Dr. Gridlock

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Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, December 17, 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. 17 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: Good afternoon, travelers. Since we last talked, Metro has approved its fare and fee increases and the Commonwealth Transportation Board has approved a return to HOV-3 along that three-mile stretch of the I-395 carpool lanes north of the Springfield interchange. We had one snow storm during the morning rush that annoyed many commuters and weekend weather that turned out to be less threatening than anticipated.

What's on your mind today?

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Arlington, Va.: Re: Design of Metro's new cars. I like some of the configurations, such as the removal of that aisle pole and places for people to park their strollers, wheelchairs and motorized chairs. That said, I agree with some of the posters who are short like me, and who need additional handgrips on seat poles and ceiling rails.

Dr. Gridlock: I like Metro's willingness to experiment with some car designs. There are several types of test cars rolling around the transit system now, so riders can react to them. One type eliminates the carpet. That looks like a very promising test, and I suspect many of you will feel the same way after a month or so of winter.

I'm worried about that car testing the bench seating, though. It's not the bench seating. It's the handrail along the ceiling, with the grips. It doesn't look like it would help shorter people.

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Washington, D.C.: I live in Waldorf, Md., but work in Washington, D.C. For some reason, the commute on my commuter bus and by car has been unusually long and busy on 395, 295, south capital, and 210. The increased traffic has added almost a half hour to my travel time on my way home (I leave at 4:30 p.m.). The morning travel time has remained the same. Does anyone know why traffic has increased dramatically in such a short time span on this route?

Dr. Gridlock: I've heard from some commuters across the region who say that they've found their driving commutes to be longer this fall. They don't know why, and I'm not sure why either, other than that the region becomes more congested each year.

Can any of you shed light on what might be happening along the route between DC and Waldorf?

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Washington, D.C.: When is the Connecticut Ave. bridge that goes over Klingle Valley going to be finished? The D.C. DOT Web site says the estimated completion date was 10/15/07 but that was over two months ago.

Dr. Gridlock: That doesn't sound like the completion date for the overall rehab project on the bridge. DDOT has been going lane by lane, so traffic can keep moving on that important commuter route. I think the overall schedule calls for the project to be completed in about six months.

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Arlington, Va.: Question about red light cameras: will they ticket you if you're stuck in the middle of an intersection (courtesy of stopped traffic) when the light changes, and you can only move once the traffic starts to flow again? That happened to me this weekend at an intersection I KNOW has a red light camera, and I'm wondering if I should expect a ticket.

Dr. Gridlock: I think the odds are against you getting a ticket. This is why: The Virginia law that reinstituted the use of red light cameras this year was written pretty conservatively. You have to blow the red light clean. Yellow when you enter doesn't count.

I know many of us find ourselves in this same situation from time to time, but I'd just like to remind everyone that traffic can't flow if drivers "block the box." If you aren't sure the intersection will be clear when the light turns, don't enter it.

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Washington, D.C.: I am extremely disappointed with The Post's cover of transit issues of late. Here are some reasons for my disappointment.

1. Failure to follow-up. If a pedestrian is struck and killed (like the woman in Friendship Heights or the man in Cleveland Park), The Post reports it initially, but fails to provide readers with follow-up information on what happened to the drivers or what environmental changes are planned/were made to improve the areas where the accidents happened.

2. Relying on unreliable sources. The Post continues to use Metro's spokesperson as a source of information even though time and time again, she has been shown to be unreliable. Her initial comments present a favorable view for Metro (for example, reporting that a pedestrian killed by a Metrobus was not in a crosswalk when he was) and only later (if there is some follow-up coverage by The Post or other news sources) does the true story come out. I recognize that in the hours immediately after an incident, the facts are still being determined. But I'd rather Rhe Post said that, than to print the spin from unreliable sources.

3.Sloppy reporting. In a recent article about Metro's reversal of its decision to use four-car trains on weekends due to complaints or crowding, there was no mention of the crowding in the evenings since the switch to four-car trains. In the past two weeks, six or seven times I have taken a four-car red line train between 7-10 p.m. The trains have been packed and sometimes passengers have been left on the platform to wait for the next train. There was no mention of this in the 12/12/07 article, though it would be easy enough for a reporter to investigate this. Further, that article cited January 2007 ridership numbers to justify Metro's decision to run shorter trains. Why use January numbers when discussing December travel? December has many holiday revelers and shoppers, so January seems a poor comparison. Surely December 2006 ridership numbers are available. That would be a better comparison (assuming similar weather).

Dr. Gridlock: Thanks for caring enough about transit issues to write such a detailed critique. I'm going to respond from memory on these issues, rather than stop to look up stories and make specific citations.

First, pedestrian safety and transit issues are very important to us at The Post. You may have noticed that I used a good part of my Sunday column to talk about them. Aside from that, we cover the pedestrian fatalities in both the daily paper and the community-oriented Extras.

The Post has revisited the issue of pedestrian safety time and again this year, and will continue to do so in 2008.

As you note, the information that comes out in the first few hours after an incident -- just about any sort of incident -- may be revised on further investigation. I haven't found Metro's spokespeople to be any less reliable than officials at other agencies under those circumstances.

They try to get the most accurate information to us as quickly as possible under deadline pressure.

There was one time recently when I thought Metro as an agency didn't do a good job of communication: The four-car trains. That service reduction was launched with no announcement from Metro. Many people knew about it because the Post's transit reporter, Lena Sun, went and found out about it. I see no evidence here of sloppy reporter. Rather, I see a determined effort by The Post to tell readers what they need to know about the transit system.

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Wheaton, Md.: Re: It's not the bench seating. It's the handrail along the ceiling, with the grips.

It's been a long time since I was on the NYC subway but I remember the problem of standing without having something to hold on to. I ended up leaning against the wall and getting spray paint on the back of my coat! What is good about that! I learned from that and did not lean on anything else while in the subway. My trip back uptown was later so there were seats available.

Also, the trains were more stable (less sway) than happens on Metrorail so I had less reason to need to hold onto something. Why do folks compare Metro and NYC subway; the two are very different.

Dr. Gridlock: They are very different. (I grew up in NYC.) There's the NYC subway and then there's every other subway in the United States. It's tough to compare anything else to that huge system with its unique history.

Our Metrorail system -- a hybrid subway and commuter rail line -- isn't the same thing. I support Metro's efforts to find a car design that works for the Washington region. But I worry about that handrail design you just cited. We don't have to do something that NYC does. We just have to find something that works for us.

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Silver Spring, MD: Not a question, but a suggestion for Metro. Get rid of the "When boarding, please move to the center of the car" announcement and replace it with "When boarding, please move away from the doors." After all, one of the doors is in the center of the car. I'd also love it if the train operator would be a little less polite once in a while and say something like, "Hey buddy, that means you! Please move away from the doors" on occasion.

Dr. Gridlock: Interesting observation. I don't recall a canned Metro announcement that explains why people should move to the center of the cars. On the other hand, train operators can be more specific. They often tell riders to keep away from the doors. And they tell people that if they don't stop messing with the doors, the train may be taken out of service and everyone will get dumped on the platform.

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Waldorf, Md.: What time do I have to arrive at the Branch Ave. Station in order to get a space?

Dr. Gridlock: Can any riders give an estimate on that? I know riders generally complain that they must arrive earlier and earlier. One letter writer told me recently that you must be at Shady Grove before 8:30 a.m., which got my attention because Shady Grove has so many spaces. The end of the line stations are particularly problematic, and I thought Metro was right to kill that proposal to convert a lot more spaces to reserved parking.

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Ashburn, Va.: Dear Dr. Gridlock,

PLEASE tell us LoCo commuters that you have made it out to the construction at Loudoun County Parkway and Ryan Road. I know there have been several people that have been writing in, including myself, because we cannot find any updates on this project! Please help us out!

Dr. Gridlock: Thanks for writing back. I know several readers have wanted to know what's up with the Loudoun Parkway, and VDOT spokeswoman Joan Morris gave me an update.

People have asked not only about the work at Ryan Road, but also about the parkway plan in general, so let me give you the complete rundown as provided by VDOT:

Improvements under Design or Construction (Going from North to South)

Interchange at Rte 7 - This county-funded improvement will be a single point urban diamond. Design is substantially complete, utility coordination is underway and construction should begin in late 2008. Construction will probably take 18-24 months.

Intersection at Rte 772 Ryan Road - This developer-funded project reworks the intersection to improve traffic flow. It also eases access to the recently opened Stone Hill Middle School. Construction has been underway all year. The final lane configuration will be opening very soon. The top layer of asphalt will be applied in the spring. The intersection will open initially as a 3-way stop and a traffic signal will be installed some time in 2008.

Connection to Route 606 - Loudoun County Pkwy becomes Rte 606 in the vicinity of Rte 842 Arcola Road. The connection from the existing segments to the north will be performed by developers under proffer. No public funds will be needed for this connection, including what will be a rather expensive bridge that will carry Loudoun County Parkway over Broad Run. However, the proffer is linked to the later phases of a planned retirement community that just got approved this year. The connection is probably 3-4 years out.

Interchange at Rte 606 Loudoun County Pkwy and 50 - Loudoun County is preparing preliminary designs for an interchange at this location. No funds are identified at this time for right of way acquisition or construction.

South of Braddock Road - No activity to design or construct this segment at this time.

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RE: New Metro car designs: No carpet + wet day = slippery floor. Given how Metro chose the platform surface without regard for traction and safety on wet days, I imagine they'll like the carpetless cars just as much.

One other redesign is troublesome too: In it, they have removed the vertical plastic screen that is normally perpendicular to the car door, and they have moved the nearest row of seats closer to the door, so that when a person sits in those seats, his or her feet stick out in front of the door. This design seems to be in evidence only on the Green line.

Dr. Gridlock: Lots of Metro questions and comments today, generated by the fare increases and the test rail cars. I'll try to publish a batch, with short comments from me.

We'll have to see how slippery the new floor turns out to be, and I'd like to get comments from riders at drgridlock@washpost.com in the coming weeks. But don't you hate that grungy carpet? It's difficult to clean and looks awful, especially in the winter.

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Metro vs. other systems: One element that is often overlooked when Metro fares are compared with other city's fares is that Metro is zoned and has rush-hour fares and other cities are not, like NY where it costs $2 flat to ride the subway no matter where you enter and where you exit at whatever time.

Dr. Gridlock: Here's an example of things I'm not sure we can compare, city to city. If we had a flat fare, Metro officials say, it would be $2.50. Long distance riders would love it and short distance riders would hate it.

Political circumstances make it academic: The Metro board, with its representatives from inner and outer jurisdictions, will not approve a flat fare.

The New York subway's flat fare applies to a transit system contained within one jurisdiction, and over the years, it has served as a way of uniting the city.

Our system is different: Riders are doing different things and are starting their trips in many different political jurisdictions.

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Kingstowne, Va.:"On the other hand, train operators can be more specific. They often tell riders to keep away from the doors."

A few years back I was on a jam-packed Orange Line train and the operator said, "I know it's crowded. Move in, make some friends. Ask someone on a date."

But I daresay the date would be unnecessary based on the intimacy with which one gets to know the people on a crowded Orange Line car.

Dr. Gridlock: Riders compete for the honor of riding the most crowded line. In my job, I get to ride all the lines at all times of day, but I'm not sure which has the worst crowding. I've been on impossibly crowded trains on all lines and at various times of day.

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re: Branch Avenue Parking: Generally, if you get to Branch Avenue by 7:30, you'll be able to park, provided people stay between the lines...

Dr. Gridlock: Thanks for this response to our Green Line parker.

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RE: Red light cameras: Thank you for your response. Is it the same for D.C.? (That's where it happened, not Va.)

Dr. Gridlock: I haven't gone back and read the DC law lately. (I had occasion to check the VA and MD laws much more recently.) When I talked to some of the managers who had worked on the DC camera program, they did tell me that was the case: The light has to be red when you enter the intersection for you to get a ticket. Many camera views get thrown out during the initial view, they told me.

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Heading west: I'm heading out to Oregon on Saturday. I'm leaving from Dulles, and I need to get there before Metro starts running in the morning. I usually fly out of BWI, so am unfamiliar with the parking at Dulles. Will the long-term parking be full by Saturday morning? Any advice from the peanut gallery?

Dr. Gridlock: This is a special weekend, basically a four-day Christmas weekend. I need to do some research on what that will mean to airport parking. Generally, the only airport parking situations that we get warnings about is for parking at Reagan National.

This is the Web page that will give you the latest information about Dulles parking:

http://www.metwashairports.com/dulles/parking_transportation_3/parking

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Washington, D.C.: With respect to the new designs of some of the rail cars, I noticed on a recent ride home in one, that there is a significant portion near the end of the car where there is absolutely nothing to hold. Whether short or tall, there are not even bars overhead. That seems pretty dangerous to me.

Dr. Gridlock: Are you thinking of the part that has those new padding things that you can lean against? I haven't been in that car -- just saw the pictures. I've never seen anything like that and would like to try it, or at least hear from more people who have.

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Union Station: Clearly the DC area needs a vision for its transit plans. As someone who follows it all and pays attention, can you briefly sketch out what your vision is? Should we be trying to emulate NYC or London? Is heavy rail a solution and the goal, or can we do light rail and bus routes? I'm interested in your ideas.

Dr. Gridlock: Excellent question and will try to give a short answer to an question that deserves a long one.

We should study other systems but recognize that Washington needs a transit system designed for Washington.

One thing we could learn from NY or London is that this region of ours is going to get a lot bigger and a lot more densely populated. We need to be planning a transit system to handle 2040 and 2050, not just 2010.

We should consider unifying our regional transit system under one authority. By that, I mean Metro, the commuter train lines and the suburban bus systems.

We're not going to be able to design a system that relies exclusively on Metrorail expansions. Look at the $5 billion Dulles rail project, one of the most expensive transportation projects in the nation. Not too many of them in our future.

We need a system that includes several alternatives for riders -- buses, heavy rail and light rail. And it needs to be somewhat flexible -- designed to handle trips across the region as well as to and from the center of the region.

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If you aren't sure the intersection will be clear when the light turns, don't enter it. : Yeah! And don't try to run me over when I'm in the crosswalk right after the light changes, and you decide you'd like to run the red. Happens so much at Dupont Circle it drives me nuts. Of course, in the same area there are tons of pedestrians trying to run across against the walk sign. It's a mess and I always wonder why nobody's been killed yet.

Dr. Gridlock: You're right. Dupont Circle is vexing for both walkers and drivers. It's just that cars are bigger.

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Washington, D.C.: Hello -- Here's my question, re: the Metro increases: Why aren't the OFFpeak fares increasing at all? I know that peak riders are the everyday users, but why can't the occasional users (ie: tourists, etc) foot some of the bill as well? At least to increase their base fare a bit. I feel like those of us who have no choice but to use metro are shouldering the full burden!

Dr. Gridlock: In that last sentence, you go a long way toward answering your own question. Here's what I mean: Metro is raising the fares and fees because it needs to balance its budget. This increase is supposed to raise about $109 million.

Many people who looked at the steep increases said they will abandon the transit system. Most will not, because they still have no real choice. For most commuters who work regular hours, driving will not be cheaper or easier, even with the steep hikes.

Some riders may be able to shift from peak to off-peak travel, and that would ease peak period crowding a bit. But not many people will do that. Their bosses just wouldn't understand.

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Cleveland Park, D.C.: The National Park Service has closed the Thompson's Boat Center parking lot since early November. The sign said "Closed until 11/30/07", and was then changed to "12/08/07", then "12/15/07", and most recently "12/22/07". Any idea when this will actually be re-opened, and why the date keeps getting shifted? It would have been a lot less frustrating for those of us who want to use that lot if they would have just posted 12/22/07 right from the beginning.

Dr. Gridlock: First, here's a page on the Federal Highway Administration Web site that is the most helpful thing I've found for updates on the Rock Creek Parkway project:

http://www.efl.fhwa.dot.gov/traffic-advisory-rock-creek.aspx

I don't know the date for the end of the boat house portion of the project. But here's a thought: Paving work is highly subject to changes in weather. All paving projects are slowing at this time of year. There will be stops and starts. (Every single transportation agency that sends out project advisories includes the phrase "weather permitting" when referring to timetables.)

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Dunn Loring, Va.: Last week there were two serious accidents at the Route 50/Beltway onramp, where a lane has been closed for months and is expected to be closed until summer. How is it that if a gasoline truck explodes under a ramp it can be fixed in a few weeks, while having a backhoe hit the underpart of a ramp takes a year to repair?

Dr. Gridlock: Depends on the type of damage. In this case, VDOT realized it was safe to keep the bridge open but it needed to close off that lane over the damaged girder. While it's an emergency repair, VDOT still needed to design the solution and let a contract.

I'm thinking -- hoping -- that VDOT may have been conservative in estimating the time necessary to repair the bridge. As the previous question showed, travelers get angry and frustrated when posted schedules for repairs don't hold.

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Washington, D.C.: I don't mind an increase in Metro fare, there hasn't been one in three years and costs across the board are rising. What I do mind and what I can't stand is all of the Metro employees that I see lounging/hanging around stations and platforms. If you have the audacity to interrupt them and ask a question they either ignore you or yell at you. Metro needs to do more than send out a memo to make employees accountable. It is time Metro treats employment as something other than a jobs program.

Dr. Gridlock: I've seen what you describe, and I've also seen Metro employees go out of their way to help travelers.

Many do need better training and supervision. Metro leaders know that -- they talk about it frequently -- but we'll see what they do about it.

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Rockville, Md.: What problem was the Montrose Parkway supposed to solve? Right now it feeds two lanes of east-bound traffic into a small street that backs up all day long because the access to Montrose Avenue is via a very slow light.

Dr. Gridlock: I promised a couple of readers I'd get up and drive around there. The Montrose Parkway/Montrose Road construction projects are annoying many travelers. I expect I'll do something on this in an upcoming Dr. Gridlock column.

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Arlington, Va.: Dr. Gridlock,

Shouldn't Metro offer Metrobus-to-Metrorail transfers (or commuter bus-to-Metrorail), especially with the technology so easily available through the SmarTrip card? It is a complete sham that it does not. And this is yet one more example of why Metro's pricing policies fall out of line with other urban systems. What is Metro waiting for?

Look at other urban transportation systems like the Boston T. In 2006 it implemented FREE Charlie Cards (like SmarTrip cards that cost us $5). Bus-to-Subway transfers are automatically figured into the fare gate on the T (you end up paying only the higher fare service with no transfer fee).

MARTA in Atlanta offers the Breeze Card which also features bus-to-rail transfers. Interestingly, the Breeze Card costs $5, but you get two free trips included. I just called MARTA and was informed that you pay only $1.75 on any combined modes of public transportation -- there is no extra cost for transferring.

Maybe Metro should start benchmarking itself against other systems. I know they're the only game in town, but let's shame them into getting better. Thanks.

Dr. Gridlock: I'd also like to see the SmarTrip cards capable of incorporating the discounts available with the various paper passes.

SmarTrip cards are great, but progress in making them smarter and in spreading them around the region so they cover other systems, like MARC and VRE, has been very slow.

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Arlington, Va.: When will Metro update its Trip Planner to take account of the new fares? As of today, it's still showing that a trip on Jan. 17, 2008, between Ballston and McPherson Square will cost $1.70 during rush hour. On the same note, what will be the new fare for such a trip?

Dr. Gridlock: I'll check on the Trip Planner update. That's a good question.

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Washington, D.C.: With the movement of military installations to the Virginia area, how much do you foresee this being a problem for traffic?

Dr. Gridlock: I think it's going to be awful, especially during the first couple of years. Tens of thousands of people will have their job sites moves in the BRAC reorganization. Maryland and Virginia will be largely responsible for planning and financing the transit and road improvements needed to accommodate them, especially around choke points at Fort Meade, Fort Belvoir and Bethesda.

The jobs will move before the states have the necessary improvements in place.

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Baltimore: Two people were killed yesterday when they pulled over on the shoulder of I-95 in Howard County at 3 a.m. and got out to switch drivers. When I am driving late at night, I'm sometimes on autopilot, following the tail lights in front of me. Someone could "follow" the tail lights of a car parked on the shoulder and slam into them. I guess the lesson to be learned is don't stop of the shoulder unless it's an emergency, and if you do, put your four-way flashers on.

Dr. Gridlock: Good point. And of course, it's best for all of us to stay alert and not to drive when we're feeling drowsy, a common cause of accidents day or night.

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Dr. Gridlock: Thanks for all your good questions today. I've got to break away. If you'd like to continue our conversation, send an e-mail to me at drgridlock@washpost.com. I'd be happy to hear from you.

Until our next chat, stay safe out there.

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