Dr. Gridlock

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Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, March 10, 2008; 2:00 PM

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

He was online Monday, March 10 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: Hello, travelers, good to be with you again. I see a batch of traffic and transit questions here in the mailbag.

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Rockville, Md.: Hi Dr. Gridlock, A few weekends ago, I drove from Montgomery County to Richmond. Just south of Springfield, there was an inexplicable 10 mile backup. VDOT was apparently aware of it, as there were electronic signs noting the heavy congestion. But the HOV lanes were going northbound. On my way home the next day (a Sunday) the HOV lanes were still open northbound, and it looked like the southbound lanes had the same delays. So why wouldn't VDOT relieve the congestion by opening the HOV lanes to southbound traffic? It was very frustrating.

Dr. Gridlock: Here's what I know from talking to VDOT officials about the weekend pattern in the HOV lanes (not about this specific case:

The HOV lane direction is based on studies of the weekend traffic patterns along the entire length of the I-95/395 corridor where the HOV lanes are located. So they say, Don't base your judgment on what you see in one segment.

Also, they tell me, it's not a fast process to change the direction. (When I asked about quickly reversing the flow in the HOV lanes, their eyes got real large, as though they were imagining cars traveling directly at each other at 65 mph because somebody hadn't closed off a ramp in time, or made sure the HOV lanes were completely clear from start to finish.) It can take hours for police and VDOT to make sure that it's safe to reverse the traffic flow in the HOV lanes.

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Falls Church/Annandale, Va.: Dr. Gridlock, could you put this out there for consideration. I'm concerned this is an accident waiting to happen. Every morning rush hour on Gallows Road, there are Fairfax Hospital employees who take the Gallows Road exit to the Hospital but have to cut across four lanes of rush hour traffic on Gallows to take a left turn to the employee parking lot. It's much more reasonable and saner to take the Arlington Blvd. exit off the Beltway and then you can make a right turn into the parking lot. It might take 5 minutes longer but hey, you could live 25 years longer too.

Dr. Gridlock: As "Falls Church/Annandale" suggested, I'm putting this out for your consideration.

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Arlington, Va.: Dr. Gridlock:

Thanks for taking my question. You had mentioned before that the new Generation Metro cars were not going to have bench seating because it had been shown not to increase space. After thinking about it, and after my experience with the subway in New York and the T in Boston, I think we are missing the point of bench seating. The seating, combined with many more doors, allows for people to move in and out of the cars a lot faster. This would allow trains to spend less time in stations, and in the end, move more passengers.

Since Metro is coming close to capacity as it is currently running, efficiency should be the next focus. Currently, when Metro gets to major stations during rush hours, it takes over a minute to have everyone exit the train and then enter the train. Why has there been no focus from Metro on improving this in the new generation cars?

Dr. Gridlock: Metro is taking passenger flow into consideration in designing the next generation of train cars, the 7000 Series now in the planning stages. As you note, the designs we've seen do not have bench seating -- or at least not the extensive bench seating that we've debated from time to time.

I like your point about bench seating being good for passenger flow. I avoid taking window seats, because I have to ask the person seated next to me to get up when I want to get off. (I never know what's the best time to do that. When the train is entering the station and braking? Before it enters the station and still is running at regular speed? When the train actually stops?) Whatever. It takes a while, especially in a crowded car.

More immediate relief, I think, will come from the addition of eight-car trains.

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Rockville, Md.: Could you please explain the reasoning behind the creation of the Montrose Parkway? As I see it, 90 percent of the traffic on Montrose Road travels between 355 and 270, and the Montrose Parkway actually makes it more difficult to connect those two roads. This new road is just going to make traffic in the area worse. I just don't get this road, or why such a large chunk of money has been spent to build it.

Dr. Gridlock: It's hard for me to judge right now, because of that detour from Montrose Road onto Montrose Parkway while the Road is being rebuilt. (I think that detour continues until the summer.)

It's good in theory to create a quicker link between Rockville Pike and 270, and that's why Montgomery County was willing to invest in this, the most extensive road project it's ever done.

I've gotten a lot of complaints about traffic backups during this detour phase.

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Alexandria, Va.: Hi Doc,

I just came back from Sydney, Australia, where the metro trains are double-deckers! Only a few feet by the door, so people go up or down to get seats, and there were lots of them. Looks like our tracks have room on top -- how about that? Or at least for the Dulles airport extension.

Dr. Gridlock: I don't believe there's room in our tunnels to raise the car height that much. As for the Dulles line, you're probably thinking about how the line would be above ground almost all the way between East Falls Church and Loudoun County.

But the plan is that people would not have to transfer from the Dulles line. It would be a seamless trip through downtown Washington. So you wouldn't want those cars to have a different height from the existing fleet.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi. Hoping you can tell us why the comfortable wooden benches at bus-stops in D.C. are being replaced by sloping metal benches less than half as wide and with "dividers" that make it impossible for more than three people to try to sit -- if they can keep from sliding off. These are the most impractical "benches" I have ever seen anywhere, although I suppose they'll last forever since they can't be used. I've seen them at several bus- stops, including across from the National Cathedral on Massachusetts Ave. Is the real idea to keep homeless people from sleeping on benches in sight of tourists? Thanks for any solid info you can pass along.

Dr. Gridlock: The new bus shelters you're seeing across the District are part of a contract in which the city gets them for free in exchange for giving the company the advertising rights.

The design is unique to the District and is the result of consultations with many community leaders.

Yes, many people do not want those benches to be so comfortable they would invite long stays. Another accommodation was to raise the glass enclosure so it would not be flush with the sidewalk. Raising it up means that most trash won't get stuck inside the shelter.

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Airport question: I'm hoping you or the chatters can help. I'm scheduled to fly out of Dulles next Friday morning (8:55 flight). I live in Alexandria near Kingstowne. Any idea how early I should leave my house to get to the airport by about 7:30? Is traffic bad that early? I've only flown out of Dulles once and it was a Saturday, so I'm at a complete loss here. Thanks so much!

Dr. Gridlock: Let's hear from others, but I'm thinking: Leave home at 6:30 a.m. (You won't have any problem on the Dulles Access Road.)

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Arlington, Va.: Recently after close-to-sold-out Caps games, Metro has been either unable or unwilling to run extra Orange and Blue line trains back to Virginia. Are there plans to add extra trains to the Orange and Blue line after Nats games? Running extra trains on the Green line only is almost pointless.

Dr. Gridlock: Metro spokesman Steven Taubenkibel tells me this about the Nats plan:

There will be four extra Red and Orange Line trains before and after the game on opening day. After every game, there will be extra trains on the Green Line. Also, Metro will monitor ridership on the Blue and Orange and add trains if necessary.

What do you think?

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Columbia, Md.: Will there be any significant improvement in the daily backups on Kennilworth Avenue before the completion of the project in 2009?

Dr. Gridlock: After our last chat, Maryland's State Highway Administration gave me an update on the timetable for Kennilworth Avenue in response to a reader's question. Crews are now working on the second of the two bridges on Kennilworth Avenue.

But I don't recall anything about the schedule that would significantly improve traffic flow till the second bridge is done and open to traffic.

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Alexandria, Va.: Have the Nats released any specific information about the shuttle buses from the RFK lots to and from the new stadium? I'm wondering how long before and after games the shuttles will run, and what types of shuttles to look for (buses, vans, both).

Dr. Gridlock: This is what the Nats say about the shuttles:

You can park free at RFK Stadium Lot 8 and board a Nats Express luxury motorcoach for a quick and free ride to the new ballpark on South Capitol Street. (I think that's supposed to take about 10 minutes.)

The Nats Express will operate continuously from at least an hour and a half before game time through an hour and a half after the last inning. Motorcoaches equipped for disabled people are available.

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Ashburn, Va.: The Dulles Greenway owners are trying to increase the already $3.50 fees each way toward the $7 mark as I understand, for the privilege of sitting in traffic. The only other option out of Ashburn is Waxpool which is jammed. I'm thinking that my husband and I can take the money that we pay for the toll and use it instead towards a mortgage on a house closer in and which would be tax deductible on top of that. At some point, won't other people start figuring that out and forget about living further out west.

Dr. Gridlock: That's painful, and I don't mean this as an endorsement of any specific toll increase, but I do think that we're going to pay a lot more in tolls on a lot more of our roads.

Couple of reasons:

Road construction and maintenance is getting a lot more expensive.

Planners know they're not going to be able to build a lot more roads in developed areas, so they're thinking of tolls -- even on existing roads -- as a way of managing traffic congestion.

And yes, there's certainly plenty of talk among planners that tolls would provide commuters with a further incentive to live closer to work.

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Springfield, Va.:"Metro will monitor ridership on the Blue and Orange and add trains if necessary."

That's good to know. Just like they've been monitoring ridership everywhere else and have done next to NOTHING to reduce overcrowded trains. I'm guessing a ride to or from the new stadium is probably going to take well over an hour and a half from Franconia/Springfield. I guess I better start scouting out for secret parking locations.

Dr. Gridlock: Our focus has been on whether the Green Line's Navy Yard Station can handle all the extra passengers before and after games. But I'm also worried about the transfer stations at Metro Center, L'Enfant Plaza and Gallery Place, where people will be pouring in from other lines.

Another concern: If people are taking Metro from suburbs to games, will they be able to find parking spots at stations like Vienna, which already are crowded with commuters?

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Union Station, DC: Four trains on each line? I know they're not going to have 40,000 people per night, but each six-car train can only hold about 800 or so people. They're going to need more trains then that if they really plan to have that many people riding Metrorail. Even a moderately attended game of 28-32,000 is 1.5-2 times as many people as anything at the V-Center.

They're going to need to at least double the number of trains and make sure that people stuck at a late game can get home if they want to make this work right.

Dr. Gridlock: Officials are planning for each game this season to be a sellout, just because people will want to see the new stadium.

So that means they're hoping at least 20,000 people per game take transit. And yes, that's a lot of extra people to move through Metro during an evening commute.

I think I'll take the train to Capitol South and walk down from there on New Jersey Avenue, or drive to RFK, park for free and take the free shuttle bus.

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Washington, D.C.: Has anyone considered lowering the architectural and engineering standards of Metro expansion to allow future stations to be built faster and more economically?

I appreciate the uniformity and consistency of the stations, but is it really necessary to maintain it if it's going to cost more in the end to keep the uniformity?

The same thing goes for the trains...The T in Boston has three or four different types of trains, and just because a bad decision was made 30 year ago to use these expensive trains doesn't mean that we need to continue overspending to keep the same exact equipment we're using now. Metro has the ability and demand to expand, but 20th Century thinking and stubbornness has left us with few options to save money and create a more efficient system.

Dr. Gridlock: There are a lot of different station designs made necessary by local conditions. (Forest Glen is pretty different from Metro Center, for example.) So there's a history of making necessary adjustments.

The only expansion planned at the moment is the Dulles line, and we're waiting to see if that gets funded.

As for car design: The 7000 Series now in the planning stages represents the first real break with previous car designs. There are reasons Metro has been consistent: It's helpful to be able to make up different train sets, shift cars between lines, order one set of parts and teach mechanics one set of repair techniques.

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RE: early flight out of Dulles: A great option to get to Dulles from Kingstown is to take the Fairfax County parkway. I've taken it for early morning flights and the traffic for the most part is non-existent. It did get a bit congested north of I-66, but not the bumper to bumper traffic on the Beltway.

Dr. Gridlock: Thank you. This goes back to our earlier question about time from Alexandria to Dulles.

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Washington, D.C.: I think this is as good as time as any, if anyone is going to DC USA in Columbia Heights, please, by any means necessary, please use the Metro or walk. The traffic on 14th street on Saturday and Sunday was absolutely ridiculous.

Dr. Gridlock: DC USA is a big shopping and entertainment complex that's part of the impressive revitalization of Columbia Heights, with the Green Line station as its focal point.

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Herndon, Va.: The question about the reversible I-95 lanes struck a chord with me. Several times recently I've noticed a long (10 miles) backup in one direction while the HOV lanes were flowing in the opposite direction with light traffic. Now, maybe traffic was light _because_ the lanes were in that direction. But I don't think an engineering study has been done on this recently, especially for weekend traffic. I called VDOT and they made it clear their focus is on weekday rush hour, and gave me the sob story about having to pay someone overtime to switch the direction on weekends. Seems like a lot of capacity and efficiency is being lost by not managing this resource better. There is LOTS of traffic there on weekends. Who should I call to get help with this?

Dr. Gridlock: I think a decision on changing the traffic flow, or making the changes more frequently on weekends in response to current traffic conditions, would have to be made at VDOT headquarters in Richmond and approved by the Commonwealth Transportation Board.

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Springfield, Va.: Yesterday on my way home from the Caps game I drove past the new ballpark. I recall from the map on the Commuter Page a few weeks ago that the streets south of Potomac Avenue and west of South Capitol Street (basically, down to Buzzards Point) are not part of the restricted parking zone, so I wanted to check out the area. I have to say it didn't look very welcoming. But I'm wondering -- on Half Street SW south of Potomac Avenue there are a bunch of parking spaces, lined spaces perpendicular to traffic, located outside a Metrobus storage yard. There were no signs that I could see restricting them. Do you know if those spaces down there are available to the public? Struck me as a potential "secret" spot for baseball parking, if so.

Dr. Gridlock: I'm planning to spend a lot of time in the next few weeks walking around the stadium area, looking at the traffic, the parking, the signs and the transit options. I don't believe all the signs with the rules on game parking are in place yet.

But I do know that the street parking will be severely restricted in the Southwest neighborhoods and the fines for overstaying your welcome in a legitimate spot will be quite high.

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Washington, D.C.: I have received three speeding tickets in the last three months for doing 36 in a 25 along MacArthur Blvd. All three were sent via mail. I realize there are cameras along that stretch of road, but I wonder -- Was the speed limit there lowered? I think 25 mph seems pretty unreasonable for a major thoroughfare ...

Thanks!

Dr. Gridlock: I hadn't heard about any recent change in the speed limit on MacArthur. If there was, it should have been accompanied by some signs drawing attention to the new speed limit.

The District, unlike Montgomery County, doesn't have a 10 mph buffer between the speed limit and the speed that triggers a speed camera.

This link takes you to a map that shows the location of the DC speed cameras:

http://mpdc.dc.gov/mpdc/cwp/view,a,1240,q,548201,mpdcNav_GID,1552,mpdcNav,|31886|.asp

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Montgomery County: Does RideOn bus management train its drivers? On several buses recently, the drivers have asked passengers to "bear with me please, this is the first time I've driven this route." Invariably, the passengers become the navigators since the drivers have no idea where they are going. One driver showed us an illegible photocopy of the route he was supposed to drive. I thought that the drivers went through training so that they would know their routes. The affected buses were the smaller ones, which I understand RideOn contracts out for service. If so, the contractor needs to do a better job of training its drivers. Whom should I contact at RideOn about this?

Dr. Gridlock: Not good. Transit agencies do move drivers and buses from route to route, depending on the demands of the week or of the day.

Ideally, they limit that. One of the plans for redesigning Metro's 30s Line is to give drivers more training on that long route and let them get more familiar with it. Planners say driver training can make a big difference on a bus line.

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Silver Spring, Md.: GOOD NEWS! I am moving out of the D.C. area; that means one less car on the roads for all of you D.C. commuters out there. I just can't take it anymore. The higher salary is not worth the deplorable quality of life (yesterday I sat in traffic on a SUNDAY and there was no accident on I-66). I am moving to where the roads are much less clogged and where I won't have to curtail my life because of traffic. I encourage others to consider what I am doing; because they say D.C. traffic is only going to get worse (although I cannot even imagine that)!

Dr. Gridlock: Sorry to lose you. But chances approach 100 percent that your vehicle will be replaced on our increasingly congested roads.

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Bethesda, Md.: Glad to hear that the UDC work will wind up this weekend. Any word on whether Metro is moving the goal post again and starting another round of work with half hour delays on the Shady Grove end of the line right after this one?

I hope they take a break, Cherry Blossom Festival is just around the corner and things could get ugly with the decreased level of service.

Dr. Gridlock: Count on there being track work or rail car testing on some line or another on almost every weekend this year.

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Cars towed for films shooting on location?: Hi, I was attending a matinee performance at the Folger on Saturday. There was an announcement at intermission that cars had been towed on 2nd and 4th street because of a film shoot that the Folger hadn't been given advance notice of. There wouldn't be any tickets, but the cars were moved to new locations. The intermission was extended to allow folks to see if their car had been moved.

After the performance there was a representative form MPD with a list of the cars and where they had been towed.

Is this a common occurrence that the police move cars to let a film crew shoot?

Dr. Gridlock: That sounds very unusual. The scenario I'm more familiar with is that DDOT or the police department puts out an advisory warning motorists about parking restrictions a day ahead of time.

(I think I saw that same film crew on Sunday afternoon. The stops of the Library of Congress were blocked for them.)

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Brentwood, Md.: A question for everyone complaining about this weekend's overcrowded Red Line trains -- did you try boarding the back car of the train?

I was riding in the back car of an inbound Red Line train on Saturday, and there were plenty of empty seats. At Metro Center, the train stopped for an unusually long time. After several attempts to close the doors, the train operator threatened to take the train out of service if passengers didn't clear the doors.

As the train pulled out of the station, I saw what was happening -- there were -hundreds- of passengers still on the platform who were unable to board the train -- and there were still empty seats in the back car!

Then, the exact same thing happened at Gallery Place! While hundreds of fuming passengers were left behind on the platform, I was stretching out and enjoying my ride in my nearly-empty car.

What good are 8-car trains if nobody boards the extra cars? Should Metro end the 8-car train experiment because they aren't being utilized? Why aren't Metro employees directing passengers on crowded platforms to the rear cars, instead of standing around with clipboards and chatting with each other?

Dr. Gridlock: Metro says it has extra staff out to assist passengers on the Red Line for these weekends, but I hear this quite often: That passengers aren't finding their way to the first and last cars of the eight-car trains because they don't expect to see them.

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Dr. Gridlock: Thanks for all your good questions and comments today. I hope to see you again here in two weeks. Stay safe.

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