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Dr. Gridlock

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Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, December 8, 2008; 1:00 PM

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock. He was online Monday, Dec. 8 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.

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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.

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Robert Thomson: Hello, travelers. We've got a bunch of issues in the mailbag already. I see questions and comments about Inauguration planning, Metro and holiday travel, among other things. Here we go.

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Reston, Va.: When will we see EZ Pass-only lanes on the ramps to and from the Dulles Toll Road? It's frustrating to give the state my money in advance, only to have to wait while someone looks for change in their car. It may only take an extra couple of seconds if the person is prepared, but I was stuck behind two drivers this morning for 5 solid minutes with cars behind me trying to get through the "Exact change only" booth. Backing up was not an option.

Robert Thomson: You mean adding extra lanes, right? As opposed to repurposing existing toll lanes on the ramps? That certainly seems like a good idea. Even on the highway toll plazas, drivers want to be looking for "E-ZPass Only" lanes rather than "E-ZPass Accepted" lanes. If you went to the trouble of getting the pass and setting up the account, you don't want to be stacked up behind people who are going to stop at the toll window.

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Boonsboro, Md.: Just got this from MARC: Inauguration Day: Penn, Camden and Brunswick lines will operate between 5 a.m. and 9 a.m. and between 4 p.m. and 9 p.m. MTA monthly and weekly passes, 10-trip tickets and previously purchased one-way tickets will not be accepted. All trains will be reserved and tickets must be purchased in advance. For the Penn Line, there will no service north of Penn Station.

Question: How are we commuters supposed to get to work?

Robert Thomson: I guess a commuter could make a reservation, just like anyone else, for the special holiday service on Jan. 20. This is going to be a highly unusual day for so many of us.

Much of the transportation planning is still in the works. Reading some of your questions is helping me figure out what information I need to provide to readers in the next couple of weeks.

Here's the message from the MTA that Boonsboro is commenting on:

MARC Train

Inauguration Day: Penn, Camden and Brunswick lines will operate between 5 AM and 9 AM and between 4 PM and 9 PM. MTA monthly and weekly passes, 10-trip tickets and previously purchased one-way tickets will not be accepted. All trains will be reserved and tickets must be purchased in advance. For the Penn Line, there will no service north of Penn Station.

Commuter Bus

Inauguration Day: Buses will operate to Metrorail stations between 4 AM and 9 AM and between 4 PM and 9 PM. MTA monthly and weekly passes and 10-trip tickets will not be accepted. Special tickets may be purchased from drivers.

Details about schedules and tickets will be available Friday, December 12 at www.mtamaryland.com.

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Fairfax, Va.: In a recent column discussing the Inauguration, you wrote, "Metro should spread its people out along the platforms to offer assistance -- and direct traffic -- but it's still up to us to show common courtesy."

Do you SERIOUSLY think Metro is going to "offer assistance and direct traffic"? SERIOUSLY? METRO???

washingtonpost.com: Courtesy Can Be Lacking On the Metro (Post, Nov. 23)

Robert Thomson: I think Metro is at its best on the big event days that it has a chance to plan for. For example, when I rode around on the morning of the Pope's Mass at Nationals Park, or on those days early in the season when the first home games were played, I thought Metro had plenty of people in the right places -- whether at Navy Yard Station, or the transfer stations or the outer stations where riders just needed information.

Metro staffers were spread out on the platforms and took charge of managing how we got into and out of the rail cars.

That sort of experience makes me hopeful for what we'll see on Jan. 20. (I say "hopeful," not "completely confident.")

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MoCo, Md.: I would like to declare the experiment with straphangers on some Metro cars a flop. I have seen few, if any people using them. The metal handles flip away from the aisle so that a standee would have to reach for it over a sitting passenger without bodily contact. It's just too hard to do. The flexible, plastic straps don't offer much support for a standee. The predominant jerkiness of the Metro cars is fore and aft as the driver applies brakes or accelerates. The floppy straps don't stop a standees from losing his/her balance during the jerks. Perhaps Metro could study other transit systems a bit more closely for solutions that work instead of reinventing the wheel.

Robert Thomson: I give Metro credit for trying to fix the problems riders have as the cars get more crowded, while hoping that from now on, such problems will be considered in the initial design phase of new cars.

None of the fixes has addressed the concerns of all riders. We had that initial problem with the 6000 Series cars, the ones that create the more open spaces around the doors by removing some poles. They wanted us to move to the middle, so we moved to the middle, but shorter riders complained they couldn't reach up to the rails along the ceiling.

So Metro put in those stainless steel grab handles. But they point away from riders, and some people tell me they've got to leap like seals to reach them.

The older cars are getting those black nylon straps. They're cheaper, but not as sturdy as the stainless steel handles in the new cars.

None of these retrofits is ideal.

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Bethesda, Md.: Bob -

Why is the Post's coverage so centered on Metro, which serves less than 15 percent of the population in DC area? I understand from a fiscal perspective, as so many of our tax dollars go towards funding this system (although not enough to keep it running as it should and not with a guaranteed source of funding as it should as well). But even of that 15 percent, most of the people use cars to get to Metro or cannot depend solely on Metro, thereby using our road network. The Post should spend more time looking at the roads and how small (or medium sized) fixes can be implemented to save hundreds, or thousands of hours of time (and fuel, and cut down air pollution).

That being said, the atrocious planning and lack of investment and foresight into infrastructure is why the Post even has a "Dr. Gridlock," instead of being able to focus your journalistic skills on something more productive to society than how to waste less time in traffic!

Robert Thomson: I think of commuter dissatisfaction as my full employment program.

Back in the mid-80s, when Ron Shaffer founded "Dr. Gridlock," the concept of a newspaper column devoted strictly to local transportation issues was fairly new to American journalism. (So was the term "gridlock.")

Today, we've still got the newspaper columns, but have added these chats, a blog and the Sunday Commuter page in The Post. We also have two reporters on the local transportation beat: Lena Sun does transit and Eric Weiss does roads. That's a lot of staff power.

I think our overall presentation has been balanced between road and transit issues. About half the "Dr. Gridlock" letters that I get are about transit, even though -- as you point out -- most people drive.

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Fairfax, Va.: If Obama's massive infrastructure plan passes and states are able to receive lots of roadwork money, how soon would these projects be able to start and how quickly would we see the results? Will we finally be able to see any reduction in the massive traffic that plagues this area?

Robert Thomson: Spending money on our deteriorating infrastructure and stimulating the economy at the same time can't be bad.

But I'm trying to sort out what a stimulus plan might meant to our region's traffic congestion, and I'm thinking: Probably not much.

First, even if it's between $500 billion and a trillion, you're spreading the money across the entire nation and you're including many different types of investments.

But equally important: If you're talking about a true stimulus plan -- something that's going to inject a lot of money into the economy right now, when we really need it, you're talking about a certain category of transportation project.

For example, this probably isn't money that would go to build the Purple Line transitway in Maryland. This money would go to shovel-ready projects. They're almost always going to be useful, but small projects.

Shirley Ybarra, the former Virginia transportation secretary who is now senior transportation analyst with the Reason Foundation, has a great generic term for such projects: "Turn lanes."

So when you hear about the massive amoung of money being considered for the stimulus, don't get your hopes too high. The money will go to fund a list of projects, not a congestion relief plan that is likely to show results across the region.

Anybody disagree?

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Baltimore: Re MARC service on inauguration day: As someone who has bought a monthly pass for 8 years, I find it outrageous that MARC will not honor passes that day and will run all trains reserved. Frankly, I wonder how they will be able to do this. On the other hand, my company (private entity in downtown DC) is giving us a paid holiday that day and the Feds are closed as well. Frankly, I can't imagine anyone who works in DC coming to work that day. But if you have to, I will pray for you.

Robert Thomson: Would you normally be able to use a MARC pass on a holiday?

There are plenty of these issues coming up among my readers. For example, a bunch of folks are writing in to ask why Metro isn't planning to charge for parking on Inauguration Day, since the money-strapped transit authority could make so much money by doing that.

By the way, one of the things I'm trying to figure is exactly where to be in roaming around the transportation system on Jan. 20. It should be a fascinating experience and a chance to be helpful to travelers. (I'm not expecting travelers to find it so "fascinating." I do this for a living.)

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Silver Spring, Md.: Dr. -- Your questions in the Sunday paper about bag searches on Metro made me wonder -- will these searchers have some kind of standard identification, protocol?

I don't like the idea of my bags being searched but I'm ready to fall in line with this. HOWEVER I don't want rogue thieves wandering around telling me I'm subject to search then taking off with my bag!

What's Metro going to do to ensure that this all stays legitimate?

Robert Thomson: I think the searches are unreasonable and don't believe anyone should fall in line to accommodate the government.

But to address your question, I don't believe you'll have any trouble figuring out who's searching through your stuff. They'll be easily identifiable as transit authority police officers. This is not an undercover operation.

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Washington, D.C.: I have a specific question, where I'm not sure of the law.

At certain intersections in the District, there are solid colored signals combined with directional arrow signals. So, for example, a solid green indicates cars can go straight, but there is a red arrow pointing right, so that pedestrians can use a crosswalk and cars must wait until the arrow turns green. Some of these intersections also have no-right-on-red signs.

In this case, if there is no no-right-on-red sign, but there is a red arrow, can a driver still turn right on red? I run into one of these all the time near my office, and have always assumed you have to wait. But when there are no pedestrians, and cars are going straight through a solid green, people often honk because they are annoyed you aren't turning right.

Thoughts?

Robert Thomson: If there's a red arrow, you can't make a right turn legally, whether or not there's a sign. That's usually done, as you say, to protect pedestrians.

I see people violating that traffic rule fairly frequently -- one spot that comes to mind is northbound Georgia Avenue at Colesville Road in Silver Spring.

The red arrow does confuse many people -- I know that from the mail. Drivers are used to seeing the red arrow in a left lane, not so much in the right. I think that's why some intersections have the signs to remind people they can't turn right when the arrow is red.

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Chicago: I disagree with your answer to Fairfax about Obama's infrastructure stimulus plan. Yes, when the local pols have their say we might get alot of "turn lanes," but Obama's a smart guy and he's thinking strategically on this.

What's vital, more than simply investing in infrastructure, is building new systems that keep America competitive going forward. That doesn't mean building new turn lanes. Instead that means creating the systems that are already present in Europe and parts of Asia -- high-speed rail, subways, big bridges and tunnels, pedestrian- and cycle-friendly lanes, etc. You can get from London to almost anywhere in Western Europe within 4 hours by rail; in Chicago, by contrast, you can't get to St. Louis, the next nearest big city, in that time. If we don't correct that, soon, we're going to get left behind. Now's the perfect chance to do it.

Robert Thomson: I agree with your basic point: Now is the time to make significant investments in the stuff we use to get around. We're still driving on bridges and roads that our grandfathers build during the Great Depression.

The new president clearly has that in mind and appears capable of doing more than one thing. But this stimulus package we've been hearing about in the past week or so should be money that can be pumped into the economy very quickly.

For example, I'm a big supporter of the Purple Line, which I refered to in the previous answer. But I don't money from this stimulus package going to the Purple Line -- or to an outer beltway, or to a new Potomac River crossing. That's money that wouldn't get spent until the next decade.

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Washington, D.C.: Thanks for holding these discussions. Over the Christmas and New Years holidays, what days do you think will be the worst for travel, both via road and air, getting out of DC and coming back?

Robert Thomson: I think the Wednesday afternoon before Christmas is going to the worst travel day since the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. But Christmas travel generally is usually not as bad as Thanksgiving travel, because things are more spread out.

Many people have all of Christmas week off, or all of New Year's week off. On the other hand, weather can become more of a factor, throwing off everyone's planning.

One other thing about Christmas time travel: If you're leaving before the holiday, remind yourself where the big malls are located. That's an extra factor in congestion around some interchanges.

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Washington, D.C.: Dr. G:

My fiancee and I live downtown in the eastern part of Shaw, about a mile north of the mall. She has a car, and while she's not crazy enough to try to drive to her job out in the suburbs on Jan. 20, do you know how far will the inevitable inauguration day road closures encroach into residential DC?

I told her she should park her car that Friday evening and forget about it until the Wednesday after the inauguration at least, but will we even have the option?

Robert Thomson: Logic tells me that you'll be outside the security zone of street closings, but we've heard nothing definite on that so far.

In terms of traffic, we're really not quite sure what to expect yet. But if I had the option to take outbound transit on Jan. 20, that's what I'd be planning to do.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Bob, I am frustrated by not just the coverage of Metrorail, but the fixation on rail. Buses perpetually get the short end of the stick. At its heart is this notion that the Washington area's human population will continue to grow, we must have rail for transit-oriented development. This means drawing ever-widening circles around rail stops, as the trees, small-scale housing and small businesses are wiped out and replaced with big, boxy, high-priced high-rises. Retail space in these big, new buildings is usually too expensive for indie shops. Let's talk buses! Let's talk population stability! Population growth is a global problem, but at least we can talk about it here and now. It has been taboo since the early 1970s.

Robert Thomson: I do think we need to pay more attention to buses as part of the overall transportation plan. They're one form that can respond fairly quickly to changing conditions.

But in terms of long-range planning, developers looking for a site want some reassurance that the nearby transit line is going to be around for a while. Government planners find they are more likely to cluster housing and commercial development around a rail station than around a bus stop.

No transit system these days is just about getting people from one place to another. It's also about organizing communities.

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Rockville, Md.: My family is getting together in northern Vermont on the weekend between Christmas and New Year's. I was planning to drive up, probably on Christmas Day. Google suggests 95 to the vicinity of Fort Lee, NJ. Amble over to 287 and take that to Troy, NY, then pretty much 7 all the way to Burlinton. Should I worry about sweeping up 95 that close to NYC? Will there be any traffic issues on Christmas? I'd rather not try a brand new (to me) route through rural Pennsylvania for the first time when almost everything will be closed.

Is it even okay to drive that far on the holiday? I figure the gas stations on the major highways, at least, will be open. If I bring my own food for the whole trip and make sure to fill up my tank around Albany, will that be enough?

Thanks for any help.

Robert Thomson: My inclination would be to follow the Google route on that particular weekend, which should be very quiet.

Many people hate 95 so much they like the PA way of avoiding it, heading up to Harrisburg and then cutting east on one of the Interstates. But you could run into weather issues that way.

The 287 thing has me a little confused. Is it telling you go take the Cross Westchester Expressway and then go up the Taconic Parkway heading north to Troy? If you can avoid the Tappan Zee Bridge and the Cross Westchester, I would do that.

I'd take the NY Thruway north and then cut over to Vermont. The route I used to take cut east around Glens Falls, NY.

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Falls Church, Va.: So my folks are driving down from central Massachusetts for Christmas. What do you think is the best day to drive? Monday the 22nd? Tuesday the 23rd?

Robert Thomson: I think the earlier that week the better, depending on the forecast. On those dates, I'd want to avoid getting too close to the NYC area.

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Arlington, Va.: Dr. G., thanks for your tips on avoiding trouble spots for holiday trips. I already knew about taking 301 north in Maryland and Delaware, but the workaround to the toll booths on 95 in Delaware is new to me and I'm sure it will come in handy year round. A word of warning for others -- driving up to NY on the night before Thanksgiving, I noticed roadwork is being done on 301 in Delaware. It wasn't an issue for me at the time because I waited until after 9 pm to leave and because the work itself was not going on that night, but there were a lot of orange cones and traffic was down to one lane for a bit. So if anyone is planning to take that route north in the near future, there might be backups.

Robert Thomson: Thanks for the tip. I'll check with Delaware DOT about the status of the 301 work. Many readers find that an attractive way of avoiding 95.

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Alexandria, Va.: The express lanes on the outer loop of the WWB were nice and uncrowded this morning. Made a difference in the approach to the bridge too re: less congestion. One question: what are the lane restrictions for trucks on the express lanes? Do they have to move out of the left lane once they're a certain distance on the other side of the bridge? I had a semi in front of me in the left lane all the way until the merge.

I can't wait for the inner loop express lanes to open. I live in Alexandria (Fairfax County) and work in Camp Springs, Md.

Robert Thomson: I'm not sure where the left-lane restriction on trucks begins in Maryland after the trucks come across the bridge. We would certainly want the long distance truckers to be using the bridge's new Thru lanes, which would bring them out on the left side of the Beltway as they cross into Maryland.

I was watching the traffic cameras this morning and also thought the lanes looked fine. Next weekend, it's the inner loop Thru lanes that are scheduled to open up.

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Metal Bars: As a fairly short person at 5-4, I had no trouble reaching the metal "straps" on Metro. Balancing while the train jerks is a different story, but the handles worked just fine for me. I don't think I intruded on the seated people either. We are taking PUBLIC transit, people! Some personal space invasion is to be expected. Standing room only is to be expected. Hire a limo if you want a cushy commute.

Robert Thomson: For some reason, Metro riders don't like to reach up, under any circumstances. The last thing you see in a train car is people holding the railings that run along the ceilings.

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Arlington, Va.: I'm trying to come up with my plan for getting downtown for the inauguration. Obviously, I'll be taking public transit, which normally would be a bus to the Pentagon and then the Yellow Line downtown.

That should be fine on the way downtown and the bus should be okay in both directions, but I'm really not looking forward to the post-inauguration Metro ride back to the Pentagon. I think I might be better off walking. I don't mind a bit of a hike -- I've walked from the Mall to Rosslyn after 4th of July fireworks -- but I'm not sure how to get across the river into Arlington on foot.

Is there pedestrian access to the 14th street bridge? If so, where do you pick it up on the downtown side?

If not, I know I can get across the Memorial Bridge, but how do I get from there back to the Pentagon City area. Is there access from the Memorial Bridge to the hiking/biking trail along the Potomac (which I know connects into Crystal City)? If not, is it possible to walk out of Arlington Cemetery and how would I do that?

Finally, is it still possible to walk to the Pentagon transit station? I used to walk through the Pentagon parking lot all the time when I lived on Columbia Pike back in the '90s. But that was before 9/11. Is that still possible, or will I end up in Guantanamo if I try it. (If necessary, I can take a bus from Pentagon City and transfer, but I'd rather avoid that, if I can.)

Robert Thomson: After the inauguration, I'd walk just as far as I could to avoid the crowds at the close-in Metro stations and aboard the buses.

The best foot crossings will be Memorial, Roosevelt or Key Bridges. Crossing Memorial Bridge, you could head to the Arlington Cemetery Station on the Blue Line. But you could still reach Rosslyn on any of the crossings.

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Robert Thomson: Thanks, everyone. There have been lots of good questions and helpful comments today. There's still a couple in the mailbag I'll try to address later this week on the "Get There" blog.

Also, thanks for all the ideas about what people need to know to handle the inauguration.

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