Dr. Gridlock

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Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, June 9, 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, June 9 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: Good afternoon, travelers. Hope many of you are able to work from home on this Code Red day, but I doubt it.

Let's start with a question about today's commute.

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Alexandria Va: Dr. G: Today was designated a Code Red day well in advance, but the Metrobus I rode this morning was charging fares. Have the rules changed or didn't some routes get the message?

Dr. Gridlock: The rules are the same. Metro says it didn't get the word till 7:28 this morning that it was a Code Red day, in anticipation of unhealthy levels of ozone. Many local bus services are free on Code Red days and that includes suburban Metro routes.

I heard from a Montgomery County commuter this morning, who was upset about having to pay the fare.

On your afternoon commute, the Metrobuses in the suburbs will be free. Look for buses that display a Code Red, Ride Free sign and have the farebox covered over.

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washingtonpost.com: Metrobus Didn't Know About Code Red Day (Get There blog, washingtonpost.com)

Dr. Gridlock: Here's the item I did this morning on my Get There blog about the morning problem on Metrobus.

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Arlington: I commute from Crystal City to Fairfax for work. Given the outrageous gas prices, I want to figure out the most fuel-efficient route factoring in mileage, traffic, etc. Is there a route you would recommend?

Dr. Gridlock: Out to Fairfax City? Looks to me like Route 50 (Arlington Boulevard) is the straightest shot. That's about 16 miles. I know it's traffic lights, but I'm thinking that the highway alternatives add distance without promising a steady speed that would compensate for the length.

But I thought I'd post this early, so other travelers could comment.

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getting to Camden on weekends: I noticed when I went to the Sox, Orioles game two weekends ago that MTA is stopping weekend bus service from Greenbelt to Camden Yards on the weekends. Is there going to be some replacement for public transportation on the weekends? Or are us car-less baseball fans going to have no way to get to the weekend games?

Dr. Gridlock: I didn't notice this until you pointed it out: June 2 wase the last day of MTA Park and Ride shuttle service and last day of weekend MARC Greenbelt bus service to Camden Yards. And there's no service planned for the 2008 weekend Ravens games either.

Looks like it's the same Federal Transit Administration rule that has knocked Metro out of the business of providing shuttle buses to special events, like future air shows at Andrews AFB.

The rule says that public bus companies, like Metro or the MTA, can provide service only if there's no private charter company to do the job.

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Alexandria, Va.: There were substantial delays on the Green line this weekend due to "track maintenance." The National's schedule has been out for months why would Metro conduct track maintenance on the only line to service the stadium during a weekend home stand? Couldn't the maintenance been delayed to a weekend where the Nationals are out of town?

Dr. Gridlock: I think Metro had no choice about this particular project, a switch replacement at Mount Vernon Square urged on Metro by the National Transportation Safety Board following a derailment.

It takes up to a year to organize a switch replacement project, including the time to order and receive the parts. All the parts had come in. If Metro had said it was delaying this safety project till after the baseball season, I'd have been upset, and I feel sure the NTSB would have been, too.

This was a four-weekend job. The Nats were home for two of the weekends. On each weekend, the train delays on the Green and Yellow lines were at least a half an hour. But Metro did develop a plan to provide shuttle bus alternatives. Did anyone try that option?

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Virginia Beach: Dr. Gridlock, I am originally from the DC area and am trying to explain something to people in Virginia Beach that have never heard of the concept of the "Slug Lines". My question is this...While the DC Metro area is the "inventor" of the Slug Lines, do any other cities have them?

Dr. Gridlock: I'm not aware of a similar system anywhere else. The term, I've heard, was coined by bus drivers. In the early days of this impromptu form of carpooling on I-95/395, the potential poolers would gather at bus stops to be picked up for the commute. The bus drivers would mistake them for waiting bus passengers, and started to refer to them as "slugs," like the fake coins.

This is one of the most successful citizen-inspired commuter solutions in the nation, but is unlikely to work outside the boundaries of an HOV-3 zone, such as we have on I-95/395.

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Alexandria, Va.:"But Metro did develop a plan to provide shuttle bus alternatives. Did anyone try that option? "

Did Metro advertise this option? I try to keep up to date on their outage page, but did not notice this option.

Dr. Gridlock: Metro did publicize this option on its Web site, www.wmata.com, before the project started and then before each of the weekends that the Nats were home. Also, I noticed that the Nats TV announcers repeated warnings about the weekend track work.

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Washington, DC: Is there anywhere we can "rate" our Metro train drivers? Some

drivers give a really smooth ride, and I really appreciate it,

while others are jarring and slamming on the breaks every

stop. Some are definitely better than others.

Dr. Gridlock: This is an interesting idea. There's always the option of calling Metro's customer assistance line, at 202-637-1328. (That's what the commuter did who told me about the fare problem on Metrobus this morning.) But I also might try asking readers for their ratings through my Get There blog.

I'm not sure it's always possible to tell whether the fault for a jerky ride lies with the operator or the automated train controls. Definitely some operators have more of a presence than others, when it comes to announcements.

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Washington, DC: Posting a little early, but here goes. It seems to me that, even if Metro were able to go to 8-car trains as the default, there is a physical limit to the how many commuters a system with only one track in each direction can carry. Has Metro ever tried to determine how much it would cost to add parallel tracks on its most heavily-used lines, so that it could run express and local trains as New York does? Would this so prohibitively expansive that it's not even a pipe dream? Thanks.

Dr. Gridlock: Not quite a pipe dream, but pretty close to it. The most likely thing would be to add a tunnel through downtown Washington that would parallel the Blue and Orange lines and dig a new tunnel under the Potomac between Rosslyn and DC. That would cost many billions of dollars and would take years.

Until the region is willing to undertake such an expense, Metro can add more rail cars and more power, so that all trains are eight cars. And it can tweak the automatic train controls to put the maximum possible number of trains on a line at one time. Then employers could spread out our work times so that the off-peak hours absorb some excess capacity. And we could make better use of bus services.

That's all I can think of. What else should we try?

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Alexandria, Va.:"Metro did publicize this option on its Web site, www.wmata.com, before the project started and then before each of the weekends that the Nats were home. Also, I noticed that the Nats TV announcers repeated warnings about the weekend track work."

Oh, I know about the track work, but the question was more about the special shuttle buses.

Dr. Gridlock: Yes. The announcements from Metro that I was refering to included details about the free post-game shuttles to Federal Center Southwest and to Eastern Market and Union Station. They left from Navy Yard Station.

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Crofton, Md.: I seem to recall that every year about this time Metro rail experiences delays because of the heat. Is it a safe bet to expect delays on the Orange line to New Carrollton this afternoon?

Dr. Gridlock: There's been no announcement to that effect so far, but as you obviously recall, it's common on 90 plus days for all our rail lines -- VRE, MARC and Metrorail -- to impose heat restrictions on their trains, when operating above ground.

This is a safety rule, slowing down the trains in areas where the rails might develop heat kinks.

Seems to me that VRE had fewer of them last summer than in previous years. VRE got together with CSX, owner of the rails, to work out a better plan for running the trains on those hot afternoons.

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Metro capacity: I think telecommuting will have to become more available to more people. With technology what it is now, there is no reason for many of us to HAVE to commute in order to do our jobs effectively.

Dr. Gridlock: I completely agree, especially given public reluctance to spend a lot more on our roads and rails to reduce congestion. Plus, the rising gas prices will lead many people to see out telecommuting opportunities -- it won't strictly be an employer-driven program.

I do believe there's a ceiling on telecommuting: Many people will miss the water-cooler society of the office. Still, adding just a day of telecommuting to our schedules here and there would make a significant difference in congestion and pollution.

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Bay area has "slug lines": There are several places in the San Francisco area (Berkeley, Oakland) with the equivalent of slug lines--same idea, plus free toll across the Bay Bridge.

Dr. Gridlock: Thank you. I hadn't heard that about SF commuters.

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Alexandria, Va.: I've often wondered about this, and maybe you know the answer: The Yellow and Blue lines run parallel for several stops in Virginia. When they split off at King Street, the Yellow line goes another mile or so to Huntington. The Blue line goes several miles to Springfield. Yet, the Blue line is already significantly longer than the Yellow. Wouldn't it be a better division of resources to have the Blue make the short extension to Huntington, and have the Yellow go to Springfield?

Dr. Gridlock: As you may know, Metro is doing its own evaluation of those two lines. Metro's idea is to push more Blue Line trains across the Yellow Line bridge, rather than having all the Blue trains go through the Rosslyn tunnel.

This would be good for some riders and not for others, but what Metro is responding to is the growth in ridership to the eastern side of downtown Washington. ("That's where the cranes are," one Metro manager said, refering to the office construction.) Also, if we're going to wind up with a new rail line out to Dulles, Metro is going to have to ease congestion at the Rosslyn tunnel.

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Alexandria, Va.: A good place to learn more about the slug-lines is the volunteer-run site: www.slug-lines.com.

Dr. Gridlock: Yes, that's an extremely useful site. And again, it's part of a ground-up effort to solve a commuting problem rather than a government-driven thing.

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Washington, DC: On several days last week, I witnessed a convoy of 3 or 4 busses snaking through rush hour traffic in DC with a police escort, sirens blaring. Any idea who was on these buses? And why their movement through rush hour traffic was more important than everyone else's? Or why they didn't have the good sense to time their trips across town so as not to coincide with the height of rush hour? Thanks.

Dr. Gridlock: I'm sorry, I did see the buses in the area of the convention center at Mount Vernon Square but don't know who was aboard. Anyone happen to know?

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Washington DC: How, when trains are running 8 minutes apart at 9am this morning, was there still a back up into the Rosslyn Tunnel? 8 minutes inbetween trains, and yet we sat outside Court House, Rosslyn, Foggy Bottom, etc......

Rather than waste billions on a line to Dulless that nobody will use because of the time it will take...why not double track?

Dr. Gridlock: There were no service alerts on the Blue and Orange lines this morning, so I'm thinking that was the result of combining Blue and Orange Line trains during rush hour congestion.

I wish we could have both the line through Tysons to Dulles and a new tunnel, but I don't believe we get to pick. The financing system set up for Dulles rail couldn't be converted to pay for a new Metro tunnel. We'd have to start all over again.

Also, there's the interesting question of who would build a new tunnel. Metro has gone out of the construction business. The Dulles line will be built under the supervision of the Washington airports authority.

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Washington, D.C.: Quick question: is it legal for taxi drivers in Arlington, Va. to talk on a cell phone while driving? I was on a short, but kinda scary ride yesterday afternoon. It didn't feel safe, but I wonder whether it is legal.

Dr. Gridlock: I don't know of any law in Virginia that prohibits taxi drivers from talking on cell phones.

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buses: I think those buses around the convention center (with police escorts) were related to the AIPAC conference and Ehud Olmert's visit.

Dr. Gridlock: There are many such tensions between commuters and visitors -- and federal officials -- in downtown Washington as everyone tries to get where they're going.

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Ashburn, Va.: Dr. G, along with the high gas prices and hot temps, it's also the time of year when paving usually takes place. Does the area post a schedule of when and where it takes place during the summer and do they take requests?? There are number of streets I commute on that are screaming for help.

Dr. Gridlock: The transportation departments in Virginia, MD and DC do post schedules on their various Web sites -- and we try to get some of that into The Post, but there's a lot. Since you mention it, I'll try to pull together a Get There blog item talking about the paving jobs coming up.

And yes, most of those agencies do take requests, but they operate on a schedule set quite far in advance, so I doubt there's much chance of getting immediate action unless there's a safety problem.

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Washington ,D.C.: Dr. Gridlock,

Any word on how D.C. is progressing on its bike-share program? Which office is in charge of the program?

Dr. Gridlock: I know that citywide program was supposed to be getting underway soon, but haven't heard that it's actually started. I'll check with Jim Sebastian, who coordinates bike programs for the District Department of Transportation and is a most excellent advocate for bicyclists. Here's one online source of information:

www.ddot.dc.gov/bike

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Downtown Silver Spring: Hello,

Is there any reason why drivers cannot turn right on red going northbound on Colesville at Wayne Avenue? The status of this intersection is crazy--interminable red lights for drivers in both directions. But drivers aren't allowed to turn onto Wayne on Red lights--precisely the safest time to do so, to avoid the mass of pedestrians traveling to/from the Bus and Metro stations. I think this could help traffic immensely...

Dr. Gridlock: I think it's the pedestrian safety issue plus the difficulties of getting buses in and out of that ridiculous busway entrance at Silver Spring Station.

I hope some of that congestion will be solved once the Silver Spring Transit Center is built, but first there's probably going to be a lot more congestion during the contruction phase, scheduled to begin this summer.

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Race for the Cure info: I just wanted to note that the street closure information in the Post for Saturday's Race for the Cure was wrong -- it didn't note at least some streets that were closed, such as 15th St north of Independence Ave.

Dr. Gridlock: I'm sorry. Our graphics folks try very hard to get those special events maps right, because they know many people depend on them. The actual street closings and parking restrictions don't always wind up matching exactly with what the DC police department and transportation department have planned.

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Vienna, VA: Good afternoon, good Doctor. I read a while ago that repairs were going to be made to the ramp from Clara Barton Pkwy onto the outer loop of the Beltway, shutting it down for a good bit of time. Do you have any idea when that will start, how long it will last, and what the detour route will likely be?

Dr. Gridlock: Sounds like that would be Maryland State Highway Administration, but I don't recall hearing anything about that lately. Will check. (Last year, as many of you will recall, we had those extensive delays on the AL Bridge because of the painting project that shut part of the ramp from GW Parkway onto the inner loop. Seems like commuters deserve a breather.)

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Waldorf, Md.: My husband and I had to drive to Baltimore last week. We thought that we would be able to avoid the Harbor Tunnel, but unfortunately had no such luck. The bad news was that we had $1.46 in cash. We told the woman at the booth that we didn't have $2 in cash for the toll. She told us that they could take a photo of our license plate and send us a bill for the $2. I have a very hard time believing that we won't be fined in addition to the toll. Does anyone have an idea of what the fine could be? Or has anyone experienced this before (or are we the only idiots driving around Baltimore without cash for the unavoidable tolls)?

Dr. Gridlock: Don't take this to the bank, but my recollection is that the toll authorities actually do send you a bill for $2.

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Alexandria, Va.: Why doesn't Metro put more advertisements in/on their trains and stations? The metro is one of the largest mass transit systems in the world traveled by many influential government employees, why isn't this revenue stream improved prior to raising fares?

Dr. Gridlock: Metro is looking to improve its revenue for sources such as advertising, but even a great advertising plan isn't going to raise anywhere near the level of revenue the system needs to meet its operating and capital expenses. Metro General Manager John Catoe and the board members have been raising the alarm about that with Congress and the state legislatures.

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Silver Spring, MD: Re: double tracking downtown?

It is true that in the underground sections of Metro that adding another track would be so expensive that it is pretty much impossible. (I do wish that WMATA would just come out and put a number on it so we can stop that discussion)

The key to adding capacity without double tracking comes in two areas:

Run the trains closer together: The control systems and power delivery systems will have to be upgraded at great expense.

Reduce dwell times: Get 'em off and get 'em on and get moving. WMATA has taken tiny baby steps on this and will eventually figure out that the doorways need to be several feet wider. (some airport mini rail trains have doorways about 10 feet wide)

Dr. Gridlock: I think Metro's decision to give up its construction department indicates how unlikely it is that a new tunnel will be built in the next decade or so.

Better train controls and power upgrades are less expensive than a tunnel but still very costly. Reduced dwell times are controversial with riders, who don't appreciate getting stuck in those unforgiving doors.

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Dr. Gridlock: Thanks, everyone, for a good conversation today and I hope to chat with you again in two weeks. Stay cool out there.

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