Dr. Gridlock on Holiday Travel, Inaugural Crowd Estimates and More

Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, December 22, 2008; 1:00 PM

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock. He was online Monday, Dec. 22 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: Happy Holidays, travelers. I see questions in the mailbag already about holiday travel and about getting around during the four-day inauguration weekend.

Let's get to them right now, but you can keep on submitting questions and comments as we go on. In fact, I see some questions where I'll be asking for your advice.


Washington, D.C.: Hey there,

Would you like to venture a prediction on when the I-95 exodus will be at its peak?

We're heading south, and could leave late Tuesday (8 p.m. or later), or we could get on the road early Wednesday. With a small child, though, I'm thinking night driving is the way to go. Just a little worried about the traffic. Maybe 2 a.m. Wednesday morning... the kid will still be asleep, and no one will be on the roads, right?

Robert Thomson: My guess: Wednesday afternoon and evening will be the worst travel period this week. In other words, it will be like a Thanksgiving getaway, because many people will turn this into a four-day weekend.

It's unlikely, though, that we'd see the traffic volumes we associate with Thanksgiving. At Christmastime, people have more flexibility to spread out their travels. Many left town this past weekend, for example.

Regional forecast: Tuesday should be mostly sunny. Showers are predicted for Wednesday and this weekend. The bad weather that will reach here Wednesday is coming in from the west. Those of you driving a long way west tomorrow could be affected by that.

D.C., I think you should be in pretty good shape late Tuesday or early Wednesday heading down I-95, but note that this is the East Coast's Main Street, so it's not just a question of clearing congestion in the Washington area. You'll be sharing the road at all hours with long-distance travelers. (There's no place like home for the holidays.)


Arlington, Va.: Good afternoon, driving from Arlington to Akron, Ohio on either Tuesday late (after 7 p.m.) or any time on Wednesday. We're keeping our eyes on the weather, but any opinion if 68-79-76 is better than 270-70-76? I've gone both routes, but only used 68 during the summer. We don't really want to drive after dark, but if that's the best traffic and weather-wise I'm up for it. I'd rather have darkness than back-ups. Thanks!

Robert Thomson: I'm trying to make a similar decision about a shorter trip, to Pittsburgh. Do I want the shorter trip involving 270, 70, 76 -- the route that includes the notorious bottleneck at Breezewood, Pa. -- or the route that may involve longer travel at higher elevations in the winter time?

The forecast suggests weather conditions will be important for the westbound trip on Tuesday or Wednesday. I'd be inclined to leave Tuesday night and take the 270-70-76 route. Not that I'd expect smooth sailing all the way. I just think that might be the best combination of route, traffic and weather in this case.

But I'd love to hear from others with experience heading west at the holidays.


Arlington, Va.: Now that the inaugural crowd estimates are cut in half, will some of the draconian traffic measures be eliminated? I find it amazing that the 14th St Bridge -- part of an interstate highway! -- will be closed to "regular" traffic and limited to buses. So, a bus full of tourists from Sacramento can drive into the city but a car full of residents from Springfield cannot? Is that even legal?

washingtonpost.com: Inauguration Day Crowd Estimate Reduced by Half (Post, Dec. 22)

Robert Thomson: That 4-5 million estimate never seemed realistic, but I hope people won't look at Mary Beth Sheridan's excellent story today and use that as a reason to stand down.

The region's transportation officials will continue to make adjustments in their street, highway and rail plans, but I very much doubt they'll change their basic outlook. (As Metro GM John Catoe put it bluntly, but probably accurately: "This is going to be a nightmare."

I haven't heard an official announcement yet about plans for the DC highways and bridges, although it seems very likely there will be severe restrictions.

Don't expect that busload from Sacramento to have any easier time getting to downtown Washington than the driver from Springfield. The bus will park somewhere on the area's fringe. Any driver should do the same, and take either a shuttle bus or Metrorail.

Despite the heavy demand on Metrorail, I'm still saying it's a best bet for commuters or visitors on Jan. 20. (Maybe that's a sign of how bad the alternatives sound at this point.)


Washington, D.C.: Have the residential street closings for the Inaugural been announced? I live within blocks of the Capitol and need to know if can I can drive to my home (from BWI) that afternoon. I have a garage and can park, if I can get there.

Robert Thomson: No, not yet. That's going to be up to the Secret Service, a well-known transportation agency. Whatever gets announced, don't count on it being of any benefit to smooth traffic flow, or convenient parking. Also, the Secret Service could vary the stated street-closing plan at the last minute.


Alexandria, Va.: Is it even technically illegal (because if it is the law is obviously rarely enforced) to get out of a car parked alongside a street from the driver's side into traffic?

It would make sense if it was, since doing so is obviously a more dangerous practice than say, not wearing your seat belt, and of course it used to be much easier for a driver to get out of car on the passenger's side when most front seats used the "bench" instead of the "bucket" seat configuration nearly universal now.

I have a personal interest in asking this, as a couple of weeks ago I was knocked down while riding my bike by a driver who flung open his door without bothering to look out in the street first. Fortunately, I wasn't seriously injured but, legal or not, I would ask others not to open their car doors into the street without checking first with their eyes as well as their ears to make sure someone isn't coming. Just because you don't hear the sound of a motor vehicle doesn't mean it is safe to do so!

Robert Thomson: I'm not sure if those old laws about a driver's side exit are still on the books, but I'm sure the main message you want to get out to drivers is about "dooring" of bicyclists.

Drivers need to look. It's bad enough when they open their doors in front of an oncoming car. The consequences tend to be more serious when what's oncoming is a bicycle.


Arlington, Va.: I was reading somewhere that the following bridges will be closed to general traffic on the Innaugeration -- 14th Street, Memorial, Key, and Teddy Roosevelt. Are they serious? How in the world are you supposed to get to work from Virginia on that day if EVERY bridge into D.C. from Virginia will be closed?

Robert Thomson: Severe restrictions are under consideration for the bridges. Some may be open to buses and emergency vehicles only. At least one may be open to pedestrians.

The number of people trying to get in and out of D.C. on Jan. 20 will be enormous. If the bridges were all open to cars, it probably would take commuters much longer to get in than if shuttle buses are given priority.

Many commuters who can't take the day off are going to need to change their plans, the same as they might if a blizzard were forecast.

Despite the likely crowding, Metrorail is still likely to be the best way in and out. Metro will run rush hour service from 4 a.m. to 9 p.m.


PG County: All the complaints about bridge access from NoVa people make me want to say, That's the price you pay for living across a river from the city. Yes, you are sheltered from the barbarousness of urban life, but the flip side is, a bridge is a bottleneck. You could always move to PG where the commutes are smooth. Hey, don't knock it till you've tried it! PG is very undervalued.

Robert Thomson: I'm not recommending another bridge, but I understand why people feel frustrated about those cross-river commutes. In fact, I've got plenty of readers in Prince George's and other parts of Maryland who use I-395 and the 14th Street Bridge to reach the Pentagon and other Northern Virginia employment centers.

Many commuters from up in the Rockville/Gaithersburg area would love to have an alternative to the American Legion Bridge for their commutes to Tysons and the Dulles corridor.


Gaithersburg, Md,: We're thinking of heading to the Poconos on MLK weekend, but would like to be back at our home in Montgomery County to watch the inauguration on TV. I'm wondering whether traffic is going to be terrible on Monday, the holiday, with everyone trying to get to D.C. Your thoughts please?

Robert Thomson: Yes, I would plan on traffic being heavier than normal on MLK Day, because you'll have inauguration traffic, as well as the normal flow of traffic you'd experience at the end of what for many people will be a three-day weekend rather than a four-day weekend.


Baltimore, Md.: In occasional travels in and around the Fairfax area visiting the in-laws, I have noticed something that I hope you can provide some insight into. I have noticed that when going from the inner loop of the Beltway onto westbound I-66, there is a ramp in place that appears, at one time, to have exited from the left side of the Beltway lanes and entered I-66 westbound also on the left, at the Dunn Loring metro station. The ramp is closed off. Can you explain?

Thanks, and always enjoy your chats!

Robert Thomson: Readers, your assistance, please. Is this not a reference to Exit 49c on the inner loop to I-66 westbound?


Fairfax, Va.: I've heard Metro is curtailing regular bus service on Inauguration Day, possibly due to the shortage of buses. If the police are bringing in renforcements from other jurisdictions, has Metro talked to anyone about borrowing a few buses? My concern is that people who can't walk to a Metro rail station, and can't drive (or walk) into the city, won't have any transportation options -- public or not.

Robert Thomson: I haven not heard about Metro borrowing buses from other cities. I do know that Metro is working to coordinate service with the suburban lines, like the Fairfax Connector, The Bus in Prince George's and Ride On in Montgomery County.

Metro does plan to run a limited schedule of regular buses, and I think that's both because some will be used as shuttles and because there will be so many streets closed off.


Alexandria, Va.: How will traffic be late on Inauguration Day? I can avoid the District in my travels, as I'll be coming in from southern Maryland. I can return either late afternoon on Tuesday or Wednesday morning.

Robert Thomson: Traffic will be awful. Hundreds of thousands of people will be leaving town Tuesday afternoon and evening. Many will be commuters. Many will be people traveling hundreds of miles so they can be back at work on Wednesday. It will take many, many hours to clear out the city.

(Wednesday traffic is likely to be heavy, too.)


Washington, D.C.: Doc,

I've heard a rumor that Metro is closing down Virginia Orange Line stations from Balston to Rosslyn on Inauguration Day. Do you know if this is true?

Robert Thomson: I've heard of no plans to do that -- not even any speculation about it. In fact, the idea seems counterproductive. The Orange Line will be an extremely important resource for commuters and visitors on Jan. 20.


Arlington, Va.: In response to Balitmore, there is an old ramp to westbound I-66 that entered the roadway from the left. It was closed when they built the brudget that carries his traffic over westbound I-66 to enter on the right. I believe this was done to minimize weaving traffic when the sholder lane was paved and left lane designated for HOV traffic only on I-66 outside of the Beltway. The ramp was probably not removed becuase of safety concerns with the Metrorail Orange line operation and high voltage third rail.

Robert Thomson: Thanks for the quick response.


McLean, Va.: Regarding the 495 to 66 ramp: Before the present 2-lane ramp from the inner loop to 66 west, which hits 66 on the right side, there was a single-lane ramp from the inner loop to 66 west, which hit 66 on the left side. the one-lane ramp is closed, but the overpass over the eastbound lanes of 66 and the metro tracks still stands.

Robert Thomson: Some more details.


And Jan. 22 ...: let's not forget that the March for Life will be Thursday, January 22nd. That has a lot of impact on the Red Line. I'm staying home all week, give Metro some time to recover!

Robert Thomson: Thanks, that's a good heads up for Thursday, Jan. 22.

And I think Metro will need some time to recover. Jan. 20's 17 hours of rush hour train service is going to stress equipment and personnel.


Rockville, Md.: "Robert Thomson: Wednesday traffic is likely to be heavy, too."

I've heard a rumor that OPM is discussing closing the government on Wednesday also -- for that very reason. Have you heard anything about this?

Robert Thomson: No, I haven't. At the moment, that sounds extreme. I think there will be plenty of travelers on Wednesday, but they'll be outbound.


"Is it even technically illegal (because if it is the law is obviously rarely enforced) to get out of a car parked alongside a street from the driver's side into traffic?": Of course it's not illegal. How else are you supposed to get out of your car when you parallel park? Bear in mind that in the United States, every single jurisdiction has a law that the driver's side of the vehicle cannot face the curb except on a one-way street (i.e., you must park with the front of the vehicle facing the same direction as traffic moves on your side of the street). Thus, on any two-way street the driver's door must face traffic.

In much of the rest of the world this rule isn't in place (drive in the UK and you'll see what I mean).

But the point is well-taken that drivers should always look before opening the door, and cyclists should also be prepared to take evasive action when drivers don't look!

Robert Thomson: I have a feeling that some of the commenters on this topic are youthful. When I was growing up in NYC, back in the dark ages, police would take note of drivers exiting their vehicles on the street side. Of course, those were the days when bucket seats and center consoles were something we saw on The Jetsons.


Silver Spring, Md.: For my sins, the past year I've used the New Hampshire/Beltway interchange almost daily, and it's a disaster: I count seven fender benders at the end of the merge lane east bound Beltway onto southbound NH and two northbound NH just south of the entrance ramp to the Beltway (there's only one for both east and west bound). That's more wrecks than I've seen in 25 years of using University Blvd at the intersection with Piney Branch, in Langley Park, and the interchange with Beltway combined.

The problem's easy to diagnose: from eastbound Beltway to southbound NH, there's no merge lane and the sight lanes are awful -- you can't see cars stopped at the Yield sign until you're upon them, and you have to crane your neck as far as it'll go even to see cars southbound on NH -- and even then you can't tell which lane they're in or gauge their speed. On northbound NH, the exit to the Beltway is inadequate; so traffic backs up nearly 1/4 mile and everyone's pushing & shoving.

So: anyone planning to do anything about this mess? It seems to me redesigning the interchange along the lines of the Beltway/University project of a couple years ago would solve the problem.

Robert Thomson: I agree about the problem there at New Hampshire. (Same merge problem on the inner loop exit to University Boulevard, only maybe that's somewhat less severe because the exiting ramp traffic goes uphill instead of downhill, as it does exiting at New Hampshire.)

I'll check with the State Highway Administration.

The rebuilt exit from the outer loop to University does seem to be a success.


Arlington, Va.: Doc, The prospect of Inauguration Day gridlock reminds me of a question I've had regarding emergency evacuations of DC/NoVA. Why was the Beltway built with so few roads crossing it? Particularly on the south and west sides, the Beltway forms an impassable barrier that blocks off almost every street, except at exits -- in fact, between Braddock Road and the Wilson Bridge (a little over 10 miles), there are only eight places to cross the Beltway (5 exits, counting the Mixing Bowl as one) and the GW Parkway, Backlick Road, and Heming Ave. It is somewhat better on the west side, but has anyone ever considered the problems this will create in an emergency?

Robert Thomson: Arlington, are you arguing for more Beltway interchanges or for more roads to be built as spokes leading out of Washington, whether they link with the Beltway or not?

I'm pretty sure that more interchanges would generate unacceptable levels of traffic congestion. (What's that you say, we're there now?) More roadways leading out of D.C. would be unacceptable to many well-established neighborhoods in their path.


Washington, D.C.: Hi -- A followup on the bridge closures on I-Day...will they be closed in BOTH directions? Also, does this mean that Chain Bridge will be jammed with everyone from the Bus-Only Three using it?

Robert Thomson: I certainly do think Chain Bridge will be jammed on Jan. 20.

No bridge will be closed. They'll all be needed. The issue is who gets to use them, and it looks like cars will be the losers that day.

Whoever gets to use them, they'll likely be inbound early in the day, then reverse to carry people home.


Alexandria, Va.: The "dooring" of bikes guy again. One reason I asked if it was still illegal, was, if it was, someone who caused injury to another by carelessly opening their car door into the street would automatically be considered liable under the law for any injuries that were caused by their action, whereas if this practice was not illegal, you might have to prove actual negligence to get a judgment against them.

I have actually been "doored" at least twice (both times without significant injury) and just wondered where I stood under the law for future reference. I have also, after the last incident, started to ride farther away from parked cars, whereas I used to keep over to the right as much as possible to let the faster cars get by, you know, as a courtesy. However, when good manners conflict with personal safety, I'm going to go with safety!

Robert Thomson: I think the legal direction to look in is not whether opening the driver's side door is illegal but rather that the driver acted in a dangerous manner that caused injury to the bicyclist.

The even better direction to look in -- for drivers -- is over the shoulder, so this issue doesn't arise in the first place.


Washington, D.C.: Doc -- hope I can squeak this one in. In the last two weeks I have noticed tractor-trailer trucks on the area parkways -- GW (three times), B-W (twice) and Clara Barton (once). Are big trucks allowed now? If not, who is the right authority to report them?

Robert Thomson: I've heard of no change in the National Park Service rules about who can use the parkways.


Arlington, Va.: I'm new to the area, and you've no doubt answered this question before, but why is it that you can't connect 395 directly with 295 north bound after going over the Souza bridge? That seems totally stupid to have all these folks on the surface streets making turns.

Any hope of that ever getting fixed?


Robert Thomson: Yes, it could be fixed someday. There's a plan. The history on this, I believe, goes back to the 50s and 60s, when a plan that would have buried D.C. in asphalt was truncated. We've still got pieces of the original plan, without the intended links between them.


Washington, D.C.: A little bit of icing last week, and suddenly there's news about accidents on the Springfield exchange flyovers.

I don't think they have a good remedy for the flyovers just yet, for a while.

Robert Thomson: VDOT has done a lot of planning with the goal of avoiding a repeat of the February ice storm that stymied drivers for many, many hours in the Springfield Interchange.

I think the plan is pretty good now, pretty aggressive. But drivers still will need to use extra care during bad weather in getting through an interchange with 50 bridges.


Elkridge, Md.: On the early question about getting to Akron: the 70-68-79 approach is simply too circuitous to be worthwhile, even with traffic bottled at Breezewood. It adds about 40 miles and, as the questioner asked, it increases weather risks in Maryland and West Virginia. My advice, having tried both ways, is to enjoy Breezewood as much as possible.

Robert Thomson: Thanks, Elkridge. I'll probably take that advice myself.


Rockville, Md.: A satellite view of the 495/66 interchange

Interchange (Yahoo Local Maps)

Robert Thomson: On our earlier question about the left-hand ramp from the inner loop in Virginia.


Eastern Market, D.C.: I'd love to give some holiday kudos to the morning team at the Eastern Market Metro Station. They welcome everybody coming into the station, every day. It's real customer service, and it makes my day. Some days I go to a different spot, and one morning in a morning fog I stepped off the escalator and the gentleman sweeping welcomed me. I knew then I must be at Eastern Market. I told the station manager one morning what bright spot their greetings are in my day, and his reply was simple "it's the easiest thing in the world to do." I'm sure all of the employees are a credit to the Metro system, but I also can't imagine this doesn't speak to the station manager's leadership as well.

Robert Thomson: Thanks for that. Feels like a note of holiday cheer.


270-70 vs. 270-68: If the sky's clear, go 68; if there's any possibility fog or precip, going through Breezewood will be easier, but make sure you have Easy Pass. That alone will save you 15-20 minutes. If the weather's really, really crappy, stay home.

Robert Thomson: Thanks. I notice a couple more notes in here about the western trip and I'll try to push them out too.

E-ZPass is always helpful. Wouldn't do a long trip without it.

Holiday travel is tough. Doesn't respond to weather or the economy or gas prices. People put a high value on being with family and friends.


Herndon, Va.: What about the other side of Pennsylvania -- Bethlehem? My colleagues say go 95 to near Philly and then up. I'm thinking from the Dulles area it makes more sense to go 15 to Gettysburg to Harrisburg and across. Any experience or guidance other than "Follow the star to Bethlehem".

Robert Thomson: I know a lot of people like the Route 15 option up through Gettysburg, Pa., but I've been reluctant to give it a personal test at the holidays.

I'd rather stick to the route with the most lanes at the oddest times.


Alexandria, Va.: We're planning on going out of town the weekend of the inauguration, but needed to head back Tuesday night for work on Wednesday. Your thoughts on traffic that night on I-95N?

Robert Thomson: Coming in Tuesday night is likely to be okay. But watch out for late celebrators.


For Arlington driving to Akron: Just a word of warning -- we took 68-79-76 driving to Columbus a few weeks ago and the weather was so bad in the higher elevations, that we literally went five miles an hour for about 40 miles. I have never been more scared driving on a road and am thankful my husband was the one behind the wheel. Outside of the higher elevations, it was fine, so there's really no way of knowing. Take the extra time and go 270-70-76. Safe travels!

P.S. Because of our driving experience in November, we'll be flying to Columbus out of DCA on Christmas Day.

Robert Thomson: We do seem to be tilting away from the 68 route in the comments. At least in the winter.


Central Virginia: What do you recommend as an 'emergency kit' to keep in the vehicle in the winter? Blankets, food, etc.? Thanks!

Robert Thomson: Window scraper and de-icer. Flashlight, cell phone. Definitely yes to your suggestions of blanket and food. Also water.

The Grid Spouse used to give a speech about this to her new reporters in New Hampshire. One thing I remember she told them was to keep all that stuff inside the car, rather than in the trunk. If you go off the road into a snowbank, you may not be able to reach the trunk.


Robert Thomson: I think I'd better split now. Thanks for all these good questions and comments -- many more than I would have expected during Christmas week.

Please stay safe during the holidays, whether you're driving to Akron, or just shuttling the kids around town.


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