Roads and Rails

Eric Weiss and Lena Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 17, 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 inter-county 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, Nov. 17 at 11 a.m. ET to answer your questions about Metro's budget problems, HOT lanes and more.

A transcript follows.

Discussion Archive


Eric Weiss: Good morning commuters!

Are we preparing for fun Turkey Day excursions? Are we joyous about the new Wilson Bridge lanes arriving next month, like an early Christmas present?

Are you writing in for extra inauguration tix? (Ain't got none.)

Hit us with your questions, concerns, and, of course, complaints...


Reston, Va.: What is Metro going to do about those new cars that have huge areas with nothing for short people to hold on to? They put the grab bars along the side of the car far from the large numbers of standing passengers.

Lena Sun: Hi Reston. Actually, just today, Metro announced that it has finished putting in stainless steel overhead grab handles in all 184 of the newest rail cars. Those cars are running on all lines during rush hour, so us short people will have something to hold onto.


Washington, D.C.: Can someone please explain why our beloved WMATA has chosen not to involve themselves with Google Transit? What could be the reason other than Google Transit might highlight the wonderful world of unreliable with regards to Metro trains and buses?

Lena Sun: I know that Google has this feature with many of the other major transit agencies. The last time I checked with Metro about this, I was told that Google wanted Metro to cough up lots of bucks that Metro is unwilling to part with.


Empty Metro buses?: All too often, I see empty Metro buses with the "not in service" sign displayed traveling in the HOV lane (during HOV lane restriction hours) on I-66 west in the afternoon. Are buses allowed to do this if there are no passengers other than the driver? It's frustrating because it slows the HOV lane down. I completely understand being in the HOV lane while there are passengers on the bus, but are empty buses somehow exempt from HOV lane restriction rules?

Eric Weiss: You are talking about buses that are "dead-heading" back to garages after a shift or to reposition for the next rush hour.

I recently spent a day with a Virginia state trooper hunting for HOV violators and was blown away by the number of hybrids, government vehicles and police officers (some in their private vehicles) using the lanes.

That said, buses on the HOV lanes are a good thing, since, after all, it was originally built as as busway, and if the HOT lane proposal on 95/395 comes to fruition there should be plenty more buses, but fewer exceptions and hybrids.


Ad Overload: Now they're advertising to us on the train ceilings and the station floors? When did that start? I just noticed last week (I've been on maternity leave for 3 months). With ads now occupying almost every spare inch of space, my eyes glaze over and I don't see the individual ads anymore. They all run together as background noise, and it makes my mind feel cluttered.

What's next, will the employees start wearing ads on their uniforms? Or maybe we could do like the sports arenas and get corporations to sponsor the stations and rename all of them. Major D.C. employers get first crack. Next stop, "Marriott Station."

Eric Weiss: Next step: All passengers on the Orange Line will be required to strap on sandwich boards advertising cell-phone plans and defense contractors.

Next up: Green Line passengers will be required to wear costumes advertising the new James Bond movie.


Washington, D.C.: Why do people insist on wanting to fund high-priced rail over buses because they don't think people will use it? I ride the buses all the time and I have seen worse filth and unsavory characters on the metro. What is wrong with running more buses on the routes we already have (like J2) instead of potentially ruining a valuable community resource like the Georgetown Branch trail with the proposed Purple Line?

Eric Weiss: Studies show that people prefer trains over buses and that more people would rather ride on a light-rail train than on buses. It's just that simple.

BTW: I resent you referring to me and my family as "filthy and unsavory" characters. Next time just put a dollar in my hat and move on.


Washington, D.C.: Do you know of any plans to offer special Metro passes for visitors for Inauguration Day (or that week)? Or who we suggest that to? The image of thousands of new riders struggling with those little pieces of paper is not good... even discounting or waiving the SmarTrip $5 fee might help.

Lena Sun: Hi. I'm told they are looking into one, and I'm guessing they will want to do a special commemorative one if possible. They did one for the pope's visit.

But Metro is also pushing their regular one-day pass, which costs $7.80 for unlimited trips. Those passes are normally not good for rush-hour use, but in this case, because Monday and Tuesday are holidays, people can use them all day as well, in addition to using them on Saturday and Sunday.


WDC: I don't usually take the bus anymore (I live in MD now) but I thought it would be fun to tell you that I saw 7 "S" buses at 15th and L, as I was walking from Metro to my office this morning.

Eric Weiss: The situation on the "S" line is OUTRAGEOUS. No buses for 30-plus minutes and then three come.

Catoe and Jim Graham said they are putting more resources into the "S" line, but it will also take some basic management.

I've given up on the "S" and now take the 42.


Union Station: Last week there was a delay on the Red Line during the afternoon rush due to a train that was off-loaded at Union Station. It took about 10 minutes to move the train and then another train pulled in, which I was able to board without a problem. When we got to Metro Center, as you might imagine, the platform was packed as a result of the delay. It was slow moving getting off of the train due to the crowds, but the driver paid no heed to the situation. He chimed the bells, closed the doors and moved on his way. I was fortunate to get off the train (thanks to a shove from behind), but there were definitely people left on that train who wanted to get off at Metro Center and were unable to. And no one was able to get on the train. I thought all operators were supposed to stick their head out the window and at least take a glance at what's going on around them before they move. I realize Metro was probably trying to make up time for the delay, but trapping passengers seems like a bad idea. What's the protocol?

Lena Sun: All train operators are supposed to stick their heads out the window and look. But in the situation you described, during rush hour on the busiest line at a major transfer station, too many people were trying to squeeze on (and not letting people off), leaving people stuck on the train. Not good.


Ad Overload Answer: Ad Overload: Now they're advertising to us on the train ceilings and the station floors? When did that start?

The answer to this question is that they've been doing this for quite some time, but because of the budget crunch at Metro, they've been able to raise more funds through a stronger push towards advertising. Floor ads are nothing new, they've been doing things like this at Gallery Place and Metro Center dating back two or three years.

Geez Eric. It's not that hard, can you actually answer someone's question?

Lena Sun: Correct. They have been doing this for some time, and were authorized to do it for even longer. But it took advertisers some time to decide whether they wanted to invest their bucks this way. I know lots of you hate to look at the ads. But this is one way Metro feels it can make money. The Tokyo subway even has ads on its overhead straps. Although you gotta think, at some point, people are just tuning all those messages out.


Ads in the Metro: Just wanted to speak up in opposition to the person complaining about the ads. I'm in full support of these ads. So far they haven't done anything that I think is nearing a line of impropriety and they are using it as a way to raise money. We complain when they raise rates, so give them a break when they try to do it another way. Geesh...

Lena Sun: Here you go. Another comment.


Stainless Steel Handles Don't Cut It!: Beside the fact that it's awkward for short people to reach the new stainless steel pull down handles, they are only in the aisle between the seats in the new rail cars. If the train is packed and I get stuck in the middle section between the doors, there is nothing that I can reach. It happens to me all the time, and it is unsafe.

Lena Sun: I agree with you. If you get stuck in the middle, your best bet is to move toward the center of the car. Being short (like me) sometimes helps in maneuvering. Or sometimes I just tell the tall man with his elbow in my face that either he has to let me squeeze by, or I am going to hold onto his elbow for support.


Laurel, Md.: I'm just wondering what point the MARC transit system is trying to make by having public hearings on service changes they have already made?

Last month we received an email that stated due to budget cuts, MARC is holding public hearings regarding the following service changes, and it goes on to list several including, no service on Veteran's day, the day after Thanksgiving and the day after Christmas. About three hours after we received the public hearing notice the next email comes out stating that there will be NO Service on Veteran's Day.

My question is what is the point of having the public hearings if they have already made up their minds? I also submitted an email to them regarding the changes for submission to the record.

Lena Sun: You are absolutely right. Seems like they need to do a better job of letting the public know, but the sad truth is, they are so strapped they have to make cuts.


Silver Spring, Md.: A new traffic light has been set up on Georgia Ave in Wheaton at Prichard Ave. However, you can't turn there anyway (because of the median strip). Any idea on why they are adding this light (besides simply making my commute take longer)? Thanks for your help and love the chats.

Eric Weiss: The light is part of the reconstruction of the Georgia Avenue and Viers Mill intersection, according to Montgomery County, which handles traffic signals in the county, as opposed to the state department of transportation.


Former 66er: Eric, as a former 66er, I noticed the lane widening out to Gainesville is almost done. At least they shifted the lanes over. When will this be completely ready for traffic? My mother-in-law lives out in Marshall and we go to visit on occasion (but not as much as before because she likes our new house in Sterling!)

Eric Weiss: The project is slated for completion in August, 2010.


Arlington, Va.: Bunch is a problem on MetroRail too! I travel from Virginia Square to Farragut West every day for work. Often times I arrive in Metro at 8:45 and see trains that are coming 3, 5, and 8 minutes. Then, if I miss that wave, nothing for 10 minutes! This contributes to all the problems at Rosslyn with the backup and everything else. How can they let this happen when they aren't dealing with cars like the buses are?

Also, and I hope to sneak in another question, I am always on the Orange Line waiting for 15-18 minutes on Saturday and Sunday (and at night during the weekdays). This is unacceptable. We are a major city, and the capital of the U.S. You should never have to wait 20 minutes for an Orange Line train! Ever, no matter what time of day it is. I encourage all riders to visit a Metro office facility, see the nice luxury cars that are in the parking lot, and wake up and realized we are being bilked! Thank you.

Lena Sun: Not sure why you are waiting 10 minutes in the morning. (I presumed your question was 8:45 a.m.) Trains are supposed to be leaving Vienna every 5 minutes and they often put in more trains at West Falls Church so there are even more trains. Maybe it's a backup at Rosslyn. Does this happen every day??


D.C.: I am so sick of D,C, police blocking roads with absolutely no notice or signage. On Friday we all heard about the road closures for the G20 summit, I chose to avoid that whole area yet still faced road closures around 14th St (downtown). On Sat., I came out of Rock Creek Park into Cleveland Park area and was blocked again, apparently for some Chinese org. festival. The police allowed you to drive into the road but blocked any exit. So all the cars (about 5 of us) had to do the U-turn dance. Why couldn't they have blocked access to the road rather than blocking the exit route?

Eric Weiss: Welcome to the capital of the world. They can't really advertise where and when security road closures will take place. That said, police should be able to give drivers safe alternatives that do not require dangerous u-turns.


Clifton, Va.: Turning the Green Arrow on earlier on I-66 westbound in the afternoons has made big difference in my commute home at 2:30 p.m. Has taken about 10 minutes off my commuting time from Ballston and close to 15 minutes on Friday. Backups are less.

Some of this may be a result of less construction employment in the area too.

Eric Weiss: I assume you are talking about the shoulder lanes that operate during rush hours. It's good to hear that some solutions do work.

Now what about running buses on the shoulders?


Potomac, Md.: Submitting early. I noticed these two paragraphs in the article about Metro balancing the transfer fees:

"Still, Metro officials wanted to delay implementing the discounts. They told board members at a committee meeting yesterday that they were worried about confusing riders, who are concerned about the phaseout of paper transfers. "I hesitate to implement something else that could be perceived as a fare increase," said Sara Wilson, Metro assistant general manager for corporate strategy and communication."

"Riders who use a rail pass to pay for their subway ride and then get a discounted rail-to-bus paper transfer will no longer receive that discount. Those riders can switch to SmarTrip or keep their rail passes and buy bus passes, officials said."

Metro doesn't have any hesitation in increasing transportation costs for the riders who use weekly passes and ride the bus! The cost of the weekly Metro passes increased 20% not too long ago. Now, our bus fares with cash and no transfers will be $1.35 which is a full dollar over the transfer rate, or $5 per week. The bus to rail transfer discount is worthless to us as we use a paper pass.

Metro has some gall to suggest we buy bus passes. There is a big difference between paying 35 cents per ride home and $11 a week for a pass. The bus pass is date specific (unless the Metro pass) so you can't always coordinate the two passes. At least with the Metro pass, you can choose which day to start it if you will not be using Metro at the beginning of the week.

I used to save $5-10 a week with the weekly passes, but that savings will be mostly eaten up by the increased bus fares. So I will likely ditch the weekly passes unless I have a lot of trips planned for a particular week. It might be just as well. Now that Metro is discontinuing the MetroChecks, I can't use my transportation subsidy to buy passes as Metro doesn't allow you to use your SmartTrip card to buy weekly passes. Thanks a lot Metro! Metro to Balance Transfer Fees for SmarTrip Users (The Washington Post, Nov. 7, 2008)

Lena Sun: You are absolutely correct that the rail-to-bus discount goes away unless you have SmarTrip, and of course, we all know that SmarTrip doesn't give you any discount like rail passes do.


Laurel, Md.: Good morning. Is there any current news on the Purple line? I would love to see this built.

Lena Sun: My colleague Katie Shaver in Montgomery County has been following this much more closely.

_______________________ Purple Line to Require Demolition, Sound Walls (The Washington Post, Oct. 18, 2008)

Lena Sun: Here is something from Katie.


Alexandria, Va.: What the heck is a "kooza curve"? On the exit to the National Harbor from 295S, there has been a road construction sign flashing "kooza curve ahead" or some such for the past week, though the sign was turned off this morning. Is this a new form of curve we should all be wary of?

Eric Weiss: "Kooza" is not some sort of new road curve, but the name of a contortionist act part of the Cirque du Soleil, which is currently at National Harbor, according to Cirque's website.

Unless they are performing contortions in the middle of the roadway, it remains unclear why drivers would have to be aware of such things.


Stainless Steel Handles Don't Cut It 2!: I agree with you in theory, but if the train is quite literally packed, it isn't possible to move to the center. I was on a train so crowded a few weeks ago that I almost told the man behind me that I thought he owned me dinner and a movie.

Lena Sun: I like that! Now there's a creative way to meet interesting people...


Baltimore, Md.: Last week, several trains' worth of commuters were delayed boarding because either the vice president-elect (and/or his family) was arriving by train and of course, they had to bring Union Station to a standstill for that. Many dozens (hundreds probably) of people were late or missed trains because of this.

How often will MARC and VRE commuters be inconvenienced by this during the next several years?

Lena Sun: God only knows.


Bus-only lanes: Quick question re: the bus-only lanes I see in D.C. around the Verizon Center. Are they for real? I feel like a dolt sitting in the left lane that is full of cars when the lane is totally empty. I never see the Circulator bus that is supposed to be using them. Are they still relevant street markings?

Eric Weiss: It was an experiment by the District Department of Transportation.

It does not appear to be a successful experiment.


re: Why do people insist on wanting to fund high-priced rail over buses because they don't think people will use it?: I used to commute exclusively via bus, and now due to a recent move I commute exclusively via train. The train is more comfortable (no bus drivers slamming on the brakes every few minutes, jarring me as I stand), I don't usually have to wait outside forever in the cold and rain for a subway that never comes, the subway doesn't regularly pass me by refusing to pick me up when I'm at my stop, I don't have to sit behind someone who insists on keeping the window open even though it's freezing/raining/snowing outside.... lots of reasons. I didn't really mind riding the bus, but the train is way more comfortable for many, many reasons.

Eric Weiss: That is one of the reasons Metro was built with soft seats and rugs. They wanted to get people out of their cars and wanted to provide a non-bus experience akin to commuter rail.


Centerville, Va.: Regular unleaded was a $1.87 or Catlett and $1.95 in Manassas on Saturday.

Eric Weiss: Amazing.


Overhead grab handle: Yes, "overhead" is the right term, because they are at the same level as the bar horizontal bar to which they are attached, which means that at 5' 0", I can't reach the handles any easier than I can reach the bar! What idiot at Metro thought THAT up? Why can't they use the nylon ones that hang DOWN where we shorties can actually reach them?

Lena Sun: Okay. Lots of feedback today on handles. The tall engineers who came up with this design didn't want the people sitting in the seats to get bonked on the head when they stood up.

For the other perspective, lots of folks have told me that the straps hanging DOWN that are on the other rail cars are annoying because they hit people in the face.


Friendship Heights: Is there any chance with a new administration coming in just a few weeks that the elevated rail line thru Tysons will be revisited, particularly since there has been some talk about a surge in infrastructure spending to stimulate the economy?

And if there is a surge in infrastructure spending under a new administration is WMATA ready with a list of projects that could begin on short notice? Aside from connecting the Farragut Stations I can't think of any that would not take years of planning.

Eric Weiss: While some in Congress and Obama advisors are looking at ways to jump-start the economy in part through infrastructure spending, I doubt revisiting a Tysons tunnel is part of it. They are very close to signing a full-funding grant agreement with the current administration.

That said, Virginia has a bunch of projects that are ready to go, part of the failed Northern Virginia Transportation Authority list. Perhaps those sorts of projects could be funded as part of a stimulus program.


McLean, Va.: Has anyone considered the idea of "slot cars" where our limited-access highways (or at least their on-ramps) provide electricity for electric cars? If I drove from Arlington to D.C. on 66 and was able to get electricity from the highway, I could probably make it through D.C.'s and my neighborhood's streets with the remaining charge and not use any gas. Wouldn't that be great for the environment?

Eric Weiss: Hmm. The concept is new to me, but expect to see a serious push on new energy and transportation technology during the next administration.


regarding Kooza: Since the show isn't actually at National Harbor, where most people seem to assume it is, but up on the hill above National Harbor, they have signs directing people to the proper turn once you're off the beltway. There's a tangle of new roads right there, and most people haven't been on them yet.

Eric Weiss: Thanks for the Kooza enlightenment.


Empty Buses in HOVs: The Federal Highway Administration urges all jurisdictions that have HOV lanes to allow out of service public buses to use those lanes, and it may even be required for any HOV lane built on a road using federal funding or that was originally constructed using federal funds. And as it was already pointed out, allowing deadheading buses to use an HOV lane helps Metro to use its resources in the most efficient manner and provides better commutes to both bus passengers and SOVs.

Eric Weiss: In fact, the latest plans for the HOT lanes include a center lane that is wider than the other two lanes specifically to accommodate buses.


Baltimore, Md.: In response to the question about Metro passes for Inauguration Day, you wrote "Monday and Tuesday are holidays." Is the inauguration the day after the MLK holiday, or is this a different January Monday?

Lena Sun: Dear Baltimore: Monday Jan. 19 is the MLK holiday. And the day after that, Jan. 20, is inauguration day. It's a holiday. So Monday and Tuesday of that week will be holidays for Metro purposes. On holidays, they do not charge for parking and there are no restrictions on when you can use one-day rail pass.

I would also bet a large sum of money that Metro will be running rush-hour service during a good chunk of that time to get the hundreds of thousands of people to the BIG EVENT.


Herndon, Va.: Lena, can you answer this question for me? I'm posting early because I won't be around for the chat.

With the new "ownership" of the Dulles Toll Road, does this mean we will not hear anything on the morning traffic reports about why traffic is stopped? This morning, I heard nothing on WTOP or on XM's traffic channel (powered by they say) about why I was stopping on the toll road. Is this also the same group that runs the Greenway and makes it seem like nothing ever happens there too? Thanks.

Eric Weiss: Traffic reports should have nothing to do with who owns the road. Many reports rely on cell phone tips from commuters as well as cameras on the side of the road.

BTW, the Dulles Toll Road and the Greenway are operated by two different entities.


Bus lane near Verizon Center: I agree -- it's terrible where they've located it. In principle, it's a decent idea, but it starts on 7th just north of Penn. Ave., where there are lots of parked cars and lots of people turning left to get into offices and such. So, people ignore it (although I'm sure D.C. police will issue tickets).

If DDOT wants to do it, they need to ban parking and use that lane for buses instead.

Eric Weiss: Interesting suggestion. NYC has a lane marked for fire and emergency vehicles, and I guess the idea is that if there is an emergency drivers would clear that lane.

In DC, nobody is going to get out of the way for a bus.


Shoulder lanes on 66: They're definitely great when they're open for the afternoon rush. But it's still just a temporary fix to the problem. When I try to go from Arlington to Centreville, (395S to 495 to 66), unless I leave before 10 a.m. on Saturday, I will hit heavy traffic right after merging onto 66 because it's only 3 lanes and there's too much traffic. I will regularly see people fly by in the shoulder because they know that it is sometimes open in the week, and they may as well use it whenever they want. They need to just open the lanes all the time.

On a different topic, when was the last study done of traffic rates on 66/cars by hour? I would imagine they will find very similar numbers on the weekend that they would find during the week during rush hour that would justify the use of the shoulders during certain hours.

Eric Weiss: Shoulder lanes have to pass safety muster because the main purpose of a shoulder is for disabled cars.


Gaithersburg, Md.: One evening last week, on the Red Line: I got on thee train as usual at Union Station. We got to White Flint, and were told, "this train will hold here until further notice due to a down train at Friendship Heights."

Why were we held, when the problem was BEHIND us? I would just like to go home in the evening, and this made no sense to me. What does Metro have to say?

Lena Sun: Sometimes they do that so the train can pick up more passengers at the next stops. It may be the last train able to move for several minutes.


Bethesda, Md.: Got a conference call during chat time, so submitting early.

It seems that your coverage is exceedingly unbalanced towards Metro over other forms of transportation. Correct me if I'm wrong, but only approximately 10% of area residents use Metro? And that includes people who have to use other forms of transportation to access Metro?

If 75% of your coverage is on 10% of the population, it is easy to see how you are not serving your readers to the fullest extent. Please cover the failures of local government planners over the past 30+ years to set a master plan that is cohesive and comprehensive -- maybe that will shame the current ones into thinking what the future holds, instead of putting along with the vestiges of the past.

That being said, I believe it is in our best interest to increase the availability of public transportation. Bring back all the decommissioned streetcar lines and railroads. Remember back in the day when all these were privately owned (and profitable)?

Lena Sun: I think there's a greater percentage than that taking transit. And I think more will do so in the future.


Arlington, Va.: In June, I started taking Metro and bus to my job in McLean so I could get some desperately needed exercise. My routine is this: Walk to Ballston (20 min), Ballston to West Falls Church on the Orange Line (7 minutes), 425 or 427 Fairfax Connector to the transit station at Spring Hill Rd. and 267 (7 minutes), and walk to the office (10 minutes). On the way home I get off at EFC instead of Ballston and walk home (about 40 minutes).

It's been nice, but I realize that I have a really easy commute because I'm going against the flow. Last week I rode from Crystal City to Ballston on Friday night and made the return trip Saturday afternoon -- what a difference! Crowded trains, hordes of idiots blocking every doorway and escalator, and long delays between trains.

Bottom line: I'm going to continue riding Metro to/from work, but only as long as I'm reverse commuting. My westbound train at Ballston in the morning is almost empty, but the eastbound trains are packed. No way am I joining that herd.

Lena Sun: Two words for the Orange Line: Orange Crush.


Washington, D.C.: When I depart the train at Farragut West, I sometimes smell a terrible, clearly artificial odor. It smells as though something is burning. It can't be healthful to breathe whatever it is. Any ideas on the source?

Lena Sun: Probably brake pads.


Lena Sun: That's it folks. Thanks for all the comments and questions. See ya next time.


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