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Headlines:  Metrorail  |  Intercounty Connector  |  Dulles Rail  |  Purple Line

Roads and Rails

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Eric Weiss and Lena Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 22, 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, Sept. 22 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

____________________

Eric Weiss: Good morning commuters!

Please, please, pelt us with your questions about your miserable commute.

But please, no questions about the nation's financial meltdown. Keeping the Yellow and Blue Line's final destinations is about all we can keep in our tiny heads.

Okay, let's go...

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Chevy Chase, Md.: I received a speeding ticket in Upstate New York. The offense on the ticket was "disobeyed traffic control device" (I assume that refers to the speed limit sign), an offense that earns you 3 points on your license in New York. Driving 15 MPH over the speed limit gets you 4. However, the same offenses in Maryland get you only 2 points. Both New York and Maryland are members of the compact that share driving records. So, my question is, once I am convicted (I intend to plead guilty unless the officer doesn't show up in court), how many points are actually going to appear on my record?

Eric Weiss: We are not lawyers, although Lena has some sharp business suits.

I put a call in to Maryland State Police for you, maybe they will have an answer.

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Washington, D.C.: What was up today on the Orange line! What the ... ?

Lena Sun: Hi there. a lot of you were probably inconvenienced this a.m. by the Orange Line problems. At about 8:13, an Orange Line train had a brake problem, and I believe that train had to be taken out of service and there was single-tracking. It probably did not help matters that a passenger on the train tried to get off the train, according to what another passenger just told me. At about 9:14 a.m., there was a sick passenger at Rosslyn.

But I did see the advisories about the Blue/Orange delays and what was causing them.

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Washington, D.C.: I saw this quote in the story this morning:

"The blue-and-green SmarTrip cards play a principal role in how people use transit in the Washington region. By next month, all regional bus systems in the area will accept SmarTrip. In January, Metro plans to eliminate paper transfers, the free bus-to-bus transfers and the discounted rail-to-bus transfers. Those transfers are automatically computed for SmarTrip users."

Does this mean that Prince George's county The Bus is finally coming online with SmarTrip next month?

washingtonpost.com: SmarTrip Upgrades Pushed To 2010: Metro Audit Finds Agency Failings

Lena Sun: Yes, that's what I understand. TheBus is the last of the regional bus systems to get SmarTrip working on the fareboxes. All the other bus systems have them, some of them for nearly a year now. Makes traveling much more convenient.

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Washington, D.C.: Is it legal for cyclists to be on the Clara Barton Parkway, specifically the uppermost portion near Great Falls, where the speed limit is posted at 50 mph? What about the lower portion, closest to Chain Bridge, where the speed limit is posted at 35 mph? And what the George Washington Memorial Parkway? Thanks.

Eric Weiss: Oy, I think you would be crazy to ride your bike on the GW Parkway (especially where there is a parallel bike path) But I put a call in on your behalf with the National Park Service, which runs these roads, to see if there is any specific prohibition.

That's all I plan to do today for the chat. Put out calls. Provide no answers, just put out some calls. Can someone rub my back and get me an iced tea?

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Silver Spring: What is going to happen to the new Navy Yard Metro entrance/exit near the baseball park once the season is over? It pretty clearly looks like it needs some more work. Will those of us who live nearby still be able to use it, or will we have to walk down to the DOT to access Metro?

Eric Weiss: That is a permanent entrance/exit. The building is being built around it.

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New Carrollton, Md.: Hello. Regarding the article on SmarTrip card upgrades: I thought that it was strange that people could not load Metro passes onto SmarTrip cards. This is an inconvenience to those who use the parking lot at stations like New Carrollton, where the same SmarTrip card must be used for paying train and parking fees, in order to get the reduced parking charge. My question is what agency does Marta in Atlanta use for their BreezeCards and has that agency been considered by Metro? Atlantans can load Marta passes onto their BreezeCards. Their program is less than 2 years old. What gives?

washingtonpost.com: SmarTrip Upgrades Pushed To 2010: Metro Audit Finds Agency Failings

Lena Sun: Not sure which agency MARTA uses but the fare system and pass system here are much more complicated because there are all these additional regional partners. The goal is to load 256 different pass products on your smart card. Given all the difficulties getting these software upgrades, I asked Metro whether it would make sense to go with another company. They said no. And remember, Metro has already paid Cubic $15 million. Starting next month, there will be devices in some Giant stores and 12 commuter stores to let you reload your card, which will be more convenient than waiting in line at a fare machine on a busy day.

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Arlington, Va.: Communication during metros morning Orange line meltdown was horrific. The Web site only that a train malfunctioned...which usually means 15 minutes. Nowhere were the words Massive Delays or an accurate description of what happened found. On the trains, they car I was in...when the driver tried to speak it was aloud static, which we worse than silence.

With all of these troubles...why are we talking about extension? Double track, or create security lanes, or something before we extend the boondoggle.

Lena Sun: Lots of complaints about Orange Line this morning. Going to post this for the Metro folks who are supposed to be making communications better.

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Unfortunate Orange Liner: I'm sure you'll be getting many angry, frustrated posts from those of us affected by the disaster on the Orange Line this morning. Fortunately, I was not one of those trapped on the train. Still, I couldn't get on a train, couldn't get on a bus (due to the hundreds of people in line), and couldn't get a taxi (all were in use). I ended up walking home again, getting my car, and driving to the office in bumper-to-bumper traffic, parking in a garage downtown which left me $17 poorer today.

I think the Smashing Pumpkins lyric "Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage" sums up the situation of those who chose to live and work depending on the metro. I'll never get rid of my car, that's for sure!

Lena Sun: Oh jeez. You had a bad morning.

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Leesburg, VA: Where can I find out the status of Battlefield Parkway link to Route 7, now that the new section over the Greenway has opened?

Eric Weiss: Try these links:

http://www.virginiadot.org/projects/northernvirginia/battlefield_parkway_extension.asp or www.battlefieldparkway.com

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Fairfax, VA:"It probably did not help matters that a passenger on the train tried to get off the train, according to what another passenger just told me."

Explain what this means. Oh, and were nonexistent Metro Police nowhere to be found to cite this passenger for disrupting operations?

Lena Sun: Apparently a woman tried to use the emergency lever to get the train doors open. Then she tried to open the door between the rail cars.

_______________________

Shaw: Doesn't the software already exist to employ discount programs on SmartTrip-style cards? Why does Metro/Cubic have to start from scratch here?

Lena Sun: Seems like a lot of the problem has to do with making sure the system that Cubic is upgrading can "interface" with the system that is used by the SmarTrip customer service center, which is run by a different company.

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Bowie, MD:"I put a call in to Maryland State Police for you, maybe they will have an answer."

They NEVER know...They refer you to the MVA, who also don't know. There's really no way to know until the points show up on your record, which is ridiculous because one point can cost hundreds of dollars in insurance premiums. There are numerous examples of citations that seem "minor" that can cause irrepariable harm to your driving record and/or insurance, but the officials responsible for levying points don't know their own system.

Eric Weiss: Aha, so I see Bowie has already done some reporting on the topic.

If you schlep up to upstate NY to challenge the ticket, simply ask the judge. If he/she doesn't know, wait until it shows up on your record (if it ever does). Since you are a Maryland driver, you should only receive the 2 points that Maryland permits for the same offense. If you get the four points, I would challege it with MVA.

Now where is my $150 an hour?

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20th & K: A small weekend observation - With the region's 24/7 car traffic, why are the 395/95 HOV lanes kept Southbound on Saturdays?

Luckily I missed the inbound bridge mess on Saturday, but the huge delays extended past the Pentagon on Saturday and could have been relieved a little with the addition of INBOUND HOV lanes.

Eric Weiss: The traffic counts say that is where most of the traffic is heading.

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Potomac, MD: Maybe I misread something, but did I see that Metro plans to do away with paper rail to bus transfers next year? What happens to people who use the weekly pass? These won't get converted to electronic format to 2010 (or probably later). I'd hate to have to pay the full bus fare everyday because Metro continued to drop the ball on putting the weekly rail pass in electronic format.

Lena Sun: You can still use your weekly pass. The passes don't go away, just the transfers. After they eliminate the paper transfers, you will need a SmarTrip card to get the benefit of the bus-bus transfer or the rail-bus transfer. That capability is already on the smart cards now.

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Arlington, Va.: Driving south on the GW parkway, just after entering from 495, there's an electric sign that says "Commercial vehicles prohibited." What does this mean and why the new sign?

Eric Weiss: My guess is that it means that trucks and commercial vehicles are prohibited on the Parkway.

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Arlington, VA: What did Catoe say about funding Metro's capital needs this morning?

Lena Sun: Catoe said the overall figure that Metro needs is more than $11 billion over 10 years, starting from July 2010. They have enough capital funds until then, but after that, Metro and its local and state partners--and hopefully the feds--need to come up with more capital funds. will be posting story about this shortly.

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Vienna, VA: Have any interchange configurations or lane layouts been released yet for the beltway HOT lanes in Virginia? Will elected officials or citizens be given any input as to how these configurations are to be done (I-66 east traffic exiting to I-495 north (inner loop) SHOULD feed to the right lanes, not the left as they do now).

If construction is going on, they must have some rough idea what they're doing, and what they should look like when/if they're done in 2020, especially the I-495/I-66 interchange that has already seen some structural supports put into place.

Eric Weiss: Check our www.virginahotlanes.com. They have some detailed descriptions of the layout. The HOT lanes interchange with I-66 was given lots of thought, since that could be a major bottleneck.

As for input into the project, since it was largely negotiated behind closed doors, you can forget about it. They did have some public hearings, but that was just to explain what had already largely been decided.

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Washington, DC: Federal employee here, works near Union Station, commutes via the Red Line.

Wouldn't it help ease the traffic problems in this area (including the increasingly unreliable MetroRail) to begin to move federal agencies out of central DC into the burbs, preferably close to a MetroRail or MARC or VRE station? I would give anything to be able to reverse commute to White Flint via the Red Line, where the NRC is located. Spreading the pain -- I mean, federal agencies -- around this area seems to me to be a viable means to control traffic and transporatation problems. Sure, some people will have an increased commute, but something has to be done and I think this region's biggest employer should be in the forefront of solutions.

Eric Weiss: That would probably be the worst possible solution. The Metro system and our road system is designed to bring people in from the 'burbs to Central DC. It is not so good at circulating folks from suburb to suburb. One of the major reasons we are such a mess is that people are traveling from burb to burb because we have so many regional job centers without the infrastructure to support them.

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Re. points: Try an insurance agent, they usually know the points rules.

Eric Weiss: Good suggestion.

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Silver Spring, Md.: After the crash of 1929 the Federal government created huge programs that included a lot of new infrastructure to get the economy going. After the Japanese real estate bubble (and credit market crash) of 1990, their government began a massive infrastructure program to get the economy going.

Are McCain or Obama talking about any major infrastructure initiatives? Do you know if WMATA has people working The Hill the be sure Metrorail is included in any big bill coming up next year?

Lena Sun: Metro and several of the other large transit agencies are working to double the amount of capital funds set aside for transit when the current federal transportation funding legislation expires next September. If they are successful, Metro is hoping to get an additional $275 million in federal dollars a year, double what it is getting now. But that's a lot of ifs.

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Alexandria, VA: I have a couple of questions about the new Wilson Bridge...

1. Why is the bike/pedestrian lane taking sooooo long to complete (don't give me some "paint staging" excuse)? The spiral ramps on the Maryland side don't look anywhere near finished, and contractors appear to be taking their time finishing this stage of the project.

2. If, as it has been said, the bike/pedestrian lane needs to be used for staging paint equipment, I would like know first why a BRAND NEW bridge needs to be painted after it's been completed, and/or why they can't stage equipment on barges or like they did during the primary construction?

The majority of the project is completed, yet is appears (as it can during most constrcution projects) that the finishing touches are taking forever, and are not being coordinated with the same amount of effort as the majority of the project. We should NOT let these contractors off the hook and ensure that this project gets completed, and soon!

Eric Weiss: I will once again provide the paint staging "excuse" because that is what they tell me. The project is, as far as I know, still on time.

If you've ever had an addition put on your house, you know it is the final touches that seem to take the longest.

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Car-free day biker: I heard on the radio today that the District is raising the fines for some traffic violations. I laughed. Wouldn't someone have to actually be ISSUED a citation for said violation? Won't that be like SAYING driving while cell-phoning is illegal, but ignoring it on the road?

Eric Weiss: Perhaps DC Police are too busy talking on their cellphones in their patrol cars to notice violators...

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Washington, DC: Re: SmarTrip-only transfers on buses in 2009... This change is going to unfairly target poor communities that are heavily reliant on buses for transportation. How does Metro think this will go down on the first day that they do not allow paper transfers?

Lena Sun: Metro is going to make it easier for people to buy a SmarTrip card. Once you have a card, and load it with fare, it will automatically calculate those free bus transfers. That's already happening now. Metro has also distributed free smart cards to regional service agencies to give to low-income riders. People will still get the transfers, but they have to use the cards.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Yesterday and last week (in the sweltering heat), I saw several dozen Metro buses coming and going from Fed Ex Field, on my walk from Morgan Boulevard Metro station. Why are Metro buses able to do this? My understanding of the new regulations prevent public (tax-supported) buses from being used for private functions. My blood literally boiled last week when I saw the Metro buses being used. Are these being used to transport people to private and/or public parking spaces? Clearly, Metro buses are still doing some sort of business for the Redskins, as the buses marquees read "FED EX FIELD". If Metro is not permitted to transport people from New Carrolton, then what other transportation are the able to provide to Fed Ex? More importantly, how and why are they able to provide this other service, but not the New Carrolton service??? Thank you.

Lena Sun: Yes, there are new FTA regulations governing all this. But Metro was able to get a waiver for the first two exhibition games and the first two home games. So yesterday was the last day. Metrobuses were running from the McCormick lot and the Apollo lot yesterday.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: If no commercial vehicles on the GW Parkway, then why all the tour buses? Why doesn't Park Police enforce this actively?

Eric Weiss: A Park Police spokeman said there are no commercial vehicles on the Parkways, although there are some exemptions, such as for tour buses and vehicles heading to Reagan National Airport.

Also, for the earlier questioner regarding bicycles, they are not allowed on the roadway of parkways.

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Wilson Bridge: I disagree with the Alexandria resident who complained about the bike lanes on the Wilson Bridge. It seems to me that finishing the vehicular portion of the bridge will give the maximum benefit to the largest number of people and that therefore the contractors are doing the right thing by focusing on the road rather than on the pedestrian/bike facility. (If they could finish the express lane portion of the Beltway prior to Thanksgiving it would be a major coup.)

Eric Weiss: But boy, will that bike path over the bridge be sweet when it opens...

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New Carrollton, Md.: Hello again. I noticed that Yellow Line trains now run Northbound to Greenbelt. Is this change permanent and at all times? I can't find information about this on Metro's Web site. Thanks!

Lena Sun: Hi. Before the afternoon rush hour begins, there are a couple of Yellow Line trains that start out from Huntington and head up to Greenbelt and then turn around to become Green Line trains coming back downtown during rush hour.

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Washington, DC: Oh wise ones,

If Metro says there is a 15 minute delay, what exactly does that mean? That there is 15 minutes between the trains where the problem is? That people can on average expect to be 15 minutes later than they plan? That it will take them 15 minutes to remove the broken train from service? Or after the remove the broken train I can expect to wait 15 minutes for 3 full trains to pass by before there's one with space for me?

I've never understood what on earth a "15 minute delay" is supposed to mean.

Lena Sun: That's the tricky part. Everyone wants to know how long the delays are going to be, and it really all depends on where you are in the system when the breakdown occurs. That's why Metro folks have been reluctant to give estimates for exactly those reasons.

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Capitol Hill: What exactly caused the backup on the 14th street bridge on Saturday? A friend was stuck for 45 minutes, going nowhere...

Eric Weiss: According to DDOT is installing new electronic signage in the area to help traffic move more smoothly, and while most of the work is done at night, the contractor ran into trouble and had to continue during the day Saturday, causing a major traffic jam.

This is called irony.

_______________________

"You can still use your weekly pass. The passes don't go away, just the transfers.": Can I ask a follow-up to make sure I understand this? I think what you are saying is that someone who rides the bus and the trains will now have to make a choice:

(a) He can buy the Metrorail weekly pass, which requires a paper farecard, and save money on the trains, but he will now have to pay the full bus fare because of the elimination of paper transfers.

--OR--

(b) He can get a SmarTrip card and get the discounted transfer rate on the bus, but he won't be able to get the discounted weekly pass rate on Metrorail because that requires a paper farecard, and you won't be able to do the bus-to-rail transfer with a SmarTrip card if you're using the paper farecard.

Seems like more WMATA boneheadedness.....

Lena Sun: Sit tight. I've got a call into the folks now to see what the fix is going to be for this.

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Lena Sun: Folks, we are out of time. I know a lot of you asked about transfers and I'll be getting that information out to you when I get an answer from Metro. Thanks for your good questions. Talk to you next time, and sorry about the mixup this morning that said Dr. Gridlock was going to be chatting. He's up next week. Save all the really tough ones for him.:)

_______________________

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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