Dr. Gridlock

Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, January 16, 2007; 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 Tuesday, Jan. 16, 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, let's get to your questions about getting around this region.


Metro Web site lies re: Train Times, D.C.: Why doesn't the Metro Web site sync with actual train schedules? I'm often leaving my office at Metro Center late and night, and I hate waiting 15 minutes for a train! So I figured I could look up when the next train was coming and be there to meet it. Except there is no relation to the Metro Web site and actual train schedules! Why???

Dr. Gridlock: I can tell you how it's supposed to work. Here's what Metro says about using its Web site, www.metroopensdoors.com, to get real time information on trains:
From the home page, go to the "Maps and Stations" page and click on "Find a Stop/Station." You'll see a list of stations. Click on the on yours. Then click to "Next Train Arrival" to get the arrival times of the next three trains headed in each direction. What you'll see looks like the electronic display boards on the platforms. The page refreshes every 30 seconds.


Arlington, Va.: A big thank you to the Arlington County Police Officer who was pulling over people driving in the breakdown lane on 66-West this morning. This is a chronic problem in the a.m. between Lee Highway and Glebe Road, so it was nice to see someone take some action against it.

Dr. Gridlock: It's a frustrating thing to drive I-66, especially at rush periods and especially inside the Beltway, where it's only two lanes.
The state is looking at some improvements in the westbound direction that don't involve expanding the right of way.
Driving in the breakdown lane is no solution. It's a dangerous thing for those who do it and for other motorists.


Fairfax, Va.: This may be more of a Metro question but...

Recently the overflow parking lot at the Vienna station closed down. Although Metro offered options of where else to park your car (then take a bus to the station) none are very convenient for me. Several times now I have arrived at the station at around 8, only to find there is no parking (except for all the empty "reserved" spaces). Metro claims that a new parking deck is being built in 2007, but what do they plan to do about all the new traffic this will cause, and all the back-up this will cause on the trains?

Dr. Gridlock: Metro and local governments are planning to add more parking across the region, but construction is not keeping pace with demand.
My letter-writers are particularly vexed about the closings of parking areas in some places to make way for construction around Metro stations. Vienna is a case in point.
I talked to a group of retired federal workers in the Vienna-Oakton area last week who said they don't even think about taking the train. They like to do their traveling outside of rush hour, and of course, you can't get a parking space at the Vienna Station.
Meanwhile, Metro wants to add more reserved parking and overbook it, like airlines overbook seats because they know some people won't show up. I hear from some people frustrated because they've been on the waiting list for reserved parking forever, but I also hear from others who see empty reserved spaces they can't use when everything else is full.


Chesapeake Beach, Md.: Why isn't there a bullet train between Baltimore and Washington? Fifteen minutes station to station -- something really revolutionary and modern.

Dr. Gridlock: If you go to http://www.bwmaglev.com/, you can read more about the proposal to build a maglev train line between Baltimore and Washington.
But the thing is, this would cost about $4 billion to build (and I think the estimate would prove to be low). So what would a one-way ticket cost? Maybe $40? Maybe tourists would use it, or people in a desperate hurry on one particular day. But it's not a solution for commuters.
We'd be better off extending Metro's Green Line up that way, building a new light rail line, or enhancing commuter bus service.


Washington, D.C.: Dr. Gridlock,

Can you please let us know the rules regarding bicycles on the escalators when the elevators are down?

I am always seeing strollers on the escalators and no one bats an eye...

Dr. Gridlock: Here's Metro's rule: "Cyclists shall be required to use elevators to access mezzanines and platforms. Escalators and stairs shall not be used except when special requests (for emergency reasons) have been granted by Metro Station Managers, Metro Transit Police, or city/county police or fire officials. Cyclists shall allow other passengers to exit before placing bicycles in or taking bicycles out of the elevators."
Metro doesn't want to take a chance on a bike slipping from the riders hands and tumbling down the steps. It's crazy for people to take a chance with a stroller, too. Metro's Web site has a list of stations where the elevators are out of service, so surprises should be rare.


Jacksonville, Fla. (but recently D.C.): What do you mean by saying that Porcari "knows" that Maryland doesn't have enough money to build any new stuff? If they can afford the ICC, why can't they afford other stuff?

Dr. Gridlock: What I said on my "Get There" blog this morning was that incoming Maryland transportation secretary John Porcari Porcari "knows that Maryland doesn't have the money or the room to build a lot of big new stuff in the densely populated Washington-Baltimore corridor."
I also quoted Porcari saying that his top priority is to make sure that projects under construction or near construction actually get done. That would include the intercounty connector highway, for example. Probably would not include a $4 billion maglev link between Washington and Baltimore.


Back on metro after 20 years!: I hope I am not beating a dead horse, but I have noticed some particularly foul odors in Metro stations recently. The odors smell part dead animal, or part burning brakes or some other mechanical piece burning. I notice the smells waiting in stations, but not on trains themselves. Sometimes the smell is enhanced when a train enters the station. Has anyone else noticed or commented on these odors?

Dr. Gridlock: If you experienced what a lot of other riders have experienced in the past couple months, Metro says you're smelling the new brake pads. Metro knows the odor is a problem and is working with the manufacturer to fix this.


Fairfax, Va.: Can you ask your readers how busy Chain Bridge Road from McLean through Tysons into Vienna is during rush hour? Is it busy throughout the day, or can I get across town better before a certain time in the early morning and early evening? As bad as it may be, is it better than taking the beltway to I66W to get to Vienna instead of Chain Bridge Road?

Dr. Gridlock: Readers?


Fairfax, Va.: When the funding finally gets finished for Metro to Tysons/Dulles, do you think we'll finally see movement on rail to Centreville down the median of I-66?

Dr. Gridlock: I hope we don't have to wait that long for some way of pushing transit farther out the I-66 corridor. The $4 billion rail to Dulles project won't be finished till 2015, which might be optimistic.


Burke, Va.: Why do states constantly think that throwing money at a problem will solve it???

Spending billions of dollars on transportation is NEVER going to solve the source or the problem: That people cannot afford to live where they work. Until the government figures out a way to create affordable housing near work centers, all of the money in the world is not going to solve the traffic problem!

Dr. Gridlock: I agree with what you said. More money is not going to solve the problem. But I do believe that all across this region, we've got to spend a lot more money to help solve it.
The problem is so big, it requires a big, complex solution. Make our transportation planning and construction problems more rational, more transparent, more efficient. Coordinate transportation planning and land use planning (like you said, more affordable housing near work centers).
But if you just plan better for land use, you haven't solved the problem either. We still have to build roads and transit and sidewalks and bike paths to match up with a smarter design for our communities.


Arlington, Va.: Is there any information about how the closing of the Arlington Cemetery station this weekend went? I live in Rosslyn and I do know that the shuttle buses were there, but I decided not to bother to head to Pentagon City because of the business of going in and out of the Pentagon Station both ways, although I suppose riding down to L'Enfant Plaza and switching might have worked.

Dr. Gridlock: I haven't heard any complaints -- yet -- about the changes Metrorail imposed this weekend because of the major track work around Arlington Cemetery Station.
What say you all?
This was a fairly large-scale reorganization. Because of the weekend work, the Yellow Line was extended and the Blue Line was diverted away from the Rosslyn tunnel.


Capitol Hill, D.C.: The Montgomery County Planning Board recently approved recommendations to build a bikeway along the entire 18 mile ICC. Right now, the state is only going to build along 7.7 miles (non-contiguous). Did Porcari say anything about the bikeway (since he believes that "a proper transportation network offers people choices -- drive, ride transit, bike, walk.")

Dr. Gridlock: Capitol Hill refers to my interview with incoming MD transportation secretary John Porcari.
I didn't ask Porcari specifically about the unfunded portion of the ICC bikeway, but I've got to believe that if he can find a way to extend it along the entire route, he'll do that.
During the interview, Porcari frequently mentioned his enthusiasm for the region's bike trails and the need to use every opportunity to expand them.
He noted with some pride -- because he was involved in the planning -- that the new Wilson Bridge will be accessible to bikers.


Chain Bridge into Vienna: Is a mess. Beltway is by far the better option.

Or, take the backroads from McLean to Rt 7 and hop on 66 there.

Dr. Gridlock: A response to the traveler's question above.


Rockville, Md.: "Spending billions of dollars on transportation is NEVER going to solve the source or the problem: That people cannot afford to live where they work."

How much is this versus choose not to live near where they work? I work in downtown D.C. I have some coworkers who live in West Virginia. It's not cost of living (per se). They want to have acres upon acres on which to play on the weekends. They can't buy that here (since it doesn't exist) but they could (if they wanted) buy a nice house with a decent yard close in but, it wouldn't be what they wanted.

Dr. Gridlock: That's the problem with Americans. They're never going to do exactly what you tell them. They're going to decide for themselves what's best for them and their families.
I do believe in good planning as a partial solution to our transportation problems, but it's unrealistic to think we're going to eliminate the solo driver and get everyone living in areas dense enough to support transit.


Rockville, Md.: Doc,

What is the absolute latest I could leave the D.C. area to get to NYC relatively hassle-free? Is 1:00 pushing it?

Dr. Gridlock: Questions about long-distance travel times always vex me, because there's no way to account for what's going to happen to you between here and there.
Will the weather change? Will there be a lane-closing accident on I-95 in Delaware? How long will the backup be at Delaware's toll plaza?
Also, when you're making a long-distance trip during daylight, you're likely to wander into somebody else's rush period in the congested Northeast corridor. A Delaware highway official pointed out to me that the stretch of I-95 through his state may seem like long-distance pavement to us in Washington, but it's Main Street for New Castle County. (You think I'm obsessing on Delaware?)


Washington, D.C.: Re: trains to BWI. Why build a new train? Why extend Metro? There actually is a train that goes there from D.C. and New Carrollton already. The train is called MARC. Granted, the service is awful unless you are going southbound in the a.m. or northbound in the p.m. Oh, and forget about weekends and holidays. But expanding existing service of trains that go from Metro stops to BWI and Baltimore seems to be a lot cheaper than building new tracks or inventing mag-lev trains.

The various governments (I'm lumping all transit authorities, state, city, feds together here) should recognize the existing commuter rail networks such as MARC and VRE as reasonable ways to transport large numbers of people around the area, not just a way to get people into D.C. for work. The model should be more along the lines of Long Island RR or NJ Transit, with frequent service even on the weekends, rather than simply 9-5 commuters.

Just my $0.02

Dr. Gridlock: I think improved weekday service on MARC and VRE should be a very high transportation priority. But it's not going to do everything we need -- at least not soon.
MARC has to operate on tracks owned by CSX and Amtrak. There are only so many trains that can run on those lines. At a town hall meeting in Montgomery County last week, Porcari was asked if MARC service could run on weekends. Porcari noted that it would require renegotiation of agreements with the rail owners, plus a significant increase in the operating subsidy for MARC.
Better equipment and more reliable service would be a good place to start improving MARC.


Alexandria, Va.: Is there a resource online that displays what time the Metro stations with parking become full in the morning? Personally, I am interested in the Virginia stations. Thanks!

Dr. Gridlock: There's no source I know of. Definitely not anything official from Metro that would help you on a given day. Maybe readers have some suggestions, though?


Reston, Va.: Re:Chain Bridge Road

From McLean into and through Tyson's it's "not that bad", assuming that everything is going smoothly. (No accidents, mistimed lights, random cop on the corner, etc.) But 123 into Vienna (after Old Courthouse) is usually a bear, primarily due to volume of both cars and traffic lights.

Dr. Gridlock: That's another response to reader question above on best route.


Washington, D.C.: Any idea on what the ICC will be signed as when it's complete? Will it be an extension of I-370 or will it have a number at all?

Dr. Gridlock: David Buck, spokesman for the Maryland State Highway Administration, tells me that the intercounty connector will be designated as MD 200.


Washington, D.C.: I used to work in McLean. I'd suggest that the reader seeking to go to Vienna consider taking the Toll Road west to Spring Hill, go left after the tollbooth, then right on Westpark Drive (the light at the top of the hill after passing the apartments), and follow that until you hit 123 next to the "Toilet Bowl Building." Then go right onto 123. This avoids the mall traffic. In my experience 123 was worst during the evening rush hour but was okay during midday, but that was a few years ago.

Dr. Gridlock: Another response to the travel question above. (What I've found is that our readers are an army of researchers and they're very willing to help fellow sufferers on the roads and rails. This is a very powerful force.)


Arlington, Va.: re: travel between D.C. and NYC -- I've tried, and there is no way to travel during the day and miss rush hour everywhere. If you are actually going to NYC (vs. the suburbs), you stand a chance if you leave D.C. around 9:30 a.m. If you're passing through D.C. to Long Island or Westchester, you'll hit rush hour on the other side of the city.

Really your best best is to wait after the p.m. rush ends in D.C., and the later you leave, the better -- you'd be amazed how much traffic is still on the NJ Turnpike at midnight. I usually wait until 9 p.m. before I head out.

Dr. Gridlock: Another example of the research army. This was in response to the question about how late you can leave for New York and still avoid a big hassle.
By the way, in doing some columns of holiday travel advice, I came to the conclusion that the time you leave outweighs the importance of the route you take in most cases. If you're traveling in the Northeast corridor of during holiday periods, you'll get more benefit from a very early or very late departure than you will from a "shortcut."


Delaware: I think you are so right to obsess about the backups in Delaware. They really need to stop considering their stretch of I-95 as part of a local Main Street, and start thinking of it as a piece of a vital commercial corridor that connects the entire eastern seaboard. A corridor that is consistently brought to a crashing halt in Delaware. Why don't they have high speed EZ-Pass lanes, similar to the N.J. turnpike, where you can drive through at 55 mph? That facility added to the Delaware Memorial Bridge and to the absurd little toll plaza they use to extort payment from all travelers would help immeasurably.

Dr. Gridlock: And I should ask the Del. folks why they can't go for a one-way toll, like so many other turnpike and bridge authorities do. Must be a revenue reason. Probably something about the ease of getting around that toll plaza near the Maryland border.


Arlington, Va.: Dr. Gridlock,

To earlier post (I-66, police officer..)

There is a public workshop concerning the westbound I-66. Washington Lee HS, next Tuesday Jan. 23, 7-8:30.

Dr. Gridlock: Thanks, Arlington, and I'll mention that in my Road Watch column as well. That meeting is about several ways the state has come up with to ease westbound travel without expanding the right of way on I-66 inside the Beltway.


Washington, D.C.: Dr. Gridlock, I'm sure you've heard these comparisons before. I visited NYC a couple of weeks ago and couldn't help but marvel at how much more efficient the subway system is there. My sister was able to go online and figure out the best way for me to get from the city to Queens so that I could be picked up by my in-laws. Not only did it work, but it was a lot quicker than I expected -- on a Saturday!

While the trains are not as luxurious as Metro's, they are relatively clean and seemingly run like clockwork and quite frequently -- for a Saturday. I also noticed there is a flat rate and no turnstiles when exiting the station.

When will Metro get with the program? Also, do we trade off more luxurious trains and cleaner stations for trains that don't run frequently on weekends, evenings and holidays?

Dr. Gridlock: In terms of transit in the U.S., there's New York and then there's everything else. Though it's a century old, the NYC system has lots of natural advantages. The region is so densely populated it can support an enormous transit system. Also, it was built with express tracks, that not only speed travel but also allow the subway managers to work the trains around problems.
Still, our Metro system is one of the finest I've seen in my travels. We all want to see it get better, but that shouldn't blind us to this great resource.
By the way, the "Trip Planner" on Metro's Web site is pretty good at helping you get around the region by transit. I use it a lot.


Reston, Va.: Anyone want to do an actual headcount of Delaware tags on 95 IN Delaware? I worked there for several years and most folks avoid it like the combination of the plague and Ebola.

Dr. Gridlock: Maybe it's like Yogi said: "Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded."
Around here, we say "never again" after a bad drive on the Beltway or a crushing experience on the Orange Line. But the next day, we're back in the rut because we haven't found a better way.


Tysons Corner, Va.: I have written with this question but have never seen it in your column. I commute to Herndon from Tysons on the Toll Road. Frequently, a Fairfax County bus exits the Dulles Access Road doing 65 or 70, then has to careen over four lanes of traffic in time to get off at its Toll Road exit. I see the same thing the other direction, as buses get onto the Toll Road then swoop to the left to get on the Access Road. This seems like an accident looking for a time to happen.

Why are buses allowed to use the Dulles Access Road? And why are they routed so as require such challenging lane changes?

Dr. Gridlock: That's not a good maneuver for anybody, let alone a bus. That set up must have been designed for an era with far fewer cars trying to jam through.
It is pretty common, though, to give buses access to the fastest possible route. They have access to the carpool lanes, they'll have access to the tolled intercounty connector in Maryland and to the High Occupancy/Toll lanes when they're built from Springfield to American Legion Bridge.


Northern Virginia: Dear Dr. Gridlock,

Recently I moved to the Ashburn area and commute to Reston. When I travel on Loudoun County Parkway to Waxpool (this is a really big intersection), two things I see every day:

1. People run the red light...not just by a smidgen, but blowing right through it

2. People turning right onto Waxpool from Loudoun County Parkway do so on red from the middle turn lane, even though there is a sign saying "No Turn on Red from This Lane". But really it's so small that people miss it, or people honk if someone actually stops on red in this lane.

Just needed to vent, that is all.

Dr. Gridlock: Thought I'd share that vent with the group. "Northern Virginia's" frustrations are pretty common across the region.


Waldorf, Md.: Commuter buses are only as good as the roads they travel. There are plenty of commuter buses coming up to D.C. from Southern Maryland each day, but they sit in the same horrific traffic on 5/301 and into D.C. that I do in my car. I would take the bus if there were dedicated lanes and a consistent schedule. Any talk from Porcari about those types of improvements (or any improvements for that matter) for the fast-growing Southern Maryland region?

Dr. Gridlock: First, give the man a chance. He isn't even in Annapolis yet. But I can tell you this: When we were talking about improvements in Maryland's transportation system, Porcari talked specifically about the addition of commuter buses to serve Southern Maryland. We also talked a bit about the need for a Route 301 bypass around Waldorf.
I think you've got a guy coming into this job who brings experience from his first round under Gov. Glendening and an awareness of what Maryland travelers are looking for in terms of improvements.


Dr. Gridlock: Travelers, I need to head off to a briefing on a transportation project many of you will be interested in. Once again, I've got far more good questions and comments on my screen than I could get to today.
I'll make a printout and try to address some of them on the "Get There" blog or in upcoming Dr. Gridlock columns.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company