Roads and Rails

Eric Weiss and Lena Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 1, 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, Dec. 1 at 11 a.m. ET to answer your questions about Metro's budget problems, HOT lanes and more.

A transcript follows.

Discussion Archive


Lena Sun: Good morning everyone. Hope you'all had a restful holiday and easy commute this morning. Let's get going.


Washington, D.C.: There are several intersections around downtown that have signs prohibiting right turns on red between the hours of 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. "nightly." What's that all about? Why should we be allowed to turn right on red during the busy pedestrian hours, but not in the dead of the night, when no one is around? I'm dying of curiosity. Thanks!

Eric Weiss: My understanding, according to Council Member Jack Evans, is that the signs were put up to deter "cruising" for members of the Oldest Profession. They are around Franklin Square and other known areas for pickups downtown.


Arlington, Va.: I was stuck in this morning's Metro follies, on the Orange line. Our train went out of service at Clarendon. We were offloaded and stood watching the conductor run back and forth through the cars, trying to determine the problem. As we stood there, an announcement was made telling us there were problems on the Blue/Orange/Red lines that had now been resolved and trains were moving. This announcement was made twice while we stood there, watching our out of service train sit on the tracks. I assume Metro was not ribbing us with some lame joke, so if any Metro folks are monitoring this chat, perhaps you should actually try to resolve the problem before you announce that has been fixed.

Lena Sun: Hi. Talked to Metro's Steven Taubenkibel and he said there was also a problem between Eastern Market and Stadium Armory on the Blue/Orange this morning that was resolved around the same time as the brake problem on your Orange Line train. It's possible that you heard the announcement about Eastern Market/Stadium Armory. Or it's possible, he said, that the folks who announced the problems resolved made a mistake and spoke too soon.


Fairfax, Va.: President-elect Obama has been citing infrastructure and road/transit improvements as one investment he'll make to help create jobs. Any knowledge of local projects that may receive unexpected funding? Will Virginia benefit more because of Gov. Kaine's close relationship with Obama? Any chance that, say, Metro to Centreville could magically appear!?

Eric Weiss: The Obama campaign, before the collapse of our economy, called for a $60 billion insfrastructure investment, which would be a drop in the bucket.

In the coming weeks, and as the debate over a stimulus program heats up, I expect we will hear about he the billions of dollars in infrastructure projects that are "ready to go" and immediately create jobs and pump up the economy. State highway officials have detailed such spending.

As for Virginia, the dead Northern Virginia Transportation Authority had a list of ready-to-go projects. I'm sure Kaine will point out that Virginia, led by NoVa, went strongly for Obama.

As far as Metro to Centreville, it looks like you're stuck with I-66 for the time being.


Silver Spring, Md.: Frequently when going from the Leisure World shopping center and going to Muncaster Mill Road I take the road that runs parallel to Georgia. Often I stop for gas at the service station on that road. It is slower and easier to travel then the insanity of Georgia Ave. at the Norbeck Rd intersection. However, there are now signs on the road that say "service road residents only." Is this true? Are they private roads maintained by the residents or roads that are plowed and maintained by the county (my taxes)? What is the legal status of this road? Since there is a public gas station on it I find it hard to believe it is a private road.

Eric Weiss: I am not familiar with that precise location, but "residents only" signs usually mean residents complained to some elected official that commuters were zipping through somewhere convenient. And we wouldn't want that, right?


McLean, Va.: What is the rule on this in Virginia. Two lanes heading in the same direction come to a stop light. After the stop light, there aren't any markings on the road, however two cars could drive side-by-side. This part of the road sometimes will have people parked on the side of it. Before the light, there aren't any markings noting that the right lane is a right-turn only lane. Are people in the right lane okay to go through the light and continue to drive side-by-side or is this supposed to now be a one-lane road?

Eric Weiss: Joan Morris of VDOT wants to know the intersection you are talking about. Maybe there needs to be some marking.

She said "no situation should be confusing" to drivers as to what to do. "This might be a situation where we would look at striping issues."


Washington, D.C.: Can you explain one odd Metrorail behavior? The Green line is delayed every day because of the Yellow line extension. I'm annoyed by this but Metro doesn't care (and The Post hasn't covered this), and I realize that green line riders are the least favored-child of Metro so I've given up on ending the delays. But often the green line trains will pull out of Fort Totten, with just the front of the train in the tunnel, THEN sit out the several-minute delay. Why? Why not stay in the station so more people could board the train? We're not going anywhere for awhile, just sitting on the train, so why not give more customers the opportunity to board the train? My suspicion is that it is so Metro can deny a delay at the Fort Totten station because the train started to leave the station, but then I lost all faith in Metro anymore. Do you have any idea why they do this?

Lena Sun: Actually, this question has come up quite a bit with my colleague Dr. Gridlock and I believe he has talked about it as well. Here's the answer from Metro: the Yellow Line train terminates at Fort Totten during non-rush hour. That means the train heading in the direction of Greenbelt has to go through the Fort Totten station, then reverse direction and cross back over on to the opposite track to head back downtown. The train operator has to physically walk from one of the train to the other, get permission from central control downtown to move and then cross over to the opposite track. That can take up to three minutes.

That means the Green Line train has to wait for the Yellow Line train to complete this move before it can move. This was something that was pushed by the DC members of the board.

During rush hour, the Yellow Line trains turn around at Mount Vernon Square, but there is a pocket track there that allows the trains to turn around without causing delays on the main line.


Anonymous: My son is in the midst of a horrific trip back to college that began yesterday at Nat'l airport to Syracuse...he is not yet back to Potsdam, NY...thanks to "weather related delays and unexpected volume" "beyond our control at New York Trailways." Ever spent a night in Syracuse Hancock International Airport after being passed by four overcrowded buses? Yuck!

When bus transportation is so inadequate in other parts of the country...I am very appreciative of the transportation we have in the Capital area. No complaints...just a THANKS to METRO and other companies that keep traffic moving...unlike in New York.

Eric Weiss: I think they start getting snow in Syracuse around Labor Day, so weather might be an issue. But thanks for the shout-out. Despite the many shortcomings that are pointed out in this forum frequently, we really do have a pretty good public transport system.


Washington, D.C.: Yesterday's Drive from Cleveland to Arlington took almost 10 hours, compared to the normal 5.5-6

Maryland needs to extend 270 into four lanes past the whole Rockville area. 70 needs to be four lanes, the PA turnpike needs to be four lanes. I don't understand why, if this area has grown so much over the past 10 years, we have gotten away with not building or expanding roads.

Can it really be just the NIMBY crowd? We cant build roads, can't build public transportation and just can't build?

Eric Weiss: I feel your pain. I thought I was being smart by leaving for New York on Thanksgiving morning and returning Saturday afternoon. Was stuck in traffic the entire time.

As for building new roads, have you been reading the paper? There IS NO MONEY. Then there is the policy question of the wisdom of building roads to accommodate the busiest travel days of the year.


Washington, D.C.: Could Metro have possibly picked a slipperier surface for the new, non carpeted, cars? I'm beginning to think they try to be stupid.

Lena Sun: Do you remember what this flooring looked like? Was it gray with black speckles? And since men and women wear such different types of footwear, would be good to know if this is from a female or male perspective.

Metro's rail chief was out in California in October looking over more flooring samples so I'm not sure if a final decision has been made.

Anyone else out there have an opinion on new flooring you've seen in the cars?


Washington: I always touch my closed wallet to the smartrip pad and in most stations, it works fine. At the Columbia Heights station, though, it never reads through my wallet, and I have to take the card out and touch it directly. Any idea why this might be? Do you think there's some kind of adjustable sensitivity on these things, and Metro could fix it? I always feel bad when I forget, and spend 10 seconds fumbling to get my card out while people back up behind me.

Lena Sun: Not sure. My smart card was in a plastic ID holder and for the longest time, I never had to take it out of the plastic to touch the SmarTrip pad. But over time, the plastic holder became worn, and the card no longer worked unless I took it out of the plastic.

So a few weeks ago, I replaced the plastic holder. And wouldn't you know it. I no longer have to take my card out.

So maybe there's stuff in your wallet that is creating a similar blockage.


Arlington, Va.: Good to learn from this chat that there was a problem on the Orange Line this morning (two, in fact). I had to learn it here because no eAlert went out. Again.

Again because I've long run out of fingers counting how many times this happens. Every time Metro apologizes for a "technical glitch," but they seem complete unable to fix it.

Lena Sun: Am going to post this. Steven, if you are reading behind, can you pass this along to the folks who are supposed to be sending out eAlerts?


Residents Only: So what is the legality of "residents only" Can anybody put up such a sign to stop commuters going through their street. I always believed "residents only" might that the residents paid for road maintenance and plowing and if my taxes were paying for the services I had a right to drive on the road. (This happens a lot in Massachusetts where residents try to block people gaining access to a beach but the courts have ruled public maintenance means public roads).

Eric Weiss: I ignore "Residents Only" signs, but that is because I am from New Jersey and rude and the sign is probably there because some equally rude and selfish NIMBY petitioned their local politician to lean on transportation officials for the sign.

I wrote a story (which maybe our webmeisters can post) about cut-through artists and the lengths that residents go to prevent them.


Gallery Place, DC: One kudo and one dope slap here. If you notice, many stations now have clear-sounding speakers for the first time in 30 years so that you don't think the person doing the announcing is Miss Othmar (wah-wah-waaaaah) from the Peanuts cartoons.

But they're only as good as the operators; this morning there was an announcement regarding elevator outages, and jibberish was being said at the end instead of the usual "We regret this inconvenience and thank you for your patience." It was almost like a scratched CD.

Lena Sun: Duly noted.


Washington D.C.: "that the signs were put up to deter 'cruising' for members of the Oldest Profession"

Forgive my cluelessness, but never having cruised for hookers, I don't understand how this would help. In fact, I would think that having cars sitting at a red light not being allowed to turn would increase the pros' opportunities to solicit. Could you spell it out for me?

Eric Weiss: Apparently, the vehicles circle the park to check out the "merchandise." By making them wait at every light, it slows down the process and makes them more noticeable to police, according to Evans.


Washington, DC: "There IS NO MONEY"

Maybe not now, but 10 years ago, even four years ago there was. Its a disgrace the NIMBYs have one. No new roads, it encourages more driving. No new subway or train lines...we will cut down trees.

Metro to Dulless is ridic, we need high speed trains.

Eric Weiss: We need roads, we need rails, we need bus rapid transit, we need more money for Metro, we need to market-price our highways, we need tolls at District crossings to fix commuter routes, we need more and better bus service and Metro needs lots of new rail cars.


McLean, Va. (again): The intersection is on Spring Hill and Tyco Roads. Heading south west (for lack of better directional information) from International Drive and the Toll Road, near the Public Storage. The road also needs to be repaved, but 66 is still worse in some areas.

Eric Weiss: I forwarded the information to Joan Morris at VDOT who will pass it on to engineers...

Let us know what happens...


Pentagon City, VA: Can you tell me why there's such a wait for DC-bound Yellow trains during rush hour? Most mornings, it's an 8-10 minute wait between Yellow Line trains during rush hour. This morning at 8:45 a.m., it was 13 minutes -- with no explanation. It's like this every day. Are they just not running enough trains? Or do they think not many people ride Yellow in the mornings to transfer at L'Enfant? Because the trains are always packed, so much so that not everyone can get on at Pentagon. Meanwhile, we'll see like three going to Huntington while we wait for our one Ft. Totten train. Thanks!

Lena Sun: Checked with Metro and not sure where you were waiting. But Steven Taubenkibel of media relations says Yellow Line trains arriving at Crystal City this morning arrived at 8:39, 8:40, 8:50, and 8:56.

What station were you at?


Alexandria, Va.: Plenty of whines on the chat today.

Roads and Rails cost money, and take an enormous amount of time and energy. Land acquisition, detailed designing planning, environmental impacts, it's a long list.

Everyone who writes in to complain about why a road hasn't been widened or lengthened should write to their representatives asking for the gas tax to be increased. If not, you aren't helping anything.

Eric Weiss: Look, nobody likes to pay gas taxes, but the tax hasn't increased in 15 years. Even Reagan increased the gas tax, arguing that it was a "user fee."

The tax also needs to be a percentage of the price of gas, instead of a specific number of pennies. There are other ways to raise revenue that would also encourage conservation and fuel efficiency.

Sorry, but Europe has been right on this all along.


Easy Return from Thanksgiving Travel: Pittsfield, Mass. to DC in 8.25 hours, including 45 minutes of rest/food. Left at 4:30pm yesterday. I won't reveal my routes, but I will reveal that I do not take the NJT, nor the Delaware Turnpike. I was pretty amazed, considering there was mixed precipitation or rain for the entire trip.

Eric Weiss: Stop bragging about your helicopter!


Dupont Circle: So this morning on the red line at Union Station at approx 8:40 am, we get an announcement of a sick passenger ahead of us. The next announcement is a sick passenger at Farragut North (okay that is ahead of us.) The next announcement is mechanical difficulty at Farragut North -- so what was it exactly? I also must compliment Metro on the speed in which it cleared the incident -- we were moving within five minutes of the original announcement.

Lena Sun: Checking to see what caused the delay, but wanted to post your shout-out because there have been a lot of complaints about Metro.


Also in Silver Spring: Regarding the service road on Georgia Avenue and Norbeck Road, I too live in that area. There is an entrance right next to the gas station, so I don't expect that the county doesn't want people to use that. However, commuters often take the short cut, as well as using the service road along Norbeck when the traffic is heavy. At the gas station there is a very sharp turn in the road that is blind. There have been quite a few accidents right there caused by commuters who are in a hurry who drive much too fast for that road. In addition, the section from the light at Muncaster Mill to the gas station is always lined with cars from the town houses there and it is very narrow. I've seen several parked cars hit by hurrying commuters who don't have enough sense to slow down.

Eric Weiss: Aha! Mystery solved.

But that still doesn't prevent every taxpayer/driver from using it. Just maybe take it easy.


PA Turnpike: I have a response for Washington DC who had the slow journey back from Cleveland. Having been born and raised in Pittsburgh and traveled about 30 times between here and Cincinnati in the last 5 years, I can say that there has been a huge amount of work on the PA Turnpike over the last 5 years. They did expand about 60 miles worth of the PAT between New Stanton and Bedford. It took several years and the new roads are very nice. They are expanding the PAT as fast as money will allow, but due to the harsh weather conditions in the Allegheny mountains, regular roads need far more regular care and replacement than in regions without those weather patterns and hence they only have so much money for development as opposed to maintenance. The PAT expansion will continue, but I expect it will take 20-30 years to see it stretch all the way across the state.

Eric Weiss: And as soon as they improve it, it will clog up with truckers and others who will notice the improvement...


Washington, D.C.: Hello, During the Thanksgiving drive back on Saturday night, I had a very scary encounter with a drunk driver on 295 in the district. The minivan was swerving across all lanes of the highway, and even hit the guardrail at one point, bounced off and kept driving. As we were exiting 295 at Howard Road, the minivan came to a complete stop in the center lane of the highway.

We trailed the minivan for about 10 minutes before we got off at our exit. During that time, we called 911 and the operator took information but didn't appear to be doing anything to ensure that the police would find this driver. Fortunately other drivers were alert and several were beeping at the minivan, brighting him, etc., to make him stop.

My question is, other than calling 911 and staying as far behind as possible, what else could we do in that situation?


Eric Weiss: Definitely call 911 and provide as much detail as possible, including mile markers, exits, etc.

As far as staying behind, I don't know if that is the best solution. It might force you to slam on your brakes or take evasive maneuvers.

When I see a drunk or someone in front of me, I floor it to get ahead of him/her. He can't do anything to me or my family if he is in my rearview mirror.

Any other suggestions?


DC: I was waiting for the red line at Gallery Place, direction to...Shady Grove I think. Anyway, it was around 7:20. A train comes in, trains open and there's this mass of humanity coming out. I mean, it was a good minute or so and people still kept coming out. The problem was that while people were getting out, and people shoving and pushing to get in, the doors were closing. How is this possible? It's rush hour. Operators should know that there are going to be a lot of people coming in and out of trains at certain stations such as Gallery Place or Metro Center.

I missed the train, but still....kinda surprising this happened.

Lena Sun: There was a Red Line delay at Fort Totten this morning around 5:45 a.m. There was an 8-car train with brake problems, which caused delays to Shady Grove. It's likely that those delays rippled through the system, so the train you saw at Gallery Place was probably packed with people who were trying to get out.

At that time of the morning, the trains coming into the downtown stations are arriving every two minutes, and the trains have to keep moving. So the operator should have been making announcements about doors closing.


Announcements: Adding to the previous poster on announcements in stations, when I am waiting for my Orange line train at East Falls Church, many of the announcements made there cut in and out, so you will hear "the following elevators ...service...Ross...pont Circ...belt...ank you." Great for puzzle solvers filling in the gaps, not so great for those needing to hear the details of the announcement.

Lena Sun: Sounds like there might be a problem with the speaker system at East Falls Church.


Germantown, Md.: Just wondering what other MARC commuters think about upcoming service changes. I ride the Brunswick line and am none too happy that the 1:45 train from Union Station will be eliminated Monday-Thursday each week. Service will also be cut off on other quasi-holidays and the ten-trip ticket will be no more. I say go ahead and raise fares in a responsible manner but don't cut service. MARC and other mass transit is more important now than ever with commuting costs so high.

Lena Sun: Any other MARC riders want to weigh in on this?


Washington, D.C.: "Despite the many shortcomings that are pointed out in this forum frequently, we really do have a pretty good public transport system."

Ahhh, no we don't. It isn't just major European cities that have better options than us (London, Paris, etc.) is small, former third-world nations like the Czech Republic and mid-size Euro nations like the Netherlands have better than us. So no, we don't.

Eric Weiss: I should have added "in the Washington area."

Look, our country is based on the car. Our spending is based on the car. To have the public transport system that exists in Washington, NY, San Francisco and Portland is a wonderful exeption to the rule in this country.

Comparing us to the Netherlands is not realistic.


Columbia, Md.: Talking of confusing intersections, I've seen a couple up here where there are more traffic signals than lanes. For example, there's a left turn lane and a regular at one part of the intersection. However there are one left turn light and two regular lights. Which seems to indicate that using both lanes to "go straight" is valid, except the lanes are painted with left turn only. Which is correct?

Eric Weiss: Roads and Rails demand details, Columbia! Come clean...


Washington, D.C.: I posted the green line question. But my question was not about the delay (which does happen during rush hour, FYI and often exceeds three minutes) but about the policy of just leaving the station, then waiting out the delay. This leaves those delayed, still delayed but does not allow those entering Fort Totten to catch the green line train to catch that delayed train. Why do this?

Lena Sun: From what I've been told, this has to do with timing of the maneuvers and safety. The Green Line train has to get out of the station, and while the Yellow Line train is crossing over to the other side, the Green Line train cannot come back into the station for safety reasons.


Washington, D.C.: Do Metro conductors bother to look out their windows anymore while passengers are boarding? At rush hour, when lots of folks are getting off of the train, conductors frequently start to close the doors before any passengers have even begun to start boarding.

Lena Sun: All train operators are most definitely supposed to look out the window and all the way down the length of the platform. If you notice that this is not happening at a particular time and particular station or on a particular line, please message me with specifics at


Washington, D.C.: A plea to the people - Please do not attempt to walk up the Metro escalators unless you are fit enough to do so. This is a huge problem in the mornings at Dupont (19th Street exit) where at least one of the escalators has been out of service since early this summer. Please use the elevator or stand to the right. It's bad enough that we've only had one up-escalator working for over five months now, but the situation gets worse when people stand on the left after attempting to walk up the long escalator. Stop creating a traffic jam and stand to the right. It's essential to let walkers go by on the left to free up the huge crowd that forms each day with only one escalator in service. That is all.

Lena Sun: Again, this issue.


Eric Weiss: Thanks folks for your questions and queries.

Sorry we couldn't get to every one of them...


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