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Dr. Gridlock

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Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, July 21, 2008; 1:00 PM

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock. He was online Monday, July 21 at 1 p.m. ET to address all your traffic and transit issues.

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The transcript follows.

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.


Dr. Gridlock: Hello, travelers. Let's talk about any traffic or transit issue on your mind. One big event in our world this week will be the start of serious construction on the Virginia HOT lanes along the western side of the Beltway.

How are you faring during this summer's construction season? Is your route easier or more difficult? Or have you switched routes or modes of travel because of gas prices?


Rockville, Md.: I'm commuting by car (from Rockville to Clarendon) for the first time in a few years and I want to know what happened to our summer "traffic vacation." Traffic is no lighter in July than it was in May. Is this old news to commuters, or do you think people are skipping vacations this year?

Dr. Gridlock: What I think I see: Heavy traffic on the interstates and some decline on secondary roads. On Friday afternoon, I drove on the the Beltway in MD and VA and on 395. That was awful. Yesterday afternoon, the Beltway and 95 were pretty crowded.

Lots of out-of-area license plates, suggesting summer drivers. But what about all this statistical evidence that people are driving less this summer and using the trains and buses more for local travel?


Arlington, Va.: Hey Doc,

My wife works in Tysons, and occasionally, we leave directly from her office to go to Baltimore or Philadelphia for meetings. The few times that we've done it this summer, it has taken us at least an hour and a half, and twice over two hours, to get from Tysons to 95 north. We thought we would be in decent shape as we have been leaving at around 3:30, but alas, that is not the case. Has traffic in the afternoons on the inner loop between Tysons and Silver Spring been getting even worse, or am I only encountering it on particularly awful days?

Dr. Gridlock: I share your pain on this. My thought is that it's partly the long-distance summer traffic adding to our local commuters. Long-distance driving may be down somewhat, but we're still getting the heavy East Coast flow all around us.


Poland, Maine: Why is it that when a barrel of oil goes up, the oil companies go up on their gas prices the very next day. But when the price off a barrel of oil goes down it takes a few days to a week to go down?

Dr. Gridlock: AAA says the average price of regular gas in the Washington region now is $4.07, compared to $4.08 nationally. But many of you who get around know there's lots of variation in the region and between states.

I'm not one to cut the oil companies any slack, but it doesn't appear to me that they flip a switch and change the prices at all their stations. In Baltimore yesterday, I filled up for $3.99 at a spot where two stations are across the street from each other.

Seems that local circumstances -- like good old fashioned competition -- can have at least some effect on the price.


Gaithersburg, Md.: I just wanted to give a pat on the back to the Montgomery County Ride-On drivers/system. I am lucky in that I have never needed a wheelchair, walker, etc., but I have been around others who have. Recently, I have been using the Ride-On bus rather than driving for local trips. On several occasions, people in wheelchairs have gotten on the bus, and it is wonderful to see how fast and efficient the drivers are in helping these passengers on and off the bus. Kudos to Ride-On.

Dr. Gridlock: The readers I hear from compliment bus drivers on the suburban lines and on Metrobus for the assistance they give to the elderly and disabled and to cyclists who attach their bikes to the front. My own observations support that.

Any bad experiences to report?


Silver Spring, Md.: A question about Code Red days. On Friday, I took the bus in the morning and it had the red bag covering the farebox and was free. Instead of coming straight home after work, I went out and ended up taking the bus home at about 10 p.m. That bus did not have a red bag and people were paying the fare. I said to the driver that it was a Code Red day and that buses in Maryland should be free. He replied the Code Red was "over" and everyone had to pay. Since it was only 35 cents after taking the train, I just rolled my eyes and paid. But, I was pretty sure he was wrong. So, does the Code Red provision "expire" sometime in the evening or should it be in effect the entire day?

Dr. Gridlock: That's certainly different from my understanding, which is that a Code Red Day is a Code Red "day." It's possible a particular driver coming on for a late shift might have misunderstood the rules.

Many of you will recall the day in June when Metro didn't realize that a Code Red had been declared, and none of the drivers was giving free rides. Metro says it has fixed that problem.

The only other source of confusion I've encountered on Code Red days is that some Metrobus routes are free while others aren't. The routes that are subsidized by the suburban jurisdictions are the free ones.


Arlington, Va.: This whole HOT lane thing seems like a real boondoggle to me. I have never seen an explanation with respect to how these tolls will be collected. Presumably putting a toll booth will not be an option. So I suspect some sort of electronic transponder will be used. But what will stop people who don't have a transponder from using the lanes? Furthermore, what happens at the point where the HOT lanes merge back into the regular lanes? Isn't that just going to create a new huge bottleneck? Won't that slow everyone down?

Dr. Gridlock: No toll booths. That would cause congestion and defeat the purpose of the HOT lanes. The toll collection system isn't set yet. Some will pay using E-ZPass style transponders. But what about the carpoolers, who can ride the HOT lanes for free? There will have to be police monitoring to catch cheaters. Monitoring may be done in part by using infrared sensors to detect how many warm bodies are present in a vehicle.

Merging back into the regular lanes is another good issue.

The designers say they're working on that. I think it will be easier to figure out the Beltway HOT lane merges than the I-95/395 merges. So many commuters on the latter are likely to reach the 14th Street Bridge corridor before they want to get off the HOT lanes.


Friendship Heights: I find it baffling that there is no dedicated left turn arrow for traffic turning North onto Wisconsin Avenue from East-bound Western Avenue (wow, that looks confusing in writing!). When one is between Bloomingdales and Neiman Marcus, trying to turn left onto Wisconsin, it's really a challenge. There is a dedicated left turn lane, but no green arrow. Do you know why this is?

Dr. Gridlock: Nope. I can understand why that spot would be a problem for left turners. You're facing the westbound traffic from Western Ave and Military Rd.

Generally, when I put this type of question to traffic engineers, they note that the lights are based on the volume of traffic in each direction. Putting a left arrow in for one direction means adding to red time for drivers in the other direction.


RE: traffic vacation: The GW parkway is substantially lighter now than in May, though the 14th St. Bridge and SE/SW highway vary. I've e-mailed you about this before. I think traffic from VA to D.C. would greatly improve if more Capitol Hill staffers telecommuted or had varied schedules. I notice an extremely marked decrease in traffic volume when Congress isn't in session.

Dr. Gridlock: Congress and schools make a huge difference locally. It won't be too long before we're talking about September Shock.


Dupont Circle, D.C.: Not so much a driving question as a parking question -- what recommendations do you have (short of renting a parking space) for parking in D.C.? I live and work in Dupont Circle, and most of the time street parking is just awful. More and more I notice how many out-of-state cars are parked on the street for hours on end, flouting the two-hour non-permit parking rule. Also, parkers are often so oblivious that they will leave several feet on either side of their car, effectively eating up another parking space. I've contemplated writing a letter to the editor, but is there any other route you would suggest?

Dr. Gridlock: You've probably got a good reason for not doing this, but for many people who live and work in one community, the solution would be to sell the car and use a Zip Car rental whenever you need a vehicle other than a bike, bus or train.


Alexandria, Va.: I ride the Dash bus in Alexandria every weekday. The only time I ever experience an issue is when the AT1 bus, which begins at Eisenhower Metro during rush hour, starts late. The bus just sits there until five minutes after the start time, thus throwing a good portion of the bus timings off. My ride is very short on the bus, but five extra minutes in the blazing heat can get frustrating.

Dr. Gridlock: There are enough things along any bus route to throw the schedule off without the additional problem of the driver starting late.


Washington, D.C.: RE: bikes on buses: You asked for any other experiences regarding drivers' assistance of elderly/disabled/bikes. When I was riding the 42 regularly, I noticed many Metro buses' wheelchair access was either inoperable or the driver simply refused to take the time to use it. Often the driver would pull up to the wheelchair bound individual and yell that another bus was coming up behind him.

While riding the S buses one time a young woman asked for assistance in putting her bike on the front. Not only did the driver refuse to assist her, he even flat out refused to provide verbal instructions on how to work the bike rack. She asked if he could explain how it worked and the driver said "NO!". She ended up riding the bike and meeting her party (who rode the bus) at the top of the 16th Street hill. She actually beat the bus there.

Dr. Gridlock: Thinking about the S buses on 16th Street NW: I was at a community meeting last week in which Metro and the District Department of Transportation were talking with riders about their complaints and getting suggestions on improvements.

Some riders did say that drivers occasionally will pass them up, or wave people to the following bus. The riders think the drivers are anxious to get back on their schedule. (The 16th Street Line is notorious for being off schedule.) Perhaps that's happening on other routes as well. Not that drivers should be taking out the schedule problems on riders who are disabled.


Arlington/Alexandria Gas: Just wanted to give a heads up to those in the area that I was looking for gas around Old Town and by Potomac Yards yesterday and was seeing about $4.20 a gallon. That sounded crazy expensive to me, so I waited until I got closer to home around the King St./Braddock Rd. intersection and gas there was $4.05!

Dr. Gridlock: That's smart shopping, since it was along your route. The approach I don't understand is when people drive a long distance out of their way to save a couple of cents a gallon. That seems like a waste of time and money.


Rockville, Md.: Since the farebox is covered on Code Red days, does Metro track how bus ridership changes on these days? I ask because while it's nice for regular bus riders to get a free ride, if non-regular bus riders aren't switching to buses, then the free ride does nothing but cost Metro money.

Dr. Gridlock: The ride free days shouldn't be costing Metro any money. The suburban jurisdictions have an interest in reducing the high ozone levels on those days, so they subsidize the free rides.

Even on regular days, Metro doesn't give an exact count of its bus ridership. Metrorail, yes. But there are so many payment options on the buses that we don't get an exact count of trips taken.


Bethesda, Md.: Has metro discontinued the ads in the tunnel along Metro-Gallery Place- Judiciary Square in the Glenmont direction? I think they were still there in June.

Dr. Gridlock: Metro spokeswoman Cathy Asato says that demand for the tunnel ad space is down, so there may be a time when there is no ad. Nesquick was up in May and "Speed Racer" was up in July.

I like those tunnel ads -- whether or not I can figure out who's advertising what. Sometimes, I'd like to call for a replay, but by then we're at Union Station. Anybody have an opinion about whether they're effective?


Silver Spring, Md.: I took the Pennsylvania route to New England weekend before last, and encountered eerily light traffic until I got north of Albany. Coming home this past Friday -- a weekday, I do realize -- I had heavier than expected traffic the whole way.

So who knows...

Dr. Gridlock: Whenever people write to me and ask about routes, I suggest things, but always include a line like "Your results may vary."

The Grid Spouse and I have become creatures of habit and tend to take the same long-distance drives each year. No two are alike.


Arlington, Va.: "Monitoring may be done in part by using infrared sensors to detect how many warm bodies are present in a vehicle." I can see all kinds of problems with that. What about when someone doesn't have passengers but turns on their heated seats? I wouldn't put it past people to rig up a dummy with a hot water bottle in it either.

Dr. Gridlock: People will certainly try such things. We've all heard or seen what drivers do now in the HOV lanes. Techies in this line of work tell me the monitoring systems can work, but this will be interesting to see. Seems like a lot will depend on the state police.


New Commuter, D.C.: Every morning, people coming into D.C. from Virginia on 14th Street run through the yellow/red light and block Constitution Avenue. Often, they don't pull forward until the very end of the cycle, meaning only a few cars on Constitution Avenue can get through the intersection. It happens every single day. Why can't/won't the police do something about it?

Dr. Gridlock: Traffic enforcement by the Metropolitan Police Department is a constant source of complaints. I think the most likely form of relief will be enforcement by the traffic control officers who work for the District Department of Transportation. They're getting the power to write tickets.


A rose by any other name?: Gridspouse? Shouldn't that be Mrs. Gridlock? Unless of course she has an advanced degree in which case it would be Dr. and Dr. Gridlock?

Dr. Gridlock: She's a peach.


Clifton, Va.: You may have hashed this over before, but the Delaware lines toll booths on I-95 are just incredible. Coming south yesterday evening, I crawled in the E-ZPass lane for about 45 minutes. I know, the right lanes are quicker for a while, but getting back to the E-ZPass lane is pretty hard.

It seems unconscionable for Delaware to collect money for enduring such a gas-wasting, pollution-adding, time-wasting experience, when there are several obvious ways to reduce the congestion.

Dr. Gridlock: We talk about it every year. Especially around Thanksgiving. Congestion is so bad that drivers with E-ZPass have to wait a long time to get a clear shot at the E-ZPass lanes.

Traffic would be improved greatly if Delaware's Department of Transportation would install some highway-speed E-ZPass lanes. (Like what we'll have on the HOT lanes.)


Code red count: While Metro may not lose any money, it does seem that someone should track what benefit whoever is paying gets for free bus rides. I would hazard a guess that 98 percent of riders would ride the bus anyway (and would otherwise pay) and that at most 2 percent of riders are people who are getting off the streets. (and that 2 percent is probably generous). If so, surely there are much better ways to spend that money to reduce ozone.

Dr. Gridlock: That's a good point. And in fact, some interested party -- perhaps the Council of Governments -- may have done a study of this that I'm not aware of.

In terms of measuring clean air results, Bob Chase of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance often points out that an actual Code Red Day, as opposed to a Code Red forecast day, has become a rarity in the Washington region despite stricter standards on what constitutes a bad air day.


Arlington, Va.: How can VDOT go through with the HOT lanes when they haven't worked out even some of the most basic questions? If HOV vehicles are free and they don't know how they will make that happen, seems awfully irresponsible to just assume there will be a solution.

Dr. Gridlock: I'd feel more comfortable seeing a demonstration right now. That said, both VDOT and reps of the private consortium say they are confident it will work. Also, they've got till 2013 to prove it.


Chevy Chase, Md.: Two items: 1. The bus drivers aren't actually allowed to get off the bus to assist bikers with the rack. While I can't find the rules for WMATA right now, TCAT (in Ithaca, NY) clearly states on their Web site, "For safety reasons, the driver cannot get off the bus to assist you." WMATA and Ride-On have similar policies.

2. The light at Western and Wisconsin can be long, but I believe there is a turn lane and possibly even a turn signal if you drive up to the Wisconsin Circle intersection just beyond the bus station.

Dr. Gridlock: Thanks, Chevy. I don't have a copy of the rules either. I have seen drivers get off the bus to assist elderly riders. Perhaps they're doing it on their own initiative.


Chevy Chase, Md.: Found where on the Ride-On site it says the driver cannot help with bike loading: "As the bus approaches, prepare to mount your bike from the curb side. Let the operator know you're using the rack, making sure to remove water bottles, air pumps, or other items that could slip from your bike and potentially create a hazard. For safety reasons, the operator may not leave the bus to assist you, but he or she can answer your questions."

Dr. Gridlock: Thanks for the follow up.


The hybrid guy: It's the hybrid guy from a few weeks ago. One of the reasons that people have not noticed a huge decrease in traffic on the Interstates is the gas price. Although people who normally travel on vacation by car are traveling less or shorter distances, you are adding on many people who normally travel by air who have decided to travel by car this year. Thus, there is not quite as much decrease on the interstates as might be expected due to "summer vacations." This also explains why you are still seeing the summer hiatus on secondary and local highways (e.g. I-395, SE/SW Freeway, DC/MD-295, etc.), but not so much on the Interstates. I have some friends who just came down last week from Boston for a rally in D.C. They flew the last two years, but drove this year. They are not alone.

Dr. Gridlock: That sounds right, HG.


Arlington, Va.: I cannot find this answer online or on the Va. transportation web site. I was talking to my sister who lives in South Carolina about the multi-lane highways around our area, and I said, "And of course if you're in the far left lane of a multi-lane (three or more) highway, you have the right of way over a person in the far right lane if you're both trying to move into the center lane. She said that can't be true, the person in the far right lane always has the right of way. If I'm correct, where can I find the definitive answer online so I can send it to her?

Dr. Gridlock: I've read the drivers manuals for VA and MD, but don't recall any reference to a driver in a particular lane having the right of way when shifting toward the center. And I don't recall seeing it in the traffic codes of the two states. Anybody about to cite something?


Arlington, Va.: Are we going to hire additional state police to monitor the HOT lanes or are they going to be pulled off of their regular duties to enforce HOT lane regulations? I don't see enough state police on the roads as it is right now. If we hire additional state troopers, where's the money going to come from? Virginia or the company operating the HOT lanes?

Dr. Gridlock: I believe the company is going to subsidize the enforcement patrols.


Silver Spring, Md.: For New Commuter -- the D.C. and/or Capitol Police have occasionally put officers in the Constitution/14th intersection (I've seen them in the evening), but you should know D.C. has a policy of not enforcing laws that help commuters, because we don't pay taxes.

Dr. Gridlock: There used to be a police traffic division, but no more. No question there's an enforcement gap now. And I know it shows up prominently during the commutes. But I think lack of traffic law enforcement hurts plenty of D.C. residents as well as suburbanites.


Re: multi-lane highways: Around here, if two cars are trying to merge into the same center lane, it's whomever is more aggressive and doesn't chicken out that will be able to get into the center lane first. Sad, but true.

Dr. Gridlock: That's my observation as well. It's a difficult maneuver in the first place. It's made more difficult when drivers fail to use their lights to signal a lane change.


Olney, Md.: Recently it was stated that the Anacostia light rail line might be running in 2009. I was bicycling down on South Capitol Street between the Douglass Bridge and Bolling AFB last weekend and only saw the long-abandoned single freight track, still covered with weeds and missing rails. How are they going to get a two-track modern rail line either on the track right of way or on the edges of South Capitol Street itself in less than 18 months? (I always assume that with Metro and the Smithsonian, any time period actually means the last minute of the last day of that time period.)

Dr. Gridlock: That 1.3 mile Anacostia streetcar route will be the easiest light rail course you'll ever see in the city. That's one of the main reasons DDOT wants to start there. It's the path of least resistance. By the way, it's not the CSX tracks. That was the original idea, but negotiations with CSX failed.


Speaking of code red: Where's the best place to find out the air quality? I know the post has it on their weather page but it doesn't always seem to be correct. When I call weather, they don't mention it. Radio stations don't mention it regularly either.

Dr. Gridlock: If you go to this Council of Governments page, you'll see the forecast.

Also note there's a link that allows you to sign up to get e-mail alerts


Multi-lane Highways: I recall from my original Pennsylvania driver's license book that the person who is further in front is considered to have the right-of-way. In other words, even if the other car is only a foot ahead of you, they have the right-of-way. The idea is that the car behind has a better view of the other vehicle when looking. The one slightly behind might end up in the other driver's blind spot as they try to merge.

Dr. Gridlock: Also suggests it's a good idea for drivers to turn their heads rather than just use mirrors when changing lanes.


Washington, D.C.: Dr., what's going on with all the construction on Benning Road NE? I went through there just this weekend, and the entire road has been torn up from Oklahoma Avenue to Hechinger Mall? What gives?

Dr. Gridlock: Benning Road seems like it's always torn up. It was utility work, but now, I think it's the big streetscape project. That's going to go on for a while.

Here's a link to the DDOT web site where you can read more about that project.


Motorcycling Commuter: Just a quick plea for a PSA on behalf of the motorcycle commuters. When you decide you need to clean your windshield, please take a second to look behind you before you hit the washer button. Your windshield washer fluid cleans your windshield, but completely messes up our helmet visors (and gets us dirty too). We thank you for your courtesy.

P.S. (The guy in the convertible next to me also thanks you for your consideration.)

Dr. Gridlock: PSA accomplished.


Dupont Again: Thanks for the response. I do, as you thought, have a good reason for not selling the car -- my husband travels weekly in the greater metro area (Columbia, Potomac) and needs the car to get around. When we need two cars I've used Zipcar, but it just doesn't seem feasible at this point to sell our car (which would bring in no more than $6-7k anyway). So, that being said, do you think writing a letter to the Post would raise awareness of this issue? I imagine that the police could care less, seeing as they leave the errant parkers (out-of-staters, etc.) well enough alone.

Dr. Gridlock: I think contacting your Advisory Neighborhood Commission or your D.C. Council member can be effective in getting action on this.


Wheaton, Md.: How does one petition for a "no left turn sign" placement? There is a turn off of University Blvd. west where people wanting to make the left turn (where there is no turn pocket) can cause backups as far as Georgia Ave.

Dr. Gridlock: University Blvd is a state road, so the agency that can review your idea is the Maryland State Highway Administration.


Alexandria, Va.: Is it September 2008 or December 2008 when the Woodrow Wilson Bridge will have the other lanes open for use? It is not clear on their Web site.

Dr. Gridlock: I believe the target for getting the four express lanes open is the end of this year. After that, the bridge is pretty much done and the main challenge remaining is the Telegraph Road interchange.


Bethesda, Md.: Doc -- with all the discussion about the beltway from Tysons to 95, it is a good time to remind people that the most heavily traveled stretch of the beltway (between 66 and 270) is the one that will be the worst affected by all the proposed construction -- building up Tysons, Dulles metro, and HOT lanes that will dump even more traffic on the northbound lanes. It is inexcusable that Maryland officials continue to "study" the problem as they have the past seven or eight years, when it is blatantly obvious that the only solution is more lanes crossing the Potomac. How can us poor commuters get our voices heard to the pandering politicians and get some solution in motion?

Dr. Gridlock: I understand why you want action. Traffic on the western side of the Beltway across the river is horrible. The two states need to coordinate their responses. MD has yet to propose a solution for its zone along I-270 and down the Beltway to the AL Bridge.

That said, the western side of the Beltway in Montgomery County represents great challenges for planners.

One thing I'd try in the short term: Restore express bus service between the I-270 corridor and Tysons.


Chevy Chase, Md.: Two questions on the Purple Line: I feel like there's a whole lot of coverage lately on this issue, but some of my neighbors say it's been talked about for years (decades?) with no real progress. How likely is it to ever become a reality, and on what time frame?

Also, a few weeks ago you wrote on your blog that the Purple Line was almost certainly going to be light rail rather than the bus rapid transit option. Can you give some background on why you think that is the case? As someone who lives on one of the roads that would be directly impacted by BRT, I really hope you're right on this detail! Thanks for your insight and reporting.

washingtonpost.com: The Commuter: Going Purple(Post, June 30)

Dr. Gridlock: Many people in Montgomery hope I'm wrong.

I think a light rail line between Bethesda and New Carrollton will be built by the middle of the next decade. Every official involved in the planning process says no decision has been made about bus rapid transit vs. light rail. But I never hear any of them say anything good about BRT.

Many planners are attracted to the potential light rail offers for clustering development around the stations -- something they don't believe can be achieved with BRT.

Many people who live along the route hope I'm wrong. I think every house on Wayne Ave in Silver Spring has a lawn sign that says "No Train on Wayne."


Washington, D.C.: I'm sure you've gone through this before, so perhaps you can point me there. What is the Pennsylvania route to New England? And is it only good for northern New England, or is it worth a try if you're going to, say, southeastern Massachusetts?

Dr. Gridlock: The most frequently recommended route is up I-83 from Baltimore to Harrisburg, PA, and then onto I-81 to I-78 or I-80 east. People debate the value of this. Some will do anything to miss tolls or traffic congestion. Some people just like a little variety. I've used it to reach Maine or Cape Cod, but most of the time, I just get up real early and stick to I-95.


Dr. Gridlock: Travelers, once again you've got more questions than I can get to in the available time. I've got to break away now. I'll save the questions I couldn't get to -- like why no left turn off the Chain Bridge -- and see if I can answer some later this week on my Get There blog. Let's talk again here in two weeks.

Stay safe out there.


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