Roads and Rails: The $500 Chair Edition

Eric Weiss and Lena Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 20, 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?

Washington Post staff writers Eric Weiss and Lena Sun were online Monday, Oct. 20 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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Eric Weiss: Good morning commuters!

Does anyone know where we can get a $75,000 conference table?

It's that time again where you hit us -- or me for now -- with questions, comments and just plain venting about your commutes.

Let's start.

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Washington, D.C.: Why won't Metro put a sign at the beginning of a series of escalators if one of the subsequent ones is out of service? The sign could be hand-written so it would cost essentially nothing. I've asked a few station managers and they have refused to put up signs, so it seems that it is Metro policy not to inform customers of escalator outages. It is not fun to take one escalator with all of your luggage only to find the next one is out. I once had this happen at Gallery place where the second up escalator was out AND the down escalators were out so I was stuck trying to schlep my stuff up a broken escalator. Won't Metro improve customer service and communication even at no cost?

washingtonpost.com: Funding for Furniture, Not Signs, Prompts Some Riders to Question Priorities (Post, Oct. 20)

Eric Weiss: Metro signage has been a source of constant friction.

Remember how long it took them to distribute a bus map?

And my colleague Lena Sun wrote a story that somehow Metro officials haven't been able to find the $75k to put "no eating" signs up but did find the bucks for the aforementioned conference tables...

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Haymarket, Va.: I commute from Haymarket in Prince William County to the Centreville park-and-ride on Stone Road in Fairfax County. I would love to take the Omniride by PRTC from Litton Hall road. Unfortunately the Omniride does not provide enough service with varying times. Will PRTC ever add additional times and why does the Omniride have to go all the way to West Falls Church getting mixed up with the beltway adding an extra 20 minutes to the trip. Will VDOT ever relieve the congestion on 66?

Eric Weiss: One of the disadvantages of living in Haymarket is the paucity of transit options. I am not familiar with your route in particular, but the new Beltway HOT lanes will allow buses free congestion-free travel on those lanes, so that portion of your ride should be cleared up with the lanes open in a few years.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: Since moving to New York City from D.C. this spring, I've been amazed by the very few number of times trains have broken down during my daily commute from Brooklyn to Manhattan. I think it's only been about 2-3 times, seriously. In D.C. during the same amount of on the Red and Orange lines, the incident rate was much, much higher. That leads to a question of maintenance and upkeep. I know comparing the New York City subway to any other system is foolish, but how does the D.C. Metrorail measure up in terms of its resources for maintenance and upkeep to other systems in the U.S. (I know RTD in Denver, for instance, is now discovering that after rapid light-rail expansion, they're realizing they don't have adequate maintenance resources.)

Eric Weiss: NYC Transit has a dedicated funding source, Metro does not. NYC Transit has a lot of train cars. Metro does not, and is still using original cars from the 1970s. I can go on and on.

But on the Metro your bum rests on padded seats. So there!

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Silver Spring Transit Center: Why oh why are they blocking the sidewalk and reducing pedestrian access to a 12-inch swath of concrete when nothing is happening around the bus bays? I've got no problem with the plan to build this thing but how about treating pedestrians (you know, those people whose tax dollars are paying for this project) with a little respect? If construction isn't starting yet, then open up the freakin' sidewalk!

Lena Sun: It's a mess out there because they're working on building the new transit center. I know it's especially bad at rush hour. Montgomery County officials say they are out there and trying to figure out better ways to improve pedestrian flow, especially for elderly and disabled.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: Having spent part of the weekend in Chicago I'm curious as to why the Purple Line isn't going to be run down the Beltway between Grovesnor and Forest Glen, and points further. The right-of-way is there; it would be cheaper than running through a neighborhood; it accommodates heavy rail instead of light rail (and 64 intersections)...why are we so bad at thinking forward?

Eric Weiss: I can't imagine constructing anything in the median of the Beltway being "cheaper" than almost any alternative.

We do think ahead. The Orange Line was built in the median of I-66 and the Dulles Toll Road/Access Road was built to accommodate future Metro access.

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Arlington, Va.: Is it just me, or has there been a spate of people being hit by Metro trains here recently. I remember hearing that people were hit infrequently at most, but I remember many stories from the past year or two of people being struck.

Lena Sun: Unfortunately, there are people who put themselves on train tracks intentionally. The Post policy is not to write about suicides, but when those actions result in delays on the Metro system, we usually do write a news item to let people know why trains are delayed. There doesn't seem to be any pattern, and unfortunately, it happens with some regularity.

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Falls Church, Va.: Your barb wasn't fair. Your own paper detailed the spending: It included $30,000 for 60 leather chairs and $5,655 for a 20-foot table for Francis's conference room. ... The expenditure also included nearly $26,000 for videoconferencing equipment. I can find lots to complain about that's real without having to fall back on fabricated exageration.

washingtonpost.com: Funding for Furniture, Not Signs, Prompts Some Riders to Question Priorities (Post, Oct. 20)

Eric Weiss: A barb doesn't have to be fair, it's a barb.

And, um, that works out to $500 a chair.

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Bum: My bum does not rest on padded seats. It's too busy standing up and avoiding people's hands, bags, etc. because there is no room on the overcrowded train...

Eric Weiss:...Or taken up by cads who refuse to give them up to pregnant women and the elderly...

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Clifton, Va.: Haymarket

Not sure how funding will effect this but VRE is adding an extension to Gainesville which shouldn't be too far from Linton Hill. Other option would be the current terminus for the VRE.

Eric Weiss: Thanks, Clifton.

BTW for the record, it is Linton Hall Road.

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Fire Catoe!!!:$75,000 for furniture?! I can tell them where they can get some nice used pieces and make do. There's greenery growing in the tunnel lighting fixtures on the Red Line, the advertising at Van Ness reflected the June BBQ battle until last week...ENOUGH.

Time for Catoe and his $500K salary to go.

Lena Sun: Actually, Catoe's salary is $300,000 and his living allowance is $60,000. Executives in the transit industry tend to make that kind of money. Catoe's predecessor at Metro, Richard A. White, had a salary of $285,644 and a living allowance of $50,000. But his severance package included a $238,000 one-time payment and an annual pension of $116,000, more generous than those offered by several other transit agencies.

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Arlington, Va.: With the price of gas receding from its highs, how long before we see a rebound of traffic and SUV/pickup truck sales? Hopefully never isn't the answer, btw.

Eric Weiss: My colleague Steven Mufson has a Page One story on the topic in today's paper (only 41 cents with home delivery).

Carmax also reported that there were more computer searches for SUVs than there were at the height of gas prices.

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Loudoun County: Here is a controversial thought. How about using the 100 foot right of way of the WO&D Trail from Arlington to Purcellville to include a commuter rail line...shouldn't there still be enough room to accommodate the bike trail and a rail line on 100 feet?

Eric Weiss: Purple line planners are considering all the options, although they are faced with angering someone with any proposed route, because it will have to go through a built-up area.

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Washington, DC: I take the Metro every day to work from Silver Spring. Last week on my way home there were approximately 5-10 youths standing and leaning over the top of the escalators on the platform harassing and yelling at people going up and down. They made absolutely no attempt to board either train going in any direction, while I was going down there were two trains waiting on the platforms and they left without the group trying to go on either one.

All of this leads to a question: what is the (or is there a) number that someone can call for the metro police in a circumstance like this? The Metro is not a place to loiter and kids should not be allowed to. I understand that at a station such as Chinatown this cannot be avoided, since the outside is outside and off the platform, and people frequently do stand there. However in a station like Silver Spring this is not the case and Metro staff should move people along.

Lena Sun: Yes, you can call Metro police directly and let them know at 202-962-2121 or you can let the station manager and ask them to notify transit police.

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Falls Church, Va.: What good is it to put up new signs if there isn't going to be any enforcement?

Lena Sun: Lots of people coming to this area for the first time don't know you can't eat or drink in the system. If they see a big sign, and there happens to be a trash can nearby, the hope is that they will do the right thing: ditch the bag of chips and soda before going through the fare gate.

On the enforcement front, it should make it easier for transit police to point to the signs when wise guys say they didn't know eating or drinking are banned.

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Baltimore: MARC service cuts: Because of budget shortfalls, the Maryland dept of transportation has announced that it will be reducing MARC service--including running no trains on Columbus Day or Veterans Day. I work in the private sector in DC (commuting from Baltimore) and we do not get all the federal holidays off. And I am sure I am not alone. After trumpeting how MARC ridership has increased due to rising gas prices, it seems counterintuitive that service would be reduced.

As a reader of the Baltimore Sun pointed out, the state is short of money for MARC, but is still committed to $2 billion for the ICC. Huh?

Eric Weiss: The short answer is that something has to give.

The long answer is that MARC and the ICC have different funding sources. The ICC is dependent on tolls from it and other Maryland toll roads. It does not take anything away from transit.

But really, your question is about priorities: transit or highways. And that is a debate that is long from over, at least in this country.

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SS Transit Center Again: Lena Sun: It's a mess out there because they're working on building the new transit center.

No, that's the problem, Lena. They are NOT working on the transit center! When will construction start and can't they open up the sidewalk to the station until they do?

Lena Sun: My esteemed colleage Dr.Gridlock says he saw them knocking down the old bus shelters. This morning. So yes, they are working on it.

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Pregnant Women: I'm so tired for being in trouble for not giving my seat to a pregnant woman. Maybe it's just me -- but I CAN'T TELL -- and that's a mistake I don't want to make.

For example, if she's young and MAYBE pregnant, if I give her my seat and she's not, she'll wonder why.

If she's older (but not elderly) and I give my seat up for her she may take offense and think that I'm calling her old. (That one has happened to me)

SO -- if you want a seat, ask for it.

By the way, I'm a woman. I guess I just didn't get that "intuition."

Lena Sun: Hi there. Thanks for your comment. If you have time today, can you please contact me directly at SUNL@washpost.com?

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NYC v. DC: I think one major difference between New York and DC in terms of subway breakdowns is that in DC we notice the breakdowns more because the two-track design, and the lack of pocket tracks, means that one broken-down train has far more of a ripple effect than it does in New York, where the three- and four-track design, with pockets, provides ample ways either to bypass a broken-down train or to shove that train out of the way until later.

New York doesn't seem to shut down every train for a "sick passenger," either (or maybe passengers don't report sickness so as not to hold up the train)...just ask my brother about the time he slipped on a pile of barf on a crowded D train....

Eric Weiss: You are correct about the design differences between NY and DC. But one thing you didn't mention: New Yorkers throw sick passengers on the tracks...

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Silver Spring, Md.: Metrorail safety trivia. Has any passenger ever been struck and killed by a metro train who was NOT trying to kill themselves? I understand that a number of people have decided to end their lives in this way but I don't remember hearing about anyone being killed after accidentally falling on the tracks (or being pushed). True?

Lena Sun: I checked with Metro and Steven Taubenkibel says he can't recall any time when a passenger has been pushed or killed after accidentally falling on the tracks. Passengers have stood too close to the edge of the platforms--that's why there are those blinking warning lights and bumpy tiles--and have been injured by approaching trains.

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Metro Station Manager: I had sent in a story about my commute last week with one young man stealing an older man's Blackberry.

I guess the point of it (it was not posted) was that I have no faith in the Metro managers. I wouldn't take the time out of my day to tell the manager in Silver Spring. Like he didn't know?

Lena Sun: I don't remember seeing this the last time we chatted, so sorry about that. Like I told the earlier poster, you could have called the transit police directly on that one.

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Reserved Seats on Metro: As a woman myself, I have to agree with the previous poster about not offering my seat. I have been given dirty looks for offering my seat to people who looked elderly or pregnant to me. My favorite was the time I offered my seat to a pregnant woman - she declined, but before I could sit down another person took it!

Lena Sun: Ah, don't you just love our Washington riders? Can you email me off line at SUNL@washpost.com?

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washingtonpost.com: As Prices Fall, Push for Alternatives May Ease (Post, Oct. 20)

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Re:Pregnant Women comment: I have to say I agree! Believe me I am willing to give up me seat for someone, either pregnant or elderly, but someitmes I just don't know and I don't want to offend someone! I would take no offense if someone was to ask for my seat and I would glady give it up.

Lena Sun: Well when women get to the END of their pregnancies, I don't think anyone, male or female, is going to have a hard time figuring that out, right?

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Darwinism in action: Not a question, just a comment. I was southbound on the Clara Barton Parkway last Sunday, south of Alexandria, on my way to Mount Vernon. In the right lane in front of me is a cyclist, a young male, wearing the requisite skin-tight spandex plastered with the names of European companies. He was noticably swerving in his lane, sometimes crossing into the the left lane. When I was able to pass him, I looked over and saw why he was swerving: he was texting on a Blackberry as he was cycling with one hand. Unbelievable!

Eric Weiss: You are correct. The laws of natural selection will eventually make bicyclists who text while riding on highways extinct.

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Fairfax County Buses: I am curious if Fairfax County buses have figured out whether they lost customers due to the strike? We used to take the bus everyday, but when the strike happened we started driving. We tried to go back to the bus but the delays are awful. The delays happened before the strike, but I guess we got a sense of how nice it is to not be 30 minutes late to work because of the bus coming late!

Eric Weiss: Good question. My guess is that it is too early to tell. If there is a loss of ridership, let's hope that they all didn't take to their cars...

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Clifton, Va.: Having traveled to Atlanta the end of September by car NOVA is getting a raw deal. Both 95 and 85 are in great shape and so are the roads south of Fredericksburg. Atlanta is a total disaster with its roads. DC's rush hour is worse but their road system must have been designed by VDOT rejects. We stayed in Buckhead and the roads might make sense if you have lived their for 20 years. Navigating downtown DC is a piece of cake in comparison.

NOVA members of the Virginia House and Senate need to present a unified front irrespective of party affiliation. Put NOVA first and even in economic downturn we might get a few cents more. Can't wait to 2011 elections.

Eric Weiss: Comparing driving in Atlanta and Washington is like comparing the advantages of the rope to the guillotine...

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Washington, D.C. : The Purple Line seems like a very sensible project...How long until it is built?

Lena Sun: Middle of the next decade, at the earliest. There are a whole slew of things that have to happen first. Maryland officials have to decide whether it's going to be a light rail project or a busway. They have to decide which of several competing transit projects they will seek federal funds for. So the funding question is a major hurdle.

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Offering Pregnant Women Seats: The people who won't offer a pregnant woman their seat need to get a spine. You SHOULD offer her your seat. If you choose not to, don't write to the Post seeking affirmation that it's hard to spot a pregnant woman or someone might be offended you thought she was pregnant.

It's easy, you say, "ma'am, would you like a seat". If she says no, no big deal. You don't have to make a trip to your therapist over it.

Lena Sun: LOL. I like your approach.

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Purple Line pedestrian access: The idea of putting the Purple Line along the Beltway runs counter to the idea that rail transit should be in pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods. The proposed route is there for a reason: that is where the riders are.

Eric Weiss: You raise a good point. Fairfax made a major boo-boo back in the 1960s(but who didn't make major boo-boos in the 60s?) by not embracing Metro, unlike Arlington, which insisted that it travel under Wilson Boulevard. Instead of sending Metro to Tysons Corner, Fairfax elected to send Metro down the middle of a highway to, of all places, Vienna. My understanding is that a member of the Metro board at the time was from the Fairfax City/Vienna area and prevailed, even though planners knew that Tysons was big and bound to get bigger. Fairfax then compounded the problem by not allowing high-density development near Metro stations, eliminating the ability for more poeple to walk to the trains andensuring the role of cars and parking garages.

But I go on...

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Pregnancy at the end...: Yes...yes I do have a hard time figuring that out.

It's just like..you keep thinking...what if this is a mistake...what if she's not...what if people do this to her all the time and she goes home and wallows that people think she's pregnant when she's not...

Dramatic, I know...Overthought, I know. But it's true.

Lena Sun: See earlier poster's advice about not worrying about it so much.

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Ballston, Va.: There are men and women in my building who have looked like they are in the last week of a pregnancy for years!

I give up my seat. It was the way I was raised to the handicap, someone who is preggers and older than me and a woman. At 49, this is getting difficult.

Eric Weiss: I agree. I myself look like I'm in the first trimester.

But folks, please, please, give up the seats and leave the elevators to poeple who need them or have strollers or are carrying luggage (This is especially true at Woodley Park, a scene of particular and constant outrage).

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Hyattsville, Md.: How about a nice story for the completion of the Kennilworth Avenue bridge of the rail lines at the Maryland/DC line? Talk about FAST construction (a little over a year for a very complicated overpass). We need to see more projects like this instituted in our area, not 15-year long mega projects like the beltway from Oxon Hill to Springfield. By the time they're finished with that project, they'll have to work on it again.

Eric Weiss: Hear, hear! Our tax dollars at work.

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Lena Sun: Thanks for all your questions and comments folks. Quite a bit of discussion on etiquette and when to give up your seat for a pregnant woman. If you still about to comment about that, send me an email directly: SUNL@washpost.com.

See you next time.

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