Dr. Gridlock

Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, July 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, July 9, 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. I've been drinking lots of coffee following an early morning wandering around the congestion zone created by the shut down of the Douglass Bridge at South Capitol Street. The real bad spot was I-295 inbound from the Beltway.

But I see plenty of questions and comments in the mailbag on quite a variety of topics.


Mount Rainier, Md.: Dr. Gridlock,

When will the paving project in I-270 end? I reverse-commute daily on motorcycle to exit 6, and would just as soon avoid the uneven pavement until the job is done. Thanks.

Dr. Gridlock: Please do be careful. There was a fatal accident involving a motorcycle in that I-270 work zone recently. And the roadway reconstruction project will continue until next spring. The only alternative I've been able to suggest to drivers is to use Route 355.


Alexandria, Va.: On the hazy days we don't have to pay for the bus, who ultimately funds all those free rides?

Dr. Gridlock: Taxpayers. But there are different policies on free buses in the different jurisdictions. Virginia has the most liberal policy. When the air quality is bad enough to predict either a Code Orange or the more severe Code Red day, public buses in Northern Virginia are free.

In the Maryland suburbs, the free ride policy applies only on Code Red days. The District does not participate in this program, so buses that operate in the District only always charge a fare.

The idea behind the subsidies is that everyone benefits if people get out of their cars on a bad air day to hold down pollution levels.


Silver Spring, Md.: Any word on the Purple Line? I haven't heard anything regarding this project in a while.

Thanks for the chats!

Dr. Gridlock: My pleasure, Silver Spring. The state of Maryland is continuing to study various ideas and routes for the Purple Line transitway across Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

Shortly after Gov. O'Malley took office, Transportation Secretary John Porcari said the state study would take longer than expected because ridership numbers had to be recalculated. So that takes us into next year.

So we're still not sure whether the proposal will be for a rapid bus system or a light rail line, and what route either of them would take.

Another key thing, as in any transit project, is demonstrating to the federal government that the project will meet its cost-effectiveness standards (that the ridership will be large enough to merit the public investment) so the project can win a federal subsidy.


Washington, D.C.: Dr. G, do you think if I were to leave the Foggy Bottom area around 5 p.m. today, that I could make it to Warrenton, Va., by 7 p.m.? Unfortunate timing and no carpool.

Dr. Gridlock: Yes, I do think you could make it, but I wouldn't dally on the departure time.

As usual, I'm addressing this question early, because others may have different opinions or suggestions.

My hope is that many of you have begun to enjoy the benefits of the summertime decline in traffic congestion on the highways.


Arlington, Va.: Ugh. Just returned from my first weekend in Delaware and the signage to the beaches going east in Delaware is awful. I got lost twice. You'd think the state of Delaware would ensure that I'd want to get to Rehoboth, etc. to spend money. Well, they should invest in some signs to help me get there. The signs on the way back are great. Who to call? Any other newcomers to that area experience these non-existent or confusing road signs to Rehoboth-Lewes-Dewey?

Dr. Gridlock: Anyone want to comment on those signs, or the lack thereof? And Arlington, what is your route to the beach? I guess most folks from our area are either taking Route 50 or Route 404 to the shore points. There aren't many options. Nothing really amounts to a shortcut, though there are some alternatives that offer a short break from the routine.


Rockville, Md. : When is the last time you had a conversation in the Metro? Have you notices that it is louder to ride than it was in the past? If so, why? If not - do you ever get on the Red line?

Dr. Gridlock: The Red Line is my normal route from home to The Post's downtown newsroom, but I ride all the lines. I think that our transportation team, Eric Weiss, Lena Sun and me, have all heard from people who think Metro is getting louder. In fact, I think that set off quite a flurry of comments last Monday on Eric and Lena's chat.

Me, I actually haven't noticed the noise level go up recently. The invention of the cell phone made the most difference. It's amazing what people are willing to share with a hundred strangers.


D.C.: Doc--

First weekday rush morning of the South Capitol bridge closure. Verdict? Disaster. It took my friend nearly two hours from Fort Washington over the 11th street bridge. My experience? Green Line packed to capacity and Metro running trains every five minutes? Please tell me the rest of the summer will not be like this? PLEASE, please, PLEASE???

Dr. Gridlock: The worst I saw this morning was on I-295, and that was real bad: Backed up from 11th Street Bridge to the Beltway. If it stays like this, the Douglass Bridge project may overtake the Legion Bridge painting project as the worst construction related work zone in the region.

I totally agree with the District's logic: Do the work in the summer, when traffic volumes are lowest, do it all at once and get it over with, offer the contractor a substantial incentive to finish early.

There will need to be adjustments in the traffic plan based on actual experience. Today was the first real test (and we don't even know what the afternoon will be like).

My main concern at the moment is that people are being encouraged to get out of their cars and take trains and buses for the next two months. But are there enough trains and buses to cope if people actually take that advice?


Bowie, Md.: "Arlington, Va.: Ugh. Just returned from my first weekend in Delaware and the signage to the beaches going east in Delaware is awful. I got lost twice."

Huh? That's one more than the number of turns you have to make to get to Route 1. From 50, turn left on 404, and stay on it until you reach the Shore Highway.

Dr. Gridlock: Some advice for our Arlington beachgoer. (I hear few kind things said about Route 404. Too narrow to handle the demands of the beach traffic.)


Alexandria, Va.: There was a notice on the morning news about a "disruption" on the Blue/Yellow line at Crystal City. Any word on the incident?

Dr. Gridlock: I'll check further. Metro reported a service disruption at Crystal City in the inbound direction about 7 a.m., then reported it cleared about 50 minutes later, but I don't have details at the moment.


Arlington, Va.: RE Foggy Bottom to Warrenton:

GOOD LUCK on that one. I'd be surprised if that trip could be made in under 2.5 hours. Without a carpool, I-66 is out, meaning this driver is either stuck on US-50 or US-29 out of downtown or the GW Parkway. All three of those choices are ridiculous between 4 and 6, and it is likely to take upwards of an hour just to reach the Beltway. The choices outside the Beltway are even worse with the poorly timed lights on 50/29 through Fairfax, the mess on I-66, or the silliness of paying for the toll road.

Bottom line, this person should definitely consider leaving earlier than 5 (at least 4:30), and listen to the traffic reports to be able to bail out on alternate routes.

Dr. Gridlock: This is advice for our traveler about a 5 p.m. departure from D.C. to Warrenton.


Hanover, Md.: Dr. Gridlock,

Have you heard anything about expanding the Metro to BWI?

Dr. Gridlock: I think that's a pipe dream, because of the huge expense involved. In our traveling lifetime, I'd look for improved MARC service on that route and more frequent Metrobus service from Greenbelt Station.

Whene I talk about the expense, I'm thinking of the $5 billion (so far) it's expected to cost to extend Metrorail to Dulles. Maryland's immediate transit priorities are the Purple line and the Corridor Cities Transitway in our region and the Red Line in Baltimore.


Metro Rider in DC: Yes, the trains on Metro have gotten louder and I'm not talking about the people, it's the trains themselves. Some of them sound like they are coming out of the tunnels as run aways with the amount of banging and clanking they do. Plus, they don't brake like they used to. Every now and then I hear a train with a smooth breaking and that "tah-dah"-esque sound when it come to a stop. All I hear now is screeching and more banging and clanking, almost like NYC.

Dr. Gridlock: I grew up in NYC. There's nothing like hearing one of those trains rumble out of a tunnel into a station. I think we're not quite there yet.

Still, I understand what you're saying. There is an awful lot of banging and clanking when Metro trains pull into stations or pass over rail interlocks.


Tyson's Corner: It takes one of my co-workers an hour and a half just to get from Tyson's to Gainesville on I-66, so I'd second leaving before 5.

Dr. Gridlock: Another vote to leave more than 2 hours for the afternoon trip to Warrenton. (I guess you folks are not seeing much of a summer dropoff in traffic. Or maybe you are, but you still think it's pretty bad out there.)


Gaithersburg, Md.: Two things:

I saw a motorcyclist wipeout on 270 yesterday, trying to move from the local lanes to regular lanes because of the uneven pavement. I know 355 is a pain, but bikers, you don't want to end up like that guy!

For Rehoboth, my father swears that getting on 16 just east of Denton is a little quicker; 50 across the bridge, to 404, to 16, and then 1. You avoid having to skirt around Bridgeville and the traffic circle in Georgetown that the person in front of me invariably cannot navigate faster than 5 mph.

Dr. Gridlock: Thanks for the advice on both counts.


Washington, D.C.: How do cities and states project traffic flow and patterns for many years ahead...eg.: The traffic in DC will be xxx in 2019? Thanks!

Dr. Gridlock: Yes, they all do that. (Think it helps?) One example that comes to mind is Northern Virginia's TransAction 2030 plan. That's the blueprint for the transportation future that the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority plans to follow.

One depressing thing I remember from that report is that even if Virginia spends a lot of money on roads and transit, traffic on some important commuter routes will still be intense by 2030.


Burke, Va.:"I guess you folks are not seeing much of a summer dropoff in traffic"

What summer dropoff? Is there supposed to be a summer dropoff? It was great last week, but mostly because the holiday was smack dab in the middle of the workweek. As far as a dropoff, the only one I've noticed is the time it takes to get out of my neighborhood because there aren't any school buses on the road. I think this "summer dropoff" expectation is a myth. It's taken just as long or longer for me to get to work in June and July as it did in October or March.

Dr. Gridlock: That's interesting. The timing of the Douglass Bridge shutdown was set to coincide with what the District says is an annual July-August drop in traffic volume of about 12 percent.

For many years, my personal measure of the dropoff in commuting was the level on which I could find a space in the Metro parking garage. In July and August, it dropped one or two levels, then shot back up by the second week of September.


Delaware & I-95: I had the horrendous experience of sitting on I-95 for a long time, wondering, then finding that the several mile back-up was because of the toll booths. AARRGGHH Is this type of back-up "normal"? Who manages these locations? Can't something be done to alleviate the mess??

Dr. Gridlock: That would be the Delaware Department of Transportation. It's a small state, but it manages to annoy many drivers from the Washington region. Last year, it was construction that closed two lanes on I-95. This year -- if you experienced the same thing I did recently -- it's the reconstruction of two lanes at the toll plaza that backs up southbound traffic quite a way.


Silver Spring, Md.: Dr. G: Why won't Metro do the logical thing and install EZ-Pass at the parking lots/garages? Talk about a way to speed up traffic out of the lots.

I'm also surprised parking lots haven't become EZ-Pass enabled.

Dr. Gridlock: I've been meaning to ask Metro about that, because I've heard the suggestion from several of you. I'd love it if one electronic device would pay the fees for much of our travel expenses, like tolls and parking. We're bound to evolve that way. We can see how the various states and turnpike authorities have gone from individual systems to E-ZPass.

But meanwhile, it sure would be swell if you could use Metro's SmarTrip card for transit travel across the entire region.


Bethesda, Md.: To Beachgoer-take 404 to Del. 16, turn left, proceed to DE 1 & Rehoboth -- it's not rocket science..

Dr. Gridlock: You folks are always very generous with your travel tips. I see a few more in here, and I'll try to push them out quickly.


RE: Rehoboth: I won't give specifically away my secret route to Rehoboth, but look at a map and find some alternative routes. It may be longer in mileage, but Delaware Route 1 is a 4-lane divide highway with exactly 1 traffic light between Milford and Rehoboth.

Dr. Gridlock:... another.


Suitland, Md.: Well, while the Douglass Bridge closure wasn't too bad on Friday, there are some things that I think would help the traffic coming North on Suitland Parkway.

All traffic from Suitland Parkway is diverted onto Firth Stirling. After one block, Firth Stirling turns into the access ramp to 295/395. This access ramp used to be one lane and there was no merge area. A few weeks ago, it was made into two lanes, with the rightmost lane allowing access only to 395 (and no longer having to merge) and the left lane allowing access to both 295 and 395 (still with no merge area.)

While this has helped a lot, there are no lane markings on Firth Stirling before it turns into the access ramp. Cars don't know if it is two lanes or one lane, and so there are cars all over the place with no order. It would really help if the lanes were clearly marked and also if signs were put up on this section of the road that explained the two lanes on the access ramp.

There are new signs explaining the two lanes, but they aren't visible until you are about half-way up the ramp, and a lot of cars try to switch lanes at this point. Also, the signs aren't clear that there is no merge area for the left-hand lane (they just say that that lane must yield.) I have seen way more near-accidents with this new set-up than before, and I think clearer signs would help.

Dr. Gridlock: That merge, where Firth Sterling comes into I-295 just south of the 11th Street Bridge, is the heart of the congestion stemming from the Douglass Bridge shutdown. Once drivers get through there, things are pretty good. I think it's a good idea for DDOT to take a closer look at any signage or lane markings that could help drivers anticipate what they need to do.


Arlington, Va.: Bowie: we were trying to find Lewes, but there are no clear signs to get to Lewes. We drove south on Route 1 and there was a left arrow for Lewes, but it made us do a U-turn to Route 1 North and that's it, so we kept going Route 1 North until we finally found a sign. Signage just seems inconsistent to the beaches and it drops off in a few places closer to the beaches. Or, maybe Yahoo! maps gave bad advice.

Dr. Gridlock: More routing information for beachgoers.


Anonymous: I'm sure the Douglass Bridge closing is going to dominate your chat, but if I might ask a more long-range question regarding this project. We all experienced the extensive delays that the closing of this bridge can create this morning, but are officials and commuters aware of what this area will be like after the construction is complete? The project calls for the lowering of the bridge to create an additional intersection at stadium level. Won't this new intersection just make things just as bad as they are right now with the bridge closed?

I really don't understand this project, and the need to create a new intersection for a stadium NOBODY will be able to drive to anyway. Why not just leave South Capitol Street where it is and allow vehicular traffic to bypass the masses of people milling around the new baseball stadium? I can only imagine what the Anacostia bridges will look like on game days next year. All of this so a couple of thousand upper deck seats can view the Capitol Dome, that is until the 6 and 7-story condos block their view also.

Dr. Gridlock: I can tell you a couple of things I've heard from DC officials about the traffic and the overall role of the bridge project in city planning.

They say that even after the elevated portion on the north side is lowered and a new intersection created at Potomac Avenue, traffic for commuters should be no slower than it is now. (Think of that new traffic light as part of the set of traffic lights you must pass through on both the south and north sides of the bridge on your way to work.)

This bridge project pre-dated the stadium plan. It's part of the District's effort to revive the waterfront area and improve the appearance of this gateway to the national capital. The District wants to open up those neighborhoods and make it easier to move east-west.

Eventually, the bridge will be replaced with a new bridge a bit farther south. This project is partly designed to extend the life of the old span until the new one can be built.


Arlington, Va.: I work in College Park and live in South Arlington. My usual way home in the afternoon has been to take 295 south, go past Howard Road to the next exit (Suitland Pwy?), loop around to 295 north and get on the 11th St Bridge. Will this be miserable now? All the information I've seen on the Douglass Bridge closure has focused on people heading out of the city in the afternoon. What should I do?

Dr. Gridlock: I know that heading southbound on I-295, you can take the Howard Road exit, make a left under the highway and then another left onto Firth Sterling to reach the 11th Street Bridge. Plenty of people were doing that on Friday morning and this morning.

But I'm wondering if it might work for you to take New York Avenue to I-395 before you get near the work zone? Might that not work in the afternoon?


Derwood, Md.: I experienced a frustrating situation at the Shady Grove Metro Kiss & Ride lot recently. At about 6 p.m. one evening I drove to metro to pick up my husband and found traffic backed up more than 1/2 mile before the entrance to the Kiss and Ride lot. When I called my husband to say that I was sitting in gridlock, he indicated that a driver in an SUV had pulled in to the Kiss & Ride lot and stopped in the middle of the traffic lane while waiting to pick up his/her passenger. Because he was right in the middle of the lane where traffic normally flows, he prevented all of the cars behind him from entering the Kiss & Ride lot, which created a huge back up onto 370 heading toward the metro. There were no Metro police officers anywhere to be found. Shouldn't Metro police be patrolling and monitoring the traffic flow in the Kiss & Ride lots during peak flow times?

Dr. Gridlock: I've seen that sort of rude behavior elsewhere. Often, there's less formal enforcement of the rules as people honk or walk to the driver's window for a chat.

I've seen Metro police in the parking areas during morning and evening rushes, but I know there's not enough to go around for complete coverage. You can call transit police at 202-962-2121 and report someone like that.


Alexandria, Va.: Have you noticed the dangerous practice of taking an exit ramp from whatever lane a driver happens to be in? I have seen drivers cut across two or three lanes to exit. It seems to be happening with increasing frequency. I might excuse it if it were tourists, but these cars all have local plates and in most cases parking stickers from the jurisdiction where it is happening. Can't people be bothered to plan ahead more than two seconds anymore?

Dr. Gridlock: Sure, and I know you're right, but I can't say that I've seen an increase in this lately. I've been driving for more than three decades and the knucklehead level I've observed has been pretty constant over the years.


Silver Spring: Please tell me what in the world is happening on Connecticut Avenue, north of Georgia Avenue. I tried contacting Montgomery County, but they told me that it's a state thing. I then re-contacted them and told them at that point (north of Georgia), Conn. Ave is in fact in MoCo's jurisdiction, yet they continue to ignore me. They have put down huge cement blocks making the four-lane road now a TWO-lane road. Why would anyone reduce lanes in this already-too-crowded D.C. area!? Thanks!

Dr. Gridlock: I know I've heard about this one, but I can't lay my hands on the details at the moment. I'll be putting something up on my Get There blog about it, to address your question. (I think it is a state project.)


Washington, D.C.: Any word on the Anacostia Light Rail project? Last I heard, D.C. and CSX were fighting over the existing railroad right-of-way and the final route had yet to be determined. With the original 2006 completion date already gone, what is the new estimate? 2007, 2008, 2009, never?

Dr. Gridlock: I'll double check on the timing of the Anacostia demonstration project, which I hope will be the first of several examples of light rail transit in the District. Thought I had heard 2008, but I'll check with the District Department of Transportation and post on the Get There blog.


The 950 bus and Bay Bridge traffic: Hi Robert,

This is my first summer in D.C. and I plan on visiting family on the Eastern Shore. I've taken the 950 bus to Kent Island before with no problems, but now that it's summer I'm trying to find the best time to take the bus and minimize traffic on the Bay Bridge. There is a bus that travels from 12:15 - 1:45 in the afternoon and one that travels from 3:15 - 4:45 as well. As you might know, the bus only runs on weekdays.

I was hoping to take the 12:15 bus on a Thursday or Friday. Do you think that's the best time to travel over the Bay Bridge given the bus schedule (the 12:15 bus is the earliest offered)? I don't have a car so I'm limited to what the bus schedule offers me.

I appreciate any advice you can give me!

Dr. Gridlock: I think you'll be okay on the 12:15, especially if you can do this on a Thursday. People do tend to leave early on Fridays, since bridge traffic during the summer is notorious.

Here's the general advice from the bridge folks on best times:

Thursdays - before 2 p.m. and after 7 p.m.

Fridays - before noon and after 10 p.m.

Saturdays - before 10 a.m. and after 7 p.m.

Sundays and holiday Mondays - before 11 a.m. and after 10 p.m.


Rockville, Md.: What are they doing on the east side of the American Legion Bridge? It sounds like they are vacuuming something.

Dr. Gridlock: It's a paint job that will take into next year, but that work zone on the south eastern side that has so annoyed travelers on the Beltway and the GW Parkway is supposed to be gone in November.


Dr. Gridlock: Folks, as usual, I see many more good questions here than I've been able to get to today. I see at least a couple that I can address on the Get There blog here on The Post Web site. And I hope to visit with you here again the Monday after next. Stay safe out there.


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