Dr. Gridlock

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Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, March 26, 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, March 26, 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: Good afternoon, travelers. Here are some developments: Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine is planning to announce today what changes he'll propose in the General Assembly's big transportation bill; many drivers were upset about the jam-ups that occurred during Saturday's National Marathon in the District; Metro is going to launch a program that will allow you to use credit cards, in addition to SmarTrip cards, to exit some parking facilities.

I see questions and comments about some of these topics and many others, so let's begin.

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South Riding, Va.: My commute takes me from South Riding into Arlington on a daily basis. I am lucky that I can adjust my work schedule to arrive and leave early, but I still have to deal with traffic on I-66.

I feel that the HOV lanes on I-66 outside the Beltway cause more traffic problems than they solve. When a carpool gets onto I-66, the driver makes a beeline for the HOV lanes and crosses several lanes of traffic. If the driver needs to get off at Rt 50, 123 or the Nutley exits, the driver must cross back to get to the exit. You can see the problem most mornings going eastbound just past Rt. 50 and afternoons at I-495 and Nutley.

In my humble opinion, removing the HOV lanes outside the Beltway would eliminate this need to cross lanes of traffic and the accidents that it causes. Wouldn't this make the traffic flow better for everyone?

HOV only works when it has dedicated on and off ramps and limited access points. I don't know why VDOT couldn't figure this out on their own.

Dr. Gridlock: About a decade ago, I thought the HOV lanes were a failure because not enough drivers were using them. Now, in our region, at least, they seem to be well used, but that has created other problems. Legitimate users notice many people violating the rules and in Virginia, they complain about the exemption given to solo drivers of hybrid cars.

The rules are difficult for police to enforce. HOV on Route 50 in Maryland, for example, is just way too easy to abuse. Meanwhile, South Riding quite rightly cites a design problem. Generally, you want to assign faster moving traffic to the left lanes, but you can't always spend the money or take the property necessary to create separate left-hand exits for those drivers.

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Fairfax, Va.: Dear Dr. Gridlock,

I thought I would go green yesterday and take public transportation. I needed to go from Vienna to Rockville and back. It cost me $4.70 for the fare round-trip, $3.75 to park at the Vienna garage, and (per a Metro station attendant) a non refundable $5.00 for something called a SmarTrip card to make the gate go up when I exited the garage. The total came to $13.45.

Per Mapquest, the distance between the two stations is 19.17 miles. Toyota says my '07 Tacoma gets 27 miles per gallon. My last tank of gas cost me $2.29/gallon. This trip would have cost me just $3.25 in gas had I driven there on my own.

Using public transportation cost me an extra $10.20.

Memo to Al Gore. This type of fare mentality is not fair. I can't justify spending roughly three times as much money to go green and take public transportation. And who's the genius that came up with the $5 non-refundable "SmarTrip" card idea anyway? Get a grip Metrorail!

Dr. Gridlock: Fairfax, I'm thrown by one thing: Metro parking facilities are free on weekends. Otherwise, I get your point. Taking transit is not an ideology. People have a right to make their own decisions about their method of travel, based on what works best for them.

Metro needs to overcome the hassle of requiring SmarTrip cards to pay for parking. It was set up that way for Metro's convenience, not the riders.

But Metro actually is moving in that direction: The transit authority has announced a pilot program starting April 2 in which you will be able to use certain credit cards -- Discover, Mastercard, Visa, American Express or JCB card -- at these: Anacostia, Largo, New Carrollton, Shady Grove, Franconia-Springfield and Vienna.

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Rockville, Md.: Regarding the bus law, I think the law is clear but some officers in the MPD have no idea what the law says.

The law states that one cannot make a right turn in front of a stopped bus - i.e. making a right turn from NOT the right lane. However, the problem is evident with Michael McConihe's letter. Either the MPD does not know the letter of the law and is enforcing what each officer thinks is the law OR we have a problem of distances. At what point is a driver moving into the right lane and then eventually making a right turn versus turning directly in front of a bus.

I'm not a lawyer, but if I were given a ticket described by Michael McConihe, I would take it to court and hope I have a judge with at least 1/2 a brain.

Dr. Gridlock: In my Dr. Gridlock column on Sunday and today on the Get There blog, I wrote about driver's experiences with the new D.C. traffic law that bars motorists from passing around buses stopped for passengers at intersections and making a right turn.

I'll publish a link to the Get There blog item next.

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washingtonpost.com: Get There blog

Dr. Gridlock: That link will take you to the posting on the bus law.

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Washington, D.C.: Regarding the no passing buses law, what is the D.C. government definition of "intersection"?

If the buses would signal they are about to move back into traffic, there would not be the confusion about how to go around the bus. If there are 40 people getting on a bus, are cars expected to wait the 2 or 3 minutes for everyone to get on?

Dr. Gridlock: Here's a link to the text (pdf) of the pedestrian safety law.

There's a definition of "bus" but no definition of "intersection."

Here's the key phrasing:

"A motor vehicle driver is prohibited from passing to the left and pulling in front of a bus to make a right turn when a bus is at a bus stop at an intersection to receive or discharge passengers; the vehicle shall stay or merge behind the bus to effect its turn."

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Woodley Park, D.C.: Dr. Gridlock,

Is there any way to have someone take a look at the traffic light situation on Connecticut Ave. near the bridge construction over Klingle Valley?

When traveling northbound at the zoo parking/Kennedy-Warren intersection, it is very confusing with the temporary lane direction signs (big green arrows/red X's) strung across the roadway. I myself have accidentally run the red light and just last week I witnessed a car run the red light because the lane direction signs are much more visible than the two small stoplights on either side of the road.

Dr. Gridlock: Drivers and neighbors complained about this very thing a few months ago, when the project started, and the District Department of Transportation repositioned the overhead arrows. Sounds like that wasn't a complete success.

The other complaint I've heard is that people are parking where they shouldn't on the outbound side, just north of the bridge.

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Bowie, Md.: Bravo to the Maryland State Police monitoring the HOV lanes on Route 50 early last week (at least that's what I assume they were doing).

Boo to the Metro bus using the HOV lane who cut back to the normal lanes too early, crossing the double white lines.

Dr. Gridlock: Just after I replied to a previous comment by noting the difficulty of enforcing HOV rules on Route 50, I see this compliment to the state police for monitoring the situation there.

The other location where I hear complaints about buses cutting into traffic is the shoulder lanes on Route 29, north of Silver Spring. It's legitimate for the buses to use the shoulders in that area, but they need to reenter the regular travel lanes only when it's safe.

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Washington, D.C.: Last Friday I saw two girls on the Green line defacing Metrorail seats with a red felt marker. The emergency phone was near where they were sitting, so that wasn't an option. I called WMATA's main number on my cell, but there wasn't a quick option to contact metro police. What should I have done?

Dr. Gridlock: I was talking recently with Metro Police Chief Polly Hanson about what riders can do in such situations. She noted that we can use our cell phones to call the Metro police number, 202-962-2121. You wind up talking to someone who works for Metro and you might wind up with a quicker response to the situation.

An alternative is to change cars at the next station and use the operator call box in that car.

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Ashburn, Va.: This is a question more out of curiosity...

I drive the toll road everyday. And everyday there are poor people who are stopped on the airport access road by the cops. I guess for speeding. The police patrol those lanes like it was knee-deep in crime. What gives? As I'm driving along with people in the HOV lane who do not belong, people on their way to the airport are getting tickets. It seems like a blatant money-making scheme.

Dr. Gridlock: Of course, the police can always stop drivers for speeding. (It's 55 mph on the Access Road, right?) But they'll also stop drivers they think are not legitimately using the highway for travel to or from the airport.

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Foggy Bottom: I think my number one pet peeve is people who run yellow lights. When I say "run" I mean that they speed up to get across the intersection. I'm convinced that's how I'm going to die, since everyone here seems to view yellow as "speed up." Is the District doing anything to deter this? I've noticed cabs are the worse. Thanks so much!

Dr. Gridlock: Anybody remember the episode of Taxi where Rev. Jim is taking the written driver's test and he's whispering to his friends, "What does a yellow light mean?"

They draw out the answer: "S-l-o-w d-o-w-n!"

What police across the region are doing right now is conducting a pedestrian safety campaign, letting both motorists and pedestrians know what the rules are, and ticketing some for violating them.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I think one thing that could greatly help drivers around buses is if they had different signals for stopping or lane changes. If I'm on the left side of a bus and I see their yellow lights going off, it's impossible to know if he's about to stop or if he's trying to merge into the lane that I'm in.

Dr. Gridlock: That's a good point, and actually, I'd apply it to cars, as well. I've noticed several drivers lately who went from being parked in the breakdown lane to merging back into traffic with their flashers on, rather than using a turn signal.

It's impossible to tell what their intentions are.

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South Capitol Street: Hi Dr. Gridlock,

South Capitol Street rush hour traffic is getting increasingly worse, and I'm contemplating biking across the bridge. It looks like there's a side road for bikes, but I'm not sure. Can you tell me if the stretch of South Capitol Street from Bolling AFB to the Capitol building is bike-able?

Dr. Gridlock: I'm not sure and am wondering if bikers out there couple help us on this one. I was driving along South Capitol last Thursday, but didn't notice if the entire stretch has a bike lane. As I recall, you can bike across the Douglass Bridge.

That reminds me: There's another round of work on the bridge scheduled for this weekend, and it's likely to disrupt traffic.

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Washington, D.C.: Fairfax did not properly tally the cost of the drive versus the Metro trip because he/she did not include the cost of their car, car insurance, maintenance, parking at their destination, etc. This is why people make the decision to drive, claiming it is cheaper than public transportation -- they do not include all the costs of owning a car. I have lived in D.C. for a decade without a car. I have no car payment, no insurance costs, no parking fees (or hassles). I haven't figured out what these would cost me, but I'd guess at least $10,000 per year. I'm not anti-car -- I've made a choice to not have a car (and of course therefore pay higher rent for living near a Metro station), but think people would be better off to include all costs when making a comparison.

Dr. Gridlock: I think this is a good point, and recall making a similar calculation a few years back, when I used to drive from Silver Spring to our downtown newsroom. I calculated that I could save about $850 a year by taking Metro rather than driving and parking. (In those days, I spent the entire day at the newsroom and didn't need the car for cruising the region.)

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Fairfax, Va.: I did not realize that it was against the law to pass a stopped bus and make a right turn, although I can see how that can be dangerous if the bus driver is not paying attention. I often see a bus stopped at the corner of 20th and L to pick up passengers. As far as I can tell, this is NOT a regular public transportation bus, but rather a private bus of some sort. I don't mind waiting behind the bus if he stops briefly to pick up or drop of passengers, but often the just waits at that corner before moving off again, which means that there can be a considerable wait to make a right turn. Does the law apply just to public buses or to private buses as well? Since there are prominent signs that there is no stopping or waiting along the street, I don't see how private buses get to hold up one lane of traffic while they wait.

Dr. Gridlock: I can tell you exactly what the law says on the bus definition:

"Bus" means "public transit bus," such as Metrobuses, the Downtown Circulator, the Georgetown Blue Buses, Maryland and Virginia State commuter charters, as well as Tourmobile vehicles.

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Friendship Heights: Where are the eight-car trains?

I am a daily rider and I have yet to ride on or see one on the arrival monitor.

My recollection may be incorrect, but I thought by the end of 2006 something like 20 percent of trains were supposed to have eight cars, and 50 percent by the end of 2007?

But it is almost April and I have yet to see one.

Is this another procurement debacle, like the last round of rail cars, we will only learn about after someone starts sniffing around?

Dr. Gridlock: Here's an update from Metro spokesman Steven Taubenkibel. He notes that Metro has been using some eight-car trains on the Orange Line during the morning rush. Then he goes on to say:

"Very shortly, we will be expanding eight-car trains to the Red, Green and Orange Lines. With the additional cars, we will eliminate two four-car trains on the Yellow Line and make a four-car train a six-car train on the Blue Line.

"The bottom line is that with the additional 6000 cars coming on line, we are preparing to add some six and eight car trains during the peak service."

(The 6000 series cars are the latest additions to the Metro fleet.)

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Alexandria, Va.: In regards to the people inconvenienced by the National Marathon: Where does the fault really lie? Wasn't there coverage in local media (including The Post) in the days leading up to it? Of the people interviewed for Sunday's Post article on the subject the funeral director should have been aware of the traffic situation (I thought that was part of the job), the lady going flower shopping was pursuing an inessential task and came off sounding like bridezilla, and the lady who "tried public transport to no avail" only tried on-road options like the bus and taxis. Phhpt!

Dr. Gridlock: I was asking on the Get There blog about how much information travelers need to get about upcoming events, like Saturday's National Marathon, or new laws, like the bus law. (Those are both D.C. examples, but the same question would apply anywhere.)

We did print a map in The Post, and I did a Get There blog item that got pretty good display on our site's home page on Friday and Saturday. Actually, I learned about the potential impact on travelers when I was driving along Benning Road and saw one of the city's mobile electronic signs saying that many streets would be blocked on Saturday and advising travelers to take Metro.

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D.C.: Hey Doc--

Yes, you can bike across South Capitol Street bridge from Bolling AFB. It's a nice ride, and you can ride past the morons sitting in the parking lot conditions every day. Granted, it's brutal in winter...there is nothing stopping those river winds off the Anacostia over that bridge, but if you can stand it, it's a great alternative.

Dr. Gridlock: D.C. is helping me respond to the question above about whether you can bike along South Cap from the Bolling area up to the Capitol. Thank you.

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Arlington, Va.: Dear Dr. G:

Any idea what can be done to change the intersection at Lee Highway and Spout Run Parkway in Arlington (across from the Italian Store) from the Intersection of Death to the Intersection of Delight? Seriously, there are regular, nasty car accidents at this intersection -- including one yesterday that would have been deadly had either participant had a passenger.

Thanks!

Dr. Gridlock: I'm not familiar with this intersection, but will go take a look. I try to spend a minimum of a half day a week checking out suggestions and complaints from travelers about road problems.

Anybody familiar with this one?

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RE: Fairfax, Va. Going Green: Metro parking is supposed to be free on weekends and late at night, but the gates at Vienna are ALWAYS down and you ALWAYS have to pay for parking - at least they have been in mine and this person's experiences.

Dr. Gridlock: I'm surprised to hear this -- it does seem at variance with Metro policy -- and will check with Metro, but probably can't do so while we're still chatting today.

Vienna is a station I've received some complaints about. I apologize, because I've been tardy in checking on several issues there. I'll show you one of them.

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Reston, Va.: When are they going to install traffic lights at those dangerous crossings at Vienna Metro?

Dr. Gridlock: This is an issue I've been meaning to check on. This isn't the first time I've heard a complaint that driving and walking in the Vienna Station area is problematic.

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Silver Spring, Md.: How seriously does Metro take e-mailed complaints? Long story short -- Metro bus pulled up directly behind construction zone on Georgia Ave last week in the right lane. A van was in front of me in the middle lane, stopped at a red light. When the light turned green the bus attempted to cut in front of the van (there was not enough room for an accordion bus to change lanes). When the van and I continued through the light, the bus driver opened his window and screamed at us. I wrote to Metro but am not sure if they will actually do anything about it.

Dr. Gridlock: I'll tell you what I know: Every time I've complained about something to Metro, or passed along a complaint from a rider, Metro has followed up. (I don't necessarily get the answer I want, but they do follow up.)

I also ask letter writers to share their experiences with me on the complaint process. The complaint about complaints is that often Metro responds with an explanation about why things are the way they are, and an apology for that. This as opposed to an actual resolution of the problem.

I should note that this doesn't amount to a real survey on my part. I can't speak about the overall experience rider's have with Metro's complaint system.

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Arlington, Va.: Taking Metro may be cheaper than parking, but remember that for a lot of us, Metro takes significantly longer on average, and that should be figured into the cost. Yes, drivers face traffic jams, but Metro riders face delays too.

Also, costs like car insurance only figure into the equation if the alternative is going without a car altogether. If the choice is just whether to drive or Metro to a particular weekend event, your car insurance won't be reduced if you take Metro that day.

Dr. Gridlock: This gets us back to the exchanges above about whether it makes sense to drive or ride. There are plenty of factors to consider. They're not all financial. Sometimes it's a nice day, sometimes it's raining.

I'm not into making travelers feel guilty, or defensive, about the choices they make. Calculate what works best for you in any given situation. One thing I'd like is for everyone to know all the options that are available.

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Fairfax, Va.: How does a cop know if someone is legitimately using the Dulles access road for travel to or from the airport?

Dr. Gridlock: This question has come up before, and my response is strictly from memory: Police say they place themselves in a position to make a reasonable judgment on whether a driver is going to or from the airport, or just trying to dodge the toll. If stopped, you can show the officer evidence that you had business of any sort at the airport.

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SmarTrip: I thought SmarTrip allowed you to go to a $5 negative balance, thus the additional fee?

Dr. Gridlock: You can run a little deficit on a card -- not positive, off hand, on the exact amount -- but you have to make it up before you can use the transit system again.

That's different, though, from the $5 fee to buy the card in the first place. Many people complain about this feature of SmarTrip, and I think Metro should find a way around this charge if it wants to encourage people to use this. Also, it's not fare to make people who use the system only occasionally buy a $5 card just to earn the privilege of paying for the parking.

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Alexandria, Va.: Dr. Gridlock, I am concerned that another "oil crisis" may be on the horizon because of increasing turmoil in the Middle East, specifically, heightening tensions between the West and Iran. If there is a significant spike in gas prices, I am wondering if you think Metro rail/transit is prepared for the potential for a sudden large increase in ridership? Thank you.

Dr. Gridlock: I think gas prices do affect Metro use, but ridership is not increasing at the rapid rate it did in previous years.

Haven't heard of any specific Metro plan to deal with a spike, but the transit authority is gradually adding more of those 6000 series cars to the lines to increase capacity.

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Washington, D.C.: Dr. Gridlock -- Yesterday afternoon (about 3 p.m.), there was a huge accident on 295 near the marina/6th Street exit. I am not sure in what direction, but there were at least two explosions/black smoke, multiple emergency vehicles and the traffic was completely stopped in both directions for over an hour. What happened?

Dr. Gridlock: This sounds like the I-395 incident that we had a short item about in today's Post:

A pickup truck fire on 395 in Southwest Washington tied up traffic for more than an hour in both directions. Authorities said the driver also had a box of ammo in the truck, but the ammo was far from the fire and never in danger of exploding.

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Downtown: So the day after Metro announces its new get-tough policy on rowdy teenagers, what do I see on a Red Line train: About 10 incredibly rude, profane, thuggish teenagers get on, seven of them eating McDonald's. They proceed to start shoving each other around, into other passengers, then swearing at other passengers when given dirty looks. All the while, they're shouting at a decibel level I haven't heard since my last trip to the 9:30 club.

Anyone who uses the "kids will be kids" defense is just missing the point. These kids should not be riding Metro if they can't behave. The reason they break pretty much every Metro law is because no one has ever confronted them about it, and I doubt anyone ever will.

Dr. Gridlock: Metro police, D.C. police and D.C. school officials all say they are working on this problem. The new campaign is called "Respect." (As in, "Give it. Get it.") My understanding is that it's not so much a crackdown, as a consciousness raising thing.

As I said in a response to an earlier question, two options are use the operator call box, either in the car or in an adjacent car, if you think your own security is in danger. Or call the transit police directly, at their 202-962-2121 number. (I'd like to see that number displayed on every Metro car and bus.)

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Dr. Gridlock: I'll have to shut down now, though I know I haven't addressed all your question. I always save them, and sometimes can address them either in an upcoming Dr. Gridlock column or in the daily Get There blog on our Web site.

So please stay tuned, and I'll look forward to chatting with you again here the Monday after next.

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