Dr. Gridlock

Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, June 25, 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, June 25, 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: Greetings, travelers. Lots of questions in the mailbox today. Let's start with some folks who need help with summer trips coming up soon.


Annandale, Va.: I'm taking my two young (ages 6 and 3) kids to Kings Dominion on Friday. I'm assuming Friday traffic is a bear since people leave early for a longer weekend (or week). How much time should I plan on sitting in traffic on I-95 Southbound? And what time do I need to leave the park to get back to Northern Virginia by 5:30 p.m.?

Dr. Gridlock: I thought I'd post this early to get suggestions from the group. Kings Dominion is about 77 miles south of Annandale and should take about an hour and a half to reach, under ideal conditions. For some travelers, I'd be suggesting Routes 17 or 301 as alternatives to I-95, but from Annandale, those other routes don't seem to make much sense, despite the grinding nature of an I-95 trip.
Since you need to be back home by 5:30, I'm thinking you and the kids will want to be there when the park opens at 10:30. Southbound I-95 traffic might not be too bad. The return probably will be more difficult. I'd try to pull the kids away at 3 p.m. It's tough to plan, because the high volumes of traffic on I-95 mean that if a little thing goes wrong it can have a big impact on the travel lanes.


Washington, D.C.: Your chat couldn't come at a better time! My boyfriend and I are headed up to Atlantic City for the first time on Friday after work, and trying to figure out the best way to get there. Greyhound has some lines that run up to the Strip, but given that our past experiences with Greyhound haven't been great, we're leaning towards driving. People have said the drive isn't terrible, but given that it's the start of July 4th week, I'm concerned (and leaving early on Friday or Saturday is unfortunately not an option -- it's got to be Friday evening). Do you know of any alternate route suggestions that might help get us there as quickly as possible? Would be so grateful for any advice you or the chatters could provide!

Dr. Gridlock: Also wanted to post this one early to get suggestions. Yes, I think it will be a difficult drive, particularly on I-95 through Delaware, but I'm still thinking that's the best route for you.
Couple of ways to do that: Take I-95 to the Walt Whitman Bridge (Philadelphia). Then take the North-South Freeway to the Atlantic City Expressway.
Or: Break toward the Delaware Memorial Bridge, then take Route 40 (a right hand exit shortly after the bridge, as I recall) to Route 322.


Alexandria, Va.: The Post's mixing bowl article this morning verifies my long-standing complaint about VDOT's skimpy signage. The "I-95 South stay left" and "Inner Loop/495 stay right" signs need to begin around Telegraph Road. Summer is a nightmare -- vacationers frequently veer around like mad, or just slam on their brakes. As a daily commuter through there I wonder: do VDOT engineers ever just stop, sit and observe the impact of their lack of directional signage? What they have might have worked in 1967, with fewer cars driving more slowly, but it's annoyingly and dangerously inadequate today.

Dr. Gridlock: Be sure to read the story by Eric Weiss and watch the video he narrates as he drives through the Springfield Interchange. (I don't know how he did it. I couldn't talk, drive and navigate at the same time through that complex interchange, the way Eric does.)
I'd like to see the signs start earlier. Commuters at least have a chance to get used to the new patterns, but I-95 is Main Street for the East Coast. Many summer travelers pass through the interchange just once or twice and never do have a chance to get used to it.
Plus, everyone's going too fast through there. No wonder Eric saw so many skid marks.


Silver Spring, Md.: I'm about to start a new job downtown after enjoying a local commute and was wondering what you and other readers consider the best arrangement for parking at Metro. Does anyone use a reserved spot, and if so, does it really help vs. the cost?


Dr. Gridlock: Parking in Silver Spring and taking Metro into downtown Washington? I'd get a monthly parking permit from Montgomery County and park in the garages along Bonifant Street and Dixon Avenue. (Cost is $85.) You shouldn't have difficulty parking there. There's almost always extra capacity. Just watch out for all the construction work that's part of the new transit center.


Long Time Complainer, First Time Complimenter: Good Doctor, I just wanted to say thanks to Metro for cleaning their cars, they look a lot better silver than the ugly grayish brown they had been and for the change to the red LED's to save money and they really do grab attention better. Also, thank you to VDOT for fixing some potholes around the area however there is still a problem with speeders on one local road that the VSP hasn't addressed. Thanks to you for helping with directions and getting to the bottom of issues in customers minds.

There are still plenty of problems out there, but you've done a great job in fixing some of them and gotten the attention that they deserve to get them fixed.

Dr. Gridlock: It makes such a difference to see a long standing problem get attention. And often it doesn't take a huge investment (like a new bridge or highway). Getting the Metro cars cleaned inside and out has been priority of the new general manager, John Catoe.
He's also studying whether future cars should have carpets and padded seats, which add to the cleaning difficulties.
What would you think of that radical change in the rail car style?


Tysons Corner, Va.: Good afternoon, Dr., and thanks for your help.

I have a 5 p.m. flight out of BWI this Thursday and I work in Tyson's. What's the best way to get there, and what time should I plan on leaving?


Dr. Gridlock: I know what I'd do: Take Thursday afternoon off and take the Beltway inner loop through Montgomery County to I-95 north, so I could get to BWI by 3 p.m. for the 5 p.m. flight. I know that's a pretty standard approach and not very creative. Do others think our traveler should take the outer loop to the Wilson Bridge, or try I-66 east to the GW Parkway to I-395 to I-295 and up the BW Parkway?


Bethesda, Md.: RE: Silver Spring question...

I think you misunderstood the question. I believe the poster was going to be working in downtown D.C., and was considering purchasing a reserved space in one of the Metro Parking Lots near Silver Spring. In which case, your advice doesn't really help. They just wanted to know if it was worth the extra cost, and what stations in Montgomery County made the expense worth it.

Dr. Gridlock: I know I may not have gotten that question quite right, but I know that Metro does not have parking lots near the Silver Spring Station. Those garages are operated by Montgomery County. While Metro does offer reserved parking spaces at many of its lots and garages, there's no such program at Silver Spring. Since Silver Spring has excess parking capacity in the county garages, I'd park there, rather than traveling to another community, like say Wheaton, and parking there to take the Red Line downtown.


The chat format is really strange: Don't know if it's just me?

washingtonpost.com: No, we had a little content management problem that we can't fix until after the discussion is over. It's not you, it's us.

Dr. Gridlock: Just a technical glitch from our side.


Washington, D.C.: Did I miss something, like maybe there was a retraction on Saturday of the story of Metro's planned mid fiscal year fare increase that was in Friday's Post? Or, was releasing the story for Friday's news the slickest PR move ever made?? Why isn't that the story on everyone's minds???

Dr. Gridlock: Metro didn't exactly release that news. I do think GM John Catoe's statement that he might be asking the Metro board for a fare increase in January is bound to make board members wonder whether the budget they're about to approve really is balanced.
A fare increase in the middle of Metro's fiscal year, which begins in July, would be very unusual.


Springfield, Va.: To Kings Dominion:

I-95 South is pretty wide open in the mornings, and the trip should take between an hour and 1.5 hours depending on speed and number of stops along the way. Getting back could get dicey in rush hour since I-95 north always seems to get flooded with cars nearing Springfield. If you need to be back by 5:30, you may want to leave around 3:30, which means the kids only get about 5 hours in the park.

Dr. Gridlock: Thanks, Springfield. That's a ref back to our traveler taking the kids to Kings Dominion on Friday.


Arlington-DC-Baltimore: Hi Dr. Gridlock,

What kind of penalty would I be looking at if I were to get caught trespassing RFK stadium's parking lots? (Not at game time but in the morning)


A Desperate Commuter

Dr. Gridlock: Desperate, I do believe there is commuter parking at RFK, if that's what you're interested in. In fact, some DDOT officials are suggesting that parking there and taking a train or bus downtown might prove useful to some commuters during the July-August shutdown of the South Capitol Street bridge.


Tysons to BWI: Leave now!

Dr. Gridlock: Yes, it will be a difficult trip for our traveler with the 5 p.m. flight. I think the departure time from Tysons is real important because of the limited highway options.


re: Atlantic City: If you don't mind leaving at like 8 or 9 on Friday, the traffic should be a breeze -- we did that this weekend and no problems on the way up through Delaware.

Dr. Gridlock: Glad to see the timing issue addressed by this reader. Almost every time I ask readers for advice on routes, they come back and remind me that there's almost never a true shortcut to take. What counts is leaving early or late.


Bethesda, Md.: I'm afraid someone is going to get badly hurt or worse on the northern-most portion of Massachusetts Ave. just before Goldsboro in Bethesda.

The road has been made narrower by ongoing construction. As a result, when the Ride on Bus 29 stops to drop off or pick up customers, it remains in the traffic lane.

Impatient motorists continue to enter the opposite lane to pass the bus, and I can't tell you have many near head collisions have resulted. Even worse, are the risk to bus passengers. Often, the driver waves on passengers heading to the opposite side of Mass. Avenue -- allowing them to cross in front of the bus to get to their destinations. Just last week, a passing motorist came within a few feet of knocking down a motorist crossing the street. I would hope that police might do some enforcement action to prevent a serious accident.

I would also think that motorists would wait for the bus to unload passengers -- given that we're generally only talking about a 20- or 30-second delay. Sometimes, the cars keep passing, preventing the bus from proceeding along, delaying the bus for several minutes. As I see it, those of us who take the bus are taking cars off the road -- making the motorists' trips a little less congested. I feel they "owe us" bus passengers. What do you think?

Dr. Gridlock: Our reader is legitimately concerned about bus safety and traffic control. But I thought I'd also check with Maryland State Highway Administration on the schedule for this project, and SHA spokesman Chuck Gischlar was kind enough to send a quick response. Here's what he said:
"SHA will complete the final surface along MD 396 (Massachusetts Avenue)between Goldsboro Road and Onodaga Street tonight (6/25), weather permitting. That will complete the resurfacing project along MD 396.
SHA will then resurface the side streets in the project limits and re-stripe the roads. The entire project will be completed by the first week of July, weather permitting."
We would like to thank motorists and citizens for their patience
throughout the project.


Silver Spring, Md.: The revitalization of downtown Silver Spring has brought many new amenities. Unfortunately it has also brought new traffic headaches. When will someone realize that vehicles on westbound Wayne Avenue at Georgia Avenue desperately need a dedicated left turn signal? Rarely do more than two cars make a successful left turn at rush hour, despite being in a left-turn lane. The eastbound traffic on Wayne Avenue is just too great, particularly buses. I fear it will get even worse with the upcoming reconstruction of the Silver Spring bus and drop-off areas. It is not uncommon to wait through five or six traffic light cycles before you can make your left turn.

Dr. Gridlock: I totally agree with this. Silver Spring traffic patterns have changed a lot in the past couple of years and are about to change a lot more with construction of the new transit center. That left turn from Wayne onto Georgia is a particularly difficult spot.
I can't get my hands on a reference at this moment, but I think I recall that a left turn signal is in the plans. By the way, I noticed this morning that crews are putting up a new traffic signal at Wayne and Dixon Avenues, where many of the bus stops will be temporarily relocated for the transit center construction later this summer.
I'll be writing more about the transit center program on the Get There blog and in the Dr. Gridlock column.


RFK: I'd wager that the user asking about RFK is interested in using the shortcut road that leads from Lot 8 (the big one south of the stadium) to the Southeast-Southwest Freeway. I use that road all the time to go to and from Nationals games since it's faster than driving, and I've always wondered whether it's open and can be used at times when there is no game.

Dr. Gridlock: Thanks. I'll check.


Washington, DC: So I heard the Virginia General Assembly actually did pass the bad-driving tax law? Where you can get a $1,000 fine for speeding or $3,000 for HOV violation? Does that mean traffic will get even worse because people will be that much more cautious when driving?

Dr. Gridlock: Tom Jackman wrote a story about the new penalties in Virginia. It ran on the front page of Saturday's Post. We'll put up a link to that story in a sec.
My favorite quote about the new penalties for bad driving comes from Del. Dave Albo, who sponsored the legislation:
"It's basically a voluntary tax. If you don't commit a crime on the streets, or run up a huge amount of points, you don't pay anything. We believe its main effect will be to get people to stop driving like maniacs."


washingtonpost.com: Hefty Fees In Store for Misbehaving Va. Drivers (Post, June 23)

Dr. Gridlock: There's the link to Tom's story.


Metro Rider: Dr. Gridlock, I have a recurring nightmare. It always ends with a woman shouting "See it. Say It!" Does anyone else agree that this Metro announcement is annoying and unnecessary? Regular riders and tourists alike are knowledgeable enough to report suspicious situations.

Dr. Gridlock: I wonder about that one, too. If somebody gets up from a seat and there's a bag or package on the seat, who wouldn't point that out to the departing passenger?
You know, I get complaints all the time about the train announcements -- all of them. Many people just want some variety.


Oxon Hill, Md.: RFK roads:

You can use that road, but expect to get nabbed by the cops. I've seen them sit there all the time to pull over cars shortcutting through the lots.

BTW, why has DDOT closed the ramps from the inbound 11th Street Bridge to RFK? I used to fly into the city for baseball games that way, now I've got to weave down Benning Road to park at RFK.

Dr. Gridlock: Thanks, Oxon Hill. My recollection is that DDOT's traffic counts showed that relatively few people had discovered that stadium exit from the 11th Street Bridge, but in any case, it's going to be demolished later this year because of a redevelopment project in that area.


"I use that road all the time to go to and from Nationals games since it's faster than driving": D'oh, I meant faster than METRO. Sorry.

Dr. Gridlock: I type so fast during these chats, I'm sure I'd be D'ohing every couple of seconds if I stopped to look back.


Gaithersburg Md.: Dear Dr. Gridlock,

Is there any support for another bridge crossing between Maryland and Virginia in our future? I know countless people (like me) who make the commute from Gaithersburg, Germantown, Clarksburg, etc. over to Reston or Herndon every day. It seems that a "Northern" crossing between Rockville/Darnstown over toward Reston would be a good idea. Wouldn't it alleviate a lot of the volume that is crushing us on that part of the beltway (and bridge) every morning and afternoon? Has anyone proposed such an idea on either the Maryland or Virginia sides? If so, why hasn't it happened?

Signed, buying a helicopter...

Dr. Gridlock: Buy the copter.
Yes, there's a lot of support for it, but there's also a lot of opposition. A key moment occurred a couple of years ago when Congressman Frank Wolf asked the feds to cancel a study of a new Potomac crossing because people on the Virginia side had become aware that they might be in its path.
I think the anti-congestion project you're likely to see soonest is the widening of the Beltway between I-270 and the Legion Bridge.


Bowie, Md.: Tysons Corner's concern about reaching BWI in time for his flight and the limited highway options to get there from Tysons is proof positive that a rail link to BWI is needed as much as the much-ballyhooed Dulles rail line. Any chance we'll see one in our lifetime?

Dr. Gridlock: Hugely expensive and unlikely in time to help anyone reading this chat. (Look at the Dulles rail project: $5.1 billion, one of the most expensive transportation projects in the nation.)


Alternative Atlantic City Route: Drive to Lewes, Del., take the Lewes/Cape May Ferry. Hop on the Garden State Parkway to the Atlantic City Expressway.

Not the fastest but pleasant!

Dr. Gridlock: A nice suggestion if time allows.


RE: Atlantic City: Yeah, I-95 to 295 to Atlantic City Expressway generally would be fastest, probably just under 3.5 hours without traffic. But, I'd rethink Atlantic City. It truly is a dump and nothing like Vegas. If you're going and planning to stay within the confines of the Borgata, you'll be fine - otherwise, I'd strongly urge you to rethink your plans.

Dr. Gridlock: Thanks for more help on the AC route.


Washington, D.C.: I also made the commute from north (NYC) back to D.C. yesterday. And I also hit the hard traffic in Delaware. It took an hour and a half to get through the state on I-95. I know that other routes are out of the way or significantly longer, but realistically they must take less time to get from New Jersey to Maryland?

Delaware was like a parking lot!

Dr. Gridlock: Many people recommend taking I-280 and working your way west to Harrisburg, Pa., before heading south back into the Washington area.
Yes, Delaware is almost always difficult. At the I-95 toll booths on the western side of the state, two lanes were under reconstruction yesterday. What a mess.


Arlington, Va: Dear Dr. Gridlock:

What exactly is being done on the Inner Loop of the American Legion Bridge between the GW merge and the Clara Barton offramp? When will they finish? It's causing major headaches for GW Parkway users, as well as backups on the Legion Bridge.

Dr. Gridlock: The bridge is getting a paint job. I'm convinced the work is essential to preserve the bridge, but you're describing the worst construction related congestion in our region right now. The ramp from the parkway to the inner loop is shortened up to provide a staging area for construction, creating congestion on the northbound parkway and on the inner loop.
It should be done in November.


Re: Tysons to BWI: Don't waste time on the road. Take the Metro to Greenbelt, and then take the B30 to BWI.

Dr. Gridlock: That will be a lot easier in 2013, when the rail line to Tysons opens.


Silver Spring, Md: What can be done about pedestrians crossing against the light at Wayne and Colsville? I have a green light and still have to wait for for people to cross.

Also what is the status of the Silver Spring transit center? I thought the buses were supposed to move to the surrounding streets today.

Dr. Gridlock: I think the big bus move is still a few weeks away. And pedestrian safety around downtown silver spring is going to be a big issue during this construction.


Dr. Gridlock: Folks, I hate to break away during such an interesting conversation, but I think I must. Thanks for joining me today. As usual, I'll look back over the questions and comments that I didn't get to and see if I can post some additional information on the Get There blog during the week.
Also, if you have a vacation route you'd like to recommend to fellow drivers -- some relatively pleasant way of getting to some of the region's favorite destinations, like the Outer Banks, Deep Creek Lake, the Blue Ridge or the Northeast, please send them along to me at drgridlock@washpost.com.


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