Roads and Rails

Eric Weiss and Lena Sun
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, May 12, 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 writer Lena H. Sun was online Monday, Mary 12 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


Eric Weiss: Good morning commuters?

What's on your mind?

Lovely delays on the Green Line? Clear roads for weekend shopping and movies?


Arlington, Va.: In one of your recent chats, you received a comment from someone in Northwest about all of the expensive vehicles Metro drivers take to work. The comment rang a bell because every day outside the Rosslyn Metro station, at a sign reserving the space for "Metro Emergency Vehicles," there is a late model Cadillac. Of course, the fact that people are driving expensive cars doesn't mean all that much because almost anyone can lease a luxury car if they want to spend a large enough perentage of their income to do so.

However, this caused me to do some more research and I was surprised at how lucrative it is to work for Metro. According to a story I found in the Examiner, in 2006 more than 100 bus drivers and train operators earned more than $100,000. These amounts include overtime. Apparently, under Metro's union agreements overtime is included in pension calculations. In addition, Metro employees can retire in their 40s if they have enough years in. So, that $100,000 plus train operator may be able to retire in his mid-40s and receive an $80,000 per year pension for the next 30-40 years.

So, when you are paying these kinds of wages and benefits, of course you are always going to be underfunded. Metro's future does appear rather grim. Or perhaps I should say that the future of Metro riders looks grim. As long as Metro's management continues to agree to compensation packages far more lucrative than those that have nearly driven the Big 3 automakers out of business, Metro will have trouble expanding as needed or even maintaining what it has without constantly raising fares and parking fees.

Eric Weiss: Lena, I think we found Metro's new labor negotiator.


Arlington, Va.: An open request to Metro riders:

Please stop swirling your SmartTrips.

If the reader doesn't scan your card properly the first time, I understand it's frustrating.

But it seems like every week I get caught behind someone who decides the best way to solve this problem is to rapidly make circles on the reader until he or she gives up and moves to another stile.

Just pick the card up completely from the reader, hold it from above with your fingertips on the very edges, and put it down flat in one straight downward motion.

It almost never fails.

Lena Sun: Thank you Arlington. The chip in your SmarTrip card is located around the EDGE of the card. There is a wire antenna embedded all around the perimeter. That's why it's best not to bend the card or use it to say, scrape ice off your windshield in the winter.


Adams Morgan, Washington, D.C.: This shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone, but last night's performance at Nissan was a true disaster. There where detours sending you around the venue multiple times and from what I hear hundreds of people were eventually denied entrance due to the traffic and weather. I eventually had to pay $30 for "premium parking" since we were already 2 hours late and there didn't appear to be any other options. I will NEVER go back there.

Eric Weiss: Placing a live music venue at a location far from transit and near a highway that is woefully inadequate and with poor secondary roads is a recipe for disaster.

That is why I will never go to any show at Nissan.


Arlington, Va.: I just wanted to say that even with the track work on the Yellow/Green Line, I had a super-easy time getting to and from the Nats game Sunday afternoon. The 8-car "shuttles" Metro was running from L'enfant Plaza to Navy Yard were fantastic. I know they get blasted all the time, but I thought this was handled quite well.

Lena Sun: Good to hear that it worked well. Remember, they are doing this for three more weekends: this coming weekend, May 16-18, (skip Memorial Day weekend), then May 30-31, and June 6-8.


Suiltand, Md.: I almost got injured this weekend getting off an escalator at Gallery Place. A big group of tourists that was in front of me on the escalator decided to stop in their tracks as soon as they got off so they could figure out where they needed to go. There was plenty of room off to the side, but they stopped so that the stream of people behind them had no where to go, so people started piling up. This has happened several times in the past as well.

I think Metro needs to have some big, clear signs in all the stations geared specifically towards people using the system for the first time. They could put the signs over the farecard machines so that everyone who has to buy a card would see them. They could say something like:

Metro Do's and Don't's

Do stand to the right on escalators

Do wait for others to exit the train before Boarding.

Don't stop right at the top or bottom of escalators

Don't eat, drink, or smoke anywhere in the Metro system- it's illegal!

Eric Weiss: I agree. Sometimes they make periodic PA announcements that sound like: "Fdlfkaudgfa; as;dlfjka;lsk dlkc/m,axfdlgjk asd./sdl;kfj. Thank you for riding Metro."


Washington, D.C.: I'm glad that Metro has a plan to address the serious failings on the 30s line. More than a decade after I (and many, many others) first complained about the bunching and resulting poor service on this line, Metro is addressing this problem. Bunching on this line is deliberate (I've overheard two drivers talking with other passengers admitting this) and bunching is increasingly a problem on other lines. I know Metro has a plan to spend lots of money to address this problem, but here's my $20 solution. When buses are bunched: The buses stop at the next bus stop, the second bus will hold for 5 minutes. The passengers on the second bus will be given the choice to transfer to the first bus. The drivers will have walkie talkies so they can communicate with one another (this is where the $20 comes in) to arrange this. If the first bus is full, then the second bus will not wait for 5 minutes, but will continue with its passengers. So if, for example, there are four buses back-to-back (common on the 30s line), the fourth bus will be holding for 15 minutes, after giving its passengers the chance to transfer to the first bus. This will mean that instead of scheduled service of one bus every 10 minutes, but actual service of four buses every 40 minutes, this line can better approximate the scheduled service. (Note: This process of holding should also be used for infrequent buses very far ahead of schedule.)

Lena Sun: Well, the folks who monitor the chat might consider this. But I think their plan is to put more supervisors on the streets so that when they see bunching, they can tell the second or third or fourth buses to deploy differently--skip ahead down the line, etc. so the buses can be spread out more evenly.


Silver Spring, Md.: I get off work at 3 and ride Metro home from Gallery Place to Silver Spring. A great many schoolchildren are riding at this time, most of whom get on at Rhode Island Ave. In addition to shouting and horseplay, which I can usually ignore, several of them have taken to moving between cars while the trains are moving. They seem to do this pretty easily and no one takes note. My question is, should I?

I think everyone would hate me if I used the end of car intercoms to stop the train, and by the time I get off at Silver Spring most of them are long gone. I mentioned this to a couple kiosk attendants, but once the kids are gone, what can they do? On the other hand, I'd feel awful if a child was hurt moving between trains and I felt I could have prevented this. Your thoughts? Thanks.

Eric Weiss: My esteemed colleague, Lena H. Sun, wrote a front-page story about this wilding kids disrupting passengers.

One solution would be to contact the train operator when the train is stopped in a station.


Nissan never...: Same here. Years ago..two disasters at Nissan Pavilion -- both times leaving the venue. I haven't been back since and will never go there again.

Eric Weiss: This is similar, but on a larger scale, the difficulties during rush hours out in the exurbs. Lots of people entering roads and highways roughly at the same time. The road infrastructure is just not there to handle surge traffic, unlike, say, a street grid.

I commuted to Manassas for years and was amazed that the traffic in the District was much lighter.


Alexandria, Va.: Was the road closure on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge completed this weekend or are there going to be more closures because of the weather?

Eric Weiss: Yes, it was completed, and, according to VDOT, went smoothly, a hallmark of this entire project.

There will be delays on the weekend of May 30 when they move traffic onto the new, second span.

But don't get discouraged. There will be plenty of detours and lane closing as they work on the Telegraph Road interchange, which will continue until 2012-2013.


Mount Airy, Md.: Please tell Metro to end the trains that turn around at Grosvenor. All it does it create delays for the other trains while a train reverses its direction.

I firmly believe Metro would be better off with longer trains that ran further apart.

Lena Sun: That's a question the Metro board is deciding...The reason they do those turnbacks at Grosvenor at rush-hour is to get more trains downtown through the core stations where the crowds are largest.


"There was plenty of room off to the side, but they stopped so that the stream of people behind them had no where to go, so people started piling up.": I know this sounds rude, but why wouldn't someone push people who stop at the bottom of the escalator? While pushing is never ideal, I don't see much choice under the circumstances if a loudly-bellowed "EXCUSE ME" doesn't do the job. You can't very well remain on the escalator....

Eric Weiss: Please, please, don't shove the tourists.

A brusque, "Excuse me!" followed by "Please move, you are causing a safety concern." Should work.

If not, toss some Cheescake Factory baked goods a few feet away and watch the tourists fly out of the way.


Alexandria, Va.: Please remind everyone that in Virginia, if you wipers are on, your headlights MUST be on.

Eric Weiss: In Virginia, if your lights are on, your wipers must be on.

This is also called "common sense.''


16th and M Streets, NW: On Friday, I noticed some handmade signs at the Friendship Heights escalators saying that strollers are not permitted. Can someone put those signs on buses, too? Like the crowded southbound 90 I boarded on 8th St NE last week that had TWO open strollers? This cannot be legal. Thanks.

Eric Weiss: Strollers must be collapsed and the rugrat must be in your arms when boarding buses.

Umbrella strollers such as Maclarens are perfect for the task. Jogging strollers that can't be collapsed or those $900 Bugaboos won't cut it on the 42 bus. Then again, if you are spending $900 on a Bugaboo Chameleon, you are taking a car service anyway.


Centreville, Va.: I've been to Nissan five times since it's opened. Once to work WMZQ-Fest for WMZQ. Once to help a friend who needed an extra person over 21 serving beer and three times to actually see a show. I've come to one conclusion. Get there the day before for an afternoon show and get there in the morning for a night show. Save for Buffet, I was greatly surprised at how quickly we got in and out from there. Arrived at Nissan at 5 p.m., was out and back home before 1 a.m. (concert let out around 11:30 and we still had a long walk).

I do reccommend anyone going there, ever. I've gone because the two shows' tickets were free and Buffet, well you just have to experience one of those before you die.

Why Virginia hasn't gotten the tax money from ClearChannel to improve the roads is beyond me. They knew how many people were going to be there for events, and they still maintain they need a two-lane road. Or are there a lot of NIMBY's who don't want a wider road so all those boozers and partiers can get out of their neighborhood quicker?

Eric Weiss: The free market will punish those who build entertainment facilities that are nearly impossible to get to and from.

Then again, you can never count out some local politician deciding that tax dollars should be used.


New Wave of Metro Riders: My grandmother is taking the Metro to work for the first time ever! Why is that significant you ask? Well she been in the city for only 40 years. Gas prices really have taken its toll on commuters. My dad, also a native for 45 years, is also taking the Metro to work for the first time. So the questions becomes how is WMATA going to handle the new wave of metro riders fleeing from their cars when the system is in a financial crisis?

Lena Sun: That's the $64,000 question. Or in Metro's case, I'm guessing their capital improvement budget is more likely to be in the billions of dollars for the next 10 years.

For the short run, they are hoping to get the power system upgraded and the automated system that stops trains upgraded so they can run longer trains--eight cars long--to fit more people in..I sure hope your grandmother gets a seat when she rides. One of these days, there will be more rail cars with overhead grab handles so she can hold on in case those seats reserved for the elderly and disabled are taken by people who shouldn't be sitting in them.


In Virginia, if your lights are on, your wipers must be on. : SURELY You don't mean we should drive with our wipers on at night...

Eric Weiss: Look, it's Monday, kindly reverse the order of my answer.


Washington, D.C.: I only go to Nissan for Buffett shows, nothing else. How how hard would it be to make an access rode directly from the highway? How much more can we just look the other way?

Eric Weiss: See above answer (not about the wipers)


Fairfax, Va.: Wow, I will NEVER complain about Metro after an event again, compared to my Nissan Pavilion experience last night. We were in our car at 11 p.m. and did not get on the interstate until 1 a.m. It seemed like they routed everyone in circles getting out of there. Now I was planning for at least an hour to get to the interstate based on my experience last summer. But last night was disaster. Who on earth designed the traffic flows around there. Probably no one. I will never go back again. On the upside Radiohead was fantastic.

Eric Weiss: Driving around in circles is actually the most direct route when driving around that area.

More importantly, did you pay anything for the new Radiohead album?


Shortsighted way to save a buck: Hi, Eric and Lena. I work at the American Red Cross in downtown D.C. Many, many employees here take Metro to the office. Word here has been that management is seriously considering renting out the building here to another tenant and moving all of the headquarters employees to a building in Ashburn.

There's limited public transport out to the far ends of Loudoun.

How do we convince the Powers that Be that the option is shortsighted at best?

Lena Sun: You should message our reporter who covers philanthropy. His email is


Re: Tourists...: I believe I am direly in need of another cup of coffee, because my sleepy eyes have been reading "terrorist" instead of "tourist" in the escalator bunching posts. Heh.

Eric Weiss: Terrorists are thinner.


RE:Wipers and Lights:"In Virginia, if your lights are on, your wipers must be on."

The poster was correct. Your wipers do not need to be on if your lights are on (i.e., driving at night etc). However, if your wipers are on, it is Va. law that your headlights must be turned on as well. This enables other drivers to see YOU, not to help you see the road.

Eric Weiss: Thank you.


Washington, D.C.: I, too, was pleasantly surprised by Metro's handling of Saturday's Nationals game. The shuttle to L'Enfant was a great way to diffuse the crowds.

Now if they could just do something about the Nationals themselves...

Lena Sun: I was going to make a snarky remark here but am restraining myself and will merely post your comment about your experience riding the train.


Washington, D.C.: Who does one contact in regard to light timing at the intersection of Independence and 17th St.? In the morning rush, eastbound Independence is often backed up at this light all the way to the Lincoln Memorial, while very few vehicles are trying to go from southbound 17th to eastbound Independence. After this light, traffic flows smoothly. It seems to me that a longer green during the morning rush on Independence would solve this issue.

Eric Weiss: I'll mention this to the folks at the District Department of Transportation. But the problem might not be at 17th Street. They may be extending the light to ease the burden further down the road.


South Riding, Va.: I rode the Orange Line on Saturday. I was at the Vienna Metro Station around 7:45 a.m. and saw a sign near the entrance with information about the single tracking on the Yellow and Green lines. I also saw messages flash on the boards that normally show information on the next trains. What I want to know is why I never saw any notice that there was track work on the Orange Line. I waited 30 minutes for a train to finally arrive. When it was time to come back, I got on a train that stopped at West Falls Church and had to wait for a train heading to Vienna.

In my mind, the Metro failed me this weekend. I was late getting to my destination. I could have easily driven to West Falls Church to catch a train if I had known in advance that the Orange Line was experiencing delays. Why didn't they have any notices on the Orange Line about the track work and resulting delays?

Lena Sun: Metro says they did broadcast announcements about the Orange Line track work. Every Thursday, Metro puts up its schedule for that weekend's track work on its web site, and there was a release about the Orange Line work.


Bethesda, Md.: Are we Parisians or Washingtonians? This town seems to be as contemptous of tourists as Parisians. I know its annoying at times to deal with tourists who impeded our ingress/egress from Metro, but c'mon people hating on tourists won't change their behavior, they are on VACATION of course they aren't in tune with the rat race sorrounding them, that's why its called a vacation. Stop hating and get over yourselves!

Eric Weiss: Bethesda, you are right. I remember being in Paris on New Years Day one year and the Metro fare card kiosks were closed and some friendly Parisians gave us a bunch of tickets to get on the trains.

But, as I recall, when I was in Paris I was generally aware of my surroundings, lest a Citroen run me down.

Tourists anywhere, should be aware that stopping at the bottom of an escalator that is still carrying people is dumb.


In Virginia, if your lights are on, your wipers must be on.: Maryland too.

Eric Weiss: For the record, if your WIPERS are on, your LIGHTS should be on.

The confusion is all my fault.


"Common sense?": Surely you didn't just imply that drivers in this area have common sense.

Case in point: the backup on Saturday at the exit for Tyson's corner caused completely by people not knowing how to merge. The kicker -- you don't have to merge when going to Tyson's, you can just stay in the same lane. Unless of course you feel that you are too important to wait like everyone else; fail at merging, thus backing up traffic all the way down the ramp and onto the highway, just to get over one lane in order to then jump back in cutting people off 100 feet later.

Eric Weiss: While I am always up to rail on all of the "Masters of the Universe" who travel our roads, this also sounds like a place where better signage could be of help.


How about a no wheelchair sign on escalators?: Some years ago, I was going home and went to the Smithsonian Metro stop. There was a long line of people inside the station trying to go down the escalator to the subway car.

For some reason, the escalator was stopped. Two men were carrying down an elderly woman in a wheelchair. I couldn't believe it.

And twice I have seen two men in wheelchairs (not the same person) grip the escalator handrails and exit the two escalators at Federal Triangle by riding up the escalators.

I wrote to Metro and months later, they told me they had stationed a plainclothes officer there but didn't see him again.

What if the guy had lost his grip and fallen? He and his heavy wheelchair could have badly injured or killed the poor shmuck below him.

Eric Weiss: I'm glad to hear that Metro responded "quickly" to your concern.


Anonymous: I'm wondering if a story has been written regarding those riders who vowed to not ride Metro after the fare increase because it was less expensive to drive?

With gas prices and everything else going up, are they back on Metro or found some other method?

Eric Weiss: Actually, my editor has decided to park and take Metro because it is cheaper gas-wise. So I don't know if your analysis is correct when gas is pushing $4 a gallon.


Pushing tourists: I would never shove a tourist, but I'll admit to a little jostle (accompanied by an EXCUSE ME) on occasion. Sometimes you just gotta bump into people to get where you're going, like say if they're in your way.

Eric Weiss: Whaddaya from Jersey?


Alexandria, Va.: I always ride the Yellow Line from Huntington to Gallery Place. Today, I got on the Yellow Line at Huntington and the train operator shut the doors and then anounced that the train was now a Blue Line. I never had a chance to get off and get on the Yellow Lineopposite side of the platform. What a way to start the day!

Lena Sun: Because of the flooding this morning, every other Blue Line train was going to Huntington and turning around at Huntington and became Blue to go back into Washington. Not a great way to start the day, I agree. Did you get off at King Street to get on to Yellow again?


Snark town : Lena you should be able to use more snark.

I am surpised that Eric hasn't been discipliend yet for his use of snark. (Keep 'em coming Eric I think it's great although the lights/wipers stuff was indeed all your fault).

Lena Sun: I will strive to be more snarky, but Eric does it so WELL.


Washington, DC: Here's my solution to the mystery rider controversy (controversial because riders think it s a waste of money since their comments are ignored by Metro): twice a year for a full week, Metro board members my use Metro bus/rail (one week) and Metrobus only (one week) for ALL of their travel. If a board member cannot commit to these two weeks of metro travel, he/she will resign from the board. No need to hire outside mystery riders, the board members will do it for free!

Lena Sun: Woo-hoo. I'm with you all the way on that idea. When Metro board member Chris Zimmerman took over as chairman in January, he challenged the members of the other jurisdictions to a contest to see which jurisdiction's members logged the most rides on the system. As you know, there are several board members who ride it regularly, and several who don't. And surprise: the members who don't ride it said they weren't interested in playing.


Olney, Md.: Can Metro please, please, 'please', install machines to add $$ to SmarTrip cards at entry/exit points in Metro garages? Last week I was the 4th car in line behind someone that didn't have enough money on their card at Wheaton (where you pay before you enter). It took a solid 20 minutes for all the other cars to back out onto the main road and let the person out. Machines at the entrances will also solve of the problem of -- oops, I don't have enough cash on my SmarTrip card to get into the garage, where do I park my car so I can get to the Metro to put some on?

Lena Sun: Posting here so media folks here who monitor the chat can pass this on. It's a really good idea.


Rockville, Md.:"On the other hand, I'd feel awful if a child was hurt moving between trains and I felt I could have prevented this."

I'd only feel awful about the ensuing delay as a result. These children need to be better schooled by their parents, their school, or by Metro.

I can't see how Metro couldn't know when they enter the station. One or two plain-clothed police officers would quickly end it. If the kids are old enough to be on the train by themselves, they are old enough to be detained by the police until a parent can pick them up.

Lena Sun: This is an ongoing problem for Metro. It's not their job to teach kids how to behave on the train. I'm a parent. That's the parents' job. Metro has a limited number of police officers and there is a unit that works closely with the schools and DC police to try to get a handle on rowdy behavior in the after-school hour.


Lena Sun: Thanks folks. That's all we have time for today. Lots of questions about SmarTrip cards and I didn't have time to get an answer to some really good ones. Will post next time.

_______________________ Caring for SmarTrip Cards ( Post, Dec. 9)


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