Dr. Gridlock

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Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, October 29, 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. 29 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 again, travelers. I see quite a variety of questions and comments in the mailbag today. Let me ask you one: Since a reader asked about whether there's a problem with cell phone service in the Metro tunnels, I've been trying to do my own test. (I have a Verizon phone.) So far, I haven't had any trouble. Are there a lot of you having problems like that?

But here are some other questions and comments.

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Bethesda, Md.: Any idea of how long the speed restrictions will remain on the Red line between Medical Center and Friendship Heights?

The original information was that this was a simple replacement of a length of track. Has it turned out to be something more complicated?

Dr. Gridlock: I also was surprised about how long the track repairs were taking. The problem was discovered Oct. 21 during the periodic checks of the tracks done with an ultrasound machine. (That's a good thing.) A temporary fix was made that night and Metro expected the permanent replacement of the track area to be done Tuesday night.

I know Metro is very limited in the number of overnight hours it has available to do track work like this and get ready for the morning rush.

On Friday, I asked Metro spokesman Steven Taubenkibel via e-mail about the lengthening time for the train slowdown. He said: "The areas between Medical Center and Friendship Heights are long areas where entire 39 foot sections of rail are being changed out. So it is taking sometime."

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Bethesda, Md.: I developed cataracts in my 30s, due to diabetes, have had the first eye done with good results and will have the second done in November. The right eye is now between 20/40 and 20/50, the left eye is expected to get a comparable result, and both should improve over time.

The most important result, to me, is that I will once again be able to drive. However, I was astonished when, after checking the right eye, the surgeon asked whether I live in Maryland or D.C. When I said Maryland, he said, that's too bad. It turns out that you can drive in D.C. if one eye has 20/50 vision but in Maryland it must have 20/40 vision. I must say, this news stunned me. If there's one aspect of driving that's consistent between the states, shouldn't it be eyesight? Or is it a case of, if you can see sufficiently for your home state, other states have to recognize this? How many people even know for sure what their vision is, much less which states it will permit them to drive in?

Care to comment on this situation? Thanks.

Dr. Gridlock: I know there are some variations in motor vehicle laws between MD, DC and VA. This one I hadn't heard of before. What readers most often talk about with me are variations in passing rules and left turn on red rules -- things like that.

In many cases, the jurisdictions follow federal guidelines -- on highway signs, for example. In many cases, uniformity is good for safety.

I'm glad to hear you're having good results with the surgery. Is it not possible to use corrective lenses to further improve your vision? And perhaps you could just go to the motor vehicles office and take the eye test there?

(If any readers understand this situation better than I, please write in and I'll post your comment.)

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Boonsboro, Md.: This from MARC Brunswick line this morning:

Update - Train 878 is still disabled and expected to run 2 hours behind schedule. We regret the inconvenience.

And they want to double ridership?

Dr. Gridlock: The train was having mechanical problems, according to the MTA announcement.

Here's the latest advisory I saw, at 9:11 a.m.:

"Train 878 is on the move 2 1/2 hours late"

You're absolutely right. It's very difficult to see how MARC could double its ridership without providing higher quality, more reliable service. There are a lot of hard working people at MARC and at VRE, but the suburban commuter lines need a big infusion of money to upgrade their services. They also need better deals with the freight lines that own the tracks.

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Annapolis, Md.: Is there an end date for the Kenilworth construction which has now gone on for several months. I rarely see any activity in the morning when I travel the route a little before 8 a.m.

And, is there a valid reason why Metro buses do not pull up to the curb to pick up passengers -- there is space set aside for them -- but they stop in the middle of the street blocking all traffic behind them?

Dr. Gridlock: That $35 million District Department of Transportation project on Kenilworth, which got started in April, is scheduled for completion in April 2009.

The buses should pull to the curb. When drivers don't do that, I suspect it's because they don't want to go through the time and trouble of re-entering the traffic.

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Lincoln Park: What is the latest on the Anacostia/H St streetcar/light rail project? It seems like the H St corridor might end up getting service before Anacostia at this pace. Also, is it really light rail (a la Baltimore) is it really streetcar (a la Portland)?

Dr. Gridlock: I'll double check with the District Department of Transportation, but here's what I recall: I think the Anacostia light rail demonstration project is scheduled for construction next year.

There was a ground breaking ceremony while Tony Williams was still mayor. But I think that was like the groundbreaking ceremony that Gov. Bob Ehrlich had for the intercounty connector. Nothing actually happened right after that.

The H Street rail project is still a ways off, although tracks might be put down sooner as part of the H Street reconstruction project, so they don't have to tear up the street twice.

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Landover, Md.: I would like to know what all the construction work on I-495 is after the RT 50 exit and continuing to Landover. At first I thought it was HOV lanes. Do you think that will ever happen? HOV on 495 -- I would love it.

Dr. Gridlock: I think what you're seeing is the State Highway Administration project designed to turn the Arena Drive junction into a full-time interchange, not just one available during FedEx Field events.

To achieve that, Maryland has to meet federal safety standards be widening out the acceleration and deceleration ramps in that area.

I don't believe you'll see High Occupancy Vehicle lanes on the Beltway in Maryland. More likely, MD will create express toll lanes in which buses can travel for free. But that will be more difficult for MD than it is for VA, which is moving ahead with an express toll lane project between Springfield and the Potomac. There's more land available for new lanes in VA.

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Tenleytown, Washington, D.C.: It's currently almost impossible to get from upper NW D.C. to Virginia during the morning rush hour, and vice versa in the evening, with the construction on Foxhall Rd and Rock Creek Parkway. When are we going to get some relief?

Dr. Gridlock: I believe DDOT hopes to reopen Foxhall Road after the morning rush on Wednesday. That reopening got delayed a bit by the rains of last week.

The entire Foxhall Road reconstruction project, between Canal Road and Nebraska Avenue, is scheduled to be done in June.

I get more complaints about the Rock Creek Parkway reconstruction project than any other. Right now, the work is in the median near Virginia Avenue and takes up the parkway's middle lanes. Several more phases of that project are still to come. It's scheduled for completion in the spring, a year after it started. (The P Street ramp on the southbound side is open again.)

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Verizon/Metro: I can't keep a signal between underground stations on the Red Line and other people on the trains have also suffer disconnects. It pretty much only works in the stations themselves. This problem is not at all new.

Dr. Gridlock: Thank you for writing in. It's a bit of a mystery to me because it doesn't match my experience: I have more cell phone service bars in the Red Line tunnel than I can get at home in Silver Spring.

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Fairfax, Va.: We always complain, so I thought I would praise WMATA for a good thing they've done. The last couple of days, the Orange line has had SHINY, CLEAN trains running, at least some of them. Quite a change! (Of course, they can plead water conservation for having not washed them until now, I guess.)

Dr. Gridlock: Metro GM John Catoe, who does ride the trains and buses, very much wants to get those rail cars clean.

I'm sure readers' experiences on that are still quite varied. Also, it's kind of a downer to stand on a platform and watch some of those nice refurbished cars go by and then have a dingy old one stop in front of you.

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Alexandria, Va.: Is there a Web site showing construction phases for the new WWB and surrounding interchanges (a la the Mixing Bowl)? I drive across it to/from work each day (VA to MD and back again) and am wondering if VA is keeping on schedule. MD already has the new local/express signs hung (though they're covered up for now) and seems to be cruising right along on its side of the bridge, while VA seems to be going in slo-mo by comparison. Thanks!

Dr. Gridlock: There's a very good Web site for finding out what's been done, what's going on now and what's yet to come:

http://www.wilsonbridge.com/

The bridge and the four nearby interchanges on either side of the Potomac are all part of one huge $2.4 billion project that so far is on time and on budget.

This coming weekend, there should be some lane shifts along the Beltway near the bridge to help create the new alignment for the approaches. The second new span is scheduled to open next year. The interchange reconstructions are being done in phases. I think Telegraph Road on the VA side will be the last one completed. But that's by design. No one's falling behind on the plan.

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Downtown D.C.: I would dance for joy if cell phone reception became impossible on the Metro. I don't want to be a captive audience to someone else's mindless yapping. My train time is my quiet time, it's when I adjust between my work self and my social self.

Dr. Gridlock: I should point out that when I've been doing my cell phone testing, it's just been to pick up voice mail, or look at e-mail. Like you, I don't enjoy those involuntary insights into the private lives of total strangers.

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Baltimore: Re MARC train ridership: The real problem for riders on the Brunswick line -- indeed, for any line save the Penn -- is that so few trains are scheduled. I have been a Penn Line rider between Baltimore and D.C. for nearly 7 years, and while I have had a handful of memorable delays, the frequency of service usually means that MARC can find a workaround. On the other hand, many Penn Line trains are standing room only if you arrive 15 minutes prior to departure.

Dr. Gridlock: The Brunswick Line service is indeed problematic. I get more complaints about that line than the others on MARC. Part of the problem, as I recall, is that it's so heavily used by CSX freight trains. CSX owns the tracks and makes its real money on freight, not commuters. So I think that's a limiting factor on how many trains MARC can schedule.

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Washington, D.C.: I finally boarded one of the Red Line trains with the new seating configuration. The seats are now parallel to the train sides, not perpendicular and there are straps on the overhead rail.

My verdict: I HATE IT! I am a 5-foot-nothing 50-something woman. There is nothing for me to hold on if I have to stand in the area with the new seating. In fact, there was not enough time for me to walk to an area of the train with the normal seats, where I could hold onto a vertical pole mounted on the seat back. I almost fell when the train started, but luckily, a young man grabbed my arm.

If this is the future of Metro cars, Metro better increase its insurance, because it's going to get sued a lot by elderly riders with broken bones.

Dr. Gridlock: That sounds to me like one of the test cars that Metro has rolling around the system. There's been no decision to expand the number of cars with that type of seating, which we usually refer to as bench seating, or sometimes as New York City style cars.

In fact, GM John Catoe wants to test out more configurations before deciding on the design of the next round of Metro cars.

With the latest cars in regular service -- the 6000 Series, which eliminate poles at the ends of the cars -- I often hear from women of a certain height (including the Grid Spouse) who just hate them, because they can't reach the overhead hand grips.

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Washington D.C.: Re: Verizon -- it depends on your phone. I have much better luck with my new one than with my last one and only have problems in the tunnels around Medical Center and Grosvenor.

Dr. Gridlock: Got a couple more responses like this on cell phone service that I'll push out so you can see.

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Cell service on the Red Line: Although my Verizon phone always has at least three bars, the SERVICE is awful. I may indeed have three bars the whole time, but I will lose calls as soon as we leave the station and not be able to send texts until we're actually in a station.

Dr. Gridlock:.. and another.

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Verizon: I originally submitted the question. It seems to have gotten better since then, back to normal, anyway, with a signal most of the time but not always. Thanks for looking in to it!

Dr. Gridlock: Sure. Interesting to see all the comments from people with similar experiences to yours. I'll keep my little test going, too.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Cell phones on Metro.

Bars? Oh, I get lots of bars on my Verizon phone when I'm in the tunnels. The problem is that when the train is moving through the tunnels I lose the call more often than not. I don't think I'm alone in this and expect it to be worse during rush hour than other times.

It IS a tough problem for the network to relay dozens of calls from cell to cell as a train moves through the tunnel. Much more complicated than above ground. I just want to add a note that the current system doesn't work very well for me.

Dr. Gridlock: Thanks for that extra insight.

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Bus drivers and passengers: As a driver, I am generally patient. But I don't like to be stuck behind a bus, and will carefully pass when the way is clear. I hate it when bus drivers don't pull over to stop (especially when there's room to do so). But more troubling is the way passengers exit the bus, cross in front, expecting traffic to be stopped. It's made for some scary moments. I finally realized the passengers are acting as though regular buses are school buses (i.e. all-traffic stops). I wish there was a way we could get passengers to cross behind the bus, or better yet, in the crosswalk.

Dr. Gridlock: I remember a scary moment for some pedestrians earlier this year: I was riding on one of the relatively new MetroExtra buses down Georgia Avenue, and the driver quite correctly stopped for pedestrians who had entered the crosswalk ahead.

The bus driver was the only driver who stopped. To his left, cars continued to pass, blind to the oncoming pedestrians.

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MARC track issue: I've never ridden the MARC trains, but the issue you raise about the CSX tracks is a serious problem for the MARC and the VRE, and even for Amtrak. A couple of years ago I rode Amtrak's Auto Train to Florida. It took us about three hours to reach Richmond because the rail operators (I have a mental picture of something like air traffic control) give CSX priority on CSX-owned tracks. North of DC, by contrast, Amtrak owns its own tracks -- hence why the Acela can be reliable while the other trains aren't.

It's a serious problem. I'd like to see a real train service connecting Dulles to Union Station, rather than a Metro line that will take over an hour to ride from Dulles to downtown. A non-stop train on this route would be great. But (a) the tracks don't exist and (b) the tracks that do exist are owned by CSX, who would not stand for the additional heavy traffic.

Dr. Gridlock: Suburban rail service is one of the topics I get a thing about in the column: I think this expanding region desperately needs to improve its commuter rail lines. We can't keep asking commuters to drive to Metro parking lots and garages. They're getting crowded and there's a limit on how many new ones communities will tolerate.

The patched-together VRE and MARC systems we have now are not necessarily a good model for the future.

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DC 20011: On my regular bus routes (70, 71, 66, 68, 52, 54), the buses do not pull to the curb because of people parked in the bus zones, making it impossible for the buses to fit into the bus zones.

We need more parking enforcement.

Dr. Gridlock: This is certainly true on many routes, and thanks for the note of balance. But I do think many of us also see buses that simply fail to pull over onto those nice concrete pads that were built for them and instead block a lane of rush hour traffic.

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Severna Park, Md.: I moved here from So. Calif and was stunned and how rarely I see enforcement of HOV lanes on I-50. If traffic backs up, people (scores of them) just pull out into the HOV lane (or the shoulders) and go on their merry way. We could probably pay off the Maryland deficit if they would just enforce this one traffic violation.

Dr. Gridlock: It's just impossible to effectively enforce the HOV rules with a set up like you see on Route 50 through Prince George's County. There has to be some real separation between the regular travel lanes and the HOV lanes for the system to be effective.

The best set up I can think of around here is the one on I-95/395, although those lanes are not free of cheaters either.

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Rockville, Md.: I have a fluffy question: My father has always been convinced, and now it turns out my husband is as well, that turnpike authorities check the time you entered and left the turnpike system to check your speed and possibly issue you a ticket. Is there any truth to this?

Dr. Gridlock: Many people are concerned about how much information can be collected through the electronic toll systems like E-ZPass.

I have heard that on the New Jersey Turnpike, E-ZPass users may get warnings that they were way too quick getting from their entry point to their exit point. I have not heard of anyone getting a ticket on that basis.

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Alexandria, Va.: Regarding cell phone service on the Metro: My Verizon cell phone generally works fine, although service when passing under the river between Foggy Bottom and Rosslyn has sometimes been spotty, and I've had trouble making calls from the platform at Foggy Bottom. But otherwise it generally works fine.

My AT&T Blackberry gets no service, not even on the escalator to the street until I'm almost at the top.

Dr. Gridlock: Thanks to everyone who responded to my question on this.

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Washington, D.C.: Has Metro made changes or cut back on out-going Orange line trains from D.C. towards Vienna during the morning rush? Several times last week I would arrive at McPherson SQ between 7:30 - 8 a.m. only to find a 9-11 minute wait for the next train. The wait never used to be this bad.

Dr. Gridlock: I'll check. I'm not aware of any reason you'd be experiencing that, and it's certainly not a good thing. Seems like there's almost no such thing any more as an uncrowded outbound train during the rush period. And a little delay builds quite a crowd.

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Germantown, Md.: More of a comment than a question re: the proposed Metro increases. Traveling from Shady Grove to Farragut North, my commuting expenses will rise from the outrageous sum of $11.80 per day to the ridiculous total of $14.55 per day (or a monthly increase from $236 to $291, a 23 percent increase). Instead, I can take the MARC from Germantown at $125 for a monthly ticket and then $1.65 each way on Metro ($158 per month). You do the math, Metro.

Dr. Gridlock: I'd love to hear from more of you about the impact of the proposed Metro fare and fee increases. I'll publish some in my Dr. Gridlock column, so please write to me at drgridlock@washpost.com. (Give me your name and home community for the sign off on the letters, and a contact phone number.) I think this will be a big topic for at least the next couple of months.

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Virginia open container laws: What are the laws of having an open container of alcohol in a car in the old dominion?

If the driver is sober, can a passenger have an open can of beer?

Thanks doc.

Dr. Gridlock: I believe that the law in Virginia says that a driver can be charged with drinking while driving if there is an open container of alcohol in the passenger area, the contents of which have been at least partially removed, and the driver shows signs of having been drinking.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Metro fare hike... I know, the topic that won't go away. When Catoe started at Metro (a year-ish ago?) he was talking about taking out some of the lavish accessories that we no longer need to be paying for to lure people out of their cars like we did 30 years ago. So why are we seeing fare hikes BEFORE the carpets are ripped out and BEFORE the 10-foot escalators are turned off? And while we're at it, I keep hearing how labor is the largest cost in a transit system... why does a six-car train come every 1.5 minutes at rush hour instead of an eight-car train every 2.5?? There just seem to be so many obvious cost saving items that haven't been addressed, what am I missing?

Dr. Gridlock: There is more cost cutting possible, but let's not forget that when Catoe came in at the start of this year, he put a proposed fare hike on hold until he could do some cost cutting of his own, which he did. He eliminated a lot of staff slots from the Metro budget and made other cost cutting moves before coming back to the board with his latest proposal.

Part of the eight car thing is needing the new cars to arrive and get put into service.

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Dr. Gridlock: I've got to break away now. Some of you asked some questions that I haven't answered because I kinda sorta think I know the answer but on topics like these I don't want to take a chance on giving you bum information.

There are a few questions I see that I'd like to research a little more and address in the Get There blog and the Dr. Gridlock column, so please stay tuned there, and we'll chat again in two weeks.

Stay safe.

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