Dr. Gridlock

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Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, December 18, 2006; 1:00 PM

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock. He was online Monday, March 1 to discuss Metro safety and its fare hike and your transit and traffic questions from across the Washington region.

The transcript follows.

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 Local Living 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.

Dr. Gridlock also hosts his own discussion group, Taken for a Ride, where he tries to help ease your travel pains.

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Robert Thomson: Welcome, travelers. I'm looking at questions and comments about transit, local road conditions and the aftermath of the February storms -- even as we move into a new month. On some questions, I'll ask for your help, and I always appreciate your feedback.

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Washington, D.C.: In the evaluations of how the local jurisdictions handled the snow removal, I have heard nothing about how they addressed pedestrian access. Have you? Though much of the snow has melted, I still find pedestrian access impeded or dangerous because of huge piles of snow that have not melted. These piles were created by jurisdictions deliberately plowing snow from streets and on-street parking lanes onto sidewalks and private entities (like apartment buildings) plowing their snow onto sidewalks.

In many areas, I still have no alternative and have to walk in the street. Unfortunately, this lack of concern for pedestrian safety has nothing to do with the historic levels of snow--every year it is like this. What steps are jurisdictions taking to: enforce the snow removal requirements for private entities with real fines (not the paltry and never-applied $25 fine in the District); plan for public clearing of sidewalks abuting public space (like on bridges); penalize private entities for dumping their snow on sdiewalks and in bus stops?

And to the drivers: You are driving a weapon. If the level of snow has narrowed streets and forced pedestrians to walk in the street, adjust your driving accordingly. This means you may not have to drive UNDER the speed limit.

Robert Thomson: I don't know of any transportation agency that addressed pedestrian access, with the exception of Metro, which is responsible for clearing the entrances to the rail stations.

If there's a jurisdiction around here that doesn't make it the property owner's responsibility to clear snow from sidewalks and driveways, please let me know. I can't think of one.

Pedestrians may have been the biggest losers in the storm clean up. To this day, many people must walk in the streets because sidewalks haven't been cleared by the property owners.

I'm not sure what the solution is. The varying fines listed in governmental codes are not used to the extent some people would like, and over used in the opinion of others.

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Silver Spring, Md.: The street lights on the entrance ramp from north Georgia to 495 east in Silver Spring are always dark. I noted this on the Montgomery County website a few months ago and nothing has changed. Especially with all the storms and vanishing lanes during snow removal this has become an increasing problem. Do have any suggestions on who I should contact? Thank you.

Robert Thomson: If these are Montgomery County lights on Georgia Avenue, then the county has several ways of reporting outages, including an online form at this Web address:
http://gis.montgomerycountymd.gov/ims/lights/submitform.htm

The county says it investigates such information within five business days. This may be something you've already tried without luck.

If the lights you're referring to are on the ramp, it might be the jurisdiction of the Maryland State Highway Administration.

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Falls Church, Va.: There seems to be a lot more congestion than usual (or at least earlier than usual, e.g. today) on weekday mornings on I-395 between the beltway and the 14th street bridge. Is this because of the 14th street bridge project or something else? Is this the new normal?

Robert Thomson: We did have a report of extra heavy congestion between King Street and the 14th Street Bridge around 6 a.m. I haven't noted any unusual activity on the bridge itself. Last Monday, DDOT said that it had heard the complaints about the vanishing lane markers and that workers would be out remarking the lanes. Aside from that, I'm not expecting that pattern you've gotten used to -- right lane closed but four lanes still open on the bridge -- will change until May, when the work zone will start moving out into the middle lanes.

Anyone know of a new cause of congestion along that stretch of I-395?

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Wheaton, Md.: Hi Dr. G - Thanks for the chats. Submitting early because I'll be in a meeting during the chat time.

I noticed in Metro's proposal for fare increases for next fiscal year, Metro is proposing increasing the cost of the 5A and B30 buses (to Dulles and BWI, respectively) to something like $6. This I'm okay with - it's still much cheaper than parking and it's a pretty long express metrobus route.

My suggestion is for Metro to add a surcharge for using the Metrorail stop at National Airport. Add a few bucks for getting on/off here and hopefully it'll add some money in Metro coffers. I thought of it when I used the BART to get to/from San Francisco airport. They charged (I may have the numbers wrong) about $8 to get there, but to go one-stop further, it was $4ish.

What are your and the other chatters thoughts? Thanks.

Robert Thomson: That's an interesting idea. I don't see why a surcharge, or a premium rate, could not be imposed on the airport station. The BART system found itself in a similar situation to us last year, with fare increases and service cuts on the table. Part of the solution was a boost in the airport's premium rate.

Is there an issue of fairness for us? The BART extension to SFO was built in recent years, rather than as part of the original system. Our National Airport stop was planned and built long ago.

One thing I feel certain of: Metro managers and the Metro board need to get more creative about ways to raise revenue, because we're about to enter a very discouraging -- more discouraging -- phase in our transit history, with a huge budget imbalance that will fall mainly on the backs of the riders.

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Vienna, Va.: Hi Doc -- Thanks for providing this forum. As one who drives East on 267 and connects to I-66 each morning, the Metro construction in the Dulles corridor (which I am helping to pay for through a toll increase) is now adding 10-15 grueling minutes to my morning commute. Are there any plans to alleviate the problems on the connector road or at the merge with I-66? It is causing back ups all the way to the main toll plaza. Any info you can provide would be appreciated. Thanks

Robert Thomson: I'm not aware of any plans to make it easier to get from 267 to 66 eastbound in the morning. We're entering a phase of great activity for two major projects in that area: One is the Metrorail extension and the other is the HOT lanes construction along the Beltway. (Many drivers might say they've already seen plenty of activity in the Tysons area, but the impact is likely to be even greater this year.)

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NoVa.: FYI- After the last chat and the complaints about the markings on the 14th street bridge, VDOT (or whoever is responsible), went out and fixed the lane markings.

Robert Thomson: Yes, I think that the District Department of Transportation (not VDOT) was hearing a lot about that. One thing I find encouraging is that DDOT is using its Twitter site to get feedback from travelers about problems like this. All of our transportation departments should be searching for ways to get more service oriented, more into managing their transportation networks in real time.

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National Airport/Metro Surcharge: So, you're going to double the metro fares for all the people who work at National? I'm sure they'll appreciate that...

Robert Thomson: Yes, BART had that same issue.

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Pedestrian Access: I realize it's supposedly the individual propoerty owners' responsiblity to clear snow from sidewalks, but what about areas wehre there is no private owner? I catch the bus on K St., and while the buildings and store fronts did clear most of the snow from right in front of their entrances, there was a LOT left - much of it in large snow piles that had to be climbed to cross. And the median strips on K that separate the main lanes from the access lanes - where all the bus stops are - were not touched at all. Who's responsiblfe for that? The city and Metro both seem to say it's not their problem.

Robert Thomson: Metro doesn't clear any bus stops that are off its property. I think those islands between the K Street service lanes and the main lanes would be the responsibility of the District government. I think the District, meaning the District Departments of Transportation and Public Works, did about as good a job as any government in the region in clearing the snow, but there were still plenty of reasonable complaints -- still are. They particularly concern the lingering piles of hardened snow and ice that are interfering with walking and with the use of bus stops.

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Rosslyn, Va.: Not sure if you've seen this, but I just received notice last week that as of today, the westbound left lane of Route 50 in Va. (around Courthouse Rd) will be closed until July (for utilities work, I think). That will certainly have an impact on outbound commuters in the afternoon.

Robert Thomson: The utility relocation work is just the start of a larger project to fix that dangerous junction of Arlington Blvd and Courthouse Road. Yes, traffic around there is going to be even worse for a while.

This week through July, the left travel lane of westbound Arlington Boulevard is closed from Courthouse Road to 10th Street.

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Creative Revenue: That's the last thing riders want from a system we don't trust ... numbers games.

Flat rate the system. Put a minimum $2.50 fare like NYC does on both buses and trains. I don't like the higher rates for longer distances, but I can deal with it. But playing games with peak of the peak and higher fares at certain stations just makes me have less trust and respect for a "system" when it looks more like a game.

Robert Thomson: I think transit fares are likely to move in the direction of more "creativity" because they can. NYC has a longer history with its subway than we do. For decades, fares were paid with tokens only, because that's what technology would allow.

When Metro started, we were beyond those simple systems because technology was beyond it. (NYC also had a political issue involving outer borough access to Manhattan.)

Our fares and fees for train, bus, transfer and parking are likely to get more complex, both to raise revenue and manage use.

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Arlington, Va.: "If there's a jurisdiction around here that doesn't make it the property owner's responsibility to clear snow from sidewalks and driveways, please let me know. I can't think of one."

Arlington. Just now starting the process to impose one on commercial properties; nothing forcing residential owners to clear sidewalks.

washingtonpost.com: Resolution Directing Preparation of Snow Removal Ordinance for County Board Consideration

Robert Thomson: Thanks, Arlington.

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I-395: I'm a regular commuter over the 14th Street Bridge. I believe that the recent congestion was first caused by lack of lane markings (those were restored really really quickly - the day after the complaint appeared on this chat, in fact - bravo DDOT!). Later, it was just a series of bad luck incidents involving crashes in DC, including the 3rd Street tunnel, 14th street, or other roads that the bridge feeds to. Today seemed about right at 8:15am with typical slow downs, but nothing unusually bad.

Robert Thomson: This is one of several responses I got on the bridge question.

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Alexandria, Va.: Re 395/14th Street Bridge congestion this morning -- some convoys of large rental trucks in the early (pre 7 a.m.) period. Perhaps delivery time for illicit materials heading North?

Robert Thomson: Thanks for this one, too. Again, I don't know of any work zone issue that's developed lately. Just the same old stuff.

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Red Line: west side track work: Dr. Gridlock,

How many more weekends is the west side of the red line going to be affected by track work? Any end in sight?

Robert Thomson: Metro has a long-term plan to rehabilitate the Red Line, but what you're seeing right now out there on the west side is something that was added onto the original plan because of deterioration of basic track equipment along that section of the line. It had to be dealt with right away for safety reasons.

The original plan, which still is scheduled to happen, involves starting work on the core of the Red Line, one of the oldest parts of the whole system.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: Can you, or even better someone at Metro, please explain to me why on the red line at rush hour, when every other train to Shady Grove is supposed to stop at Grosvenor, almost every single day, there are 2 trains in a row to Grosvenor and then 2 in a row to Shady Grove? This happens at different times of rush hour, both early and late, and it often causes the first Shady Grove train to skip a stop or 2 (White Flint, Twinbrook, and/or Rockville) due to "schedule adjustments." Meaning, people going to those stops will have to wait for FOUR trains before they get on one going to their stop. This isn't acceptable customer service!

I refuse to believe it's due to trains going out of service. This has been going on for months, since at least as far back as November.

Robert Thomson: I know a couple of things about what's going on, but not the ultimate answer to you question, which I think is when and how are things going to get better.

A basic problem throughout the system right now is that trains remain under manual control, rather than automatic control. That's been the case since the the June 22 crash. I understand the reasoning: It's a safety measure, since aspects of the automatic controls may have been at fault in the crash.

But the trains weren't meant to be driven by the train operators. It slows down the operation and makes it less efficient.

Meanwhile, train controllers always had several ways of making schedule adjustments and they still use them. If they think the trains are getting bunch up -- which happens quite often at rush hour -- they will hold some and have others skip stops. They might also change the terminal stops for some Red Line trains if they think certain platforms are getting too crowded.

I'm not arguing that this all works out to anyone's satisfication.

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Arlington, Va.: For the past few months, trains in the tunnel between Rosslyn and Foggy Bottom have slowed down for a long stretch. This backs things up in the tunnel and makes the ride longer. Is there a track circuit problem in this area?

Robert Thomson: I'm not aware of a track circuit problem in that area. Since the June 22 crash, Metro has -- as I guess every rider knows -- added some extra layers of caution to its procedures in dealing with unexplained issues involving track circuits.

If managers discover something they need to check out on the track circuits, they might impose what I believe is called an "absolute block" on a sector, meaning that only one train at at time is allowed to proceed through that zone. (So nobody's going to crash into the back of anybody else.)

But I think there's no place in the system right now where that's occurring. You can track Metro's track circuit work yourself on this Metro Web page:
http://www.wmata.com/about_metro/track_circuit_archive.cfm

Rather, I think what you're seeing in the tunnel is what riders are experiencing everywhere: Manual control of the trains, and lots of congestion on the downtown platforms, are causing slowdowns.

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Arlington, Va.: I know what the first questioner means about the uncleared sidewalks -- it's not that the snow wasn't shoveled, it's that ice-bound snowbanks of 18' - 12' (before the rain; now down to 5' - 6') are piled onto sidewalks by plows and other snow-removal teams. It's happened all over our neighborhood in Arlington, and we drive through DC to get to work in Md. and see it all over every day. The combination of snowbanks and downed trees has been horrible for walkers and even worse for those who are trying to be responsible with bicycles.

Robert Thomson: Yes, I agree. I've seen enough of this all across the region that I don't rate any department as doing a better or worse job in handling snow removal. They just don't have strategies to deal with the lingering consequences for walkers and bikers.

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Woodley Park, Washington DC: Dr. G., I have 2 things to mention.

First, regarding street lights being out, I've noticed this a lot throughout the region lately. I-66 between Falls Church and DC is supposed to be lit, but I'd guess 80% of the lights on the eastbound side are dark. The Roosevelt Bridge (DDOT maintained) is also dark. Part of me wonders if DOT's are dragging their feet in fixing these lights to save money on the electric bill. Part of me wonders if its just not snow. But I think its kind of odd that you never see one light out, its always a string of like 10 or more.

The second comment relates to premium fees for service to the airports: if WMATA would get off its rear about implementing passes on SmarTrip cards, there is an easy solution. Charge a premium to people going to the airport and paying with a normal fare, but have a pass which is good for airport workers and is more affordable. This is what the operators of JFK Airport did with their AirTrain fares. The old fare structure was $5 one way fare, or $40 for a monthly pass. You get big bucks from the tourists (who are willing to pay), but you don't scare away the airport workers.

Robert Thomson: I'm not sure the savings from a bunch of busted street lights would be that tempting for any of the DOTs. They and the power companies might well have been slowed by the storms, though.

I like the idea of making the SmarTrip cards do the calculating on the airport fares, and agree with you that it's taken way too long to make the smart cards smarter about passes.

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Fairfax: A surcharge to get off Metro at DCA would unfairly burden airport and airline workers who commute to work at DCA by Metro. They would need to have special smartrip cards or some such to exempt them from the surcharge.

Robert Thomson: I've received a bunch of comments on this theme of protecting the airport workers. I agree. Metro and the airport would have to work out something, but that seems like a hurdle that could be overcome with the technology available.

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Pain on 267 - I-66 Connector: For the Vienna commuter -

I feel your pain. The shoulder on the connector already is open to buses. My suggestion would be to open the shoulder lane to all traffic as there is still a bit of room beyond the shoulder and there are rarely accidents or breakdowns in that area anyway. THis would alleviate the backups between the toll plaza and the merge with I-66. Another option would be to reduce traffic going to I-66 in the first place by extending the HOV hours. This would make I-66 less convenient for commuters generally.

Robert Thomson: I always worry about opening up the shoulders to general traffic. Opening to buses is one thing. It encourages people to use the buses for a faster trip and thereby eases traffic for everyone. But opening the shoulders to all just makes the trip more dangerous for everyone.

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Alexandria: For the life of me, I cannot figure out why there is frequently heavy traffic on 395 north in the late afternoon and evening, usually from Pentagon City to the 14th Street bridge and beyond. Where are these people going that is opposite of the usualy rush hour commute? Sometimes, it's a breeze, but you can never tell. And it doesn't seem to be as a result of an accident, etc. Dr. Gridlock can you shed some light on this frustrating phenomenon?

Robert Thomson: Seems like the 14th Street Bridge is never without a rush hour -- in both directions. In the afternoon, there are plenty of people heading home to Maryland who use the bridge.

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Washington, D.C., 20004: I get the sinking feeling that I am witnessing a methodical collapse of the Metrorail system. It sort of feels like what it could have been like in NYC in the 1960s, the system isn't falling down but yet but decreasing revenues and deferred maintenance became increasing problems.

While I do believe that WMATA is trying to maintain "a state of good repair", I don't get the feeling that the organization has a clear plan to address the rebuilding of the system. Perhaps it's a perception / communication problem but from what I see, the agency fixes problems that they can afford while delaying others that could be potentially life-threatening.

Your thoughts?

Robert Thomson: I saw what happened to the NYC subways during the 1960s and early 70s when they were starved for maintenance money and transportation politics dictated that the fares be held lower than necessity dictated.

That was the original "death spiral" and it took NY years to pull out of it. We don't want to go there. Yet we're not really doing anything about it.

This isn't just a transit management issue. The system really does need billions of dollars more to invest in maintenance and purchase of new equipment. The riders -- the transit advocates -- need to get politically active about this, because no one else is going to step in on their behalf and fix it.

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Southeast, Washington, D.C.: Dr. Gridlock, thanks for your excellent articles and chats. Could you please enlighten me regarding the new 11th St Bridge overhaul in the District and how that will affect traffic on the Sousa Bridge/Pennsylvania Avenue? I ride the bus from Potomac Avenue, and it can take twenty minutes to get to the other side if things melt down in the evening commute.

I hate that light by the McDonalds with a passion. Will the local traffic on Pennsylvania Avenue get a break from all the people trying to get on 295? Thanks!

Robert Thomson: Yes. A key benefit of the rebuilding of the 11th Street Bridges, which is just getting underway, is that the long-distance commuters won't be going to the Sousa Bridge so they can reach northbound 295.

The impact on traffic during construction should be relatively light, as these things go. The existing bridges will keep on doing their job until the new ones open up.

But here's something to keep in mind: Traffic congestion throughout that area still will be heavy. Commuters won't have to do the fancy maneuvering they do now to compensate for the missing highway links. But the rush hour traffic still will be heavy after the new bridges open.

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Rockville, Md.: While the "signal maker warned about mixing equipment" makes for a great "bad Metro" headline, was there any real in-depth discussion about this? I mean, car companies say the same thing, "you should use genuine (insert car company) parts because only they meet our testing and performance tests", and no one believes that mixing car parts is an issue.

Robert Thomson: Rockville is referring to an exchange during last week's National Transportation Safety Board hearings on the June 22 crash.

It involved a warning that the Alstom company sent out to its customers -- including Metro -- warning its rail control equipment should not be mixed with that of other manufacturers.

I'm not an expert on this, like our Joe Stephens and Lena H. Sun. To me, the significance of this letter sent to hundreds of customers was unclear. As Rockville says, it was like a "Dear Valued Customer" letter strongly urging that the customer use online genuine parts made by the letter writer.

During the hearing, the NTSB didn't seem to make much of it, but we still await the final results of the NTSB investigation.

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Washington, DC: Why oh why oh WHY is there no enforcement of the "blocking the box" rule in downtown DC? I see it daily on my commute and it's frustrating to no end! People want to get through the light, but end up blocking the intersection of those who then have the opposing green light. Why don't we ticket here for that like they do in NYC? Why are there basically no police doing traffic duty? I'm exhausted.

Robert Thomson: The best thing, I think, would be for DDOT to expand its force of traffic control officers, who do now have some ticket-writing authority. The problem with the ticket-writing authority is that to use it, the officer has to stop doing traffic control and instead write a ticket. And a big enforcement effort would really screw up everyone's trip home if only for the gawk factor.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Hi Dr. Gridlock - I'm a regular metro user and also concerned about what seems to a downward trend of safety and service. You say that the riders need to get politically active - can you list a few ways to get involved that can really make a difference? Should we write to our elected representatives? Directly to the board? Attend hearings?

Thanks!

Robert Thomson: All that stuff. My fear is that the real impact of the current budget problem won't sink in on riders till they actually experience the raised fares and the service cuts, and then, of course, it will be too late.

It's comparable to what parents do when they see the school budget getting cut. They go to board meetings and attend public hearings and write letters to government officials. They've learned how to be a political force, but I don't see that same activism among transit users.

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Kingstowne, Va.: Last week in response to a question you asked where the name Silver Line came from for the now-under-construction Dulles Metrorail project. (I only saw last week's transcript after the fact and couldn't reply then.) The first time I ever saw that name used was back on the old Washington Post discussion boards that used to exist; they were shut down some time prior to your colleague Steve Ginsberg founding the Get There blog. Anyway, there was a traffic discussion board with a rather regular set of posters and I used to comment under the username "GOP4USA" (a handle I had adopted to annoy a friend) and someone was talking about the "Orange Line extension to Dulles which is what the Post reporters called it at the time. I commented that "Orange Line extension" seemed like a poor term to use because WMATA is unlikely ever to have a line with two branches in regular service (except on July 4) and I said "they ought to call it the Silver Line or something." Several other people liked it and the funny thing is that the Post reporters started using that name within the next few weeks. At the time I wasn't aware that Boston had a bus transit line called the Silver Line.

I have no idea whether that long-ago message board post was actually the pebble in the pond that got the name Silver Line going, but I'd like to think it was.

Robert Thomson: Thanks, Kingstowne. I guess that would have been back in 2006, when Steve was doing both the message board and starting up the Get There blog.

I've also heard tell that silver was the color used on some planning maps showing the new route, so people started applying the color to the unbuilt line.

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Robert Thomson: Travelers, I need to break away now. I really appreciate your contributions this week on quite a variety of road and rail topics. We've dealt with issues both philosophical and practical.

Please join me again next Monday. I've got some thoughts from this conversation for items I'd like to post during the week on the Get There blog. And remember you can write to me anytime at drgridlock@washpost.com. Stay safe out there.

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