Dr. Gridlock

Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, January 26, 2009; 1:00 PM

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock. He was online Monday, Jan. 26 at 1 p.m. ET to diagnose all your traffic and transit issues.

The transcript follows.

The Dr. Gridlock column receives hundreds of letters each month from motorists and transit riders throughout the Washington region. They ask questions and make complaints about getting around a region plagued with some of the worst traffic in the nation. The doctor diagnoses problems and tries to bring relief.

Dr. Gridlock appears in The Post's Metro section on Sunday and in the Extra section on Thursday. His comments also appear on the Web site's Get There blog. You can send e-mails for the newspaper column to drgridlock@washpost.com or write to Dr. Gridlock at 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.


Robert Thomson: Hello, travelers. We've got a good range of questions going into the discussion today. In the mailbag, I see issues about the inauguration traffic, about the Greenway, about traffic signal timing and so on.

Here we go.


Falls Church, Va.: Do you the HOV-2 exemption for hybrids on I-66 will be renewed this year?

Robert Thomson: As usual, there are a few bills before the Virginia General Assembly that would extend the hybrid exemption beyond it's current expiration date of June 30.

This happens every year. It was originally designed as a short-term incentive for people to buy hybrids. The incentive is no longer needed, and it should be allowed to expire.

Plenty of people are buying hybrids. What's needed is an incentive to carpool. That incentive involves guaranteeing that carpoolers will be able to use a dedicated lane -- the High Occupancy Vehicle lane -- to achieve a faster commute.


Germantown, Md.: I guess I could Google it, but I'll ask instead. Why is the Dulles Greenway called a Greenway? Thanks.

Robert Thomson: It isn't named for Darrell Green, but that's about all I can tell you with certainty. The first reference I can find in The Washington Post is from a September 1993 story, where the highway is called the Dulles toll road extension, "also known as" the Dulles Greenway.

It was probably considered an alternative to "parkway," applied to U.S. motor roadways starting in the early 20th century, when driving was still considered a pleasure.

The Greenway was no pleasure for drivers this morning, when the roadway was closed because of a tanker truck crash and fuel spill. But it's open now.


washingtonpost.com: Driver Charged in Truck Crash on Dulles Greenway (washingtonpost.com)

Robert Thomson: Here's a link to the washingtonpost.com story about this morning's incident.


Ashburn, Va.: Hi Dr. G: I was curious to hear about how the Beltway fared on inauguration day. I was at home here in Loudoun County, and honestly didn't hear much about the Beltway at all. Did drivers heed the governors' warnings in Virginia and Maryland?

Robert Thomson: I traveled around for 12 hours on Inauguration Day, but got only a brief look at the Beltway, and that was at 4:30 a.m.

Based on the traffic reports I read and heard, the Beltway did very well. Certainly, it didn't come anywhere near the level of congestion that some of us thought was possible.

The one problem time I recall was early in the morning, when cars heading for the outer Metrorail stations were backing up onto the Beltway.

Overall, I thought the traffic plan worked well during a time of great stress.


Reston, Va.: I've heard this thrown around and came up with a very low-cost solution to the problem.

EZ-Pass Only lanes for the Dulles Toll Road. Simply make the Exact Change Only/EZ Pass/SmartTag only lanes into just EZ Pass/SmartTag only lanes. Everyone else can just file to the left where they must deposit their change or have to stop. This would then provide incentive to others who don't have an EZ Pass to get one (FREE mind you) and then traffic flows more smoothly through the toll booths.

Robert Thomson: I love the convenience of E-ZPass, and wish more tolling authorities would adopt toll plaza setups that allow people using E-ZPass transponders the exclusive use of certain lanes.

And I like the sound of your proposal. But here's a question I don't know the answer to: Would creating an E-ZPass only lane, as you describe, have the effect of backing up the cash toll traffic so badly that the resulting congestion would slow everyone's progress?

You know what I mean: It's like the peak period traffic that backs up the toll plaza so badly that E-ZPass users are stuck in the same congestion as everyone else and can't reach the dedicated lanes.


Kudos to Metro employees for Tuesday: I'm a daily Metro commuter -- the good, the bad and the ugly -- and had low expectations on how they would handle all of the weekend festivities, culminating with the big event Tuesday.

Things weren't perfect, people were delayed, trains were crowded, but they did it. Say what you will about Metro management (and most of them should be fired or at the very least have their pay reduced) the front line employees did an amazing job and get little credit.

On my way out of the station Thursday night, I stopped at the kiosk where the station manager and a mechanic were chatting. I said simply "thank you for Tuesday; I know it was rough for you." I think I shocked them. They said it WAS a rough day but were happy that someone had noticed.

Robert Thomson: Metrorail is the backbone of Washington's transportation system, and showed its worth on Inauguration Day. I'm totally with you in crediting the performance of Metro employees. Many, many times that day, I saw them exercise authority when it was needed, and flexibility when it was justified to keep people calm and moving.

I also credit the passengers for their patience under stress -- the crowded entrances, the crowded trains and the crowded escalators.

I'd cut Metro managers a little more slack: Turns out they had a very good people-moving plan and deployed sufficient forces to make it work. They put out a great deal of useful information in advance, so riders could plan, and they gave what turned out to be a very accurate prediction of the conditions we would find in the transit system that day.

Area for improvement: The most transit complaints I heard had to do with Metrobuses not being where they were supposed to be or not making it to the advertised destination.


San Francisco: On the inauguration, can we have a discussion about the crowd control and information provided to participants? As in, there was none?

I got stuck at the parade route with no clear way to get to the Mall after Metro skipped L'Enfant and took me to Gallery Place instead. Not a huge deal -- there were plenty of porta-potties -- but some signs up above the street pointing people to the parade or the mall would have been helpful.

Thanks for the tweets, by the way!

Robert Thomson: I also had some confusing and frustrating experiences. One occurred after the swearing-in when I got off an Orange Line train at L'Enfant Plaza. Along with many others, I was ushered through a fare gate, but when I got to the escalator bank, was told that this way was now entrance only and I'd have to go back.

We found our way to a bank of three escalators with only one -- a stopped one -- open for exiting passengers. It took about 15 minutes to climb up to the top, where an enormous crowd was waiting to get in.

Outside on the streets, there was little or no guidance for the crowd, and some of the guidance was wrong. Many people headed for the VRE station thinking it was the Metro entrance. (VRE helped redirect people, or in some cases, loaded them onto VRE trains just to get them out of the crunch.)

On the other hand, Metro did put out walking guides with maps illustrating how to reach the Mall from close-in stations. And at Metro Center, a very courteous Metro employee asked me if I needed a brochure on how to walk to the events.

My conclusion: Could have been better. Could have been a lot, lot worse.


Sterling: Yes, there's definitely a concern about EZ Pass users not being able to access the lanes. I drive up to New York frequently and this is often a problem.

One odd thing I've noticed: on the toll road, the lines in the EZ Pass-only lanes are longer than the non-EZ Pass lanes. I often end up going through the regular lanes with my EZ Pass because it's faster. Kind of counterintuitive.

Robert Thomson: I think one issues for highway planners in Virginia and elsewhere is monitoring the current volumes in the different lanes. As more and more drivers adopt E-ZPass, more and more lanes should become E-ZPass only.

Best of all: The E-ZPass lanes that allow drivers to pass through at highway speed. I see them on the NJ Turnpike. Wish they were on the Delaware Turnpike. Know that some version of them will be used on the Virginia HOT lanes.


Washington, D.C.: For those of us that have never driven in the district when there's been snow on the ground- how are they at snow removal on artery roads that may not be major (in terms of size) but that are always crowded? Just seeing the first sign of a 3-6 inch snowfall predicted makes me wonder if Canal/Foxhall would be a road cleared right away -- or if I'd be better taking a longer route to get up to AU from Virginia in case those roads are ignored.

Robert Thomson: I can't speak specifically to Canal/Foxhall and invite others to write in with advice.

Some more general thoughts: In all the jurisdictions, the quality of the snow clearing depends on the timing of the storm and the nature of the road.

If a storm follows the forecast, the highway departments generally do very well. If they get surprised by rapidly changing conditions, then their road crews may get stuck in the same traffic as the rest of us.

Most of the complaints I hear from D.C. residents have more to do with neighborhood streets, where cars are parked, than with major roads.

Suggestion: Given a choice, I'd avoid hilly roads, where icing could develop suddenly. And I'd prefer to work my way through a grid street pattern, rather than take a chance on getting stuck on a road with few bailouts.


Stuck in Traffic: I carpool and this weekend had the chance to drive a hybrid. I was not impressed with the increased gas mileage (only about 5 MPG over what I get now).

What I noticed this morning on my commute to work, was the excessive number of hybrids in the HOV lane...that I was passing while carpooling!

We passed no fewer than two dozen hybrids between Wiehle and Rte. 7 on the DTR, while in the middle lanes. My wife and I drive to work almost every day, and have become accustomed to not driving in the HOV lanes, ever, because they're slower due to the trucks, buses and hybrids clogging the lane.

Robert Thomson: Carpoolers complain to me all the time about the HOV lanes getting jammed up with solo drivers in hybrids. I don't see how it helps the environment to have so many more vehicles than necessary using lanes meant for people willing to leave some vehicles at home.


Greenbelt, Md.: Now that the inauguration is over, I hope we can get back to everyday transportation issues.

I have a Maryland EZPass, which I use only sporadically. Several times a year I will drive out of state, and then I will use it for multiple tolls on multiple roads. Then I go another three or four months without using it at all.

Now, as I understand it, Maryland wants to charge EZPass holders $1.50 per month whether or not we actually use the gizmo. Is there a way to transfer my EZPass to another state that doesn't do this? Can I buy an EZPass in another state, or are all the Northeastern states planning to vacuum more dollars out of EZPass holders' wallets? (I believe Massachusetts is going to start charging 50 cents per month, for instance.)

Robert Thomson: I'd shop around and see if you can get a better deal from one of the many northeastern states that issues E-ZPass transponders.

But you also make the good point that highway agencies throughout the country are under similar financial stresses and it's reasonable to think they're all eventually going to adopt the same solution, by adding more charges to their E-ZPass systems.


Washington, D.C.: How come there was no mention in your blog about the car fire on I-66 East just after Nutley this morning?

Cars were only getting through on the shoulders. I walk to the Dunn Loring Metro and saw black smoke rising from what I figure must have been a smoldering something on the side of the road. Imagine my surprise when I walked across 66 to the station and saw HUGE flames. I don't know what caught fire but it was pretty impressive. Hopefully no one was hurt in the fire.

Robert Thomson: Thanks for reading the Get There blog. If either I or my colleagues at washingtonpost.com know of a major traffic problem, we'll post it on the blog to alert our readers.

But we don't constantly monitor region's traffic the way, for example, Lisa Baden and Bob Marbourg do on WTOP radio. We do have a traffic page on our Web site that routinely posts information about traffic incidents and delays and offers traffic camera views. You can find that at www.washingtonpost.com/traffic.


Takoma to Bethesda: What on earth is going on at Colesville and E-W Hwy (410) at the Silver Spring Metro station? The timing of the light is completely bonkers. Some days it's normal, some days it stays green on Colesville for up to 4 minutes, which does quite a number on E-W Hwy traffic.

Robert Thomson: I've been in some bad backups there recently -- especially on the north side of Colesville, where the East-West Highway traffic coming from the direction of Bethesda lines up to turn left onto Colesville.

I think that's especially bad because so many drivers want to turn left, don't realize that the backup for the left turn lanes starts early, and then edge over at the last moment.

Suggestion: You may find it easier to use Spring Street to work around the congestion along Colesville Road in downtown Silver Spring.

There are a bunch of questions and comments today about light timing. It's tough for me to figure out all the individual situations. Sometimes the lights are indeed out of whack. Other times, we know the frustrations involved in our own direction without accounting for the volumes of traffic -- cars and pedestrians -- flowing from the cross streets.


Canal Road in the snow: If the AU writer is talking about Canal Road to Loughborough up to the AU area, I'd worry more about getting up and down Loughborough in icy weather than about Canal Road itself.

Robert Thomson: Thank you. That's the sort of thing I was worried about for the AU writer.


Washington, D.C.: Any word on how Metro bus rapid corridors fared on last Tuesday? The numbers indicate just average ridership numbers for Metro bus in total. Noting like the extraordinary increase for rail. Any theories?

Robert Thomson: I've got two theories:

One is that people are just reluctant to take buses. People aren't sure they're waiting in the right place. They don't know when the bus is going to arrive, or how crowded it's going to be. And it's cold standing on the street.

On Tuesday, many people were right to be worried about all those things. I thought the idea of setting up the rapid bus corridors was a great addition to the overall transportation plan. But it also proved to be the main source of complaints among my readers. They said some buses didn't show up and others didn't go to the advertised destinations.

The main advantage in reviewing the Tuesday experience is that we may have learned some useful lessons to guide us through less stressful events -- like our everyday commutes.

I'm a bit disappointed in the bus component of the Inauguration Day plan because I think buses are a vital part of our future. We've got to find ways to make them reliable and easy to use.


Silver Spring Md: A 2009 Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG (wagon)(13 MPG) with 4 people gets more passenger miles per gallon than a Prius with one occupant. So the environmental argument is very weak. Maybe the HOV lanes should have a discount, HOV 3 regular HOV 2 hybrid.

Robert Thomson: I think the way of the future around here is that we're going to shift over to the HOT lanes concept. You either drive the faster lanes as a carpool or you pay a toll. No special categories.


Blocking the Box and Commuting Lanes: Robert,

Thanks for your forum. Do you know if DC has any plans to enforce gridlock laws? Daily commutes suffer from every direction when someone remains in an intersection despite advance warning a light is going to change.

Also, every day we see UPS, FEDEx, food, office supply, etc. trucks double parked or parked in thru lanes during commuting hours (i.e, before 9:30). Why does DC let them get away with this? Cases on point: 9:00 a.m. vending machine deliveries to the old executive office building, deliveries to the Corcoran Gallery on E. Street, etc.

Robert Thomson: The D.C. police department does not do a very good job enforcing traffic laws. And the District Department of Transportation has too few traffic control officers. (Readers often complain about their performance, but I've stood at downtown intersections and watched them. They're our best defense against traffic gridlock, and the best defense for pedestrians, period.)


Washington, D.C.: RE: "EZ-Pass Only lanes" I only use the tollway a couple of times a year and don't want yet another system in my car. I'd be in favor of this under one condition. That the speed limit through the toll both be enforced. There are some EZ-Pass Only lanes now, and cars fly through those at more than 50 mph. Mixed speed is one of the most dangerous things on the highway. If the set the EZ-Pass Only lanes so that if you passed through at more than say 25-30 mph it would not register and you'd get a ticket for either speeding or not paying then I'd be happy.

Robert Thomson: I see that, too, and think that if people don't voluntarily control their speed, we'll need photo enforcement at the toll plazas.


Herndon, Va.: With snow in the forecast, I can't help but wonder if VDOT has any new plans for snow removal this year that will avoid many of the problems from past years when less than an inch of snow caused hours of delays.

Robert Thomson: Yes. VDOT was chastened by what happened at the Springfield Interchange during last February's ice storm, and developed a very detailed plan to avoid such embarrassments. It's an aggressive approach, and it looks good on paper. We just have to see if it works in practice. (Let it snow?)


Laurel, Md.: Now that the Inauguration is history I was wondering if we can address the issue of the timing of traffic lights in our area. There are major arteries that have traffic lights so far out of synch that they create major traffic backups and have for years.

As an example, northbound Constitution Avenue, NW from the Virginia line up to about 6th Street. One light changes to green and the next light is changing to red. No one ever seems to address the problem and there are hundreds, maybe thousands of other examples throughout our area.

Robert Thomson: The mail right now is heavy with comments and questions about the light timing issues and about the E-ZPass issues. Since the hour is growing late, I'll try to quickly push out some of these, so you can see what people are saying.

If you have further thoughts, write to me at drgridlock@washpost.com.


EZ Pass, NJ: Get an EZ Pass from the state of New Jersey. Not only do they NOT charge ridiculous monthly fees but they also don't suspend accounts for speeding. Not advocating flying through the EZ Pass lanes (for the safety of toll workers) but, it's nice to know that my account won't be in limbo if I do accidentally break the limit.

Go NJ EZ Pass!

Robert Thomson: People sometimes tell me they worry about how much information the transponders can record about their driving habits.


Anonymous: In Florida there are dedicated transponder only lanes, which are great until traffic gets really heavy, and then people stay in those lanes until the last minute to merge into cash only lanes at the last minute. If traffic is bad you can't escape no matter what. However, now that they are making high speed transponder only lanes, they are making cash only lanes almost an exit- you have to go to the right side of the road and its blocked off by a cement wall. Its great!

Robert Thomson: I wish all toll systems were compatible with E-ZPass and expect that will someday happen. Perhaps the system will become so common that transponders will be built into all vehicles.


Herndon, Va.: Hey, Reston. I have a better idea...SmarTag/EZ Pass users get to use the airport express lanes on the Dulles Toll Road. A little bonus for lending the Toll Road money via pre-paying on our tag before we actually use it...

Robert Thomson: Won't happen. Congress would squash that proposal.


Arlington, Va.: I'm confused. As you know, Metrorail service is overtaxed at the height of rush hour on several lines. Metro has generally claimed that they were running as much service as they can. But then yesterday's paper mentioned that they used 974 rail cares during the peak of Inauguration Day service (with another 70 in reserve), while normal weekday service uses 830 cars.

Why are the extra cars not used on normal days? They're clearly needed to make more 8-car train during rush hour.

Robert Thomson: I was amazed that Metrorail got through 17 straight hours of rush hour service on Inauguration Day. That's really stressing the equipment, the power supply and the personnel. We're along way from being able to do that everyday, much as we'd love that level of service.


Tysons Corner - Silver Line: We've had so many other transit issues over the past month I'm not surprised it's not been mentioned....but I'm seeing a lot of movement and activity at the Tysons Corner Silver Line station at 123/International Dr. Is there an update to this project? They really are moving forward at a pretty rapid pace - working on the weekends, late at nights, etc.

Robert Thomson: I think you'll really start to see it in the springtime, but we're still many years away from riding those trains. First, the traffic congestion from the construction.


Arlington, Va.: Hi, Dr. Gridlock,

With the new administration's position on "shovel-ready" infrastructure projects, is the Dulles Metrorail extension still a done deal? Even though it was approved by the now-former DOT secretary, doesn't it still need Congressional approval -- and possibly even another round of DOT review since the money $900 million or so of the federal money has not yet been budgeted/spent?

And, if it will require another round of review by the new administration, what is the likelihood that it passes cost-benefit analysis requirements when now there's a White House more amenable to spending on rail, which could potentially mean revisiting the Dulles rail line as either VRE or high-speed, and possibly instead splitting the Tysons part off as an Orange line spur?

Robert Thomson: I think the new Congress and the new administration are likely to be much more friendly to transit than the old. So I think the rail project is a done deal.

We should talk more about the stimulus package and infrastructure improvements. I think of them as largely separate issues, regarding transportation.

A stimulus package should be just that: Put people to work now. But for transportation, that means building turn lanes, not train lines. The shovel-ready stuff. An infrastructure improvement program is a multi-year task and something that should be thought through in coming months.


Vienna, Va.: I don't understand the question about the SmartTag/E-ZPass only lanes on the toll road. At the toll gates themselves, there are Smart-Tag only lines, and contrary to what a prior poster said, the lines are generally much shorter since they don't have to stop (just slow down). My beef with them is that at the main toll plazas, there are all in the left lane, and since I get off at the next exit (Wolf Trap), it's very hard cutting through all those lanes of traffic to get off. The same is true inbound where people have to use the far left lanes to avoid the lines, but then have to get to the right fairly quickly to exit on the Beltway.

Robert Thomson: That is a very difficult spot and there should be some way to accommodate people who need to get to the right quickly. But I also agree with the engineers who generally want to keep E-ZPass lanes over to the left, on the theory that faster-moving traffic should stay left and not get mixed up with slower lanes, where drivers are jockeying for position. That can cause accidents.


Washington, D.C.: I understand Metro's reasons for eliminating paper transfers, and allowing transfers only by use of the SmarTrip cards. However, applying that rule to the Circulator buses, which were designed to appeal to tourists, seems to deprive tourists, who are unlikely to purchase SmarTrip cards, of any ability to transfer among the different Circulator lines.

Robert Thomson: I think the tourist is more likely to go for a one-day bus pass.


NJ EZPass: NJ definitely charges. They were one of the first ones to institute a monthly fee.

Robert Thomson: You know, I've got an NJ E-ZPass and could remember in response to the previous commenter.


EZPass, Md.: Maryland is being shortsighted with it's plan to charge a monthly fee for EZ-Pass. What they need to do is start incentives to get casual users to get an EZ-Pass, such as charging higher toll rates for cash customers.

Robert Thomson: But a toll hike for daily toll payers is going to be a tough sell, don't you think? That's a lot more angry drivers.


Takoma Park, Md.: Hi. Overall I think the inaugural transportation planning worked wonderfully. I had absolutely no problem getting to where I was supposed to be to volunteer for the swearing in. My only gripe is that for all of the information we received on how to get to the mall, there was absolutely nothing on how to leave the mall after it was over. The JumboTrons displayed messages saying spectators should leave via 12th and 14th streets, but both of those exits were blocked off. It was a bit of pandemonium being in the mass of people trying to cross the concrete barriers behind the Washington monument, then having to walk North on 18th street next to the parade buses. It wasn't awful, I just wish I could have been more prepared on what to expect.

Robert Thomson: I also found getting out more difficult than getting in. The best information from the various agencies was about stuff you could know in advance. Information about changing conditions was a lot harder to come by on Tuesday.

That said, a lot of agencies were trying innovative things with text messages and Twitter. Plus, they were pushing out advisories to the media all afternoon.


Anacostia: Writing in early because of a meeting. The traffic light at the end of the ramp leading from 295N to the Naval Research Lab/WASA has been short-timing for the last week, causing traffic to back up the ramp and onto 295N at times, a somewhat dangerous situation. I've been told that calls have been made, but it seems like they could fix it sooner than this. Who to contact? Thanks!

Robert Thomson: It's probably the District Department of Transportation that's responsible for the signal timing.

But call 311. That's the centralized complaint number in D.C.


Robert Thomson: Everybody, thanks for all the good questions and comments today. You've given me good ideas for entries on the Get There blog and in my Dr. Gridlock column, so please stay in touch.


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