Dr. Gridlock

Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, November 10, 2008; 1:00 PM

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock. He was online Monday, Nov. 10 at 1 p.m. ET to address the Purple Line proposal, the aesthetics of the Vienna Metro stop and all of 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.


Robert Thomson: Hello, Travelers. Good of you to join me again today.


Laurel, Md.: So, do you think that the plummeting price of gas has decreased interest in hybrid vehicles? As a hybrid owner, I really liked that the price of gas seemed to kill sales and resales of gas guzzlers and increase demand for fuel efficient vehicles like hybrids. Now I worry that people will go back for luxury over conservation. What do you think?

Robert Thomson: I haven't seen any numbers on this, other than noting this morning that AAA says Americans are driving a bit more as gasoline prices head down toward $2 a gallon.

But here's my theory: People got really scared when they saw $4 gas earlier this year. They know that the decline now is the result of the global economic downturn. They know that when things get better, the price of gas will go up again.

Plus, we've just been through a long presidential campaign that helped focus our attention on climate issues.

People won't forget these things anytime soon, and will continue to go for fuel-efficient cars. Plus, in Virginia, there's still the incentive of being able to use some of the HOV lanes with hybrids.


Arlington, Va.: Dr. Gridlock, my employer is moving to Crystal City in the near future, and I would like to ask your readers if they know if any free motorcycle parking in that neighborhood? We can't legally tie up to bike racks like a moped, and while I could easily share a garage space with a coworker, the garage workers tell me they won't let me exit without paying full price. I will appreciate any tips, thanks

Robert Thomson: I wanted to post this one early in case anyone could offer advice for Arlington.


Gaithersburg, Md.: I just finished looking over the Purple Line documents. Why would they not do heavy rail on the beltway from Grovesnor to Forest Glen, Greenbelt and New Carrolton. At grade crossing of the LRT make no sense and why would I get off the Red Line for BRT to New Carrollton to catch the MARC when just going to Union Station remains the faster (yet more inconvenient) alternative? They could still do BRT from Betheseda to Silver Spring? Isn't transit about efficiencies?

Robert Thomson: A heavy rail project would have some advantages. For example, if the Purple Line were to be built as Metrorail, it would avoid the problem that occurs when people have to transfer from one mode of transportation to another. People just don't like doing that.

But here's a couple of things:

Heavy rail would be hugely expensive. The most expensive version of light rail, as you see in the documents, comes in around a billion and a half dollars. A heavy rail line would likely double that pricetag, maybe more.

A rail transit line along the Beltway would be a mistake. We saw that when the Orange Line was built out across Northern Virginia. The most successful part is the Rosslyn-Balston corridor. In fact it's a national model for transit. It links communities and focuses development around the stations. Once the Orange Line links up with I-66, it's pretty much a dead zone. Vienna Station, for example, is what many planners consider an example of what not to do with transit.

None of our modern transit projects is just about moving people from one place to another. It's about organizing communities, focusing development and making sure that the next generation can stay mobile.


Washington, D.C.: Now that they have stopped issuing Metrocheks, can I cash in SmartBenefits vouchers toward weekly rail passes? Until Metro has the capability of adding the passes to Smartrip cards, I will have to pay $50 more per month if my only option is to download the $115 subsidy to my card.

Robert Thomson: I'm collecting questions like this because I'd like to do a column that addresses some of the concerns about the upcoming end of the Metrocheks program and the conversion for some commuters to SmartBenefits vouchers.

Nov. 15 is the last day for employers to purchase the paper Metrocheks. The program is discontinued as of Dec. 1. The paper replacement is the SmartBenefits vouchers. So far, I've heard mostly from people who use commuter buses. This is the first question I've got from a Metro rider, and the issue of the passes is indeed confusing.

If you're employer is issuing SmartBenefit vouchers, I don't see why you wouldn't be able to use them to buy Metro passes, especially since it's going to be a year before you can load passes onto SmarTrip cards.

I'll double check that for you with Metro and give a further answer -- more authoritative answer -- on the Get There blog.


Heavy Rail: "Vienna Station, for example, is what many planners consider an example of what not to do with transit."

Why? It always looks packed, and as an Orange Line rider from West Falls Church, I love that the Metro comes out so far.

Robert Thomson: It's a concrete fortress when it could have been a community.


Anonymous: In the past few months, they have changed several of the signs on the SE/SW freeway for the Nationals Park. Any chance they will also be able to change the sign for "The House" which makes you move three lanes to the left, only to come through the underpass to find out you move back two lanes to the right to make the exit? The sign has been wrong for years and despite many requests from lots of us who live on Capitol Hill, it hasn't been fixed.

Robert Thomson: There's always a chance. Sounds like I should ask the District Department of Transportation about that one.

By the way, I heard there's some question about whether the Nationals will operate the shuttle buses from RFK over to M Street next season. Any opinions on that?


Washington, DC: Where can I get information about the inauguration routes, closures, etc? And any idea what the federal government is going to do that day?

Robert Thomson: None at all yet. But various Posties, including me, are very interested in being able to share inaugural transportation plans as they develop. So as decisions get made, look for them in the paper and on the Web site.


Tysons Corner, Va.: What's your take on the argument that roads create congestion?

It seems to me that jobs and people create congestion, not roads.

Robert Thomson: People argue this endlessly. My take is that poorly planned transportation systems create congestion. A transportation system includes roads, trains, buses, trails and sidewalks. It also includes a land use plan that focuses development around transit centers and makes it as easy as possible for people to get places without using their cars.

So I'm not one who says, Don't build that road or you'll create congestion. (I thought the intercounty connector should get built.) But as you see in my answers to the Purple Line questions, I think we need to focus on the whole picture of how we can make it easier for people to get around without cars.

I'm sure you know that's the focus of the debate about the future of Tysons, a city built without a major transit system.


Alexandria, Va.: "It's a concrete fortress when it could have been a community."

I don't understand. Are you saying because there is no Starbucks or McDonald's it's a barren wasteland? Some people just use Metro to ride to work and home and don't want to be in the population centers to do that.

Robert Thomson: I'm saying look at Bethesda and look at Vienna. Which development and transportation plan made more sense?

Look at Tysons. A hundred thousand people work there. Almost all of them get to their jobs by car. And many of them have to get in their cars just to get lunch. That's a huge source of congestion.


Silver Spring, Md.: A "Concrete fortress" around many, if not most, Purple Line stations is what I fear. Or maybe a Granite Countertop fortress of hi-priced hi-rises. In Montgomery, the areas are developed. I fear rezoning and redevelopment of our small-scale communities. We should just improve the bus service instead. More bus shelters for example, and at least guardrails in front of shelters on road shoulders. And Prince George's should name The Bus and offer service on Sundays and holidays.

Robert Thomson: I share your concern about development around the Purple Line stations. Many lower income people could get pushed out of their neighborhoods if Montgomery and Prince George's counties aren't careful about their land-use plans for the station areas.

Note what we're both saying, though: People really want to live near rail transit stops, and they're willing to pay extra for it. Bus stops don't accomplish that.


Innauguration day: I am a Federal Employee. Our guidance is that we federal employees who work within the DC metro area is entitled to a holiday - U.S.C 6103(c).

The above is guidance from my job -- I didn't check the citation.

Robert Thomson: Thanks, ID. What I'm hoping to do is post some Q&As about inauguration day transportation on my Get There blog, in Dr. Gridlock columns, and maybe do a Sunday Post commuter page about this.


Vienna, Va.: I'm not getting why you think Vienna Metro is a mistake? What should have been done? Are New Carollton, Springfield, Largo, Shady Grove etc. all mistakes too?

Robert Thomson: Think about Shady Grove with me. This end of the Red Line station is surrounded by 5,700 parking spaces. And people still complain to me that they can't find a spot.

What are we going to do, create high-rise parking towers? In retrospect, it would have been better to design a Shady Grove community around the Metro station where people could have lived and worked and been entertained, rather than pushing so many people farther out into western Maryland, so they now have to drive in to park at Shady Grove.


Another SmartTrip question: Now that transfers are all being done on SmartTrip, has Metro given any consideration of Rail-to-Rail transfers in a single direction? In my case I commute between Shady Grove and Farragut North and often find myself stopping for a quick errand at Tenley or Friendship Heights before continuing onward, resulting in an additional charge, whereas with a bus I could get off, do my shopping and get back on at no charge with a transfer. BTW R2R transfers could end the need for a tunnel connecting Farragut North and West.

Robert Thomson: I like the idea of creating a virtual tunnel between the Farraguts and between Metro Center and Gallery Place by using the SmarTrip cards. Seems like the cards should be capable of that someday. The whole process of making the cards smarter is taking way too long. This isn't cutting edge tech.

But I'm not sure about the rail to rail transfer the way you describe it. The errand thing doesn't sound like a transfer, in which you go from one line to another.


re: Metro's search policy: From Catoe's Friday chat: "we will only conduct such inspections if there is a heightened state of alert; if there is a major security event taking place; or information from our sources indicate that transit systems should be on special alert."

Please provide the phone number to call each day before we head out to a Metro station, that will tell us whether or not such a (police) state is in effect.

Robert Thomson: I thought Metro GM John Catoe gave a good defense in his Friday chat for his decision to all transit police to search you on your way to trains and buses. And I do believe that he and transit police chief Michael Taborn are acting out of a sincere desire to keep people safe.

But as many of you know from our previous chat, my postings on the Get There blog and from the column, I just don't see it.

For more than 200 years, we've presumed that we have the right to travel freely. If the government wants to stop and search us, the government has to have a really good reason. Otherwise, what's in our bags is none of their business.

To me, the Metro search policy doesn't meet the reasonablenss standard, because the transit authority has not offered a convincing explanation of why occasional, random searches will make us safer.

The chances are you're not going to be stopped by the transit police because you're doing something that appears threatening. You're going to be stopped because on that particular day, you're No. 15 in line to go through the fare gate.

I could go on and on. This is a major disagreement between me and Metro.


Alexandria, Va.: Robert:

Comparing the Vienna stop to Bethesda is a poor, poor choice.

Vienna is the end of the line. Bethesda is not. A more apt comparison would be between Vienna and, say, Huntington, or Springfield, or Greenbelt.

Besides, there's plenty of community around Vienna. I lived within a very short walk of that Metro stop for two years when I first moved out here. A friend of mine has done the same for six. And the apartment complexes around there are always full. The station might be a mass of concrete, but what above ground station in the Metro system isn't?

That's more than can be said for my current condo building, which can't stay full even with being right across the street from Huntington station.

Robert Thomson: Hi, Alexandria. I think most of us have no idea how big and densely populated this region is going to become. DC to Gaithersburg is going to be one continuous downtown. Tysons and downtown DC will be to each other as Midtown Manhattan and the Financial District are to each other. (Except we do have that height limit thing in downtown Washington.)

We're not going to be able to sustain current setups like the Greenbelt parking fields. We need more communities, focused around rail and light rail stations, or things will grind to a halt for all of us -- or for our children.


Alexandria: Robert Thomson: Think about Shady Grove with me. ... In retrospect, it would have been better to design a Shady Grove community around the Metro station where people could have lived and worked and been entertained...

Before moving to VA I lived on Long Island for 6 years. The problem here is that the DC Metro area has combined commuter rail and subway rail into a single system that is trying to be all things to all people. There are always going to be people who get on the train far out and ride it to the city center. There are also always going to be people riding from station to station in the city center (and to a lesser extent in the suburbs). Metro should have been a dedicated subway system, and the commuter lines should be much more extensive. This idea that people won't transfer between systems is ridiculous - New Yorkers do it all the time.

Robert Thomson: Hi, Alexandria. I went to college on Long Island, and worked there for seven years. (Newsday) You're not going to tell me that Long Island's transportation system is set up the way New Yorkers want it, are you?

But I do think we're on a path to replicate the experience of New York and it's suburbs in terms of rapid and sprawling growth. The big difference is the NY has a much more developed transit system. That part, we're not on a path to match, and it's going to hurt us.


Silver Spring, Md.: Metro has been doing better about communication, but failed miserably yesterday on the Blue/Orange line. The signs announced 30 minute delays between eastern Market and Stadium, and even though I was getting off at Eastern Market, I built an extra 10 minutes into my schedule. That wasn't enough. We sat for quite a while at L'efant, repeatedly being told that the train would be moving "momentarily." At Capitol South, we were informed that we would be holding "momentarily" again-after 15 minutes, we finally moved!

I can handle the delays, but be honest about them. It would have been quicker, and I would have been far happier for me to get off the train and walk the rest of the if we had been told "We're going to have to hold here for at least 10 minutes" from the outset. To tell passengers that we would be moving momentarily, repeatedly, is just downright dishonest and yet another black eye for Metro.

Robert Thomson: I also think Metro has been doing better on communications over the past year, and believe that their people do care about this. But each time there's a mismatch between what they're saying and what you're experiencing, they hurt their credibility and riders are less willing to believe the announcements and signs the next time.


Washington: Regarding the Purple Line--it seems the best solution is to run to the new Medical Center. That's where the people will need it. Running it into Bethesda and then having to take another bus or walk to the Red Line just doesn't seem to make as much sense as running something directly where it will be needed.

Robert Thomson: We will indeed have a transportation problem around Medical Center with the BRAC transfers. But downtown Bethesda is a huge employment center compared to the Medical Center area. So I can understand the argument that we should put an east-west rail line into operation and have the station be in downtown Bethesda, where a commuter can take Metrorail or bus up to Medical Center if need be. (I'm sure this could all be done with SmarTrip cards and a discount for the switch from light rail to Metro.)


Vienna stop as a "mistake": Folks, I think what Dr. Gridlock is saying is not that the Vienna stop itself, or Shady Grove, is a mistake per se, but rather the LOCATION in the middle of the Interstate is a mistake because it's not in a place that would have encouraged transit-centric growth like we've seen in Arlington (which ponied up extra money to bury the subway beneath Wilson Boulevard).

A line around the Beltway would be no better. Not that many job sites are immediately off the Beltway. How do people who propose a Circle Line around the Beltway intend for people to get to and from the Circle Line? (London's line of the same name, and Moscow's similar line, both work because there are ample other lines connecting, and because the respective circle lines are much closer in than our Beltway is.)

Robert Thomson: Thanks, that's looking like a better way to say it than I did. Basically, I'd put the tracks where the people are, or are going to be.


1 Tired Fed: Re: Inauguration Day and Federal Government operating status.

For this, and all other Federal holidays (actual or rumored), always check in with OPM.


"NOTE: Inauguration Day, January 20, 2009, falls on a Tuesday. An employee who works in the District of Columbia, Montgomery or Prince George's Counties in Maryland, Arlington or Fairfax Counties in Virginia, or the cities of Alexandria or Falls Church in Virginia, and who is regularly scheduled to perform nonovertime work on Inauguration Day, is entitled to a holiday. (See 5 U.S.C. 6103(c).) There is no in-lieu-of-holiday for employees who are not regularly scheduled to work on Inauguration Day."

Robert Thomson: Thanks, Fed. We'll also be trying to help out people who actually want to get in to see the inauguration and the other events.


Boonsboro, Md.: Are the proposed cuts in MARC service really a secret ploy to get us to drive more, or a preamble for a fare increase?

Robert Thomson: Absolutely not a ploy to get people to drive more. I think the current administration is very supportive of transit and would love to expand MARC service.

Many of our transit services are facing fare increases or service cutbacks or both. But this is no ploy to get us to buy more cars.


Washington, D.C.: Dr. Gridlock:

Can you please help me? Like many lucky people in the DC area, I get a mass transit subsidy from my employer, in the form of Metrocheks. First of all, I only learned from your column this weekend that Metro is discontinuing Metrocheks as of next month. Great communication plan, Metro!!

Second, there is no information posted on wmata.com as to what one can do with unused Metrocheks after March 2009 (which is the last date Metrocheks may be used). Can you please get Metro to communicate better on its website as to whether/how we can exchange unused Metrocheks for the new SmartBenefit vouchers?

I called three different Metro information numbers this morning, but the people there did not seem well informed. Again, great communication plan, Metro!

Thank you.

Robert Thomson: My understanding is that after March 2009, you're unused Metrocheks become souvenirs. But before that, you'll be able to exchange them at Metro sales offices.


Herndon, Va.: Dr: Going back and forth from Reston to Bethesda a few times this weekend, I noticed a sign on I-495 in Maryland, going to Virginia as you approach the sharp curve where I-495 changes from "west" to "south." The sign says "Fairfax 15 miles." Since it's about 4 miles at that point to the American Legion Bridge, with Fairfax County on the other side of the Potomac, I can't figure out what "Fairfax" the sign is referring to. Fairfax City isn't on 495.

Robert Thomson: The state highway departments tell me that the highway mile signs almost always give mileage to the center of communities, rather than, say, to a county line. So I think that probably is a sign for Fairfax City.


Washington, D.C.: Doc: The other day there was an open announcement for passengers and stations managers addressing delays in the system. for all the complaints about metro, this was kind of startling. Are the announcements the only means metro station managers get information on delays and issues in the system?

I know people question the worth of the station managers, but if this is all the info they get, there are as much out the loop as the passengers.

Robert Thomson: That's not all the information they get. They have their own radios. In fact, one of this year's communication improvements was to provide them with radios and loudspeakers so they could get out of the kiosks and still give information to passengers on the platforms.


Robert Thomson: Because the hour is late, I need to break away. There's still a lot of good questions and comments in the mailbag here. I've been scrolling up and down the list just trying to spot ones that I could post and answer quickly.

I always save the ones that I didn't get to in hopes of addressing them either on the blog or in upcoming columns.

Till we chat again, stay safe out there. And keep on writing to me at drgridlock@washpost.com.


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.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company