Dr. Gridlock

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Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, March 12, 2007; 12:00 PM

Robert Thomson, Dr. Gridlock, diagnoses your traffic and transit problems and offers up his prescription for a better commute..

He was online Monday, March 12, at 11 a.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: Good afternoon, travelers. Thanks for joining me today. Let's see what we've got in the mailbag. Looks like some traffic and transit questions. Let's go.

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Arlington, Va.: Your Final Four picks?

Dr. Gridlock: Dulles rail, the intercounty connector, express lanes on the Beltway and a new Frederick Douglass Bridge.

Oh, no, wait a minute. You mean ...

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Vienna, Va.: Dr Gridlock -- Do you know when the road construction on 17th street (near the Old Executive Office Building) will be completed? That stretch of road seems to be under perpetual construction. Thanks

Dr. Gridlock: That's the second time in a couple of days I've been asked about that work -- a clear sign I'd better walk over and take a look and ask about it. (It's just a couple of blocks from The Post newsroom.)

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Washington, D.C.: First time poster to this chat, but I can no longer remain silent. Regarding westbound New York Avenue at 15th street -- NY Ave. dead-ends here because of White House security. I've noticed that people use both NY Ave. lanes to turn left (southbound) on to 15th street, but there are no signs indicating both lanes may be used to turn left. As a result, I have witnessed several close calls. It would be really helpful for the city to designate the lanes that may be used to turn left at this intersection. Will you please look into this? Thank you.

Dr. Gridlock: Welcome to the chat. I think the turn lanes there are under the authority of the District Department of Transportation, so that's where I'll start to search for the answer to your question. (Seems like just walking around the White House I can observe several reader transportation concerns in one swoop, doesn't it?)

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14th and U: The new red lights on the Metro platform at Gallery Place are horrible (the orange lights downstairs are only slightly less offensive). It's like a combination of Vegas and Dante's Inferno. As the system gets more and more crowded Metro should be doing things to give riders a calm and comfortable ride. Flashing red lights does just the opposite.

I read on last week's online chat that these lights were an experiment. When I asked a Metro worker at the platform with the red lights where I could express my negative opinion of them he told me that Metro does not want rider's opinions and that a decision by Metro had already been made. Please tell me that he was wrong. I'd hate to think that Metro doesn't care what regular riders think and I hope that they recognize that subjecting riders to red or orange lights is a bad idea.

Dr. Gridlock: It's a six-month pilot program, and you certainly can comment on it. You can either call Metro's customer assistance line at 202-637-1328, or go to Metro's home page at http://www.wmata.com/ and scroll down untill you see "Have a suggestion?" Click on that and fill out the "customer comment form."

I'm not sure I get it about the different colored lights. Metro is trying to get people to stand back from the granite edge. If a rider can't figure out why it's a bad idea to line up your toes with the edge of the platform, how much could different colored lights possibly help?

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Reston, Va.: I've heard that paring at the Vienna metro station fills up by 6 a.m. I'm moving near West Falls Church, but not near enough to walk and there's no bus stop close to the new house. Does anyone know what time parking at West Falls Church fills up?

Dr. Gridlock: I offer this for group comment. My understanding was that the parking at those stations out on the Orange Line fills up by 8 a.m. and that we need a lot more of it.

It's not just for commuters. Recently, I was out in western Fairfax and Prince William speaking to groups of retirees and they were telling me they'd love to use Metro, but if they head for the stations at off-peak hours, all that parking is gone and they feel like they might as well drive in all the way to downtown Washington.

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Reston, Va.: Funny how you pick a beautiful March afternoon to go for a walk for "research" purposes.

Traveled through the Mixing Bowl for the first time in a while (it used to be part of my daily commute) and it's really coming out nicely. But what I can't figure out is how the Inner Loop will continue through it. It's on a very shoddy stretch of pavement under seemingly 24,000 ramps, it seems like a temporary setup, but then you come out the other side and it's a nice stretch of road.

Dr. Gridlock: If I'm picturing this right, I think that is the final big piece of the Springfield interchange that still needs to be completed. I do think that overall, the project has worked out really well. I mean that both in terms of the work itself and also the management of travel during the construction years.

(Yeah, the weather is quite a motivator for a little exploration. I might keep walking and get down to the Lincoln Memorial circle and Bacon Drive and 23rd Street. Commuters have been telling me they're still having a hard time with the traffic lights, the construction and the tour bus parking in that area. )

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Maryland: Red lights are ingrained in us to be a warning, while green or white lights are more welcoming and indicate things are okay. I believe Metro is trying to indicate to people that there is a danger involved.

Additionally, the new lights are LED and will save energy costs.

Dr. Gridlock: I know you're right about the energy costs. What seems strange to me is the idea that one color or another color for the platform lights serves as any better of a warning than those two oncoming headlights on the front of a train.

I worry for people who for some reason need to stand right up at the platform edge to wait for the train. Maybe they're veterans of the Orange Crush, and used to having to jam aboard packed train cars.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I just want to compliment Metro on a job well done regarding single tracking trains between Takoma and Silver Spring stations on the Red Line this weekend. I had to wait a bit longer to get a train downtown, but I mostly got everywhere on time. In addition, they had a Metro worker on the platform to announce which train was approaching the platform to avoid confusion.

I'm a long time rider of Metro and I've often experienced unreasonable delays during periods of single tracking. This weekend was a welcome improvement.

Dr. Gridlock: I'm very glad to hear about this. The weekend track work -- seemingly endless -- has been a real sore point with many people who write in to me. Metro says it has no choice but to do needed track work during hours when the system is open. Overnight is too short.

By the way, Silver Spring now has one of those big monitors outside the fare gates that tell you when the next couple of trains will arrive. It's very helpful and I hope all the stations will get them soon.

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West Falls Church parking: I'm always running late around 8 or so and there's always plenty of parking in the lot and the top two floors of the garage.

Dr. Gridlock: This is a response to our reader's question above. That's very helpful to know, and I'm a bit surprised to hear that WFC is available that late.

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D.C.: I heard that there are plans to widen Leesburg Pike from it's current four lanes west of Tysons. Is that true?

Dr. Gridlock: I wasn't aware of anything coming up on Route 7 in the near future. I've found that traffic engineers have plans for just about every improvement we can think of, and money for almost nothing. I'll double check with VDOT, though, and if I've overlooked something coming up on the pike, I'll put it in my Sunday Road Watch column in The Post Metro section.

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North Potomac, Md.: Has construction on Maryland's ICC started yet, and when can we expect the road to be finished?

Dr. Gridlock: MD transportation John Porcari told Post reporters and editors last week that construction on the intercounty connector will get started this fall -- assuming it survives the environmental lawsuit seeking to block it. I think it's supposed to be done in 2010.

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Washington, D.C.: I arrived at the Dunn Loring Metro parking lot this morning around 5:30 a.m. and it was pitch black. Maybe Metro forgot to reschedule the parking lot lighting for Daylight Saving? Whatever the reason, it was unsettling and unsafe.

Dr. Gridlock: I'm asking Metro about this one. And I'm curious: Did anyone else experience a commuting problem this morning that they think might be attributable to the early changeover to Daylight Saving? I know there was some concern about whether the traffic signal timings were properly adjusted for the rush periods.

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West Falls Church: Thanks for taking my question and allowing so many of us to vent. You probably prevent more terrorist attacks than Homeland Security.

I love Metro when it works well. When it doesn't, it can be torture. I won't go on about today's trip except to say I skipped the first train at West Falls Church because the six-car train was nearly full, there were lots of people waiting to get on and the sign indicated two trains coming a mere 3 and 7 minutes later. After the train left the station, Metro's sign now switched to a 9 minute wait and no second train at all. Lately, Metro signs have been more creative fiction than most novels I read. Can't they do better? Also I haven't seen an eight-car train on the Orange line in a month. Is the "experiment" over?

I can't imagine how they will ever handle the Silver line feeding into the Orange line, but D.C.'s seems to operate under the premise that they build it now and fix the problems later (see Virginia road system.)

Dr. Gridlock: Metro hasn't said anything about ending the experiment with eight-car trains on the Orange Line. That was all about figuring out how to move more people through the Rosslyn tunnel chokepoint at rush hour, since two train lines -- the Orange and the Blue -- have to feed through that space.

Readers are starting to pay more attention to the prospects for a Metrorail extension out through Tysons to Dulles, since that is moving closer to being an actual construction project. I'll put up a link in a moment to something I had in Dr. Gridlock a couple of weeks ago about this.

Also: Those electronic displays showing the arrival time for the next trains have never worked perfectly. They give us an estimate of the train's arrival time, but conditions up the line can affect the reliability.

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washingtonpost.com: More Lanes in Store for I-95 and I-395 (Post, Feb. 25)

Dr. Gridlock: That's a link to a Dr. Gridlock containing a letter from a reader and some explanation from me about the new Metrorail line. I think it's the last letter in that column.

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Washington, D.C.: The West Falls Church Metro also has a public parking lot that accepts cash. That lot has plenty of space even at 9 a.m.

Dr. Gridlock: I've got a bunch of helpful comments about the parking situation. I'll pop a few of them up so you can see.

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Blue Liner: As a reminder to those riding Metro after morning rush hour, you are allowed to park in the reserved spaces in the Metro lots after 10 a.m.

Dr. Gridlock: Couple more to come.

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WFC Parking: Since the new garage opened (last year?) parking at the WFC Metro station actually is not as bad anymore -- I've found spots as late as 9 a.m., though it has been more crowded this winter. Also, if you're willing to pay the extra fee, the "reserved" parking never seems to fill before the 10 a.m. deadline.

Dr. Gridlock: I get mixed reviews on the reserved parking. Some readers find it a very helpful program, while others curse the folks who have reserved spaces but don't use them, choosing to park in other, closer spaces.

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Springfield, Va.: Without a dedicated source of funding how will Metro be able to maintain the proposed extension to Dulles Airport? They can't even keep up with the existing system.

Dr. Gridlock: The extension to Dulles is the first part of the Metrorail system not planned and built by Metro. It's a Virginia project. I believe this is the way of the future, and it is problematic. Lines will get built by the various jurisdictions, and then they'll hand Metro the keys.

For example, Metro would much prefer that the line through Tysons be in a tunnel. But the transit authority has no control over that.

On the funding issue: I believe the dedicated funding that we've been talking about covers capital acquisitions only -- buying rail cars and buses. It wouldn't help with the operating costs of the new line.

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Alexandria, Va.: With the recent nice weather, I have noticed an increase in bike racks on the back of cars/SUVs. Often when there are 2-3 bikes on the rack, the tail/brake lights of vehicles are completely unable to be seen by following drivers because the bicycle tires and frames cover the lights. Please let people know that rear bike racks can cause a serious issue and roof racks might be a safer alternative. Thanks

Dr. Gridlock: Any bikers in the audience today who can comment on this?

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Silver Spring, Md.: Traffic in downtown Silver Spring, especially around the evening rush hour, is just a nightmare. The construction planned around the new traffic plaza is only going to make it worse. Do you know of any plans to remedy the problem... maybe a downtown bypass?

Dr. Gridlock: Traffic in downtown Silver Spring has been much worse since the downtown was revitalized. What I notice is the heavy traffic around Silver Spring Station and the intersection of Georgia Avenue and Wayne Avenue. Lots of traffic headed for the parking garages.

Coming up: The reconstruction of the Metro/MARC/bus/taxi station gets underway later this year. That should be messy, but the result should be good.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Just the tiniest of corrections. When you describe construction on University Blvd through Langley Park, you imply that lanes are closed only between 9 a.m. & 3 p.m. That may be the period crews work, but lanes are closed 24/7 and getting through there at any time is the traffic equivalent of a root canal.

Dr. Gridlock: Thanks for that, Silver Spring. I believe you're referring to what I've been putting in my Sunday Road Watch column. That roadwork through Langley Park is problematic to many drivers. The intersection at University and New Hampshire is bad enough under normal circumstances. With the major state construction in that zone, it's best to seek alternatives if you're just passing through the area.

The mix of lanes ending and people trying to cross the roadways at all sorts of official and unofficial places is pretty dangerous.

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Vienna, Va.: RE: Lights at Dunn Loring. There seems to be an ongoing problem with the exterior lights. There have been three occasions in the last 2-3 weeks when the lights have been out or gone out in the evening.

Dr. Gridlock: This is a response to our earlier posting about a problem with the lights at that station. Vienna is suggesting a continuing problem, rather than something related to the Daylight Saving switch this weekend.

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Vienna, Va.: Has there been any serious assessment of the increase in traffic congestion likely to be caused by the upcoming "Metro West" development, just south of the Vienna Metro station? It seems likely that a majority of the people who end up working or living there are going to be driving to and from the area -- adding to the congestion already resulting from the Vienna station's position at the end of the Orange Line and its proximity to the I-66/Nutley Street interchange. Of course, the Fairfax County government seems to think that everyone who sets foot in the area will travel ONLY by Metro, which seems highly unlikely in light of the overcrowding that already exists on the Metro system.

Dr. Gridlock: There's been plenty of discussion about that project and many of us are skeptical about whether our fellow citizens are actually going to behave in the way that planners want them to by taking Metro rather than driving.

But there's another thing: Many of us have grown up believing that highway capacity is limited and transit capacity is infinite. We're pretty clearly moving out of that epoch, as I'm sure any Orange Line rider would confirm.

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Rockville, Md.: Who do we contact to get one of those speed cameras or at least some consideration of a speed bump brought to our neighborhood?

Dr. Gridlock: I know that on the speed cameras that Montgomery County and some of the municipalities are about to set up the police departments have been in charge of the deployment. Rockville, your municipal department has been working on that. If you visit this city Web page you'll see a list of the places identified for speed cameras, and you'll get some other information about them as well.

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Washington, D.C.: Doctor:

Do you have any information on the smokestack sticking up out of the street in the left lane of 17th Street, NW about at H Street? As you can imagine, it really gets in the way during rush-hour traffic!

Thanks.

Dr. Gridlock: I've got to take a look. One of my colleagues was telling me about the smokestack last week. (More exercise for this beautiful afternoon.)

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Washington, DC: Has all work on the I-66 bridge been completed? I sure hope not! The road is bumpy and wavy.

Dr. Gridlock: That work on the Roosevelt Bridge is pretty much done. Readers do tell me about their concerns on the smoothness. I've said back to them that I drove it one day, then did the Legion Bridge for comparison and thought they were about the same.

But enough of you have said otherwise now that I'm questioning my judgment about this and will go take another test drive.

That was a District Department of Transportation project.

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Metro & Lights: My understanding is that the new color lights on the platform edge indicate the line you're on. Not so?

Dr. Gridlock: No, that's just a coincidence. Those test lights don't actually indicate the line you're traveling on.

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Washington, D.C.: I saw that the Blue Bus is going to stop the Foggy Bottom route to make way for the Circulator. Is the Circulator going to cover the exact same territory?

Dr. Gridlock: This is a reference to a "Get There" blog item I did this morning. The District Department of Transportation and its partners in the Circulator bus system announced that the Circulator will take over the Foggy Bottom run that had been operated by the "Blue Bus" but the Blue Bus will continue its run between Rosslyn and Dupont Circle.

Go to this page on the Circulator's Web site and you should be able to find all the details about the upcoming service changes.

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Getting to Georgetown: Hi, I want to take the subway to Foggy Bottom and then some type of bus to 1310 Wisconsin Ave. in Georgetown on a Saturday.

I believe there is one which runs from Foggy Bottom -- correct? Does anyone know where you catch it and how often it might run on a Saturday? Thanks very much.

Dr. Gridlock: I'm thinking a good way to scope out that trip would be to use Metro's Trip Planner. It's generally pretty good about calculating the best subway and bus routes across the region.

You can find it on the right-hand side of Metro's Web site, at http://www.wmata.com/. (It's also www.metroopensdoors.com, in case that's easier to remember.)

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Washington, D.C.: Hi, thanks for taking our questions. I'm thinking of moving to Alexandria and had planned to drive to the Hunting Metro and park. Can you or any of your readers share their experiences with the Huntington Metro parking?

Thanks.

Dr. Gridlock: Can anybody help our traveler on this one?

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San Francisco: I agree with the original poster, the white lights at the platform edge just look better and are in accordance with Metro's architectural style, as opposed to the red lights that sound awful. Bright white LEDs are available these days that are highly visible.

Dr. Gridlock: I'm surprised how many of you already have seen Metro's lighting experiment. This is just one of a bunch of comments on them.

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Red Metro warning lights: Just another viewpoint -- the red lights on the platform aren't distinct enough from the terra cotta to catch people's attention. I didn't find it upsetting, it actually seemed more like mood lighting.

From either viewpoint, at first blush they don't bring confidence as a long term solution.

Dr. Gridlock:... and another.

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Columbia Heights, D.C.: Re: new Metro lights, I don't mind energy-efficient LED technology, but please please Metro spare us the "evil disco" look and change back to white color lights. Another side effect of the red lights is less overall illumination, making the station darker.

Dr. Gridlock:... and another.

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Friendship Heights, D.C.: I haven't been able to get an answer from Metro either from their customer service or their monthly chats, so maybe you can help get a response.

There seem to be unpublicized bus service reductions between Friendship Heights and Tenleytown. Several times I've been on Wisconsin Ave and gotten on a northbound 30-series bus, labeled for Friendship Heights, and the driver stopped at Tenleytown, saying his route ended there because he was driving a natural gas bus. The bus schedule doesn't indicate that any runs stop at Tenleytown, and neither does Metro's Web site. Why can't they continue until the stop right before the FH bus terminal, or barring that, at least make the electronic sign on the front of the bus read Tenleytown, and update the bus schedules? I'm a regular rider and can start to look out for natural gas buses, but how are tourists (say, heading to dinner in Friendship Heights after touring the National Cathedral) supposed to know?

Dr. Gridlock: I'm curious about this and will check. I knew that only the old diesel buses could use the refurbished Friendship Heights bus terminal, because of the low ceiling that can't accommodate the new, higher riding buses. But I'll look into the consequences for existing routes.

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Centreville, Va.: How much longer are we going to stand for the Metro incompetence at the stations. You had someone earlier today say that the station manager told the person that the person could not call and complain. Where is the customer service? Why aren't Metro's fat cats down in the system to experience this? Can't Metro hire "secret riders" like retailers do with shoppers to weed out the bad employees? I'm all for unions, until they start costing people money and jobs. Look at how well the union worked out for Eastern Air Lines and most recently Delta.

Dr. Gridlock: The new GM, John Catoe, is riding the system every day, and he's told his managers to do the same. He's spoken many times about his commitment to customer service. But he's going to need to hear feedback from people like you. Call the customer assistance number or fill out the Web form (see response above for details) when you see something wrong.

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Dr. Gridlock: Thanks to everyone who participated today. I'm going to take a walk now and see if I can spot some of those trouble spots in the downtown area that you asked about. I hope you'll all be back with me again in two weeks.

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