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Roads and Rails

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Eric Weiss and Lena Sun
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, March 17, 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, March 17 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: So what woud chatters rather do, pay tolls to drive down New York Avenue or spend a half-hour waiting on a weekend Red Line train?

thoughts, comments, questions, expletive-filled rants...

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Washington, D.C.: When I read the article about the tolls this morning, I wanted to cringe. Paying every time I dive on 66, Rock Creek Pkwy, BW Parkway, and the beltway? Every time, like to go to the airport? I bet District businesses are going to love that. I mean, why can't we have an honest debate about where local tax money goes and lets find ways to stop the waste and start building the infrastructure?

Eric Weiss: If you can point out $17 billion worth of government waste that would pay for the estimated regional transportation infrastructure needed by 2030, we're all ears....

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Hamilton, Va.: Re the article about tolls.

How are people who need these roads to commute to low-paying jobs going to find the money to do so?

One of the basic functions of government is good roads and to make them dependent on toll revenue for construciton and/or maintenance is another of the continuing steps to divide society into the haves and have nots, or essentially turning us into a quasi third-world society.

Eric Weiss: The authors of the report and transportation leaders emphasize the importance of reinvesting any toll revenue into transit, so it would be more frequent, quicker and hopefully cheaper.

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Arlington, Va.: I was utterly outraged by this morning's story about the possibility of placing tolls throughout the region, particularly at all the entry points to D.C. On a practical level, I don't see this as a realistic option, for many reasons.

One, placing tolls on nearly every entry point into the District is just going to kill tourism, because we already have too many travel problems facing non-locals: not only is downtown parking overpriced and impossible to find, but Metro itself has proven unreliable and flat-out confusing to the many tourists who come here (I have plenty of out-of-state friends who don't have kind words for SmarTrip and the lack of communication/education thereto). Placing driving tolls on top of this will more or less add insult to injury, so if non-locals have to pay a toll just to get into the District, I wouldn't expect to see a great turnout at the cherry blossom festival.

Two, for local residents, this is yet another example of how the region's financial and economic problems are being funneled down to the common man to bail out the bigwigs. Gas prices are at an all-time high, which are squeezing families ALREADY strapped for funds vis-a-vis the credit meltdown, the housing crash, and higher food prices, just to name a few.

Three, in terms of daily commuting, this'll create more traffic nightmares than it will resolve them, because people not wanting to pay tolls to get into the District will take alternate routes on back roads (or at least non-toll roads), thus creating unspeakable congestion on THOSE roads. And for those who have the option to drive OR take Metro to work, tolls will cancel out the driving option for those commuters fed up with Metro's shoddy service coupled with recent fare increases.

In short, this could potentially be the straw that breaks the camel's back for the D.C. region, because locals and non-locals alike aren't going to stand for being gouged so heavily just to make their way through D.C. I sure hope local leaders take this into account when considering this proposal.

Eric Weiss: First, the study was not just about putting tolls on District crossings. It emphasizes a regional, comprehensive congestion pricing scheme on ALL regional highways, meaning that drivers pay for the roads they use. In a comprehensive system, there is no "back road" into the city.

As for it affecting District tourism, this weekend I paid $8 to go through the Lincoln Tunnel in New York. It went on my EZ Pass and I assure you it did not play any role in deciding whether I would enter the city. (The average DC crossing toll under the study would be about $3.)

And as an aside, the roads in the District are far more confusing for tourists than the Metro system, as anyone who witnesses cars with Wisconsin or Nevada plates driving cluelessly in circles around our fair city.

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March Madness: The Verizon Center is hosting NCAA first- and second-round tournament games Thursday and Saturday. Are there going to be any road closures to accommodate the crowds? Will Metro be continuing the draconian weekend schedule on the Red Line?

Lena Sun: Guess what. You're in luck. Metro is NOT scheduling any track work on the Red, Yellow or Green lines this weekend, in part because of crowds expected for the basketball games. Spokesperson Steven Taubenkibel said things look clear so far on Blue and Orange as well. Looks like one of those rare weekends so hop on the train. You can go to the station you normally use and click on "Next Train Arrival" to get a sense in real time when your next three trains are coming.

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Washington, D.C.: I think The Post's coverage of traffic and transit issues has really gone downhill over the past year or so. Today's blurb about the Metro meetings tonight on the 30s bus line is just another example. The information is provided to readers with too little notice.

Lena Sun: Maybe you missed it but my colleague Dr. Gridlock also gave details about the hearings on the 30s line in his Dr. G's tips roundup on Sunday March 9. (We run a commuter page every Sunday on page 2 of the Metro section that focuses on different issues).

I also wrote a detailed story about what Metro's restructuring would do, published on Feb. 14 with a map, and I believe the 30s restructuring was also featured in a separate commuter page, also with a map.

Sorry you didn't think the coverage was adequate.

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McLean, Va.: As more Smart automobiles hit the road, will DC, Arlington, and other locales be amending their laws to allow gap parking?

Eric Weiss: Gap parking, for those who drive Chevy Suburbans or even a VW New Beetle, is when one parks a tiny car, like a Smart car, vertically in a block of parallel parking spaces, since the length of the Smart car is about the same width of other, normal cars.

That would be interesting. DC and Arlington Transportation officials are pretty progressive (although it seems Arlington hates all cars). But getting the message down to the police and traffic enforcement folks mean that gap parkers would spend half their time fighting tickets.

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Washington, DC: Last night I walked by the new Harris Teeter that is being built in the Adams Morgan area. It is on a somewhat narrow, quiet street. I can't imagine how increased traffic will fit on those streets. Do you know if D.C. has a plan?

Eric Weiss: Their plan was to cave in to local residents and put together a series of one-way streets that will serve to only confuse drivers and give drug dealers at Euclid and 17th advance warning of police.

This is a city. Two-way street grids are the way to go.

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Silver spring, Md.: I know, I know, this is the least original rant ever, but I am so sick of the Metro being useless on weekends!!! Tell us again when this weekend track work is supposed to be finished? What golden date can I mark in my calendar?

Lena Sun: Well you will be okay this weekend, assuming you are a Red Line rider. And Metro has finished the switch replacement at Van Ness and there are no major jobs like that scheduled for the Red Line in the next few months. But there is tons of maintenance and repair that have to be done routinely and Metro schedules them for the weekends because there is not enough time during the weekday overnights to get it done. If they had done Van Ness on the week nights, believe me, it would have been much, much worse.

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Washington, DC: Pay a toll.

Eric Weiss: Dear Washington: ...And pay a toll when visiting those big box stores in the suburbs.

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re: meaning that drivers pay for the roads they use: I feel I ALREADY pay for the roads I use, through taxes.

I do not think tolls will dampen tourism much. The majority of tourists aren't driving here. Or if they do, they take metro, cabs, or walk once they'v arrived at their hotel.

Eric Weiss:...and what about the time and psychic energy of sitting in traffic...

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Reston, Va.: What does the recent dissolution of the NVTA do to the Dulles rail project? We've been waiting for ages to see Metro come closer, and now it feels like the wait may go on forever. Who can citizens contact to voice their opinions on the matter?

Eric Weiss: Separate issues.

Dulles rail is in the hands of the Federal Transit Administration.

The NVTA, which would fund smaller, more local projects across the region, is in the hands of state legislators.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Lena, you're my Xena, Warrior Princess! The lights are back on at the stairwell & taxi area at the Silver Spring Metro. However, the other stairwells are blocked off. Are they fixing the broken concrete, or is this the beginning of demolition for the Transit Ctr? I fear us peds/bus riders will be ground up in a multi-agency mess. They covered traffic ligts/walk signs on Dixon months ago with no warning. Who do we contact?

Lena Sun: Ooh, can't wait to tell my husband about your compliment! Thank you. Let's post your observation here and hope the super-sharp eagle eyes in the Metro media relations office will pass this on to BJ Jones, the Red Line manager. The county is doing the construction and demolition so it depends on where the problem is as to who is responsible. I'll try to find out if you want to send me a separate email: SUNL@washpost.com

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Washington, D.C.: I guess the main question is... if this toll business does end up happening (which seems to be what we are being pushed towards), could metro handle even more increased traffic, especially on the weekend? With the numerous delays of late, their reliance on weekends to do track work, and less train traffic than during the week, I can't see at all how Metro could even give close to satisfactory service.

Yes, we'd be getting in more money for transportation issues with a toll, but how much would go to WMATA's already barren coffers? Would other governments be willing to shell out more money to ease Metro's woes? And even if Metro DID get more funds from this, they've never been that great at moving quickly to upgrade.

Of course, like the stock market, what goes up must go down. Maybe this "correction" of D.C.'s fortunes has to happen, right?

Eric Weiss: You raise some excellent points. Under tolls, do we just push more folks onto already crowded Orange Line trains?

I think the authors of the report are thinking buses and specifically bus rapid transit, where buses run on dedicated lanes and at a frequency of train transit.

But,hey, $2.75 billion with a "b" is a lot of money. The Northern Virginia Transportation Authority was talking $50 million, with an "m" to dedicate yearly to Metro. So no doubt Metro would get some more shekels.

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Washington, D.C.:"As more Smart automobiles hit the road, will DC, Arlington, and other locales be amending their laws to allow gap parking? "

How does one get out of the car once gap parked? Are the sides reinforced such that parallel parkers won't smash up the sides when bumping "bumpers"? Should I ever get one of these gas-powered Matchbox car, I would never gap park.

Eric Weiss: Maybe the Post will fund me on a trip to Amsterdam to answer your excellent questions.

But there are so many Mini Coopers in the city fitting into so many little spaces that it does make me jealous as I drive around the block looking for a space to fit my "smallish" Volvo S40.

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N.W. D.C.: I strongly disagree that charging tolls to drive on DC area roads will "kill tourism."

There is just no way that a few dollars in toll charges is going to make much of an impact on the millions of people who visit our beautiful city every year. Are parents really going to tell their kids that they won't get to see the Air and Space Museum, the White House or the Cherry Blossoms because Dad doesn't want to pay $4 to drive on the Beltway.

Or all those professional associations and interest groups that visit DC to lobby their members of Congress will simply abandon their legislative and policy priorities in the face of a few dollars in road tolls.

It seems that Washingtonians (particularly our friends in Virginia) are opposed to taxes to pay for transport, have deep concerns over massive federal/local transport projects (like Metro to Tysons/Dulles) and now oppose "user-fees" in the form of tolls and metro fare increases.

I wonder where these people think the funds to invest and and expand our transport infrastructure are going to come from.

People complain about Metro repairs on the Red Line, but what's the alternative? No metro repairs - which in time means no Red Line as the system grinds to a halt.

I ride the metro every day from Columbia Heights to Archives and personally find the $1.65 I pay a bargain. Metro and bus in DC allows me to live car free - $1.65 to work each day is cheap compared to car payment, tax, gas, insurance, parking etc...

Eric Weiss: You make some good points.

The folks in Northern Virginia (which, let's face it, are the ones least likely in our region to support more taxes) are the ones sitting in the region's worst traffic.

So there is a cost to not investing in roads and transit, and that is the cost of sitting in traffic burning $3.25-a-gallon gasoline.

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Alexandria, Va.: Has anyone ever considered how different the traffic woes in the region might be if all the proposed freeways into and around D.C. (I-266, I-95 through DC, the outer Beltway, et al) were built as planned rather than being eliminated for one reason or another? I have a feeling that things would be somewhat more managable if these roads were built (in conjunction with METRO) back in the 1950s-1970s as planned, rather than being totally eliminated by NIMBYs and the anti-highway mentality of the era.

Eric Weiss: It would certainly be easy to get from one suburb to another, but I don't know if the city would be coming back as it is now if all those neighborhoods were bulldozed.

It is annoying that the 3rd Street tunnel puts you on traffic-choked New York Avenue. It is annoying that the Southeast/Southwest freeway ends just before 295.

So I guess it depends on your perspective.

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Tolls: So if toll roads decrease congestion, why are the Greenway and toll road stopped every day with traffic?

No more toll roads.

Eric Weiss: First, they have toll booths. The HOT lanes and the ICC and other proposed toll roads would require EZ-Pass-type transponders that would allow tolls to be deducted without stopping at toll booths.

Hardcore toll-proponents say that DTR and Greenway tolls should be raised enough to ensure traffic-free conditions.

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Washington, D.C.: As a tax-paying non-car owner, I say bring on the tolls! I'm tired of my taxes going to gas-guzzling and not to public transit options (and I include Amtrak as public transit). I'd actually rather a gas-tax increase over the tolls (then gas-guzzlers would pay more), but tolls are a start.

Eric Weiss: Easy for you to say, latte drinker!

The report says the idea of a regional toll proposal is primarily to get regional traffic moving, not just to raise revenue (although $2.75 billion buys a lot of lattes.)

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Baltimore: The Cherry Blossom 10 mile run is coming up soon and the organizers have said Metro will open early to get runners to the event? I haven't seen any details about this on Metro's website. How can I find out specifics on the schedule for that morning?

Lena Sun: I'm sure it will be up soon. I would check the Metro website in a couple of days, and I will also mention it to the folks over there.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Setting a toll on a limited-access road like a highway is one thing. To set one on NY Ave., wouldn't there have to be an infrastructure investment similar to what London bought into with their congestion charge system?

Eric Weiss: The DC-area proposal would toll specific roads, while the London situation puts a toll on every car that passes over a line surrounding the center city.

The DC-area plan is not designed to ease traffic in downtown DC but to keep the regional highway system moving while investing in roads and transit, something that Virginia, Maryland and the federal government have not been doing to the extent needed.

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Any word about the situation at...: Prince George's Plaza last week? I heard a rumor that someone had committed suicide there, but haven't seen anything...

Lena Sun: The day after the incident, we wrote a brief about the 27-year-old woman whose body was found between the parking garage and the tracks. Prince George's police are investigating the death as a suicide.

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Arlington, Va.:

You say: "Eric Weiss: If you can point out $17 billion worth of government waste that would pay for the estimated regional transportation infrastructure needed by 2030, we're all ears...."

Yes, I can. It's in the accompanying story to yours where the DOT found it had $1 billion in its budget that had no earmarks, so they spent it. So instead of consultants and funding truly weird projects that do nothing for the long-term need for more roads, how about spending the money on building new highways. That's the one certain way of reducing congestion. At $1 billion a year for 17 years takes us to 2025 gives us the $17 billion, and means we have $5 billion left over for even more roads by 2030.

We also could raise more money by charging government employees the full-cost of their Metro fares, instead of giving them free Metro passes. We need to stop free-riders on Metro and impose more hefty parking fees to cover the real costs of running this white elephant.

Eric Weiss: That sounds like a plan. Make sure congressmen and senators don't take any more earmarks for the next 17 years and take away incentives for federal employees to use transit and send them back into their cars.

Sounds like a sound plan to me.

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Eric Weiss: btw, Happy St. Patrick's Day!

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Alexandria, Va.: Can you tell me anything about the Branch Avenue Metro stop? I was thinking that for weekend games at the new ballpark (say, Opening Day!) it might be a good place for someone coming from Alexandria to park, since the ride to Navy Yard does not require changing trains and since the ride back will be going the opposite way from most Metro riders.

My girlfriend is NOT enthusiastic about the idea and thinks that it would be an unsafe place to park. Given how many commuters use it during the week, I think she must be paranoid, but do you know anything about crime statistics out there?

Lena Sun: The Branch Avenue station has more than 3,000 parking spots, and on Saturdays, Sundays and federal holidays, parking is FREE. So good thinking on your part. I don't have the crime stats for that station but you should use your common sense and be alert when you're heading back to your car.

Metro will have additional personnel, including transit police, at the Navy Yard station and the other key transfer stations. And I bet all Metro personnel, including the police, will be paying extra attention to their service that night.

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Mt. Pleasant DC - Fire-related bus problems: After last week's terrible fire on Mt. Pleasant Street, much of the street has been closed to traffic, so Metrobuses have obviously been rerouted. However, this morning I couldn't find signs at the bus stops for the 42, H4 or H8 telling riders about the changes. The WMATA website said there are no service alerts or bus detours. To borrow an online phrase from Carolyn Hax: (banging head on keyboard).

I called these problems in to WMATA, and they said my request for signs and web updates will be passed along to the appropriate staff. They expect the changes to last for about another week. The 42 starts at Columbia, and the H lines are significantly altered, with the H8 not coming west of 14th (typically goes to 17th). Hopefully the street supervisor will get signs posted quickly, given that the fire happened several days ago, and there have been groups of confused riders wandering around the neighborhood in frustration.

Lena Sun: I'm posting your comment and hope this situation will be relayed to the folks on the bus side in charge of posting signs about detours.

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Alexandria: Just came back from Sydney, Australia, where in the front of every metro car was a big sign to school students - Remember the Code of Conduct! Well, my sister and I just laughed, because, over here, who asks kids to behave themselves on public transportation? Then I thought, why don't we post something like that - to make unruly kids think twice before being unruly?

Lena Sun: It's a thought, although I'm not sure how much good it would do.

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McLean, Va.: Would it make sense for northern Virginia to have a seperate rail authority for building rail lines from Falls Church to Dulles (or light rail on Columbia Pike)? If WMATA's management is incompetent, how can we find better stewards?

Eric Weiss: The train from London to Gatwick has been mentioned during the Dulles rail debate.

I could imagine that a train from Union Station to Dulles would certainly be more appealing to air passengers. But part of the current project has always been about fixing the mistake of the 1960s and extending Metro to Tysons Corner, one of the region's top employment centers.

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Lena Sun: Hey folks. Thanks so much for your comments and questions today. Have a safe and smooth commute home. See ya in two weeks.

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