Dr. Gridlock

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Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, October 15, 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, Oct. 15 at 1 p.m. ET to address all your traffic and transit issues.

The Dr. Gridlock column receives hundreds of letters each month from motorists and transit riders throughout the Washington region. They ask questions and make complaints about getting around a region plagued with some of the worst traffic in the nation. The doctor diagnoses problems and tries to bring relief.

Dr. Gridlock appears in The Post's Metro section on Sunday and in the Extra section on Thursday. His comments also appear on the Web site's Get There blog. You can send e-mails for the newspaper column to drgridlock@washpost.com or write to Dr. Gridlock at 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

A transcript follows.

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Dr. Gridlock: Hello, travelers. Just got back from a week's vacation in Maine, so I missed out on some of the heat and traffic around here. But you, obviously, did not, because there are plenty of questions about driving and riding. I can see we'll be discussing some highway issues, transit matters and rules of the road.

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Roanoke, Va.: Can anyone give me an approximate commuting time and route from Cheverly in Maryland to Edsall Road at 395 in Virginia? Public transportation is not an option to my destination. If I wanted to get to work in Virginia by 8:00 a.m. (8:30 at the latest) what time would I need to hit the road? Is 295 to the Wilson Bridge the best bet, or South Capitol Street to the SE-SW Freeway and down 395? Thanks for your help.

Dr. Gridlock: I thought I'd start with a couple of questions that tap into your traveling expertise. People considering moves to the Washington area often write to me and ask what it's like to commute from a certain area. I answer as best I can, but always note that experience can vary from day to day in this heavily congested area and it's good to have alternatives. (And it's good to do test drivers on weekdays before starting the commute for real.)

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Odenton, Md.: Hi Dr. Gridlock. I have a new commute coming up -- Odenton to Alexandria in the a.m., and then reverse in the evenings. It's about one mile shorter to go BW Parkway over Route 3/Route 50, but in terms of traffic, any suggestions on which is better?

Dr. Gridlock: So this is another question along the same lines, and I invite reader coment. This one seems like a toss up, from my limited experience on those two routes. I've been in jam ups at different points along both.

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California, Md.: In answering a letter concerning slow drivers in the left lanes you quoted several statutes or rules that require slow cars to move to the right in Maryland. What good are these rules if they are never enforced? There is no lane discipline whatsoever in Maryland or Virginia -- drivers hog the left lane if they contemplate a left turn 27 miles down the road!

Drivers in West Coast states generally leave the left lanes for passing. We won't even talk about European countries, where lane usage is very strictly adhered to.

washingtonpost.com: Not All Interstate 95 Traffic Controls Are Local ( Post, Oct. 11)

Dr. Gridlock: First, thanks for reading the column. It contained a letter on a topic that's among the most popular in the mail I get: How people should drive on highways around here.

Maryland and Virginia have somewhat different laws, and their driver's manuals read somewhat differently, but in both states, slower traffic is supposed to keep to the right. The laws and manuals also maintain that you're not supposed to speed. (I find it difficult to think of one rule without the other.)

Readers who are unhappy about driver behavior in this region often cite better conditions in places like California and New Jersey. I don't see it. I spend one week every year driving in the San Francisco Bay area and frequently travel on the New Jersey Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway. I don't see drivers performing any better in those places than they do around here.

My theory: You don't have to be a rocket scientist to get a driver's license. And traffic congestion seems to bring out the worst in everyone.

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Washington, D.C.:"Roanoke, Va.: Can anyone give me an approximate commuting time and route from Cheverly in Maryland to Edsall Road at 395 in Virginia?"

Ouch, tough commute. Stick with the Beltway over the Wilson Bridge then Telegraph Road to Duke Street. Duke Street west to Landmark Mall and Edsall is the next exit over on 395 N. I would never take 295 south into the city at rush hour and 50 west is not an option at anytime! Hope this helps!

Dr. Gridlock: Thanks for that advice to our new commuter.

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(Formerly) Sanford, Maine: Good morning, good Doctor. I grew up in Maine near the southern coast (Kennebunkport, Wells, Ogunquit), and as a teen our summers revolved around exploring the back roads in an attempt to avoid the tourist traffic on I-95 and Route 1. I was wondering, obviously the high summer season is over, but what where in Maine did you visit? And was your impression of Maine traffic?

Dr. Gridlock: I always tell people that I don't commute. As soon as I turn the ignition, I'm at work. I practice that on vacations and try to return with some perspective on traffic issues in other places.

On the Friday of Columbus Day weekend, we drove to Portland, Maine. Ugh. I-95 through Delaware wasn't as bad as last year, when the turnpike had several lanes shut. This year's roadwork is in the median. Friday afternoon traffic around Boston was as bad as anything we see around here. We continued north to Bar Harbor, mostly along Route 1, through areas where there have been debates about highway widenings because of the heavy congestion. (Sound familiar?)

One strong impression: Pedestrian safety is a matter of growing concern in other states, as well as in MD and VA. The biggest improvements I've seen in recent years have to do with pedestrian safety.

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Washington, D.C.: Can you tell me which parking lots on the Orange Line in Virginia fill up first, and which have spaces available after rush hour? I have a speaking engagement in Herndon Wednesday morning, and will head back I-66 to drive to a Metro stop about 9:30 or so. Question is, which one should I go to in order to have a realistic chance of getting a spot?

Thanks very much!

Dr. Gridlock: Does anyone know of a parking area along VA's Orange Line that doesn't fill up by the end of rush hour? Metro is the biggest provider of parking in the region, but I've received so many complaints about the lack of spaces that I've come to think that we need to develop a better plan than just building more garages. Communities just won't tolerate the amount of garage construction needed to handle the growing demand.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Hi Dr. Gridlock. My husband and I are planning on buying a home early next year. We're considering homes in Catonsville or Sykesville. If our destination is Glenmont Metro, do you have a feel for which would be the easier commute? Thanks!

Dr. Gridlock: I think "Silver Spring" is illustrating how big our region is getting and how far people are willing to commute. Some of you will warn out commenter against moving farther away. But many people are willing to make those time trade offs for the sake of getting a place to live that they really like. No stopping that.

I think Catonsville and Sykesville are a toss up as far as the commute to Glenmont Metro is concerned. My hope, Silver Spring, is that you could reach a MARC station or an MTA commuter bus park and ride lot for your trip, so you won't have too long to spend in a car on the very limited north-south roads between there and here.

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Woodley Park, Washington, D.C>: To the person looking for Metro parking at 9:30: wait half an hour. At 10:00 a.m., the reserved spots open up to anyone, so you should be able to find a spot. Just remember to have your car out by 2:00 a.m.

Dr. Gridlock: Thanks, Woodley. Good thought on the reserved spaces. I think I should pass that advice along to the many retirees who tell me they'd like to travel to the District's cultural attractions by Metro, but are frustrated by the lack of midday parking along the Orange Line. They might have better luck if they time their arrivals at the parking facilities for the 10 a.m. lifting of the reserved parking restrictions.

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To Edsall Road commuter! URGENT: I would 'not' get off on Telegraph, then get on Duke past Landmark. Lights, lights and more lights.

I'd stay on Beltway a few miles longer (once over WW bridge) and take 395N exit to Washington. The 'first' exits are Edsall Road.

If WTOP or other traffic station says Beltway is bad news, then try those secondary streets, but otherwise ....

Dr. Gridlock: Sounds like real life experience. And I like the note about listening to WTOP for traffic on the eights.

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Odenton, Md.: I also commute to Alexandria, and 295 the whole way is the better option. However, the MARC Penn line to the Metro Yellow Line takes an hour and fifteen minutes from Odenton, which is comparable to the driving time.

Dr. Gridlock: And Maryland is talking about a long term plan to send trains past Union Station to Virginia. (Real long term, I think.)

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Fairfax, Va. -- re: Metro Parking Lots in Virginia: I can say that the Vienna Metro stop (off of Nutley) is full by around 8:00 a.m. By around 9:30 a.m. you can sometimes find a random spot if someone happens to be pulling out around that time -- but I wouldn't count on it!

Dr. Gridlock: For many commuters, the reserved parking would be a good idea. Metro is considering a proposal to expand the number of reserved spots. But that's controversial among riders. One reason is that they think reserved parkers don't necessarily park in the reserved spaces if they see one closer. That takes a space that could be used by someone else.

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Washington, D.C.: I have a question/complaint/rant about the circle near the GWU hospital. I usually enter it from 23rd St. As I'm going around the circle, cars from Penn Ave drive right into the circle -- no pausing, no yielding, no looking. Isn't there a rule about yielding to cars in the circle? I am always amazed at the drivers merging from Penn Ave and purposely avoid this circle for this one reason. It's unbelievably dangerous.

Dr. Gridlock: Yes, rule is the same everywhere I know of: Drivers in the circle have the right of way. We don't perform too well in that regard.

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Washington, D.C.:"Metro is the biggest provider of parking in the region, but I've received so many complaints about the lack of spaces that I've come to think that we need to develop a better plan than just building more garages."

How about making buses more affordable? And yes, that includes the "express" buses where we pay twice to three times as much for the privilege of making stop after stop on every street corner.

Dr. Gridlock: I do think expanding and improving bus service is an important part of the solution to the growing parking problem at the Metrorail stations. We need more express services, like the MetroExtra along Georgia Avenue. But we also need more services that will draw people from the neighborhoods to the nearest Metrorail station, allowing them to leave their cars at home.

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Alexandria, Va.: Who's job is it to patrol Metro Kiss and Rides? Is it Metro or local police? Every time I pick my husband up at Springfield Metro the pick-up area is a MESS because someone decided just to stop in the travel lanes and wait for their person. It once took me 3 cycles of the light at Franconia/Springfield Parkway to get into the Metro area Kiss and Ride area all because someone just stopped and threw on their hazard lights! There is a cutout for quick drop off/pick up AND there is an area of the garage dedicated for waiting. Who is responsible for this mess? I would like to bring this situation to their attention.

Dr. Gridlock: I see the same thing at the Silver Spring Station, which is the nearest to where I live. Occasionally, I do see Metro transit police there to enforce the rules. There's just not enough of them to go around in a transit system as large as ours.

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Manassas, Va.: Dr. Gridlock,

I am in the process of making plans to take the train up to Hartford over the Christmas holidays and going to take the Metro into Union Station. My question to you or your readers is, would I be better off trying to park at Reagan Airport or at the Springfield Metro parking starting on Saturday morning the 22 and coming back on the 26.

Thanks for the help

Dr. Gridlock: Metro has longterm parking at three stations:

1. Level 1J at Franconia-Springfield

2. The South Lot at Huntington station (This is the lot, not the garage off N. Kings Hwy)

3. Cherrywood Lane side at Greenbelt station

(I pulled that right off Metro's Web site.)

Reagan National, as I recall, issues warnings every holiday season about the likelihood that the parking areas will be filled up. Space is that limited. You can look for reports on the airport Web site about current parking conditions.

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Washington, D.C.: Can you shed some light on the impending Foxhall Road closure? The sign says it will last from 10/17 to 10/26 -- will this be all day or at night? There's nothing on the D.C. DOT site about it at all, just about a weekend closure from 10/6.

This is the best way into work for me, by about an hour a day. If it will really be closed altogether for two weeks, I need to make alternate plans (like shifting my commute so I can take Rock Creek Parkway or telecommuting).

Dr. Gridlock: Erik Linden, spokesman for the District Department of Transportation, issued a statement today about the upcoming work:

DDOT will close Foxhall Road to through traffic from Reservoir Road to Nebraska Avenue from Wednesday, October 17 following morning rush hour through Thursday, October 25.

Northbound traffic on Foxhall Road toward Nebraska Avenue will be detoured via Reservoir Road and MacArthur Boulevard and Arizona Avenue.

Southbound traffic on Foxhall Road toward Reservoir Road will be detoured via Nebraska Avenue and Arizona Avenue and Macarthur Boulevard.

Detour signs will be placed along the roadsides advising motorists of the detour route. If all the work is not completed by October 25, DDOT will continue this operation for the next seven work days or until completion.

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Arlington, Va.: Glad to see the advance warning over the weekend (using mobile message boards) along the SW Freeway warning that the 3rd St. tunnel will be closed every evening this week. What will they be doing?

Dr. Gridlock: Tunnel is off peak maintenance work - lane closures only - not a full closure, says DDOT's Erik Linden.

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Rock Creek Parkway: How long is the construction on Rock Creek Parkway supposed to last? During rush hour, trying to get on from 66 is miserable!

Dr. Gridlock: Yes, I've heard about this and have been meaning to check it out myself. (Mark Berman, a Post staffer who helps me organize your incoming mail, was getting stuck in this on his commute from our Alexandria Bureau back to his home in the District.) The parkway project started this spring and is scheduled to be done next spring. The problem on I-66 arose last month when work shifted from the southbound lanes of the parkway to the northbound lanes.

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Arlington, Va.: Traffic over Key Bridge and through Georgetown seems to get worse and worse every day. Can't D.C. do something to stop people from attempting to turn left from M St onto Banks St (between 34th and 33rd)? The idiots who can't drive the extra half block to the left turn arrow at 33rd St block the left lane and really disrupt the flow.

Dr. Gridlock: That's a very difficult area for commuters, and I've seen various forms of trick driving that must really annoy those of you stuck in the mess. For example, I've seen some drivers coming in on Canal Road hold up traffic while they wait to make left turns into the gas station near Georgetown University.

I'm hoping we'll see some improvement when the District is completely done with the Canal Road widening project, but that can't be a total solution. Traffic volume on Key Bridge and Canal Road is so high, and M Street so narrow.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Some time ago, someone wrote in saying that people in D.C. are entirely too impatient (true). They gave an example of a driver behind them at a stop light who honked their horn just a few seconds after the light turned green. The person that wrote in suggested that those few seconds have no impact on people getting through the light and that folks should be more patient. I'm curious as to what you think about this. I think it is imperative that the car in the front of the line at the green light should pay attention, I pay attention. I think that those precious few seconds trickle down the line of cars and that a car that should have been able to get through the light was now rejected that possibility and has to wait again, slowing down traffic even more. If I'm at the front of the line, I look at the lights that are perpendicular to my light to gauge as to when my light will be turning green and accelerate accordingly, hopefully allowing as many cars to get through as possible. Anyway, just wanted to let that person know that those few seconds do matter. And yes, I realize I may just be trying to justify my own impatience.

Dr. Gridlock: I agree with you that drivers need to pay attention at lights and know how annoying it can be when you're in a hurry. But just to broaden the thought, rather than disagree with it, I know that in my three decades of driving, I've occasionally failed to notice when the light changed, or alternatively, wondered if the honking driver behind me thought my stick shift was wired to the traffic light.

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Arlington, Va.: Love your column.

For the "inadvertently funny road sign" department, here's a sign posted on Fairfax Drive near Ballston.

"HEAVY PEDESTRIAN TRAFFIC"

How kind of the county to alert us to obese walkers crossing...

Dr. Gridlock: Having written plenty of newspaper headlines over the years, I'm a bit sympathetic to the highway sign writers. It's tough to cram a lot of information into a couple of words. (But then, I always loved "SLOW CHILDREN".)

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RE: Lane Usage CA/NJ vs. VA/MD/DC: I agree that California or New Jersey drivers are no better than drivers in our area. I recently went to San Francisco and Los Angeles this past weekend and I did a lot of driving in both. In both northern and southern California I encountered the same things that happen here: major delays for looking at simple incidents, not leaving the left lane for passing and improper merging. The only difference was the nice weather. As for the roads themselves I liked that the speed limit was 65 on most highways and the left lane was a shoulder that was transformed into a lane. They don't use asphalt on most interstates, so it must be really cheap to maintain. I don't understand why we don't do that in this region, seems like a quick solution to lower cost and get extra capacity quickly.

Dr. Gridlock: You're thinking about roads where they use concrete rather than asphalt? We do that in some stretches here and you see it a lot on bridges. You engineers can correct me, but I think concrete lasts longer but is more expensive than asphalt as a construction material.

By the way, I'm never comfortable with turning breakdown lanes into travel lanes. I understand the desperation behind it -- providing more road capacity -- but think it can be a significant safety hazard.

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Potomac, Md.: Hello Good Doctor,

We're trying to figure out our Thanksgiving travel plans -- ugh. We'll be driving from Potomac to northern N.J. We usually drive up through Harrisburgh, Pa., and into N.J. on Rt. 78. Based on AAA or NHA stats, is it better to travel Wednesday morning (the day right before Thanksgiving) or Thanksgiving morning itself?

Thanks!

Dr. Gridlock: I'll have to do this from memory rather than stats: Anything is better than traveling on Wednesday afternoon before Thanksgiving. More and more drivers are realizing that and launching their trips on Wednesday morning, Wednesday night or Thursday morning.

My own experience and comments from readers suggest that they're all about the same. Sunday afternoon, of course, is the worst of times to be on the road after Thanksgiving.

By the way, the topic of holiday getaways is so popular, I'll be doing more about them in Dr. Gridlock in the weeks ahead. Also, I'll be seeking your travel advice again on the Get There blog.

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Re impatient DC drivers: You also need to wait at a green light for all the red light runners to pass. Saw a police car run a red light last night. Pays to pause a second or two.

Dr. Gridlock: Just generally, I wouldn't let the driver behind me force me out into traffic. The driver behind can't necessarily see the hazard that you see.

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Former Mainer: I hope you had a wonderful time in Maine. It is beautiful this time of year. I grew up in Maine and was shocked when I moved to the D.C. area with regards to traffic and congestion. In Maine, it's nice to know that if something is 20 minutes away, it'll take you 20 minutes any time of day!

Dr. Gridlock: Around here, people are as frustrated by the unreliability of their trips as they are by the time it takes. It's becoming more and more difficult to plan, so people leave big buffers of time when they absolutely have to be somewhere.

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Woodley Park, Washington, D.C.: Concrete is cheaper in the long run, as it lasts much longer than asphalt, but laying the concrete requires shutting the travel lane for several weeks. This is why it is very difficult to lay concrete on roads like the Beltway, where taking a lane out for a month is out of the question.

Federal Highway Administration is not thrilled with the idea of converting shoulders to lanes. They granted VDOT a special waiver for I-66 under the condition that it was only "temporary" and that the road would be reconstructed with 4 real lanes when funding was available. Thus far, almost 2 decades have passed and VDOT has not lived up to its end of the bargain, so FHWA is not likely to grant VDOT another waiver to do this anytime soon.

Dr. Gridlock: Thanks again, Woodley.

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Hyattsville, Md.: On the Cheverly to Edsall Road commute: the Beltway to the Wilson Bridge takes you about 15 miles out of your way. Take Kenilworth to 295, get off at Howard Road. Take a left at the bottom of the ramp and then another immediate left onto 295 northbound. Stay to the right and take the exit for the 11th Street bridge to 395 which will take you over the 14th street bridge and on to Edsall Road. A little convoluted and, yes, 295 can be horrible during rush hour, but if you leave at 7:00 a.m. you should be at work by 7:45 without any issue.

Dr. Gridlock: Normally, there are a great many interesting comments and questions for this chat, but today it's just huge. I'll try to get out a few more, but I apologize in advance for not getting to all.

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Rockville, Md.:"You engineers can correct me, but I think concrete lasts longer but is more expensive than asphalt as a construction material."

And road salt (et al) eats concrete but it doesn't eat asphalt. In parts of Calif., no problem. Around here, big problem.

Dr. Gridlock: I often hear the engineers and transpo leaders around hear warning about the growing cost of maintaining our highways. We're not that far away from having to rebuild the Beltway, for example.

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Greenbelt, Md.: I know I'm late here, but there are only about 17 long-term parking spaces at Greenbelt Metro and there are NEVER ENOUGH on holiday weekends. What are you supposed to do when those spaces are filled?

Dr. Gridlock: Metro doesn't recommend parking in other spots -- and I don't either, for security reasons. But that said, you probably could park elsewhere in the Metro lots without getting either ticketed or towed over a holiday weekend.

I've said in the column that the total number of longterm parking spaces should be expanded.

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Washington, D.C.: So what, if anything, can we do if stuck behind a slow driver in the left lane? This happens a lot on the GW Parkway and, since it's only two lanes, there's often nowhere else to go.

Dr. Gridlock: Around here, you can pass on the right if you can do so safely. Otherwise, I'd just be patient. And I know that doesn't sound satisfying, or help you get where you're going on time. Slower traffic should stay to the right, but I don't recommend any form of self-deputizing behavior to correct a situation.

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Tyson's Corner, Va.: Must we continue to make excuses for Metro's problems? If we do, nothing will get done. It's easier to pass the buck than spend it on a solution. I'm tired of people saying things like, "It's a complex system." Great, you know that going in, now make do with what you have an improve it where you can. It really shouldn't have taken over a year over sending e-mails to Metro to have a simple change made. I still get excuses about other problems I've seen on the system (simple logisitical problems that can be solved easily). Why do people continue to make excuses for Metro when they're doing such a great job themselves?

Dr. Gridlock: Tysons, I hope I didn't say anything here, or on the Get There blog or in the Gridlock column that led you to think I'm making excuses for Metro. Today on the blog, I refered everyone to a good story in The Post about Metro's troubles communicating with passengers during a breakdown.

Some politicians use Metro's problems as an excuse for saying that Metro can't be trusted with more money to operate the trains and buses. So I think it's useful to remember that the system is a great asset to our region and a lot of us depend on it.

But Metro's problems in communicating with its passengers are great examples of things that can and should be improved. No excuses.

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Balston, Va.:"I'm hoping we'll see some improvement when the District is completely done with the Canal Road widening project, but that can't be a total solution. Traffic volume on Key Bridge and Canal Road is so high, and M Street so narrow."

Then please explain to my why D.C. is considering removing the Whitehurst Freeway. It doesn't take a Ph.D. in traffic engineering to know what would happen to Gerogetown and Rosslyn traffic if that road was torn down.

Dr. Gridlock: I don't believe that tearing down the Whitehurst would benefit anyone -- not commuters and not the people who live in Georgetown.

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Washington, D.C.: Impatient drivers:

Just another point. I was the "lead driver" at an intersection recently and usually wait for the red light runners. It just so happened this time a red light runner hit a pedestrian who thought it was safe to cross.

We all need to be somewhere, but let's all do it safely.

Dr. Gridlock: I think that's a good note to end on today. Again, I'm sorry I couldn't get to all your questions. There are quite a few still asking for guidance on various commutes or travels. I'm thinking I could collect them into a "Get There" blog item and ask you all to comment and advise the questioners.

And I hope to talk with all of you again in two weeks, so stay safe out there.

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