Dr. Gridlock

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Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, May 19, 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, May 19 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, it's a pleasure to join you again for our biweekly discussion of local traffic and transit issues. So bring on your comments and questions.

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College Park, Md.: Hi Dr. Gridlock,

Does PG County's "The Bus" take smart trip cards? After graduation I'm commuting to NIH, which gives a mass transit subsidy through paperless additions to one's smart trip card. While it looks like I'll mostly take the J1 and J4 buses, it would be nice to have a "The Bus"(what a name) transfer available since I'm looking to rent in the Langley Park area.

Is this their main Web site?

Thanks.

Dr. Gridlock: I believe The Bus in Prince George's County will be the last of the suburban bus systems to begin using SmarTrip electronic fare cards. The Metro board is anxious for this to happen because it will allow regional bus to Metrorail transfers.

While the paperless benefits program is very convenient -- we have it here at The Post -- you shouldn't be cut off from benefits because you use a system that doesn't yet accept SmarTrip. Ask NIH about that.

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Alexandria, Va.: Last week was the opening ceremony on the second span of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. Great -- when will it actually open for traffic?

Dr. Gridlock: End of the month. There's going to be another traffic disruption at the bridge on the weekend of May 30-June 1, because the inner loop lanes will be shifted onto the new span.

After that, you'll have the outer loop on the south span and the inner loop on the north span, the newest of the two.

At first, it will be three lanes on each span. Then in the fall, two express lanes will open on each span, so there will be a total of five lanes operating on each span.

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Alexandria, Va.: Good Afternoon! What impact do you see on $4 a gallon (and higher, $5?) gasoline having on our traffic problems here in the DC Metro area? personally I think it will take $5 a gallon to get people screaming for some substantial change. I still see individual drivers in their massive vehicles idling in traffic while I ride the bus to my metro stop.

Dr. Gridlock: I'd love to hear what commuters think on this excellent question.

We do live in a very high income region, so we might be slower to see major effects of the high gas prices. Still, I think it's visible in this respect: After Metro increased its fares and parking fees by the biggest amounts ever, ridership increased.

You can't attribute that to better service. So I think you'd have to say that people are making economic decisions to go with Metro, despite resentment about the fare increases.

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Washington, D.C.: Hey Doc,

Lately I've noticed a lot more people ignoring the one-way arrows painted in the lanes in parking lots, often causing near-accidents. I wonder -- when a parking lot on private property mandates one-way driving and someone drives against it, would they be considered at fault in an accident?

Dr. Gridlock: I guess there's two issues here: Whether a traffic citation would be issued and how the insurance companies would handle the liability issue in an accident.

Let me show you what I found in a quick check of the Virginia Code, with regard to business property open to the public:

46.2-864. Reckless driving on parking lots, etc.

A person shall be guilty of reckless driving who operates any motor vehicle at a speed or in a manner so as to endanger the life, limb, or property of any person:

1. On any driveway or premises of a church, school, recreational facility, or business property open to the public; or

2. On the premises of any industrial establishment providing parking space for customers, patrons, or employees; or

3. On any highway under construction or not yet open to the public.

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Centreville, Va.: I noticed several times over weekends that the electronic "green arrow"/"red X" signs breakdown lane signs on RT 66 are inconsistent. Last weekend, some of the signs were green indicated the breakdown lanoe was open, and some were red. I'm aware as a frequent driver of 66 that the lanes were closed on the weekends, but I saw two out of state cars quickly swerve back into traffic. Is this being addressed?

Dr. Gridlock: Hadn't heard of this, and I'll ask VDOT about it. Generally speaking, I'm not crazy about the use of breakdown lanes for through traffic during peak periods. Many states allow this on their congested highways, but it's an inadequate solution to our traffic problems and it's dangerous.

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Downtown: I see that WMATA is going to start express service on more routes. That's great. But here's a novel concept that will speed things up on all lines: get rid of some bus stops. On one ridiculous stretch of the S line south of U Street, there is a bus stop every half-block. On other lines, bus stops also are absurdly close together. Each stop should be, at a minimum, 2 to 3 blocks apart.

Dr. Gridlock: The bus stops on the S routes along 16th Street NW are extremely close together in some areas. And the S route is notorious for "bus bunching." Those two things have to be related.

I do favor eliminating some stops, but another solution is to do what Metro and the District did on Georgia Avenue: Add a limited stop MetroExtra service.

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Gasoline Prices: I have a question about gas prices, which I suppose could be considered on topic for this forum. In the past, there always used to be a uniform 10-cent price differential between the 3 grades of gas at virtually every gas station. So, if regular was $2, the mid-grade octane was $2.10, and premium was $2.20. Now, I find that there is a 15 cents or more differential between the grades. Sometimes, premium can cost as much as 35 - 40 cents more per gallon than regular. Is there any technical reason for this, or are the oil companies and/or station owners just gouging those of us with expensive cars that require premium gas (according to the manufacturers)?

Dr. Gridlock: I've never heard of a formula governing the pricing of the three grades. Anyone else?

Also, please consider this as part of the general question we started above about changing commuter habits because of rising gas prices.

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Alexandria, Va.: My opinion on how gas prices will affect commuting patterns... short term, very little.

Most people are pretty much locked into their commutes based on the georgraphy of their home and jobs. If you are buying a new car, I'd expect people to consider fuel economy moreso than we have in the past. But what's going to take the hit -- is the little luxuries in life. No more $4 cups of coffee, or $6 scoops of ice cream. Some business are going to be in for a rough stretch.

Dr. Gridlock: Reminds me of this: When Gov. Kaine went to Woodbridge last week to explain his proposals for transportation tax increases, he was asked why he wasn't going for an increase in the gas tax. It's been a long time since that went up in Virginia, and it would be a way to get out of state or out of region people to contribute something to Virginia's road costs.

Kaine answered by saying that people consider gasoline one of the "necessities of life," like food or medicine. So the lattes and frappucinos get dumped first. Gas stays on the priority list.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Is there any hope for better public transit and reduced congestion near I-495 and Georgia Avenue? My commute downtown on Metro is super expensive and crossing Georgia Avenue as I walk to Metro is dangerous--several times I've almost been hit by distracted drivers. My wife has to either drive to her job in downtown Bethesda or spend 1 hour on buses or Metro. Is there any hope for a safer and shorter commute? We are tree-huggers and would rather not drive.

Dr. Gridlock: I believe the state of Maryland is studying construction of a pedestrian walkway across, or under, Georgia Avenue for people to reach the Forest Glen Station. It would be very expensive, but many people know how dangerous a crossing that is.

Can't think of any major transit improvements that are going to help you. The biggest project under study is the Purple Line linking Bethesda and Silver Spring Metro stations, but that's still years away. And no word on what the fare would be .

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Arlington, Va.: Dr. Gridlock,

Why is Gov. Kaine pushing a tax package that includes raising the sales tax in NoVA and the Tidewater area, when he knows that it's DOA just like it was 2 years ago?

Why isn't he calling for raising the gas tax, which is essentially a user fee, to help fund the Commonwealth's transportation needs? After all, it's drivers who use the roads, bridges and tunnels, right?

And, if Richmond cannot reach compromise on the transportation budget shortfall, what does that mean for the Dulles rail extension? If they can't come up with the money for it to meet the FTA's requirements, doesn't that mean that it's also dead?

Dr. Gridlock: From what I could tell at Kaine's town hall meeting in Woodbridge last week, people are fed up with traffic congestion and determined not to pay for a solution.

Whatever he suggested, people had a better idea: Pay for the state's transportation program by eliminating waste, fraud and abuse in state government.

Kaine thinks the gas tax increase is the thing he's least likely to get passed. As to his proposal, he's saying, Look at my ideas. If you've got better ones, bring them forward and let's talk about them. But let's do something.

I think Dulles rail -- or at least rail through Tysons -- is going to happen, because it's so essential to the economy of Northern Virginia. So if the money crunch continues, look for other financial solutions and not for pulling the plug on the project.

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Gas City: I think we're already seeing the impact of gas prices. Traffic on my daily inside the Beltway slog has decreased noticeably over the past four to six weeks to about vacation season levels. Increased metro use & the econ slowdown, I believe, explain the change.

Dr. Gridlock: You think there's a per gallon price that drivers will consider the tipping point, where we'll see a lot of people bail out?

Inside the Beltway could be where we'd see the first effects of a switch from auto to transit, since that's where it's easiest to make the switch.

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Arlington, Va.: The price of walking hasn't increased for decades. Maybe people should try doing more of that?

Dr. Gridlock: There's that, but we sure need to do a better job making walking safer across this region.

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Premium gas: Agreed, it seems in the past 2 years gas stations have decided that those of us with high-efficiency engines (and high performance) can be gouged further with higher premium for 91+ octane fuel.

In reality, 93 octane fuel has fewer BTUs than 87 octane but the burn is more controllable, therefore engine engineers can time the spark and fuel delivery more precisely and get more performance out of less fuel (which is part of the reason you see turbo engines always requiring high octane). Turbos get much higher efficiency than equivalent normally aspirated engines.

Someone should do an investigation into premium fuel pricing.

Dr. Gridlock: Rising gas prices in an election year. I think we won't lack for investigations, but that never seems to win any lasting improvements.

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Herndon, Va: On Wednesday I'm planning on taking Metro from Vienna to BWI, via the B30 bus at Greenbelt. How reliable is that service? I have a 12:30pm flight and am planning on being at the Vienna Metro at 8am. Is that plenty of time, allowing for delays?

Dr. Gridlock: According to Metro's Trip Planner calculator, if you leave Vienna at 8 a.m., taking Metrorail to Greenbelt Station and catching the B30 bus, you'll arrive at BWI at 9:48 a.m.

The entire trip will cost you $6.60 if you're using a SmarTrip card and $6.70 without one. (The 10 cent difference is on the bus fare.)

I've taken the B30 from the airport to Greenbelt. It was an excellent choice and I'd do it again. The wild card, I think, would be traffic on the BW Parkway. I took a midday ride and there wasn't any.

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Rockville, MD:"The price of walking hasn't increased for decades."

The heck it hasn't. When I was a kid, you bought a pair of sneakers for $15 and you were good. Now, you have to buy special walking shoes ($120) and once you start getting knee/ankle issues, off to the doctor.

Dr. Gridlock: But if you don't need a car, you can affort a pretty good pair of shoes -- perhaps two pair.

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Alexandria, Va.: When I sold and bought another home in Alexandria in February, I had to pay the now unconstitutional $2,500 transportation tax. When and how will I get my money back?

Dr. Gridlock: Go to this page on the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority Web site. It describes the refund procedures:

http://www.thenovaauthority.org/refunds.html

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Arlington, Va.: I wanted to comment on the air show, which took place this past weekend. It seemed much more poorly organized and run than in years past. The worst problem seemed to be the inadequate transportation planning - we waited in ridiculous lines for the Metrobus shuttles from Branch Avenue to Andrews AFB and coming back to Branch Avenue was infinitely worse. For some reason, they refused to fill the buses to permit standing -- as soon as all the seats were filled, the bus was deemed full. They need to fix this - nobody wants to wait in lines that are oddly reminiscent of lines for toilet paper in the old Soviet Union.

Dr. Gridlock: The transit authority said it made 190 buses available for its shuttle routes to Andrews this weekend. But we have heard some complaints about the service today. For example, there was one report that there were more buses going over to Andrews than there were coming back.

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Kensington, Md.: What's the deal with Georgia Avenue on the stretch between Randolph and up to Forest Glen. It took a while to repave the roads, but yet, there are these huge bumps where there are manhole covers.

Also, can we do something about turning left onto Georgia Avenue and Connecticut Avenue from one of the sidestreets, namely Wheeler. It's ridiculous that the left turn lane doesn't get an arrow mainly because sometimes cars are parked on Wheeler blocking the right/straight lane from traffic. The cars that need to go in that lane must either go straight in the left turn lane or they dart out from behind all of the cars in the left turn lane.

Dr. Gridlock: On the first part: That sounds like a description of the first coat of asphalt, which always annoys people because of the separation between the manhole covers and the pavement level. Usually, the final coat gets applied in a week or two. (Another way to tell is the lane striping. It usually looks a little informal when applied to the first coat.

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Washington, D.C.: Rush hour fare calculation: I always enjoy your chats, Doc, but you went off on a tangent and inexplicably failed to answer an excellent question a chatter posed two weeks ago. So I'll try again on their behalf:

If someone puts their farecard through a Metrorail turnstile before rush hour starts (let's say 2:30 p.m.), but exits DURING rush hour, which fare is charged? And how about if they enter during rush hour but exit after it ends. I assume that if you're in the system for any portion of rush hour, you get charged that rate, but is that true?

By the way, I'm a long-time Metro patron but don't recall ever seeing an explanation of this. Thanks!

Dr. Gridlock: The fare you pay is based on the time you enter the system, as well as the distance traveled. (I've been riding Metrorail for 20 years, but just had to double check that fare fact with Metro spokesman Steven Taubenkibel.)

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Capitol Hill: I'm sorry, but drivers (and I'm not one of them) are not solely to blame for the pedestrian "crisis" in DC. Jaywalkers need to be more aggressively ticketed, and the fines need to be increased. When the don't walk sign starts blinking, that means don't cross the street if you haven't already started, not run real fast to get across. I'm not sure 5 percent of pedestrians in this city know that.

Dr. Gridlock: I agree with your call for more enforcement, all across the region. But I'd target the spots where modifying walker or driver behavior would be likely to have the most educational impact on them and others. Those spots are not hard to identify.

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Confused: Coming off the 11th Street Bridge from the SW/SE Freeway, one can then go on 295 South to the Beltway or stay straight for a local road. Why is there is no way to go onto 295/Kenilworth Road north to the BW Parkway?

Dr. Gridlock: I hope I'm remembering this right: You can get to 295, but you have to go to take the freeway to Pennsylvania Avenue and cross the Sousa Bridge, where you'll be making a left turn. Not very convenient. A holdover from the days when a portion of the interstate highway plan in DC was abandoned.

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Dr. Gridlock: Thanks for joining me today. There are still some questions and comments in the mailbag, but I must break away. I'll sift through them and see if I can address them later this week on my Get There blog.

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