Dr. Gridlock

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Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, February 12, 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, Feb. 12, 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: Hello, travelers, and thanks for looking in on today's discussion. We've got questions about all sorts of topics, from policy matters to traffic lights.

But I see one here that's particularly timely in light of the forecast of snow and ice and goo for Tuesday and Wednesday.

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Fairfax, Va.: I can't speak for the District or Maryland since I live over here in Virginia and almost never get to the other areas in bad weather, but why do our area road crews get a "pass" each time they fail in snow removal efforts? Why is it all right that Virginia crews sometimes never get to neighborhoods and do a passable, at best, job on our main roads? The predictable poor efforts in our neighborhood has the predictable effect of causing school closings which in other areas would not happen. (A 3-inch snowstorm wouldn't cause a school closing in Connecticut or Upstate N.Y. in a million years.)

I have lived in New Jersey, Upstate N.Y. and Conn. over the years before moving here 10 years ago. None of those areas tolerate poor snow removal efforts long and if something "unusual" occurs, a politician or two loses their job. Here, for some reason, nobody is ever held accountable that I can tell. (Geographically we are not Miami and we can expect snow here, sometimes in large amounts.)

Dr. Gridlock: Fairfax, I grew up in New York City and Montreal. In New York, every garbage truck had a snowplow on the front for a storm. In Montreal, we had plows designed just to clear the sidewalks.

This isn't to make excuses for local departments, but just for the sake of perspective: Regions that get a lot of snow tend to prepare best and spend the most for storms. We'll never be in their league, but it wouldn't make sense for our local governments to match their expenditures.

But like I say, I don't want to make excuses. Would you other folks share your experiences and perceptions of the snow clearing around here? What sort of a grade would you give our local governments?

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Washington, DC: When will the work be completed on Connecticut Ave. beneath Dupont Circle?

Dr. Gridlock: The work that began in May is scheduled to be done at the end of this month.

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Wheaton, Md.: I know the forecasts have been downgraded, but what are the rules for Metro running when there is significant snow on the ground?

Dr. Gridlock: I think the basic rule is to be safe. You probably remember times when buses had to either detour or stop running during big storms. There have been times when even the trains had to halt because of conditions along the above ground portion of the system.

Metro has a new general manager, John B. Catoe Jr., who will be paying a lot of attention to safety issues. Judging by the forecast, the next couple of days will be a good test for him. (Catoe came to us from LA, but he's a Washington native.)

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D.C. gripe: Why doesn't anyone bother to tell us what's happening on the roads inside the city as well as what's up on the Beltway and inter-urban commuter roads? It took an entire hour this morning for the N4 bus to travel down Mass Ave from the intersection with Wisconsin Ave to Dupont Circle (a trip that's usually 12-20 minutes), but neither TV nor radio traffic reports had mentioned transit problems on that stretch, so more than 50 in-town commuters plus numerous car passengers who might otherwise have taken other routes ended up stuck for an hour, and subsequently, late for work. I'd still like to know what the problem was this morning! The traffic eased once we passed the mosque, but there was nothing apparent going on there.

Dr. Gridlock: Fair question, D.C. I don't have a definitive answer, but here are a few thoughts.

First, I get complaints from across the region about traffic incident reporting. Starting with me, people complain that I haven't covered their road or transit line in The Post's Road Watch column, on page 2 of the Sunday Metro section.

Other folks write in to say that radio and TV aren't reporting in a timely fashion about their roads, trains or buses.

I think they have the same experience I do: It's a huge region with a complicated road and transit system in which there's lots of potential for trouble.

We all -- newspaper, radio, TV -- rely on the transportation agencies, traffic Web sites and the public for our information and we all deal with limited space or time to tell you what we've learned from them.

The traffic camera system has improved a lot. You can find them on our Web site, or at places like http://www.trafficland.com/. (I'm looking at one now that shows the cars following that new traffic pattern across the Klingle Bridge on Connecticut Avenue because of the construction.)

Metro has gotten better about updating conditions on the trains and buses, but it's better about the trains than about the buses. There's a new thing called "Next Bus" on the Metro Web site, at http://www.metroopensdoors.com/, that should be a help, once it's in more widespread use.

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Burtonsville, Md.: What's your take on those eye-sore, "Great Wall of China" sound barriers overtaking our landscape? Have they been demonstrated to reduce noise pollution enough to justify their cost? I don't get it; those highways have been there for generations so if noise was problematic, no one is forced to move close to them. It's like those people who move near airports and then complain about the noise from the air-traffic patterns. Well I'm offended by the eye pollution of those sound barriers. At least my way (not installing them) costs the taxpayers nothing, and doesn't kowtow to special interests. Just my two-cents worth.

Dr. Gridlock: Sound barriers have become quite popular. I don't have a problem with them. It's not like they're blocking my view of the Blue Ridge. From the Capital Beltway, or I-95 or I-66, the view wasn't that great to begin with.

If I'm just passing through someone's neighborhood, I don't mind having to look at some sound barriers if it's blocking a bit of the noise from the thousands of cars and trucks passing by their homes 24 hours a day.

Just yesterday, I was walking through a part of my neighborhood that has a sound barrier facing the Beltway. They help block the noise, but it's not like the Cone of Silence has descended over the Beltway.

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Vienna, Va.: Any updates on the likelihood of the Virginia General Assembly getting its act together and passing a useful transportation package?

Dr. Gridlock: Post staff writer Mike Shear had a good story on the situation in today's Post. The bill that passed the House of Delegates is in the Senate Transportation Committee today, but the real crunch will be when it hits the Senate Finance Committee later this week.

Virginia has gotten to the point where legislators agree transportation is a big problem that requires a lot of money to solve. Issue is exactly how much money and where it will come from.

Very unclear to me whether anything will actually come out of the legislative session that ends later this month.

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washingtonpost.com: Roads Bill Likely to Run Into Divide In Va. Senate (Post, Feb. 12)

Dr. Gridlock: Here's the link to Mike's story.

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Washington, D.C.: Submitting early because I keep forgetting. On my morning commute, we come from the east down Rhode Island Avenue, go three-fourths of the way around Logan Circle, and then south on 13th Street.

The stoplights at P Street and Rhode Island Avenue halfway around the circle are completely confusing and contradictory. Some people go, some stop. Do you know this area, and who has the right of way?

Dr. Gridlock: I'll take a walk over there. It's not far from our downtown newsroom.

Reminds me that this week the District is starting reconstruction work near Logan Circle on Q St. NW between 11th and 14th streets. It should still be open to traffic, though.

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Washington, D.C.: Dr. Gridlock,

Is there any update on MoCo's RideOn moving toward SmarTrip on the buses? I would be more inclined to do a Metrorail -> bus transfer if I didn't need to have a transfer card and exact change. And my dear spouse (and the environment) would be spared a trip to & from the train station, too!

Thanks!

Dr. Gridlock: The SmarTrip cards, which you can use to pay the fares on all Metro trains and buses, are going to become a regional system. The DASH buses in Virginia accept them now.

I believe that the hardware has been installed on Montgomery County's Ride On buses, but that there are some software bugs still to be worked out. We're hearing the county hopes to have it working by summer.

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Avid Traveler...:

Oswego County, N.Y. gets 11 FEET of snow and it can keep its buses running.

So, why is it (and I used to live in D.C.) that the D.C. metro area gets paralyzed whenever they get 1/2 inch of snow? Can you imagine what 11 FEET of snow would do to the D.C. metro area?

Dr. Gridlock: We could take the rest of the year off.

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Braddock Road: Regarding the moans from Tysons Corner covered again in today's paper. I live in Alexandria, another neighborhood that has an elevated Metro track running through it. It also has a bike/jogging trail running next to it, and plenty of pedestrian access underneath it. The track hasn't prevented Alexandria from being pedestrian and bike friendly, because this community always was.

Dr. Gridlock: I hear a lot from people on both sides of the Tysons rail issue. Two arguments for a tunnel are that it would be less disruptive for traffic during the construction phase and then it would eliminate a Great Wall effect that would split up what people hope can eventually be the people-friendly neighborhoods of Tysons City.

I don't have the same fears as some do about what an elevated rail will look like and what it will do. Maybe that's from growing up in New York. Maybe it's a feeling that it would be hard to make Tysons look any worse than it does now.

Seriously, Tysons really needs this rail line. It would be nice if it could be in a tunnel, but it would be a disaster if the whole project got lost in an effort to win approval for a tunnel.

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washingtonpost.com: On Road To Dulles, Confusion And Angst (Post, Feb. 12)

Dr. Gridlock: There's a link to Alec MacGillis's story in today's Post about the tunnel issue.

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Falls Church, Va.: I'm fed up with Metro's constant blare of useless announcements. Lately they've been almost constant; Metro seems to think that passengers would not think to call 911 in an emergency unless they've been bombarded at high volume with the juvenile "SEE IT, SAY IT!" announcement and the long, rambling one from Metro police. Also, the potentially useful announcements about backups, elevator closures, etc., are incomprehensible (but still loud), because Metro doesn't train its employees on speaking into a PA.

So, I finally broke down and bought an iPod, and I'm much happier. The lesson for Metro is important: by running so many irritating announcements, they drove me to put on headphones, and now I don't listen to any announcements at all.

Dr. Gridlock: I've been riding Metro for 18 years now, and certainly have shared the experience of listening -- or trying to listen -- to garbled messages.

Metro has been trying to get more information out to us. The transit authority just launched a service allowing us to get learn details about train delays on the customer information line, at 202-637-7000.

That's fine, but it sounds a bit like an official acknowledgement that the best way -- hearing the information through announcements in the trains and on the platforms -- isn't working.

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Before the snow hits: Please turn on your headlights.

Please get the snow off your lights, front and back.

Please brush the snow off the top of your car.

Please leave plenty of room to brake, whether you have 2- or 4-wheel drive.

Please turn off your radio, turn off your cellphone, hush your fellow passengers, and concentrate on driving.

Thanks!

Dr. Gridlock: Pretty good advice for dealing with the Tuesday and Wednesday forecast. Speaking for many drivers, I'm sure, I'd add: Slow down.

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Falls Church, Va.: I live very close to Tysons Corner and hope that the tunnel idea will get serious reconsideration -- it seems so obviously the best approach -- especially when you consider all the tall buildings that will be going up as well as the Metro facilities. Is there any hope of getting senators and congressmen involved in this to get approval for the tunnel? Have potential business and customer losses due to the massive disruptions from above-ground construction been factored into this debate?

Dr. Gridlock: The impact of above ground construction should be quite striking for those of you who drive Routes 123 and 7. Tysons Corner employs 100,000 people, and they'll have to find their way through quite a mess of traffic over the next five years. Then there are the commuters who are just passing through.

I will say this on behalf of the Virginia congressional delegation: They've been pushing hard to win $900 million in federal funding for this project. They feel like they're on the verge of success and they don't want to screw it up.

That project is really on the bubble for getting the federal funding. If you live outside our region and you hear what's going to get built and how much it will cost, you probably see it as one more pork barrel boondogle brought to you by the federal government.

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Laurel, Md.: Good Afternoon,

I really enjoy my commute on the D.C. Metro everyday. It's very calming to me. I'm able to read, nap or just enjoy the sights. Is there any way to convince Metro to pipe soothing music on the trains? I realize most commuters listen to their own brand of music on personal listening systems, but a little jazz piped in for the rest of us would be great!

Thank you for your attention.

Dr. Gridlock: I'm all for calming commuters, Laurel, but I'm not sure we'd really accomplish that. You know how many things we can find to argue about. Can you imagine how we'd be fighting over the music selections?

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Washington, D.C.: I really do want to ride the bus and Metro more. I live in Columbia Heights and work behind Union Station. But until WMATA can get the buses to come more than every 25 minutes at rush hour on U street, I will continue to drive. I even called the number on the stop at 14/U to see when the next bus would come and I swear the recording was "the next bus will not come for a while" -- buses need to be every 5 minutes at rush hour. I still have my old RRP for Capitol Hill so I drive and park on someone else's residential street which I know annoys the neighbors, but maybe they should be the ones complaining to WMATA. Don't even get me started on the trains...

Dr. Gridlock: Lots of us -- including many people at the transit authority -- think that the service on many bus lines is insufficient and unreliable. It's partly a question of getting more buses and partly a question of Metro doing a better job of monitoring where they are, so they don't bunch up, especially at rush hour.

I know there must be a reason for this that you didn't say, but I have to ask: Would it not work for you to take the Green Line train from Columbia Heights to the Red Line over to Union Station or New York Avenue Station?

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Silver Spring, Md.: OUR SNOW IS DIFFERENT! I grew up in snow country, where we rarely missed school (unless it took bulldozers to clear the roads).. and that snow was crunchy, easy to drive on, and NOT like here! Our freeze-thaw-freeze-thaw cycle gives us heavy, yucky, treacherous greasy snow. Granted, it could be cleared out sooner, but our usual 3-4 inch snows don't warrant a huge plow investment.

Oh.. and when will Reno Road be finished? And will the closure be extended south across Nebraska?

Thanks!

Dr. Gridlock: That Reno Road job between Fessenden Street and Military Road should be done next month. (Lots of people ask about it.) I'm not aware of any plan to extend it, but I'll ask.

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Metro announcements: It's become like the boy crying wolf. There are so many announcements that you just tune them out. When there were less, I listened (or tried to listen) to them.

Keep them few, keep them informational and short.

Put info on the monitors that tell you the next trains. People look up at them all the time so passengers will pay attention to them and they're less intrusive. I know that if there's information on the train display monitors, I always check and see if it's relevant to me.

Dr. Gridlock: Metro is planning to put some more of the monitors outside the fare gates, so we'll know before we pay the fare whether there's a big problem in the system.

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Bethesda, Md.: Dear Dr. Gridlock,

I've always wondered about those commuter stores. How do they make money? Do they run on a subsidy from the local governments?

Dr. Gridlock: I find those stores really helpful. I've been to ones on Arlington and Montgomery counties. They are government operations, where you can get lots of useful information and buy fare cards, tickets and tokens.

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Lincoln, Neb.: I love this gorgeous part of the country but your traffic is terrible. I am a youth football coach here to speak at the Nike Clinic this past weekend at the Chantilly Marriott. I have no idea how you folks tolerate two-hour stands in traffic. We don't have much in Nebraska, but I'm willing to put up with it to stay out of the traffic.

Dr. Gridlock: Land, lots of land, under starry skies above. It is amazing what we tolerate around here. There's a lot of anger, much of it we direct at each other rather than the people who could actually solve these problems.

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Loudoun, Va.: Dr. Gridlock,

You touched on it briefly in your column Sunday, but can you elaborate a little on the status of hybrids in the HOV lane?

I'm not sure that people realize what a huge issue this is for EVERYBODY who drives. Putting thousands and and thousands of hybrids back into already congested lanes will affect every driver.

I know VDOT says that HOV lanes are getting clogged, but on the Dulles Toll Road-66 corridor, that is not the case. Further, I see almost as many violators every day as I do hybrids, particularly on 66.

I can understand if VDOT wishes to end the exemption for new vehicles, but its not fair to punish drivers who already own hybrids. There are major lifestyle issues at play here. For those of us who work in D.C. but live in Loudoun, for instance, the HOV lanes save at least 45 minutes each way. Adding another 90 minutes to my commute would make life almost unbearable. That may sound like hyperbole, but really it is true!

Dr. Gridlock: Many Northern Virginians bought hybrid cars so they could use the carpool lanes. The state created the temporary exemption as a way to encourage purchase of cleaner fuel cars and improve air quality. It was not meant to be a permanent thing.

In the past couple of years, people who carpool have become increasingly aware that the HOV lanes are becoming more crowded. Hybrids are a major source of that congestion.

Still, the General Assembly is considering a one-year extension on the hybrid exemption scheduled to expire July 1.

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Alexandria, Va.: I think the person asking about Metro rules during a snowstorm meant, what are Metro's rules for which stations will stay open when it snows? I know the above-ground stations shut once there is a certain amount of snow on the ground, but I don't know how many inches it takes to close, nor do I know if that applies to freezing rain/ice. Thanks...

Dr. Gridlock: While we've been chatting, Metro's public information office put out an advisory about operations during the bad weather coming up Tuesday. I'll give you pieces of it here:

-- Metrorail will operate on a normal weekday schedule (rail service hours are 5 a.m. to midnight). Trains will operate with four and six cars.

-- 20 trains will be equipped with de-icing equipment to combat snow and ice on the third rail.

-- Metro will use "heater tape" which has been installed on sections of track with significant grades/inclines and in critical areas in the rail yards. The heater tape, which has been in use throughout the winter, is a cable clipped onto the third rail that is turned on when temperatures dip below the freezing mark to keep the third rail warm enough to prevent snow and ice from building-up.

-- Metro railcar maintenance staff has also "hardened" its fleet of rail cars by protecting the undercarriage motors from snow ingestion and electrical short circuits that are caused by water/snow and debris.

-- Metrobus will operate on a normal weekday schedule. Metrobuses will operate as road conditions dictate, so passengers should expect possible detours and delays due to changing road conditions on Tuesday.

-- MetroAccess will operate as road conditions dictate, so passengers should expect possible detours and delays due to changing road conditions.

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Dupont Circle: Hello -- this morning on my walk to the Dupont Metro station I encountered several fire trucks with sirens blaring trying to get through the Circle. I was totally shocked to see that many cars did not get out of the way. Granted it was morning rush hour and it's a tricky intersection with Mass Ave and Conn. Ave. But there was TOTAL GRIDLOCK in the Circle. It seemed that cars didn't want to turn off onto one of the side streets because (heaven forbid!) that would cause them to be late for work. I observed one woman chatting away on her cell phone despite the fire truck behind her and many of us pedestrians screaming at her to get out of the way.

I guess this is more of a vent than a question. But I've noticed this before with emergency vehicles and city drivers. Are D.C. drivers so self-absorbed or concerned about getting to work that we can't make way for emergency vehicles that might be crucial to saving a life? If so, that's truly pathetic.

Dr. Gridlock: Vented.

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Tysons Corner: Any chance we can just name the above-ground Tysons Metro track for Gov. Kaine right now, so everyone can always remember who helped put it there?

Dr. Gridlock: Kaine would prefer a tunnel. But he says he's sticking with the advice he's getting that says he'd risk losing the whole project if he held out for a tunnel.

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Washington, D.C. (Shaw): PLEASE, I ask that you look into the traffic light timing at R and Vermont Streets, NW. Since about two months ago, the lights starting at R and Vermont on R Street, are timed so that traffic is backed up from 10th to Vermont Streets on R, where as the lights used to be timed so that you went from one green light to the next, perfectly timed. This is becoming a serious issue as cars are now blocking 11th Street on R, and it is causing an unnecessary traffic back up.

Please put the lights back to where they were!

Dr. Gridlock: Will check.

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Arlington Commuter: Could you please ask Arlington County to review the lights and traffic patterns at the intersections of South Glebe/395 ramp onto South Glebe/West Glebe?? PLEASE

Traffic backs up in all directions due to the very interesting timing. I understand that it is a difficult area, but surely we can do better. AND please stop "blocking the box" at the ramp!

Dr. Gridlock: Yes.

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Alexandria, Va.: Here's a terrific way to easily raise revenue for the region's existing and future road upgrade/expansion projects. Why not strategically place traffic enforcement officers at various offramps during rush hour to catch and ticket "cheats" who dangerously cut in line at the last possible moment to exit major thoroughfares? That way, since their time is obviously more important than that of those of us who patiently wait our turn to safely exit, they could pay for the privilege of cutting in?

Dr. Gridlock: I'd like to see that too, and I know many travelers would. I hear from drivers all the time about unfair or dangerous behavior by other drivers. Traveling on the shoulders of Route 29 south of White Oak, for example. Use of cell phones while driving in the District is another.

Does a day go by when you don't mutter, "Where's a cop?" In six months, I've heard from only one reader who reported that a police officer was actually there to ticket a violator. That's not a rant about the police. I think it's reasonable that people behave like adults in exchange for a driver's license.

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Dr. Gridlock: Thanks, everyone, for your good questions and comments today. Please be safe, whatever this storm brings us.

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