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Roads and Rails

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Eric Weiss and Lena Sun
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, February 5, 2007; 11:00 AM

Do you think Metro has grown unreliable and become downright unpleasant? Or are you happy with your commutes on rail and bus? Does the thought of the intercounty connector (ICC) keep you up at night or does it seem like it's long overdue? And what of the moves by Maryland and Virginia to encourage the private sector to build road projects, such as widening the Capital Beltway?

Washington Post staff writers Eric Weiss and Lena H. Sun were online Monday, Feb. 5, at 11 a.m. ET to answer your questions, feel your pain and share the drama of getting from Point A to Point B.

A transcript follows.

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Lena Sun: Hello everyone. I'll be doing the chat solo today so please bear with me. I don't drive to work so I'm afraid I won't be much help to those of you in your cars. But happy to talk about all that happened on Metrorail last week. Let's get started.

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Alexandria, Va.: Will there be a time when non-Verizon cell phone users can have a signal in the Metro underground? It seems that post-9/11 it would be essential to have as much communication infrastructure in the tunnels. I know that at least Cingular/AT&T (and maybe others) don't work underground because they work on a different system than Verizon.

Lena Sun: Yes, Metro is still working on that. I believe Metro is in the process of talking to several different kinds of groups about a system that would allow ALL cell phone users to get a signal underground. But they want to make sure that whatever system is proposed actually WORKS before they sign on, and my understanding is that this is going to be a lengthy process. But it is underway.

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Washington, D.C.: Good morning!!

Will someone PLEASE tell Virginia to cough up their part of Metro funding?? I am SO tired of hearing the folks from NOVA complain about service when their elected officials refuse to cooperate and fork over their end of the deal. I mean, really people. Either lobby your officials to dedicate funding or stop complaining.

Lena Sun: Couldn't agree more. Remember, this is an election year.

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Getting intimate on the bus: Metro bus drivers, I'm beggin' here: PLEASE ease up on the brakes! When the bus is crammed to the max and we're standing tightly next to other people and trying to hold on, it's very embarrassing to bump and fall into the passenger next to us because you have a heavy foot. I feel like I'm getting more intimate with other passengers than I do with my own husband!

Sure, sometimes it's necessary to hit the brakes hard, but in my 11 years of bus riding, I've found that it's mostly not.

You can do better. Much better.

Lena Sun: Metro has been having a problem with one of their bus types, the Orion VI. Those buses have been having a brake problem, which led to two fires in the rear wheels last week. Maybe you were on one of these buses? All of these buses were supposed to be fully checked out and retrofitted with parts, if necessary, last Friday. I know the new Metro general manager, John Catoe, is going to be very focused on Metrobus.

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Washington, D.C.: Is there a complete list of rules for use of the Metro? (No eating, not pets, etc.) For example, I could not find anywhere (on the Web site) the rules for bicyclists having to use the elevator instead of the escalator. How would one know until they got in an elevator?

Thanks!

Lena Sun: Very good point. Will post your question and if someone in media relations looks at the chat later today (Lisa), maybe you could suggest that to the communications folks. Sounds like a no-brainer.

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Metro Center, D.C.: I read with great interest the article in today's Metro section about making D.C. more pedestrian-friendly to encourage on-foot commuting. As one who walks to work daily, I am happy to take the survey ... except that the link does not seem to work. Any ideas?

washingtonpost.com: Pedestrian Master Plan

Lena Sun: Thanks for that. I just checked with DDOT and the spokesman said it works and just checked it. You can also go to it from their main Web site:

http://www.ddot.dc.gov/ddot/site/default.asp

then click on transportation planning and research

then click on pedestrian,

then click pedestrian master plan online survey. see if that helps.

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D.C.: Y'know, I wish Metro management would walk into a restaurant some time and hear the following:

"Good afternoon! Thank you for lunching with us. You will, of course, be paying double prices for lunching during 'rush hour' -- breakfast rush hour runs from opening time to 10 a.m., lunch rush hour runs from 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., and dinner rush hour runs from 4 p.m. to closing. Please avoid these times in future to avoid paying extra fare.

By the way, we have divided you up by neighborhood into Blue, Yellow, Green, Orange and Red tables. Some of you fall into in-between categories and may choose, perhaps, between blue and orange tables - others of you are stuck with one color or the other. More people in the past have chosen Orange or Red tables, therefore those tables will get attentive service and good food. The rest of you will get cold leftovers and slow, unhelpful service. Oh, look! Everyone who can choose an orange or red table has, and those tables are crowded! And no one who has a choice has chosen blue, yellow or green! See? That means the red and orange tables NEED extra service, and the blue, yellow and green can be neglected as we please! (Of course, you all pay the same price.)

Oh, and just a reminder, our ovens, refrigerators, and equipment break down regularly, so please excuse regular random delays and inconveniences in getting your food. We apologize also that our escalators are broken for the fifth time this month, so you had to walk up seven flights of stairs to get here. And you are forbidden to use our restrooms, because we fear terrorists. Speaking of which, please report any suspicious behavior or funny clothing or bad political views you observe in your tablemates, because we don't have the budget for real safety measures, and it'll make you feel safer."

Lena Sun: LOL

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Silver Spring, Md.: The obit of the longtime Metro spokesman made me want more history of the area's public transit.

Can you recommend any books? Thank you!!!

Lena Sun: Wasn't that a fantastic obit? I will pass along your compliments to our terrific obit desk. You can read all about the Metro system in a recently published book called "The Great Society Subway, A History of the Washington Metro," by Zachary M. Schrag. Tons of interesting information and tidbits.

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Alexandria, Va.: The Virginia House of Delegates has a bill before them that would promote bike commuting with incentives to individuals and businesses. Why aren't we hearing more about this in The Post?

Lena Sun: I thought I read a mention about that in my paper this morning.

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Washington, D.C.: I use the 14th and 16th street bus lines, and the drivers frequently pass waiting passengers because the bus is too full. This morning, I saw the driver use her computer to indicate that she had passed a stop because the bus was at capacity. It was the first time I had any indication that Metro keeps track of these things.

Do you think most drivers use this system? It doesn't seem safe: she had to punch up the appropriate menu, then scroll through some options, while driving.

If drivers do use it reliably, then it becomes even more inexcusable that these lines are so consistently under-served.

Cheers.

Lena Sun: Metro has been in the process of loading lots of different technology onto the buses to help supervisors better track where buses are. The biggest complaint, as you know from first-hand experience, is how unreliable the service is, and I've heard lots of complaints about the 16th Street route. I'll be passing these on to John Catoe.

He said in his online chat last Friday that one of his first tasks, after meeting with Metro employees, will be to ride the buses in Southeast Washington because of some recent incidents in that area.

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Bus rider: It appears as though the D.C. metro buses have GPS installed. Is there anyway Metro can use that technology to track the buses? That way, they can monitor the buses more closely and let bus riders know where the next bus is and how soon it will arrive.

Lena Sun: Yup. They are in the process of doing that. They also want to roll out the Next Bus service that is being piloted on a couple different routes around the region.

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Silver Spring, Md.: How much does Metro annually pay for:

Electricity?

Gasoline?

Diesel fuel?

Natural gas?

Have you considered producing your own through:

Wind?

Solar? Where are your solar panels? Solar hot water to create steam?

Bio mass, using garbage and used cooking oil?

Co-energy, such as using the excess heat energy from local manufacturing?

Lena Sun: Hi. I have some of these numbers from the budget presentation. For next fiscal year, Metro says it needs $10.5 million for electricity/propulsion, $9.3 million to cover health insurance inflation, $3 million for compressed natural gas.

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Washington, D.C.: I have an example where many Metrobus drivers either lack common sense or some interest in customer service. My brother lives in Washington, and he does not own a car, so he rides Metrobus fairly frequently. He suffered a serious knee injury a few years ago, so he uses a cane every day. He reports that frequently he has to ask the Metrobus driver to lower the front of the bus when he tries to enter the bus. Shouldn't all Metrobus drivers automatically lower the front of the bus for riders who use canes? Shouldn't Metrobus make it a policy for drivers to automatically lower the bus for such riders if the drivers don't have the sense to do that?

Lena Sun: Yes, they should. I'm posting your question as well for Mr. Catoe.

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Clifton, Va.: Sorry D.C., but D.C. has never ever paid its fair share during the construction of Metro or even now. I don't use Metro and never will since I would waste two hours a day on it that I could be better used at home training my dogs. And Virginia is trying to make a rational decision since we have other transportation needs too. If you don't like it, tough!

Lena Sun: I'm not taking the side of any jurisdiction but I would point out that the next few station constructions are all going to be in Virginia as part of the Dulles rail extension.

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Washington, D.C.: I filled in the pedestrian survey, but I found it somewhat biased. One of the problems I see in walking downtown is that a lot of pedestrians have really started to cop a MAJOR attitude in walking wherever they want to walk whenever they want to do so. It is NOT okay to ignore the "Don't Walk" sign, walk out in front of a car that has a green light, and then give the driver the finger when he blows his horn! Yet in downtown D.C., this seems to be the norm these days. I think greater enforcement of the laws as they apply to pedestrians, not just drivers, would help. (You never see New Yorkers jaywalk in front of oncoming traffic because they know the cabbies won't stop.)

Lena Sun: Having lived in New York for several years, I think you will see more attitude from New Yorkers than you will down here.

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Centreville, Va.: Any idea why the SmarTrip card implementation on the regional bus systems (e.g. Fairfax Connector, OmniRide, etc.) is taking soooo long? I dealt with this in a previous job, and that was six years ago. What's the holdup?

Lena Sun: So glad you dropped in to chat Centreville. It turns out that the DASH bus system in Alexandria now accepts Smart card along with all the other fare media it used to accept.

The other regional bus services are all supposed to accept Smart cards by July. A lot of them already have the fareboxes installed but two different sets of contractors are working out the software communication issues so the accounting is properly credited between all the different transit agencies.

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Tyson's Corner, Va.: Is there a publicly available map and schedule of the work that's to be done around Tyson's Corner over the next five years? I work in the area and would like to see what's happening and when.

Thanks.

Lena Sun: I'm sure there is and I would guess that someone in Fairfax County government should know. I'll also pass this on to my colleague, Dr. Gridlock, who may be able to go into more detail for readers.

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On the S2/S4 line: Has Metro ever considered marking the sidewalks in front of bus stops with lines to show where people could line up to get on board? Especially along the S1, S2 and S4 lines, it sometimes feels like a cattle call, as if there was this silent, yet competitive, air of jockeying to be the one to cram onto the bus. People seem to know how to line up politely to get onto the subway, but the buses? Ugh.

Lena Sun: I think some of your fellow passengers on the train would disagree with you about how polite some of their fellow riders are. And don't visit China any time soon if you don't want to deal with rude pushing and shoving for just about any kind of service.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Regarding underage Metro passengers, particularly unaccompanied minors before/after school. These children are very disruptive, rude, loud and just all around lacking in mass transit manners. Is there any plan for truant officers or Metro patrols to step in and increase patrols? Even if they are not doing anything particularly illegal ( I have seen doors held, adults yelled at, adults pushed, etc.) -- to calm situations down, to be a presence or to create a new policy about under age rider proper behavior while riding a train? Or even some sort of outreach to the school systems about what is expected of children who ride mass transit (on a tax payer sponsored Metro card, I might add)?

Lena Sun: This is a running issue for Metro transit police and it's worse when school is in session. Chief Polly Hanson said the police were working with schools in the District last fall, but it's something they recognize is a longer term problem.

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Lena Sun: This is another answer for the Tysons Corner person who wanted to know about the schedule of construction. My colleague Alec MacGillis wrote a story about this recently and here is the link for the graphic that accompanied his story. Hope this helps somewhat.

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Washington, D.C.: Dear DDOT,

I will resume walking to work when it's no longer 5 degrees outside. Not that you can do anything about that.

Sincerely,

Frozen Commuter

Lena Sun: Guess you won't be walking for the next day or two. I'm planning to tuck a few hand-warmers into my gloves for the chilly wait on my train platform.

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Cleveland Park, D.C.: Can Metrobus have signs like Metrorail that say which buses are coming and how long they will be? I've seen these signs in Edinburgh Scotland...and very useful they were!

Lena Sun: Useful indeed and desperately needed. See earlier response about Next Bus. This is a system that will eventually give bus riders something closer to what rail riders have. There is a link with more information about this on Metro's Web site.

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Washington, D.C.: I heard plans that Metro was going to reroute the Blue line with the Yellow over the Potomac. When will this happen? Also why did it cost $7 million to "extend" the Yellow line to Fort Totten? Seems like wasted money to me.

Lena Sun: I think you're referring to the Blue Line Split. This would essentially direct some Blue Line trains over to the Yellow Line at Pentagon and run them over on the Yellow Line and then Green Line all the way up to Greenbelt if necessary.

It's an idea Metro staff was talking about back in the fall as a possible use for the new rail cars when they all arrive. The reason would be to lessen the traffic that has to run through the Rosslyn portal, which gets very backed up with Orange and Blue line trains waiting for their turns to go through, as you folks on the Orange Crush know.

Metro staff said they were going to be presenting several proposals in the first months of the year. But that hasn't happened yet.

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Getting intimate on the train: I'm wondering about the same problem on the train as the earlier bus poster. This morning, on the blue line, we were all packed in like sardines (yet another 4-car rush hour train!) and the driver did this stop-start thing that tossed everyone around. Why does that happen and can they cut it out?

Lena Sun: On the trains, the last time I checked, they were supposed to be operated manually during morning rush instead of controlled by central Operations Control Center. Some Metro officials have said the trains tend to run smoother when they are manually braked. It's also possible that you were in a section of backed up trains, so that can lend itself to stop-and-go movements as well.

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re: Clifton: Oh Please Clifton. It is because of Metro that your state has seen such an economic boom and prosperity in NoVa. The homes, the technology and the business revenue that has been generated is largely because of Metro access. Your state gets sales taxes, property taxes, and an increased job market thanks to Metro. Pay up!!

Lena Sun: Posting without comment.

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Washington, D.C.: I am a long-time Washington, D.C. resident, and I doubt the post by Oakton, Va. S/he claims that Washington did not pay its fair share for construction of the Metrorail construction. I doubt that, because I recall that construction plans for several freeways and the Three Sisters Bridge were canceled by the District government in the 1960s and 1970s. My memory is that much of that money was then budgeted for Metro. I think that other long-time residents can confirm that.

Lena Sun: Another comment for the Washington-Va. debate.

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Springfield, Va.: To "Washington, D.C." who is tired of NoVa complaining about Metro and that we should fund more, I have this answer: I think plenty of us don't think more money is the answer (unlike most District residents), I think we want the fraud and waste to stop. Metro can do just fine with the money it has if it could ever manage it.

Lena Sun: And on that note, I'm afraid we have run out of time. I'm sorry I couldn't answer more questions. By the time we next chat, I'm hoping Eric will be back with us. Thanks all.

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