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Roads and Rails

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Eric Weiss and Lena Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 25, 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?

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Washington Post staff writers Eric Weiss and Lena Sun were online Monday, Aug. 25 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

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Lena Sun: Morning folks. Welcome back to those of you back to work after summer vacation. Eric may be stuck on a bus somewhere so we're going to get started and hope he sashays online soon to answer all those questions about HOT lines. Metro has begun testing a couple different kinds of overhead straps on the Red and Orange lines so maybe some of you have noticed them. Let's get to your questions and comments.

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Alexandria, Va.: This weekend I rode in one of the test cars for the metal pull down overhead handles. I tried one out to see how it felt for a 5-5 female. It wasn't bad, but if I were shorter, I would have had trouble pulling it down in the first place.

My biggest complaint is that none were located by the doors, meaning that shorter people would STILL have no place to hang on when on a train.

Lena Sun: Hi Alexandria. Those stainless steel pull-down handles are spring-loaded so they pivot up and don't hang down. Metro engineers say that is intentional so people sitting in the seats won't hit their heads on the handles when they stand up.

Metro is trying to get people to move away from the doors and into the middle of the car, but will pass on your comment about not having enough anchors for shorter folks in that part of the rail car.

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Gaithersburg, MD: It finally happened. I went to Shady Grove on Thursday and the motorcycle parking lot was full. I asked them last spring to do something as it was reaching a critical mass to no avail. Suggestions?

Lena Sun: Hi Gaithersburg. Can you email me directly at SUNL@washpost.com and let me know what time this was? Did you go there today and was it full as well? I've put in a call to Metro and if I get an answer back in time I'll post it. If you email me and I can contact you later.

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Two Flaws With HOT Lanes on the Beltway: Article states: "Construction started last month on 14 miles of HOT lanes that will stretch between the Springfield interchange and just north of the Dulles Toll Road."

And this is the fundamental flaw of the system - If it does not EXPAND the American Legion Bridge, these lanes will back up as traffic exits to the normal lanes to head into Maryland (especially in the evening rush hour).

My second issue: What happens when there's an accident in the HOT lane that blocks the lane? Do those using the lane pay to sit behind crumpled vehicles? Does the state then pay commuting in the free lanes for their extra time when traffic must diverted from a blocked HOT lane?

washingtonpost.com: Placing Value on Time Saved in HOT Lanes

Lena Sun: Hi. You make some good points. Not sure what the answer is to the accident question, but hoping Eric will be here soon. Curious to know how many of you drivers out there think it will be worth the money to shave just a couple minutes off your commutes. Not sure it would be worth it to me to spend $20 to save four minutes.

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Clifton, Va.: If the HOT lanes in Virginia are privately owned how can VA law enforcement ticket you for not paying or having HOV 2 or less? If Virginia Law Enforcement can not make a determination at who is at fault in accident in Tyson's Corner and cant write speeding tickets then how can they on HOT lanes? If they issue a ticket on private property would not the fine go to the property owner and not appear on you driver's license or insurance? It's private property not a state or county road! Currently the Greenway has never made money and they keep raising the toll!

Telecommuting will make this project a big white elephant!

Eric Weiss: Unlike the Greenway, the HOT lanes will not be a totally private road. It is a "public-private partnership" that will have full enforcement by the Virginia State Police.

Interesting point, though, about telecommuting making this a "white elephant." I think that's wishful thinking because projections show the region gaining lots more jobs and lots more commuters over the coming decades.

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HOT lanes: If the HOT lanes are using speedpass, how will they be able to tell if a carpool is in a particular car?

Also, I heard that we, the taxpayers, have to subsidize those carpoolers, because the government has to pay for those riders. What's up with that????

Eric Weiss: Carpoolers will have a special transponder that says "Hey, I'm a carpooler, don't charge me 20 bucks to go six miles!"

Since we are talking five years into the future, maybe they will come up with a transponder that has a switch that tells Big Brother whether you are a carpooler or someone who wants to pay $20.

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Alexandria, Va.: Metro keeps on doing massive track work every single weekend at Braddock Road -- have they ever considered bus bridges from Franconia or King Street up to the Pentagon or Rosslyn? Especially on a weekend, it would seem to be much more efficient.

Lena Sun: Track work is something that is never going away in our lifetimes. Never. I don't think bus bridges have come up in the weekly track work discussions probably because of the expense. There would be a cost for setting up bus bridges every time they do track work, which is virtually every weekend. If you're going to be using Metro this weekend, be prepared for a lot of work this Labor Day weekend on the Blue and Yellow between National Airport and Braddock Road.

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Slug commuter: The Virginia HOT lanes are NOT privately funded and HOV rides will NOT be free. Virginia and federal taxpayers are giving Flour approximately $1 billion for construction and Virginia taxpayers will also be reimburising Flour for every HOV car at the full rate.

Eric Weiss: Not totally true, slugger. The state of Virginia, the same state that can't afford any road improvements, has given the project more than $400 million. The federal government has provided financing to the tune of $1.2 billion worth of bonds. But the private companies have to pay the bonds back through toll revenues, and VDOT says their money is to pay for improvements to Beltway bridges and for Phase VIII of the Springfield Interchange, projects they would have had to pay for anyway.

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McLean, VA: Good Morning,

Is there any update on the proposed Dulles Rail Extension? Do you know how far along it is in the approval process is it?

Thanks for taking my question

Lena Sun: My colleague Amy Gardner, who follows this fairly regularly, had a story in yesterday's Post. You can go to www.washingtonpost.com to find the full article but here are the first few paragraphs:

Federal officials have offered another signal that a $5.2 billion Metrorail extension to Dulles International Airport is on track to receive federal funding by the end of the year, giving project officials the green light to begin construction in the heart of Tysons Corner.

In a letter issued late Thursday, the Federal Transit Administration authorized construction to begin on the extension, which will stretch 23 miles from the East Falls Church Station in Arlington County, through Tysons Corner and past the airport in Loudoun County. In addition to reducing congestion along Northern Virginia's busiest highways, the rail line is expected to spur an urban renewal in Tysons, a vast suburban office park and the state's largest jobs center.

The news from the FTA does not guarantee full funding of the project, which is counting on $900 million from Washington and has endured years of uncertainty as federal transit officials have questioned its rising costs. But state and project officials welcomed the letter and said they think the project's near-demise earlier this year is behind them.

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"Unlike the Greenway, the HOT lanes will not be a totally private road.": Note that even though it's private, the Virginia State Police do patrol the Greenway and give speeding tickets. The Commonwealth won't let someone build a road of this sort without agreeing to various conditions, including law enforcement and including allowing the speed limit to be set by the General Assembly (the Greenway's operators cannot legally raise the speed limit to 75 mph, for example). The same would apply to the HOT lanes.

Eric Weiss: My understanding is that the Greeway gives permission for the VSP to patrol the Greenway. There might even be a payment involved.

As for speeds, try going UNDER 75 mph on the Greenway on weekends and off-peak hours and you'll wind up with a GMC Yukon's front grille embedded in your Yugo's backside.

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Fairfax, VA: Has anyone else noticed that evening rush hour trains are not coming as often as they used to? I transfer to the Orange line at Rosslyn, and it seems like trains are only coming every 7 minutes or longer.

Lena Sun: During rush hour, Orange Line trains are supposed to be running every 6 minutes from the ends of the line, so that stations in the core should be getting trains about every three minutes or so. Maybe you were hung up in Rosslyn because of the bottleneck there with Blue and Orange lines going thru the tunnel.

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Vienna, Va: Regarding the HOT lanes on the Beltway - My understanding is that carpools will be able to use the HOT lanes for free. I don't understand how they will be able to enforce that. With cars zooming by, how are they going to be able to tell how many people are in the car, some cars have tinted windows making it even more difficult to see inside. I read something about using infrared rays to detect body heat or something? That seems really far-fetched. Any explanation/insight into how this would work would be appreciated.

Eric Weiss: They will use all sorts of Buck Rogers-type technology to detect cheaters. Remember these are private companies that are collecting the tolls, do you think they'll let cheaters slip by like the softies at VDOT?

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Falls Church, Va.: Traffic seems to be really light in the mornings with no slowdowns on I395. How much of this is due to gas prices versus summer vacations? If traffic is this light year round, the HOT lanes will fail miserably.

Eric Weiss: A-U-G-U-S-T.

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Falls Church, Va.: I've read in the past that if Metro wants to get federal funds for the Silver Line, the first portion of the line will have to be open by 2012. But Metro is now projecting that the first phase will not open until 2013. Has the federal deadline changed?

Lena Sun: I don't think the federal deadline has changed. The back-and-forth between the FTA and state and local officials has delayed the process. I think the Metro projections are based on how long it takes to order and build new rail cars, several years.

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Washington, DC: Yet another building is being torn down on 17th street just north of Pennsylvania Avenue. Since this one is right across the street from one that is being rebuilt after being torn down, you have to walk on the side of the street closest to the demolition because that is where the protected walkway has been set up.

When I am walking to work (from Farragut North), the guys at the construction site often (twice in the past two weeks) try to block the walk way to hold back the pedestrians to make way for a truck to enter the street. They seem to do this even when there is enough traffic on 17th that it is obvious the truck won't have a chance of exiting the demolition yard. The last time, they did this even though the exiting truck was still deep in the demolition site and not even moving toward the exit onto 17th as far as I could tell. You can hear it when the truck is moving.

Can you tell this annoys me no end? The last time, I just walked past the guy trying to block my way and when I saw the guy on the other side of the exit, I quipped that if they wanted to stop me, they could get a cop. Now, obviously, I wouldn't throw myself in front of a moving truck just to make a point, but I think the pedestrian has the right of way on a sidewalk, even if it is just a temporary protected walkway between a construction and a demolition site. Am I correct that my right of way can be overridden by a police officer, but not by a random guy in a hard hat? And why on earth do they even think it is necessary to stop pedestrians before the truck has moved to the exit? With waiting for the truck and then the road traffic, I could have been waiting there for 3 or 4 minutes.

Eric Weiss: First, do not get into fights with construction workers. Unless you are a mixed martial arts champion, you will likely lose. At best, your Brooks Brothers suit will be mussed.

I agree, the construction blockages downtown are outrageous. Two weeks ago we discussed the building on 15th and P that has been under construction since the Ford Administration and it blocks off two whole lanes of 15th and the sidewalk. And sometimes that's not even enough. A truck was parked on one of the open lanes the other day.

The DC Council acted (yes acted!) and recently passed some bill that would guarantee pedestrian passage past construction sites, like in NY and other real cities.

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Washington, D.C.: Will metrorail ever be expanded to include limited or express service? As the metro lines grow, I am concerned that it will take longer and longer to reach the other end of the line as stations are added.

Thanks!

Lena Sun: The guy who used to run rail at Metro, Steve Feil, had talked about running limited-stop or express trains. But he left a year ago and is now in charge of running the New York subway. I haven't heard talk about limited stop or express train service since then.

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Washington, DC: Good morning. There was a great story in the Post in the last year about families that are having a hard time paying for Metro card for their kids to get to school. Do you know of any organizations/schools that are accepting donations for these families?

Lena Sun: I'm sorry but I must have missed that story. If you send me your email, I'll see if I can locate it later and send you what I can find out about donations.

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HOT LANES: Anyone who has lived outside of the D.C. area quickly realizes how wealthy this area is. And with all the law firms, lobbying firms defense contractors and high tech companies in the DC area I am concerned that many firms will offer to cover their employees HOT lane expenses as another way to attract and retain talent especially when you consider traffic is a reason many employees leave the area. While I realize using a HOT lane isn't a consitutional protected right I believe in Washington the HOT lane will trul embody the Lexus lanes people always talk about benefitting a few while the rest of us who can't bill out our HOT lane expense to a client will be stuck in every worsening traffic.

Eric Weiss: Let's call them "Lobbyist Lanes" or "Government Contractor" lanes or "Lawyer Lanes." Anybody with an expense account will write those tolls off. This is likely an unstated part of their business plan.

I'm sure the bean counters at The Post won't let us write off HOT Lane tolls, so I'll be right there with ya, bub.

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Fair Oaks, Va: What is the enforcement mechanism for carpoolers who try and cheat the system. Will VA state police be expected to ticket them like they do on 66? Does that mean our publicly funded polic force will be patrolling the roads for the benefit of a profit making company? Really? Am I the only one who has a problem with that?

Eric Weiss: Ahh, but this is one of "public" parts of the "public-private partnerships." Public cops making sure the private companies get their tolls.

Welcome to the future, Fair Oaks.

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Takoma Park, Md.: Transhare - best federal government program ever. I get reimbursed $80 a month to ride Metro to work at a federal agency. Are there many equivalent programs in the private sector?

Eric Weiss: Metro offers private companies all sorts of programs to underwrite or help employees pay for transit.

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Washington, DC: Do you think there's any possibility that Metro would increase train frequencies on the weekend? When I first moved to Washington, I used to take the MetroRail downtown all the time, but these days, the waits seem interminable, especially with all the scheduled maintenance Metro does on the weekends. I suspect that, with increased weekend frequency, there would be a "if you build it, they will come" response from riders. Your thoughts?

Lena Sun: I doubt it. But they do know that all the track work on the weekends is making it very inconvenient for riders and they are thinking of other ways to get that track work done.

One idea under consideration is to shift the bulk of track from weekends to after rush hour on weeknights. Metro board members have to sign off on this change, but they want to know more about how long the delays will be before they give complete approval. Stay tuned.

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So that's why the roads are so congested...: Eric -- didn't you feel any obligation to tell the guy you interviewed from Reston that there are a million better ways for him to get to Tysons than by using the Beltway?

Eric Weiss: I gave him a secret route that goes right past your house...

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Arlington, VA: I think the HOT lanes are a waste. They are not nearly long enough (the lanes they compare them to in CA are many times longer) to justify paying to use them. Especially considering there will be a full stop at the ends where they have to merge into the regular lanes.

Eric Weiss: Actually, the 91 Express Lanes, with which this project is often compared, are currently only 10 miles. The Beltway project will be longer and infinitely more complex, with exits and entrances going through some of the most congested areas in the nation.

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Washington D.C.: Whats the latest on the Anacostia streetcars and the H street streetcars? And how do you think they will negatively or positively affect commutes?

Eric Weiss: You mean the trolley that goes nowhere and nobody will use?

The DC Council is considering (or just talking about) perhaps moving it to places in the city where it might actually be used. Don't know the latest intrigues.

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Skip-stop on Metro: I'm curious, how would you make that work? I can understand perhaps that at NON-rush hour, when the headways are longer, you'd have space to have trains stop at every other station. But in rush hour, with more frequent trains, how do you do this on a two-track system?

Lena Sun: It's very tricky. I think when they did this a couple years ago for baseball, they did it during NON-rush hour and the express train would cross over to the OTHER track to get around the regular train, and then cross back over to skip over the regular train.

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Labor Day Metro Outage: Isn't the proposed disruption on the Blue and Yellow lines over the Labor Day Weekend totally at odds with Metro's supposed new sensitivity to its ridership?

Or is this an attempt to get in some majorly disruptive work before the new guidelines go into effect?

Lena Sun: Metro says they can get all this work done in one three-day period, causing riders inconvenience for that weekend. Or spread out the work over two and a half months of single-tracking. This way, they can save money and get everything done during one shutdown. It's a pain, yes, but it would be more of a pain to spread the work out, they say.

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Washington, D.C.: So we just finished (after almost a decade of constuction) the Springfield interchange and now Va. wants to create another giant construction project on the beltway. At the end of the day, do you think the additional years of construction related delays to build HOT will outweigh the benefits? And how much of this is being driven by construction interests looking for another massive project now that Springfield is complete and Wilson Bridge is almost complete. Seems like a waste of money to me.

Eric Weiss: The idea is to drive everyone in the region bloody mad.

The official idea is that the new phase on the Springfield interchange will link up the new HOT lanes on the Beltway with the proposed HOT lanes on Interstate 95/395.

But if you are a frequent commuter in the area, you have to admit that the Springfield Interchange has really improved things. And adding lanes on the Beltway, even if they are for lawyers, will ease traffic on the already burdened regular lanes.

So is it insanity or not?

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McLean, Va.: After Metro comes to Tysons Corner, will the buses from West Falls Church to Tysons be eliminated?

Lena Sun: IF everything gets approved for Metro running to Tysons Corner, Metro is anticipating they will restructure bus service to have bus feeders going from the new Tysons stations to activity centers at Tysons. No final decision yet but that's what they are considering if things get final approval.

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Bowie, Maryland: I hope you guys run a story on the number of Mercedes and Lexi (?) uses using the HOT lanes versus Hyundais during rush hour. I know I'd like to know.

Eric Weiss: Since The Post issues all of its transportation reporters S-500s, I'll try to keep an eye out for what the hoi-polloi is driving...

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Washington, D.C.: Have the changes to the 30s bus line been implemented yet? Because I still only see buses in packs (including yesterday). Often I see them near Friendship Heights (heading south) meaning they deliberately left FH at around the same time.

Lena Sun: Yup. Those changes are supposed to be in effect. There are supposed to be street supervisors making sure this plan works smoothly so if you see bus bunching, call Metro and report the time, the bus number, and the location.

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Fairfax, VA: When Virginia negotiated with the HOT lane operating company did they also negotiate for VDOT to be able to use the same technology to monitor (and ticket) violators in regular HOV lanes? If it is good enough for a public-private partnership, why isn't it good enough for all public roads?

Eric Weiss: Because there are no toll gantries (overhead racks of detection equipment)on the HOV lanes on I-66 and I-270.

Unless you want to pay tolls...

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Eric Weiss: Thanks folks, sorry we couldn't get to all your questions. Lena has promised to write letters in longhand to everyone we didn't get to...

See you next time.

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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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