Dr. Gridlock

Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, February 25, 2008; 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, Feb. 25 at 1 p.m. ET to address all your traffic and transit issues.

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

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

A transcript follows.


Dr. Gridlock: Good afternoon, travelers. I see quite a variety of questions and comments in the mailbag already. Many people want to discuss traffic issues like the HOT lanes while transit riders are angry about the Red Line delays caused by the switch repair project at Van Ness. We'll talk about that and more today.


Washington, D.C.: So let me get this straight. Metro and every politician encourage us to take public transportation instead of driving to ease traffic, environment etc, and yet metro has endless delays on the red line? Are they serious? Why don't you at The Post call our metro on this. This should be an outrage. I for one have ceased taking metro on the weekends and now drive. Biggest secret that D.C. doesn't want you to know: Driving isn't THAT bad.

Dr. Gridlock: Many, many people are commenting today on the delays this weekend because of the switch replacement project at Van Ness on the Red Line. This will continue for the next three weekends.

This has been a particularly difficult winter for riders on the Red Line. There was the switch replacement project at Medical Center and the bridge rehab project at Metro Center. Those, plus this new one at Van Ness, mean single-tracking just about every weekend this winter.

There's no end in sight to weekend track work. The rail system is more than three decades old, lots of things need fixing, and there are not enough overnight hours when the system is shut to get all the work done.

All lines are affected by this, and for many people, driving becomes a good option.


Alexandria, Va.: The article mentions that it is still the plan for carpools of 3 or more people to use the HOT lanes for free. Have you seen any details on how that is going to be possible? An EZ-pass transponder isn't going to know how many people are in the car. I've read that sluggers are worried, but if the people in charge can make this exception for carpoolers work, this may create more demand for slugs...

Dr. Gridlock: That link will take you to Eric Weiss's story on the Post front page today. Eric, who has been following Virginia's plans to set up high occupancy or toll (HOT) lanes on I-95-395 and the Beltway, wrote today about the congestion that could occur when drivers get to the ends of the express lanes.

The private consortium setting up the lanes seems very confident it can make this system work for both the carpoolers, who would ride free, and the other drivers willing to pay the variable toll. But it will be different from anything we've seen around here. For example, it might use a technology that can detect how many people are in a car and relay that to police enforcing the rules.

In other words, this will take more than your standard E-ZPass transponder to carry out.


What about a new private BRIDGE?: Dr.,

What are the obstacles to a private company (partnering with D.C. and the U.S. Park Service? ) building a new toll bridge from Arlington to D.C.? How can they (if any) be overcome? I think there is a HUGE market here - much bigger than the toll roads under consideration. The bottleneck areas need to be addressed at the source.

Dr. Gridlock: I think there's no obstacle to a public-private partnership constructing a bridge and then charging tolls for its use.

The obstacle would be the same one that has faced a bridge for the past few decades: The people who live on both sides of the river. Just because a private company would be willing to build it doesn't mean that we skip the political and legal obstacles that have blocked other plans, like the Three Sisters Bridge or the third crossing proposals.

Also, be careful what you wish for: The tolls on the HOT lanes -- our first experience with a large public-private transportation project -- have no limits.


Weekend Work: Are these delays ever going to end on the weekends? Every time they finished a project, they start up another. They say that there just isn't enough time to complete work on the "very few hours" that metro doesn't run, but how is it so that the NYC subway isn't delayed constantly or these projects and yet runs 24 hours a day? It really takes four weekends worth of work to fix these problems? Perhaps it does, but I get furious waiting for a train while I see Metro employees standing around and talking. This system just gets worse and worse.

Dr. Gridlock: The main difference between us and NYC on this is that NYC has express tracks, allowing trains to bypass a track that is shutdown for repairs.

Most of the NYC system was built in an earlier era. Our late 20th century system faced many financial crises that almost blocked its construction, so I'm not sure we ever would have had a shot at a third track in a tunnel.

This particular project at Van Ness involves replacement of the four main pieces of the switches that allow trains to move back and forth between the two tracks. While the work is being done, there's a crane in the tunnel.

This isn't the sort of thing they can do overnight. They'd barely get set up to work when they'd have to start cleaning up to resume service for the morning.


Greenbelt, Md.: I have nothing to add but a general howl of frustration over the Red Line work this weekend.

Dr. Gridlock: Lots of people share your feelings. I'll try to switch back and forth between items about the Red Line and the HOT lanes today, while scattering in some of the other topics people are asking about.

Metro spokesman Steven Taubenkibel says the transit authority will review the service plan in light of this past weekend's experience. (He was out there riding the Red Line trains this weekend and says Metro had many people out trying to aid passengers and make sure that operations knew what was going on.)


Springfield, Va.: I have more of a comment about HOT lanes. While I know that some people believe there aren't any other viable alternatives, HOT lanes are NOT the answer in terms of transportation policy. Roads for the general public should be paid for by taxes because they are something that are used by almost everyone. The Bush administration wants to try now involve private industry and have roads paid for and maintained by people other than State DOTs. The recent transportation legislation last year is evidence because there is a lot of language regarding HOT lanes, Toll lanes, etc etc.

Public transportation is one of the main answers or alternatives to this issues. I am willing to give HOT lanes a chance only because there are provisions for bus lanes now from Springfield to Tysons.

Dr. Gridlock: Advocates for public private partnerships on transportation projects, and the HOT lanes or express toll lanes they are producing see this as the way of the future in US transportation.

They say people don't want gas taxes -- or any other taxes -- to go any higher. Why not use tolls not only to finance construction but also to control supply and demand on the roads themselves?

Locally, Virginia is taking the lead on this. The projects in Maryland are a bit different. Virginia is teaming up with private companies to build and operate the lanes. Also, Virginia will open them to carpoolers for free as well as to other drivers willing to pay the tolls.

In Maryland, the state is building express toll lanes north of Baltimore and in Montgomery and Prince George's (the intercounty connector.) They will not be free to carpoolers.

I think the systems are worth trying here. They are a way of financing projects. And they offer the prospect of express bus services, which we badly need.


Silver Spring, Md.: Dear Robert, you just said of Metro:"Our late 20th century system faced many financial crises that almost blocked its construction." Any future systems will face a lack of land. We should enhance the bus and taxi systems, and add more car-sharing (think Zipcar) and telecommuting. Create jobs in areas where workers already HAVE affordable housing, like the Midwest. Don't tear up small-scale neighborhoods blocks from Metro to erect high-priced, hi-rise hulks. Dare to mention population stability!

Dr. Gridlock: I keep saying that we have no idea how big and congested this region is going to become. We ain't seen nothin' yet.

We'll have to build some more roads and more transit systems. We'll have to give people more choices about how they get where they're going. And we'll have to think of each of those choices as a decision about where we think people are best able to live and work.


Arlington, Va.: May I note that the last time I was in New York, the kid wanted to see the Statue of Liberty from the Battery and had to get off the train at Canal Street and take a bus down to the Battery because of track work. This sort of thing has happened in Chicago also. My guess is that all systems do it but we only notice our own inconveniences.

Dr. Gridlock: That might have been the reconstruction at South Ferry, the southern tip of Manhattan where there's very little space to share.

I grew up in New York. It's interesting to hear from readers in the Washington area who want our transit system to be more like New York's.

That's not meant as a dis to NY, which has a great transit system. But it also has plenty of problems.


Red Line delays: Please tell the Metro spokesperson that while some stations (Bethesda) had very helpful, informative Metro staff on Saturday, others (Woodley Park) had absolutely nobody on the platform to help confused riders.

Dr. Gridlock: How about the rest of you on this? Did you find Metro employees helpful?

One thing Taubenkibel noted is that the trains through the single-tracking area were eight car trains, with the middle cars jammed and the end cars less crowded. Why weren't people spreading out?


Falls Church, Va.: With the HOT lanes, what's frustrating is that it's hard enough finding ONE other person that goes to work and leaves at the same time as you, AS WELL as lives in the same general vicinity....but two is ridiculous.

Dr. Gridlock: But that's what the sluggers have so successfully addressed. They've developed gathering places, selection processes and rules of the road. They have Web sites like http://www.slug-lines.com and message boards that bring commuters together.


Metro's Lack of Communication: Red Line Work: Yet another example.....

Dr. Gridlock: Metro does indeed have trouble communicating with passengers in many instances. But the transit authority did put out announcements in various ways last week. Press releases, e-mails to riders, station announcements, electronic signs. Over the weekend, spokesman Steven Taubenkibel said, many extra staffers were assigned to the stations through the Red Line work area.

I'm not saying that was sufficient. Clearly, there were a lot of confused and frustrated Red Line riders. Many people don't know the work is going to continue an additional three weekends.


Hot Lane bottlenecks: Why is this issue coming up now after things have been signed off on ? Anybody with half a brain (like me) knew that these lanes were not gonna start at your driveway and end wherever it is you were going to go.

Additionally, no one seems to be talking of bottlenecks entering these lanes which will certainly affect us all.

Dr. Gridlock: The planners have been aware of the potential bottlenecks, and have done some things, like add extra ramps around Tysons Corner.

But I doubt there's going to be a congestion-busting solution in place at the 14th Street Bridge or at the Legion Bridge by the time the HOT lanes open. Both of those areas are under study, but the HOT lanes program is more advanced.


Red Line Refugee: I have a question for Metro's top decision-makers: What time will you come to my condo this weekend to pick me up and take me around town to do errands?

See, I don't drive, and a major reason I live in the city is so I can easily get around without a car. I live on the Red Line (Gallery Place) and my major destinations are Dupont Circle, Woodley and Cleveland Park, Van Ness, and Friendship Heights. What am I supposed to do on weekends for the next month? Just stay home? That won't work, so I presume John Catoe or one of his designees will be chauffering me around. I just need to know what time so I'll be ready.

Dr. Gridlock: There's no transit system in the world that's going to live up to your expectations.

This weekend work at Van Ness is scheduled for the next three weekends, from 9 p.m. Fridays through midnight Sundays.

Taking a bus might work for some people. If you're so inclined, this is what Metro suggests:

"The L2 Metrobus route provides service from Chevy Chase Circle to the Van Ness-UDC, Cleveland Park, Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan, Dupont Circle and Farragut North Metrorail stations with a final stop at the McPherson Square Metrorail station. On weekends, the L2 operates every 20 to 30 minutes. On Friday and Saturday nights, the last buses leave their respective destinations shortly after midnight."

"The 32, 34, 35 and 36 Metrobus routes provide service from the Friendship Heights and Tenleytown Metrorail stations into downtown Washington via Wisconsin and Pennsylvania Avenues. On weekends, the bus routes run every 10 to 15 minutes."


Dupont Circle light timing: Isn't there anything that can be done to help traffic trying to get into Dupont Circle? Every time I'm going north on New Hampshire or Connecticut, it seems like only a single car at a time can get into the flow of traffic per light change. The traffic in the outer loop gets the green first, and blocks off the other streets. Seems like the lights could be timed better so that at least three cars per light change could get in.

What's really frustrating is that the entry points are "No turn on red," but often when the light is red that's the only time you've got an opening!

Dr. Gridlock: I know that's a really difficult spot, but I'm not sure the District is going to make any plans that add to the risks for walkers in that very congested area.


Herndon, Va.: I believe many accidents, as well as a great deal of road rage occurs in our area due to a lack of basic knowledge about the passing lane. As the numbers of drivers, many from different countries with different rules and many simply indifferent, increases in the area, is it time to start ticketing the drivers that insist on driving slower than the general traffic and staying in the left lane? Perhaps an all out public out-reach effort on the part of the local officials to educate and remind people that it not okay to stay in left lane when another driver wishes to pass, would go a long way in keeping the flow of traffic smoother. Having driven on European roads for many years, it seems that despite similar numbers of cars and fewer lanes in many cases, traffic moves along in a much more disciplined manner

Dr. Gridlock: I don't believe in hogging the left lane and drive to the right on multi-lane roads. That said, it seems contradictory to ask police to ticket people who drive to the left while not ticketing people who speed.


Bethesda, Md.: When you take the P Street exit (traveling south on Rock Creek), there's a STOP sign to the right about 20 feet into the exit. I assume that it's for the bike/walking path as it is set in a bit from the road. However, I have been behind cars that have slammed on their brakes when they see the sign. What's the story with the STOP sign? Thanks.

Dr. Gridlock: That would be where the trail is, but it might also be a way of controlling the flow of traffic into a very congested part of the parkway. As I recall, there's a pretty clear view of the road there -- nothing to block the view of a stop sign -- so I'm not sure why drivers are having trouble spotting it.


Washington, D.C.: It seems as though those who are planning the Silver Line to Dulles, and those who are planning HOT lanes seem to be on the same page: No considerations have been given to accommodating traffic at at least one of the ends of those projects. The "solution" to reroute some Blue line trains over the Yellow line bridge will only serve to delay the Green line.

Whatever happened to the proposal to move either the blue or orange line on an east-west route north of the existing line, and then curve south through Georgetown, creating another tunnel under the Potomac? Those two projects in tandem would serve to make the Silver line more feasible.

The real solution, however, lies in regional rail. This area has an amazingly few number of regional rails given the metro area's size. Traffic getting into the city would be ease immensely with new regional rail. The area needs to buy up right of ways and lay down tracks. I'm sure a cost-benefit analysis would prove that the long term benefits of regional rail justify the initial cost.

Dr. Gridlock: We very much need better regional rail service. Both MARC and VRE have plans, but it's going to take a long time. There's a great need for more planning and more investment.

There's no plan to curtail Green Line service if some of the Blue Line trains are rerouted across the Yellow Line bridge over the Potomac. Metro says the idea is to take advantage of some excess capacity along that route while easing up on the overstressed Rosslyn tunnel.

So far, that sounds like a far better option than trying to build another train tunnel through downtown Washington. That's billions of dollars. How would we pay for that?


Crofton, Md.: I don't know if you're the right person to ask, but why is parking so inadequate near the Mall on weekends, especially Sundays? The only chance my family has to go to museums downtown is on Sundays and, whenever we drive in, it seems that there is only on-street parking available. Metro if of course an option, but with a four year old in tow, it's not always our best option.

Dr. Gridlock: They might be the people who were avoiding the Red Line this weekend. One thing we try -- and we don't have a 4 year old -- is to park in the garage at Union Station and walk over to the museums.


Reston, Va.: A traffic light has finally been set up at the Vienna Metro Station park-and-ride area. However, it is not turned on. When is it going to be turned on and placed in service?

Dr. Gridlock: I'll check. Usually what happens is that a new light gets set to flashing colors for a few days, so drivers can get used to its presence. Then it starts up in regular service.


Ellicott City, Md.: I know all the work on Kennilworth Avenue won't be finished until 2009, but will there be any relief any time soon from the daily back-ups?

Dr. Gridlock: Haven't checked on that lengthy construction project recently, but I will.


Shirlington, Va.: Has anyone else notice significantly less traffic in the last few months. Its felt like December/August traffic. I used to have to leave at 7:20 and it would take me 20 minutes, leave at 7:30 and it would take me 45. Now I can leave my house at 7:30 and comfortably make it to the office by 8 a.m.. Anyone else seeing this. Are high gas prices driving people back to Metro?

Dr. Gridlock: Other travelers have commented on this, and I did a posting about it on my Get There blog. But it's unclear to me whether it's actually a trend, and if it is, does it reflect gas prices or a weakening economy that has affected employment in our region?

Many readers on the blog said they thought it might just be occasional variations in traffic caused by school schedules, for example.


Washington, D.C.: Please answer this question without making excuses for Metro if you will. How in the world does it take several weekends to fix one switch problem on the red line? I find this absolutely inexcusable and false. Perhaps if Metro workers had incentive to get work done faster they would not have to have so many delays. This work really can't be done over night? I also find that hard to believe. This should be an outrage.

Dr. Gridlock: It's not a small job. Each weekend, the work crew of about 20 works on one track and replaces the switching equipment. The next weekend, they move to another segment of the switch. Four segments in all. Meanwhile, trains are running on the opposite track across from the workers. It would be easier if this were an above-ground station. The tunnel environment is another factor that slows progress.


Gaithersburg, Md.: I've lived in the area since 1999 and have accumulated numerous Metro Tickets with amounts ranging from small change to a couple of dollars. Yet the machines in the Metro stations only accept one ticket. What can I do with my multiple ticket problem?

Dr. Gridlock: That doesn't sound right. I have a SmarTrip card now, but I used to feed multiple Farecards into the station vending machine to add them onto one new card. (By the way, buying a SmarTrip card does permanently deal with that problem. However, the SmarTrip card itself costs $5 to buy.)


Woodbridge, Va.: Dr. Gridlock, thanks for taking our questions! I was wondering what you thought about the legislature extending the HOV exemption on 395/95 for those hybrids registered before July 1, 2006? They seem to extend the exemption each year but I haven't heard anything about extending it through 2009. Thanks!

Dr. Gridlock: I believe the VA General Assembly is in the process of passing a one-year extension and that the governor will allow it to become law, as he did last year. Many people complain that the carpoolers are forced to crowd into HOV lanes with solo drivers in hybrids.


Montclair, Va.: Robert,

HOV-3 is NOT FREE under the HOT concept. In the HOT contract between the Commonwealth and Fluor Daniels/Transurban of Australia, the Commonwealth has agreed to pay 70 percent of the existing toll once HOV-3 volume exceeds 24 percent of the total traffic volume on the HOT lanes. So to say that HOV-3 will remain free is blatantly false and misleading and should be addressed by the media. Maybe you can tell the taxpayers of Virginia what "free" HOV really means by using the following example:

At $1.00 per mile (or more as was stated in todays article) during peak rush hours - Eleven miles between Springfield and the Pentagon for each single driver equates to $11.00 each way, $22.00 each day, $440.00 each month, $5280.00 each year, per commuter of discretionary money robbed from the local economy and flies off to Australia.

For the so-called "free" HOV-3 vehicles, at 70 percent of the toll, 2,000 Springfield HOV-3 vehicles equates to $7,392,000 of Virginia Commonwealth tax revenue that leaves the Virginia economy, leaves the USA, and flies off to Australia. (2000 x $5280 x 70 percent)

Where is the media when confronting VDOT on this new Commonwealth subsidy to Fluor and Transurban? Do the taxpayers of the entire Commonwealth know they are now subsidizing HOV-3 which was previously free? How much will the Commonwealth "owe" Transurban every day, every week, every year? Can Richmond cut these funds at any time and what are the results on traffic? Is it dedicated funding that can never be cut? It doesn't matter whether you never even drive in Northern Virginia, you will still "PAY"

Dr. Gridlock: The HOT lanes will be free to carpoolers with at least three persons aboard, no matter what sort of financing plan the state and the private consortium work out.

And it's not like those HOV lanes got built for free. They were taxpayer-financed.


Alexandria, Va.: I have been wondering why Farragut North Metro station has been whitewashed? When did this happen and is Metro planning on painting all of it's stations white in the future, I like how bright it is, however, it does make the station look a bit like a bad remodeling job.

Also what happened to the Roads and Rails discussion group?

washingtonpost.com: R/R will be back next week.

Dr. Gridlock: Metro is working on brightening up the stations, both with the paint jobs and the lighting. That's very welcome to many of us. I thought the stations were getting far too dark. Sometimes when you're inside a train, you can't tell what's out there. And it's tough to read anything on some of the platforms.


Rockville to Reston: Hello,

Are there any plans (even vague talk) to provide public transportation between Maryland and Virginia (without the need to first travel into the District)?


Dr. Gridlock: Yes, and they are very vague. The new Wilson Bridge has an area that could be converted to transit use, if someone comes up with the plan and the financing.

Over on the Legion Bridge side, the best possibility is some rapid bus service, to coordinate with Virginia's HOT lanes project. But there's nothing at all set about that.

By the way, Metro and Montgomery County experimented with an express bus service between the Rockville area and Tysons a few years ago, but it didn't draw enough passengers and was eliminated. (It wasn't fast enough or frequent enough.)


Red Line: Seriously? Another 3-4 weekends of delays? Is this ever going to end? I'm actually embarrassed to invite friends from NYC to visit me here because of the Metro delays, it really makes our city seems second-rate.

Dr. Gridlock: Yep. Another three weekends for the Van Ness project, causing single tracking on the Red Line. When that's done, there will be something else. We almost never have a weekend without some track maintenance work or rail car testing. So all lines are involved.


Dr. Gridlock: Thanks, everyone, for joining me today. And please join me again here in two weeks. In the meantime, I hope to address your concerns in the Get There blog and in my Dr. Gridlock column in The Post.


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