Dr. Gridlock

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Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, November 12, 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, Nov. 12 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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NW D.C. : Hi Dr. Gridlock -- I'm wondering if you have any information on the metrobus that plowed through a concrete barrier and an iron fence at the intersection of Wisconsin and Van Ness Sts. NW Saturday (11/10) night. I drove past it just before midnight on Saturday and the bus was completely perpendicular to the building and stopped only a few feet from it. There were at least four police cars and two fire trucks on the scene. I haven't heard anything on the news or seen anything about it online or in the paper. Any idea what happened?

Dr. Gridlock: I don't, but I now that Post reporter Lena Sun, who covers Metro, is working on a story right now.

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Dr. Gridlock: Good afternoon, travelers. Glad you could join me on a holiday, when not too many of you are traveling. This week will be an interesting one for transit riders. All the Metro fare increase hearings are coming up. Also, Virginia's Commonwealth Transportation Board has a hearing in Northern Virginia on the state's transportation plan.

Many other travelers are just planning the Thanksgiving getaway.

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Bethesda, Md.: What are the chances of the Beltway widening occurring between 270 and 495? It seems the issue is the sharp turns between old Georgetown and Georgia Ave. -- that won't change with widening....it seems that this project would just be a traffic nightmare and then wouldn't address the real issue.

Dr. Gridlock: That stretch of highway between the Legion Bridge and Rockville is one of the most complained about in the region. The Maryland State Highway Administration is studying what to do.

The issue becomes more pressing because of Virginia's plans to build High Occupancy or Toll lanes along its connection portion of the Beltway between the Legion Bridge and Springfield. Many think there needs to be a way of connecting the traffic flow on both sides of the river.

Maryland could decide to create express toll lanes -- one or two in each direction -- along the Beltway and up I-270. But all of the possibilities are yet to be aired out in public.

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D.C.: Hi, Dr. G -- please give us a quick update on the work that's being done on Rock Creek Parkway. Is it likely that the backups at Virginia Ave. intersection will be over by Dec 1?

Dr. Gridlock: This is the most complained about construction project in the region. The main theme among commuters is: It's very disruptive and it's taking a long time. Meanwhile, there doesn't seem to be a lot of activity at the site.

I've walked up and down the work area between P Street and Virginia Avenue to see for myself. The most recent work has been concentrated in the median, near Virginia Avenue. There still are three lanes open during the rush periods. Congestion looks to be worst at the edges of the rush periods.

I don't believe you'll get relief anytime soon. The project is scheduled to continue till May. It will move into a phase that involves the resurfacing of the lanes.

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D.C.: I always wonder why there is never any talk of bringing Metro Rail up Rt. 29 in Montgomery County. The only stop on Rt 29 is the Silver Spring stop. However, there are thousands of people who travel from Howard County (Columbia), Burtonsville, and Briggs Cheney area every day. I have been driving Rt. 29 from Burtonsville and Columbia for 15 years. Every year the traffic on Rt 29 gets worse, despite them trying to add on and off ramps in Briggs Cheney and Burtonsville. (Now it gets backed up at Tech Road). There is always talk of brining Metro Rail to Dulles, but what about extending the line up Rt. 29? I've resorted to taking a long-distance commuter bus from Columbia now, but it still takes forever. It doesn't make any sense to me that Metro officials and Montgomery and Howard County officials aren't screaming for a Metro Rail. Your thoughts?

Dr. Gridlock: Much as I like the idea of pushing a transit line up heavily traveled Route 29, it seems a remote possibility.

Here are some reasons:

It would be a huge investment for Maryland taxpayers.

Right now, transit planning in Maryland is focused on several other large investments, like the Purple Line between Bethesda and New Carrollton and the Corridor Cities Transitway along I-270. Also, Baltimore wants a new subway line.

There's been some talk about extending Metrorail in Maryland, but it's largely about pushing the Green Line up to BWI.

Meanwhile, the intercounty connector project is moving ahead. And Maryland is trying to figure out what to do about traffic congestion on the western side of the Beltway.

Likely for Route 29: More interchange improvements. But as you know quite well, traffic will continue to get stuck from New Hampshire Avenue south because of the lane narrowings and the traffic lights.

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Vienna, Va.: Hi Dr. Gridlock,

Any word when Beulah Rd in Vienna will be reopened? Or Foxhall in D.C. finished?

Thanks!

Dr. Gridlock: Foxhall Road, a DDOT project, is schedule to be completed in June. Beulah Road, a VDOT project, is scheduled to be done in May.

These two roads are used by plenty of commuters, who often ask about them.

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Bowie, Md.: any news on re-opening date for the Route 214 Patuxent River bridge in PG County?

Dr. Gridlock: The bridge was shut in late August for reconstruction and the closure has been a subject of great concern to commuters in Prince George's and Anne Arundel.

The State Highway Administration hopes to have it reopened by the end of the year.

(Lots of questions today about end dates for projects. Everybody getting impatient?)

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Washington, D.C.: Hi:

I'm flying to Richmond, Va., to pick up my nephew and go to the MLS Cup Final game at RFK stadium. My flight back home is out of Richmond at 7 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 18, and I am afraid that I will not make it back to Richmond in time for the flight now. Can you tell me the fastest way to get out of RFK stadium to get back to Richmond? I am renting a car but I could park it somewhere and take public transportation if that was better. Please help. Thank you.

Dr. Gridlock: Posting this one so readers will have a chance to comment.

But I'm thinking it would be a good idea to park the car at Metro's Franconia-Springfield Station and ride to RFK that way. (Although there often is weekend track work down that way that slows the trains.)

If our traveler parked at RFK, seems like the fastest route south would be to cross the river and take I-295 south toward the Wilson Bridge. But what do you all think?

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Baltimore: Metro on Route 29: The real reason not do it is that there is already a mass transit option that serve the 29 corridor--the MARC train. Anyone coming from Columbia can ride the Camden Line from the Dorsey Station, off Rte. 100, or the Penn Line from Halethorpe or BWI. Either route connects you to the Red Line at Union Station. Investing in a Metro extension, given Maryland's ambitions for MARC, is never going to happen. And shouldn't.

Dr. Gridlock: Maryland does have an ambitious plan to enhance MARC train commuter service. That's a great idea. I think the region needs to focus a lot more attention on improving MARC and VRE.

The MARC program is not yet funded, but it would be another huge expense and is another reason that developing a Metrorail extension along Route 29 is unlikely.

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Washington, D.C.: I need to drive northwest next week for Thanksgiving dinner in Ohio. I plan to take 270 to 70 to 68. If I want to leave on Tuesday, when do I have to go to avoid the worst traffic on 270.

Dr. Gridlock: As I'm sure many of you are painfully aware, the holiday getaway period is getting more and more stretched out. Thanksgiving travelers learned the hard way what happens when you leave on Wednesday afternoon and return on Sunday afternoon.

So more people take a look at Tuesday now, and the afternoon rush that day gets worse and worse. I think leave very early or very late on Tuesday.

(We're planning a feature for Sunday's commuter page in The Post about holiday getaways.)

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Herndon, Va. 20171: I'm sure the response will be an adamant NO but I'll ask anyway.

Think the new Dulles Toll Road authority will permit vehicles on the Access Road when there are accident(s) gridlocking the area? I'm specifically referring last Thursday when traffic was backed up from 495 to the Greenway.

I realize you could not do it regularly -- although I still believe HOV use would not harm the integrity of the road -- but surely the local law enforcement could make appropriate suggestions.

Dr. Gridlock: I think the last time that the airports authority considered opening up the Access Road for broader use, Congress killed the effort. It may have been the last thing that Congress did with great efficiency.

NO, I don't believe you'll see any changes on the Access Road.

Meanwhile, I'm always impressed with the congestion on the Toll Road when I drive out to the Dulles area. I see the morning eastbound lanes backed up almost to the airport.

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Washington, D.C.: Your answer wasn't very clear on Foxhall Rd. Is it now "reopened" for the meantime, even if all the work is not finished?

Dr. Gridlock: Yes, the stretch of Foxhall that had been closed for a few weeks was reopened at the end of October. However, the larger reconstruction project is not scheduled for completion until June.

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Arlington, Va.: Dear Dr. Gridlock, I know that I am a week early at the moment, however I was wondering if you could link to last year's discussion right before Thanksgiving, especially the AAA discussion. I don't seem to be having any luck finding it on the Wash Post's website and it would be nice to get when exactly we are going to brave I-95 set by this weekend. The earlier we can debate and settle this matter in my household, the better! Thank you!

washingtonpost.com: Here you go: Holiday Travel

Dr. Gridlock: Our discussion's producer created a link for you. And you're not the least bit early to be planning the getaway. It's a smart thing to do.

On the Get There blog and in the Dr. Gridlock column, we've had many discussions about holiday routes and timing. General advice: Know about alternatives to your route, but know also that there are no undiscovered shortcuts. Timing your departure for an off-peak travel time is your single most important weapon in staying sane for the holidays.

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RFK to Richmond: RFK's Lot 8 has a direct exit onto the Southeast-Southwest Freeway. For some reason DC United do not publicize this route. I suggest getting to RFK early because there will be a fair number of tailgaters. Going TO the stadium, take the Southeast-Southwest Freeway down towards the Pennsylvania Avenue exit, but stay in the left lane and go through the little tunnel, then up a hill. You then have to pay to park, and you follow the road straight and around a curve. When you get to the next stop sign, go to the left into the paved parking area and snag a space as close to that stop sign as possible to expedite the process of leaving. Then, when you leave, you just go down the same road and straight out onto the highway, and if you just keep straight ahead it takes you directly to Richmond.

I cannot overemphasize the importance of getting there early and parking near the RFK Access Road if you have to leave quickly after the game. For the game against LA (the "Beckham Game") we got there about an hour before gametime due to work, and we got stuck in Lot 7 (north of the stadium) and it took over an hour to get out of the parking lots.

Dr. Gridlock: Thanks for that advice to our reader asking about the getaway from next Sunday's game.

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Re: RFK Parking: For the MLS Cup attendee: If you park in Lot 8, you have two different exits. One exit puts you on to I-295 heading into D.C., merging with I-395. From there you'll drive past the Jefferson Memorial and over the Potomac into Crystal City. Keep going south and you'll reach I-95 going straight to Richmond.

The other exit takes you over the East Capitol Street bridge. Once you cross the bridge, look for the 295 south signs, and you'll end up at the Beltway south of D.C. where you can cross the Wilson Bridge into Alexandria and then I-95 to Richmond.

I'm not sure which way is faster, but neither exit should take too long - maybe 30 to 45 minutes from the stadium to the I-95/Beltway intersection in Springfield.

Dr. Gridlock: There are more helpful comments from readers about several earlier questions and I'll try to get them all posted.

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Re. MARC: Anyone coming from Columbia should pick it up at Savage or Odenton (parking's free). I lived by the mall and those are the two stations I used.

Also, there's a commuter bus that goes down 29.

Dr. Gridlock: Aside from improving MARC service, I'd also like to see the commuter bus services upgraded. There are several park and ride lots along Route 29 where commuters can board the buses for Washington.

Problem, of course, is that they get stuck in the same traffic as everyone else, even though there are stretches along 29 where the buses can use the shoulders.

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Ohio: For the person coming to Ohio for T-giving.

Route 68 is not crowded (in comparison to 70 and 270) most of the time. Early in the a.m. (i.e. before 9:30-10 a.m.) I have encountered heavy fog for many, many miles in those mountains as well as snow at the top in Garrett Co. Maryland. Please have a heads-up on that. Those are the routes I travel when visiting family in NOVA.

Dr. Gridlock: That's a very smart caution on the weather if you're route takes you into the mountains to the west or north in Pennsylvania (a popular way of avoiding I-95.) Some of the routes that work well in the summer become extremely difficult in fog and ice.

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Regarding that crashed Bus: Channel Five reported that it was due to the driver having a seizure. (Apparently one of their meteorologists was hit by the out-of-control bus)

Dr. Gridlock: I think the part about the meteorologist is correct, but I'm not sure about the seizure. I don't believe that investigators have come to a conclusion about the cause of the accident.

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Anonymous: The letter in your blog today was interesting. I do like his/her idea of other cities maybe having some solutions but I also believe that some things just don't translate to this area (unfortunately). But I would like to say that you don't have to come from another city to see where we need help. And NO Dr. G it's not the dreaded Lexis lanes.

- use your turn signals to merge or turn

- STOP at the stop sign

- slower traffic keep right

- turn on headlight during inclement weather

- LOOK be for you leap

- share the road

- And lastly (the only good thing Chris Dodd ever said) driving is a privilege not a right.

If we can get M/D/VDOT to run a "remember the basics" campaign and teach all the rookies/out-of-towners/foreign-born how to navigate our highways it may alleviate some of the congestion. Ignorance makes for a great road block.

Dr. Gridlock: This morning on the Get There blog, I posted a suggestion from a reader that I routinely invite readers to say what they've discovered about transportation improvements in other cities.

I've found that blog and column readers divide into two categories that are pretty even: Those who blame government for our travel problems and those who blame fellow drivers or riders.

I think they're both right.

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Tysons Corner, Va.: Dr. Gridlock:

I love the commuter page on Sundays. Thanks for all the hard work that obviously goes into it.

Here's my question: What's the latest on Dulles Rail? Last we heard, the state gave a scaled-back version of Phase I to the FTA. What has the FTA said? And might it be better if the feds reject it and we go back to square one. Might we get the tunnel if that happens?

Thanks.

Dr. Gridlock: Thank you. The commuter page is fun to do and we hope you find it useful.

Dulles rail: Va. Transportation Secretary Pierce Homer told me recently that Virginia still is waiting to hear back from the Federal Transit Administration about whether the feds are on board for their crucial share of the cost.

The planners made cost cuts this summer based on the federal suggestions and probably would do more if that's what the FTA asks for.

Just about everybody thinks the tunnel plan is a better idea. So do I. But you can see how dicey it is to win federal approval. This project is essential, not only as a people mover across Northern Virginia but also as an opportunity to remake Tysons Corner from a space station into a liveable community.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Do you know when the construction at New Hampshire Ave. and University Blvd. in Maryland is going to be completed? It's causing a lot of problems in the evening rush.

Thanks!

Dr. Gridlock: I'll check with the state highway administration for an update and post it on the Get There blog and the Sunday commuter page. This has been a lengthy and disruptive reconstruction project through an area heavily traveled by cars and crisscrossed dangerously by pedestrians.

I hope the work will make that area safer for everyone, but it's been a long time coming.

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Arlington, Va.: Metro promised a few years ago to run a regular rush hour schedule during holidays such as Veteran's Day (a day that most businesses, other than those under Federal mandate to be closed, are open for business). Trains were clearly not running on a rush hour schedule this morning. I live in Courthouse and the trains running in the direction of New Carrolton were nearly 15 minutes apart. Trains were already crushed with passengers by the time they got to Courthouse, making it impossible to even get on the train. When will Metro begin to consider client service when it makes these absurd decisions to not provide rush hour service for anyone other than Federal employees?

Dr. Gridlock: Metro did experiment last year with regular rush hour service on certain holidays. But the actual ridership on those days did not justify the high cost of operating the expanded service.

This year, Metrorail dropped back to something more like holiday service for those days. Columbus Day was an example of this.

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Silver Spring, Md.: The Red Line has seen a marked deterioration in performance this month. Morning commutes have too frequently become delayed by up to half an hour, even if it was by a sick passenger in one case. The lack of a third line becomes a choke-point, and maintenance seems to be falling behind at a time when Metro has added the equivalent of a small city to its regular traffic.

Dr. Gridlock: It does seem to me that the Red Line has had many difficulties during the past month. That's based on personal experience, plus the letters I've been getting from readers.

Bunch of factors: There's been scheduled maintenance during the day that requires trains to share one track. (The problem you mentioned about the system's lack of three tracks.) Then there were the lengthy repairs necessary after the ultrasound testing revealed cracks in some rails. There were some power problems around Judiciary Square -- that was just last week, wasn't it? And as you say, there is the occasional sick passenger who must be aided.

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Tenleytown: Well, Metro failed again during a big event, yesterday's Redskins game. Coming home on Metro, we got to Metro Center and were slightly dismayed that we had just missed a Red Line train to Shady Grove. No worries, we thought, one will be along shortly. After all, surely Metro planned for this, a game that has been on the schedule for at least nine months now. But no, the next Red Line train didn't arrive for another 25 minutes. No announcement. No explanation. Nothing. Well done, WMATA.

Dr. Gridlock: Yet another Red Line concern.

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Downtown D.C.: What happened to the Red line last week? During rush hour morning and night, trains were packed, full capacity, and don't even get me started on last Friday morning!! We were stuck between Dupont Circle and Woodley Park for about 15 minutes on a packed train.

Dr. Gridlock: I hope some of these complaints about the Red Line will be aired at Metro's fare hearings this week. Riders want to know what they'll be getting in service for the extra money they'll be paying.

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Reston, Va.: When is Metro going to put up some traffic lights at the dangerous crossings between the parking lots and the condominiums at the Metro station in Vienna (North side parking and kiss-and-ride at Virginia Center Blvd.)

Or is Metro going to wait until someone is killed there?

Dr. Gridlock: I don't believe Metro puts up traffic signals, but many people are concerned about safety in that area, so I'll see what I can learn.

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Sterling, Va.: The exit from the inner loop of the Beltway to east-bound Rt 50 (Arlington Blvd.) has had one lane closed for a couple of months, with no apparent work being done. Recently a sign was posted saying the lane would reopen in Summer of 2008. Can you shed some light on what is going on and why it would take so long.

Dr. Gridlock: This is the spot where a backhoe riding atop a flatbed truck whacked the bridge. The bridge is safe, VDOT says, but there's a girder that must be replaced.

Meanwhile, the exterior ramp lane on the bridge has been blocked off so as not to put any more weight on the damaged area. VDOT realized that the warning sign it originally posted -- something like "Work Ahead" -- was misleading, because there was no work ahead. It's working on making that very difficult area as easy to navigate as possible until the repair project gets done.

What's next: VDOT engineers must design the repair project, let out an emergency contract, then get the work done. We're coming into winter, when the opportunities to do some of that work may be limited.

I know VDOT hopes that the repair project won't really last until next summer, but it has announced it that way to be prudent.

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Dr. Gridlock: There still are quite a few questions and comments here in the mailbox -- pretty good for a national holiday -- but I'm afraid I have to break away now.

I'll try to address some of the remaining questions on the blog and in the column -- timing on the Loudoun County Parkway, for example. Next chat will be after Thanksgiving, so I hope everyone has a safe holiday and will be around with me to complain about the traffic on our trips.

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