Dr. Gridlock

Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, August 6, 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, Aug. 6, 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. Thanks for joining me today. A quick look at the mailbag is showing that plenty of you want to talk about The Post story on Sunday's Metro front about the possibility of cutting the weekend night-owl service on Metrorail. I've got some initial thoughts on that, and I'll pop them in as I put up the letters here.

Also, I see an interesting question about Metro and motion sickness.

Well, let's go.


RE latenight cutbacks: This is the worst idea for the Metro that I have heard in a long time. This is Washington, DC - the nation's capital, the center of world power! Not some poor, sleepy town that shuts down after sunset. The General Manager gets paid to come up with ideas like this? Of course, he is an old fuddy-duddy by now so how would he know how important it is to keep Metro open at night?

Dr. Gridlock: There's nothing about John Catoe's approach to our transit system that I'd characterize as fuddy duddy. This guy came in during January and could have just accepted the fare increase proposals the Metro staff had developed. He could have said, Hey, I'm the new guy. What do I know. I'll fix it next time, when I know more.

Instead, he told the board he wanted to review the proposals, thereby taking ownership of the financial consequences, good and bad. He held off the fare increases that so many commuters complained about.

Meanwhile, he's getting around and learning about the transit system. He's studying a variety of ways to make the trains and buses run better.


Washington, D.C.: Dr. Gridlock,

I assume the hot topic today will be the General Manager's announcement that he wants to do away with late-night Metro trains. You can't possibly agree with this? I don't even see how members of the board would go for this insane idea so why would Catoe even attempt this?

Also, how best can I voice my opinion to METRO?

Dr. Gridlock: It certainly looks like today's hot topic. Plenty of comments still to put up on The Post story saying that Metro General Manager John Catoe has asked his staff to review the late-night service and the possibility of cutting it back to save money and use the resources in other ways.

Couple of things: Catoe is the new guy, and we want him to apply fresh thinking. He's bound to think about stuff we like and stuff we don't like. Let's at least give him some room to think.

On this one, the Metro board would have to make a final decision on whatever Catoe winds up proposing -- and it's not clear yet that he's going to propose anything after the staff review.

DC Councilmember Jim Graham, who's on the Metro board and is a leading advocate for the late night service, will dig his heels in against a change, unless there's some safety issue involved.

So this isn't even a real proposal yet, let alone a done deal.


washingtonpost.com: Night Owls May Need A New Way Home Post, Aug. 5

Dr. Gridlock: That's a link to The Post story on Sunday's Metro front.


D.C.: We are the capitol of the U.S., the most powerfull nation in the world. Yet, I read over the weekend we are going to cut down public transportation services on the weekend. Great, lets push more drunk drivers back on the road, and lets reduce public transportation hours instead of expand them. Ha, only in D.C.

Dr. Gridlock: DC points out that there's more to an issue like this than the cost savings at Metro. A big portion of the late night crowd, we believe, is people who are closing the bars and restaurants. Also, there's the case that if you're going to have a rail system in a major urban area like ours, you ought to keep it open so people can use it.


Aspen Hill, Md.: Any idea when the work on Rock Creek Parkway by Penn. Ave., K Street, and Virginia Avenue will finish? The right late has been closed for a few months now. In the morning the line to go straight towards the Kennedy Center begins all the way back at P Street!

What are they doing there anyway? I couldn't find any information on the DC DOT Web site about it...

Dr. Gridlock: This is a National Park Service reconstruction project. It began in April and is scheduled to continue until next spring. There's a lot to be done:

Roadway reconstruction, drainage work, bridge deck resurfacing, stone median replacement, curb replacement, widening of the adjacent trail and repaving of the parkway and the Thompson's Boat Center parking lot.

The daily schedule of the work is like this:

Monday through Saturdays, 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. to 4:30 a.m., if night work is required. Weekend work hours are Friday at 7 p.m. to Monday at 5 a.m.

I've driven the parkway southbound three times in the past two weeks, a couple of times during the rush and once just after. Once, I took the left to Virginia Avenue. The other two, I stayed right and headed past the Kennedy Center.

On those trips, the left side was the worst. Generally, the backup wasn't too bad, but I thought I was probably seeing the summer vacatoin effect and that it probably would get bad again in September.

Have any of you developed useful alternatives to get around the parkway during the construction?


Downtown, D.C.: Here's a bit of an odd question.

I find myself suffering from severe motion sickness on Metro during the summer. Between the stifling heat, the crowds, and herky-jerky rattling trains, I cannot go more than four stations without feeling ill.

I've tried facing forward and not reading. Any other tips?

And why can't Metro make the stations a little cooler and the trains a little smoother? Is it really so hard? I look around the train, and plenty of people are looking a little green around the edges. I wonder how many "sick passenger" delays are due to someone becoming carsick due to herky-jerky drivers.

Dr. Gridlock: I'm sorry to hear that. And this will be a bad week for the heat. Underground stations can be particularly bad. Some are worse than others: If they're old, or close to the point where the trains go above ground. The bus and train car doors are opening all the time, letting in hot air. Crowding varies a lot, even on one train. See if you can reach a car that's less crowded, and figure out which is the sunny side above ground.

If you're in a hot train car, let Metro know about it. Get the number of the car and call this number to report it: 202-637-1328.

If you go to this page on Metro's Web site, you'll find list of Metro's contact numbers and a link that allows you to send in a comment electronically:


Does anyone have some specific advice for "Downtown DC" about the motion sickness problem?


Arlington, Va.: What are you hearing from Metro about real changes in the wake of last week's meltdown on the Orange and Blue Lines?

It seems like there's always lip-service: "we'll do better next time." But there's always a next time and they never do better. They may not be able to prevent disruptions from happening, but they can CERTAINLY be sure the e-Alert system works EVERY time (and it seems that it never does when it's most needed). It really gives the sense that there's no accountability.

Are you hearing that heads will roll?

Dr. Gridlock: This is another theme I see in today's mailbag: Plenty of Metro riders are still angry about the Blue/Orange line fiasco on Thursday afternoon when a train heading toward Virginia broke down and had to be pushed through the tunnel. Then a switch problem occurred, maing the delays even worse. And during this time, Metro's e-mail alert system failed.

No, I haven't heard about any heads rolling. I've heard of no plan to fix things. (It wasn't that long ago that Metro had a major disruption on the Green Line. Green Line riders at least got a free ride out of that in the afternoon.)


Germantown, Md., working in D.C.: It looks as though the repaving project on I-270 is moving quickly. Why is it scheduled to continue through to next year?

Dr. Gridlock: I think many of our big projects, like the I-270 paving and the Legion Bridge repainting, are making good progress because of the drought. Planners always seem to add in time for bad weather when making their calculations.

The I-270 reconstruction is a real big one. Here's a status report on the current phase of this lengthy project:

Maryland is resurfacing three ramps along northbound Interstate 270 at Montgomery Avenue, Shady Grove Road and Interstate 370. After that, crews will start on the southbound I-270 ramps, beginning with I-370, then moving south to the Shady Grove Road and Montgomery Avenue ramps. Each ramp should be closed no longer than three nights, and the work will be done by early September.


Blue Line onThursday: Do you know what happened last week to cause such tremendous interruption of service on the Orange and Blue lines? I arrived at the Farragut West platform at 5:30 and it was 1 hour and 10 minutes before a train next entered the station (in either direction) and then three trains platformed on the wrong side. What caused this disruption to both directions of train traffic?

Dr. Gridlock: Look a bit higher on the chat for the basics about the train breakdown that backed up service, followed by the switch problem.

But this reader's note also shows another problem: This was a customer in the system on Thursday afternoon who was caught up in this major delay and doesn't know why.

Metro issued a statement about it on Friday, and John Catoe launched his online chat with an apology and an explanation. But Metro still has trouble getting the word to its riders -- or would-be riders -- as an incident is occurring.


Agitated Blue Liner: Why didn't we get a free ride!?!?!?!

Dr. Gridlock: I don't know, and will ask. Metro did give a free ride after the Green Line disruption, hoping to compensate people who were delayed in that one. As I recall, there was no implication that it would become a regular reward. I think everyone would be better off it Metro could avoid the disruptions in the first place.


Washington, D.C.: Motion sickness on Metro: Motion sickness is not generally a seasonal condition. I am wondering if this is more related to sensivity to heat than to motion sickness. However, when I board a train on a 95 degree day, I know instantly if there is something wrong with the AC. I then jump off and get on the next closest car. As for dealing with motion sickness, I believe that keeping eyes closed and taking deep, regular breaths will help.

Dr. Gridlock: Thanks. And yes, I agree that it's pretty apparent right away that a rail car's air conditioning is busted and that it's a good idea to try another rather than stick it out and swelter.


Washington, D.C.: Thanks for posting my comment Dr. Gridlock -- but as much money as the General Manager is making I would HOPE that he would come up with fresh ideas instead of just increasing fares because that is what he is getting PAID to do. However, not all ideas are good ideas.

Dr. Gridlock: I agree on the thrust of this Metro comment, and it's still early in Catoe's time, but he has provided real hope for solutions directed at riders, rather than imposed on riders for the convenience of the transit authority. (I'm thinking of policies like SmarTrip only for parking payments.)


Late Night Metro Service: I care more about the human cost, rather than the financial. If the trains are running, the drunks ain't driving. I'm usually not much of a night owl, myself, but I'd be willing to throw a little extra coin Metro's way so people don't drink and drive.

Dr. Gridlock: Agreed. But here's something else that might emerge from a review of the service: Is it possible that by cutting back on the night hours we'd see less single tracking for maintenance that cannot be done overnight now? Judging by the complaints I've gotten over the past year about the delays caused by single tracking, it would seem that this is a reason many people stay away from the rail system.


Arlington, Va.: I know it is a long way off, but do you have a sense of how Metro will deal with the people going from the new stadium to their homes on the Blue, Oranage, and Red Lines? As the stadium is on the Green Line, I am afraid of making it to L'Enfant Plaza after a game and discovering that the next train won't be along for 20 minutes.

Dr. Gridlock: Rail service -- particularly Green Line service -- will be a real challenge starting next April when the Nationals stadium opens near the Navy Yard Station. Planning is going on now. There's that new entrance at Navy Yard Station, a promise that people going to and from the stadium will have a variety of options, such as improved bus and rail service, and the likelihood that additional rail cars will join the fleet by then.

Planners figure every game next year will be a sellout. The Green Line is crowded already during the afternoon rush. I'll watch this carefully as the plans develop.


Penn Quarter, D.C.: The Metro stations are WAY too hot lately. As someone who once passed out in a hot Metro station, I'm sensitive to this issue. Why can't Metro cool down the stations? (Apparently Metro does not have "air conditioning" in the stations, but some other kind of system? Do you know what the story is there?) L'Enfant Plaza and Gallery Place-Chinatown are particularly bad.

Dr. Gridlock: A couple of years ago, Post reporter Michael Alison Chandler took a thermometer around to a bunch of stations and observed the variations. Yes, some are much worse than others. Metro uses an air cooling system. It's not air conditioning. Metro knows it needs new equipment, and that's in the works.

But on days like we'll have this week, when the temps are near 100 degrees, it's not going to be good. It's like turning on the air conditioner at home, inviting the neighborhood into the house and opening up all the windows.


Beckham at RFK: What's the plan for Metro and the District to get people in and out of RFK on Thursday night for a 7 p.m. soccer game? Since this is David Beckham's only appearance in D.C. this year, and since the upper deck has been opened and they're expecting at least a crowd the size of the Nats Opening Day crowd, in the heart of the evening rush, are there any special plans or extended service hours?

Dr. Gridlock: I'll check on this good question. But normally, Metro anticipates that particular events will cause extra demands and has extra trains ready for arriving and departing crowds at places like RFK and Verizon Center.


Re: Motion Sickness on Trains: Why don't you try taking Dramamine. I use it all the time on Metro and it really helps. Dramamine has very few side effects except a warning not to drive or operate machinery, but you've already solved that problem by taking the subway.

Dr. Gridlock: Thanks for the tip.


Washington, D.C.: A compliment for Metro: On Sunday, for the first time I can remember, I heard a train conductor use the PA to remind passengers of the prohibition on food/drink. Bravo! Especially at the height of tourist season, such announcements ought to be made regularly.

And on a related note, why aren't there more, and more visible signs, in EVERY section of the trains (not just in the middle in tiny letters beneath the map) reminding passengers of the rules?!


Dr. Gridlock: I've heard a bunch of new announcements on Metro, including one that acknowledges that the trains are going to stop and start suddenly and advising people to hold on.

Yes, the announcements are a good idea. Currently, the signs regarding food and drink are really hard to spot.


Arlington, Va.: Hey Doc,

how far do you think this region and the entire nation in general is from a comprehensive transit breakdown? In this region, specifically, Metro seemingly cannot get through the day without a major delay on at least one line. A person takes his life into his own hands when he gets on the Beltway. And just yesterday, on I-68, I was caught in a three hour delay outside of Cumberland caused by an accident in the rain. I only found out about the reason of the delay because my Mom was able to check the Maryland Department of Transportation Web site; the VMS signs in the area were blank, and by the time we got through the delay, the accident was long gone.

Nationally, air travel, especially between large airports in popular metro areas, would be laughable if it weren't such a hassle. Driving long distances is a similarly delay ridden affair. And unless you're in the northeast, rail travel is simply not an option.

I know that I was spoiled growing up in Kansas; if a destination was 30 miles away, that meant it was 30 minutes (or less away). That rule of thumb does not apply here, and it never has. But are we reaching a breaking point, or are am I simply noticing these glitches and delays more?

Dr. Gridlock: While I don't believe a comprehensive breakdown is imminent, I do think we need to get serious about investing in maintenance and construction. We can have the stuff we want on the roads and rail but it's going to cost us.


Washington, D.C.: So let me see if I understand this. Commuters demand fast, reliable, and late evening service on air conditioned comfort without fare increases. Hmmmmm....what's wrong with this equation?

Dr. Gridlock: Similar thought here. Riders do have a right to ask for these services. But yes, it costs money.


For motion sickness: An old sailor's trick - eat some crackers before you get on the train. Plain saltines, no sugary crackers. It soaks up the bile in your stomach that makes you feel sick.

Dr. Gridlock: A non-drug solution.


Alexandria, Va.: On the bright side, the current buzz is that Beckham's ankle is still sore and he won't play.

Dr. Gridlock: Bet many fans would be willing to endure the crowded trains to see him.


Metro Funding: I'm confused, where does most funding for the Metro come from, besides the fares? Do Virgina, Maryland and D.C. pay an equal share?

Dr. Gridlock: There's a huge federal and local subsidy for Metro, just like there is for driving. But Metro gets relatively more of its revenue from the fares than most transit systems.


Re: Accountability: I would have to say that the lack of accountability in the Metro system is what makes it so frustrating. Whenever there's a problem -- large or small -- they try to pass it off as something minor. Newsflash to Metro: There's no such thing as a "minor delay." If someone has to wait even 10 minutes for a train and then has to make a bus connection, it's likely they're going to miss that connection. A 40-minute commute doubles. That is not a minor delay.

I think that if Metro at least pretended that it had a great responsibility, it would not be so frequently infuriating.

Dr. Gridlock: Metro likes to refer to passengers as "customers," but events occur too often that cause is to doubt we have the same understanding of the word that the transit authority does. In this age, in this country, calling someone a customer means you appreciate their business and you want them back.


Metro Rider.: I have ridden the late night train in Chicago. Their late night trains are just two cars. In comparison, Metro trains are huge. Chicago's seem the size of a monorail car. I think Metro could do a late night train with one or two cars that would serve the public need and reduce some costs.

Dr. Gridlock: I understand the point, but Metro did briefly try to shrink its evening trains to save money. The crowding was awful.


Washington, D.C.: Thanks for the info about the major delays last week. I was stuck in them hours later but had no idea why.

What was new to me when I entered Capitol South around 8pm was magnet signs attached to all the entrance gates saying basically Major Delay enter with delay - very nice so you could avoid paying to realize after the fact there were problems. The unfortunate part was there wasn't any one around to tell me where the delays were located and if there were audio announcements I either couldn't hear or understand them.

I really like the magnet idea but a good follow up would be a white board sign in the manager booth with an explanation of what's going on - just the basics - in this case it could have been "Orange/Blue - broken down train between Foggy Bottom and Rosslyn." At least then I know where it is and that its on my side of the sytem.

Dr. Gridlock: Yes, that's a step in the right direction. I hope we'll see more. In my experience, Metro has extra difficulty in those first minutes after a delay is created -- difficulty communicating with passengers.


Gaithersburg, Md.: Any suggestions for how early I need to arrive at RFK Thursday night? I'm worried what the lack of Douglass Bridge and the 7 pm kickoff (not to mention the 45,000 fans) will have on traffic. Normally I can use GW parkway and get to 395 around 5:30 pm that is sufficient to arrive by 6 pm and enjoy some tailgating. Thanks!

Dr. Gridlock: Worried about giving you a time estimate, but you're very right to consider the impact of Douglass Bridge closing. Last Thursday afternoon, I was watching a pretty bad backup on I-395 where it crosses over South Capitol Street.

I'd like to recommend Metro for this one, if that's a possibility.


Vienna, Va.: Officially, I have debunked your theory of less traffic during the summers. Today was by far the WORST day I have had in traffic in months. East on I-66 was a nightmare this morning (worse of a nightmare than usual) and it was backed up to the Centreville exit from 495. That is insane. I've been a suburbanite for 5 years now and though there may be some respite during the summer, it is negated by the tourist traffic that slows the native traffic flow. The only times I notice a significant difference is Thursdays and Fridays, but still, that's the same during the winter months too. Where did you get the idea of less traffic during the summer???

Dr. Gridlock: Stats show that congestion is less during the summer, but the stats are averages. You're results may vary. I'm sorry you're having that trouble on 66.


Gaithersburg, Md.: Yesterday, driving back from PA, I needed to get onto I-395 S from I-295 S...THERE ARE NO SIGNS! The first time I took this trip, I thought I had just missed the sign, but I saw this time that, NOPE, NO SIGNAGE! I ended up having to make a "u-turn" through SE streets via Penn Ave to get over to I-395...WHERE is the dern exit?? GRR!!!

Dr. Gridlock: Should be signs. On Sunday, I think I'd take NY Avenue from 295 to reach 395. Or, with the Douglass Bridge closed, drive farther south to the Suitland Parkway exit, swing under 295 and get back on it northbound to the 11th Street Bridge.


295 connection from SE-SW Freeway: Dood doctor! -- I am not complaining about the Douglas Bridge, but would like to use it as a vehicle to talk about another Anacostia River crossing need -- a direct connect to 295 north. Nevertheless, the right of way and everything is in place to have a direct connect to 295 north via the SE-SE freeway. Are there any plans being discussed for implementing a new bridge over the Anacostia for 295 north or a real road (via RFK access) to hit East Capitol St. bridge to 295 north?

It just seems like a logical project to complete. The congestion at that turn is extremely high during rush hour, and many peaks on weekends.

That left turn lane is busy most of the day as folks cross the Sousa bridge to make the left.

Dr. Gridlock: No plans for a new bridge. Up next for DC are improvements to the 11th Street Bridge and replacement of the Douglass Bridge. (The timing on that left turn green arrow from outbound Sousa Bridge toward 295 was lengthened very recently, by the way.)


Four Corners, Md.: We're leaving for a car trip to Savannah, Ga., tomorrow morning. What do you and the other chatters suggest as the best route to get from Four Corners to 95 South during morning rush hour? I'm thinking going through the city may be fastest and provide the best bailout options, but am definitely open to suggestions.

Dr. Gridlock: Both the Wilson and Legion Bridge approaches have been difficult on recent mornings, so I think I'd go through the District to the 14th Street Bridge.


Chevy Chase, Md.: Given all the federal (and state) money to be spent on mega projects such as the ICC and Metro to Dulles, plus the fact that beau coup additional federal dollars will no doubt be allocated for highway bridges in the wake of the Minneapolis disaster, is it really likely that the feds will approve funding for another transit project in this area like the Purple Line? Especially since the Purple Line is so controversial (at least along the Capital Crescent Trail between Bethesda and Silver Spring)?

Dr. Gridlock: Metro to Dulles is no done deal, as far as the federal funding is concerned. The fed formula for transit projects is tight -- way too tight, I believe -- and is definitely on the minds of MD officials as they develop the Purple Line proposal.


Dr. Gridlock: Thanks for your many good questions and comments today. We wound up focusing heavily on Metro because of the Thursday delays and the Metro review of the night owl service, but I know that drivers have been having difficulties, too.

By the way, in response to an unanswered question from last week: Even though there was a ceremonial groundbreaking for the Anacostia rail project while Mayor Williams was still in office, the District still has been gathering the money to begin the actual construction, which has yet to begin.

Be safe out there, everybody.


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