Dr. Gridlock

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Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, May 7, 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, May 7, 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: Despite this gorgeous spring weather, the mailbag tells me you folks are in a complaining mood today.

Good. Keeps me employed.

Let's see what I can answer and what we can share.

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Washington, D.C.: Are there any traffic delays or problems expected due to the visit of Queen Elizabeth to the White House today?

Dr. Gridlock: I've seen no advisories about traffic issues today or tomorrow concerning the queen's visit. (And I'm on the lists to get them.)

It was a White House greeting this morning and a garden party this afternoon at the British ambassador's residence.

Tomorrow, it's on to Goddard in Greenbelt, Children's Hospital in D.C. and the WW II Memorial on the Mall.

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Silver Spring, Md.: A couple of months ago you answered a question about Georgia Ave (past the beltway to Viers Mill) being repaved and said it should be done by May. Well, it is truly a mess. There is one layer down over 2/3 of the road. The right lanes have nothing and are hard to drive on. All the grates, etc are high and look as tho a tire will pop if hit. Any clue as to when they will actually be finished?

Dr. Gridlock: I know that work has been bothering Maryland commuters, as has the milling and paving along Route 29, which is scheduled to end in early June.

If I hear back from the Maryland State Highway Administration during our chat about the latest on Georgia Avenue, I'll share that with you.

When I asked SHA a couple of weeks ago about the status of that project, spokesman Chuck Gischlar told me this:

The work was continuing from 9 p.m. until 5 a.m. as SHA adjusted the slope of the roadway before final paving. Weather had been a big factor in the length of the project. Only recently had it become warm enough to apply asphalt and then heavy rains had postponed construction. "We certainly appreciate the patience of motorists and want to thank them for bearing with us through construction," Gischlar said.

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Beachwood, Ohio: Interesting that the public transit problems in D.C. are the same ones here in Cleveland:

Bad service, non-responsive management....

Dr. Gridlock: Yes, we do have those problems here, and I do focus on them in my columns and blog, but that's what I'm here for. Stepping back for a moment, I must say that our Metro system is one of the region's greatest assets.

The system works well enough for us to make it one of the most popular in the nation. I've encountered many, many safe and courteous train operators, station managers, bus drivers and police officers.

We need to talk about the bad experiences, because we want the system to be better. But let's appreciate what we've got.

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Washington, D.C.: If you know, what's the story at 22d and P, NW? Lot of equipment, lots of lane closures, no work.

Dr. Gridlock: I just walked back from 22nd and P NW and saw plenty of work going on. Crews were in the center lane work zone, between 21 and 22 Streets, and there were plenty of dump trucks coming in.

The P Street project is being done block by block to minimize the disruption to businesses and residents in Dupont Circle, but I'd sure try to avoid that area as a driver.

Problem: The work isn't neatly fitting into that block, between 21 and 22 streets. The construction ditch juts out on both sides, so traffic has to squeeze by. For example, if you're heading north on 22nd Street, you really want to get over to the left lane as soon as you can before you get to P Street.

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Rockville, Md.: Yea! to Metro for the new signs outside the turnstiles displaying when the next train is arriving. They are very helpful and save me from breaking my neck trying to get down to the station in the evening when I hear a train coming by telling me whether it's one going my way or in the opposite direction.

Dr. Gridlock: This was a long time coming, but it's most welcome. I also like the way the electronic signs on the platforms have been adjusted, so that they're not a continuous listing of elevator outages.

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Marshall, Va.: Dr. Gridlock, your columns are always helpful and your blog is terrific. The only question I have and this has frustrated me more and more each week is the number of cars who use on/off ramps to pass by traffic. I was nearly in an accident this morning on 66 when a woman in the HOV lane cut in front of me before the exit for 123. She then cut off people in the next two lanes so she could get onto the ramp at 123 and while doing so was at a 90-degree angle to the ramp. To make matters worse, I watched this woman as she avoided the traffic around 66. This was not a mistake, this was a blatant disregard for the law. Is there something the police can do about this?

Dr. Gridlock: First, I'm very greatful for the complement, but want to give credit where it's really due: The army of researchers who travel the roads and rails and sidewalks and bike paths who write in to the column, blog and chat.

Since I took over the column in July, I've had the humbling experience of learning how big the region is and how many transportation issues we have.

Often -- very often -- I first learn about problems through you readers. I share what I hear with the other members of our transportation team: Lena Sun, who covers Metro, and Eric Weiss, who covers the roads.

I'll give you some examples from the research army momentarily.

But on Marshall, Va.'s question: Yes, if you see someone misbehaving like that, you can immediately call the state police at #77. That works in both MD and Va. Of course, if you think it's a life-threatening emergency, it's a 911 call.

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Springfield, Va.: I was on the Blue line train today that encountered the brush fire on the side of the tracks if there is any interest? The operator was professional and stopped our train and tried to extinguish the fire. I'm glad we were going northbound because the fire was on the southbound tracks.

Dr. Gridlock: Thank you, Springfield, you've set us off to check out that incident. And Lena Sun says please contact her at sunl@washpost.com, because she'd love to talk to you about what you saw.

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Arlington, Va.: As you've posted, the traffic going north on the GW Parkway is horrendous. Who can we talk so that the staging area is changed or the work at the very least, is sped up? Is there any hope that this situation can be remedied?

Dr. Gridlock: I made this situation -- the shortening of the merge lane where the GW Parkway traffic enters the Beltway's inner loop -- the subject of a "Get There" blog item and the top item in my Sunday column (I'll post link momentarily) after many readers alerted me to the problem.

I drove out to see for myself that they were absolutely right. This is the worst construction related bottleneck I've seen lately.

The Maryland State Highway Administration is painting the American Legion Bridge. The work is necessary to preseve the bridge and it's equally necessary to protect the workers, but I sure wish more could be done to alleviate the ghastly traffic backups on the northbound parkway and the congestion on the inner loop as well.

I think the situation caught both MSHA and the Virginia Department of Transportation somewhat by surprise. MSHA, which is in charge of the work, had anticipated a minimal impact on drivers because most of that work is underneath the bridge.

But to answer Arlington's question about who to contact. I think it's useful to let MSHA's 3rd District office in Montgomery County know what you're experiencing.

The toll free phone number: 1-800-749-0737.

The e-mail: SHADistrict3@sha.state.md.us

(I've been passing along to both highway departments what I've been hearing from you and am not done writing about this.)

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Lincoln Park: No question here...just wanted to mention that the station manager (sorry I don't know his name) at the Eastern Market Metro is probably one of the most jovial and more importantly helpful Metro employees I've ever encountered. When I read complaints in this forum as well as others, I always think of him and how he's really getting the short end of it.

Dr. Gridlock: It's interesting about the station managers: They have a lot to do with how commuters and tourists view the transit system. For many tourists, they're the first contact with Washington, as they help them figure out how to deal with the fare card machines.

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washingtonpost.com: A Little Painting, a Lot of Waiting (Post, May 6)

Dr. Gridlock: Here's that link to the Sunday column about the George Washington Parkway merge that was shortened up to create a staging area for the bridge painting project.

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Arlington, Va.: We're planning to drive up to Port Liberty (near Newark Airport) in a couple weeks. It's been a while since we did this drive. Is there still a huge traffic mess in Delaware? Are there other construction sites that we need to know about? Thanks.

Dr. Gridlock: We talked a lot about I-95 through Delaware in the lead up to the Thanksgiving holiday travel period. That was a notorious project, as far as many of us were concerned, but that lane squeezing project was completed last year.

With Delaware, it's always good to check for the latest conditions by visiting this Web site:

http://www.deldot.gov/

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D.C.: In your column this week, you wrote:

"Another hopeful step: At least 400 motorists have signed up for the District's Pace Car program, pledging to drive no faster in their neighborhoods than the 25 mph speed limit, setting a pace for others."

This is a terrible idea. As a driver, your primary responsibility, after your own safety, is to the cars behind you. You must keep traffic flowing. Intentionally driving slower than traffic wants to go is antithetical to this principle. This is what causes road rage! Just because you would prefer people not speed through your neighborhood does not make it okay to create a vigilante roadblock. Motorists must pay attention to everyone around them and expedite traffic flow as much as possible.

If there's no one behind you, you can drive as slowly as you want. Otherwise, you are obliged to not block their way!

I am sure people will disagree with this. But this fundamental principle lies at the root of our driving (and biking) culture clashes. I'd encourage you to use your forum to resolve it.

Dr. Gridlock: I'm not sure I could ever resolve this conflict. First, I have to say I disagree with you. Yes, I do think of the drivers behind me and want to be courteous to them. And I'm not the police: I don't drive to enforce rules on those around me.

I do drive to stay alive and protect those around me, both inside and outside the vehicle. I feel no obligation whatsoever to speed, or to turn right at a red light if I think it's unsafe.

The District's Pace Car program isn't about deputizing citizens. It's a volunteer program in which people sign a pledge that they'll drive no faster than the 25 mph speed limit in the city's neighborhoods. I can't think of anything bad to say about that.

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Arlington, Va.: Dr. Gridlock:

I have a few questions related to the same topic. How long will the merge lane from Northbound GW Parkway onto 495 at the American Legion Bridge be closed? This is causing 4-mile backups on the Parkway, adding at least 30-45 minutes to morning commutes. Will repairs to the other side of the bridge back up traffic on the Beltway? Lastly, why isn't this construction noted in the construction map that appears in your column?

Thanks.

Dr. Gridlock: The shortened merge is scheduled to be like that into November. It's a staging area for the equipment and workers who are painting under the bridge, which is rusting.

This has become a major, major source of traffic congestion and there are no really good alternatives to suggest to drivers. VDOT's regional traffic engineer noted that when I was looking for potential detours to suggest to readers. He thought it was better to suggest that drivers try to modify their travel times.

I've put the Legion Bridge project into my Road Watch column (next to Dr. Gridlock on Sundays) a couple of times. I didn't do it yesterday, because I was leading the Dr. Gridlock column with that topic. There are scores of traffic projects throughout our region, and I can squeeze only nine of them into Road Watch. I try to make it a mix of high impact projects, new projects and projects of interest to people who live throughout this huge region.

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Navy Yard, D.C.: Besides Metro and parking lots/garages, what sort of transit options will Nationals fans have in getting to the new stadium? I was on an east-west Circulator and I overheard a conversation between a driver and another rider where they were talking about a new possible Circulator route that would travel from the new stadium to Union Station via the new Capitol Visitor's Center. This route makes complete sense, considering that after games, many people will be going to the Red Line, and there are hundreds of Navy Yard and DOT employees who, during the work week, head in that direction every day to catch a commuter train. Currently there is the N22 Navy Yard-Union Station bus, but that takes a out-of-the-way route between the two that seems inefficient. WMATA and DDOT have changes in store for this rapidly growing part of D.C., right?

Dr. Gridlock: Yes, and I'll keep you posted about them in the Dr. Gridlock column and in the "Get There" blog. Expansion of the Circulator would be a good one, and I've heard that talked about. Metro is planning to adjust rail service to accommodate the crowds. (The District is planning based on every game in 2008 being a sellout.)

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North Bethesda, Md.:"I also like the way the electronic signs on the platforms have been adjusted, so that they're not a continuous listing of elevator outages. "

I would LOVE for metro to put elevator outages on the boards where it matters. If I'm on the Red line going towards Shady Grove (from Dupont Circle), I do NOT need to know that the elevator at Courthouse is don't working. I'm not going in that direction. Sure, if I was inbound and there was a chance I would be connecting and going out that way, let me know but can't Metro keep the notices on the boards where it matters?

Dr. Gridlock: What I'm seeing is that the scroll of the elevator outages doesn't last as long as it used to, which is good. Before, it seemed like the entire time you were standing on a platform, that might be all you saw on the message board

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SmarTrip cards: Please post so that SmarTrip users realize that they don't have to wait until the gates close in front of them to use the card. As long as the fare is registered on the turnstile, you can go through. By waiting until the gates close, you are defeating the speed advantage of having the card. The SmarTrip lanes at New Carrollton sometimes move slower than the fare card lanes because of users waiting until the gates close.

Dr. Gridlock: We've talked about this some before. The express lanes are a good idea, just like dedicated E-ZPass lanes on highways. It's taken a while for people to get used to them, though. I can understand why riders are a little reluctant to move into those clamp-like gates.

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Alexandria, Vam: A couple of months ago, I had a similar situation that was mentioned in your blog. The exact change lane on the Dulles Toll Road would not give me a green light, even with an extra quarter thrown in the bucket. Of course, the alarm sounded when I drove through.

I sent an e-mail to them (dtr@vdot.state.va.us) detailing which lane I was in, my license plate number, and the time and date. I asked what should I have done with cars honking behind me and no attendant nearby.

I was pleasantly surprised to receive a courteous response the next day, apologizing for the situation and assuring me that I would not be ticketed. As I recall, they either had copied or forwarded the message to the state police on my behalf.

Unfortunately, they didn't tell me what if anything I should have done differently.

Dr. Gridlock: Thanks, Alexandria. On the Get There blog today, I asked people to share experiences similar to what I've been hearing from some letter writers: They've been getting violation notices on the Dulles Toll Road that they think are unfair for one of two reasons: Either the enforcement camera was malfunctioning, or they had to go through the toll booth on a ramp because they didn't have the exact change.

One concern is that the violation notice gives you a selection of reasons you can cite in appealing the fine, but they don't include your contention that the machinery malfunctioned or the booth was unstaffed.

If this has happened to you, tell me about it in an e-mail to drgridlock@washpost.com.

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Pace Car: Maybe the people who are so outraged by this pace car program are missing the point that it is targeting NEIGHBORHOOD STREETS, not the Beltway, but I just find it mind-boggling that someone thinks their "right" to speed is more important than the safety of children and other pedestrians on residential streets. What is wrong with your priorities?

Dr. Gridlock: I show you several responses that have come in on our Pace Car exchange.

The commenter here may be recalling that we've had many discussions about not blocking traffic in the left lane on the Beltway, or I-95 or any other highway.

The District's Pace Car program is different, as the commenter says. This is about neighborhood streets.

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Re: Pace Car: Would you support a pledge that asked people to drive the speed limit on the Beltway? I can definitely understand and support the rationale for keeping speeds low in neighborhoods, but the Beltway is a different story. I'd be concerned that a lot of participants might feel the need to drive the speed limit in the left lane, which would do more to increase road rage than anything I can think of.

Dr. Gridlock: Many of you will recall the term "Nestoring," coined to describe followers of the motorist who said it was his right to drive no faster than the speed limit in the left lane of a highway. He liked that spot because it minimized the traffic merging into his lane, and said it was his right to drive that way.

I don't recommend speeding and I don't recommend deliberately creating a situation that generates road rage.

The Pace Car neighborhood program, most likely to be carried out on streets that are narrow, with a single lane in each direction, is clearly not the equivalent of driving at the speed limit in the Beltway's left lane.

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Pace Care Program: I don't understand D.C.'s point about the Pace Car program. Sure, you shouldn't impede traffic, but you're also not supposed to speed. I would never sign up for this program, but the people doing so aren't doing anything wrong - they're obeying the law, not driving under it.

Please don't speed through neighborhoods. Everyone living there, especially the kids, would appreciate it.

Dr. Gridlock: Sounds pretty reasonable.

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Rockville, Md.: Hey, I've been trying to find out who I need to complain to/vote against regarding these new speed enforcement cameras in Montgomery County. Any idea who deserves the smiting?

Dr. Gridlock: I can give you an e-mail for comment:

SpeedCamera@montgomerycountymd.gov

But I disagree with you that the program, which began last week, deserves smiting.

The law that allows use of speed cameras in Montgomery County and some of its municipalities is very tightly written. You've got to be driving more than 10 mph above the speed limit in a residential area or a school zone, where the speed limit will be 35 mph or less.

How hard is that? Plus, you can find a list of the camera locations on the police department's Web site.

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Washington, D.C.: Dr. Gridlock,

Why is one of the lanes of the Rock Creek Parkway closed off between Massachusetts Avenue and K Street?

Dr. Gridlock: This is a longterm rehab project that the National Park Service recently launched.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Dr. Gridlock. Do you address taxi-related questions? On a recent Saturday evening I hailed a cab in Cleveland Park and asked to be taken a little ways north of Van Ness on Connecticut Avenue. Having lived in the area for some time, I knew that the entire trip was within taxi zone 3B, which has boundaries of Klingle Road to the south and Military Road to the north along Conn Ave. Upon reaching my destination, the driver demanded a two-zone fare, which I protested to no avail. He insisted that Porter Street was a zone border (it is not), so he effectively demanded a $3 tip from me. What should I have done? I felt really helpless and ripped off. As a city dweller who knows the zones well, it was very frustrating.

Dr. Gridlock: I'll tell you what I'd do if I found myself in that situation: Pay the driver, no tip, look at his license and relay the information to the D.C. Taxicab Commission, which would investigate the complaint.

One way to communicate with the commission is this e-mail address:

dctc@dc.gov

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Dr. Gridlock: Travelers, I've very much enjoyed chatting with you today, but have to break away now.

I've got some questions still here that I'll copy and try to answer on the Get There blog. One thing I'll do this afternoon: Metro spokesman Steven Taubenkibel provided us with a description of that incident today involving the brush fire. This is the one our Blue Line rider told us about during the chat. I'll post that information very soon on the blog, at http://blog.washingtonpost.com/getthere.

Safe travels to all.

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