduled call on the other side of town (which I am certain is a lie).

How should I handle this in the future? I have refused to leave once (when I wasn't in a rush to get somewhere) but then the taxi driver refused to move from where he was parked. Eventually I left the cab frustrated.

I just don't understand why the taxi drivers hate going to the 700 block of G street NE when it is so close to Union. Any thoughts? Thanks.

Dr. Gridlock: If the cab driver refuses to take you somewhere and you're inside the cab, stay there long enough to take down the information on his license and report the driver to the Taxicab Commission at the address in the response above.


College Park, Md.: Every time the Green Line leaves Fort Totten going to Greenbelt the train slows down for about two minutes and sometimes just stops in the tunnel. It seems to happen at the same place no matter what time of day I'm on the train. Any reason you know for this and if it's a track issue, is Metro looking to fix it soon? Thanks for the chats!

Dr. Gridlock: I'm not sure what that's about. Sounds like the typical response to track work, but I'll check with Metro.


Arlington, Va.: Dear Dr. Gridlock,

I live near the new Air Force Memorial on Columbia Pike. There is no stop sign or traffic signal. Cars don't always notice pedestrians and pedestrians seem to pay no attention to the fact they are crossing a busy street and just wander across without looking. It is very dangerous and a tragedy waiting to happen. Is Virginia planning on installing more signage or a signal? If not, please ask them to reconsider! Thanks.

Dr. Gridlock: This is an excellent question about that very busy stretch of road. I'll check and report what I learn, either in the Get There blog or in an upcoming Dr. Gridlock column.


Front Royal, Va.: When are they going to open the new lanes on I-66? Everyday I drive past beautiful yet unused lanes!

Dr. Gridlock: You should be driving on those new lanes on Wednesday morning, if VDOT stays on schedule.


Orange Line: Dr. Gridlock,

Can we get a public service announcement out to Metro riders to share the poles? They are not personal back supports or surrogate hug objects. Step away from the pole and allow others to get a hand on. Thank you.

Dr. Gridlock: That's one of two common complaints about how we share space in the rail cars. The other is about people not giving up the bench seats set aside for disabled people in the middle of the cars.

By the way, those three poles at the front and back of the cars are the ones that disappear in the new 6000 Series rail cars we're starting to see in service.


Burke, Va.: Could you please explain why the I-395/I-95 HOV lanes default to the northbound direction?

Southbound I-95 yesterday afternoon was ridiculous, and could have been helped if the HOV lanes were switched south. What's the thought process on when the lanes switch? Shouldn't more lanes be opened more often to get people out of the city than into it?

Dr. Gridlock: I heard the traffic reports yesterday afternoon about the traffic congestion heading south, while the HOV lanes remained open northbound.

My guess is that VDOT goes with some historic traffic pattern it's used to seeing on weekends and can't adjust that easily to current conditions. But I'm not sure, so I'll check.


RE: Marc Service From Baltimore: I took the MARC Penn Line from Penn Station Baltimore for a year while living in Baltimore, and now I am taking the Orange line Metro from Dunn Loring. I've found that the MARC is as a whole, on time more often then the Metro is, the only trick is the fact that when the MARC is noticeably late, it can be very, very late (45 minutes or more). Beyond that, I find it to be more consistent then the Metro on a scheduling basis.

Also, when taking the Penn line, often times if there is a significant delay in the morning, they are more than willing to shove people onto an Amtrak train to get them to work as soon as possible. The only problem I really had with the MARC as a whole was the number of trains running, not the service.

Dr. Gridlock: The service this summer -- lack of service -- really drew a lot of letters. Summer is always bad because of the heat restrictions and the strain on equipment. But it's not like things are perfect now. Also, when the heat goes away, the new weather problem is leaves falling on the tracks. If the trains skid, the wheels can develop flat spots that require they be taken out of service for repairs.

MARC needs more and better equipment to work with.


Washington, D.C.: Sadly, I will be part of the big I-95 North bound crunch on Thanksgiving Day. If I leave very early in the morning, I'm talking in the 6 a.m. range, do you think I can make the trip to Philadelphia relatively smoothly with little traffic? When does I-95 begin to get bad? Or would it be better to leave late at night on Wednesday?

Dr. Gridlock: I think leaving at 6 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day is a good plan. Watch out for the trip back, though, if you plan to travel on Sunday. That's some of the worst traffic I've ever been in on I-95. Having E-ZPass for the tolls doesn't make any difference if you're stuck in long backups before the toll plazas.

I plan to do an upcoming column taking advantage of all the good holiday travel advice I've gotten from readers.


Washington, D.C.: Do you have any insight into the lines painted (or not painted, as the case may be) on 23rd St. between about F St and Washington Circle? When they repaved it, they changed the lanes so that instead of two for traffic and one for parking, there's one really large lane for traffic one one for parking. But the lanes are well defined, so people alternately use two lanes, or take up the whole large lane. Not only is it potentially accident-causing, it backs up traffic.

It's not clear what to do, and I keep hoping they'll repaint them correctly. Thoughts?

Dr. Gridlock: Haven't seen that particular stretch lately. I'll go look and check with DDOT.


Dumfries, Va.: Does anyone know where are all the people are going on the weekends on I-95 South of the Beltway, especially in the Summer? It seems like it's a parking lot from Thursday night until Monday morning -- we can't go anywhere!

Dr. Gridlock: Thought that was a combination of Washingtonians going to and from the Outer Banks and real long distance travelers on the East Coast's main artery. I've never had a good experience on that stretch of highway. Never escape a jam-up there.


Fairfax, Va.: I occasionally use the reserved spaces (after 10 am when they free up of course). The people w/o stickers who park there before 10 am are gamblers. The couple of times I've tried it, I got a parking ticket (which was fair). I think what's frustrating is that there's clearly demand for the spaces at the normal price not the pricier reserved price, and definitely some of the spaces go unused during the day (at least at Dunn Loring where I park), so that's what drives people to take the chance and park there before 10.

Dr. Gridlock: Metro runs the region's largest parking operation, but many travelers still complain that it's not enough. Some stations fill consistently, and readers tell me they have to get there at ridiculously early hours. Others don't fill.

For some people, it might work to choose a different station on the line, but I know that's not a solution for many. We need more parking.


Arlington, Va.: When did they start allowing trucks on Route 110? All of a sudden, that road is clogged with construction dump trucks and cargo trucks. How can we get them to reverse this decision? It stinks.

Dr. Gridlock: Ryan Hall at VDOT said he would check this for us, but he wasn't aware of any change in the rules for Route 110.


Arlington, Va.: I'm hoping you can shed some light on some recent (seemingly unexplainable) traffic. I have been driving home in the evening on the outer loop of the beltway from Old Georgetown Road to the Tyson's area off and on for two years now and just within the last two months it has become close to unbearable. At least two-three nights a week I come to a dead stop and am not able to drive faster than 5 mph for miles.

While it used to be bad two years ago, this trip had not been a problem since the additional exit lane was added to reach the Dulles Toll Road. What gives? Is the Springfield interchange construction backing things up this far? Additional Tyson's traffic? I'm considering changing jobs (again) purely because of this!

Dr. Gridlock: I've seen the congestion there, but didn't realize it was a recent thing. I remember thinking, Well, that's a logical place for a backup, with everyone trying to get to Tysons or to one of the several major highways leading west. Adding the extra exit lane for the Dulles Toll Road was a widely praised improvement.

I'll explore what's been going on there lately.


Fairfax, Va.: T.R. Bridge:

Driving over the east-bound lanes of the Roosevelt Bridge yesterday was like driving on a wash board. I think they're wrapping up on that side of the bridge since they've started putting down the final lane markers. Do you know if there are plans to do anything to smooth the surface?

Dr. Gridlock: Last time I checked, the work was scheduled to be done in December. I'll seek an update.


Dr. Gridlock: Got this via e-mail from a reader in Silver Spring:

"On the DCDOT Traffic Control Officers. I've been watching crossing guards and people directing traffic since elementary school - a while ago and note some differences.

"The TCOs in Downtown intersections typically supplement the automatic traffic signals (keep the "Boxes" clear and reduce the hazard to the pedestrians, as opposed to control the flow and direction like a grossing guard or police officer directing traffic at and uncontrolled intersection, or overriding the signals during/around a special event - a football game for example.

"I for one think they are improving the flow of traffic and keeping pedestrians safer on Downtown streets."

That was my observation also. I'd better sign off for now. There are still some questions left, like about how Next Bus works, and I'll try to answer them on the Get There blog or in the Dr. Gridlock column. Thanks for joining me today.


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