Dr. Gridlock

Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, December 4, 2006; 1:00 PM

Robert Thomson, Dr. Gridlock, diagnoses your traffic and transit problems and offers up his prescription for a better commute..

He was online Monday, Dec. 4, 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: Hello, travelers. There have been a few developments in transportation lately that should please some of you. One was the Army's decision, announced last week, to build its museum at Fort Belvoir rather than on a nearby site that our local officials thought would make an already severe traffic problem worse.
Also, a couple of new ramps opened at the Sterling interchange on Route 28 as Virginia continues to convert that busy road into a limited access highway. And Metro has stopped its weekend track work for December, so there will be much less of the single tracking that has disrupted service in previous months.
But many of us are thinking of the upcoming holidays. This morning on our Get There blog, I posted some suggestions for staying sane while holiday shopping and invited readers to submit their own.


Germantown, Md.: RE: Today's Blog...

Go with friends. Have a few of your friends meet at the persons house closest to the mall. Take one car and set your watches to meet back at a designated time. One car, one space, lots of people.

Also, in Europe people will drive to the entrance and look for someone with a lot of bags and then offer them a ride to their car in trade for their space. I have done this before at Tysons. Just look for the weary, person with too many bags. But word to the wise...don't pick up the weirdoes.

Dr. Gridlock: Carpooling for holiday shopping sounds like a good idea. Maybe the driver deserves a present, too. On parking, some readers have suggested that at malls with garages, you go for the levels that don't have direct access to the mall. Those levels tend to be less crowded, so you can park closer to the stairs or elevator and have a shorter walk.


Washington, D.C.: Any idea what time the malls are opening on weekends during December (specifically Tysons Corner and Pentagon City)? I wouldn't mind getting there when the doors open and leaving before it becomes overcrowded.


washingtonpost.com: Tysons Holiday HoursPentagon City Holiday Hours

Dr. Gridlock: A couple of links provided by our Live Online producer. Thank you. Reminds me that online shopping can save your sanity and cut down on overall traffic, too. Tele-shopping can be as helpful as teleworking at this season.


Downtown, D.C.: What is the process for deciding when and how to close down lanes for construction? The Newseum construction has caused enormous backups on Penn Ave. during morning rush hour as they close down lanes without signage; construction on 15th St. means that buses and cars are all frantically moving across multiple lanes, again at rush hour...I could go on and on. It seems that especially at rush hour the city should be working to keep more lanes open, but right now it appears that construction sites set their own rules. Who is in charge?

Dr. Gridlock: That's one of many sites in the District where lanes are taken for construction projects. It's always annoying. Post staff writer Steven Ginsberg did a story about this. The District's Department of Transportation makes the decisions and says it tries to balance the needs of travelers and the need to get construction projects done.
Here's what Steven said:
The District has pages of guidelines that developers must follow once site plans are approved, but city officials retain wide latitude in what they allow. Rather than enforcing general standards on every project, District officials said they prefer a case-by-case approach that allows them to weigh developer needs against traffic and parking concerns at a site.


Rough Ride on the T.R. Bridge: I rode over the new surface on the Roosevelt Bridge yesterday and was surprised at how wavy, bumpy and cracked it is. In my book, it is unacceptable.

Any chance that the concrete will be smoothed out before the project wraps up?

Dr. Gridlock: I've heard the same from other drivers, including several Virginians who work at The Post's downtown newsroom, and will give it a test drive myself and ask the District Department of Transportation about it.
The bridge project is scheduled to be finished this month. It's a $6.9 million rehabilitation job that included a concrete deck overlay and other upgrades.


Bowie, Md.: I'll be starting a new job in Chantilly, Va., next month, and will be commuting from Bowie until I find a new house. Anybody out there making the same type of commute and have any suggestions on the best times to leave/return to lessen the pain until new living arrangements can be made? Also, better going on the Beltway or Wilson Bridge?

Dr. Gridlock: Wow, what a trip -- one side of the region to the other. I hope you can find that new house very soon. I'm thinking Wilson Bridge and around the south side of the Beltway, rather than over the top. What do you all think?
It's always tough to give advice on timing about the long-distance commutes through the heart of the region. Every day can be different. There's a lot of room for trouble in such a congested region.


Washington, D.C.: A car with Florida plates has been left on my street in the same spot for almost three weeks. The street does not have residential parking permit restrictions, but is there some limit to how long someone can hog a street parking spot?

If so, what's my recourse?

Dr. Gridlock: You could start by calling the Mayor's Citywide Call Center at 202-727-1000.
Here's what's supposed to happen next:
After receiving a service request from the Citywide Call Center, a Department of Public Works investigator may post a warning notice on the vehicle, if it is abandoned, stating that the owner must remove it within the next 24 hours.
Should the vehicle remain after 24 hours, DPW will dispatch a contract towing company to remove and tow it to the storage and auction facility.


Fairfax, Va.: I ride the Blue Line every day; I am really tired of those four-car trains that Metro seems to think are appropriate for rush hour commutes. I think they forget why they are in business, and about customer service. I am continually packed in like a sardine, and they say the rider-ship does not justify larger trains. Where is the customer service?

Dr. Gridlock: The lack of cars on the Blue Line is a constant complaint among riders and is completely understandable. The new batch of cars entering service now, the 6000 Series cars, will end the four-car trains on the Blue Line.
This topic came up yet again at Metro's town hall meeting last week in Rosslyn. Many of the Blue Line riders think they're getting stiffed in favor of the Orange Line riders, but I don't believe that's the case. Still, those new cars can't arrive too soon.


20005: We're contemplating a trip up to Philly and back on New Year's Day. I thought that might not be such a bad travel day (believing most people would choose to travel on Tuesday). Am I crazy? Any good alternate routes besides 95? Would be leaving from the College Park area.


Dr. Gridlock: New Year's Day 2007 will be a Monday, the end of a three-day weekend for some and the end of a long Christmas holiday for others. I'm guessing the trip up to Philadelphia will be fine, but I'm worried for you on the way back.
Most of us who head north for holidays wind up in despair in the state of Delaware, even though the construction that had narrowed the highway near the Maryland line is over.
Alternatives to I-95 through Delaware include a trip along Routes 40, 301 and 50. That might help on the way back if you hear traffic is stopped on I-95. But there are plenty of lights on Route 40, and generally I recommend people take the biggest highway they can find with the fewest lights. Many readers tell me there are no undiscovered shortcuts.


Washington, D.C.: Dr. G:

From Rosslyn to Chinatown, which is faster at 9 a.m.: Independence Ave. or Constitution Ave.?

Dr. Gridlock: Thought I'd throw that open for group discussion. (I'm assuming you can't take Metrorail from Rosslyn to Metro Center and then switch to the Red Line to Gallery Place, which would be the least stressful thing.)


American Legion or Wilson Bridge?: I would advise the commuter from Bowie to Chantilly against the Wilson Bridge...it is a nightmare. As bad as the top side of the beltway is, the Wilson bridge is ALWAYS a guaranteed 6 mile backup in the morning and 5-6 mile backup in the afternoons back to Maryland. It's consistently slow and heavily congested. The top side of the beltway is tough going, but I believe it moves better than the slower-than-walking-crawl across the Wilson twice per day. This will change significantly once the new span opens in '08, but until then, you'll want to stay away during rush hours.

Dr. Gridlock: Some advice for the traveler going from Bowie to Chantilly. (But I just hate that crawl along the northern side, which can extend from Silver Spring across the Legion Bridge in the morning, and then that ghastly stretch from the Legion Bridge through the merge with I-270 in the afternoon.)


"Abandoned" car: Wow, really? You only have 24 hours to prove that you haven't abandoned your car before it's AUCTIONED OFF???

That's nuts. If there are no restrictions on street parking, I'm assuming that means no restrictions. Why would someone expose another person to the loss of their car, over a parking space? Much better to lobby the city for resident-restricted parking. My neighborhood commission is working on this now, and it seems do-able.

Dr. Gridlock: Another thought on the car problem the D.C. resident reported earlier in the chat.


Arlington, Va.: The Ballston station and the orange train I got on this morning smelled like rotting garbage. I have encountered this in the past as well at this station and others. Any idea what the cause might be?

Dr. Gridlock: I know that many Metrorail passengers have reported an odor in the underground stations. Many said they thought the odor was from dead rats.
Metro says it's aware of an odor problem stemming from new brake pads on some of the rail cars. It's not a safety problem, but definitely something that needs to be dealt with and Metro says the manufacturer is trying to fix it.
I can't say for sure that that's what you're experiencing at Ballston.


Towing after 24 hours!!!: I leave my car (with D.C. tags and residential parking sticker) parked on the street during the week, and I wouldn't necessarily see a notice to move it within the next 24 hours. Can they really tow it with only 24-hours notice? Yikes!

Dr. Gridlock: I didn't mean to send our D.C. readers racing to their parked cars by describing the city's rules on dealing with abandoned cars. The questioner was talking about a "car with Florida plates has been left on my street in the same spot for almost three weeks," not a car with D.C. tags and a residential sticker.


Baltimore: Suppose you woke up tomorrow morning and had $50 billion in your bank account with a mandate to fix traffic in the region. Where would you start?

Dr. Gridlock: That's a great question, and I'd love to hear from our readers on that.
If my mandate is to fix congestion, I'd spend most of that money on road improvements, to have the maximum impact on congestion since most people drive. But I'd spend some on improving the reliability of the region's bus systems, buying more buses and improving the electronic systems that give some predictability to the schedules.
But what do the rest of you think?


Arlington, Va.: Couldn't the Bowie to Chantilly person go across town, more or less, instead of around. Take 50 to 295 to 395 to 110 to 66 to 28?

Dr. Gridlock: When we have these questions about long-distance trip planning, many folks suggest routes through the core. Does that work, or is it putting drivers in the maximum congestion zone?


Rockville, Md.: Is there still construction on 95 near Delaware? I'm driving to New Jersey Sunday morning and am curious what to expect (need to arrive at a surprise party before the guest of honor, can't have too much traffic make me late!).

Dr. Gridlock: The construction that had been vexing so many travelers lately was a highway bridge project on I-95 in Delaware, pretty close to the Maryland line. That was finished during Thanksgiving week and you should have all lanes open. So I'd stick with 95 for that portion of your trip.


Arlington, Va.: re: "From Rosslyn to Chinatown, which is faster at 9 a.m.: Independence Ave. or Constitution Ave.?"

I'd vote for, "neither," and give the nod to Key Bridge to the Whitehurst Fwy. which turns into K St. Just stay on K to the right turn on 9th St. and you're in Chinatown (much easier, methinks -- as long as you're starting in Rosslyn -- than the lights and lefthand turns from Independence or Constitution).

Dr. Gridlock: By the way, the District Department of Transportation is still studying the future of the Whitehurst Freeway. It should have a final version of its consultant's report soon on options for doing away with the Whitehurst.


re: $50 billion: I would improve public transportation: make buses more widely available in the suburbs, extend metro farther out 66. I believe the answer to our horrible congestion is public transportation, not more roads.

Dr. Gridlock: I'm a big fan of public transportation and to get to The Post's newsroom downtown, I almost always take the Red Line. In Washington, we have one of the nation's best transit systems, yet we still are among the national leaders in traffic congestion.
I think solving this problem -- and we can solve it -- will require a huge investment, and I think we've under-invested in roads in recent years. That doesn't necessarily mean a lot of brand new highways. There are many ways of improving existing roads.


$50B: But what road improvements would really have that much of an impact. Even if you could expand the Beltway, I-95, I-66 and all of that to 20 lanes, would it actually solve the traffic problem? Seems awfully unlikely.

Dr. Gridlock: No, it wouldn't solve the traffic problem, but I'm very hopeful for the current plans to expand the Beltway, 95 and 66. (Not to 20 lanes.) That's part of the solution, though far from the whole story.


DC: The $50 billion thing would be a GREAT topic for your blog (and would give us more time to think on it, too).

Dr. Gridlock: Yep. We'll do some more of that on the Get There blog this week.


T.R. Bridge: I concur with the other poster. The deck surface is actually worse than before. The only "improvement" has been the disappearance (for now) of the frame-bending potholes. The good folks at DDOT need to cap the concrete deck with asphalt to smooth out the ride, as has been done on a very short stretch at the west end of the bridge.

Dr. Gridlock: Do they really need to use asphalt? I thought the idea of concrete is that it's supposed to last longer than asphalt, though it's more expensive. Haven't heard any complaints about the concrete surface on the new Wilson Bridge.


Bowie to Chantilly: If you can leave -really- early in the morning (be on the road 5:30 - 6:00 a.m.), go through the District on U.S. 50 and hook up with I-66 to the Dulles Toll Rd. in Virginia. Going home -- as we say in New York, fuhgeddaboudit. It doesn't matter when you leave.

Maybe rent an apartment in Chantilly and drive to/from Bowie on weekends?

Dr. Gridlock: As usual, plenty of people are offering suggestions to help another traveler. Got a couple more I'll try to post momentarily.


Re: Bowie-to-Chantilly commuter: The person commuting from Bowie to Chantilly should also learn how to make the transit from the B-W parkway to the SE-SW Freeway to 395 to 66. It's less complicated than it sounds and will save time on those mornings when the bridges are jammed.

Dr. Gridlock: One more.


Silver Spring, Md.: Can Metro tell us why there so many stations that don't have system maps on the train platform?

It's NUTS! I get questions from tourists, and, without a system map to point to, I can't answer them.

Silver Spring and Braddock Road are among the many stations affected.

Dr. Gridlock: I asked Metro spokesman Steven Taubenkibel if he could address this question. Here's what he said in an e-mail just now:
Every Metrorail station platform is supposed to have a Metrorail system map. On occasion the rail system maps disappear, and sometimes our advertising vendor removes a map by accident. Our Marketing and Advertising Department and the Department of Plant Maintenance will check all stations to make sure the rail system maps are where they are supposed to be.
Finally, thanks to the reader for bringing this to our attention and for mentioning the specific train stations.


22201: Individuals in the military who have been stationed in Florida are not required to get new license plates when they move. That "abandoned car" could belong to someone right across the street.

Dr. Gridlock: Another thought on that D.C. car.


$50 Billion??: Give $100,000 to each person that agrees to work from home. That will open up the roads.

Dr. Gridlock: Wouldn't even take that much. Government and private industry could do a lot more to boost telecommuting.


Arlington, Va.: The four-car blue line trains would bother me slightly less if they didn't run two six-car Orange line trains for every one four-car blue train. The second orange line train is always virtually empty. Why can't they make that second orange train a blue-car train and give the blue line trains the extra two cars?

Dr. Gridlock: Is the Orange Crush an urban legend?


Alexandria, Va.: Thanks for taking my question. How is work going on the second span of the Woodrow Wilson bridge? Are the contractors on time and when is the target date for the opening of the second span of the bridge?

Dr. Gridlock: Work on the second span seems to be going fine. Crews have been taking down the old span while building the new one, which is scheduled to open in 2008. That's when we should really see the impact on traffic from this important project.


Kingstowne, Va.: I'm wondering if you might know what's up in Springfield today. Last week it was reported that the new ramp from the Outer Loop to I-95 South would open Dec. 6 and that traffic intending to exit in Springfield would also use the new ramp for a few months. The project's Web site now says the ramp was to open this morning and that Springfield traffic will NOT use it. I haven't seen anything in the local media today, and the WTOP traffic reports haven't mentioned it. Do you have any idea what the status is over there? Did the ramp open today? I am trying to anticipate whether to put off errands in Springfield to later this week if I should expect to encounter baffled drivers who won't read signs tonight.

Dr. Gridlock: I'll check on this. We said the ramp would open this Wednesday, weather permitting, but the project's Web site, www.springfieldinterchange.com, does indeed refer to an opening this morning.


Franconia-Springfield: Do you know why there is no "Next Train in X Minutes" information on the signs at the Franconia-Springfield station? And when there is a train at the platform, there is rarely departure information on the screens. Is it like this at all other terminal stations and can it be changed?

Dr. Gridlock: Interesting question about the electronic signs at the ends of the Metrorail lines. I'll try to answer that one on the Get There blog this week.


McLean, Va.: Dear Mr. Gridlock,

I moved three miles from work because the commute was getting to me. Unfortunately, I live and work on opposite sides of Tysons Corner. Last Tuesday it took over one hour to get three miles. I was in tears by the time I reached home.

Getting to work isn't an issue, it's getting home that is tough.

Please help! Leaving work earlier isn't an option. And I have to get to daycare by 6, so I can't leave much later than I do now.

Dr. Gridlock: I don't have a solution for this complaint that is becoming more and more common. The only thing that's really clear now is that the congestion is a good argument for better road design and transit use in what is emerging as one of the region's main urban centers.


Stafford, Va.: Do you know of any plans for bringing HOV farther south?

Dr. Gridlock: The proposal I know of involves a public-private partnership that would place new lanes on I-95 for the use of motorists who carpool or are willing to pay tolls that vary with the degree of congestion. That project is still years away.


Fairfax, Va.: It just amazes me that just about every day I see cars driving at dusk and at night without headlights. Some have parking lights on, most don't even have that. This seems to have increased dramatically in the last couple of years. Are the authorities not enforcing the laws in this regard?

Dr. Gridlock: I feel like I see this quite often as the days grow shorter. Maybe some people have this fixed idea of what time the lights should come on? Some sort of mental timer switch? During December, I'll be driving with my lights on all the time. I'm worried about distracted drivers thinking of their holiday shopping lists and not the oncoming traffic.
Well, I think we'd better shut down for today. Thanks for all the good questions and comments. I'll try to extend some of today's topics through the week on the Get There blog, at http://blog.washingtonpost.com/getthere. Also, I've got a few questions still left here I'll see if I can answer on the blog after a little research.
Travel safely.


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