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Roads and Rails

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Eric Weiss and Lena Sun
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, December 10, 2007; 11:00 AM

Do you think Metro has grown unreliable and become downright unpleasant? Or are you happy with your commutes on rail and bus? Does the thought of the intercounty connector (ICC) keep you up at night or does it seem like it's long overdue? And what of the moves by Maryland and Virginia to encourage the private sector to build road projects, such as widening the Capital Beltway?

Washington Post staff writers Eric Weiss and Lena H. Sun were online Monday, Dec. 10 at 11 a.m. ET to answer your questions, feel your pain and share the drama of getting from Point A to Point B.

A transcript follows.

Discussion Archive

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Arlington, Va.: I have a problem with the way The Post's sister paper, the Express, is distributed at the Ballston Metro. The vendor stacks his papers (at least two stacks, sometimes more) near the top of the escalator and stands beside the piles in such a way as to impede the flow of people moving onto the escalators. This has been going on for several years, so I can't imagine the station manager (if there is such a thing) is unaware of it. I'm all for freedom of the press, and I occasionally even take a copy of the Express, but I don't think riders should have to be inconvenienced in the process. The woman who distributes the Examiner stands away from the escalator and does not impair pedestrian flow. There are enough other frustrations involved in riding Metrorail these days that we don't need to have to navigate an obstacle course before even entering the system. What's a frustrated rider to do?

Eric Weiss: My suggestion: Fish 35 cents out out of your pocket, ignoring the rubber band, lint and old cough-drop wrapper, and put it in one of those handsome Washington Post honor boxes and buy a real newspaper for your ride.

Just a suggestion.

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Eric Weiss: Oh, and Good Morning!!!!!

Let's take a Roads and Rails survey: Where will it be easier to find a parking space, at the combined Bethesda Naval/Walter Reed Hospital or at the new Nationals stadium.

The phones are open and at least Lena is standing by...

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Bethesda, Md.: Wasn't work on Route 7 in Tysons supposed to start this summer regardless if the Silver line was approved or not? I tried to go to a friend's house just off Old Courthouse one evening in November -- from the toll road, it took me 50 minutes to go 1.3 miles -- no accidents or even rain to blame. I didn't see any construction either to blame.

Eric Weiss: I would blame it on bad karma, which often happens on Northern Virginia roads. VDOT said utility relocation for the new Metro extension to Tysons won't start until after the holiday shopping season. Relocation of gas lines is first up.

btw, Lena loves anything in red, and can certainly use a desk organizer...

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Montgomery Village, Md.: Yesterday, not only was Metro running four-car trains, but only some of the trains were running to Shady Grove. I am under the impression that Metro received a grant from the Maryland Department of Transportation last October to run every train to Shady Grove on weekends. This funding was to cover an 18-month trial period. Since 18 months have not passed since the trial period began, how is Metro getting away with not providing this service?

Lena Sun: Hi there. On weekends, you are correct. Every train is supposed to run to Shady Grove. But this weekend, they were doing track maintenance so they were turning every other train back at Medical Center.

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Arlington, Va.: You don't get it. How is purchasing The Post going to solve the problem of a Washington Post/Express employee blocking my access to Metro's escalators? Do I roll it up and swat The Washington Post employee on the head if he gets in the way?

Eric Weiss: I was having a little fun. The free-paper hustlers should in no way be blocking commuters' comings and goings. You could swat me on the head for being cheeky.

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Washington, D.C.: Okay, I know that Metro's seating was originally due to it being a "light rail commuter" line back when it was built (no points to D.C. for thinking long term), but why are the new designs not just getting rid of how the seating is organized? I'm a native New Yorker, and why Metro doesn't just have bench seating like the subway there so more people can stand without having to find out what the other person ate for breakfast is beyond me. Let's get smart people...

Lena Sun: Hi. They are definitely thinking about doing bench seating a la New York, and there is one rail car that has been reconfigured and been running for about 4 months that has some bench seating on either side of the center door. Metro wants to get rider feedback on that design and will be testing a few more configurations before deciding what to do.

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Arlington, Va.: Eric and Lena,

Recently, I was on one of those Metrorail cars with the front and back seats replaced with leaning cushions. Wasn't a fan. It's awkward to lean back onto the cushion and the hanging bars are still not low enough for more people to take advantage of the extra standing space.

When will the people in charge of Metrorail admit that it's a SUBWAY system and fix the hanging bars so that we don't have to be NBA players to reach them and end up crowding around the doors? They keep saying that it's a commuter-rail system, but MARC and VRE are real commuter rail lines.

Lena Sun: Send in your feedback to Metro so they can hear from you! They have put stainless steel grab handles in several cars and are likely to put them in more. So let them know you need them. Sometimes it's hard for all those over 6-feet-tall engineers and rail guys to see it from the shorter person's perspective. Email: csvc@wmata.com

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Washington, D.C.: I'm submitting early because of work; here's a copy of a post I submitted Friday morning to WMATA GM Catoe's Web chat. Of course it wasn't posted; instead of addressing hard questions about the total lack of customer service/satisfaction he just answers soft balls and platitudes. Perhaps you know what happened to service on the Orange line Wednesday and Thursday? I don't like the crowded cars and their obsolete designs but I understand Metro's current management has minimal control over them, what I cannot stand anymore is the absolute lack of concern for the paying customers/taxpayers that ride the trains every day.

This is my notice that as soon as I've worked off the balance in my pre-paid transit I'm going back to my car. I cannot take not knowing when a train will arrive, how long my trip will take or the horrible inefficiency and lackadaisical attitude of the majority of Metro employees I encounter anymore.

I ride from West Falls Church to Foggy Bottom and yesterday and Wednesday were the worst. Wednesday afternoon I get to Foggy Bottom about 5:10 and wait and wait and wait for an Orange train. No announcements can be heard on the platform except for the insipid "see it, say it." The train arrival board indicates trains are seriously delayed. But why? We're in a tunnel miles from above ground snow. When trains finally come they're packed; I let four pass before finally cramming on. It takes over an hour to get to WFC.

Thursday I leave early, a little after 4 p.m., get to Foggy Bottom around 4:20, the board says the next train, No Passengers, in 17 minutes! The next Orange Line train in almost 30 minutes! I'm sure you realize what happens on the Orange line when you go without a train for that long at the height of rush hour. It took an hour to get an outbound Orange line and I only got that because I rode into Metro Center and got on there, then rode back out. I arrived at WFC at 6.

Friday morning there's nothing on Metro's Web site about either delay. Unbelievable!

In the early 1980s I rode the Blue line every day from Pentagon City to McPherson Square and loved the subway. I spent three years in Manhattan and MTA up there on its worse day is nothing like experiencing Metro daily.

Station attendants don't care and never come out of their little boxes unless you're a female looking for assistance and then watching their act is like watching a Dave Chapelle comedy routine. I speak to them as infrequently as possible because all I get are monosyllabic grunts in response to my questions. Then you have groups of self-important workers standing at the ends of the platforms, wearing their day-glow bibs, one carrying a clipboard, talking about the Wizards or Redskins or talking trash to passing women, but don't dare ask them why a train hasn't come by, they don't know nothin'.

WMATA doesn't need more money it needs to be blown up and totally swept clean of the idiotic entrenched union employees, inept middle management, and ticket punching senior executives. It's nothing more than a jobs program for people that are incapable of performing in an organization where customer contact and satisfaction are even remotely related to performance ratings. Carmen Turner is turning in her grave.

I am also sending my elected representatives a letter talking about my experiences and urging them not to give Metro another penny in tax money, nor allow them a fare increase. If they go bankrupt, so what, it just makes it easier to clean up the mess and get people in there that can get the job done.

Lena Sun: Lots of complaints about Orange Line service today. Trying to find out from Metro whether there was anything unusual happening with service last week.

Remember, if you send an email to Metro with complaints about service, it will get logged in and recorded and factor into their decision on where they need to add rail cars. The customer service email is: csvc@wmata.com

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Alexandria, Va.: How good of a chance does the Maryland proposal have? I think it is incredibly unfair that the people who ride buses aren't affected, while we "rich" people in the suburbs (I moved to the burbs because I couldn't afford D.C.!) get slammed. This is incredibly unfair.

Lena Sun: Good question. At least one voting member from Virginia and one voting member from the District needs to support the Maryland proposal. But as you know, once the board approves something for public hearing, it cannot RAISE any numbers, it can only LOWER them.

So they can't put in a larger increase for bus. All they can do is lower the hike for rail and parking, which the Maryland proposal does. So if you want others to suppport it, you might want to call your elected Virginia reps: T. Dana Kauffman of Fairfax County and Chris Zimmerman of Arlington and get your friends in D.C. to call D.C. Council member Jim Graham, Ward 1, and District transportation director Emeka Moneme.

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Arlington, Va.: Who do you contact in Virginia regarding a street light that is poorly timed and impeding the flow of traffic?

Eric Weiss: Shoot Roads/Rails pal Joan Morris a line and she'll forward it to the right person:

Joan.Morris@VDOT.Virginia.gov

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Downtown, D.C.: Good morning.

I'm a longtime lurker with a quick question. I often hear people complain that Metro rail car's design force short people to stand near the door because of the poles, and they can't reach the ceiling rail. I'm only 5 foot 3, and I move to the center of the car and hold on the the rail on the back of the seats. What's up with the reasoning that short people are being left out rail car design configuration?? I've never once had a problem.

Lena Sun: Dear Downtown: You must have good karma or something. Lots of others are not as fortunate because when they get on, the cars are crowded and they can't squeeze their way down the aisles to hold on.

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Germantown, Md.: Has Metro provided a figure of how much money is being saved by using 4-car trains on weekends? Two weekends in a row have been terrible, especially with delays making trains on the Red line about 20 minutes apart, adding to the crowds. I saw two separate elderly riders fall, just trying to get up and out of the train. And people were being polite and trying to help and make room, not block the doors, etc. I came in from Shady Grove and it was already standing room at that point. I was just wondering what we saved by our suffering?

Lena Sun: Hi Germantown. Metro officials say they estimate savings of about $1 million. But I understand there have many problems associated with crowding on the weekends. Could you email me directly with the specific details of what you witnessed regarding those falls? My email is SUNL@washpost.com. Thanks.

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Kennebunkport, Maine:1. Combating climate change will require massive changes in the way we get around. Take the train, bus or metro. Get out of your cars. If you are traveling less than 500 miles, don't fly.

2. If you are driving, you should try to travels at speed between 50-55 mph. I done the experiments myself and these speeds will give you maximum mpg. The differences are not trivial.

3. Would someone fix the North-South Station gap in AMTRAK service so that I travel to points south of Boston without getting off the train, and hailing a cab to go a mere 1 mile.

Eric Weiss: Gotta agree that city-to-city rail service is a national scandal. Overpriced, undersubsidized and poorly managed. And the Northeast Corridor is the best of the bunch.

I'm not familiar with the situation in Boston, but it sounds like typical Amtrak customer service.

P.S. I recently had an overpriced/underwhelming lobster in Kennebunkport...

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Washington, D.C.: If I'm going somewhere new, I use Metro's Rideguide to determine how to get there (I do not own a car). It's a great idea and usually good in execution (though why given the unreliability of the bus system it won't list all buses from the submitted address that will get you there -- e.g., Buses H2, L2 also go to your destination -- is beyond me). But my big frustration is that at so many bus stops, there is no indication of which destination buses are going to. So how do I know which side of the street is, say, the 52 bus headed toward Takoma Park and which side is the 52 going to L'Enfant. I can try to discern this ahead of time from the bus route, but that's not always easy. And if I'm unfamiliar with the area it's even more difficult. This also reminds me that many bus stops don't have route maps or schedule timetables (even when there is plenty of room to put them up). I've actually found myself having to run back and forth across the road to check with other bus drivers. I think on the bus stop signs Metro needs to add the destination.

Lena Sun: You make an excellent point and that seems like something relatively simple that Metro should be able to fix. But I think I have a person you can email. Pls email me directly and I will give it to you.

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Bethesda, Md.: I commute on the Jones Bridge Road every morning, and starting this week there has been a huge backup in the right lane at the entry to the Naval Hospital. This never used to happen.

Eric Weiss: Trying to get an answer for you. State Highway officials say Jones Road is a Montgomery road, and I've been playing phone tag with MoCo folks, so I hope to have an answer for you before the end of the chat.

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send an e-mail to Metro with complaints about service: The person who complained about the Orange line last week is going to be skeptical probably (and I empathize with everything he/she said) but complaining to Metro gets results! I sent an e-mail on their Web site and was contacted less than a week later with three followups. I was very impressed and it seemed like they were rectifying the problem, which in this case was an incredibly rude to hostile station "manager." So going through the process does work, at least in my experience.

Lena Sun: I know people have had varying results getting results. But one thing for sure, if you send in a complaint, it will get recorded, and they regularly how many complaints are getting logged, what departments (rail versus bus), and what kinds of issues (service v. cleanliness, etc.). So please let them know.

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Silver Spring, Md.: The test cars with the benches and single ceiling rail have much less grab-on space than now. Two ceiling rails are going to be needed at a minimum.

Lena Sun: Yes, I noticed that as well when they showed us that car. did you like the bench seating?

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When will the people in charge of Metrorail admit that it's a SUBWAY system and fix the hanging bars so that we don't have to be NBA players to reach them and end up crowding around the doors? : Exactly. The bars are too high on the bus as well. I'm not only short, but I've got a problem with my shoulder. Keeping my arm outstretched to hold onto the bar that's too high is putting me in constant pain. Now I'm pregnant and can only imagine how fun the ride will be once I get bigger, trying to balance and hold the too high bar all at the same time.

If you think people are going to let a pregnant lady sit, think again. On my bus commute it's a regular occurence to see old people with canes stand, while young twenty somethings remain in the special needs seating up front.

Lena Sun: Please take a moment and send an email to csvc@wmata.com and put "grab handles for short riders" in your message line.

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Georgetown, D.C.:

I know you haven't answered this question before -- but I noticed that folks have been coming onto the Key Bridge from GW Parkway southbound between 7-9 a.m. From the signs up on GW Parkway, this should be closed. That restriction was upheld during TR Bridge work, but it seems that it was never put back into place.

What's the deal with that? Are they ever going to re-restrict that traffic? It has started backing up the right lane of Key Bridge early in the morning when that traffic pattern should be fairly seamless...

Thanks.

Eric Weiss: The National Park Service has decided not to re-institute the daily morning closure onto the Key Bridge from the GW Parkway southbound.

NPS spokesman Bill Line said it was a reaction to the general (worsening) traffic situation in the region and that keeping it closed would just further clog up the Teddy Roosevelt Bridge.

The Park Service apologizes for your personal inconvenience, but this was a made as part of a regional traffic decision.

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Arlington, Va. (original Express kvetcher): I see that I'm not the only Arlingtonian with this problem.

C'mon Eric. I read The Post, NYT and WSJ nearly every day. What I was asking is, is my beef with Express or with Metro, and how would you recommend solving the problem? I could just kick the papers over and elbow the guy out of my way, telling him Eric Weiss said it was okay, and if he doesn't like it, he can complaint to Len Downie. (Just having a little fun...Next time I'm writing to Lena!)

Lena Sun: Actually, I have heard this complaint a lot, and Metro is angry that so many riders take the free papers and then leave them all over the train and platforms. And then strong winds blow them onto the tracks, raising the potential for track fires. So I just put a call in to someone at our sister paper to find out where complaints should be directed. (I hope I still have my job tomorrow.)

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Eric Weiss: Update on Jones Bridge mystery tie-up. Neither the state nor the county is conducting any road work currently. It could be an anamoly or some utility work that is slowing your commute.

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Adams Morgan, Washington, D.C.: Let's talk about the bus for second -- I take the 42 everyday, and I need the one that goes all the way to Metro Center. They are supposed to run every other bus to Metro Center, and every other bus to Farragut Square. Lately, it's been more like every 5th bus to Metro Center, with four Farragut buses in between.

I don't mind waiting for one bus, but waiting for five is just ridiculous. My 20-minute commute is sometimes over an hour.

I've tried e-mailing Metro, but my e-mails go unanswered, or I get a crazy response like "thanks for your suggestion that we have more signs in Spanish." Any other suggestions?

Lena Sun: Send me an email directly and I will get you a telephone number or specific email of someone in charge of this route. SUNL@washpost.com

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7th and Penn NW: With the sentencing last week of the Metro Bus driver that hit and killed two pedestrians at the intersection of 7th St and Penn Ave NW, I got to thinking. In 2004 I witnessed another pedestrian get hit by a Metro Bus at that same intersection. The bus was coming north on 7th St. and making a left onto Penn. It didn't make news because she survived.

Can't WMATA and the D.C. government do anything to improve that intersection for pedestrians and bus drivers? i.e. better lighting, changes in the traffic lights, etc.

Three people getting hit at an intersection means that something should be done about it.

Lena Sun: Last I checked, DDOT was supposed to be considering some improvements to that intersection. In general, there is a lot of effort underway in the entire region to improve pedestrian safety.

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Arcola, Va.: Eric,

What was with that mess on Rt. 50 in Chantilly on Saturday? It was almost virtual gridlock when you got closer to Chantilly.

I thought VDOT had all of those lights timed correctly.

Eric Weiss: Every holiday for the past decade, VDOT retimes its traffic lights to favor shopping centers from the day after Thanksgiving to New Years. That was probably what you were experiencing.

It's a balancing act.

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Chantilly, Va.: Eric,

What did VDOT do to the lights between Pleasant Valley and Centreville Road in Chantilly ?

On Saturday it took me 15 minutes to go from Pleasant Valley past Centreville Road, eastbound.

I could see the light turn green, but only a few cars got through. I don't think the lights were working in any sort of synchronized pattern.

Was this just a goof?

Eric Weiss: see above answer about the holiday re-timing of traffic lights to aid shoppers during the merry season.

Aren't you merry yet?

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Herndon, Va.: Why is it that expensive road-and-rail transportation projects are treated so differently?

Rail to Dulles: $5.1 Billion and climbing, serving less than 50,000 people a day, minimal traffic relief in the corridor. Subsidized by the taxpayer, sucking up scarce transportation dollars in perpetuity ($50 Million a year? Maybe more, no one can say).

ICC: $1.7 Billion, about 80,000 cars a day, minimal relief to the Beltway, paid for by a high toll.

I'm not for paving over the whole area, but when 90 percent of the people in the area drive to work, shouldn't the real cost/benefits of projects be analyzed?

Eric Weiss: Herndon:

You are getting into a philosophical area that is above our pay grade. If you look at cities that are trying to pave their way out of congestion it has been a failure, and if you look at cities that are

Eric Weiss: spending billions on transit, it can be an expensive road too.

Can you honestly argue that Atlanta, Houston, Phoenix and Los Angeles has gotten it right?

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Washington, D.C.: What is Metro doing to address the violent crimes that seem to be on the rise on the Metro? I'm talking in particular about the man who was attacked over the weekend, and the woman who was attacked a few weeks ago. Why have none of these perpetrators been apprehended? Doesn't Metro have security cameras at every station so pictures of the perpetrators exiting the stations can be broadcast on local media? And why didn't metro give the poor guy who was attacked over the weekend a ride home? I found it particularly outrageous that they simply dropped him off at another Metro station after he reported the crime.

Lena Sun: I checked with Metro and here is the response from Candace Smith in Media Relations:

The local TV station, WTTG Fox 5, that reported the story about the man who was attacked this weekend did not get the complete story before its report was broadcast.

Metro Transit Police responded to the scene immediately and spoke to the victim and took an official report. Officers said the victim never told them that the assailants had used anti-gay language during the assault. Indeed, he had been injured during the incident, however the man refused medical aid and signed a waiver that he refused to receive any medical attention. Officers indeed did volunteer to drive the man home, however he said he only wanted the officers to drop him off at the Eastern Market Metrorail station, which they did.

Metro does have cameras in its stations, and Metro Transit Police have publicly released video of suspects when investigators believed it would help them catch criminals.

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Autobahn: I saw a National Geographic report about the autobahn in Germany which said the asphault thickness of the autobahn was 27 inches. That seems like you could land a B-52 on it. Any idea what the interstate and local state guidelines are? They said it helps prevent potholes (in addition to a good drainage system).

Eric Weiss: I have thick books on my desk about asphalt density and how the Europeans do it better.

The bottom line is that it is more expensive and, last time I checked, the United States is slightly larger than Bavaria.

And we all know that only Europeans like paying taxes for things such as fancy asphalt...

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Silver Spring, Md.:"Let's take a Roads and Rails survey: Where will it be easier to find a parking space, at the combined Bethesda Naval/Walter Reed Hospital or at the new Nationals stadium."

Easy -- Camden Yards, hon!

Eric Weiss: Ha!

But who wants to see those loser birds?

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Union Station, D.C.: For a bit of a change, is there any way we can require everyone in the area to take a remedial driving course and to spend a day having to dispatch plows and salt trucks? I hear everyone complaining about roads being slick last week, but if everyone would drive at a reasonable speed instead of surging forward and trying to slam to a stop, we wouldn't have the kinds of accidents that closed two out of the three roads that I can take out from my apartment complex to get to the Metro station. And if they think it's so easy to predict the weather and send out trucks full of salt, I'd like them to try it.

Metro itself was doing fine that morning. The Green line almost always seems to be okay going in. It's going out where I always run into a problem it seems. Ten minutes between trains at rush hour is not acceptable under any conditions short of a track being shut down. Not a reason to stop riding per say, but still unacceptable.

Lena Sun: I wish there was some way to do that..Maybe one day they'll make cars that automatically reduce speed when tires sense that roads are slick.

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Arlington, Va.: Another story in The Post today with questions about transportation and parking for the new baseball park. A key to making things work is getting more fans to ride Metro. But there are worries about congestion on the Green Line, at the Navy Yard station, and at transfer stations L'Enfant and Gallery Place. I, like many Blue and Orange Line riders from Virginia and Maryland, would be happy to walk from the Capital South station and avoid the Green Line. However, what are D.C. and the Nats doing to make the walk from Capital South accessible and pleasant?

Eric Weiss: True, the Green line is not as convenient to Virginia and Maryland fans as the Blue and Orange lines at RFK. And, true, the walk from Capitol South is none too pretty. But the team and the city is determined to make those and other options more fan-friendly before Opening Day.

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Newspapers: I think the first poster was trying to make the point that the Express distributor impedes forward progress at her Metro station and was wondering what to do about it. Nice little advertisement there, Mr. Weiss, but your response had nothing to do with the actual complaint.

Eric Weiss: Hawkers shouldn't block commuters trying to get on trains or escalators.

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Lena Sun: Okay folks. That's it for today. Sorry we didn't get to all the questions. Stay tuned for what happens later this week with the proposed fare increases on the rail and parking fees.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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