Roads and Rails

Eric Weiss and Lena Sun
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, June 16, 2008 11:00 AM

Do you think Metro has grown unreliable and become downright unpleasant? Or are you happy with your commutes on rail and bus? Does the thought of the intercounty connector (ICC) keep you up at night or does it seem like it's long overdue? And what of the moves by Maryland and Virginia to encourage the private sector to build road projects, such as widening the Capital Beltway?

Washington Post staff writers Lena H. Sun and Eric Weiss were online Monday, June 16 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!

Been a lot of transpo news in the paper recentiy, Metro fires, delays and, surprise, surprise: A Marion Barry scandal.

Also today's paper revealed a shortcut that commuters have been using through Dulles Airport.

Questions, comments, complaints? We're here!


Burke, Va.: Thanks for publicizing the Dulles Access Road workaround in today's paper. Judging by the traffic (I work in an office overlooking the Toll Road), excess use of the access road isn't a problem. That could now change, potentially leading to some ill-thought-out new rules for enforcement.

Eric Weiss: Sorry Burke, but that's kind of my, well, job. I cover the dysfunctional and overburdened highways in the area and how usually law-abiding people live with it.

It's the fault of airport officials, VDOT, the police and judges. I'm just the guy who reports on these things.


Silver Spring, Md.: Thanks to my train operator, I was able to switch from Red to Green at Ft. Totten during the fire fiasco last week, and get downtown with little or no delay.

No thanks to the Metro e-alert system, which did not provide notice of the 7:30ish incident until 8:01 am, at which time I was just outside my office at Judiciary Square.

Similarly, I received e-notice Friday night of a delay at Forest Glen, but not until I arrived at Silver Spring, and the delay was over.

If alerts are available to operators and posted on the Metro website -- as these were -- I can see no good reason for delays in the e-alerts.

Lena Sun: Good to hear that Silver Spring. I've heard from other riders that their train operators did NOT give them a heads up. I'll find out whether the power failure delayed Metro's ability to send out timely e-alerts.


Power Outage last week: I have to take issue with the person who wrote into the real paper about the situation at Farragut North during the power outage. He/she left Silver Spring at 8:40 and described chaos at Farragut North with no Metro personnel on hand and people using cell phone lights to exit the station.

I left Silver Spring about 8:20 and while it was hard to hear the operator over the noise of the train, he did tell us about the situation and to please use caution exiting at Farragut North and Dupont.

When we got off the train at Farragut, there was some lighting along the tracks which was PLENTY to use the escalators and get to the turnstiles. And plenty of ambient light to exit the station. Saw Metro personnel answering questions, no glowing cell phones and no chaos.

Should the train operator have stressed that Dupont users might want to consider another station given the escalators? Sure, but overall, I had no trouble and didn't give it a second thought. Stuff happens.

Lena Sun: Thanks for your comments. In an incident like this, where thousands of folks are heading downtown at rush hour, there are bound to be different scenarios. Glad to hear you made it to work safely.


Arlington, Va.: My understanding is that my SmarTrip card has to be registered with Metro so that if I lose it I can get a credit for the remaining balance, right? What happens if I lose my paper farecard? Do I just send Mr Catoe a message (a month after I lose the card) and he will take my word that the card is lost before reimbursing me for whatever amount I tell him? Mr Catoe has zero credibility and should step down immediately! After today's article, how many claims does WMATA expect to get that a bus side-swiped a car a month or more ago?

Lena Sun: You are referring to my story in today's Post on the Metro front about Metro paying Mr. Barry's claim that he was hit by a Metrobus. You know the answer to your question!

I'll put up a link to the story.

_______________________ Metro Chief Cuts Barry A Break, Then a Check (Post, June 16)

Lena Sun: Here's the Barry story.


Takoma Park, Md.: Is it just my imagination or have I been seeing more drivers on the Beltway sticking to 55 mph, even at off-hours when it's not crowded? I know I have been doing that to conserve gas, and it doesn't seem like people are flying by me the way you would think. Wow. Hurray.

Eric Weiss: Just guessing, but methinks gas prices at $4-plus a gallon had lightened many a leadfoot in this area.

Perhaps they remember Jimmy Carter's admonishments from the 1970s to drive slower to get better gas mileage.

Wonder if it works in a Ford Expedition with a V-8. Maybe 6 mpg at 55?

BTW, My colleague Nancy Trejos had an interesting article about "hypermilers" in Sunday's paper. These people use techniques like driving the speed limit, coasting to red lights, etc., to get better gas mileage.

But hypermilers, stay the !@#$% out of the left lane!


Alexandria, Va.: Seems to me that the gas station the Dulles toll roaders have been using should upgrade to a Starbucks. They'd make more money and the drivers would drink better coffee.

Eric Weiss: Alexandria: Your gourmet taste buds can be satisfied at the Airport Marriott's "gift shop," which is essentially a Starbucks that also sells newspapers and the usual pulp novels and overpriced Advil.


Falls Church, Va.: Hi Eric and Lena,

you must be getting a whole lot of comments about the Orange Line, what with the torrential rains and derailments. As a former commuter in New York City, whenever there were problems with one line there was always another way to get to your destination ( a combination of bus and rail). DC Metro may be cleaner than NYC subway but what plans does DC Metro have to connect the different metro line rails other than "the center of chaos" called Metro Center.

Lena Sun: I was also a former commuter in New York. New York and lots of other transit agencies have the same issues as Washington. But they have more flexibility because they have more than two tracks. To give Metro more maneuvering room and decrease congestion, there has long been talk about putting a tunnel between the two Farraguts (Farragut West and Farragut North), allowing a link between Red and Orange lines. There has also been talk years ago about adding a Potomac River crossing between Rosslyn and Georgetown.

There are other improvements that Metro has identified that could be made to stations that are less costly and less controversial than say, adding a rail line from Rosslyn to Georgetown. They would be adding stairs and escalators to some of the core stations where ridership is really expected to jump.


Arlington, Va.: So delays four out of five days last week on the Orange line, and Metro thinks it can handle more lines like the rail to Dulles and the Purple line? Give me a break, it can't even handle what is has now. Let alone more trains going through Rosslyn. Rather than build a low-speed train that will take an hour to get to the airport...why not double track what we have first?

It seems the fatal flaw with Metro is the single track. Rather ten fix it...we are going to spend billions to expand the problem?

Eric Weiss: Two separate issues:

1. Problems in the current system have nothing to do with the need for additional transit capacity in the future.

2. The size and design of Metro stations and tunnels can't handle additional tracks. Unlike New York, where the stations are mainly built right under major streets and have room for express platforms and tracks, Metro and other systems, like San Francisco's BART, don't.


Metro funding: Any movement on Coburn's laughable hold on the Metro funding bill?

Lena Sun: The Metro funding measure is now part of the Amtrak bill that passed the House. The Senate has also passed the Amtrak legislation, but it doesn't have the Metro funding as well as several other provisions. So the question will be whether the conferees will produce something that has Metro funding in it. Feel free to call your senator's office. And if you have friends or relatives who live in Oklahoma, get them to weigh in with Sen. Tom Coburn.

If they visit Washington, most likely, they'll be taking a ride on the train.


Barry/Catoe: Hi, and thanks for the article about Barry and Catoe. What the heck was Mr. Catoe thinking? Did he really believe that it was appropriate to bend the rules for someone simply because that person is well-connected? Does Mr. Catoe live in a bubble? If he does, then he probably has no clue about the needs of his customers (who NEVER get a break from Metro) and should go work in a political job somewhere. Give me a break. And on the other side, we have Barry's protesting too much about the sweet deal he got.

I'm so disgusted.

Thanks, and keep up the great work!

Lena Sun: Thanks for writing in Mom...Just kidding.


Washington, D.C.: I heard funding for Metro was approved in the railroad bill in the House, but it may be blocked in the Senate. Who is this oaf? D.C. is America's city.

Lena Sun: See earlier post about funding for Metro, the Amtrak bill, and Tom Coburn.


Bethesda: I understand Friday delays, but this morning the train kept stopping between stations. At least five time between Medical Center and Bethesda. I can never understand this. Why do they stop so many times in the tunnel? Why don't they wait until its clear all the way to the next station?

Lena Sun: Here's what happened: Metro does regular testing of the track to make sure there are no defects in the rail. Last night, during ultrasonic testing, they did find a minor defect in the rail between Medical Center and Bethesda. They made a temporary fix, and that's why trains were moving slower this a.m. They will be going back tonight after the system closes to put in a more permanent fix.


Washington, D.C.: Why, why, WHYYYY is there not already a walking tunnel between Farragut North and Farragut West? It's a distance of, what, a couple hundred feet? It runs through a park or (depending where you put it) under office buildings that get torn down every couple of years. And it would relieve SO much pressure on Metro Center. Why? This makes no sense.

Lena Sun: Money.


Dupont Circle: Friday -- with the power outage, I got off the train at Dupont Circle only to be told that there were shuttle buses at Woodley Park and Farragut North -- why couldn't the train driver tell us that so we wouldn't get off the train? I've been riding Metro for 18 years and this is the worst year I have ever had. But I guess since they are overpaying people who "claim" they were hit by a Metro bus I should just suck it up as typical Metro and move on. My car was sideswiped by a Metro bus in 1997 but Metro did nothing about it.

Lena Sun: Last week was a mess. I think in general, the train operators have been doing better in telling folks what's going on. But there is considerable room for improvement, and that message has to come from Metro's top leadership down, in their words, and more importantly, by their actions during crisis. Part of the problem stems from a deep-seated culture on the operations side that they want to fix stuff first, tell riders second.


Alexandria, Va.: When will the rest of the lanes on the Woodrow Wilson bridge be opened?

Eric Weiss: By the end of the year. Those are the two "express-through" lanes that will effectively separate long-distance and commuter traffic through the corridor and across the bridge.

Now they are working to construct and pave those lanes, now that local traffic is on the permanent alignment.


Maryland: Those hypermilers who turn off their cars SURELY lose added value with repeated restarts, since the fuel injectors send excess fuel into (now already warm) engines to facilitate a cold start. yes?

Eric Weiss: Um, uh, dunno. Ask Warren Brown during his chat.


Takoma, D.C.: So, how 'bout that Friday commute of insanity? I'm actually in the minority, I think, because despite a red-line-only commute that goes through Metro Center, I had no problems at all Friday morning. The only thing that was unusual at all about my commute was that the power was out at Farragut North, but I didn't even think it was all that dark.

Anyway, my point: A big fat YAY!! to Metro for sorting out the fare system so we didn't all have to individually get our smartcards sorted out at the end of the day. That really made the afternoon easy!

Lena Sun: Sounds like the gods were smiling on you Friday.


"Problems in the current system have nothing to do with the need for additional transit capacity in the future.": I don't think the reader from Arlington disputes the potential NEED for additional capacity in the future. I think he was disputing WMATA's capability to operate that additional capacity. Consider that the Dulles line is intended to run all the way across to Stadium-Armory because that's the first place where a train can terminate without holding up everyone else. After last week's big mess, can you REALLY say you have confidence in WMATA's ability to operate a THIRD line in a competent fashion on the same set of tracks already shared by the Orange and Blue Lines?

Eric Weiss: I see your point. Those were exactly the concerns raised by the Federal Transit Administration during its deliberations over the project.

But the House just passed the Davis Bill, which would pump $1.5 billion into the system. There is a holdup in the Senate, but I'm sure those reasonable legislators will work out something.


Near Metro/Ft Belvoir Va., - Sorry but Eric is wrong...:"Eric Weiss: Two separate issues:

1. Problems in the current system have nothing to do with the need for additional transit capacity in the future."

Actually, it has everything to do with it. Metro cannot currently adequately handle the demand it has on the Orange Line - and all the other lines. This does not mean the demand is not there for rail to Dulles, although I question if there really is that much demand for a 2 hour Metro ride to an airport 20 miles away, but regardless there is simply no room to put all those additional trains when you get to Rosslyn. There isnt.

Eric Weiss: It's like the age-old debate about not moving forward on something until the current situation is perfected. Guess what: The current system will never be perfect. It is gettting older and is carrying more commuters than ever and has suffered from a lack of consistent investment.


Can we get Metro to start checking the drivers licenses...: of riders and ban anyone from Oklahoma from riding? On the more serious side, what do you think will stop the repeated meltdowns of Metro service?

Eric Weiss: Ever been to Tulsa?


Arlington, Va.: I was not affected by the power outage last week but I was wondering what your assessments were over how Metro handled it, and the public perception of Metro's performance. I didn't really understand how all the ire was seemingly targeted at Metro when the power outage was the power company's "fault." However, since I wasn't on the front lines I don't know first hand how well it was handled.

Lena Sun: Seems like lots of Red Line riders were able to make it to work okay and DID have enough heads-up from train operators and other Metro personnel, based on what we've heard from riders. Better than how Metro handled communication during the Orange Line shutdown between East and West Falls Church after the thunderstorms.

And yes, the power failure that cut lights and knocked out escalators at five downtown stations originated with Pepco.


Fairfax: Bike racks on Metro Buses: Do you know how the bike racks on the Metro buses work?? I've been looking at the WMATA site and can't find anything helpful. Anybody?? I'm going to start riding/biking soon. . . THANKS

Eric Weiss: I've used them and they are stressful because you have a bus-full of impatient commuters watching you fumble with the rack.

The way I remember it is that the first step is to pull the entire rack downward. Then place your bike in one of the two spaces for bikes, then swing a holder over one of your bike wheels.

Don't be discouraged. If you really mess up, the driver will come out and help you.


Silver Spring, Md.: Hypermilers and shutting off the car.

Pretty much any car made in the last 20 years will use less gas with a one minute shutoff/restart than leaving car idling for a minute. More like 30 seconds with newer cars. This has been tested and proven.

Of course, if you drive a 1976 Buick Supreme with the dual carburators, definitely keep the engine idling because it is more efficient than shutting it off.

Computers, man, computers.

Eric Weiss: Thanks, Silver Sring.

Another trick I use is using regular unleaded even though our Volvo manual calls for premium. I asked the dealer and they said the car's computer makes accomodations for different octane grades and that I would not be harming the engine.


RE: Tom Coburn: Eric and Lena,

I wish I could talk to my Senator about Coburn, but wait, I live in the District, so I don't have one!

Lena Sun: There are lots of hurdles yet with dedicated funding, not least of which is Sen. Coburn. So Metro is also seeking more money for transit (and Metro) via the transportation bill, which guarantees funding for highways, road safety and public transportation. That comes up for reauthorization in September.


Farragut North: I was so surprised that Metro didn't charge customers who exited at the stations that did not have power Friday. I wonder how much money they lost that day.

Lena Sun: They are trying to figure that out. Are you saying you would have preferred to have been charged?


Turnabout: The Oklahoma City mayor wants federal assistance to develop transit in the city. Any guess on the odds Coburn finds some way to justify funding it?

Eric Weiss: If they get any money, they shouldn't lay down rugs in the Tulsa Transit subway cars. Boots and spurs are murder on the carpet.


"Perhaps they remember Jimmy Carter's admonishments from the 1970s to drive slower to get better gas mileage.": Which is a dreadful oversimplification, for what it's worth. The better tactic is to drive at the slowest speed that allows you to use your car's highest gear without having to downshift every time you go up a hill. Slowing down doesn't necessarily save fuel if it forces you to use a lower gear that is less efficient. (Think back to the old days when the term "overdrive" was still used to refer to the gear used when cruising on the highway to save gas.)

Problem is, of course: (a) The optimum point is different for every car and for every transmission; (b) Many, if not most, Americans have no clue about how to take advantage of their cars' different gears because they use automatic transmissions.

Eric Weiss: Hmm, point taken. Then again, as a former stick guy, it seems many of the automatic cars I drive (including the one my wife made me give up my six-speed for) switch to higher gears more quickly, I guess for gas mileage sake. My tachometer is routinely hanging out around 2000 or lower rpm when cruising.


Washington, DC: A few bus questions: 1. Is the fare when paying in cash $1.35? Is Metro collecting this? Most often I see people put in 1.25 and the drivers say nothing. 2. If I pay by SmarTrip but will be transferring to the PG The Bus am I entitled to a paper transfer? Drivers often refuse to give me one, even after I explain why I need it. (Does metro really think I would break the law to save someone else bus fare??) 3. Why oh why doesn't metro hold buses for "schedule adjustment" (like they do trains) when the buses are running very early? It is extremely frustrating to see a bus go by 15-20 minutes ahead of schedule as you are walking towards the stop. It's expecially infuriating when the buses are infrequently (20 minutes or more wait) scheduled to start with.

Lena Sun: If you are riding Metrobus and need to transfer to PG The Bus, you SHOULD be able to get a paper transfer because PG does not yet have SmarTrip installed. If this keeps happening, call Metro customer service 637-1328 and tell them what Metrobus route and bus number this is happening on. And if it still happens, email me directly at

They are supposed to be making some changes in the way bus schedules work (or don't) and I'll be focusing on this later in the summer.


Barry: Catoe says "The reality is, he's a member of the board of directors. In my judgment, I did not feel that he would have lied about such a small claim,"

Really? The man who smoked crack with prostitutes while mayor wouldn't lie?

I'm not buying Barry's excuse that he didn't call police that day because they don't respond to minor accidents. If a metrobus hit my car, I'd be so upset I'd be doing something about it THAT VERY DAY. Sounds like Barry is just trying to get Metro to pay for fixing damage to his car that has nothing to do with any bus. Who in their right mind trusts anything Barry says?

Lena Sun: Posting without comment.


Bus Driver Trial: How did lat week's trial of a former bus driver who was convicted on manslaughter charges impact Metro and metro employees ? I've been in a crosswalk when a bus driver decided he didn't have to follow the intersection laws and let the pedestrian have right of way. After I slammed my palm against the bus, the driver got mad at me for being in the crosswalk. Has this case made an impact on Metro and the employee perspectives ?

Lena Sun: This accident had a big impact when it first occurred, on Feb. 14. Metro has beefed up training for bus drivers, and the city transportation department has made adjustments to the intersection, among the most dangerous in the city.


Lena Sun: Thanks for all the questions and comments folks. Let's hope this is a smooth commuting week. We could use one. Stay safe.


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