Dr. Gridlock

Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, August 4, 2008; 1:00 PM

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock. He will be online Monday, Aug. 4 at 1 p.m. ET to address all your traffic and transit issues.

A 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.


Robert Thomson: Hello, travelers. It's summertime. Is the commuting easy? Just last week, I thought we were finally seeing a dropoff in local traffic. We can talk about your experiences with traffic, transit, biking, walking -- whatever you're in the mood for today.


Columbia, Md.: We leave for Boston at noon Friday (yes, I know...)

The passenger (my husband) wants to take our "typical" route up 95 to 395 to 495. He wants to eat at Mystic Pizza.

I say, traffic is likely to be an absolute nightmare, and we should try the 81 to 84 route through Scranton. I am the driver, so I do have a little more say-so.

How desolate is 84 through Western, Conn.? Will we be able to get something other than Burger King for dinner?


Robert Thomson: Driver gets to pick the music, too. There are plenty of places to stop for food along I-84 in western Conn. Don't expect a desolate landscape as you drive through Danbury, Waterbury and Hartford. There's often lots of traffic up that way, too.

I don't know of any roadside attractions on that route that are the equivalent of Mystic Pizza. Others?


Alexandria, Va., MetroCheks question: I have heard a rumor that if I ride my bike to the bus, then take the bus to a central location, then bike to my job I am not eligible for MetroCheks. If that is true, should I just leave out the part about riding my bike?? Does this make any sense??

Robert Thomson: I don't know of anything in the Metrochek program that would disqualify you because you use the bike. Some readers think using bikes to commute should qualify people to receive Metrocheks, but that hasn't happened yet.

The biggest change I know of regarding Metrocheks is that employers are switching over to the SmartBenefits electronic system, so that the benefit will go directly to the SmarTrip card, rather than onto a paper fare card.


Chevy Chase, MD: I have to take issue with your follow-up column last week on the driver who received two speeding tickets for one offense on Connecticut Avenue in the Village of Chevy Chase. Chief Gordon told you that receiving one ticket from the fixed camera and one from one of his officers is no different than receiving two tickets from two different officers in a short time span and you seemed to agree. However, those would be two dissimilar situations.

In the chief's analogy, there would be two distinct events: A motorist would be pulled over by one officer and then a short time later, after speeding again, a second officer would pull the motorist over and issue a second citation.

This is not at all like the situation in the Village where one speeding "event" led to two tickets. The correct analogy to that situation would be an officer following a speeding motorist for a distance of 1/2 mile, and then pulling the motorist over and issuing two tickets, one for the first 1/4 mile of speeding and one for the second 1/4 mile of speeding.

I think that we can all agree that that would be an absurd situation, yet it is no different than what the Village of Chevy Chase is doing now.

And on a related note, I was driving south on Ct. Avenue yesterday afternoon around 1:30, and the Village had one of their officers hiding behind a tree and pointing a camera at oncoming traffic about a block south of where the fixed camera zone is, so they are still up to their despicable, revenue-producing hijinks.

And no, I didn't get caught, nor have I ever been caught speeding there because I live in the area and am very familiar with their antics.

If you take the stereotype of the backwoods southern speedtrap and multiply it by two, you would have the Village of Chevy Chase.

Robert Thomson: Two of my recent columns have dealt with a case in which a driver received a camera ticket and then an officer-issued ticket on Connecticut Avenue in Chevy Chase. The driver is asking for a court review of the officer-issued ticket, saying it amounts to double jeopardy. (The distance between the tickets was about 1,400 feet.)

I think what Chevy Chase Police Chief Roy Gordon was pointing out to me was that tickets can be issued for the same offense -- speeding -- over what seems to many of us like a short distance. But you'll also recall that he was willing to consider voiding the camera ticket if the driver called him with details about the citations and let him look over how closely they occurred in time and distance.

Also, he said his speed cameras -- some of which are on fixed poles and some of which are mobile -- do not issue multiple tickets to a driver who passes through two in the same direction in a short space.

The chief, who talked at length with me about the camera program, said he wants to keep his village safe and that the speed camera program has been effective in lowering speeds.

Readers were divided on whether the situation I described amounted to double jeopardy. We'll post links to the two columns and you can judge for yourselves.


washingtonpost.com: Two Tickets, One Offense, Mad Motorist (Post, July 20)

Transit vs. Car: Calculate Cost of Going the Distance (Post, July 27)

Robert Thomson: Those are the links to the two recent columns that dealt with the Conn. Ave. speed cameras.

Speed cameras are always a hot topic in the mailbag, and I'm sure I'll be writing about them again soon.


I84 in CT: Eat at Reins Deli Exit 66. Right off exit, next Right, Left at Light 1 mile on right. As good as anything NYC. Plus no stupid Julia Roberts movie association.

Robert Thomson: Thanks for the suggestion on the western Conn. eateries.


M Street, Washington, D.C.: Last week, in response to the dangerous overcrowding situation at Foggy Bottom due to a non-functioning escalator at the station exit, Metro officials stopped the down escalator in the morning, to allow people to use the right side of that escalator to exit. This solution cut down on the crowds exiting and appeared to only minimally prevent people from entering the station.

This morning, however, Metro officials went back to providing only a single escalator to allow riders to clear the station. Of course, crowds began to form again. We know Metro is capable of handling this situation better (because they did), yet here they are taking another step backward. Why?

Robert Thomson: It's a difficult situation at Foggy Bottom, the eighth busiest station on Metrorail. What they really need is a second entrance, but that would cost $21 million, according to a transit authority study.

One of the three escalators is out of service for repairs until September, Metro told me last week. There are lots of people trying to get out of the station during the morning rush, but there's also lots trying to get in.

I wrote about this a couple of times last week on my Get There blog. Here's a link to the last entry:



Philadelphia: Never mind eating in Connecticut. Get off I-81 N at the Moosic exit (Exit 180), follow the signs and get yourself some world-famous Old Forge pizza. A tray (don't call it a pie) of red, and a tray of double-crusted white, and your on your way to New England with a belly full of goodness.

Robert Thomson: I've got a couple more suggestions in the mailbag that I'll post as we go on.


Rockville, MD: What can you tell us about the changes underway at Route 355 and Montrose Road in Rockville? How long will it take, and what exactly is being done?

Robert Thomson: The Maryland State Highway Administration is building an interchange there to replace the congested intersection, but it will take two and a half years. Post staff writer Katherine Shaver did a story about it. Here's the link:


8th and I: 1400 feet is a big distance, when you should be going 30 or 35 mph. Getting two tickets in that span seems reasonable to me. There should be some sort of state-mandated cutoff, where drivers cannot be ticketed twice within the same span. But if the person did not slow down after the cameras, how long until they should be allowed to be ticketed? 1/4 mile? 1/2 mile? 5 miles? There just needs to be an established distance between the two.

Robert Thomson: Got a couple of comments on the speed camera issue, which I'll continue to post. I'm not sure I'd want the law to say exactly how far it should be between tickets. (I have concerns about the Md. speed camera law saying that drivers have to be going at least 10 mph over the speed limit to get a camera ticket.)

But in the case I described in the columns, think of it from the driver's viewpoint: She gets pulled over by the officer and he writes a ticket, which she pays by mail. Then a few days later, she gets a camera ticket in the mail. The photo was taken about a minute or less before she was pulled over by the officer. I think that's too much.

That said, you'll never see me endorsing speeding, and I support the camera program. In fact, I think all jurisdictions -- not just the ones in Montgomery County -- should be allowed to use them. And they should be set up in highway work zones, too.


re: Chevy Chase speeding: Don't exceed the posted speed limit, and I bet you won't get a ticket, backwoods antics or not... Continue to exceed the posted speed limit, and I really hope you get lots of tickets.

Robert Thomson: Get the government off your back: Don't speed.


Braddock Road Exit, 495 to OC: Anything I should be aware of while driving to the Eastern Shore on Friday morning?

We plan to leave around 0800


Robert Thomson: Once you get past the Beltway, you should be fine. That's not likely to be a problem time for the Bay Bridge or Route 50 on the Eastern Shore.

Anyone disagree?


smartbike: Just went past the Reed Center at 14th & U - they're putting ins smartbikes - seems like a really nice idea.

Robert Thomson: First it was the conveniently placed cars to rent. Now it's bikes for rent. That's good progress on giving people transportation options.


Washington, D.C.: I ask that all drivers please think about what it is like for pedestrians. If drivers fail to yield, then the pedestrian could be killed. Things that make life difficult for pedestrians: Of course, not yielding. Running red lights. Stopping your car in the crosswalk so you block it; this is especially dangerous for those in wheelchairs or strollers, since thy are low to the ground and less visible when they have to go into the street to get around the blocked crosswalk. Drivers who think a flashing Don't walk sign is the time for them to turn. Most walk lights are timed for traffic and not to give pedestrians a reasonable amount of time to cross the road. Flashing Don't walk does not mean turn time for drivers. Drivers turning right who only look left to see if there is any traffic. They therefore fail to see pedestrians crossing the road. Drivers who anticipate the movement of pedestrians and give only inches of clearnace. What if I trip or slow down. Give at least several feet of clearance. This is just a small list, but it is a start. Drivers, you are operating a weapon. Please use care.

Robert Thomson: Biggest change in traffic I've seen over the past decade: The new attention governments and their transportation agencies are giving to pedestrian safety. Still a long way to go, though.

Government can do some things better, but there are many steps drivers and pedestrians can take to protect each other and themselves.

Anybody got an opinion on whether it's best for drivers and pedestrians to make eye contact with each other at intersections, or does that just throw everybody off stride?


Alexandria: I must say I really don't understand the point of speed "traps." The police say the point is to keep the roads safe, but sitting in the bushes waiting for someone to speed by isn't really keeping the road safe. Most people learn where the traps are and slow down right before them and speed up right after them. If they were really concerned about keeping the roads safe they would drive on the roads in marked cars because nobody speeds when there is a cop on the road with them (shoot some people go below the speed limit).

Robert Thomson: One person's trap is another person's enforcement zone. I think there's nowhere near enough enforcement of the speed laws.

Police need to set up enforcement where it will be least disruptive to traffic flow, while still being effective.


Highway Work Zones Question: Is there common sense involved in the work zones - meaning - if it is 2 am, or a Sunday morning, do drivers have to do the posted limit? Not that they seem to slow down during work hours, but I was wondering.


Robert Thomson: Construction zones are more dangerous to the drivers than they are to the workers. So I think the work zone speed limits should apply at all hours. In other words, if you're passing through an area where the lanes shift, the speed rules should be the same all the time.


Lake Ridge, Va.: Please help answer a mystery. If you are driving south bound on I-95 near the Lorton exit, there is a large parking garage on the right side. It has been there for years but appears to be vacant and it borders a townhouse development. What is this structure for?

Robert Thomson: People recognize that?


Mystic Pizza?: For the driver to Boston, leaving at noon.

Do not use 95. You'll get stuck in Baltimore, Delaware, the Cross Bronx Expy, among other places. You won't get to Mystic in time to EAT Mystic Pizza, unless the restaurant is open at midnight.

2. Last time in Mystic, we had Mystic Pizza. The movie was better than the pizza. And the movie was only OK.

Robert Thomson: More on the way on this topic.


New Haven Pizza: Don't waste your time on I-84. By leaving at noon, you'll clear NYC just before rush hour. Take exit 9A off the George Washington Bridge (the Henry Hudson Parkway) and follow this to the Hutchinson River Parkway, which leads to the Merritt Parkway. Take the Merritt to New Haven, stop by Pepe's Pizza (or Sally's) on Wooster Street in New Haven. Once the rush clear, take I-91 north to Hartford and hit I-84.

Robert Thomson: Still more.


Washington, D.C.: Rein's Deli: Don't trust the person's directions. They don't look correct.

Take exit 65. Keep right on ramp. Merge with Hartford Turnpike. In shopping center on left less than a mile from merge. After Lotus Restaurant turn left.

Robert Thomson: And I thought the speed cameras were controversial.


Washington, D.C.: Rein's Deli is in EASTERN Connecticut. Well worth the wait to get there.

Robert Thomson: The tension rises.


Washington, DC: Hi - I commute into the city on a Dillon's/MTA commuter bus. I currently use my MetroCheks to purchase the bus pass. SmartTrip is not an option at this point. How will they handle these transactions once they do away with paper MetroCheks?


Robert Thomson: While the program's goal is to move people onto SmarTrip cards, the program operators know it's not an option for everyone yet and the Metrocheks will be around for a while.


Driving to Boston: This is a response to the first post from the person who wanted advice on driving to Boston. I just drove back to Virginia from Portland on Thursday. On the way up on July 16, I took the I-95 route; on the way home, I went through Pennsylvania.

My take is that on a Friday, one of the Pennsylvania routes makes more sense. I didn't use I-84 west of Hartford, but it goes through some big enough places (Danbury, Waterbury) that you'll have no shortage of places to stop. But going up to Scranton is also a bit out of the way. I'd suggest the following:

US-15 north to Harrisburg, then 581 west to I-81 (short drive to the west)

Then I-81 north to either I-78 or I-80

I-78 or I-80 east to I-287

I-287 north; continue east on it where it joins the Thruway

Go over the Tappan Zee Bridge and then stay on I-287 when it splits off from I-87

Then take the exit for the Merritt Parkway. Follow this to where the road fees into I-91 (it changes names to the Wilbur Cross Parkway near Milford, but you just go straight ahead), and follow I-91 north towards Hartford, where you follow the signs to I-84.

I liked the Merritt/Wilbur Cross route a TON better than I-95 through Connecticut, which is an old road with a lot of traffic and way too many interchanges. I-84 west of Hartford is a poorly-designed road with some very slow sections through the cities, low speed limits, lots of left-hand exits and merges. On the Merritt/Wilbur Cross the speed limit is 55 mph, but I had the cruise control set at 65 mph and was fine. Only thing I'd warn is not to plan on stopping for lunch along that road, since it's not clear where there are places to eat and, more importantly, the on-ramps are poorly designed with STOP signs (not YIELD signs) at the bottom, and the local drivers tend not to move over to let people onto the road. Still, it's a nice drive and far more scenic than I-84 or I-95, and the I-95 traffic on a Friday will be horrendous.

Robert Thomson: Thanks for all those good details. My 2 cents: Watch out for congestion on I-287 (Cross Westchester Expressway) on the east side of the Tappan Zee Bridge. There's lots of construction along there, especially around White Plains, as I recall. Plus, I-287 is the Main Street of Westchester County, NY. Also, the Merritt Parkway is a beautiful drive, but most of it is just four lanes. If it's crowded, you'll enjoy it about as much as you do the Rock Creek Parkway or the Clara Barton during peak times.


Bus Across the WW bridge: Any hope for a Metro bus to cross the WW Bridge during rush hours?

Thank you!!!

Robert Thomson: Yes, eventually. I think there's likely to be a bus link between Arlington/Alexandria and National Harbor/Branch Avenue Metro station. It may be on the Wilson Bridge transit lanes -- once those lanes are open and actually used for transit.


Arlington, Va.: with respect to the HOT lanes on the beltway, I still haven't seen anyone talk about how they will enforce the transponder. If some one gets into those lanes without one how will "the authorities" know? And I am also dubious with regard to the carpool enforcement. And as yet no one (other than a couple of questions here) has appeared to even talk about the issue of what will happen when those two HOT lanes try to merge into the 4 regular lanes. That will be chaos and will cause huge backups in both the HOT lanes and the regular lanes. Has no one with responsibility thought through the implications of this? Or is it just about rewarding whoever has the best lobbyists to steal the state's money?

Robert Thomson: Couple of thoughts: People in the private consortium, the Va. government and outside experts have told me they're very confident the detection system for cheaters will work. I haven't seen anything like it operating, so I remain very curious. One thing, though: There's a strong incentive to make it work. If the lanes get congested with cheaters, the whole system breaks down. The company can't guarantee acceptable travel speeds and loses money.

I think the biggest potential problem with the HOT lane exits is likely to be on the I-95/395 project -- the one not yet started -- when the lanes approach the 14th Street Bridge. The Beltway ones aren't likely to be that bad, because people will be using many exits along the way. Not everyone will be going to the American Legion Bridge.


Severna Park, Md.: As a native So. Californian one of the first things I noticed about driving in this area was how fast everyone drove and the tailgating which seems to be so much a part of the commutes. I listen to locals complain about drivers they say are going to slow on the highway (I guess anything less than 75-80) and how it is the law that drivers keep up with the "flow of traffic". In California (and I double-checked this) the law is that there is a basic speed limit and that a "driver may never drive faster than is safe for current condition--but never faster than the posted speed limit" which is usually 65 MPH. Current conditions referring to road conditions (wet pavement, fog, etc),not drivers who want to drive as fast as they can. In trying to find the law in VA and MD, I don't see anything as specific -- they just refer to never driving faster than it is safe. What is the law in this area and can you direct me to where on the respective MVA/DMA Web sites it would be?

Robert Thomson: Same laws. Different drivers. VA, MD and DC all have laws that say it's illegal to exceed the speed limit. There is no requirement that drivers speed, under any circumstances. (All those laws are online, by the way, on the state and District Web sites.)


DC: DC is to be applauded for finally requiring the retention of pedestrian passageways during construction projects that used to take up the sidewalk. Unfortunately, ongoing projects were grandfathered in. Seems like the worst example is the project at 11th and F right across from the H&M. For well over a year this project has taken away the bust stop nearest Metro Center, the sidewalk, and one lane of traffic. Recently, however, I have noticed that in the morning, the construction crew is parking their vehicles in the second lane of traffic. I have never seen any enforcement efforts by the city and it seems crazy to me that one project can take up so much space (note that the construction crew also has an entire lane on F street b/w 11th and 12th). Given that the crews frequently park in the lanes that they have already blocked off on 11th and F, taking over a second lane on 11th is quite excessive. Any ideas on who to contact to ensure that the morning commute runs a bit smoother through this block?

Robert Thomson: The District made the lane-taking rules better last year, but as you say, some already approved projects were grandfathered in. Also, the new rules need to be enforced. Complaints can be directed to the Mayor's Call Center by phoning 311, or you can use an online complaint form on the District's Web site, at http://www.dc.gov.


Hot Lane Carpoolers: I still can't believe all this has started without an answer to a very basic operational issue...how carpoolers will be accounted for.

This notion that infrared cameras will screen for human skin is, well, creepy and seems almost sinister. And yet, there we are.

Robert Thomson: I know. People already are coming up with ideas, like dummies with hot water bottles, to beat the infrared cameras that could be used to distinguish between carpoolers and cheaters.


College Park, Md.: The intersection of New Hampshire Avenue and University Blvd in Langley Park has been under construction for at least 2 or 3 years. Is there any time horizon for actually finishing the roadwork there?

Robert Thomson: I do think that safety project has been going on for an awfully long time. I'll check with the State Highway Administration on progress.


Arlington, Va.: What's the Friday afternoon drive like from Baltimore down to Shirlington area? (I'm being sent to B-more for a 90 minute session from 2:30-4, and am wondering by how much my commute time there and back is going to exceed my actual work related time.)

Robert Thomson: That Friday afternoon drive down I-95 can be quite congested. You'll be dealing with weekend beach traffic. Getting out of Baltimore is itself a difficulty as afternoon rush hour approaches. The area around the Inner Harbor gets really jammed.


Arlington, Va.: Dear Doctor, there is still no official explanation from Metro about their total and complete meltdown a couple of weeks ago (delayed trains, broken signals, and information signs with no information). Can you work your magic with Metro to deliver some response from Metro and how they will prevent future meltdowns in the future?

Robert Thomson: Arlington, Thanks for suggesting I have magic powers. Are you thinking of that horrible patch we had in the first part of June on Metrorail? We had derailments and power problems that slowed travel for lots of commuters, but hit the Orange Line especially hard.

Metro did address those concerns. (Addressing can be different from solving.) The Metro board members and the managers are quite familiar with the riders' complaints about service disruptions and the communications problems that almost always plague Metro's immediate responses.

For example, Metro is in the midst of what it calls a communications initiative, working on the platform speakers, the alert systems and the way it organizes bus bridges between stations. I was out on the Orange Line during one relatively minor service disruption a couple of weeks ago. On some communication aspects, things were better, on others, not so much. For example, I think Metro's e-mail alert system and platform messages cannot yet be relied on to communicate the full extent of a problem and suggest alternative routes for riders.


Robert Thomson: Travelers, I have to break away now from this most enjoyable chat. I see a couple of questions still here that I'll try to handle on my Get There blog. (That means you, Summerduck.)


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