Dr. Gridlock

Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, December 3, 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, Dec. 3 at 1 p.m. ET to address all your traffic and transit issues.

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

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

A transcript follows.


Dr. Gridlock: Hello, travelers. Last time we talked was before Thanksgiving when many of you were planning escapes from Washington. Hope your trips were relatively pleasant.

Meanwhile, I see the mailbag here is full of issues, old and new.


Van Ness, Washington, D.C.: I'm not sure if the National Park Service is aware that Rock Creek Park is in the middle of a metropolitan area, and Beach Drive and the parkway are heavily traveled. At least, they seem to ignore traffic concerns. This morning, again, Beach Drive was blacked off at Porter. Anyone coming down that way had absolutely no warning, but had to get off Beach Drive and go up Porter to Connecticut, which of course was mightily crowded because of all the park traffic. Why can't the Park Service put some warning notices at the main entrances to the park, like at Connecticut and Tilden. That way, people don't have to drive all the way down there, and then drive all the way back. They just don't seem to think of drivers -- just shutting down the road.

Dr. Gridlock: I think you are absolutely correct in saying the park service needs to do a better job of alerting drivers to the very latest issues on Rock Creek Parkway and Beach Drive.

The Rock Creek Parkway reconstruction is a constant source of complaints among my readers. Part of that is about the work itself, but a significant number of people say they just don't know what to expect as they drive along the parkway.


MARC Train Delays: Hi Dr. Gridlock,

I take the MARC train from Laurel to D.C. (Camden Line). On Friday morning, at 7:40, the MARC Web site said no delays, and nothing was listed at the station when I got there for the 7:56 train (#849). At 7:56, they announced that the train would be delayed for 20 minutes because of a freight train. After 20 min, they added another 10 min to the delay, so I was standing in the cold for 30 min. I overheard someone saying that the same thing happened a week before, too.

Here's what I don't understand: I assume the freight train didn't magically materialize on the tracks at 7:56. So why couldn't they have told us earlier, both on the Web site and at the station, that there would be a delay? Thanks.

Dr. Gridlock: The only thing I know about that particular situation on Friday is from the MTA e-mail alert that arrived in my mailbox at 8:41 a.m. Friday: "Camden Train 849 (Wash ARR 8:28) is operating 30 minutes late due to freight congestion."

I have the greatest sympathy for riders on the MARC lines, who are at the mercy of fickle freight schedules. This has also been true for their compatriots who ride the Virginia Railway Express.

Improving service on our suburban rail lines should be one of the region's top transportation priorities. Maryland does have a plan to improve service over the next two decades, and that's fine, but where's the money?

This fall, the MTA did upgrade its e-mail alert system and generally, it seems to me that the rider alerts are more timely. But the alerts also are a sad inventory of problems with freight train congestion and equipment problems.


Washington, D.C.: What do you predict will happen with the latest Hybrid HOV exemption that is set to expire in July 2008? I know that hybrids registered pre-2006 are still fully exempt, but that post-2006 are exempt only on I-66.

Are the politicians actually going to get rid of this -- and if so, will already registered hybrids remain exempt?

Dr. Gridlock: Based on what I saw the past couple of years, I predict the Virginia General Assembly will again extend the hybrid exemption in Virginia's carpool lanes.

The biggest issue, as you suggest, was on I-95/395, where the HOV-3 carpool lanes are very successful and hybrids were contributing to congestion. I don't believe in extending this. The carpool lanes should be for carpoolers.

But here's what's eventually going to happen: Virginia is going to turn those I-95-395 HOV lanes into HOT lanes, still free to cars with three or more people aboard but other drivers will pay a toll. There will be no hybrid exemption in the HOT lanes.


Good samaritan column: It used to appear on Thanksgiving, I think. Tales of people helping others on the road. Did I miss it? If so, can you post a link?

If it hasn't run yet, how about Christmas? I'm sure people would be happy to send in their positive experiences. Thanks.

Dr. Gridlock: Please do send your positive experiences to me at drgridlock@washpost.com. What I did last year was set aside a few letters to run around Christmas time. But I must tell you that I've got very little of this kind of mail recently. Maybe it's just a fluke. I hope it doesn't mean that the positive experiences on our roads and rails are in decline.


Takoma Park, Md.: Rail or bus depends on the number of riders: a 6-car Metro train holds over 1,000 peple while a bus holds 100. I think the ridership demands rail but do we have estimates yet? Build it as rail, and put it underground where needed. I mean, we're spending more than $3 billion on the ICC and the Purple Line, even underground, is about $1 billion. Then we can focus development around the stations like Metro -- the inner suburbs are ready for a renewal and we should do it right.

Dr. Gridlock: Takoma Park is responding to my Get There blog entry this morning, in which I highlighted the open houses that the Maryland Transit Administration is sponsoring this week to discuss its latest findings and estimates regarding the Purple Line transit project, which would provide either a rapid bus system or a light rail linking Bethesda, Silver Spring and New Carrollton.

I favor light rail over bus. A heavy rail system, like Metrorail, was ruled out long ago. I don't believe the light rail cars will have a passenger capacity approaching that of Metro cars.

I like your point about renewal in the inner suburbs. New transit lines can be great contributors to that.


washingtonpost.com: Purple Line Planning Tonight ( Get There, Dec. 3)


I hope it doesn't mean that the positive experiences on our roads and rails are in decline. : Have you ridden Metro lately? I think it may unfortunately be true, in large part thanks to Metro's lackluster rail performance, terrible customer service with an upcoming fare hike to slap us in the face.

Dr. Gridlock: Just got off a Red Line train. My Dr. Gridlock column on Sunday included a letter from a woman who had an experience that was all too common: A fire on the Orange Line tracks the day before Thanksgiving forced some trains to share a single track around the problem, while others were turned around to serve stations in the opposite direction.

Very disruptive and confusing for passengers. My letter writer had trouble getting helpful information from the station manager. That's way too typical of what I see in the mailbag.

Meanwhile, the Metro board is scheduled to vote on the fare and fee increases on Dec. 13.


washingtonpost.com: Memo to Metro: Sharing Can Be A Very Good Thing ( Post, Dec. 2)


Arlington, Va.: So, now "leaves and dew" are enough to slow down the Metro? Is this not a great example of how fragile the system has become?

Dr. Gridlock: Hi, Arlington. You're talking about the slowdown Metrorail ordered last Friday, right? I can see why you'd be connecting those dots, given the problems this fall with mechanical breakdowns and smoke or fire on the tracks.

But in the case of the Friday slowdown, I think Metro was doing the right thing in ordering a slowdown because the combination of morning dew and falling leaves was making the tracks slick.

That was a safety issue. The Friday event was unusual in that the slowdown order was so widespread, but the problem does come up every fall along above ground portions of the transit system. Metro's response indicated proper caution rather than the fragility of the system.


Alexandria, Va.: Hello, how do I contact VDOT? On Saturday afternoon I saw them changing the timing of the lights at the intersection of Rte 1 and Huntington Rd. The intersection is just south of entrance to the Beltway. They made it sooo much worse. Yesterday it took me four light changes to cross and that was on a Sunday! The light only stayed green for 12 seconds. Only four cars would get through. This morning the intersection was a total mess.

Dr. Gridlock: I can ask VDOT about that one specifically. But some of you may also find this useful: VDOT has an online form for alerting the transportation department to all sorts of road problems. The link is http://www.virginiadot.org/travel/citizen.asp

I've talked to some of the VDOT people involved in setting the timing of the lights controlled by the state in Northern Virginia. They seem very experienced and dedicated to their jobs. I don't believe they're toying with us when they time the lights.

Sometimes, the lights are incorrectly timed. In other cases, the managers are trying to solve a problem in some other lanes or other intersections that are even more congested than the one at which you find yourself. (But I don't know what the case is at Route 1 and Huntington Road, so I'll ask.)


Re Takoma: There's no way that a 6-car train holds 1000 people. That's 167 people per car. The cars only seat 68 people. There's no way that 100 can stand in each car. Best estimate is 100 people per car with a capactity of 600 in a 6-car train.

Dr. Gridlock: Metrorail cars are designed to load about 200 people, sitting and standing.

That's not my ideal ride. Metro is getting more cars, but decided two weeks ago to increase the number of four-car trains on winter weekends while reducing the number of six-car trains to save money.


Washington, D.C.: RE: Four-car trains. Hi, Doc. While I don't like Metro's decision to run 4-car trains on all lines throughout the weekend, I can at least see a rational basis for it. But why on earth are they running 4-car trains during rush hour?! This morning the Orange Line train that arrived at L'Enfant Plaza around 9:20 headed for Vienna was just four cars and packed to the gills.

Doesn't rush hour last until 9:30? The fares certainly do!

Dr. Gridlock: Riding a four-car train at rush hour is a memorable experience, to say the least. Metro is adding more cars, with the goal of eventually eliminating four car trains and creating more eight-car trains during the rush periods.


College Park, Md.: Before the state and feds dump a load of money into the Purple Line, I wonder why they don't experiment first with improving bus lines that already exist. I often take the J1 or the J4 and they work quite well, they just don't run often enough. I'm tired of the state saying people just don't like buses. That is not a good reason -- especially since they have no idea whether people will "like" a light rail either. As far as I can tell the people behind the light rail are they same people who want to develop the area around the proposed stops. The light rail will give them the opportunity to increase density. Improved bus service would handle the transportation problem but not serve the developers interests.

Dr. Gridlock: I do understand that skepticism about spending a billion for a new form of transit when so many people are dissatisfied with what we've got now.

But please consider it from this angle. Those J buses, which I ride between Bethesda and Silver Spring, get stuck in the same traffic as everyone else. That's a constant source of complaints about many Metro and local bus routes, particularly during the rush periods.

Most versions of the Purple Line plan have the distinct advantage of offering us a dedicated route for the trains or buses. That would create a much more reliable form of service than we can get from our regular bus routes.


Silver Spring, Md.: The 4-car trains Metro ran this weekend on the Red Line were pretty packed, even at typically slower times of day. Is this just because of the single tracking at Takoma, or is it something I should look forward to until the trains get longer again in the spring?

Dr. Gridlock: You'll probably see the weekend trains like that until the flowers bloom and the tourists return. On winter weekends, you'll confront a combination of slower service because of single tracking around maintenance projects and four-car trains. (Metro does maintenance on portions of the lines every weekend.)


Silver Spring, Md.: Hi, just curious, when are the buses going to move to their new location in downtown Silver Spring? I thought it was supposed to happen this summer? Also, do you have any idea what the space where the buses currently are will be used as, parking maybe? Thanks!

Dr. Gridlock: Yes, the bus stops were supposed to be moved from the Silver Spring Metro station out into the surrounding streets this summer so that construction could begin on the new transit center.

You probably saw the set-up work for that along Colesville Road, Wayne Avenue and other streets nearby.

But the project is behind schedule and the buses won't be moved until the spring. (For MARC riders, that meant the ticket office stayed where it was, and you're still using the same entrance and exit to your platform.)

The space where the bus shelters are located now is going to become the new transit center. You won't be parking there. During construction, the Kiss & Ride spaces will be moved into one of the surrounding Montgomery County garages.


Ashburn, Va.: Dr. G, have you been out here lately? Loudoun County Parkway where it turns into Ryan Rd., beyond the Greenway has been torn up for months now and I don't see any info on VDOT's or Loudoun Co.'s Webs ite explaining what they're up to. Could they finally be prepping for the completion of the parkway up from Rt 50 in South Riding?

Dr. Gridlock: My apologies to several of you who have been asking about the Loudoun County Parkway situation. Thanks for the reminder that I'm supposed to get the answer on what's happening with that.


Arlington, Va.: Is it me, or is commuting in this area getting more and more intolerable across the boards?

I'm one of the rare lucky ones who can alternate between driving and Metro-ing to work each day, and at first I used to Metro because it was the more cost-effective option (company paid for my Metro ride, and I saved boatloads of gas and car repair money). But after a year of dealing with Red Line breakdowns, delayed trains, rude passengers, super-crowded rail cars, and people who insist on standing to the left on the escalators, I decided to move back to the roads. But let's be honest: the roads aren't much better, what with people who insist on driving 75 mph along roads like GW Parkway, where the posted speed limit is 45.

Dr. Gridlock: Commuting by road or rail in this congested region can wear down anyone. For the past couple of months, Metro's Red Line -- the most heavily used -- has been particularly problematic.

But that doesn't mean there's joy on the roads. I think I've told you all this before: About half of my mail is complaints about Metro and about half is complaints about driving conditions. Looking at it another way, about half my letter writers complain about something government has done or failed to do, and about half complain about something that fellow commuter do or fail to do.


Alexandria, Va.: When HOT goes into effect, will that be only for rush hour? Will we still be able to ride the HOV lanes on I-395-95 in the off hours, like now?

Dr. Gridlock: It will be different. The HOT lanes will be HOT all the time. Virginia is entering into an agreement with a private company that will build and operate the lanes. The company wants money back for its investors. There won't be any off hours.


decided two weeks ago to increase the number of four-car trains on winter weekends while reducing the number of six-car trains to save money. : Is this decision reversable? Where can I complain -- and no, not to the normal call line, I don't have time to wait an hour to speak to a recording. This weekend was an absolute disaster.

Dr. Gridlock: Use this link to identify and contact the Metro board member who represents your area:


Also, folks, if this weekend situation bothers you, write to me at drgridlock@washpost.com and tell me about your experience.


Washington, D.C.: I won't bother with another complaint about the curious reconstruction of Rock Creek Parkway. But I do have this:

Why, after all the various reconstruction, is there no direct connection from the Potomac River Freeway (the I-66/E Street/etc. connector) to Rock Creek Parkway in either direction? The bizarre criss-cross/fishhook traffic pattern onto/off Virginia avenue is always a mess, and the timing of lights doesn't help matters.

Dr. Gridlock: I've stood there at junction of Virginia Avenue and the parkway watching what a mess that is during rush hour. The Potomac River Freeway, like the Whitehurst, is a fragment of a very old plan to create a network of highways through the District of Columbia.

Some people today argue that we're seeing the disasterous results of the failure to complete that highway network. But the District did avoid many of the neighborhood-busting highway projects that destroyed communities in places like New York.


Germantown, Md/: I'm new to your discussion, so maybe this has been mentioned before. Have the "rules" changed in regards to "Right Turn on Red"? When I learned to drive, it meant you could turn right on a red light, ONLY after a Complete Stop AND it was Safe. Plus it is Optional to turn. So many people these days, even the police, turn right on Red just like it is a green light, never stopping and some not even slowing down. People hate it when I stop first. Thanks.

Dr. Gridlock: Rules are the same in all our jurisdictions, and over the past few years, I've noticed that the jurisdictions are paying more attention to pedestrian safety. That includes programs like Street Smart that not only try to educate drivers but also use enforcement blitzes.


Cleveland Park, D.C.: Why do some of the metro stations smell like burnt rubber (or something to that effect)? It is a constant, it seems, at Gallery Place. Sometimes Dupont as well.

Dr. Gridlock: This might still be the problem Metro was having with the brake pads on some rail cars. They're safe, but were creating a bad odor that requires their replacement. Riders had different descriptions of that smell, but many thought it stemmed from dead rats in the tunnels.


South of the Beltway: I plan on taking Thursday, Dec. 6 off from work because of the horrendous traffic jams created by lighting the national Christmas tree at 5:00 on a weekday. What brain surgeon thought of that? Every year it takes close to 2 hours to go ten blocks. Is there some reason this can't be scheduled for a weekend?

Dr. Gridlock: I know lots of commuters complain about this: The annual lighting of the National Christmas Tree is scheduled for 5 p.m. Thursday on the Ellipse, south of the White House.

The streets nearby are blocked to traffic for much of the afternoon, and the result is heavy congestion downtown.


Reston, Va.: Probably too late to get to this, but here goes...

Do you know if there are any plans to offer any kid of mass transit to CIA headquarters? I am wondering if there are plans to put in a shuttle from the new Tyson's Metro or something like that. Traffic to that area is terrible and there is currently no mass transit that services it (and living nearby isn't an option since the homes over there are all over $2m).

Dr. Gridlock: I haven't heard of anything connected with the Tysons project that would include any transit link to CIA.


Washington, D.C.: More on Virginia Ave./Rock Creek.

Certainly one could argue for hours about whether the city would be worse off if I-395 kept going out New York Ave., but there are no neighborhoods to bust at the Rock Creek/Virginia Ave. interchange. Just a bunch of open space and highway viaducts cutting across it. I can't see anything that would be in the way. It's not like there's a national forest there. Just dirt with weedy grass.

Dr. Gridlock: One thing I picked up in talking to highway planners across the region is that interchange projects take up an amazing amount of land and are very expensive.

Plans to ease traffic congestion at the junction of Route 29 and I-66 in Gainesville are an example of that.


Union Station, D.C.: Just as a counter weight, I had a wonderful ride on Metro today, like I do most days. I caught my train after about 3 minutes on the platform at College Park and got to Ft. Totten right as my train to Union Station showed up, so it was bang bang straight in.

The evening can be a little different though. I'm curious as to why they can maintain and even 6 minutes between trains in the morning but it scales back to 8-10 in the evening northbound on the Green Line.

And for the person wondering about capcity of the cars, we could get a lot more people onto the trains if everyone sat upright, didn't use a seat as a bag holder where there are people standing and didn't bring the entire contents of their houses stuffed into their bags. The cars have plenty of room, or would if we weren't so selfish.

Dr. Gridlock: Thanks for your balanced comments. One thing I noticed is that your posting targets both Metro and fellow passengers, reflecting the range of many readers' comments.


Takoma Park, Md. (not the same one): What kinds of metrics do they use to figure out how many different trains to buy for a light-rail system? I am wondering whether if the Purple Line is light rail, it will be packed like sardines at all hours of the day because they didn't get enough cars.

My sense from living in the area is that it would get a ton of riders, including people who have cars but prefer to avoid traffic. But apparently they are mostly just polling people who don't have cars. So there might be a lot more riders than expected.

Dr. Gridlock: I'll report back to you all on the Get There blog and in Dr. Gridlock about what I learn from the MTA's sessions on the Purple Line.

Calculating the ridership for this project is tricky. I believe the standard is to expect most riders will live within a quarter mile of the stations and walk to them.

The MTA needs to show the federal government that the line would be heavily used, or else the feds won't kick in a portion of the construction cost.

But the more stations the MTA adds to the line, the slower the travel times will be, and that will hurt ridership.


Arlington, Va.: Re: Purple Line (and Silver Line).

Do you know whether WMATA has sufficiently studied the potential impact of the additional lines on the already-crowded downtown stations?

Dr. Gridlock: I know Metro has studied the impact of the Dulles line on the existing system. It's definitely an issue. Example: How many trains can be squeezed through the Rosslyn tunnel? Metro may need to divert Blue Line trains onto the Yellow Line bridge across the Potomac, so they go from Virginia to L'Enfant Plaza and avoid the Rosslyn tunnel.

The Purple Line is a Maryland Transit Administration project, not a Metro project.


Washington, D.C.: Re: transit to CIA -- as a long-time commuter on highway 123, I can say for certain that there are several commuter buses that turn off 123 into CIA headquarters.

Dr. Gridlock: Thank you for that response to previous question about transit links to CIA HQ.


Baltimore, M.D.: I'm curious as to why you favor light rail. I'm originally from Boston where the T's green line operates pretty much as a light rail system. It is noisy and when it breaks there aren't readily available work-arounds.

Here in Baltimore we have a lovely light rail. Except that it is so.incredibly.slow. It waits at all the traffic lights, just like cars.

BRT can be routed and traffic signals can be set to give it priority (although, this can happen for light rail as well). More to the point, it can happen faster since the infrastructure needs is low-level compared to light or heavy rail. Additionally, if one bus breaks down, it is relatively easy to get another out whereas a broken down rail car disrupts the entire line.

Dr. Gridlock: I'm not an opponent of bus rapid transit, and believe that there are plenty of places in our region where it would be a valuable addition.

In the case of the Purple Line, I think rail is preferable. We should be able to do better with our equipment and design than what you saw on the T's century-old Green Line.

Some of the light rail issues in downtown Baltimore's traffic grid won't be issues along much of the Purple Line route. And if necessary, traffic signals can be adjusted for light rail trains just as they can for rapid bus service.


Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C.: If I see another bus (or car) block a crosswalk against the light in Dupont Circle, I'm going to scream. How can we get some traffic enforcment during rush hour on a regular basis a la "don't block the box" downtown?

Dr. Gridlock: Navigating Dupont Circle at rush hour is difficult whether you're on foot, in a car or on a bus. The street pattern puts the traffic signals very close together and the lanes within the circle can be very confusing the first few times through.

How about more traffic control officers to direct traffic and provide for pedestrian safety?


CIA shuttle: That's something that you would have to talk to the agency about. Many federal agencies run shuttles between their offices and Metro stops -- they are contracted and paid for by the agency. Metro most likely would not run a bus to CIA unless there was a public need for it. More than likely there would be a CIA shuttle, but Metro wouldn't run it, the CIA would.

Dr. Gridlock: Certainly there are many big companies, business associations and universities that help out their travelers by providing shuttles. But Metro and the local jurisdictions that operate bus lines will also do studies about providing service if they have indications the demand would be there.


Metro on the weekends: Something needs to give here. Metro either needs to relax on the single tracking/track service on the weekends or go back to 6-car trains, or run the trains more frequently on the weekend. Why not do track service after 8 p.m. or something on the weekdays? It is getting to be intolerable to go out on Friday and Saturday because of the hassle...

Dr. Gridlock: Metro says that there are not enough off hours during the week or on weekends to get all the necessary maintenance and testing done, so that it could reduce the service disruptions. Weekend work, says Metro, has the least impact since ridership is at its lowest.

There's not likely to be any change in that plan.


Baltimore, Md.: Re freight traffic on MARC Camden Line: The poster might want to think about driving a little farther from Laurel and taking the Penn Line from BWI. With the Penn, you have to only worry about conflicts with AMTRAK, not with freight trains. Plus, you get many more trains to choose from.

Dr. Gridlock: Thanks for that advice, and it is possible for some riders to choose between Penn Line and Camden Line stations. Brunswick Line riders, meanwhile, are out of luck on that.


Dr. Gridlock: I've got to sign off now, though I still have many comments in the mailbag, particularly about Metro service and the Purple Line ideas. I'll come back to some of this during the week on the Get There blog. Plus, you've given me ideas for some things to include on upcoming versions of our Sunday commuter page in The Post. Stay safe out there.


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