Dr. Gridlock

Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, April 9, 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, April 10, 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.


Dr. Gridlock: Hello, travelers, Are you stressed and out of shape because of your commute? Eric Weiss had an interesting story about that on the front of The Post's Metro section today. I did a "Get There" blog entry about it this morning, and have been getting some feedback from drivers, Metro riders and bikers.

I see in our chat's mailbag that there are a couple of people asking for advice on local travels. I'll post them right away because I'd like to get some advice from you.


Washington, D.C.: I am considering a move out of the District. I need to commute to work a few blocks from Union Station, so I can use either the MARC or VRE. Of the various lines for both systems, which is considered the most reliable? I might as well focus my search around my best commuting routes. Thanks.

Dr. Gridlock: I offer this one for group comment. The peak complaint time about both lines is during the summer, when heat restrictions slow both services and the weather puts particular stress on train engines. CSX ownership of some lines is a problem for both services.

VRE and MARC both offer e-mail notification services to warn riders about problems. I see a lot more of them from VRE than from MARC, but I'm not sure that's a fair test.

Since I'm not sure how far out our commuter needs to locate, let me also suggest the possibility of moving to a point near Metro's Red Line for the commute to Union Station.


Penn Quarter: Hello! How long should I give myself to get from Penn Quarter to Dulles Airport on a Monday? The (international) flight is at 9:30 p.m. I was planning to leave by 5:30. Does that sound right? I'd much rather be bored sitting at the gate than be stressed out sitting in traffic. Thanks!

Dr. Gridlock: Here's another situation I'd like to throw out to the group. After 20 years, the Gridspouse has gotten used to how early I like to leave for airports. I know that on international flights, the standard advice is to reach the airport three hours before flight time.

In the case of a 9:30 p.m. flight, that leaves an hour for the drive. I think the 5:30 departure might be okay, with the worst part of the trip being the first part -- a drive westbound on Constitution Avenue to I-66 to reach the Dulles Access Road. But what do you all think? (And specifically, what's the best route out of the District?)


Yellow Line to Fort Totten: I live at 16th and U and I'm THRILLED with the extension of the Yellow Line to Fort Totten. I understand that Metro will be assessing this extension to decide whether to make it permanent. What do you suggest I do to make the most impact in letting them know how much I support the Yellow Line to Fort Totten? I did think of choreographing a dance -- but I didn't think that would have the desired effect!

Dr. Gridlock: This winter, Metro began an 18-month experiment extending the Yellow Line to Fort Totten, to better serve a growing part of the District. The District is paying for this.

I think the easiest way to cast your vote for continued service is to use Metro's customer comment form. Here's a link.

But you can also call Metro's customer assistance phone number to offer a comment: 202-637-1328

Jim Graham, the D.C. council member and Metro board member, was a driving force behind the extension, so it wouldn't hurt to call his office and tell him you like it.


Washington, D.C.: A few weeks ago I visited Vancouver, B.C., and rode SkyTrain (the city transit system). The whole system is automated with no train operator on board. It was rush hour, but people were friendly and I witnessed several occasions where people offered their seats to others on the train. At one point, the train stopped short between stations. Within 30 seconds, a very clear and audible announcement was made explaining why we were stopped with a little humor added. It turns out something fell onto the tracks ahead and it triggered an automatic emergency stop. I thought we would be sitting for at least 15 minutes, but within 2 minutes were back on our way. It was so refreshing to see how efficiently they handled the problem and how understanding the riders were. I doubt we'd see anything like that here, but we can hope!

Dr. Gridlock: Vancouver is a beautiful city. And it's always good to hear how other systems work.

Don't take this as an excuse for the way things work here, but just as acknowledgement of what we're dealing with: A 30-year old, 106-mile train system that is the second busiest in the United States. A lot of our problems here are built into the original design of the system.

I just got off a crowded Red Line train on which the announcements were clear and passengers behaved pretty well. My only complaint would be that people spread themselves out too much on a crowded train, taking double spaces. But the passengers did clear the way politely to let others exit -- no small accomplishment on trains jammed with tourists at spring break and cherry blossom time.


Vienna, Va.: Any chance Metro will start running 8-car trains on the Orange line in the evenings? The evening commutes have always needed the extra capacity, and the situation is getting worse with tourist season beginning.

Dr. Gridlock: Yes, actually, I believe Metro began last week to run 8-car trains in the evening on the Orange Line, along with several other lines. The timing was great, because of the cherry blossom crowds, but the addition of 24 rail cars to the system that allowed for the extension of some trains is permanent. All the lines got cars. But in some cases, it meant extending some trains from 4 cars to 6.

More cars on the way.


Monkey County: Interesting article on commuting and stress. This is one reason I use public transit, even though it takes more time on average. (Price variance is minimal, but I'd have to buy a different car which inflates the price of driving.) With the exception of days where there is a suspicious package at Rockville or something, MARC and Metro allow me to have a predictable, relaxing commute. MARC has the quiet cars when I feel the need for a nap, and my book and iPod provide plenty of relaxing entertainment for the trip home.

The only way I think my commute contributes to the stress is by taking up such a large portion of the day. Even if I drove, my commute would not be short, so I consider it a reasonable trade-off. I wouldn't work in D.C. if transit was not available as an option. Driving it every day would just make me nuts.

Dr. Gridlock: I'll put up a link in a moment to Eric Weiss's story on the physical and emotional toll that commuting takes on travelers.


washingtonpost.com: Your Car + Your Commute = A Visit to Your Doctor (Post, April 9)

Dr. Gridlock: Here you go. People who have commented so far are generally saying they'd rather take the train or bike.

When I was working in our downtown newsroom, I made a cost calculation, rather than a stress calculation. The trip down 16th Street NW from Silver Spring was a straight shot and not very stressful. It was shorter than the Metro trip, but the train saved me money.


Clifton, Va.: VRE to Manassas is the most reliable with the least amount of delays. VRE Fredericksburg and MARC are on CSX tracks. Most of the VRE Manassas line is Norfolk Southern.

Dr. Gridlock: Clifton is commenting on the question above about which is the better train trip.


Arlington, Va.: Yesterday I took the 5A Metrobus from Dulles to Rosslyn. The trip was extremely easy but I think that Metro should get busses with wider aisles or better storage facilities for those huge suitcases that block the aisles. I believe that the bus from Greenbelt to BWI is configured in a way that allows more luggage storage and easier aisle access.

Dr. Gridlock: I know that's the B30 Metro express bus from Greenbelt to BWI. Cost is $3.

Metro has been introducing a lot of new buses, of several designs. That's great, because buses are the quickest way to have an impact on congestion.

Problem with the express lines has always been getting people to try them. And there are plenty of times when the express gets stuck in the same traffic as everyone else.

I agree about the suitcases. Nothing like them to jam up an already crowded bus or subway. I hope the cars for the new rail line out to Dulles can take that into account.


Rosslyn Woes: I am a Blue line rider and still amazed that Metro runs 4-car trains at 5:30. I understand that the Blue line now has some 6-car trains, but that doesn't do most workers good if those trains pass through at 3:30 or 7:00!! How about putting those additional cars during the really peak times, Metro??

Dr. Gridlock: Those 24 additional cars were added last week specifically to help out during peak demand. Trouble is that if you spread 24 cars out across the whole 106 mile system, an average rider might not notice.

By the way, riding a four-car train at rush hour is indeed a hellish experience and the sooner that ends the better. Talk about physical and emotional stress!


Ashburn, Va.: Dr. G, I am driving into the District after work tonight to have our engagement picture taken. We're supposed to meet our photographer near the Tidal Basin by the FDR memorial at 6:30 and I'm not sure what our best parking situation is. Is street parking available by that time close to where we have to go, or do we have to park on the other side of the Mall and make the long walk over there? I appreciate any help.

Dr. Gridlock: Another question for group comment. But I'm thinking, there should be enough parking at Hains Point for this to work out okay, even if it is cherry blossom festival time.


Arlington, Va.: I noticed most of the construction fencing and barriers have been removed from the west side of the Lincoln Memorial. However, I thought they were supposed to dramatically change the traffic pattern in the circle. All I have noticed is that the right lane going down towards Independence from the east-bound Memorial Bridge can now go straight towards Ohio Drive or turn left.

Not what I would call "dramatic," and it certainly doesn't solve the problems in this area. Did they actually change anything aside from the bus entrance to the memorial?

Dr. Gridlock: I was out around the Lincoln Memorial last week, because I got a flood of letters from Virginia commuters complaining about the tour buses parking along Bacon Drive, but I didn't walk over to asses the affect of last week's reopening on the south side -- a portion of the circle, the south part of 23rd Street and Daniel French Drive.

One benefit, I hope, is that the new space available for bus and taxi dropoffs will relieve the congestion that has hampered traffic turning off Constitution Avenue and heading for the Memorial Bridge.


Hyattsville, Md.: I seemed to recall reading about D.C. beginning construction on a direct connection between I-395 and DC-295 near Pennsylvania Avenue. I haven't seen any progress on this project. Is it still happening, and if so, what is the estimated completion time?

Trying to get to I-395 south from DC-295 south has gotten to be a real pain due to the intermittent closings of the Douglas Bridge.

Dr. Gridlock: I believe that connection continues to be part of the the District's long-term construction plan. I'll check on the timing, but I don't believe this is happening real soon, and not in time to help with the weekend lane closures on South Capitol Street's Douglass Bridge or the complete closure of the bridge during July and August.


Alexandria?: To the train rider: How about moving to Alexandria near King Street? You can take the VRE in to Union Station, and there's Metro if you need to go anywhere else (or if there's a big VRE delay).

Dr. Gridlock: More advice on the prospective move out of the District.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Dr. G,

I have been meaning to tell you this story for quite some time but I kept forgetting.

A few weeks back I was crossing 12th Street in Brookland. As I was crossing this man (or woman) in a green car turned onto 12th from a side street and nearly ran me over (missed me by 6 inches). All of a sudden, a police officer shows up on foot (out of nowhere) and comes up to me, concern is written all over his face. He said he saw that driver almost hit me and asked if I was alright? I told him I was fine. The he said (I will never forget this) "Do you want me to go after that driver? I will if you want me to." I was shocked (and pleased) at his concern for my well being. I thank him for his concern and (probably foolishly) told him not to worry about it as I was okay. So while there are complaints about some of our police officers there are those that care...I ran into one...or one ran to me when I almost got run over.

I do regret not having him go after that driver tough, maybe a ticket would have make him/her be more careful in the future, cause they just may run someone over yet.

Dr. Gridlock: Encouraging story -- at least for the part about the officer's assistance and the fact that you weren't seriously hurt.

Many jurisdictions in our region are conducting their annual Street Smart campaign to improve pedestrian safety. But we see a depressing continuation of incidents like the one you described.


Arlington, Va.: While driving down I-66 with a relative we were debating whether or not there will be a new lane to help deal with some of the congestion one faces on I-66 around Arlington. My understanding was that the recent transportation plan was going to bring funding for it. The relative thought it was not going to happen. Do you know what the current plan is?

Dr. Gridlock: Yes, there is such a plan to relieve congestion on the westbound side of I-66 inside the Beltway. And of course, there's a Web site to describe what's under consideration.

There's a fair amount of opposition to this in Arlington, but that congestion is a constant source of complaints from commuters and it's time for some action.


The Yellow line train to Fort Totten -- the other side: Friday night I was trying to get home to Alexandria from Gallery Place and watched 4 Green line trains come before the Yellow line to Huntington, which made me late for my connecting bus, which I missed. And this has happened before too. If this is what happens so the Yellow line can travel out to Fort Totten -- then something is not quite right with the system.

The same thing happens at Farragut West when I need a Blue train -- two or three Orange line trains come through delaying the Blue line, and yes, I miss my bus.

Dr. Gridlock: I know that this type of thing is a frustration for many travelers on the double lines through downtown, but I'm not sure that your experience Friday night is specifically related to the extension of the Yellow Line.

I hear similar complaints so often about the Orange/Blue situation.


Manassas, Va.: Without question, the Manassas VRE line is much less plagued by delays than the Fredericksburg line.

Dr. Gridlock: More voting for our commuter who works near Union Station.


Rockville, Md.: Is there any reason why GW Parkway South in the mornings have gotten so much worse over the past few months? I drive from Rockville to Alexandria at 7:30 a.m. every morning, taking 495 to GW Parkway to 395 S. When I started this commute (October), the GW Parkway didn't get traffic-y until a mile or so before the Key Bridge. Now it's slow traffic about 5 miles earlier, at 123. It's awful! Would it be better to take 495 the entire way to 395 North, and then deal with 5 miles of 395N traffic? I miss the Metro.

Dr. Gridlock: I'm thinking that the I-495-395 alternative is not going to help, despite the obvious frustration of the parkway. There's going to be traffic around Tysons, and then you'll still have to deal with inbound traffic on 395, right?

(By the way, Maryland is just starting to give the Legion Bridge a paint job. Not sure yet how big an impact that will have on traffic.)


Alexandria, Va.: Re: FDR memorial, I just drove by Hains Point for the first time in the 25 yrs I've lived in the area. If you're on the inbound 14th St. Bridge (not the HOV lanes), there's an exit for Potomac Park. Take it and turn right at the stop where the sign points you towards West Potomac Park and the monuments/memorials. There are three memorial parking lots on the right just beneath the D.C. side of the 14th St. Bridge. I know this is still a bit of a hike to FDR, but those lots should be free by the time the bride (or groom) to be gets there. Trying to drive around the Tidal Basin during afternoon rush doesn't sound like a good idea to me...

Dr. Gridlock: Thanks for this advice to our couple heading toward the FDR Memorial tonight.


Woodbridge, VA: What are the chances of Metro ever making it out to Woodbridge, say to the VRE station on Route 1 or Potomac Mills? I know everyone is focused on the new Tysons/Dulles Route, but traffic along I-95 is just as bad and is only going to get worse as all the government contractors move to Fort Belvoir by 2011. In addition to that, are there any talks of widening Route 1 along the Fairfax County/Woodbridge corridor. I remember talks years ago of creating a "Gateway to Woodbridge" complete with widened roads and a tree lined median. I drive through there everyday and just see abandoned buildings and empty lots. It's really an embarrassment and a shame.

Dr. Gridlock: I'm not hopeful about Metrorail getting extended out that way in time to help you. The rail line to Dulles is the only extension on the table right now, and you know how dicey that project is. Just the first phase, out through Tysons, could cost up to $2.7 billion, according to the latest estimate. Can't build too many things at those prices.


re: The Yellow line train to Fort Totten -- the other side: No, sorry Dr. Gridlock, but it actually is a problem with the extension of the Yellow Line.

I've had the same thing happen to me numerous times. I don't care what Metro or those developers say, this extension really makes no sense now that it eats up time on the return trip. With the Green Line already going past Ft. Totten, stopping at four Yellow Line transfer points up to the 7th St. Convention Center stop, people needing to Ft. Totten from Virginia don't really have many problems.

It's not that hard to jump off the Yellow Line to the Green line at those transfer points.

Dr. Gridlock: Responding to the earlier exchange on negative impact of Yellow Line extension.


Skyline: Seven Corners is possibly the worst intersection in the D.C. area. I mean, honestly, what were the planners thinking! Are there any plans to change the "mini mixing bowl" in the near future. I'd really like to see a stat on how many accidents occur in that area.

Dr. Gridlock: After I couldn't find any projects listed for the Seven Corners area, I just did a quick e-mail exchange with VDOT spokesman Ryan Hall. Here's what he said:

"We will start construction of a pedestrian bridge over Route 50 by the Home Depot in December '07. Right now there are no plans to reconfigure the intersections of Seven Corners."


Oakton, Va.: For the person wanting to know when to leave Penn Quarter for Dulles, I'd leave at 5:00 and take advantage of being able to use I-66 during the HOV restrictions when traffic is not as heavy. That would put them at Dulles right after the 5:00-6:30 bank of flights have left and check-in and security should be a breeze.

Dr. Gridlock: Advice for our Dulles-bound D.C. resident.

I've learned a lot about our transportation problems by driving around the region since taking over as Dr. Gridlock last July. But the main thing I've learned is that this is a huge and complicated region with many, many problems.

So I'm always grateful to the army of researchers out there -- you commuters -- who assist your fellow sufferers with good advice.


McLean Gardens: Re: the 5A bus to Dulles. There are so few luggage racks on that bus because it never was intended as an airport shuttle. It was created to ferry employees to the airport. Of course, more people now use it as an airport shuttle. And of course, WMATA has done nothing to rectify a problem that obviously needs fixing.

Dr. Gridlock: This goes back to our exchange about the design of buses and the need to accommodate luggage on the express routes.


Washington, D.C.: Is there a good alternative to I-95 to get down to Richmond? I tried Route 1, but it was a complete parking lot, made worse by the never-ending squalid strip malls and lawyer-dorms and McMansions sitting on their teensy clear-cut lots. At least on 95, I don't have to look at that suburban nightmare.

All told, it took me about three hours to get from the District to Fredricksburg. Are there any other routes that aren't so packed, or so offensive to the senses?

Dr. Gridlock: I hate I-95 to Richmond, but haven't discovered an alternative that actually saves time from D.C. Anybody?


Silver Spring, Md.: Need to be at Dulles at 6 p.m. on a Wednesday (one week from this Wednesday...) How much time would you leave from Silver Spring? I know... it's not going to be good.

Dr. Gridlock: Actually, I think you're a lot better off than our traveler thinking about leaving D.C. at 5:30 p.m. for the 9:30 p.m. flight.

You won't have to deal with D.C. streets during rush hour. Get on the Beltway outer loop, which should be fine around 1:45 p.m., and take that to the Dulles Access Road, which generally is problem free.


College Park, Md.: Praise for a Metro employee, and a complaint/request for Metro in general. Last Friday, there was a problem with the exit gates at the College Park station (about 4:40 p.m. or so) and riders from two or three trains piled up trying to get out. I am mobility impaired and can't stand for very long without severe pain. After reaching the head of the line at two gates and being unable to exit, I went over to the office to complain. The manager on duty said he was trying to fix the gates, and offered me a chair so I could sit down and rest while he got the problem fixed and the crowd diminished. He was very concerned about my situation, and very nice in the face of my somewhat angry approach. Thanks much to a good person!

The complaint/request is also College Park station-related. The elevators in the parking garage seem to be out of service more often than they are working. Would Metro please allocate more handicapped parking spaces on the ground level? There are only four spaces on ground level now -- upper levels have more spaces, I believe. However, handicapped spaces on the 2nd or 4th or whatever level do me no good if the only way to get to them is to take the stairs.

Dr. Gridlock: Sending this out so Metro can see the good and the bad of it.


Rockville, Md.: I'm hoping you'll have some insight as to what is happening on Rockville Pike Northbound in Kensington/N. Bethesda right before the ramp onto 495 Westbound. Three lanes on one side of the intersection used to continue through to the other side, with the left-most lane allowed to exit onto 495 W. These three lanes are suddenly being forced into only two lanes on the other side of the intersection, which is causing a great deal of traffic. After merging in, the left lane then opens up again to take the exit for 495. What gives? It originally looked like temporary construction, but now a new line has been painted on the road, blocking that left lane by the road cones. Is this change actually for good?

Dr. Gridlock: This sounds like the bridge reconstruction that Maryland State Highway Administration just began.

That project is a big deal, and will last till fall 2008.

This is what SHA says it is doing:

- Cleaning and painting the existing structural steel;

- Installing drainage troughs beneath the roadway bridge deck joints in order to redirect storm water;

- Resurfacing bridge approach roadway;

- Replacing concrete sidewalks; and

- Re-striping the roadway.

Here are some SHA details about the lane restrictions:

"During the project the existing three travel lanes will be reduced to two. SHA will use concrete barrier, arrow boards and signs to guide motorists through the work zone. Variable message signs, arrow boards and cones will direct motorists through night time double lane closures that may be necessary along the Capital Beltway."


Rockville and the Red Line:: The electronic message board at the entrances to most stations is really helpful in letting riders know how long it is until the next train is arriving. However, these boards almost never post the train times because they are filled with the really long list of elevator closings. The train arrival times flash up for a few seconds, then disappear under a really long list of elevator closings.

Is there anything that can be done about these really long scrolls of elevator repairs on the boards at most Metro stations?

Dr. Gridlock: I've had that frustration myself at Silver Spring, but now we have a new wide-screen video display outside the fare gates that is very helpful in displaying next train information. I hope all the stations will get the benefit of that soon.


Trip to Richmond: For the person wanting to drive down to Richmond, I've always had luck driving down Rt. 29S to Rt. 17S to 95S. Rt. 29 might be an issue on a Friday afternoon, but it's been a breeze otherwise.

Dr. Gridlock: For the traveler who wants to get off I-95 on the D.C. to Richmond trip.


Bethesda, Md.: Doc,

Can you look into the reason for the steel plates that are located in the two right southbound lanes of 355 at Cedar Lane? They are raised up and essentially function as speedbumps leading up to the light. They have been there at least a month, and it never appears as though anyone is doing any work that would justify their presence.


Dr. Gridlock: Yes, I'll find out about that.


Laurel, Md.: Dr. G, could you please remind drivers that the zebra stripes between handicapped parking spaces are NOT parking spaces? They are to allow vans sufficient room to allow those in wheelchairs, such as my son, to safely exit a vehicle. I can't tell you how many people don't seem to know this, or disregard it, if they do. Thanks so much!

Dr. Gridlock: sure.


Orange Line Rider: This question may be more appropriate for the Metro chats, but I have been reading with interest about the construction of the 2nd Avenue subway line in NYC. How does that project compare with the Dulles extension in terms of cost, funding, etc.?

Dr. Gridlock: The Second Ave subway is supposed to cost $4 billion. Same as the 23-mile extension from the Orange Line to Dulles.


Centreville, Va.: Last week I finally got to see the red lights Metro in now testing in one of their stations. They do stand out better, but in the end do need to brighten up the stations. The LEDs are a great way to save money, maybe they can install some yellow and white LED lights around the station to help save even more money?

Dr. Gridlock: Metro is testing out new platform lights that are either red or yellow. The red ones do stand out more. And yes, many, many stations need better lighting.


H St. NE, DC: I live just off of H St. NE and double parking continues to be a problem along the corridor ("I'm just picking up my dry cleaning", "I just have to cash this check", "I'm just waiting for someone in the Popeyes"), you get the idea. Not only is it dangerous, but it seriously interferes with the traffic flow. Now the middle of the corridor has a steel plate overlay from 3rd down to 14th in preparing for the new street car tracks. Is there anything the neighboring community can do to discourage double parking and is there any possibility it will get any better before it gets worse? It will get better won't it? Please tell me it will. Thanks.

Dr. Gridlock: That H Street-Benning Road improvement project is going to take quite a while. I've found the Advisory Neighborhood Commissions to be pretty good at working with the District Department of Transportation and the police department in dealing with similar street congestion problems.


Bristow, Va.: Do you know if VDOT has plans to add traffic cameras along I-66 past Manassas? I had assumed that they might be added as part of the recently completed widening project between Exits 47 and 44, but I haven't seen anything yet. They have cameras all along I-81 through the Shenandoah Valley, and on I-66 as far in as Front Royal, but nothing in between, in areas that have a great deal of traffic and congestion, with a great deal of road work in progress or planned for coming years. Any idea as to why the gap in coverage?

Dr. Gridlock: I don't know of plans to extend the cameras, but it's a good question and I'll check. There are many frustrating gaps in the cameras all across the region. Interesting how dependent some of us have gotten on this relatively new technology.


Dr. Gridlock: Thanks for joining me today, travelers. We'll do it again in two weeks. Stay safe out there.


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