Dr. Gridlock

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Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, April 7, 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, April 7 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 was out of the newsroom for a week. Flew to Minn. and drove with my Dad back to his place on Cape Cod, then back to Washington. Worst traffic: Chicago. Most interesting tech observation: Ohio uses E-ZPass at speed toll collection.

On to your question about tonight's baseball traffic and other matters.

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Today's Game: If I work downtown, I should try to leave work early, right? Thanks for the 7 p.m. game during rush hour, Nationals.

Dr. Gridlock: I plan to take the train to the stadium area tonight and walk around, so I can get a feel for the transit use and the traffic before this first night game at the new stadium.

The planners worked with the idea that games at the 41,000-seat stadium would be sellouts during this first year, but tonight -- with this weather -- might not be a good model for what we'll see before the 50 or so night games this season.

Yes, if you can leave work early, that's a good bet, whether your driving or transit route takes you anywhere near the stadium area. Many fans and commuters will be dealing with this congestion for the first time, and trying to figure out what to do. Could be a real mess, despite the planning.

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M Street left turns closed: So, If I am going to the game tonight and I take the Maine exit off 14th Street bridge,and get to M Street, how can I get to my parking spot if all the left turns are shut down? Will I be able to make a left onto 4th St. SE and cut back over to get to my parking area on 3rd ST SE?

Dr. Gridlock: I think you'd be better off staying on I-395, rather than taking the Maine Ave exit. Get off at 6th Street SE. Maine Ave is the first exit you can take for the stadium, but it's certainly not the best for everyone. Maine leads to M, and traffic on M Street should be pretty heavy. And yes, traffic control officers should be blocking many of those lefts from M Street.

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washingtonpost.com: Traffic Meets Baseball Tonight (washingtonpost.com, Apr. 7)

Dr. Gridlock: That's a link to the Get There blog item I did this morning with some suggestions for people who are driving, walking, biking or taking the train to the game -- or just trying to avoid the congestion.

But nothing beats experience, so please share your own suggestions, either on the blog, or by sending an e-mail to me at drgridlock@washpost.com.

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Nats And Caps Friday Night: You've talked about this evening's Nationals baseball game as the test for transit and traffic. What do you think is the potential for problems Friday night when the Washington Capitals play the first game of their Stanley Cup playoffs matchup against the Philadelphia Flyers at Verizon Center, starting about the same time as the Nats host the Atlanta Braves. The sure-to-be-sold-out hockey game starts at 7:05pm, the baseball game's first pitch is scheduled for 7:35pm, and both will probably end at about the same time.

Dr. Gridlock: I think weekday evenings with multiple games are bound to stress the transit system. Verizon Center sits atop Gallery Place Station, which not only will provide access for Caps fans but also serve as a transfer station for some fans on the way to Nationals Park.

Some possibilities: If you're going to Verizon Center, get off at a nearby station, like Metro Center or Judiciary Square, and walk the last few blocks. If you're going to Nationals Park, see if you can transfer somewhere else, like L'Enfant Plaza or Fort Totten (depending of course on your origin point).

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Arlington, Va.: You may want to point out to the baseball fans that typically they will be allowed to park in Lot 8 at RFK and take their shuttle bus to the baseball stadium. HOWEVER, on days in which there is also a DC United match at RFK (like this Wednesday for example), the baseball fans will be required to park in Lot 7 which is not as easily accessible from the Freeway. And their shuttle bus will have to go via neighborhood streets since it will not have direct access to the freeway.

Dr. Gridlock: Another good thought about evenings when there are multiple games in town. Anytime DC United is playing at RFK and there's a baseball game at Nationals Park, the Nats will move their free RFK parking from Lot 8 to Lot 7, and the free shuttle bus will follow.

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Greenbelt, Md.: Dr. Gridlock, I've just started a new job in Rockville and I'm trying to adjust to having to drive to work for the first time in many years, since metro isn't a feasible option. Do you or you chatters have any suggestions for going from Greenbelt to Rockville Pike? Also, any chance we'll ever get a purple line?

Dr. Gridlock: I think we'll eventually get a Purple Line connecting Bethesda and New Carrollton, but also know you can't wait till sometime in the next decade to get to work.

This is a difficult driving trip during rush periods. The most likely route from Greenbelt to Rockville would take you along the Beltway's outer loop, which is cruel punishment during the morning rush. I wish Metrorail were an option for you, because I think it would be highly competitive with driving, if you're driving during the rush periods.

If you can't take Metro from Greenbelt to Rockville, I'm not sure the Purple Line would be a good option for you, even if we had it right now. It will be either a light rail or rapid bus line with many stops, and at the end, you'd need to transfer to the train or bus anyway to complete your trip to work.

Readers have other suggestions on this route?

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I have a good game plan: But no way am I telling you guys. My little secret. For how long, who knows.

Dr. Gridlock: Please be careful on your secret plans for reaching Nationals Park. Most Nats fans are not familiar with this part of the city, but some are. Those are the folks I worry about the most in this regard.

You may be thinking of a parking spot that used to be great. But now, you may encounter traffic control officers waving you away from that street -- especially if it's in the Southwest neighborhoods -- and even if you can reach the secret spot, you may find a new parking meter there that makes game time parking impossible.

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DC: Not sure if everyone who uses a SmarTrip card knows this, but to get a replacement of your card with the full value on it, you have to register it on the Metro website.

I was on Metro with a woman who had just lost her card and was calling Metro for a new one, only to discover she needed to register it first.

Dr. Gridlock: Folks can find many of the rules for SmarTrip cars on this page on the Metro Web site:

http://www.wmata.com/riding/smartrip.cfm

The cards are great, but some of the rules are more complicated than we'd like, and not so user-friendly for some people. For example, I wish it weren't so complicated for seniors and the disabled to get their special cards.

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Burke, Va.: Do you have any info on when the second span of the Wilson Bridge will open? Is it still on track for May?

Dr. Gridlock: Still on track for mid-May.

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Frederick, Md.: Dr. G,

I just wanted to send out a positive experience I had recently. I commute from Frederick to D.C. on the MTA bus. I recently encountered an issue with some of the bus drivers showing preference to commuters going to Hagerstown over those going to Frederick, against MTA policy of seating being first-come/first-serve. I emailed a complaint into MTA and had someone respond directly to me. Not a form letter or just some mass generated response that they would look into it but rather a conversation with someone in the department about the incident. It's nice that such a big organization, which I'm sure receives it's fair share of complaints, was able and willing to sit down and take time to address my issue directly. So far I haven't seen the issue repeated so perhaps it worked. So I wanted to just say thanks to MTA for doing a good job.

Dr. Gridlock: In general, I've found the region's transit agencies to be responsive on citizen complaints and questions. Some readers complain to me that they get back notes that amount to "thanks for your input." But that hasn't been my personal experience when I submit a question by the transit agencies' e-mail system. (And I don't mean as "Dr. Gridlock.")

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Alexandria, Va.: Good response to the person heading to the game tonight down M St. Also note that 4th St. SE is now a one-way street heading towards M Street, so s/he would not be able to turn left on 4th- either 3rd or 5th St. would meet those needs.

Dr. Gridlock: Thanks for that advice. As I said earlier, I plan to look around tonight and report back to readers, but it will take a few nights to cover all the things people are concerned about, whether they're fans or commuters.

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Nats & Caps: Sunday is also a conflict with Nats & Caps games- the Nats play at 1:35 and the Caps play at 2. Hope Metro's focusing on that day as well as Friday.

Dr. Gridlock: Lots of readers are sending in questions and comments about multiple game nights. One thing I've long found interesting about this transportation issue is that we're basically dealing with a management problem.

Placement of the stadium wasn't accompanied by a new highway, or new exit ramps, or a brand new transit station. (Though we did get a rebuilt west entrance at Navy Yard Station to accommodate fans.) That means that much depends on the solutions traffic and transit planners have come up with to manage the congestion.

They'll have to pay constant attention to this. And I believe they have good plans -- it's just that they'll have to be ready to adjust those plans, based on experience, and the experience of this week may be different from the experience of a week on mid-June, or mid-September.

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For Greenbelt, Md.: Okay, I live in Laurel and work in Greenbelt and regularly have to travel to appointments at NIH. Travelling from PG County to Rockville during morning rush is about as painful a commute as possible. The slightest hint of bad weather, an accident or a special event anywhere in the DC metro seems to cause a huge backup on the outer loop.

My suggestion is for the commuter to listen to WTOP in the mornings. About 50-60 percent of the time, you can take the Beltway. But for that significant part of the time where there is any problem on the Beltway (and if there is rain/snow, assume there is a problem on the Beltway even when they don't say anything on WTOP) take Kennelworth north to Powder Mill Road and take Powder Mill Road over to Cherry Hill Road. Turn west on Cherry Hill Road and follow that until it turns into Randolph which will take you over to Rockville. It seems like a lot longer especially with all the lights, but it moves at a steady pace all the way across which is a lot better than the stop-and-go and under-20 MPH rate on the Beltway.

Dr. Gridlock: Thanks for that advice to our Greenbelt-Rockville commuter.

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Bethesda, Md.: I just want to say thank you to whomever deserves it in the MD Dept of Transportation. I was driving my son back from some college visits in Pennsylvania and inadvertently got into the express toll lane coming into Balto.

I knew I'd get fined, but was pleasantly surprised that it was for $2! I appreciated the very mild slap on the wrist.

Dr. Gridlock: One thing I noticed recently on my drive from Minn. to Cape Cod is that different states put their E-ZPass only lanes in different places at the toll plazas. It can be difficult to anticipate whether you want to be on the left or right side of the approaching highway.

Peter Samuels, who publishes Toll Road News, once told me that the best option is to put them on the left side. Keep the higher speed traffic to the left at the toll plazas, just as you do on the highway itself.

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Silver Spring, Md.: For the driver going from Greenbelt to Rockville, another option is to take Cherry Hill Road, which becomes Randolph Road and then goes over to Rockville Pike. It's slower than the Beltway during off-peak hours, but often faster during rush hour.

(And depending on where in Rockville they're going, they can also easily branch off to Veirs Mill Road or other alternates.)

Dr. Gridlock: I'm starting to think that we're illustrating why MD DOT wants to build the intercounty connector. Readers are recommending east-west options through Montgomery County that can be stressed to the max (even while the Beltway is over-stressed.)

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Washington, D.C.: We're driving down to Richmond on Friday afternoon (leaving around 3:30), and I was wondering what route you would advise. 95 is always bad, and we've taken 66 to 29 in the past, but at that time of day it tends to get pretty backed up as well (with traffic on 66, and lights on 29). Is there another way I'm not thinking of?

Dr. Gridlock: I'm afraid you've just covered the main alternative that I and my predecessor, Ron Shaffer, have recommended over the years: Route 29. If you live east of Washington, you've got Route 301 as north-south alternative. But from Washington, there aren't many options -- unless you readers think I should start recommending other solutions to this frequently asked question?

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Silver Spring, Md.: Hi,

My question is about pedestrian crosswalks. I've seen two different types - both are lines that run perpendicular across the street, but one type has diagonal lines and the other type does not. Does a driver always have to stop at either crosswalk type?

Dr. Gridlock: I once asked George Branyan, DC's point man on pedestrian safety. He said the type of lines forming the crosswalk doesn't matter, in terms of what the motorist is required to do. Drivers always must stop for pedestrians in the crosswalk. In fact, I believe it doesn't even matter if there are white lines at the intersection: We still must stop for pedestrians.

(And then, I always want to say this: Not matter what the law says, pedestrians are never in season. You never want to hit them, even when they're obviously in the wrong.)

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Washington, D.C.: anyone else having trouble getting a response from Metro customer service? I've used the online complaint form. I get an automated response promising a detailed response, but never get a detailed (specific) response. I've even e-mail again asking for one and don't get one. This has happened a few times over the course of several months so I think it is a customer service prob;em, not a computer system problem.

Dr. Gridlock: I'd also like to hear from anyone having such problems. (Again, the e-mail is drgridlock@washpost.com.) But my personal experience is different: The times I've used Metro's customer service phone line or e-mail, I've gotten a detailed response. I haven't necessarily agreed with the response, but it has been specific.

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Capitol Hill: Have planners taken into account the added headaches of church traffic/parkers for Sunday Nats games? I don't even think about getting in my car until after 2 on Sundays...

Dr. Gridlock: If this turns out to be a problem, I'd love to hear about it. But from the planning documents I've seen and my conversations with DDOT, Metro and Nats officials, there should be enough alternatives for people getting to the games -- and enough disincentives from parking on neighborhood streets -- to meet community concerns.

I can tell you for sure that DDOT has done a lot of planning based on neighborhood concerns and will continue to monitor the situation.

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Rockville, Md.: As someone who used to commute from College Park to Rockville Pike, I'd go with University Boulevard to Viers Mill Rd. to Randolph Road. It's still not fast, but it's not the nightmare that the Outer Loop can be.

Dr. Gridlock: To me, it's like the frying pan and the fire. Local roads or highway. Sometimes, the choice will depend on our individual preferences. Will be do anything to keep moving, or at least to stay occupied, or do we prefer the sluggish but steady route on the highway?

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Annapolis MD: So, if I am leaving the Capitol Hill area heading towards Kenilworth to end up on 50 East... I really shouldn't have a problem, correct? What about an afternoon game - I leave at 4:30....will exiting traffic be a problem? I didn't have any problems when they were playing at RFK stadium & I drove right by that.

Dr. Gridlock: I think you're OK as far as the games go. And as I recall, there's only one weekday late-afternoon start (April 30) this season. Otherwise, you're dealing with 7:10 or 7:35 p.m. starts on weekdays.

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Georgetown:"Today's Game: ... Thanks for the 7 p.m. game during rush hour, Nationals."

Ummm, someone let this guy know that all the 7 p.m. games during the week will be during rush hour. It's not the Nationals fault that 7 p.m. is the best time to play so the people going to the games can get enough rest to go to work the next morning. Seems kind of a selfish thing to say. When should the team play? 8 p.m.? Then it's too late to go. Guess you can't win with some people?

I for one, think that Metro got lucky with the weather tonight, but how is it going to handle Wednesday with events at Verizon Center, RFK and the ballpark. What about Friday when the Caps sellout their playoff game and the Nats are going at the same time? Metro may have figured for 41,000 people attending one game, but did nothing to figure out 41,000 for baseball, 20,000 in Chinatown and 30,000 at the Floppy Hat (my son nicknamed it that at Nats game two years ago).

Dr. Gridlock: It's great to have a baseball stadium in the city, and I hope it fits nicely into the plans to redevelop the Anacostia waterfront.

But fans and commuters -- and stadium neighbors -- are right to feel challenged by this, and look for potential problems. Generally, I think that having people point out potential problems is a help to planners. But again, there's no substitute for experience, and that's what we're about to get, starting tonight.

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McLean, Va.: Good Dr., I've increased my trips to Philadelphia over the last few months and twice have happened upon a rolling road block.

The first was last month, on a Saturday around Noon, north of Baltimore in the construction zone. We were traveling north, while the southbound lanes were barren. Then we saw police driving very slowly, leading what turned out to be 3 miles of traffic.

The second was yesterday about 11 a.m. at the Tydings bridge before the toll booths. There wasn't much traffic on the road but the road block (that lasted the length of the bridge) then ended at the end of the bridge and there was a pretty good amount of congestion the rest of the way.

Why are they doing this, what good is a rolling road block anyway? The road is clear, yet the police seem to want to create traffic and congestion on the highways during a busy travel day. I hope this doesn't continue, because it really does cause an inconvenience.

Dr. Gridlock: This sounds like what Maryland does on weekends from time to time as part of the construction project that will result in express toll lanes north of Baltimore. I'm not terribly familiar with that work, because of its location, but perhaps I should make mention of this on our Sunday commuter page?

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Going to the Game Tonight: I will be driving tonight, heading over the 14th St. Bridge at 5:30 and planning to take the Maine Exit and take M Street down. My parking is in the "U" Lot, the entrance is on 3rd St. SE, cross street is L. How awful should I expect it to be? I did a dry run yesterday, but of course traffic was non existant.

Dr. Gridlock: I really think you're best bet is going to be to continue on I-395 to the 6th Street exit, rather than bailing out at Maine Avenue after the 14th Street Bridge and taking M.

For everyone who's trying to figure out now to reach their designated parking lot, take a look at the interactive map on the Nationals' Web site:

http://washington.nationals.mlb.com/was/ballpark/directions_planner.jsp

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Washington, D.C.: Doc -- it's been enough time for folks to adjust to the metro fare increase, have you heard anything on the actual customer feedback? I think within the next decade we will see another push to move government offices out of downtown.

I recently rode from Landover to Fed Triangle (which used to be my daily route) and it cost $3.05. Somehow I thought the system misread my SMARTrip card and charged me too much. if my current parking arrangement forces me to park at Landover or further in the future, this makes my daily work commute well over $10 a day with $4.25 for parking or over $200 a month. With parking downtown typically $15-20 a day, this is relatively cheap. but with the suburbanization of this area, commuting downtown is growing cost and time prohibitive. is this viewed as a future transportation issue for DC.

Dr. Gridlock: I haven't gotten a lot of feedback since the fare increases took effect on Jan. 6, and I'm not sure why. Doesn't mean people are OK with it. Maybe they just grudgingly accept it.

Ridership has increased. Metro officials speculate it's because of higher gas prices. I think taking transit downtown is still a far better option than paying to warehouse your car all day in a garage.

Yes, as you say, continued sprawl is a challenge for our region, but there's must construction in the core, too. In fact, that has a lot to do with Metro's study of whether to divert some inbound Blue Line trains to the east side of downtown.

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Washington D.C.: Do you think closing off non-thoroughfare, commercial streets in the District (e.g. Mt. Pleasant Road, 4th St. NW in Takoma, etc.) to vehicular traffic could work? Who would be the person or department to contact in the D.C. gov. or elsewhere regarding such a proposal?

Dr. Gridlock: My guess is no, because it would require constant enforcement. If you think otherwise, I'd start with your DC council member.

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Woodley Park, D.C.: Dr. G., any chance we could get an update on Rock Creek Parkway work? They said the southbound right lane would be closed for 3 weeks...that 3 weeks has passed. I understand work may have been delayed due to rain, but any idea how much longer until those cones are removed and we get our bike path back?

Dr. Gridlock: I'll ask about this. I know many readers last summer were concerned -- to put it mildly -- about the nature and the pace of that project, which is scheduled to be completed in May.

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Hyattsville, Md.: What's the latest on the Next Bus system? Are there any projections on when the kinks will be worked out and it will be available?

Dr. Gridlock: I think that's still a long way away from returning. You still see the Next Bus signs at many bus stops, but the program was suspended because it wasn't giving enough people accurate times for the next bus arrivals. On the other hand, I've heard no suggestion that the program will be scrapped.

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Dr. Gridlock: I have to break away now. Thanks -- as always -- for your many good questions and helpful comments. I hope to chat with you again in two weeks.

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