Roads and Rails

Eric Weiss and Lena Sun
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, March 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, March 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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Eric Weiss: Good morning, commuters!

Is everyone ready for HOT lanes? Will you be willing to pay $22 for a guaranteed congestion-free ride from the Pentagon to Prince William Parkway in the middle of rush-hour? What about if you had a job interview or an important doctor's appointment? Sluggers, will you pay or continue to slug?

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Chantilly, Va.: I am sure that there are a few people who would cry foul, but is there any chance that VDOT would consider removing the HOV restrictions on I-66 and the Dulles Toll Road?

I know that the HOV lanes are designed to reduce pollution, but I think they contribute to more traffic problems. The HOV lanes are not separated from the main lanes of traffic and do not have dedicated on and off ramps. I don't know how many times I have seen a Metro bus waiting until the last minute to merge from the HOV lane to the exit for Vienna. I also see dozens of people merging across three lanes of traffic to get into the HOV lanes when getting on I-66 from the beltway or Nutley. The lanes dangerous and should be removed.

I know that many people complain that there are too many non-HOV cars using the HOV lanes. Well, when the State Police tries to stop the violators, it slows traffic in all lanes. Can they come up with HOV cameras like they do for red lights?

Traffic would flow much nicer if people picked a lane based on their needs. Through traffic to the left and people getting on/off to the right.

Thanks

Eric Weiss: I guess the short answer is "not a chance.''

Inside the Capital Beltway during rush hours, all lanes of I-66 are HOV-2, and there aren't enough lanes to handle the traffic as it is now, let alone if they allowed non-HOV traffic. (Critics say the current lack of HOV enforcement already allows too many non-HOVers.)

Outside the Beltway, when there are separate HOV and non-HOV lanes, there are separate on-ramps and off-ramps.

As for enforcement, that continues to be a sore point among folks who play by the rules and are frustrated by those who don't. Fines have been increased and police say they are cracking down.

As for your last point, I agree that drivers in this area are poor lane choosers. Drivers hang out in the left lane even though they are not passing. And too few people move from the right lane to allow fellow drivers to merge from the right.

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Washington, D.C.: I have a Metro etiquette question for you. I'm fairly young, but I have problems with my hips and knees. Due to this, I tend to try to limit my movements when my Metro train is moving. Every once and awhile when I'm sitting in the outside seat, after the train starts moving from the last stop, the person next to me asks me to get up while the train is in motion, so they can position themselves by the door. I always kindly advise them that I have hip and knee problems and I would gladly (and quickly) move out of their way when the train came to a stop. Though no one has ever had trouble getting out of the train timely during these situations, more often than not these passengers get angry at me and sometimes I'm forced to rise against my will. Luckily there were no sudden stops which is what I fear will cause further injury. I am writing to understand why people insist on getting up and moving after the train has started up again. If the car was full, I would understand, but that hasn't been the case so far. Would it not be easier to move around while the train is at a stop? I hate upsetting others, but up until now I've always thought that I did have a right to remain seated while the train was in motion.

Lena Sun: People engage in all sorts of rude behavior on the Metro. At the same time, when the trains are crowded, it is difficult to make it through the crowd and to the door to exit in time, so riders often have to get up before the train pulls into the next stop. I guess you just have to explain your situation to the person sitting next to you.

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Springfield, Va.: Are there plans to add general lanes to I-95 between Springfield and Fredricksburg besides the HOT lanes? Ideally there would be six general lanes and two HOT/HOV lanes in each direction. Who is paying for the construction of the HOT lanes on 95 and the beltway?

Eric Weiss: The HOT lanes would be financed and built by a consortium of two private companies, Fluor Inc. and Transurban in partnership with VDOT. The project would convert the two current HOV lanes from Dumfries to the Pentagon to three HOT toll lanes and extend a merge lane nine miles south from the current p.m. bottleneck at Dumfries.

While the I-95/I-395 project would not require VDOT to kick in cash, since the state would basically transfer over an existing facility, a similar project on the Virginia portion of the Beltway would require some state contribution.

The project envisions a second phase to the Massaponax exit in Spotsylvania County, but that would first have to go through environmental reviews. The first part off the 96/395 project would be the northern end, because it basically exists right now.

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Washington, D.C.: I wrote into Metro about changes in bus service, what are the chances it gets heard or acted upon?

About two weeks ago our G8 line in the morning really started being erratic. Instead of two buses showing up about 10 minutes apart at 1st and Rhode Island NW between 7:45 a.m. and 8:05 a.m., we get NO buses in that time. One male driver is good and still comes between 8 and 8:05, but the new female driver is so inconsistent I get to work faster by walking seven blocks to the Shaw/Howard U Metrorail.

Late last week she finally caught up to me in her bus at New Jersey Ave, but I let her go, because our guy who is usually on time was RIGHT behind her and his bus was empty while hers was PACKED. What gives!!??!! Please give us back our reliable drivers and consistent performance!

Lena Sun: This is one of the biggest complaints that people have against Metro. Part of the problem is that internally, several different Metro departments are responsible for the service. The planning department is in charge of the schedules, but the bus people are in charge of the operators. The new general manager, John Catoe, thinks this structure makes no sense, and is in the process of putting everything under the bus people.

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D.C.: At Gallery Place, they've replaced the white lights on the edge of one of the platforms with red ones, do you know why? Thanks!

Lena Sun: Metro is testing different kinds of platform lights to see if they can find some that require less maintenance and use less energy. The red ones are on the platform of the Red Line to Glenmont and there are yellow-looking bulbs on the lower level at Gallery. I'm told Metro is also testing to see whether the red lights will make people more conscious of safety on the platform.

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Washington, D.C.: So Metro parking lots are free and open during the weekend. Does that mean I can park at a metro station on a Saturday night, cab home, and then come back to pick up the car on Sunday morning?

Lena Sun: Should be okay. Go for it.

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Four Corners, Md.: At the Caps game Saturday night, I noticed that the warning lights on the Red Line platform in the direction of Shady Grove were all red. Why?

Lena Sun: See the earlier answer to this.

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Washington, D.C.: Good morning!

I've been reading with interest the steps that Metro is taking to improve the safety of the bus rides. My commute takes me to Germantown one or two days a week, where I take the express Ride-on bus from Shady Grove. Most of the drivers have been very professional, but last week a young woman driver spent the entire 15 minute drive loudly flirting back and forth with a man standing next to her. Several times she took turns so fast we all slid in our seats. I was seated near the front; it was difficult to determine whether she was distracted or showing off.

Are there any stats on the safety record for Ride-on? And who can we contact to alert them to misbehaving drivers?

Lena Sun: You should go ahead and contact Ride-On. I don't know their safety statistics off the top of my head, but I am sure they would want to know the specifics of poor and unsafe driving. Their contact number is: Phone: 240-777-7433.

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Fairfax, Va.: What is the word on NextBus? Any chance Metro will be expanding the program?

Lena Sun: Metro has been testing NextBus on a couple routes as a pilot. I think it started back in November with seven bus routes. They are finding that -- surprise! -- people LIKE to know when their next bus is likely to get to their stop. AND they say the system is about 90 percent accurate.

So they plan to expand it to 24 more routes starting April 1, in the District, Virginia and Md. I'll be writing about that later this week.

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Washington, D.C.: Why is Kaine being Mr. Political with the Virginia transportation bill? It is a solution that NoVa and Hampton Roads needs. Obviously rural areas do not need substantial transportation funding. So what if they don't get millions of dollars? Kaine would rather that no one gets funding and a problem continues for another year?

Eric Weiss: The Kaine administration's main beefs with the proposal is that it doesn't raise that much money and that it would take dollars away from the general fund to pay the debt service on borrowing, meaning that money for schools, etc. would have to compete with transportation.

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Eric Weiss: I forgot to answer Springfield's question about additional free lanes on I-95.

VDOT is planning on adding a fourth lane in each direction from Route 123 to the Fairfax County Parkway, about eight miles.

The project is scheduled to start next year.

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Rockville, Md.: It seems to me that cameras could assist in the enforcement of HOV rules perfectly. Why not use them? It might bring in as much money as the planned charges. Nobody needs to stop. All they need to do is let people charge it on plastic.

Eric Weiss: Hmm. Cameras are used to take photos of license plates of cars that speed or don't pay tolls.

But I wonder if a camera could see inside vehicles well enough to count how many people are in there.

And if cameras could see so clearly into moving cars, wouldn't that be creepy? And would there be a sudden run on mannequins and blow-up dolls?

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Washington, D.C.: Hello,

Are there any new developments on the proposed fare increase at Metro? I also think it would be helpful for Metro to post the next train arrival near the fare gates and farecard machines. I don't know what those display things are called, but they always have elevator outage information posted so why not the next train arrival? That way one will know if they have 15 minutes or 1 minute until the next train arrival. I say this because people are always running (literally) to catch a non-existent train because they have no clue when the next one will be there. I think it is dangerous to have people running in the stations.

Lena Sun: Hi. They have put the fare proposals on hold for now and I'm guessing that will be the case for the next few weeks while they figure out what else they can cut from within Metro.

Metro has begun to post the next train arrival outside the fare gates at a couple stations, including Gallery Place downtown. The whole idea is exactly to prevent what you describe--people running to catch a train because they don't know when the next one will come. You can also check on the Web for the next three train arrivals, although that may not be that useful if it takes you more than 15 minutes or so to get from where you are to the station.

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$22 a ride: This is stunning and it's only the first number. What happens if this continues to move forward and that number gets worse ?

Can anyone imagine adding $45/day to their commuting costs ?

Eric Weiss: Planners say most commuters would not use the lanes every day, only when they have an important meeting or something. And carpools and buses will still ride free. But the private companies bet that enough folks will use the lanes.

And that $22 figure is not the worst-case scenario, such as during a snowstorm or accident. That is the rate that traffic planner estimate would be needed to keep traffic flowing during peak times on daily rush hours.

If there is an accident or snowstorm, the sky is the limit on the HOT lane prices, because there is no price cap and the companies would be required to keep the lanes free flowing for buses.

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Arlington, Va.: Do you know if buses HAVE to travel in the HOV lanes on 395? The lanes get clogged between 6 and 6:30 p.m., and the buses would be able to keep to their schedules better (some of the time, at least) if they drove instead in the regular lanes, that are sometimes moving faster. Any thoughts are appreciated!

Eric Weiss: Unlike savvy commuters who can make last-minute choices, buses have to go the same route every time, and few would argue that the HOV lanes, day in and day out, are faster and more congestion-free.

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Washington, D.C., area: I can't understand why Metro treats the bus division as a separate company rather than a fully integrated part of the transportation system. I should be able to get on the bus, pay my fare and if the bus doesn't take me where I want to go, get on the subway and not have to pay twice. I use a SmarTrip card, so if they want me to pay for the differential between bus and rail, okay, but I should not have to pay the full fare again. I live about a 20 minute walk away from the subway and find it's often faster to take the bus, at least for the first part of the journey. But having to pay twice usually makes me stay on the bus system instead of switching to rail. This is not efficient. Doesn't Metro want us to switch to rail when possible?

Lena Sun: I agree completely. Right now, there is a discount if you ride the rail and then transfer to bus. That's because you punch that transfer machine before you leave the Metrorail station and give that piece of paper to the bus driver.

But it doesn't work the other way because there is no one to hand it to. That's supposed to change by this summer. At least that's the plan. By then, Metro is hoping that ALL the regional bus systems will have SmarTrip working on their systems so the system will "know" you took the bus and are now taking the subway.

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Arlington, Va.: I noticed that the white blinking lights at the Gallery Place station on the red line track have been replaced with red lights. Is this part of a new design or just at Gallery Place?

Lena Sun: No, they are testing different kinds of platform lights to find ones that are more energy-efficient and maintenance-friendly. And to see whether red lights will make customers more conscious of safety, i.e. not get too close to the platform edge.

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HOT lanes: I'm all for the HOT lanes, even at the levels quoted. I would still pay $3-something (from Shirlington) but think it would be worth it. Especially if some of that money went to improve not just the roads but Metro as well.

Side question: Is there any reason D.C. can't impose a congestion district like London did, as someone wrote in Outlook over the weekend? That would be a great way for DC to get some revenue to pay for all the damage to its roads. Plus, would probably ease up on gridlock as well. No one likes the gridlock, and no one will individually like to pay more, but we've all got to look at the bigger picture here.

Eric Weiss: The money from HOT lanes would go to the private companies who put up the money for improvements, not government.

The companies have pledged to increase bus transit spending on the HOT lanes to the tune of more than $300 million, so that would be an improvement.

As for your suggestion about congestion-pricing DC roads, that would be a good idea and would also be a de facto commuter tax.

As for the reason it is unlikely? It is spelled C-O-N-G-R-E-S-S...

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Washington, D.C.: I know a problem Metro has in the morning is that the cars in Virginia and Maryland fill up so much that people on the D.C. stops cannot even get on the train. (It's happened to me many times). Why can't Metro run some trains that start at D.C. stops than to run them all from the end of the line? That way, us D.C. residents have a fair chance of getting to work on time as well!

Lena Sun: I suspect they don't have enough trains to do that at the moment. But over the next several months, they are supposed to be getting more of the new rail cars into service -- and they are going to be adding cars to all the lines and eventually running 8-car trains. So the hope is that you, too, will be able to get on along with your Maryland and Va. counterparts.

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Washington, D.C.: How come no one has suggested increasing advertising on Metro trains and at stations as a way of avoiding fare increases?

Lena Sun: How do you know they haven't? I think Metro staff are looking at ALL possibilities at the moment. At the same time, riders have often given pretty negative feedback when Metro increases this type of advertising.

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Alexandria, Va.: Do you mean $22 for one trip on the HOT lanes? If so, yikes! I'd pay to use them for sure, but not at that price. My federal government salary wouldn't allow me to pay even $10 a day to use the HOT lanes. Right now, I have a reverse commute (Alexandria to Camp Springs via the WW Bridge), but in a few years my office is moving to College Park. Trip is much shorter to cut through town (395 to Anacostia Frwy to Kenilworth Ave.) but 395 is a parking lot in the morning. I'd use HOT lanes on 395 if the cost were reasonable (i.e. maybe $3 per use?). Am I dreaming?

Eric Weiss: Dream on. The HOT line prices have to be high enough to discourage people (read you and me) from clogging the lanes. That means people have to be rich enough, or in a rush enough, to pay the going rate.

If the toll was "reasonable'' during rush hours, everyone would choose the HOT lanes and they would soon be as congested as the regular lanes.

If you choose to travel the HOT lanes at 3 a.m., you might find a "reasonable" rate.

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Missed the Point:"Inside the Capital Beltway during rush hours, all lanes of I-66 are HOV-2, and there aren't enough lanes to handle the traffic as it is now, let alone if they allowed non-HOV traffic."

"Outside the Beltway, when there are separate HOV and non-HOV lanes, there are separate on-ramps and off-ramps. "

You missed the point Eric, the question was outside the Beltway and not inside and on I-66, there is only an HOV ramp at Monument Drive and Sringfellow. To get to Nutley or 123 or 50, you must cross all lanes of traffic to do so.

Eric Weiss: My wife often comments about how I miss important points...

You are right, there are not enough HOV-only exits on important commuter routes.

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Greenbelt, Md.: This is why I have problems taking anything seriously that comes from 600 Fifth Street, NW. A while back, The Post ran a story about how the agency was going to spend nearly one million dollars to for a consultant to tell them where savings could be realized. Doesn't Metro have several highly paid managers who should be capable of making such decisions? And couldn't that money be used to keep fares at the current level, instead of having someone take six months to tell the agency what the managers should be doing? It makes no sense at all.

Lena Sun: John Catoe, the general manager, cut the amount of that contract way down. And yes, Metro does have several managers who should be able to make those decisions about internal costs. But having an outside firm identify the areas that need to be cut makes it politically easier, I think, for those cuts to be made. Catoe has already started: in Friday's paper, I had a story that said 100 positions are going to be eliminated in Metro's construction office. I understand that is just a first step. More to come.

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Buses in the HOV: My gripe about buses in the express lanes is that they don't have the horsepower for it. When the traffic is light, the buses are a real hazard because they have trouble maintaining even 50 mph (and the speed limit is 65). Everyone is always trying to get around them. I recall that there used to be some higher-horsepower buses used for highway routes, but I guess that's long gone.

Eric Weiss: I agree, that is annoying, especially on I-66 outside of HOV-restricted hours, when the buses could easily make it over to the slow lane.

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Park overnight at Metro: My understanding is that none of the Metro station parking lots are open overnight. Please have your Metro monitor confirm this.

Lena Sun: I checked with Metro again and they said the gates are open on Saturday and Sunday so weekend parking is free. If there is a station where this is not the case, i.e., the gates are down, you need to let Metro know.

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Washington, D.C.: It's as if the bus drivers are out to get us! First all those pedestrians, now the other cars on the road. On Friday, I saw a bus that had slammed into a pickup truck at the intersection of 14th and Florida, or thereabouts. (Didn't see it happen, but the damage was pretty unmistakable... unless the truck had reversed at high speed into the bus.)

On another note, I saw a bus on New Hampshire yesterday with one of those ultra-bright light-crawl fixtures (like you see in nightclubs and cheap restaurants) retrofitted to its roof. Is this to put more of the safety burden on pedestrians? That is, to make the bus more visible so that pedestrians can be blamed for not seeing it coming?

Lena Sun: Hi. I don't have any information about the accident you described. But I know Metro has been in the process of installing flashing yellow lights in some of its buses so they are more visible to pedestrians, especially at night.

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Columbia Heights, D.C.: Am I the only one frustrated by the Yellow line extension to Fort Totten? I commute to work using the Green line. Since the Yellow line extension, every Greenbelt Green line train I have taken has been delayed at Fort Totten to wait for a Yellow line train to turn around. And now that the Yellow line extension is operating during rush hour (I didn't think it was supposed to), I now get to pay rush hour fares for non-rush hour service plus a daily delay. Thanks Metro! I commuted to my previous job using the Red line. Now that I commute using the Green line, I think Green line riders are treated like the poor, ugly, bastard stepchildren of Metro.

Lena Sun: Hi there. I hadn't heard that but let's post your comment to see if others out there feel the same way. And to let Metro know.

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Washington, D.C.: Who is responsible for the maintenance of the bridges between the District and Virginia? I've noticed several large potholes on the Key Bridge that I would like to call to report, but I'm not sure which agency is appropriate to call.

Thanks for doing these chats--I learn all sorts of interesting things from them!

Eric Weiss: The District is in charge of maintenance on the Key Bridge. Anyone can call the Mayor's Citywide Call Center at 202-727-1000 to report potholes. DDOT works to fill reported potholes within 48 hours.

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Eric Weiss: Thanks folks, for your questions and comments!

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Re: Weekend parking at Metro: Even on Saturday night, overnight parking is not allowed. Anyone leaving a car there risks being towed.

Lena Sun: I have a call into transit police and may not get answer back in time. But Metro's posted rules seem to allow this.

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