Dr. Gridlock

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Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, January 29, 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 Monday, Jan. 29, 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.

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Dr. Gridlock: Welcome, travelers, I just got back from the first press conference with Metro's new general manager, John B. Catoe Jr.

First reaction: He's quite impressive. Knows how to walk that line in which you assure the public that your serious about making things better without trashing the people and things that have come before you. He talked about his safety plans and the fare proposals, among other things.

We can talk about that and any other local travel issue you're concerned about today. Let's go.

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Boston: Has Metro given more consideration to re-configuring the interiors of its rail carriages?

Every time I am in D.C., it strikes me that a lot of passenger capacity is being lost due to the narrow aisles and the side-by-side seating. To make matters worse, the grab bars are clustered in the area by the doorway, which is the worst place for people to congregate.

I know that Metro has often resisted a more "urban subway" look to its services, but given the major growth in ridership and and the need for more capacity, isn't this the time to re-visit this? It's a much cheaper way to add capacity than running longer trains.

Dr. Gridlock: Yeah, Boston, you're right that the design of the cars is limiting their capacity. Metro knows it needs to pay attention to this, and is doing some limited experimentation with bench seating ideas, but nothing radical.

You're correct in identifying a key problem: The identity conflict around here over whether we have a suburban commuter line or an urban subway.

People who ride a long way want a seat. People who go a couple of stops downtown want to be able to get on the train, so a car with fewer seats and more standing room would be fine with many of them.

One letter writer is asking me if we could have trains with both. They'd be marked so you'd know what to look for. Interesting idea.

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South Riding, Va.: I know there have been questions and comments about the change to the stop lights in Fairfax County along U.S. 50. I appreciate the fact they took the effort to re-time the lights, but I don't understand how moving the left turns from before the green light cycle to the end of the cycle helps traffic.

I feel that I am fortunate that I am able to arrive and leave work before the heaviest traffic periods, but have found myself stuck in slow traffic when needing to make special trips.

I feel the best answer to the problem would be to widen the intersections with US-50 to eliminate the need to have separate green light cycles for the traffic turning onto US-50 from the side streets.

Dr. Gridlock: I hear you. I'll ask the Virginia Department of Transportation about this. How do others feel about the travel along Route 50 through Fairfax County?

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Boyds, Md.: Good morning, Dr. Gridlock, and thanks.

I commute to Tyson's Corner, and as you can imagine I read the story in yesterday's paper with fear in my heart.

Given the overwhelming gridlock that already exists at rush hour in the Tyson's area, are you aware of any planned short-term strategies that might be taken to minimize the impact on traffic that's already bursting at the seams? My parking lot is located on International Drive, not 300 yards from 123, and often it takes 20 minutes just to turn onto 123 South.

Thanks Dr., and please don't tell me to take two Xanax and call you in the morning. If worse comes to worst, it might take 10 ...

washingtonpost.com: 5-Year Tysons Nightmare Starts Soon ( Post, Jan. 28)

Dr. Gridlock: I've very worried for you and all your co-workers. There are two issues regarding all the upcoming construction at Tysons, where 100,000 people work. First issue is how will you all get to and from work during construction that will start later this year and last more than half a decade. Second issue is, when it's all done, will travel be easier?

State, county and private officials are talking about how to ease the impact of the rail, office/residential and express toll lane construction. Main problem, as I said in my Sunday column, is that they've got to plan on how to get you into Tysons, not just get people around Tysons.

More commuter buses, a better internal shuttle bus system and more teleworking are parts of the solution. But the planners still have a long way to go in coming up with a transportation plan that won't make the already severe congestion problems too much worse.

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Washington, D.C.: Dr. Gridlock,

Is the shuttle bus service that is offered when Metro elevators are down available to all who need to use the elevator? For example, say I have some heavy suitcases, a stroller etc, can I call the service so I can get to the trains? I tried looking for this information on the Web site.

Thanks

Dr. Gridlock: Absolutely, you are entitled to the free shuttle when the elevators are out. Check out this page on Metro's Web site for some information:

http://www.wmata.com/riding/eles.cfm

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Dulles Toll Road: Great idea turning over operation of the toll road to MWAA. Now the Metro to Dulles will be done in a timely manner, without all of the bureaucratic red tape that would have been involved between the three jurisdictions.

Dr. Gridlock: The transportation planners and local leaders I talk to tend to agree with you about the ability of the airports authority to build the rail line to Dulles.

But here are a couple of things to consider: It's the airports authority. It's goal is to get people to and from the airport. In the many decisions that come up between now and 2015 as the rail line gets built, will the airports authority always act in the best interest of Northern Virginia commuters as well as airport passengers? That's not just the travelers on the new rail line. The authority will control the toll road operations as well. Will it operate the road in the best and most cost-effective manner for commuters, or gouge them at the toll plaza for the sake of building the rail line?

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Fairfax, Va.: Does the District have any plans to fix the bumpy surface on the newly finished Roosevelt Bridge?

Dr. Gridlock: I have heard from several travelers who don't like the new concrete surface on the Roosevelt.

I did an experiment recently: I drove across the Roosevelt Bridge, then drove up river and crossed the Legion Bridge. I thought they were about the same on smoothness.

How do others feel about this?

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Washington, D.C.: WHY does D.C. continue to let delivery vans park on the main section of K Street to drop off and pick up during rush? Isn't that what the service lane is for?

Dr. Gridlock: Yes, that's what the service lane is for, and when delivery trucks park in the main road, they create an immediate and severe problem.

Those service lanes are useless and should be eliminated. DC has talked about putting a rapid bus line down the middle of K Street and eliminating the service lanes so there would be the same number of travel lanes as now.

I like that idea, and how the city will get back to it under the new mayor.

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Howard County, Md.: I live in Howard County and I'm thinking about a job in the Rockledge business park in Bethesda. I live near I-95, just north of Rt. 100. Flex time probably isn't a option - 9:00 to 6:00 is about the most flexible I could be. How bad of a commute would I be looking at? I'm thinking at least 1.5 hours.

Dr. Gridlock: That sounds about right to me, but others should comment, too. For example, I'll bet lots of folks would say you'd be cutting it close and can't count on making it in that time frame if there's any problem at all.

Traffic on I-95 southbound is already pretty heavy at 6:30 a.m. There's a choke point at the junction with the Capital Beltway, then it's sluggest all across the outer loop up to I-270. You could come down Route 29, the I-95 Lite, but that has its own set of problems once you get south of White Oak.

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Yellow Line to Ft. Totten: I live at 16th and U and just wanted to say how much I LOVE that the Yellow Line now goes to Ft. Totten. What a difference it makes.

Dr. Gridlock: This is a Metro experiment in expanded service that is being subsidized by the DC government. It's a great idea meant to open up travel in a developing part of the District.

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Legion bridge: Legion bridge is the clear winner here.

Dr. Gridlock: That's a reply to my question about what others think of the surface on Roosevelt vs. Legion. I rated it a toss up in my response above.

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Columbia Heights, Washington, D.C.: Two comments: First, the service lanes on K Street might be inconvenient for some, but they make biking down that busy street easier and less dangerous.

Second, if or when Metro reconfigures the rail cars, what is the probability that they will allow bikes on during rush hour?

Dr. Gridlock: I think it's important to provide safe routes for bike travel all through the region, including downtown. But I wouldn't make a decision about the K Street service lanes dependent on that. I'd find some other way to accommodate bikers.

On Metro cars: No, I don't believe the transit planners will allow bikes on at rush hour, no matter what the car configuration. Rush hour crowding on the trains will just get worse in coming years, so I don't believe it's realistic to put bikes on at rush hour.

Bikers, what's your opinion on that? And how are the bike racks on the fronts of buses working for you?

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Bus Rider: During your meeting this morning, did WMATA's new director address how he was going to handle the ongoing problems with buses in the District, especially on weekends? Yesterday, I attempted to take the G2 bus from Georgetown toward Shaw, only to find that there was a shift change, and the new driver decided to skip part of the route , presumably out of laziness or an attempt to remain on time. I then walked down to the Circulator (which is contracted with, though not run by Metro) and waited 26 minutes for a bus that is supposed to run "every 5-10 minutes." Metro can be sure that with service like that I will not be riding buses on weekends in the future, and I assume there are many others like me. What does he plan to do to fix these problems?

Dr. Gridlock: First, I'm sorry to hear about that bad experience and particularly with the Circulator bus, which I've really enjoyed and see as a great innovation for getting people around downtown DC.

As your experience reminds up, there's no reason for travelers to turn to buses if they can't count on them.

In the morning press conference with Catoe, who was sworn in as the new Metro general manager last Thursday, we didn't get into such specifics. But he has a great background on buses and the Metro board really liked what it heard about his background in and plans for customer service. So there are reasons to be encouraged.

By the way, he promises to ride transit 100 percent of the time for his own commuting.

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Arlington, Va.: Re: the Roosevelt Bridge, I agree with the poster who pointed out the bumpy surface. I've never been on a concrete road that had that level of uneven-ness to it. All concrete roads tend to "sing" with your tires, and there are the inevitable "ka-chunk" sounds as you pass over the expansion joints, but most concrete roads are very smooth. The Roosevelt feels as if they didn't smooth it out as a last step, they just left it with little pits and hills and valleys.

I'm not advocating that we start over, given the nightmare that it was for traffic. But this is basic stuff, and it definitely wasn't done right.

Dr. Gridlock: Another response on the Roosevelt Bridge issue raised above. One thing I remember about the Roosevelt project was that a fast-drying type of concrete was used in the project. The benefit was that the lanes could be reopened quickly to traffic after a pouring. But I have no idea if that's a factor in the current condition of the surface that some of yofu are pointing out.

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Farragut North, Washington, D.C.: Do you know of where I might find the list of rules regarding the metro? I searched WMATA but could not find a complete list!

Dr. Gridlock: See if this page about riding rules and manners is what you're looking for:

http://www.wmata.com/metrorail/railrules.cfm

Metro's Web site is pretty good, and it's gotten a lot better during the past year or so, but it still takes some getting used to.

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Arlington, Va.: I drive inbound on the Roosevelt bridge every couple of weeks, and it doesn't seem bumpy to me. I rarely take it outbound though, so maybe it's a problem in that direction?

Dr. Gridlock: How about that? Anybody notice a difference inbound vs. outbound? (I didn't. Thought it was about the same both ways.)

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Bikes on Metro: Since bikes are banned due to crowding can we also ban suitcases and roll-aboards?

I agree that during rush hour there should be a ban on bikes, but Metro has stretched the definition of rush hour to such ridiculous lengths ...

Dr. Gridlock: I'm not sure how far the transit authority could realistically push such limits on its passengers. For many of us, it's a real pain to maneuver around suitcases on a crowded train. But my first reaction is that a ban would be super difficult to enforce.

The design of the newer cars -- the 6000 Series -- opens up more space around the front and rear doors and may make it easier for the rest of us to get around the suitcases.

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Stafford, Va.: Dr. Gridlock -- Any word from the Virginia legislators on extending the HOV exemption on I-95 for hybrid vehicles beyond July 1, 2007?

Dr. Gridlock: I have not heard a thing about extending the exemption for hybrids. I believe VDOT -- and many, many carpoolers -- oppose an extension.

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Crystal City, Va.: With D.C. planning on closing the Douglas bridge in July/August, is Metro planning on putting more cars on the Green line to help.

D.C. is pushing people to use Metro, but if Metro is already overcrowded on the Green Line, where does that leave us commuters?

Dr. Gridlock: I should check with Metro on that, but here's what I know now: DC is closing the South Capitol Street bridge over the Anacostia during July and August because that's the time when the fewest commuters will be on the roads and on Metro.

Planners expect there should be excess capacity on the Green Line then. In fact, they're recommending that drivers park at Anacostia Station and ride in on the Green Line during the construction.

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Mixed Metro Cars: You wouldn't even have to mark them if you had enough of each kind. Put the cars with the seats at each end of the train, since the commuters at the end of each line generally favor one end of the train. Put 2 or 4 "open" cars in the middle, so all the short-hoppers downtown can pile on in the middle of Metro Center.

Dr. Gridlock: Yeah, commuters would figure out pretty quickly where the right cars are if the trains were set up in a consistent pattern. But that's an interesting question: I'm not sure if Metro has the ability to set up each train the same day after day.

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Bowie, Md.: I know the answer to this is "D.C. doesn't care" but why, oh why, when they already have permanently shut off two lanes of Constitution Avenue near 6th St. are the contractors of the Newseum allowed on a whim to throw up cones and take another lane ... leaving only one lane for everyone, including the people merging from the left who are coming from 5th Street onto Constitution Avenue?

Dr. Gridlock: Constant complaint with commuters: The lane-taking that the DC government allows builders on busy downtown routes.

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Banning Luggage: If Metro were to ban luggage, wouldn't the expansion out to Dulles Airport then be completely moot? If you can't bring your suitcase on Metro, what the hell are you to do? Not everyone can afford a $60 cab ride. Just deal with the luggage.

Dr. Gridlock: This is true. And it wouldn't matter if you were talking peak vs. off-peak. But we have this issue already, since Metro serves Reagan National Airport, the downtown bus terminal and Union Station.

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Washington, D.C.: It was reported in the Annapolis paper that the Patuxent River Bridge at Route 214, just past Route 301, will close for repairs ... but I can't find anything official as far as a schedule. this would really get in the way of a lot of Davidsonville/Annapolis/Edgewater commuters. Nothing at SHA Web site. Heard anything?

Dr. Gridlock: I can check on that. If something's coming up, I'll pop it into my Road Watch column in Sunday's paper.

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Green Line Rider: Um, I don't know about the Branch Avenue-Anacostia section of the Green Line, but I know a LOT of tourists park at the Greenbelt and College Park stations during the warmer months. I guess those are two of the very few stations where tourists can find a parking spot after 9:30 a.m. So there's really no drop-off in usage of those stations during the summer.

Dr. Gridlock: That is a big route for tourists. I'm not sure the southern part of the Green Line is that busy during the summer (others know better?) and it's the southern part that would be in play for diverting the Douglass Bridge traffic.

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Fairfax, Va.: With the Douglass Bridge closing, what's the best alternative to Howard Road for those of us who come in from Eastern Maryland using the 50-DC295-Howard Road combination? This has always been my sneaky way home from the beach on Sunday evenings, and I hate to think the only alternative would be taking the Beltway around from Route 50 to Route 66 (which takes about 35-40 min. longer than cutting through the city). There's got to be another exit off of DC 295 that can get me onto I-395 southbound...

Dr. Gridlock: I'll be trying to answer that and offer as much advice as possible for travelers as we get closer to the summertime shutdown. I'll do it through the Dr. Gridlock column, the Road Watch column and the Get There blog.

I get lots of good advice on such things from you all, so please send thoughts to drgridlock@washpost.com.

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Manassas, Va. - NO HOV EXTENSION!: My new clean diesel sedan gets far better gas mileage than many cars that now qualify as "hybrids" such as the SUV hybrids by Lexus. Why shouldn't I get the same rights that they do if my car gets better mileage and is better for the environment?

The ignorance on this issue by our local pols makes me sad and furious at the same time.

Dr. Gridlock: What's been going on is that the rapid increase in hybrids driving under the HOV exemption is crowding up the carpool lanes and discouraging people from using those lanes as originally intended.

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South Riding, Va.: With regards to an earlier poster about the retiming of lights on Rt. 50. My commute has gotten noticeably better since the retiming of lights. Widening of the road is a must do and soon. Contact Supervisor Steven Snow and let him know how you want him to spend your money. He is asking for community comments right now.

Dr. Gridlock: South Riding refers to the exchange higher up about Route 50 in Fairfax County. Governments all across are region are working on transportation budgets and plans right now. It's a great time for travelers to have an impact by contacting their local leaders.

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Wheaton, Md.. -- Bikes on Metro: It would be great if Metro would allow bikes on during rush hour. I live close to the Wheaton Metro, however my office is quite far from a metro station.

If it were possible, I would bike to the Wheaton Metro station, take the train to Judiciary Square, and then continue my commute on bike (about 6 miles from the JS metro).

Planning a bike commute around the metro rush-hour takes this option away as a commuting option.

If I wait until the morning rush is over, I would have to wait until the evening rush is over in order to get home, which would start my train trip home at 8 p.m.... which is too late for me.

Dr. Gridlock: I think Metro is making a calculation about the space a bike takes up and the safety issues involved in transporting bikes on and off trains and in and out of stations. There are plans for trail improvements from suburban Maryland into DC along the Red Line.

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Yellow Line to Totten: Amen to that. The extension has cut my commute time by 20 minutes. I hope they keep it!

Dr. Gridlock: Reaction to exchange above about the value of the Metrorail experiment in extending Yellow Line service to Fort Totten.

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Bikers, what's your opinion on that? And how are the bike racks on the fronts of buses working for you?: Doc,

Why shouldn't bikes be licensed and insured if they insist on sharing the roads?

I can't count the number of times I've almost hit a bike rider, and it wasn't because I was speeding or anything else.

Dr. Gridlock: They're entitled to their share of the roads, just like those of us who drive. Just like with drivers, you have a mix of talents out there. Some people ride better than others. Rather then setup a new regulatory process for bikers, I'd like to see more of them obey the rules of the road. But then, I'd say the same about motorist behavior.

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Washington, D.C.: From experience, the Roosevelt Bridge does not ride like a bridge that was JUST re-decked. It feels like the decking is already 5-8 years old. If you want an example of pristine bridge decking, take a ride across the new Wilson Bridge ... Butter!

Dr. Gridlock: Wilson Bridge is a nice ride. I agree. And that's also a concrete surface.

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Washington, D.C.: Help,

A new no-turn-on-red sign has gone up at Bladensburg and New York Avenues (northbound Bladensburg, turning right on N.Y.). Traffic backs up quite a bit on Bladensburg to make that right turn anyway and now it's worse. Any chance of getting it removed or getting the light lengthened?

Dr. Gridlock: I'll ask DDOT about that light, including why the staff thought the no-turn sign was needed.

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Falls Church, Va.: What is the timetable on the repair of Rt. 50 where it crosses Washington Blvd? That area is very hard to navigate while the repairs are going on?

Dr. Gridlock: That's supposed to be done this coming summer.

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Annapolis, Md.: Talking about stoplight timing -- the District seemed to have changed the timing on N.Y. Ave. stoplights when the new station at Florida was opened -- ever since, it's been even more difficult commuting. The lights aren't synchronized very well, so it takes several cycles to go one block. I know it's always been bad, but this seems to have made the situation much worse. Any hope for improvement?

Dr. Gridlock: I've gotten several complaints recently about the New York Avenue commute and will be asking for information about that.

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Dr. Gridlock: We've gone long again, and I'd better break off now. I want to put up a "Get There" blog item about some things John Catoe said at the press conference this morning.

Thanks so much for all your questions and comments. (There's a lot more good ones in here that I can't get to this afternoon, but I'll keep them mind for the blog this week and for upcoming columns.)

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