Dr. Gridlock

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Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, September 29, 2008; 1:00 PM

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock. He was online Monday, Sept. 29 at 1 p.m. ET to address all your traffic and transit issues.

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.

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Robert Thomson: Hello, travelers. Good to be chatting with you again. Just got into the downtown newsroom after spending the morning watching how the new traffic and transit setup is working around the Silver Spring Metro station, where the old bus bay area has been shut for construction of the new transit center.

I see a bunch of traffic and transit questions and comments in the mailbag already, so let's go.

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Woodbridge, VA: I drive the 395/95 corridor between Woodbridge and DC several times every weekend, at different times. Southbound 95 at the beltway turns into a parking lot in the mid afternoon, both days. Northbound is usually pretty heavy as well. HOV lanes run North starting saturday night, but are closed to southbound traffic hours earlier to prep for the lane switch.

My question is...why can't HOV lanes run both directions on the weekends, and turn all northbound on Sunday night for the Monday morning rush hour? What I mean is, open HOV lanes southbound at springfield/fairfax (the left hand ramp after the mixing bowl.) Open northbound HOV lanes in alexandria (north past the mixing bowl). The 2 mile stretch between these points would be empty of traffic. (cars enter to go south in fairfax, cars enter to go north to DC from alexandria). It seems to me that this would alleviate a lot of congestion for both sides of 95 and make the most use of HOV lanes on the weekend.

What am I missing?

Robert Thomson: I don't know whether that configuration would work. I can tell you what VDOT officials have told me about the current set up: They say that based on their traffic studies, the weekend pattern we have now has the most positive impact on traffic flow.

I also know that they are real sensitive about changing the pattern, for safety reasons. They have these visions of cars heading for each other at 60 mph, because some gate wasn't checked or some car escaped detection during a switchover.

But what do people who travel the HOV lanes think of Woodbridge's suggestion?

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Washington, DC -- Army 10 Miler: Dear Dr. Gridlock: This weekend 26,000 people will be participating in the Army 10 Miler. That's not including any loved ones who come out to watch. The Metro will open at 6, but they are only running the Blue line on a faster schedule -- all the other trains will be on a Sunday schedule. Presumably this also means they're continuing work on the Yellow line while this is going on.

Are they insane? Or do they just not care?

Meanwhile the Army 10 Miler folks are telling us not to drive. I feel very frustrated.

Robert Thomson: Thanks for the reminder about this Sunday event. I'll use my Get There blog to spread the word and offer some more details later this week. Also, I'm sure The Post will have a route map in the Metro section. But here's a URL from the 10 Miler's Web site that shows the route:

http://www.armytenmiler.com/Upload/documents/08%20ATM%20Course%20Map.pdf

Metro spokesman Steven Taubenkibel just gave me a quick response on some of your concerns about transit on Sunday. He said that for this coming Sunday morning, there is no scheduled track maintenance anywhere in the Metrorail system, because of the race.

He said the arrangements are the same as last year. The race sponsor paid Metro for the extra service on the Blue Line from 6 a.m. to the start of the race and again from 11:15 a.m. to 12:40 pm, around the time the race should end.

Sponsors of special events, rather than Metro's taxpayers, finance extra service -- and it's not cheap. For example, opening the rail system an hour early costs $21,000.

I can understand why a sponsor wouldn't want to finance more frequent service on the entire train system.

Taubenkibel also had this good suggestion for those of you participating in the run: Have a SmarTrip card or a Farecard holder. For the last few years, he said, runners have had problems at the Rosslyn Station when the race is over and they try to use their Farecards. Sweat demagnetizes the paper cards.

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Washington, DC: Dr. Gridlock,

Do you know if/when track work will begin to be done during the week at night instead of on the weekends? I could have sworn I heard this was going to happen soon but I forget when. I had friends from Boston swear they would never visit DC again after waiting 25 min for a train this weekend. Made me feel ashamed/embarrassed that I live here.

Robert Thomson: The transit authority is studying a plan that would focus track work projects on certain areas, and by so doing, limit the disruptions. The jobs would be clustered into projects that could be done during overnight hours, when the system is closed. This would start on the Red Line and then move on from their.

When I heard the plan described a few months ago, I thought it sounded very promising. Weekend delays, caused by track sharing around work zones, is a constant complaint among my readers.

But I don't believe it's possible to completely eliminate weekend work and the resulting delays. For example, the switch replacement projects are major undertakings that involve hauling in new rails, pulling up old rails, putting down the new rails and testing them with trains before restoring service.

They're not going to do that in a series of overnight projects. They'd barely get the equipment laid out when they'd have to cart it away to get ready for the system to reopen.

Basic problem: Metro wasn't designed to be the second busiest rail transit system in the nation, after NYC.

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Oxon Hill, Md.: Why are officials bothering to open the new spans of the Wilson Bridge this year?

What good will it do for there to be 5 lanes coming across the river from Maryland if it's going to end up bottlenecking down to 3 lanes through the Telegraph Road construction?

Is there any possibility for the Telegraph Road construction to create a 4th lane to minimize the bottelneck problems that will most certainly back up the beltway to St. Barnabas or further? Thing are flowing pretty smoothly right now because there isn't a bottlneck (3 lanes from I-295 all the way to Eisenhower), so I'd rather not see things change into a big mess because we have to open 2 new lanes on the bridge that will end 1/2 mile past the end of the bridge.

Robert Thomson: As you say, we won't see the full potential of the new bridge realized until the Telegraph Road interchange is completed, which I think is scheduled for 2013. The lanes that you bridge drivers see under construction now will become the express lanes, for through travelers, and I believe they should be open by the end of the year.

I do think that will ease conditions for many people, but Telegraph Road will still be a bottleneck. The project managers had to sequence work on the bridge and the four interchanges around it. The considerations were cost and traffic congestion.

Something had to come last, and it was Telegraph Road. The project managers are using the Variable Speed Limit program as a traffic-management system through the work zone.

Can anybody tell yet whether that's making a difference?

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Anonymous:"I can understand why a sponsor wouldn't want to finance more frequent service on the entire train system."

Well, that and because it's illegal. Dan Snyder found that private parties are not allowed to hire public transit for events. The private sector can handle it, I guess.

Of course, the sponsor's could probably get away with funneling the money through a local juristiction.

Robert Thomson: I think it's illegal now for bus systems. Lots of people are angry that there's no longer a Metrobus shuttle to FedEx events or the Andrews air show, because of the change in federal rules this year. That change -- which I don't like either -- was intended to eliminate competition between private bus companies and publicly funded transit systems.

But there's little chance of competition between public rail systems and private rail systems.

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College Park, MD:"For example, opening the rail system an hour early costs $21,000."

That is one of the most absurd and ridiculous facts about Metro. An event that will bring additional (exhorbitant) fares into the system requires events sponsors to pay for additional service, from which Metro makes a profit from. Simply ludicrous!!! I can see if the group could not generate enough fares to substantiate the service extension, but if the group delivers the promised ridership, there should not be a fee, period!

Robert Thomson: I'm sure Metro would love to make a profit -- on anything. But I don't believe that happens. The charge to the sponsors covers Metro's deficit for operating during that time period.

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Springfield: Did Metro change the recordings on the trains? The voice is the same but her inflection sounds different.

Just curious.

Robert Thomson: I haven't noticed that change. Others? Sometimes, I think I hear changes in attitude in the voice on my GPS.

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Woodbridge is Right, VDOT is wrong: I'm on Woodbridge's side. When I lived down there, I thought this same thing many a weekend. I've also looked at the traffic patterns through there as an amateur and have come up with several suggestions.

1. From the Beltway south, open 'em up on the weekends to south bound traffic until about 7 p.m. on Sunday (seriously, how long does it take to "clear" the road and why aren't the gates all on the same switch like in other parts of the country...Boston and Chicago both come to mind) which they turn north bound.

2. Noting off #1, automate the gates. Imagine how much time is saved not having to drive to each gate to turn a key and wait for the arm to swing open/closed, then to drive to the next gate.

3. VDOT is wrong when they go by their studies. They haven't been stuck in stopped traffic going north on 95 at 4 p.m. when southbound, you could fit every car going south into the HOV lanes AND still have room left over.

Why does it take the so-called experts to screw things up without asking the people who experience these problems? Computers can only tell so much, people can tell all.

Robert Thomson: I'll ask VDOT about some of the ideas you folks are presenting for the HOV lanes.

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Washington, D.C.: In your last chat, someone posted about the daily Green line delays. Count me among those very annoyed that green line passengers are delayed so that yellow line passengers get better service. My colleagues here in Hyattsville who use the metro after 9 a.m. are fed up with the daily delays. I hope you will report on this.

Robert Thomson: I use the Green Line a lot between Mount Vernon Square and Fort Totten, the area where off-peak service on the Yellow Line was extended.

Overall, my readers have been split on this. Those who use DC stations along the line tend to be quite pleased with the extension. But other readers note the slowdown for them.

Fort Totten was not designed as a turnaround point for trains. so it can be disruptive to put them back into inbound service at that station.

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Eye Street: Hi Dr. Gridlock,

I am considering buying a hybrid so that I can use I-66 eastbound into DC during rush hour. But first I need to know it will improve my commuting time. I would get on from the Toll Road at about 8 a.m. How long to the Roosevelt Bridge? Is I-66 clogged (with hybrids!) at that time? Currently, it takes me about 55 mins to that point when I take the GW Parkway from 123. Thanks!

Robert Thomson: I think buying a hybrid will improve your travel time, but the more of you who take that advice, the less likely it is to remain true. Carpoolers, who note that the HOV lanes were designed for that purpose, are angry about the number of solo driver hybrids they see, adding to congestion and diminishing the incentive for carpooling.

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Basic problem: Metro wasn't designed to be the second busiest rail transit system in the nation, after NYC. : Why? Were they not aware that, you know, the Federal government is here? This should go down as one of the most short sighted decisions ever. Please, I beg the powers that be, PLEASE do not extend metro to Dulles. If we're going to spend millions or billions, lets put another track down alongside the existing track on all lines. Extending this transit system is absolutely irresponsible knowing its limits and problems.

Robert Thomson: Lots of Metro comments today. (The Dr. Gridlock mailbag tends to run about 50-50 between drivers and transit users, which surprised me, because most people in our region drive.)

There's a terrific history of Metro called "The Great Society Subway." Check that to see that all the issues of cost and route and design that we hear about concerning rail to Dulles also existed for the creators of the original system. While many people were anxious to see a subway, many others didn't want to pay so much for it, and were concerned about the impact of construction through their neighborhoods. That resulted in some questionable decisions, and we feel the impact today.

I think that by the middle of the century, our region would deeply regret not extending Metrorail to Dulles, because of the resulting congestion in Northern Virginia.

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Washington DC:"Metro wasn't designed to be the second busiest in the nation"...

Well it has turned out that way. Get the dollars and FIX IT. Third tracks, beltway loop (instead of purple line), buy a tunnel boring machine...invest in it. The people are already here and riding.

Robert Thomson: People in our region are desperate for transportation improvements, and determined not to pay for them. I don't see anything in the region's, or the nation's, political mood to suggest that a big transportation construction era is on the horizon.

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Washington, D.C.: Can you get word to Metro about something? This morning, my bus stop (for the H2/4) had a sign that the stop was not being serviced from 6am to 10pm. The sign applied to yesterday's service, presumably because of the Mount Pleasant fair. The metro bus sign had no indication (or place for) the date of the service disruption. Metro should add a place for the date to its signs, because they are not going to be able to remove them all after the service disruption ends. Even yard sale signs should have dates, so certainly metro service disruption signs should have dates.

Robert Thomson: That sounds like a good idea about the dates. (On many weekends, Metrobuses must detour around races, festivals, parades and neighborhood events.)

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Washington, DC: I'm a computer engineer. It makes no sense to me how it could take those contractors years to make software changes to the smartcard system, given the fact that the hard part-the hardware- is already in broad use. They must be incredibly incompetent, either because they designed the system so that it couldn't be easily changed or because of their own other problems in their development process

Now that being said, I wanted to propose a less-than- ideal solution to the future problem of lack of transfers from rail to bus when using a paper pass. If passes aren't available on SmarTrip cards, a "crufty hack" as they say in the programming circles could be to require those people to carry both a paper pass and a SmarTrip. The pass could be used as normal and the SmarTrip can be swiped at at the exit fare machine in order to "tag" the card with a transfer, which then could be used on the bus. Of course, this plan requires a small reprogramming of the exit fare machines and that would take a competent contractor/programmer, but it would probably be easier.

Robert Thomson: Many of us would like to see the smart system get a lot smarter. Many Metrorail commuters, for example, don't see why the SmarTrip cards can't be programmed to allow transfers between the Farragut stations, or between Metro Center and Gallery Place. Seems like that would be a lot cheaper than building connecting tunnels for transfers between lines.

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Washington, DC: Normally when I travel to New England on I-95 I take the Ft. McHenry through Baltimore. Depending on how I time my trip, accidents, or timing, that can be a bad idea. All things being equal, which is the second best route?

Robert Thomson: Many readers suggest taking the Baltimore Beltway around that city and heading up I-83 to Harrisburg, and connecting there with I-81, which leads to a couple of options getting you through New Jersey and into NY.

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Capitol Hill: Is the city ever going to get serious about re-timing its traffic lights. Of all the ways to alleviate gridlock, this would seem to be the easiest to do. As it stands now, many lights are timed so that you're stopping at just about every intersection, which is bad for the environment, and bad for your car. Don't get me started on the horribly timed traffic lights for north-south traffic on Capitol Hill, where going four blocks can sometimes take 10 minutes, even when traffic is light.

Robert Thomson: Travelers across the region complain about the timing of traffic lights on their routes. Sometimes they're absolutely right about the lights being mis-timed, or the timing being out of date for current conditions.

Other times, they're not taking into account the impact retiming would have on cross traffic, or left turning traffic. The traffic engineers are always telling me about how the one thing they can't do is manufacture extra seconds at intersections.

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Washington, D.C.: I see on your blog you mention a proposal to improve the 16th street line like the 30s line. Have you investigated the success of the changes to the 30s line? I continue to see bus bunching whenever I am over there.

Robert Thomson: I'll test out the 30s Line. Metro officials have told me that it's still early to evaluate, but they were pleased with the initial results of the changes they made in routing and supervision along that long, heavily used and heavily congested route.

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Arlington, Va.: Dear Dr. G.,

With the increase in density approved for Tysons, what kind of growing pains will the area experience? The construction of the Silver line has already disrupted traffic on 7, and I can only assume that the building of new condos and offices and businesses will wreck havoc on what is already a traffic choked area. Will an already nightmarish scenario further devolve? Since I work in the area, will I simply have to grin and bear it?

Robert Thomson: The growing pains will be intense. We haven't seen anything yet. The rail construction project is in its very early phase. Most of the action won't start till next year.

VDOT is aware of the potential, and created an office of Megaprojects to deal ease the impact on traffic, but you'll still see disruptions from the rail project and the HOT lanes construction.

One way to monitor the impact of all this stuff along your route is to look at the megaprojects Web site:

http://www.vamegaprojects.com/civilRights.html

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Arlington VA: What is the best route to get from Arlington to Boston without having to get clogged in traffic and tolls?

Robert Thomson: Note my suggestion above on using I-83 north of Baltimore to Harrisburg and then choosing an Interstate route east. I've tried a bunch of routes over the years, including taking the NY Thruway north to Albany and then picking up the Mass Pike to Boston. (I don't like the congestion on I-684 and I-84 in NY and Conn.)

But I've got to say that I agree with the many readers who tell me that route is less important than smart timing. Leave early or late. Use an E-ZPass to get through the tolls.

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Robert Thomson: I've got to break away now, but will try to address some of your as yet unpublished comments and questions on my Get There blog. (Including you, Clara Barton.)

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