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Dr. Gridlock

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Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, July 7, 2008; 1:00 PM

Robert Thomson, Dr. Gridlock, diagnoses your traffic and transit problems and offers up his prescription for a better commute..

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He was online Monday, July 7 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. How was your Fourth? Do any long-distance or local trips that led you into heavy traffic? Or did you do one of those stay-cations that seem so popular now, with gas prices? We can talk about all your transportation concerns today.

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Washington, D.C.: I've got a SERIOUS bone to pick. Why oh why were active construction zones set up on Thursday afternoon and Sunday evening?

It's all fine and dandy to not do any construction over a holiday weekend, but it doesn't do any good if you're out there doing work just before, after, or during the heaviest traffic periods. JUST PATHETIC!!!

Dr. Gridlock: That's not good, for the reasons that are so obvious to you. The region's transportation departments and authorities suspend most work leading into holiday weekends. Sometimes, they must do emergency work. And sometimes, it's utilities out there, rather than the transportation agencies.

Where exactly were you when you encountered this?

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Washington, D.C.: I've been reading the "Great Society Subway" and what struck me was the way that the project was pursued by a regional coalition. It seems most of the projects today -- with the exception of the Wilson Bridge -- are viewed as regional. D.C. is pursuing streetcars, Va. the Silver Line and HOT lanes, Md. the ICC and the Purple Line. But the problem of transportation still seems regional. Why can't our leaders build a regional coalition to make a new long-term transportation plan?

Dr. Gridlock: That's a great book. Here's a link the the author's Web site, where you can find out a bit more about its themes:

http://www.schrag.info/research/greatsocietysubway.html

I think you're onto one of the really key questions about our future. This region is going to get so much bigger and more congested in the next two decades. We're nowhere near done. By mid-century, some project like Maryland's Purple Line will look like it runs along the northern edge of what we'll be calling "midtown."

How well will the transportation system operate with so many jurisdictions making so many different decisions? How well, for example, will the Purple Line and Ride On and the Farifax Connector link up with the Metro system? How many different types of trains and buses and streetcars will we be running?

Was the coalition to build the Metro system a once in a lifetime experience for Washington? If we can't figure out a way to plan a regional system, can't we at least figure out a way to buy in bulk when new equipment is purchased?

The one example now of regional cooperation: The effort in the three jurisdictions to get a permanent and stable source of funding for Metro.

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20902: So after D.C. eliminates all the commuter routes in and out of town, are all the residents going to then complain that they have speeding cut through traffic in their neighborhoods? Unless D.C. is willing to lose all of those lovely jobs and after hours visits in the downtown core they need to do a better job of getting cars in and out of the city.

Dr. Gridlock: I did a blog item this morning that focused on some of our recent transportation stories, particularly the one in Sunday's Post by Eric Weiss.

Here's a link to the blog item:

http://blog.washingtonpost.com/getthere/?hpid=news-col-blog

That will take you to these other stories as well.

Eric wrote about some of the District's actions and proposals aimed at making the city more walkable and transit-friendly. He noted quite rightly that many suburban drivers see this as an attack on them.

That's not the way I see it: I think everybody stands to benefit from city policies that will take into account how people are likely to be living and working in the next few decades.

The city must find ways to accommodate drivers, including drivers who are simply trying to get through the city. It also must join with the rest of the region in developing a more robust transit system.

If people have sensible choices, they will do what is in their best interests -- but they have to have those choices.

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Mt. Pleasant, D.C.: I liked your blog post about the 21st century ruling of DC Streets. What in your mind is the lowest hanging fruit that this area can do to enhance public transport and bicycle usage? What are your thoughts on the Bike Station at Union Station and the Bike Sharing plan?

Dr. Gridlock: The bike station and the bike sharing plan are great ideas -- I hope they'll be great realities, too. But each in its own way is an example of simple-sounding plans that take a long time to get started.

Use this link to see an image of the planned bike garage on the west side of Union Station:

http://www.ddot.dc.gov/ddot/frames.asp?doc=/ddot/lib/ddot/information/bicycle/pdf/3ds-context.pdf

But back to your thought about low hanging fruit on transit: Fixing some of the problems with our bus system, like the bus bunching on the long and congested routes; setting up more express bus routes, like the one now operating on Georgia Avenue.

Higher up the tree: Build some street car lines, and in the process, gain experience with their placement and operation. Let's see if this back to the future idea can really work for us.

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Somewhere on 66: Dr. Gridlock, please help. What is going on with 66? School is out, fewer people are on the road and all the other roads are lighter in traffic except 66 which seems to have MORE traffic on it. This morning, no traffic anywhere except a broken down car in the right lane at 123 backed traffic up to the Fairfax County Parkway. I'm tired of 66 and am moving from Chantilly to Herndon just so I can avoid it.

Dr. Gridlock: In just the past week, I've gotten a few questions and comments about 66. One letter writer, just for example, complained about congestion between Rosslyn and the Sycamore Street exit.

Any of you got a theory on what's up? And if you don't drive 66, what are you seeing lately on your own routes?

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Dr. G. What's up with the Red line between Twinbrook and Rockville? Several times last week the train would leave Twinbrook and travel at a leisurely 10-15mph, adding about 5 minutes to the trip. I did not see any reports on wmata.com or Metro alerts.

Dr. Gridlock: I don't know of any issue along that stretch, but can name a couple of possibilities: There might have been some scheduled maintenance that didn't show up on Metro's Web site. That speed is about right for a train going through a work zone. It wasn't particularly hot last week, so I doubt it was a slowdown ordered out of concern about heat kinks. Another thing that can happen is that trains are bunched up and the following trains slow down. I'll check.

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I-66 traffic: My theory is that people who stay off the Interstate during the school year, when traffic is heavier, shift over to the Interstate during the summer. I don't use I-66 very often, but I've observed this phenomenon on I-395 over the years. I suppose I might be an example of this, too, because during the summer I'll sometimes go over the Wilson Bridge and up I-295 instead of going up to Seminary Road and picking up I-395, whereas when school is in session and traffic is heavier I never go anywhere near I-295.

Dr. Gridlock: That's a very interesting idea about people shifting routes during the summer, because the route they'd really prefer becomes easier to take. Others go with that?

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Congestion between Rosslyn and Sycamore St.: I live right off Sycamore St. but rarely take 66 that direction because of eternal congestion. I just stick to the smaller roads -- not as frustrating.

Dr. Gridlock: Just a question of how many lanes are available? If so, would VDOT's plan to add some westbound lane space within the existing right of way be likely to help?

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Washington, D.C.: Dear Mr. Thomson: No question -- just a commendation: I've been knocked out about how you go out of your way to go on-site to thoroughly investigate our area's transportation challenges up close. Your Sunday story on how Metro fixes its switches in the tunnels is just one example. It didn't sound like a very pleasant environment but you deep down into the pit. And I noticed that the photos were credited to you as well! And in the first days of the home ballgames, I saw you sleuthing at the Navy Yard station to witness first-hand just how well -- or not -- Metro handled the fan traffic. (And Dr. Gridlock really was wearing a trench coat folks!) Anyhow, it's abundantly clear you go the extra mile to serve your readers and I really appreciate it! Thank you so much! (And no, this is not a note Robert Thomson's mom!)

Dr. Gridlock: Must be Dad then. I've been "Dr. Gridlock" for two years this month, having taken over from the column's founder, Ro Shaffer. Getting out and seeing stuff is the real fun.

I always tell people that I don't commute: As soon as I turn the ignition or smack down a SmarTrip card, I'm at work.

But I don't get to anywhere near enough stuff -- your road problems, train problems, bus problems, walking problems. This region is huge, and I'm lucky to be supported by an army of researchers. We call them readers and letter writers. You can see me doing exactly that today, as I ask for advice about the I-66 traffic, for example.

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Bike: I got an email from WABA saying that the ICC planning board is scrapping plans for a bike path along the new six-lane ICC because the bike path would damage the environment. This cannot possibly be true, can it?

Dr. Gridlock: I certainly haven't heard that. Last I heard, there was going to be a hearing about the best design for the path. I think there are environmental concerns about how the path is going to be constructed, but not whether there should be a path.

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Washington, D.C., 20001 -- RE: 66 theory: The congestion from Rosslyn to Sycamore Street is due to the slight incline in the road. People don't seem to make up for the incline, so they just slow down all together!

Dr. Gridlock: Interesting point about the geography. Would the angle of the sun during the rush periods be a factor as well?

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Vienna, Va.: Hi Dr. Gridlock -- I was wondering how to get back onto the Northbound GW Parkway if I exit it at Spout Run to run an errand? I am not familiar with that area. Thanks!

Dr. Gridlock: I don't have a real good way to do that and am looking for readers' advice: What I've done is reverse course, head back down into Rosslyn and loop around to reach the northbound lanes of the GW Parkway. Takes a while.

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Dr. Gridlock: Folks, I've got a ton of good questions and comments still in the mailbag, but we're having some technical troubles with the computer system today, and I've got to sign off. (It's especially frustrating, because your questions include some that I know the answers to.)

So I'm going to sign off, then go over to my Get There blog and post some of your questions and comments there over the next couple of hours.

Get There is at:

http://blog.washingtonpost.com/getthere/

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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