Dr. Gridlock

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Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, February 9, 2009; 1:00 PM

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock. He was online Monday, Feb. 9 at 1 p.m. ET to diagnose all your traffic and transit issues.

The transcript follows.

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. There's a variety of questions and comments in the mailbag today about getting around our region by train, bus or car. Let's look.

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Arlington, Va.: Metro can deny it all they want, but it is pretty obvious to me that the trains are running a couple of minutes farther apart than they used to on at least the Orange and Blue lines during the morning rush hour (between 7:30 and 8 anyway). There was a huge crowd on the platform at Rosslyn this morning. Trains were at least 7 minutes apart. The last couple of weeks have been this way.

Robert Thomson: You should be getting an Orange Line train every six minutes and a Blue Line train every six minutes at that hour. I don't know of any special issue that would affect train arrival times during rush hour over the past few weeks.

As I guess everybody knows, the trains do get out of sync. All you have to do to confirm that is look at the arrival times posted on the electronic message boards at the platforms. Trains are sometimes ordered to hold for a minute or two to get the schedules back in line.

Anybody think they're seeing what Arlington is seeing over the past few weeks?

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Hands Free in D.C.: I have a question about the hands-free cell phone law in D.C. Where are D.C. police allowed to ticket you? If you are driving in a garage, can they ticket you? What if you are in a driveway to the garage or in someone's driveway at their house? We saw a few people this weekend that were harassed by abusive police officers because they had a cell phone in their hands and parked. I know all D.C. police are not like this, I've never seen anything like this in D.C. before. Maybe others have, but we haven't.

Robert Thomson: This is the very first time I've heard from anyone suggesting that DC police are aggressive about enforcing the hands-free law. People write in from time to time to say that they never see the law enforced. In fact, police do issue tickets on this, but I'd be extremely surprised to see that done on private property, such as a garage or driveway.

I think the law itself is fine, basically as publicity about the distraction involved in holding the phone and talking while driving. My most common observation: A driver holding a phone and talking while spinning the steering wheel to make a left turn into the path of pedestrians in a crosswalk.

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Carrboro, N.C.: Next month I will be attending a conference at Gaylord National down in National Harbor. On the Monday night of the conference, I have tickets to see the Wizards game at Verizon Center.

I will have a car but would prefer not to drive to the game; is there a good way to use transit (Metro or other) to get back and forth between National Harbor and the Chinatown/Verizon Center area?

Robert Thomson: There is a Metrobus, the NH1, that links National Harbor with the Southern Avenue Metrorail station on the Green Line, which would take you to Gallery Place-Chinatown Station, right below the Verizon Center. Here's a link to the bus schedule:

http://www.wmata.com/bus/timetables/md/nh1.pdf

Note the run times. You'll have more flexibility on time if you get in the car and drive along the Capital Beltway's outer loop to Branch Avenue Metrorail station, park there, and take the Green Line downtown.

This link will show you details about Branch Avenue Station:

http://www.wmata.com/rail/station_detail.cfm?station_id=89

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Crystal City: Many world capitols have transit systems that operate 24/7. When the rail systems shut down, a system of "night buses" rolls into action, covering largely the same areas (on a reduced, sometimes hourly, schedule). Why don't we have such a system in our nation's capitol?

Robert Thomson: We do have some limited after-midnight service. I can name a couple off hand: S buses north and south on 16th Street, D buses east-west across the District. Shuting down Metrorail at midnight most days and offering limited bus service certainly doesn't proclaim "world capital." And it doesn't help the people whose jobs require overnight shifts.

But there is limited demand for overnight buses, and given Metro's current budget problems -- it may need to cut tens of millions in services to balance the fiscal 2010 budget -- I don't believe we're going to see any serious effort to expand the bus runs or increase their frequency this year.

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Arlington, Va.: Does Metro simply hate its riders? Why, on a major holiday, when people, you know, might actually WANT to go into the city with friends and family, does Metro simply cut the system in half from the Pentagon on down?

Robert Thomson: Metro's two-track train system wasn't designed to grow old. A project as big as a switch replacement is very disruptive. Most times, it's done over several weekends, when the ridership is relatively light and trains can share a single track to get around the work zone.

In this case, Metro decided to do all the work on a switch replacement over a single long weekend, rather than stretch out the disruption. They couldn't have picked a better one, out of the possibilities: A holiday weekend in the winter is likely to have very light ridership.

I've been down on the tracks to watch a switch replacement. While I'm not an engineer, my observation was that the work was organized as efficiently as possible. These things take months of planning.

The larger problem is that Metrorail is closed for only a few hours each night. That's not enough time to set up a work zone, accomplish some major repair, and then take down the work zone in time for the resumption of train service in the morning.

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Rockville, Md.: Can anyone seriously imagine reducing service intervals or hours on the Metro? The trains are already packed full at all hours on all days as it is!

I do agree with the suggestion to close certain station entrances at off-peak hours (or even certain stations that are within 2 or 3 blocks of other stations, such as Judiciary Square, Archives, and Federal Center SW).

The biggest no-brainers here, though, would be to charge for parking on weekends and to charge peak fares for all trips after midnight (not just after 2 AM as it currently is). I think all late night riders would rather pay peak fare than have no service at all!

Robert Thomson: When I asked Post readers how they thought Metro should deal with its budget problem, almost no one suggested service cuts. There was a case made here and there for dropping a bus route, but nothing that would cover the tens of millions of dollars the transit authority is talking about when it holds out the possibility of service cuts.

That's a lot more than dropping a few bus lines or closing a couple of entrances.

What to do? The basic ways to avoid service cuts are to cut administrative costs, raise the government subsidy, or raise fares and fees. Metro says it's doing the first thing, eliminating many positions. (Ultimately, that's going to amount to a service cut, too. They're going to eliminate someone you'd want to talk to or some job that you actually want done.) Local governments aren't looking to increase their Metro subsidy with your tax dollars this year. So that leaves some form of fare or fee increases, which so far, Metro leaders and regional leaders are not talking about publicly.

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National Harbor to Verizon Center: Another option would be to cross the Wilson Bridge and exit at Route 1 (towards Fort Belvoir). Turn right at Huntington Avenue, and the Huntington Metro station is just down the road. While the Yellow Line may take longer, particularly after the game, it's a short drive between Huntington and National Harbor.

This option (or Branch Avenue) is good as long as you have the Smartrip card to pay for parking on the way out...

Robert Thomson: Thanks for that option for the National Harbor traveler, and for the reminder about the parking fee at Metro garages and lots.

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Arlington, Va.: So, was the leaking of these outlandish service cut possibilities (closing at 10 p.m., even more limited weekend service, etc) just a political stunt by Metro to get everyone up in arms?

Robert Thomson: So far, Metro has made no proposals about service cuts. The transit authority asked a group of leaders from the Metro service area to talk about what cutbacks they'd suggest.

I don't expect to hear many reality-based ideas until the middle of the month. Metro staffers probably have talked over some ideas, the same way Pentagon staffers go through war game exercises and other what-if scenarios.

So far, though, the only thing for sure is that we've got a money problem with our regional transit service, and we need to pay attention to it.

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Washington D.C.: Dr. Gridlock,

Have you been to the Silver Spring bus area lately, especially at afternoon rush? Many times it is gridlocked due to the number of buses and cars trying to navigate Wayne and Dixon Avenues. (I've seen buses wait 10 minutes or more in the traffic). Limiting car access to Wayne Avenue, especially from Colesville and Dixon, during afternoon rush would seem like a solution to increase the efficient transfer and passage of buses. Any thoughts?

Robert Thomson: Traffic in downtown Silver Spring has gotten a lot worse, according to readers and my own observations. The relocation of the bus stops during the transit center construction seems like part of the explanation.

But I've also gotten reader complaints about the traffic backups behind the lights at East-West Highway and Colesville Road, and about vehicles parked on Colesville during peak periods. There's also some high-impact construction on the streets north of Colesville that normally would be used to bypass the main commuter routes. The entrance to the new garage on Wayne Avenue can be a mess, too.

The problems get tangled up in each other.

I know you're anxious for a solution, but am not sure limiting car access to Wayne from Colesville and Dixon would help. We need some way of taking the stress off Colesville and managing the flow of traffic to and from the big garages around the station.

My short term solutions: More traffic control officers at the key intersections and a check on the signal light timing.

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Washington, DC : Very happy to hear of the DC Council passing emergency legislation to require motorists to clear off the top of vehicles after a snowstorm. I was nearly taken out while walking on a sidewalk in the District during that storm a week or so ago. It's hard enough trying to walk on sidewalks that aren't shoveled or de-iced properly, but to also have to worry about sheets of ice flying off of vehicles is more than unnecessary.

Robert Thomson: Many complaints lately about that sort of activity -- or inactivity -- on the part of vehicle and property owners. As in the case of the cellphone ban we talked about above, I think the laws are good to highlight the problem, but enforcement can't take the place of personal responsibility. Not enough cops.

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Rush Hour Blue Line: I see the same thing as Arlington. I take the blue line from Van Dorn to Foggy Bottom around 8 a.m. and the time between trains is definitely getting longer lately.

Robert Thomson: Thanks. This refers to my request for comment on the time between rush hour trains during the past few weeks.

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Before they eliminate positions: What is the probabilty/possibility that Metro will tell it's drivers they aren't worth the amount they're paid, and seriously cut their pay and say no to overtime. I would imagine you could hire up to 2 additional drivers off of some of the larger overtime cuts that could be made.

Robert Thomson: The bus drivers? I wouldn't do their job in our traffic for a million bucks. I've seen some make bad moves in traffic, especially pulling away from stops. But the majority I watch from inside the buses are very patient with traffic and helpful with passengers.

And Metro would need to hire a lot more drivers to eliminate the OT.

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Steven Taubenkibel, Metro Media Relations: Good afternoon. In response to Arlington, VA's comments about Blue and Orange Line trains running longer than 6 minutes apart this morning at Rosslyn, here's what I can add. Mr. Thomson is correct in his comments, that all Blue and Orange Line trains depart Vienna and Franconia every 6 minutes during the AM rush. Also, trains can encounter congestion as they approach the Rossyln station and that can add time as well. As for this morning, between 7 and 8:30 a.m., we had a train removed from service at West Falls Church because of a door problem, a train with a mechanical problem at East Falls Church, and shortly after 8 a.m., a track circuit problem outside the Stadium-Armory station in the directon of Largo Town Center and New Carrollton. These delays would have impacted service from Rosslyn into downtown DC and onto Largo and New Carrollton.

Robert Thomson: Thank you, Steven.

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Rockville, Md.: "As in the case of the cellphone ban we talked about above, I think the laws are good to highlight the problem, but enforcement can't take the place of personal responsibility"

You can't legislate common sense. Whether it be cell phones, headlights when raining, seat belts, clearing snow/ice, one of the "hazards" of living in a free society is some people are going to be stupid and we can't do a thing about it.

All we can do is hope they take themselves "out" without hurting others.

Robert Thomson: I understand what you're saying. Sometimes, these laws on behavior get politicians some attention, but don't really have the desired impact. And police sometimes don't enforce them except in combination with other laws, or during special enforcement drives.

But I do think they get discussions going and generate publicity that might get through to some people.

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Woodbridge, Va.: So Metro has money problems. Big deal. I can't remember when Metro DIDN'T have money problems, even during good times.

Robert Thomson: The revenue from fares and fees never keeps up with expenses for Metro, but this round does seem particularly severe. I don't see how we get out of it without some serious pain -- either on the service cuts or higher fares, or more tax money to Metro.

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Bethesda, Md.: Is it my imagination or have there been a lot more fires disrupting Metro lately? Or are they just getting more publicity?

There were two on the Red line in January and one last week on Blue-Orange.

Is Metro taking proactive measures to help prevent smoke and fire in the system?

Robert Thomson: There was a point -- I think well more than a year ago now -- when track fires seemed quite common. The recent ones you're refering to stood out because they now seem to occur less frequently.

After that big round of track fires, the transit authority did take several steps to reduce their number, and it seemed to be effective. One step, for example, was to be more aggressive about getting trash off the tracks.

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Hyattsville, MD: Do you know when Sligo Creek Pkwy between New Hampshire Ave and Maple Ave near Takoma Park will be re-opened?

It's been closed since last fall, I think for water main work.

Robert Thomson: Not sure about the scheduled, but will check and post information on my Get There blog.

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Fairfax Station, Va.: Dr. Gridlock - thanks for the chat. The other day I came upon a traffic light that was disabled. It was flashing yellow for the main road and red for the cross street. As I understand it this situation is to be treated like a four-way stop. Most drivers were doing that. However, when there were no cars waiting on the main road, the next drivers to arrive at the flashing yellow sailed right through. Fortunately there were no accidents, but more by luck than anything else. What are the rules for flashing traffic lights? Are they the same in all local jurisdictions? And why don't traffic engineers make them flash red in all directions? This would seem to be a much sounder approach, and would eliminate the confusion that these flashing yellow lights seem to cause.

Robert Thomson: If the signal goes completely dark, treat it as a four-way stop. If it's flashing yellow in one direction and flashing red in the other, then it's the drivers with the flashing red who must stop. The others should slow down and proceed with great caution. I believe that's the standard in all our jurisdictions.

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Alexandria, Va. -- HELP!: My wife is barely speaking to me, and I need Dr. Gridlock's help!

This morning, she missed an important appointment because a relatively small fender-bender (admittedly, apparently one involving three cars) delayed traffic on the GW Parkway from Alexandria into the District.

This happens relatively frequently. The usual drill is,

1. Accident

2. Cars pull over

3. US Park Police blocks multiple lanes, while police personnel wander back and forth for a half-hour or so

4. Eventually, a tow arrives, but for 30-50 minutes, a major arterial road has been effectively shut down for no reason.

On Virginia roads other than the GW Parkway, accidents not involving serious injury, or leaking fuel, etc. always lead to the involved vehicles pulling off the road (not just over but OFF). That could have happened here. It finally did - but Park Police continued to block one and a half lanes for absolutely no purpose. I am a former emergency responder, and I understood exactly what they were doing.

So could the Park cops possibly care less? Every minute that something like this happens, some innocent person can get fired ... and there's no real resort to anything except blaming the person driving your car!

Robert Thomson: I completely understand the frustration people feel when they're stuck behind a minor accident. And as you know, it doesn't take a lane blockage to cause a slowdown at an accident scene. Rubbernecking alone can accomplish that. Traffic can just crawl past a guy changing a tire.

It's tough to evaluate exactly what the police concern is at any accident -- other than that they're trying to protect those involved, the emergency responders and the passing motorists.

The parkways can be a particular problem in this regard because they weren't designed to be used as major commuter routes.

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McLean, Va.: This past weekend I had a chance to drive the Wilson Bridge's new Local Lanes. They really work great! Kudos to Maryland for their terrific job on signs indicating whether you need local or through lanes based on what exit you want. Virginia -- not so good. VDOT should really look into this.

Robert Thomson: Yes, it's a much improved setup. The sign problem is on the Virginia side. Many of those signs you see aren't the permanent ones. This has to do with the construction still going on around Telegraph Road. The lane split isn't yet in the permanent location.

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Alexandria: Crystal City is way off base. Most "World Capitals" do NOT have 24 service for their subways. London, Tokyo, Paris, and Berlin all do close at around the same hours as Metro does. Moscow and New York are the only two I can think of off the top of my head that are open 24/7.

Robert Thomson: This is first of two comments on our earlier exchange about 24 hour transit service.

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World capitals: While D.C. may be the capital of the US, it is by no means a world class city. You can't possibly compare DC to cosmopolitan cities like Paris, London, Rome, Tokyo, etc. New York is the comparison as far as world class cities in the U.S., certainly not Washington!

Robert Thomson: This is the other. I think comparisons to other cities can be useful, and instructive, but ultimately, we've got to do our own thing, based on local needs and resources.

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Front Royal, Va.: Could you reduce traffic on roads in the DC area if some of the traffic were replaced by a form of containerized shipping? For example, instead of loading up a truck in places like Front Royal, Hagerstown or Fredericksburg... could you slide a container on the rail flatcar and then (in a place like Crystal City or the yard near Union Station) slide the container onto a truck that is already near the destination grocery or retail store? Wouldn't that take a lot of congestion off the road if the trucks didn't have to drive so far?

Robert Thomson: I think that's creative. If you're goal is to cut down congestion, it might be at least as effective to focus on creating rail bypasses around Washington, so a lot more of the long-distance freight could stay away from our local highways.

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Robert Thomson: Thanks, all. We've gone into overtime once again, but I always enjoy chatting with you -- and always learn much from the exchange.

Stay safe out there.

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