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Roads and Rails

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Eric Weiss and Lena Sun
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, January 7, 2008; 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, Jan. 7 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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Eric Weiss: Metro fares go into effect today and work on the "Humpback" Bridge on the GW Parkway starts. Coincidence or conspiracy?

Weigh in, along with your thoughts, complaints and questions over the next hour.

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Alexandria, Va.: So the new Metro fares have finally gone into effect. I worked the numbers out and now it will cost me just under $14 to park at Metro and ride it to work. I can park downtown a lot nearer to my office for $12 a day. I no longer have any incentive to take Metro to work. It costs more and it's often unreliable and over crowded. Do others feel the same way?

Do you think Metro will see a loss of riders because of this fare hike? And do you think a loss in ridership will end up offsetting the increased revenue from the higher fares?

Lena Sun: Hi Alexandria. Some of the riders I talked to this morning told me it was still cheaper and less stressful for them to take Metro than drive and park. I don't think we'll get a really good sense of how ridership will be affected for a couple of months. Are you definitely planning to drive now? If so, can you please email me directly at sunl@washpost.com? thanks

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Silver Spring, MD: This isn't so much a roads and rails question/comment as a parking lot one. One thing that really irritates me is people who are too lazy/important/whatever to use a parking space and instead park or stand in front of a store in the fire lane, even though the signs are very clear that it is not permitted. I understand stopping to let someone out, especially when that person is elderly, but too often it is a young, able bodied person who is using the ATM, going to pick up the laundry, or waiting for someone to come out of a store. Since I am fairly large, I don't have much worry about commenting to them, usually something like "it's nice to see that you can get a job that allows you to afford such a nice car when you are illiterate." In the instances when they say they are not, I just say I was giving them the benefit of the doubt because otherwise they must just be an -------. I think that the stores and the police should agressively discourage this practice. These self important people are blocking fire lanes and making the rest of us have to weave around them, creating hazardous conditions in the parking lots.

Eric Weiss: I understand our "me-first" attitude, but is it really necessary to prohibit all parking in front of stores for fire safety? In the city I can park on the curb in front of stores. And what about parking in front of hydrants? Is it really so impossible for fire trucks to find the hydrants (or at least the ones that work?) Think about the hundreds of parking spaces it would free up.

I am purposely being provocative, but what do you folks think?

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Lena Sun: Folks, for those of you who take the bus, you may know already that there is a glitch: people are being overcharged when they are paying with SmarTrip and transferring from rail to bus and when they transfer from bus to bus. Metro says this problem will be completely fixed by tomorrow a.m. and will be giving people electronic refunds. More details about how this will work will be posted on their website, www.wmata.com, and I'll be writing about it in tomorrow's paper.

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Van Ness, D.C.: I'd like to know the rationale for the setting of driving rush hour from 3:30 to 6:30, while Metro's evening rush hour is 3 to 7. Why the discrepancy? From experience, I can say that heavy traffic still is moving north on Connecticut at 6:30, when cars start parking in two of the lanes. What an inconvenience it becomes!

Eric Weiss: As I've said before on this chat, don't expect the DC government to make any move that would favor out-of-town commuters over city residents or folks looking for parking for dinner or after-work libations.(City residents suffer as well: the 6:30 expiration also creates havoc on the S2/S4 line as 16th Street goes down to one lane.

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McLean, Va.: It only appears less expensive to drive now than to ride Metro because the drivers don't pay the full costs of driving (road maintenance, EMT and police for accidents, etc). These unpaid costs are paid by every (including non-driving Metro riders) through income taxes. Do you agree?

Lena Sun: Let's ask your fellow commuters. What do people think?

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Washington, D.C.: The example of the leading public transit systems in the world shows that greater cost-efficiency in transit requires prioritizing public transit over cars on the roads -- dedicated bus lanes, bus drivers having control over upcoming stoplights, tolls to fund road maintenance and EMT so that transit riders aren't subsidizing driving through their income taxes, etc. Is there anyone in local government here who has this type of vision, or political courage?

Eric Weiss: People want to go where they want, when they want and in the security of their own vehicle. That will not change. And the fact that our region is continuing to build far-out car-dependent communities does not promise much of a change.

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Mayo, Md.: For many years I have had an easy commute from my home in Mayo to Crofton, MD. I take Central Ave./Rte 214 to Davidsonville and turn right on Davidsonville Rd./Rte 424, which takes me into Crofton.

The speed limit on Rte 424 has always been 45 mph. However, a couple months ago this was lowered to 35 mph for the first couple miles after you turn right off of 214. The lower limit is enforced a couple times a week with radar traps, which look to be quite successful.

Is there any way to learn why this change was made? My response would be to raise revenue. That particular stretch of road is no more hilly or curvy than any other stretch, and as far as I know there have been no accidents or other happenings which would justify the change.

Some of us locals have figured this out and are careful to go 35 mph on this stretch. However, if you do that, you can expect drivers behind you to flash their lights, give you the finger, lean on their horns and even pass on a double yellow line. Seems to me it would be safer if the speed limit were returned to 45 mph.

Eric Weiss: I'll try to find the reason for the change, but I can't imagine it is to raise revenue. Police forces are always pressured to reduce speeds in reaction to accidents, injuries, crossing difficulties or community pressure.

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Parking and safety: The fire hydrants really need to be clear so that the firemen have room to work. I've seen firemen smash the windows of a car that was parked in front of a hydrant, so they could feed the hose through the car. Too hard to lead the hose around or over the car, and I think they were worried about kinking the hose and decreasing the flow.

In front of stores, I don't know why the firelanes need to be so big, especially since they are only that way in the suburbs. Maybe you could ask a local fire department if there is a real reason.

Finally, the chatter who objected to people parking/standing in fire lanes might be right, but he sure is unpleasant. My first reaction to that kind of unsolicited nastiness would be to continue my wrong behavior. Maybe a little courtesy would go farther. If he is also one of those people who yell at mothers in parking lots when they don't return their shopping carts to the right place, maybe he could help her out by returning it for her, so she doesn't have to leave kids alone in the car.

Eric Weiss: I have heard the stories about firefighters feeding lines through cars in front of hydrants, but I wonder it that is just payback.

In the suburbs, we are stuck with superwide streets and gigantic uncrossable intersections designed at the insistence of public safety officials. Is this is a fair balance? I used to live in Georgetown and firetrucks and ambulances seemed to get around fine.

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RE: the "errand running" parking: If you are going to park in a fire lane or double park while running into the dry cleaners or using the ATM, at least pull over far enough that people can get by you. Don't double park in the center of the lane. I agree there are way too many possible spots blocked by fire hydrants (that probably don't work.)

Eric Weiss: True. Let courtesy be the rule.

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Arlington, Va.: There is a relatively simple fix that Metro could undertake to improve the experience on rail cars.

They should get rid of the armrests.

People are heavier, on average. Sometimes they take up more than "their share" of the seat. This leaves anyone wanting the exterior seat to either give it up and remain standing (increasing crowding) or to smash themselves into the portion allowed between the other person and the armrest. Removing it would let people at least "perch" on the edge.

People also seem less willing to get up and let an interior passenger out. Instead, they just swivel and the interior passenger has to avoid tripping over them. Without the armrest, those people would at least have the opportunity to swivel more, since they haven't changed their behavior.

Would this be incredibly costly? Because whatever benefits the armrests provide in short-term passenger comfort don't seem to make up for the drawbacks listed above.

Lena Sun: I've heard this comment from a few others as well. I'm not aware of anything specific they plan to do about armrests at the moment, but will ask the new rail chief. I think they've been focused more on more basic stuff, like getting enough working trains out there every day. What do other riders think about armrests?

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Cost of driving: I think the Metro rider who thinks it is cheaper to drive and pay $12 parking than to ride and pay $14, didn't consider gas. At $3/gallon, if she lives more than 15 - 30 miles away from her job, she has to have a really fuel-efficient car to break even. That doesn't count the extra wear and tear on the car, or the increased risk of scratches or accidents. Plus the aggravation of driving into the city.

Eric Weiss: Yes, let's not downplay the psychic costs of parking and taking the train, relaxing with the Washington Post or its excellent sister publication, The Express.

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Alexandria, Va.: Here's another potential hot button: expectant mother parking. Before I became one, I respected the signs and didn't park there. Now that I am one, I find it exceedingly helpful. Can't help feeling a little irritated when I see non-pregnant people (especially men, the most frequent offenders) parking in those marked spots. Yes, it's a small thing, but it does make a difference to me- there's a reason why maternity is classified as short-term disability! Thanks, just had to get that off my chest.

Eric Weiss: I guess people are irritated that the best spaces are reserved for drivers who, for the most part, don't fill up the spaces all the time.

And god forbid we walk an extra step to the gym.

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Fire Lanes:"I think that the stores and the police should agressively discourage this practice."

Ha! It's mostly police doing it!

Eric Weiss: Let the record show that there was no donut joke made on this chat.

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Reston, Va.: How can the federal government justify not giving WMATA dedicated funding? The measly 85 million dollars they gave them for 2008 is obviously not going to do anything. Why aren't Maryland and Virginia doing something about it in Congress?

Lena Sun: The Maryland and Virginia senators--three Democrats and one Republican--are promising to get the bill authorizing dedicated funding passed this year. At the moment, there is one senator, Tom Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma, who has a "hold" on the bill, meaning he is blocking it in the Senate. Coburn is blocking about 90 other money bills because he doesn't believe the federal government should be spending money on new programs without cutting the costs from elsewhere.

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College Park, Md.: Hey Lena and Eric, I'm not very happy at all with the Metro fare hikes, but I'm curious if there's any serious movement to start a boycott in the next few weeks. Do you know of any Web site or organization that's attempting to do this?

Lena Sun: Hi College Park. Am not aware of any but maybe your comment will spark one. How much more is your commute costing, and do you have any alternatives?

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RE: ..I can't imagine it is to raise revenue.: You must be chat with Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny on a regular basis as well. How are they doing? I haven't seen them in years.

Eric Weiss: Hey buddy, the Easter Bunny brings me chocolate every year. Do you?

The cost of having a full-time officer sit at a corner and write tickets is not the most efficient use of resources.

With the possible exception of the District, which does not have a commuter tax and relies on traffic fines for a small portion of the cost of all the commuter cars flowing in, I just don't buy it.

Now there are some town in Indiana and Illinois who use the interstate to fund their budgets, but I don't think you find that around here.

And pal, leave Santa out of it.

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Alexandria, Va.: Humpback Bridge work didn't bother me at 5:20 this morning -- didn't see a soul.

Eric Weiss:5:20 a.m.? That's the end of the previous day's p.m. rush...

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NoVa: I noticed this morning on the bus that many people were just paying the $1.25 in cash and the driver was overriding it on his screen and letting them on without a word about how they should be paying the $1.35. Is there a grace period I don't know about?

Lena Sun: Practically speaking, I think it always takes a day or two for people to get used to fare increases and some bus drivers may be giving those folks an unofficial grace period.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I live near Forest Glen and work on Shady Grove Road off 270. I am a strong believer in public transportation, both for Green reasons and because I like the relaxation.

If I drive, it takes 20 minutes. If I take Ride-on and Metro, it takes 50 minutes. I now drive, because more-than-doubled time is a dealbreaker for me.

Lena Sun: Sounds reasonable enough since your commute on the subway has to take you all the way in to the city and back out to Shady Grove.

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Washington, D.C.: What is Metro's policy for determining how sick a passenger must be to stop the train and cause a delay? Every day, there's some delay regarding a "sick passenger" -- is someone really having a heart attack every rush hour?

Or... are train operators simply told to use the sick passenger excuse whenever a train is delayed by a few minutes? It happens so often as not to be believable any more.

Lena Sun: If someone throws up or passes out on a rail car, they gotta get everyone off that car and close that one off. And people do have heart attacks on the train. If that sick passenger can't be moved off the train, Metro has to wait for paramedics to arrive and that may cause an even greater delay. Rule of thumb: if there is a sick customer, it's gonna be at least 20 minutes.

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Centreville, Va.: What happened on I-66 today that closed the road? I was just past an exit and wound up an hour late to work after being on track to be in 30 minutes early. It was nice to find out 66 was closed after I got off the road (thank you XM, nobody else had it) but then they didn't say exactly where the accident was (before Nutley, I could've gotten back on at Nutley; after Nutley, then I should take another route altogether). We really need more and better communication of what is going on.

Eric Weiss: VDOT says there will be west-bound lane closures during the midday hours over the next few weeks in the Westmoreland Ave. area.

No details on the the accident, but it doesn't take much of one to make a mess of rush hour.

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Today's Red Line delays: For this I'm paying more? Waited 10 minutes for a train in Silver Spring this morning. Pulled in full (it's the fourth stop). Two outbound Glenmont trains in a row pull in with the inbound platform packed. One of those drivers announces they're skipping Forest Glen. No explanation. He's just skipping it. Was he bored?

As we stood and waited another five minutes for the next Silver Spring "turn around" train, other than that one train operator, there were NO announcements about the delay or what was causing it.

Mr. Catoe thinks gouging riders isn't enough? Let's cut service, too!

Lena Sun: At 8:07 this morning, there was a train with a brake problem at Union Station and it caused backups on the Red Line at that end. So if you were at Silver Spring between that 8 and 8:30 a.m., you were caught up in this.

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"...have a really fuel-efficient car to break even": One also should factor in the time differential. My public transit commute takes twice as long as driving (including the time taken to walk at both ends). Also the inconvenience of not being able to "pick up something on the way home."

Eric Weiss: Indeed, a big barrier to public transit commuting is the inability to divert, say, to pick up a child at daycare, a Whole Foods rotisserie chicken, etc.

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"there is one senator...: Tom Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma, who has a "hold" on the bill, meaning he is blocking it in the Senate"

Why don't the Maryland and Virginia senators play the same game and put a hold on any bill Coburn is associated with? I think it's time to play hard ball.

Eric Weiss: Another call for partisan gridlock!

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Arlington, Va.: I wouldn't mind paying a little bit higher fare (mine is up by $.30 each way) in exchange for better service. But if this morning's overcrowded trains that are still too far apart is any indication, then I resent being charged more for service that is as bad or worse than it was before. What are we getting for this fare increase?

Lena Sun: Metro says it needed this fare increase to cover its rising costs. The last fare increase was four years ago, and since that time, the price of everything has gone up. That said, they are also very aware that folks want service to be more reliable and say they are trying to improve reliability.

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Bethesda, Md.: I remember someone else writing about this...does Metro turn off escalators after a certain time? On Friday night I arrived at the Bethesda station about 9:20 p.m. Both escalators from the train platform to the mezzanine were turned off, and all three escalators from the mezzanine to the street level were turned off. There was nothing to suggest that the escalators were out of order for mechanical reasons (signs, barricades). The station manager was nowhere to be found to ask what was going on. Bethesda has some of the longest escalators in the system so it made life very difficult that night. While the elevator was an option, because of the escalators being out the line was very long.

Lena Sun: No, Metro has no policy that turns them off at a certain time. (Of course, they are not on when the system is closed.) It's possible the station manager was out trying to figure out what the problem was with the escalators, but you're absolutely right. That is a long walk. Will let the escalator/elevator folks know.

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Washington D.C.(Shaw): Hey guys question for you ... how does one try to change the traffic pattern on a street?? Our stretch of 6th St. in Shaw is two lanes from Mass to Rhode Island with a third parking lane. It is incredibly dangerous for pedestrians and people exiting/entering their carts with people playing "rally cars" trying to get ahead in the two lanes...it seems a single lane, angled parking in front of the residences (with a bike lane), properly timed lights and left turn lanes could move the same volume of traffic and be much safer for the people that live here. How would the residents of the neighborhood go about making a safer 6th St.?

Eric Weiss: Try the District Department of Transportation, your local Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner or your councilmember, Jack Evans.

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Red Line Delays again: Okay, so there was a problem at Union Station. But I found this out at 11:46 am from an online chat. NOT from Metro while it was happening.

He's got to solve the communication and service problems if he wants riders to stay and not go to their cars.

Lena Sun: this communication issue keeps coming back. Also, I know this is of little consolation, but there should be something on Metro's website the following day that lists the various service problems.

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RE: Today's Red line: I was at the Silver Spring stop at 8:30 with the other chatter. There were NO announcements made regarding a delay at Union Station. At 8:30 the times for the next trains were 6, 12 and 17 minutes -- inexcusable for "rush hour."

Lena Sun: Let me post your comment so the folks at media relations, including someone who was also caught up in the delay, will see it.

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RE: A boycott: I will boycott Metro if a plan is developed (and possibly even without a boycott!) I can drive 10 miles from Silver Spring and park for free at work. That shaves 20 minutes off my commute and the gallon of gas will only cost me $3.20 rather than $5.70 in Metro fare. Does my car rack up $2.50 in wear and tear each day? I doubt it.

Lena Sun: Do you have to factor in the aggravation from driving? Would you email me directly at sunl@washpost.com to discuss this?

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re: "People want to go where they want": re: "People want to go where they want, when they want and in the security of their own vehicle. That will not change."

And isolating people in road-bound islands, er, communities, with 10 mile interstate moats around them is the response to this demand? There's basically a trade-off between "go where they want, when they want" and "in the security of their own vehicle." Planners can deliver the former by prioritizing buses or the latter by prioritizing cars. (See Curitiba, Brazil for an example of the former.) Doesn't anyone want D.C. to lead the way in this area instead of lagging behind other Metros?

Eric Weiss: Outside the Beltway, there is a sense of the "American Dream" which includes a big house, a big lawn, a big car and a desire not to share a bus with you.

I don't think that is so different than other places across the country.

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Dupont Circle: Another first day of fare hike irony: People getting off at the north exit of Dupont Circle this morning had to hike up a pretty long escalator. The down escalator was working fine.

Lena Sun: I'll look into it.

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Rockville, Md.: Hi,

Kind of a strange question, but is it illegal to pass an ambulance that has lights flashing? We were driving south in the HOV lane of 270 last night when an ambulance with its lights on moved into the center lane. It was going about 55 and stayed in the same lane for about 10 miles. We were only traveling about 60 mph two lanes to the right, but the ambulance honked as we passed, and as another car passed.

I would always move out of the way of an ambulance, but this one wasn't speeding or moving fast.

Eric Weiss: Sgt. Betts of the Maryland State Police said drivers may not pass an emergency vehicle if it has its lights and audible sirens on. The question is whether it had it had its sirens on.

And then there is the question of speed limits, etc.

He also said that emergency vehicles might be going slower than traffic because they are looking for an address or accident scene.

My advice: stay clear.

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Lena Sun: Okay folks. That's all we have time for today. Sorry we couldn't get to all the questions. Hope your commutes home are smooth.

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