Dr. Gridlock

Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, June 23, 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 23 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.


Dr. Gridlock: Hello, travelers. I see a variety of questions here. Let's go.


Washington DC: Dr Gridlock. Submitting early because I will be in a meeting when the chat is going on. My questions is what would it take to get much better traffic camera coverage in the 395 tunnel, and on all of the Potomac River bridges? As you well know there are many ways in and out of this great city. Being able to check the current traffic levels (especially in the 395 tunnel where once you have committed it can be much harder to change your route) can allow commuters to choose a less congested route. This could increase the overall efficiency of our current road infrastructure for a minimal investment. The current camera system is ok but some more cameras in key places could really change things. Who do we contact to lobby for this??

Dr. Gridlock: The District Department of Transportation has a lot of cameras. You can see a list of them here, along with links:


But very few of them are on highways or bridges. I'm not sure why that is. Commuters often tell me they'd like more traffic cameras across the region. (On the parkways, for example.) But I'm not sure how helpful they are to individual commuters. Do you check them before leaving for work, or just before you head home?

I find they can be helpful as a supplement, and I know they're helpful to the highway departments and the radio traffic services. But the road situations can change so quickly. Plus, it's difficult to tell from what's in range of the camera what the situation is going to be a mile ahead.


Bethesda, Md.: With all the talk about gas prices, why isn't anyone pushing employers to allow employees to work from home when possible? Employers need to come up with ways to monitor performance/productivity for employees that telecommute from home. This would be a win, win, win for employers, the environment and employees themselves, who would save the $400.00/month in gas expenses.

Dr. Gridlock: Couple of years ago, a study said that federal managers were resisting, and needed to do more to encourage their staffs to telecommute.

I have heard from a few people recently who are trying to do more telecommuting. Perhaps just one day a week.

Anyone tried this recently?


Alexandria, Va.: The traffic lights around the Lincoln Memorial really need to be reset. They last too long during the morning rush when there is absolutely no foot traffic. In this time of high fuel costs, you would think that the traffic officials would time all traffic lights with efficiency in mind.

Dr. Gridlock: This comes up every year, and I'll check with the District Department of Transportation, which I believe is responsible for the timing of those lights. My recollection is that they're supposed to be triggered by pedestrians when they need to cross. There are few walkers, bikers or runners around there during the morning rush.


Washington, DC: The gas tax in Virginia is set to a certain cost per gallon - not a percentage. This means that every year since, inflation has given Virginians a tax break. So why is increasing the gas tax back to previous levels seen as such a hardship? Isn't this really just a restoration? I guess Virginians have more time (to waste in traffic) than they have money.

Dr. Gridlock: I think raising the gas tax to finance road and transit projects makes sense. Politicians don't. Virginia hasn't increased the gas tax in two decades. It's a tax on people who use roads. Virginians would pay it, but so would many other people who use Virginia's roads.

But I've heard Gov. Tim Kaine explain it this way: He's not proposing a gas tax increase in the special legislative session starting today, because he's become convinced that Virginians see gas as a necessity, like food and medicine. And a proposal to raise taxes on a necessity just won't fly.


Northern Virginia: Dr. Gridlock,

Do you have any suggestions on how to get from Woodbridge, Va. to my job in Georgetown via public transportation? Fastest/cheapest/etc. options? I currently take VRE to Metro to bus for 2 hours door to door, and just KNOW there's a better, faster way. Thanks.

Dr. Gridlock: I'm thinking VRE to Union Station and onto the DC Circulator bus heading west on Mass Ave, K Street and M Street. So that's just one transfer, and the Circulator schedule calls for departures every 10 minutes. Would that help?


Rockville, Md.: When is the Randolph Road/Rockville Pike interchange supposed to start and when is it expected to be completed?

Are there plans for a similar interchange at Georgia Avenue and Randolph Road?

Dr. Gridlock: Randolph Road/Rockville Pike is supposed to start this summer, but I'm not sure long that's going to take. There's a meeting at 6 o'clock Thursday night to discuss it:

Montrose Christian School - Cafeteria

5100 Randolph Road, Rockville, MD 20852

There's also a plan for a new interchange at Georgia and Randolph. That's supposed to start by next spring and take about two years.


Circulator: Tough to depend on in terms of every 10 minutes, esp. during the PM rush. However, if VRE works like MARC, your pass gets you on the bus for free.

Dr. Gridlock: Last year, I sat at a sidewalk cafe at K Street and 16th Street and timed the arrivals of the Circulators during the evening rush. Sometimes they came quicker than 10 minutes, and sometimes they took much longer. Circulator managers have ways of closing those gaps and they should be using them. (For example, if the buses are bunching up, they can turn one around to head in the opposite direction.)


Woodbridge - Georgetown: VRE to Franconia, Metro to Rosslyn, then there's a few different buses to Georgetown proper.

Or VRE to Franconia, Metro or FX 380 to Pentagon, then bus to Georgetown.

Dr. Gridlock: Thanks for both those suggestions. If I did the first one, on a nice day, I might just walk across the Key Bridge into G'town.

My bias is against making a lot of transfers. If it's me, I'd do a route that just has one transfer.


Washington, D.C.: So did anyone ever find out how much Metro lost that day when the power went out?

I'm just curious because I feel they will charge as much as they can for anything -- esp. at rush hour when trains are clearly not running at a rush hour rate.

I'm surprised at how generous Metro was that day.

Dr. Gridlock: The power outage wasn't Metro's fault, but I'm not sure whether Metro's decision to make the morning trip free for come commuters was done out of generosity.

The fare gates at the powerless stations downtown weren't working, so riders couldn't process their fare cards or SmarTrips on the way out. It would have been a chaotic afternoon commute if everyone had to see the station managers to get the fare cards adjusted.

And that's a good question about how much it cost Metro. I'll check.


Rockville, Md.: Why do Metro trains stop so frequently when it appears there is no track work or train ahead of them? Wouldn't we all get home quicker if the operators didn't bring the trains to a screeching halt just to speed up again 10 seconds later?

Dr. Gridlock: Train operators should be telling you why they're stopping. Usually during rush periods, it's because there's a train ahead in the next sector. The train ahead isn't always visible.


RE: Woodbridge commute: He might want to give slugging a try. There are several locations that go to Rosslyn.


Dr. Gridlock: Thanks, that's a great Web site. Tons of useful information.


Germantown, Md.: Why does it seem that Maryland can get new road construction projects underway while Virginia can't get its act together to fix a pothole?

I know Maryland doesn't have all the funding it needs to solve its congestion woes, but it seems like compared to Virginia, Maryland's light years ahead.

Dr. Gridlock: I do think Maryland DOT and the Montgomery Department of Transportation do a pretty good job on that front. Still, readers often tell me they want more. That interchange construction at Georgia Avenue and Randolph Road, mentioned above, has been on commuters' wish list for years. Many other readers talk about the need to bust the bottleneck at I-270 and the Beltway.


Bowie, Md.: Dr. Gridlock, while driving past (and gawking at) an ugly tractor trailer accident on Rt 50 near Bowie yesterday, I started wondering about rubbernecking.

Rubberneckers seem to be pervasive in D.C. -- if something happens on one loop of the Beltway, both loops slow down to take a good look. How bad is it elsewhere in the U.S. and in other developed countries? Are Washingtonians the worst? Is it only an American problem, or is it a problem around the world?

Dr. Gridlock: I've been on the roads in 48 states. People behave the same way everywhere. Traffic engineers and police make it part of their thinking. What varies isn't human nature, but rather the volume of traffic. The greater the volume, the greater the impact of gawking.


Falls Church, VA: What exactly is happening with the pedestrian overpass over Route 50 in Arlington? Signs have been up saying that construction has started, but it's not clear what they are doing or how long it will take.

Dr. Gridlock: Good thing for me to check on. Thank you.


Washington, DC: What was going on with Metro last night? I arrived at Rosslyn at midnight to take the last train to Vienna. The display said "13 minutes". The display soon went blank and there were no announcements from metro as to when the train was coming. I waited about 30 minutes for the last train to come and when it did, it was packed to the gills and people barely were able to get on. If metro had attempted AT ALL to communicate, many of us who were waiting would have tried alternate routes.

Dr. Gridlock: I wrote on The Post's Commuter page yesterday about Metro's communications initiative. If there was a big gap between reality and what the electronic display said, there should have been an announcement.

Those midnight trains, the last of the day, are almost always jammed. It's pretty unpleasant.


no to transfers: Dr. G, you're right about transfers. Each transfer is a chance for things to go wrong, AND a chance for you to get rained on.

Transfers are why a trip that takes me 15 minutes by car takes me 50 minutes by bus-subway-bus.

Dr. Gridlock: People especially hate to change modes of travel. Many who will go from one Metro line to another, but just hate to go from rail to bus, for example.


Purple line: Any speculation about how likely we are to get a usable Purple line any time soon?

Dr. Gridlock: My hopes are high for getting the Purple Line eventually, but not soon. Middle of the next decade, I'd say.

The latest ridership projections of 68,000 daily boardings for the light rail version are encouraging, not only because it suggests the line would be well used but also because of the need to fit the federal formula for aid on the project.


Washington DC: Camera guy here again...meeting got cancelled so I can respond..If I am leaving the District I most definitely check the cameras to see how everything is moving. There are a ton of decisions to make, head crosstown for Key or TR bridge or take the tunnel?? Not being able to check the 395 tunnel before committing is frustrating.

If the cameras were more widespread and more publicized people would be more apt to check, and a tipping point might be achieved in balancing some of the traffic flow. Also making the camera feeds available on a mobile device could take this one step further, and eliminate your concern about not knowing what the traffic is a mile down the road. If you could check the traffic on your phone while crossing the TR bridge and see that 66 is slow, then 50 might be a better alternative.

My point was more that the local jurisdictions could use many more cameras to improve the efficiency of the roads by putting relevant info in the peoples hands.

Dr. Gridlock: I think what you're saying makes a lot of sense, especially about the overall effect of balancing out traffic. The ideal thing, to me, would be road sensing technology, or car-unit to car-unit technology that would provide travel time information as we're driving.

I think some of you younger commuters will look back on the cameras as primitive technology for congestion relief.


Teleworking Cheerleader: I am fortunate. I work for an agency that encourages teleworking and I have a job that is well-suited to teleworking. My only limitation is me - I LOVE coming in to work every day. Commuting costs (bus to metro) are catching up with me though and I have started teleworking once a week. I get to sleep in later and, when 5 pm arrives, I am already home. It's like getting two hours of my day back!

Dr. Gridlock: I've long thought of the watercooler phenomenon as a limiting factor on telecommuting. Many of us would really miss the social part of the work environment. Others want their bosses to see them. Many bosses seem to need that, too.

But if more people could telecommute just one day a week, it would make a huge difference in traffic congestion and gas consumption.


Fairfax, VA: Ever since the Metro derailment, Orange line trains traveling from Vienna to Dunn Loring slow down a lot farther from entering Dunn Loring than before. Is there any track issues they are dealing with between Vienna and Dunn Loring?

Dr. Gridlock: There shouldn't be any issue concerning the derailment along that stretch of track. Maybe it's just the usual problem of trains backing up as the Orange and Blue lines crowd their way toward the Rosslyn tunnel?


Arlington, VA: Do you have any idea if the trolley planned for Columbia Pike has been permanently or temporarily derailed by the cuts in funding?

Dr. Gridlock: Columbia Pike Streetcar construction between Pentagon City and Skyline in Arlington County was one of the cuts in Virginia's six-year transportation plan. It doesn't mean it's permanently derailed, but it doesn't look good unless someone comes up with a new source of funding.


Anonymous: I marvel at the way drivers have to go north via 295 from the SE/SW freeway. Was there ever a plan for direct access? Was the plan simply to connect the freeway to the RFK parking lots?

Dr. Gridlock: Back in the 50s and 60s, highway engineers developed extensive plans to pave over the District. But this was about the time that people in many cities were realizing that this wasn't necessarily a good thing. Community opposition grew, and in Washington, the plan to build the Metro system developed.

Plans to build many of the connecting links among the highways eventually were dropped. But there still are vestiges of those links on all the existing highways.

In some cases, completion of a link would be a good thing. Getting from the freeway to northbound 295 is an example of that.


Dr. Gridlock: Thanks for all your questions and comments. I have to break away now, but hope to chat with you again in two weeks. Meanwhile, I'll see if I can get an update for you folks who want to know about the projects along 295 and the BW Parkway. And if you have any other questions or comments, please send an e-mail to me at drgridlock@washpost.com.


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