Roads and Rails
Monday, September 10, 2007; 11:00 AM
Do you think Metro has grown unreliable and become downright unpleasant? Or are you happy with your commutes on rail and bus? Does the thought of the intercounty connector (ICC) keep you up at night or does it seem like it's long overdue? And what of the moves by Maryland and Virginia to encourage the private sector to build road projects, such as widening the Capital Beltway?
Washington Post staff writers Eric Weiss and Lena H. Sun were online Monday, Sept. 10 at 11 a.m. ET to answer your questions, feel your pain and share the drama of getting from Point A to Point B.
A transcript follows.
Eric Weiss: Good morning!
Between Metro fare hikes and new toll lanes on the Beltway, Washington commuters will be paying more.
So who's excited about paying more for our "great service?"
Bethesda, Md.: Re: the
Has any effort been made by Maryland to coordinate these lanes with something similar on the Maryland side? As we know from just one exit lane being shut down on the legion bridge for a few months, the section of the beltway from Tysons north across the bridge is hideous. Dead-ending the HOT lanes at Georgetown Pike seems like a recipe for disaster. For the tens (hundreds?) of thousands who cross the bridge each day, we need to know.
Eric Weiss: Yes, Maryland is investigating whether to place HOT lanes on I-270 to across the American Legion Bridge to hook up with Virginia's new toll lanes. Under plans floated by the Ehrlich Administration, all drivers would pay tolls, including carpools.
Arlington, Va.: When there's a construction project (short- or long-term), do local departments of transportation ever think about retiming traffic lights? It seems the answer is not usually.
For example, a week or so ago, there was a construction site on Rockville Pike north where the 2 left lanes (of three) were closed. Needless to say, traffic was backed up for quite awhile even at 10 p.m.. What was especially annoying is that, despite very little cross-traffic on streets such as Cedar Lane, the lights were cycling as normal, even though less than 1/3 of the volume was getting through.
Seems like this kind of thing could be an easy and cheap way to mitigate delays, but it doesn't happen.
Eric Weiss: Aaargh! That clearly should have been done. I will forward this to VDOT.
Traffic engineers should take all contingencies into consideration. Because so much work is done by contractors, sometimes one hand doesn't know the exact timing of the other.
Another pet peeve is Metro having buses run on what seems like a normal schedule when Washington Nationals games let out. After waiting 20 minutes for a 96 bus one evening, the next time we went to a game we drove.
Lights and transit schedules should accommodate major construction or large events. Sometimes they do, but many times they don't.
Montgomery Village, Md.: I am angered, though not surprised, by Metro's proposed fair hike. Metro is telling us that it needs the funds to improve service. I look at it in a different way. Improve service and then, maybe, you can have more funds. I really have to disagree with Dana Kaufman, the Supervisor from Fairfax County who said that "I trust the common sense of our riders...The reason for almost all of the disruptions has been because of (a lack of) investment, not bad management." Unfortunately, Metro has huge inefficiencies and waste. It needs to get its house in order, before it can assume that riders will be willing to trust the system with more of their hard earned money.
It is outrageous that Metro charges riders rush hour fares when providing subpar service. To me, who grew up riding the No. 1 train in New York, rush hour service means a train arriving every 2-3 minutes. Often, during rush hour, I wait more than 8 minutes for a Shady Grove bound Red Line train to arrive.
Far more alarming is Metro's insistence on the use of Smart Trip cards by employees who receive transit benefits from work. I work in the private sector, so unlike government workers, I actually have to pay for my Metrochecks. The net result of having to pay by the ride instead of by weekly pass is an increase of about 25 percent (not accounting for any proposed fare increase). When I contacted Metro and relayed my concerns to them, I was told that while the System is working on accommodating weekly passes within a Smart Trip Card, in the interim, I am out of luck and will have to pay the higher fare.
If this is the attitude that Metro has towards its riders, maybe I ought to invest the money in a car and take my chances with the other commuters on I-270.
Lena Sun: Hi Montgomery Village. A lot of people are upset about a proposed fare increase. But I have to say, at the same time, listening to the traffic report every morning about the daily backups and accidents on 270 is not heartening.
Arlington, Va.: I realize that Metro is a common carrier, and that several people might not have the mental or physical capacity to provide their own transportation.
But, if a Metrobus route routinely picks up a passenger who expresses mental illness through loudly delivering racist epithets at other passengers, does the driver have any responsibility to correct or remove that person?
I deal with a passenger like this on a regular basis. I'm really tired of it.
Lena Sun: Drivers are supposed to use their judgment and they can remove passengers if they feel as if the passengers pose a threat to safety. They can also radio for transit police.
But if this is happening on a regular basis, you could also call 202-637-1328 and log a complaint with the bus route, time of day it typically happens, which stop this person gets on, etc. That way, the folks at that bus garage can know about it as well.
Alexandria, Va.: For months now, I have watched (at the Pentagon and McPherson Square) as six-car Yellow Line trains and six or eight-car Orange Line trains pass by during morning and evening rush hour. They seem to come two or three in a row, then one poor four-car Blue Line train pulls in and there's a rush to squeeze on. I'm willing to accept that traffic is heavier on the other lines, particularly Orange, but I'm having trouble believing that the differences are that severe. I've read on this chat some of the reasons why cars haven't been available for service, but I still think Metro is assigning the cars they have unfairly. Any idea if this might improve and if so, when?
Lena Sun: Last Friday, General Manager John Catoe said Metro expects to have all six-car trains in service during the morning and afternoon rush hours by the end of this calendar year.
They've had delays in getting the new rail cars on track, and there are older model cars that are constantly being overhauled (all by the same manufacturer, Alstom). But they are getting new cars every month, so as those get tested and have their bugs worked out, Metro is supposed to be putting them into service. Stay tuned.
Reston, Va.: The private sector road projects seem to be very expensive. Take a look at the tolls charged on the Greenway here in Northern Virginia. Do we want to provide transportation only for the rich people?
Eric Weiss: The Greenway was a completely private speculative endeavor through cornfields. For the HOT lanes,taxpayers are pitching in hundreds of millions of dollars as "partners" in the Beltway project. In return, we get free passage for carpools and buses. Or at least that is the outline of the deal.
These lanes have been derided as "Lexus Lanes'' elsewhere because it allows drivers who can afford the tolls to avoid jams with the hoi polloi. Some research on users of HOT lanes in California has found that lots of regular people take advantage of the lanes in emergencies, for doctor appointments, job interviews or if they are late to daycare.
In the Washington area, some snarkily suspect that the toll lanes will be renamed "Lawyer Lanes'' with clients eventually pickup the tolls of their so-important counselors.
But it would be too snarky to suggest such a thing.
Lena Sun: CORRECTION ON BUS DRIVERS AND DISORDERLY PASSENGERS from earlier questioner:
Turns out I was given incorrect info by Metro. Bus drivers are NOT allowed to remove disorderly passengers. In case of emergencies, the drivers can hit their alarm button and call for police backup.
Washington, D.C.: I think that your response to Montgomery Village wasn't quite fair. I have to agree with the poster's central point. If you are going to charge more for rush hour service, you have to provide rush hour service. This is a central complaint that we have as Metro riders, that never seems to be adequately addressed in these discussions, or by Metro. In every other city I have lived in or traveled in, rush hours service means trains come every 2-3 minutes. Or even closer together. It is shameful that I have to wait 8 minutes for an Orange line train at 7 in the morning at West Falls Church. If you want to raise fairs, fine, I guess. But you can't keep delivering subpar service. Metro fares have increased in the past, and as a rider, I have had no positive impact on my commute. The lack of a positive outcome associated with past fare increases is what makes me wary about this proposed fare increase. Rush hours trains should run every 2-3 minutes, absolutely. Once you can give me rush hour service, I will think that increasing the fares is acceptable.
Lena Sun: Point well taken. Catoe knows that, and says he hears that complaint from riders all the time. He promises that whatever increase the fare is, passengers won't be paying for the same quality of service.
Bethesda, Md.: To follow up on your answer about the HOT lanes, the Ehrlich administration hasn't been around in a while. Is anything substantive being done? Is the design of the HOT lanes dead-ending on the beltway done? Can constituents see these plans or voice opinions to both VA and MD to demand coordination? The last thing the legion bridge needs right now is more congestion leading up to it.
Eric Weiss: Right now, everything is still being studies. Maryland is studying plans for the eastern part of the Beltway, the western part and a study of I-270 from Frederick into Montgomery County.
David Buck of the Maryland State Highway Administration said all the studies will take into consideration what Virginia is doing and any toll project will seamlessly tie into the Virginia projects through the use of common payment methods such as EZ-Pass.
Washington, D.C.: So who do we need to talk to to protest the proposed Metro fare increase? Metro hasn't shown me anything recently that would justify paying more for worse service...
Lena Sun: Sit tight. I'm sure I'll be getting the schedule for public hearings very soon. In the meantime, you can also contact the board members who represent your jurisdiction. Since you're posting from D.C., your voting members are Jim Graham, a D.C. council member, and Emeka Moneme, who is also director of the District's transportation department.
Leave the "W" out of BWI: I actually enjoy flying out of BWI, but the last 3 times I have returned home, I have had horrible trouble getting to the airport using Metro and Amtrak. Just last week it took me 2 1/2 hours to get home to Clarendon (20 minute wait for the bus to the train station, Amtrak trains delayed, New Carrollton station closed so had to wait for both red and orange lines, track work delays, etc). Why oh why can't we have reliable transportation to BWI? The bus from Greenbelt is not exactly speedy either!
Eric Weiss: You forgot the sometimes lengthy waits for a shuttle bus...
I agree, the BWI rail station is still too far from the terminal, but the station is still one of the busiest in the region and at least saves you from the roulette wheel of B-W Parkway traffic condition.
Silver Spring, Md.: We hear that Metrorail is operating "at capacity" and I wonder who is studying the next steps to meet future demand. I look at the tracks and wonder how much closer together the trains could be run. It's not as if the trains are running bumper to bumper -- not even close. Metro's control systems use ancient technologies and an update could be used to get the trains much closer together.
And why the heck don't the new trains have four doorways on each side of the car or doorways that are twice as wide?
Lena Sun: Well, they're not quite at capacity yet, but they're getting close. That's why there is so much pressure to run longer trains--those platforms were originally designed to accommodate 8-car trains. Most trains are six cars long, except for the 4-car trains on the Blue Line. And yes, their systems are really old and outdated.
Updating those technologies costs lots of money. Some of the maintenance issues are very basic. They need to upgrade their power substations in order to run those longer trains, but all that requires money.
Metro is the only major transit system in the country that doesn't have a steady stream of dedicated funds. There are bills pending in the U.S. House and Senate that would help the agency with those kinds of capital upgrades.
"Lawyer Lanes": If the client is willing to pay for it, then what's the problem?
Eric Weiss: Some object to the government subsidizing a project that will offer greater benefits to the affluent. Traffic is a great social equalizer.
And if the rich get their own lanes, there would be less political pressure to expand or build more "regular lanes,'' so the criticism goes.
Whaddaya you think?
Alexandria, VA: Here's something I'm not quite sure on... if Metro Ridership is at an all time high, why is a fare increase necessary? Is this a failure to budget properly (or at all) or have there been some really unusual expenses?
The other thing is this- my commute from Huntington to Bethesda and back on Metro is already $11.45 each day, when you consider parking fees. That works out to almost $60 per week. It's actually cheaper (and faster many days) to drive back and forth... isn't there a concern that Metro is going to price out its customer base?
Lena Sun: Ridership is growing, but those additional revenues aren't enough to offset increased costs. The cost of fuel has gone up about 300 percent since 1995, and the cost for health insurance for employees has also gone up quite a bit (as has been the case for all employers).
Metro hasn't had a fare increase for four years. They delayed putting one into effect for THIS year, but they can't do it again for the fiscal year that begins July 2008, officials say.
So Catoe is getting an early start in bringing it up with the board, which has final approval. If they approve one, it could go into effect as early as January.
To "Montgomery Village, Md": Ah yes, the standard line in discussing all Govt. related services. The "they don't need money, they just need to get rid of waste and inefficiency". If somehow we managed to get the entire government. services run by one guy named Fred, people like Montgomery would still insist that no additional money was needed, if only Fred would start using the bathroom before coming into work.
Reality clue train. There isn't enough "waste and inefficiency" to cover the huge costs associated to services need they want. You want 2-3 minute train intervals? First off, pay for the two extra tracks the system should have, which isn't the fault of anyone working there now. Second, it will take a massive investment in new hardware and software to allow a two track system to run trains so close together.
Which amazingly costs money.
I don't work for Metro (private sector tech project manager), and get annoyed with them too, but get sick of the lazy "I want everything for nothing, its all the fault of faceless wasteful bureaucrats" line. If you want services you have to pay for them. That simple.
Lena Sun: Here's another reply to Montgomery Village.
Washington, DC: Just a comment -- my parents came to visit yesterday from Rockville to downtown. They had to wait 25 minutes to board a train. I understand there needs to be track work, etc., but if metro expects people to ride instead of drive on the weekends, they need to better the service and lessen the wait times!
Lena Sun: To all Metro riders: you should just figure that every single weekend, with the possible exception of Thanksgiving, will have track work going on because of the maintenance that needs to be done. That is going to be given.
Best to check the Web site from your home computer--or if you have some kind of hand-held device--and see when the next three trains are coming. That information is real-time. That way, you can get a sense of when the next train is coming, and plan accordingly.
Washington, DC: What do you think are the chances that Metro will only charge Green line towards Greenbelt riders regular fare weekdays 9-9:30 a.m.? There is a daily delay because the Yellow line to Fort Totten starts before rush hour ends (and green line trains have to wait for it to turn around). This delay isn't due to a sick passenger, or unexpected power outage, or train problem -- it's planned. I think those of us who travel past Fort Totten and are delayed daily should at least not be charged rush hour fares.
Lena Sun: Posting your feedback for Metro.
Bus drivers are NOT allowed to remove disorderly passengers.: I was on the bus with a woman who was obviously mentally unbalanced. She was really disturbing the other passengers and the driver said "if she pays the fare, they say I have to let her ride."
She set up candles in the back to make an altar, and proceeded to light them! The driver stopped the bus and told her she'd have to get off if she was going to do that. She got off. It took her awhile to get all her stuff together, but she got off.
Lena Sun: Lighting candles on the bus is not good. Can you please send me an email directly with the bus route and where this woman got on. my email is email@example.com.
a realist: Just an observation - government should just charge us all a tax for road improvements and stop trying to fool us into thinking things like HOT lanes will reduce congestion. I bet in 20 years we will pay a toll to drive on any highway, any bridge, any tunnel, on all lanes. Once they get away with this once, the sky is the limit - they will tap out every drop of this new funding source.
Saddest of all is that there is not a single thing we can do about it. The excuse is that the cost of construction has skyrocketed. Maybe so, maybe not. How do any of us know? I hear it costs up to 1 billion dollars per mile to build a rail tunnel. Does it really? Who knows. My guess is that if government wanted to save money, they could find someone in this great country of ours that would build a tunnel for less than a billion dollars a mile.
Ugh, I could go on and on, but this is really depressing, thanks for letting me vent...
Eric Weiss: Voters are funny people. They say they want more roads and services but at the same time they say they want lower taxes.
If you can square this circle, you may have a bright future in the Virginia legislature.
Washington, D.C.: Here's my issue with the proposed Metro fare hikes -- the area jurisdictions and drivers are not paying their fair share. They should consider if all Metro riders took to the roads how much more it would cost them for infrastructure and repair. I think Metro should be supported with a gas tax (and psst -- gas in the U.S. is really really cheap). That way those that use the roads and damage the environment we all share (and I'm not saying that cars should be made illegal) pay for what they do. Why should my tax dollars go to support the automotive and airline industries with little support for public transportation (I'm including Amtrak here)?
Lena Sun: I think a lot of people think this area needs MORE transit, not less. But lots of people believe it is less hassle and cheaper to drive, although personally, I would go crazy if I had to deal with traffic every single day on my way to and from work.
Washington, D.C.: Last weekend I flew roundtrip from Reagan to Denver and, to save money, I left my car at the office and took the Metro to the airport. It worked out fine, but I couldn't help but wonder why in the world all the faregates at the airport are Metro's standard width except for the handicap gate. I don't use wheeled baggage so I just lifted mine over, but I noticed that most passengers were either having trouble getting their baggage through the faregates or were queuing to use the wider handicap lane. Seems pretty dumb to me that Metro didn't make an adjustment at a stop where you would EXPECT there to be a higher concentration of people with baggage and the like (Union Station as well, perhaps?).
Lena Sun: That's a good point. Posting here for all the Metro engineers who deal with the faregate manufacturer.
re: "lawyer lanes": What a bunch of garbage. NONE of the research of usage of HOT lanes supports these statements. None. Look at California as a model.
Eric Weiss: I was referring to research conducted on the California HOT lanes, which showed that HOT lane usage was not as skewed toward the affluent as one might expect.
bottom line: Coming from Europe I do find it strange that the US only looks at the bottom line in assessing the feasibility of public transportation. If it's not going to make a profit, it's not worthwhile or something needs fixing. I think the European approach is better - there are other benefits that accrue to society as a whole that make it worthwhile for the government to subsidize public transportation. (Oh, and please, car owners - turns out I'm subsidizing you as I do pay quite a lot in taxes keeping up the road infrastructure you use a lot more than I.)
The bottom line is not a good indicator of the validity of public transportation.
Eric Weiss: Correct, the last I checked, there are no "user revenues" on most of the roads in the country.
Metro at capacity: So let's say Metro is almost at capacity? What is WMATA doing about it? Once they put 8-car trains, there's nothing else they can do. I know fixes to the train control system, extra tracks or even entire new tunnels are expensive, but the agency NEEDS to be worrying about it now.
Lack of planning is what caused this mess in the first place and the Metro Board of today is just as guilty as those they're currently blaming.
Are they doing ANY serious thinking for really dealing with the problem lurking 10-20 years in the future?
Lena Sun: They say they are. One way to allow more people to ride the train is to reconfigure the inside. Right now, the trains have that side-by-side seating. But down the line, I understand they are looking at ways to have more bench seating that will allow more room in the middle for people to....stand.
Washington, D.C.: The earlier question about weekly passes being incorporated into SmarTrip cards is similar to the long-promised ability to add funds to SmarTrip cards with a credit card online. Metro has been promising this function FOR YEARS. They say software updates "are coming." In this time, they should have been there already. No excuse to just blame the vendor.
Lena Sun: I'm with you there.
Washington, DC: What's the best way to ask Metro to examine the prospect of service changes to a bus line? The bus line I take to work runs five buses in the morning (between 6:10 and 7:42) and five buses in the evening (between 5:20 and 6:57). From talking to other riders, we'd all be grateful to see service spread out a bit more (say, running as shockingly late as 9 a.m. in the mornings). And Metro just might pick up a few more riders by doing so--none of my coworkers will consider public transit with the current restrictive schedule.
Lena Sun: You could start by sending your comments and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you only get a bureaucratic response back, I suggest you send your comments directly to the new bus chief, Milo Victoria.
Metro headway: When I lived in Prague in the '90s, their Soviet-designed, 1970s metro system ran at 90-second headways during rush hour. Not a fancy system, but they sure could move passengers.
I know service gets more frequent later in the rush hour, but when I board the inbound orange line in Arlington around 7-7:14 a.m. trains are running at a nominal 6-minute headway, but one little hiccup and it gets real ugly real fast.
That said, I'm sympathetic with Metro's funding woes. A system that keeps the streets from absolute total gridlock benefits motorists as well as transit passengers, and Metro needs much more dedicated funding from general tax revenues.
Lena Sun: Wow. 90-second headways!
Washington, DC: Do you know if Metro's having problems with the automatic train operation, or if there are a lot of new train operators practicing manual control? I can't tell you how many times this last week trains will pull into a station, stop, and then pull forward another 20 feet before the doors finally open.
Lena Sun: Has this been happening during rush hour or during off-peak?
Baltimore: My son needs to go to the French Embassy to get a student visa. They told him it's a 40 minute walk from the Dupont Circle Metro stop. If he takes the MARC train from Baltimore to Union Station, how long should he allow for taking the subway from Union Station to Dupont Circle during the morning rush hour?
Lena Sun: Dear Baltimore--you can get a rough idea by going to Metro's Web site and using the trip planner. (www.wmata.com). You can put in the approximate time he's getting to Union Station and his destination, and it will tell you how many trains are scheduled to run then. During morning rush, trains should be fairly frequent.
Arlington, Va.: Any idea why the metro isn't running late service on Thursday night given Maryland's sold out football game? The game doesn't kickoff until 7:45.
Lena Sun: Actually, they plan to run service until 2 a.m. Thursday night instead of closing at midnight.
New Resident: Thinking of getting a Smart Card. On Metro's Web site it says "You must use the same SmarTrip card to enter and exit the Metrorail system; to pay discounted transfer fares on bus and rail; and to pay discounted rates in Metro parking lots."
Question: What exactly is the discounted transfer fare on bus and rail? The web site says that to transfer from rail to bus the transfer is worth .90 off the fare, i.e. you pay .35 with transfer. But it doesn't say what the "discounted transfer fare" is. Nor does it explain bus to rail.
Lena Sun: When you ride the subway system and then transfer to bus, you pay 35 cents. That's the discounted fare.
Lena Sun: That's all we have time for today folks. Sorry we couldn't get to all of your questions. Thanks for chatting.
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