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Dr. Gridlock

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Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, February 4, 2008; 1:00 PM

Robert Thomson, Dr. Gridlock, diagnoses your traffic and transit problems and offers up his prescription for a better commute..

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He was online Monday, Feb. 4 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: Greetings, travelers. As we begin, the mailbox has some questions and comments about best routes, the rail to Dulles project and the D.C. taxi strike, among other things. Looks like a good mix to get us started today.

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Odenton, MD: Hi Dr. Gridlock. I have the unenviable task of driving from Odenton to Fair Lakes during morning rush hour tomorrow. What's the best (i.e. least traffic) way to get to 495: 295 South, 95 South, or 29 South?

Dr. Gridlock: Ugh. Looks like a drive of about 55 miles. Maybe two hours. Or at least, that's what Google Maps predicts.

I'm posting this one early, so our readers will have a chance to weigh in on which route is best. My suggestion is Route 29 South. It's not that you won't encounter congestion. In fact, Route 29 could be heavy south of White Oak, where the road narrows and you start to encounter more traffic signals. Also, traffic in the right lane gets extra heavy as cars start to line up for the Beltway entrance.

What I like about this route, out of the three, is that you enter the Beltway farthest to the west. That north eastern arc of the Beltway is almost always jammed during morning rush. If you take 295, you're in that mess for the max. I-95 will likely be slow from where the interstate splits to merge with the Beltway. Taking Route 29, you at least minimize the encounter with the Beltway, which is likely to be very heavy at least to the Georgia Avenue exit.

But what do the rest of you think?

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Orange Line, VA: Dr. G, I'm moving from Falls Church to Frederick MD in the next month or so. The commute is horrible to my job in DC. While eventually I do plan on getting a job closer to home for the time being I'm going to try to stick it out. I've made this commute before by taking the MARC train, which I found to be very inflexible time-wise. I'm considering using the commuter bus to Shady Grove as it provides a more flexible time table. I was wondering if you or other chatters can give me any better suggestions/advice for lowering the cost and headache of the long commute. Thanks!

Dr. Gridlock: MARC's Brunswick Line has a very flexible schedule -- but not on purpose. It's a busy freight line, and MARC doesn't own the tracks, so it always seems to come in second to the freight schedule. Also, MARC's equipment isn't the most reliable and the service isn't as frequent as we'll need it to be as the region grows.

I like the commuter bus to Shady Grove, but mainly because I've received so many complaints about the Shady Grove Metro parking filling up earlier and earlier, especially now that a garage is undergoing a longterm rehabilitation and many spaces are taken away.

I can't recommend driving all the way from Frederick into DC. Getting on I-270 and the Beltway during the rush periods seems like more of a hassle than the alternatives. But what other advice do drivers have for "Orange Line"?

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Friendship Heights: So did Metrorail see their projected drop in ridership with the fare increases in January?

If not can we expect a slight rollback in the fare increase?

Dr. Gridlock: Despite the fare increases that took effect on Jan. 6, Metrorail ridership was up in January compared to January 2007. But Metro officials say it's too early to make a trend out of those numbers. Ask them again in March, they tell us.

The fare increases are designed to raise $109 million over 18 months, so Metro can eliminate a shortfall it expects to have in its 2009 fiscal year.

Readers also have been asking me if the Dulles Toll Road tolls are going to be cut back, now that the Dulles rail project -- which the tolls were supposed to help finance -- is in jeopardy.

I wouldn't be taking out any loans based on anticipated fare and toll refunds.

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Rockville, Md.: It was actually quite nice driving into the city this morning, not having to play defense against D.C. taxi drivers who obviously have no respect for the rules of the road.

Any chance we could get them to stay on strike longer?

This "strike" is why I choose to drive into the city everyday. I control my commute. No absurd Metro delays or recalcitrant taxi drivers can prevent me from getting to my office or morning appointments on time. My company pays for parking, which is more incentive for me to drive in. I don't have to pay those ridiculous fees to park on Metro lots..THEN pay

And if there's a traffic jam, I can pull over at the nearest coffee shop and wait it out. Or I have books on CD...

If I'd depended on a Metro rail ride and a taxi to my 8:30 a.m., meeting today, I would have been some 2 hours late, if not more. Metro was late too, according to my husband who is now less enamored with Metro since the rate hike.

Dr. Gridlock: We have a taxi drivers' strike in the District today in protest against the plan for a metered fare system. Will post a link to a story about that momentarily.

Not sure about the overall impact of this on traffic. When I was out this morning to hear Mayor Fenty's announcement about new pedestrian walkways at construction sites, some of us were speculating that traffic is better today because drivers don't have to cope with cruising taxis.

How's it look to you folks?

Generally, I think people should have choices about how they get around. Personally, I like having a transit alternative to driving in the city and feel more in control of my daily destiny that way.

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washingtonpost.com: D.C. Cabdrivers Launch Strike to Protest Meters (Post, Feb. 4)

Dr. Gridlock: Here's a link that describes what's going on with the taxis today and why.

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Arlington, Va.: Do you have a moment for a public service announcement?

Passengers on the platform tend to look in the direction from which the train will arrive. But in many stations, that is the opposite from the direction where new passengers are entering the platform.

The problem arises especially when late arrivals are making their way (rushing) down the platform, while those already on the platform are looking toward the train (away from new arrivals) and simultaneously blindly walking toward the platform edge.

Headphone wearers or phone users seem more oblivious than most.

I'm afraid that one of these days a rushing passenger is going to collide with a passenger who isn't watching where he or she is going, with the result that someone tumbles to the track in front of an oncoming train.

Please, fellow passengers, as the train is arriving, be mindful of your surroundings as you walk toward the train.

Dr. Gridlock: Behavior on platforms can be weird. There are always a bunch of people who need to stand on the granite edge as the train arrives. I wonder what it's like to be the train operator speeding into the station and seeing those people tempting fate.

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College Park, Md.: The re-construction of 295 between East Capitol St. and Eastern Ave. appears to be taking forever -- it feels like years. Any thoughts on when if will be FINISHED?

Dr. Gridlock: You ain't seen nothing yet. The major project on Kenilworth Avenue is scheduled to be done in April 2009.

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Silver Spring: Mr. Thomson, in light of Montgomery County's budget problems, and the State of Maryland's budget problems, what are the chances of funding any major road projects during the next year or two? I mean, besides the ICC and finishing the Montrose Parkway-to-nowhere?

Dr. Gridlock: Despite the state's budget problems, transportation got a decent boost in Gov. O'Malley's budget. The ICC is a state project and the parkway is a Montgomery County project. They're certainly high profile projects, but there are plenty other widenings and intersection improvements in the works.

I'd love to see more money set aside for them, but my main worry at the moment is the funding of the transit projects, like the Purple Line and the Corridor Cities Transitway, in light of what the feds have had to say recently about contributing to the Dulles rail project.

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Zone 1: Dr. Gridlock,

I know you are not a politics guy, but hopefully you will consider passing along this tidbit of knowledge. This is not a strike and you should find a different definition. In a strike a union (which doesn't exist) decides it will not work for a company or companies. There is no union, and all the businesses are self owned. You can't strike against yourself. Its called taking a day off.

Dr. Gridlock: Noted.

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Washington, D.C.: Why is this region so messed up when it comes to urban planning? In most places the country, and especially in Europe, transportation infrastructure dictates where development occurs. However, in this area, development dictates where transportation infrastructure is needed. Instead of focusing development around our existing resources and slowing expanding the infrastructure to meet expected demand, local governments have allowed developers to build wherever they want without the forethought of the impact on the transportation infrastructure or the feasibility of supporting the development before its completion.

Our governments need to be held accountable, and some seriously difficult decisions need to be made to slow growth until infrastructure can catch up with the runaway development of the past 20 years. If we don't take our lumps now, the result could be more devastating than the S&L debacle, .com disaster, and housing credit bubble burst combined, and the answer is not a single "Silver line" bullet, which has already proven itself to be a boondoggle.

Dr. Gridlock: I think local governments are starting to get the idea that they need to plan for development and transportation at the same time.

Tysons Corner, that space station, is an example of the bad old days. It's a city with a couple of roads through it. How was that supposed to work?

The Dulles rail line, with four Metrorail stations in Tysons, is an attempt to retrofit that city for transit. The four stations have served as focal points for planning the uses of the land around them.

These days, it's a rare transit project that's just about moving people from one place to another. They've become organizing principles for building communities.

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Metro's Founding: Who designed Metro? Seriously? Who thought it was a great idea to only put one track each way on each line so you can't have express trains, and when something has to be fixed metro goes into crisis mode with delays? I know they THOUGHT that it would just be a commuter line, but boy oh boy, if that doesn't represent shortsighted thinking to the millionth degree, I don't know what does. Seriously, who designed Metro? I hope they never worked again.

Dr. Gridlock: Seemed like a good idea at the time. The planning that went into the transit system we have today is about a half century old. Transit people would say that two unfortunate legacies are the two-track system and the escalators.

Adding express tracks through the District would have been much more expensive, so that wasn't done.

Metro is one of the deepest running subway systems, and that led to a system dependent on escalators -- constantly running and constantly exposed to the weather.

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Metro Weekend Track Work: This question may be moot because this weekend wasn't as bad as last. But when the Metro is working on the track north of Medical Center on the Red Line, why can't the trains run more frequently south of there? That way only a few stations are affected instead of everyone.

Last weekend was a nightmare. When I arrived at Dupont Circle to travel to Union Station mid-afternoon, the train wasn't due for 20 minutes and the platform was already crowded. We jammed into a train already full of people, complete with strollers. Then, of course, the train took a good 10 minutes at Metro Center and Gallery Place/Chinatown for people to leave and get on the train.

As I noted, this weekend the trains seemed to run more frequently, but I was boarding in the evening and don't know if they stopped work after a certain time. It doesn't make sense to have everyone on the line facing infrequent trains instead of only the places where the work is actually taking place.

Dr. Gridlock: The trains should have been running about every 15 minutes on that part of the Red Line. (Not sure if that would eliminate crowding.) There's one more weekend to go on the switch replacement project at Medical Center. So let me go over the details of Metro's service plan as it was announced for last weekend:

"All Red Line trains will run every 15 minutes between the

Friendship Heights and Glenmont Metrorail stations."

"Every other Red Line train traveling to the Shady Grove

Metrorail station will terminate at the Friendship Heights Metrorail station and return to the Glenmont Metrorail station."

"Red Line trains will run every 30 minutes between the Friendship Heights and Shady Grove Metrorail stations, while sharing one track between the Friendship Heights and Grosvenor-Strathmore Metrorail stations."

"All Red Line trains will operate with six and eight cars."

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Washington DC: Rockville's comments are funny. I take Metro everyday and never experience the delays that my car-bound colleagues experience.

Dr. Gridlock: I ride the Red Line when I'm commuting between Silver Spring and The Post's downtown newsroom. I've been on trains that broke down, and were too crowded and just didn't arrive when they were supposed to. But it's never convinced me that I should return to driving. I used to do that, but sat down one day and calculated that I saved $850 a year if I didn't drive and warehouse my car all day at a downtown garage.

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Plenty of Taxis at 13th and I: Whether it's a "strike" or a day off (maybe an organized walk-out is more accurate), there are still plenty of taxis to be had downtown. My office window overlooks the intersection of 13th and I and I've seen lots of taxis all day....maybe a few less than normal, but still plenty. Guess making money is more important (and who can blame them!)

Dr. Gridlock: Thanks for the eyewitness view.

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Flat Tires: Twice in two weeks my husband has gotten a flat tire just after passing through the Wilson Bridge Construction site. The first time he was able to safely drive to an exit, today he was stuck on the shoulder of the beltway waiting for AAA. Both times the tire place told him he had run over construction debris. Is this just bad luck? Or is this common during such a large project? Seems rather unsafe either way.

Dr. Gridlock: I haven't heard about problems with road debris at the Wilson Bridge project, which I think has been very well managed. But have other drivers encountered such problems?

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Falls Church, Va.: Dr. Gridlock: In case you are compiling anecdotes of how commuters are responding to Metro's fare increase, I have been taking the 3A bus a few days a week to East Falls Church or Rosslyn from my Falls Church area neighborhood to get to Federal Triangle instead of driving to my preferred Metro stop at West Falls Church. If I time it right, the bus doesn't take me much more time than driving (about an hour, door-to-door), and it can save me almost $5 a day over driving. If I can't time it right, however, my commuting time reaches 90 minutes one way, which isn't worth the money saved. If Metro would run the 3A bus between East Falls Church and Annandale more often, I'd be a daily bus-to-Metro rider. In either case, I am relieved I am no longer battling the Beltway to get to College Park like I did for almost 6 years.

Dr. Gridlock: Metro doesn't have any stats yet on bus ridership since the fare increases took effect. I've been wondering whether anyone is switching from rail to bus, since the bus fare stayed the same as long as you used a SmarTrip card to pay.

It's interesting to hear from a commuter who is making a "congestion pricing" decision: Time is worth something, and commuters make calculations based on that.

Metro periodically reevaluates the service on individual lines. It doesn't necessarily help to add more buses to a heavily congested route. You still may wind up with an irratic schedule, and have three buses arriving at the same time at the same stop.

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Easy traffic: Traffic was light all the way from Gaithersburg to DC this morning, so I don't think the light traffic in the city had much to do with the taxi strike. I think it's more likely that Super Bowl hangover/fatigue was in play.

Dr. Gridlock: Wonder what traffic was like in Boston.

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Wheaton, Md.: Doc, who exactly appoints the Metro Board? Would it be implausible to get our legislators to demand that as a condition of appointment to the Board the member must agree to ride Metrorail or bus as a daily commuter? I know, the outcry about how Board members have to get to meetings or childcare, but guess what -- so do we regular commuters.

Dr. Gridlock: The traveling habits of Metro board members comes up a lot. It's been encouraging lately to hear them talking about their personal experiences with transit. For example, they notice that the train arrival times on the electronic boards have odd gaps.

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Express Trains: Does the rail extension to Dulles incorporate additional rails to accomodate express trains? It seems that local only trains to Dulles would take a loooong time.

Dr. Gridlock: Hey, what do you want for $5 billion? Cupholders?

We focused a lot of discussion during the past year on the issue of elevated or underground when talking about the rail line. The track issue is at least as good, for the longterm success of this project. Ideally -- meaning if we could afford it -- it would be best to have a high speed express service for air travelers and a separate service with more stops for commuters. But that's not the plan.

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Washington, D.C.: Thank goodness for Mayor Fenty. I have spent the last several months walking (at my own peril) along a section of Mass Ave (around the Mass Ave intersection with H Street NW & 4-6th Streets) where two simultaneous construction projects shut down both sidewalks on either side of the road for months on end. How is a pedestrian to walk at all in such a scenario? I'll tell you how: in the middle of the lane for oncoming traffic, while the construction workers lazily stand in your way by their trucks, and cars zip by you toward Interstate 395. It's insane.

And it's about time D.C. starts recognizing us pedestrians. Will these new rules apply to existing construction projects, or only to projects that haven't begun yet? And if the latter, can we continue to expect blatantly dangerous situations like the one above for years to come (for those multi-year projects that are grandfathered in), or is there a final time cutoff for these guys, too?

Dr. Gridlock: The new rules announced by the mayor today are for new projects. He and other city officials said nothing about going back and fixing the mistakes of the past, but at least they've heard the many complaints from pedestrians and are setting the city on the right course to protect walkers.

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More on Flat Tires: I've lost two tires (on a new car!) in front of the under-construction Chinese Embassy on Van Ness Street, NW between Connecticut Ave and Reno Rd. Much, much debris on the street, and horrible potholes and metal plates. Drivers, beware!

Dr. Gridlock: Sorry to hear about that, and thanks for the warning.

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Monorail...: If Dulles rail is resurrected ( I hope it will be), instead of routing the heavy rail through Tysons and constructing multiple stops -- whatever happened to the Tysons monorail idea? You could keep Metro on the Dulles Toll Road right of way, with a station near the Toll Road and International Dr. and then loop a monorail, or a small maglev rail around Tysons -- constructing physically smaller stops.

Wouldn't this save a lot of money by not needing to purchase as much land for right of way within Tysons Corner proper?

Dr. Gridlock: I love monorails, but let me say a couple of things in defense of the current plan for a Metrorail line:

Right of way wasn't a huge factor in the price, because you've got the proposed line running along Routes 123 and 7, and then heading out to the airport on the Dulles Toll Road.

If we can afford to have only one railroad, let's have one that connects smoothly with the region's biggest transit asset: Metrorail. Air travelers and commuters will be able to move between the Dulles corridor and downtown Washington without changing trains, something they'd have to do if the line were a monorail.

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Arlington, Va.: It seems like The Post is unwilling to even hint at the real problem with the zones. The constant abuse of the relatively unregulated system by cab drivers, especially across state lines. Cabs should not be able to charge a double fare just because you are going into Virginia. Also, I should not have to argue so that I am not ripped off. This should just happen normally. The change to meters will hopefully fix the issue.

Dr. Gridlock: I like the meter system and don't see the case that some of the cabdrivers are making about losing revenue when they change from the zone system.

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Silver Line: It appears that there are strong bi-partisan suspicions about the FTA's lack of even handedness within the transportation committees in both chambers regarding the Dulles Rail Project.

So....when do the congressional hearings begin?

Dr. Gridlock: The Federal Transit Administration, and it's parent, the U.S. Department of Transportation, are not inclined toward approving a mega-project like Dulles rail, because it involves a large federal investment to move what they consider to be too few people.

The Dulles rail project has its problems, and the feds are supposed to be protecting the taxpayers' investments, but I think the current federal view of transit projects is short-sighted. Not only is this region going to grow into the Dulles rail line, but also, the line is essential for organizing that growth.

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Reston, Va.: Hey Dr. G,

Why doesn't Virginia simply eliminate some of the stations on the Silver Line to reduce the cost instead of trying to transform the project all together as I heard on the news today? I believe it would work better that way anyway, instead of having eight stops to Dulles, you could have five. Then a trolley system could be built later to serve the Tysons area, a la D.C. Metro should behave as a commuter train outside of the city (limited stops serving a wide area), given its exorbitant cost. Playing hardball with the feds now isn't a good idea.

Dr. Gridlock: Hi, Reston. It might eventually come down to rethinking the whole concept of Metrorail to Dulles, but we're not quite there yet. The current plan has become solidly embedded in the planning for Northern Virginia's development, so public officials and civic leaders are very, very reluctant to give up on it.

First, they'll take a run at working out the problems outlined by the federal government. Failing that, I think they'll see if there's another way to raise the $900 million that the federal contribution would have covered.

If they strike out on that, then I think they might try cutting the number of stations, but I think they'll be extremely reluctant to do that. A combination project -- like a high speed line straight to the airport and a trolley or rapid bus route around Tysons -- might enter the picture after all those other things fail.

Then again, they might just wait for a new federal administration if they're not making progress on these other fronts.

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Dr. Gridlock: Thanks, everyone, for a very enjoyable chat. I've got a couple of questions still in the mailbag, but must break away now. I see at least one question I think I can deal with this week on my Get There blog, so join me for that, too.

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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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