Roads and Rails

Eric Weiss and Lena Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 17, 2009; 11:00 AM

Do you think Metro has grown unreliable and become downright unpleasant? Or are you happy with your commutes on rail and bus? Does the thought of the inter-county connector (ICC) keep you up at night or does it seem like it's long overdue? And what of the moves by Maryland and Virginia to encourage the private sector to build road projects, such as widening the Capital Beltway?

Washington Post staff writers Eric Weiss and Lena Sun were online Tuesday, Feb. 17 at 11 a.m. ET to answer your traffic and transit questions.

The transcript follows.

Discussion Archive


Eric Weiss: Good morning commuters!

Whatcha thinkin' about Metro's budget problems, HOV-lane cheaters or the stimulus.

Or just vent or ask questions.

We're totally flexible.

Let's go.


Alexandria, Va.:

There are electronic message signs at each end of Old Town warning about 3 months of construction on Washington Street that will begin in March. I cannot find any detailed information on what they will be doing, how many lanes they will be closing, etc.

With the City of Alexandria's negative attitude toward those of us that "cut through" Old Town, how bad will this be?

Eric Weiss: The five-month project will reconstruct Washington Street and its sidewalks, according to Alexandria's transportation director. There will be intermittent lane closures and switches. The work will mostly be done between 7 a.m. and 3:30 p.m., although work might go later on some days.


Alexandria, Va.: Two questions for you all: 1) There are signs warning about delays due to road work along the GW Parkway just as you enter Old Town from the North. Any idea what they will be doing?

2) FINALLY the Monroe Ave/Route One bridge is open in both directions, but any idea when one can take that left onto Slaters Lane vs having to drive around?

Eric Weiss: See above.


Washington, D.C.: The HOV runners are amazing(ly bad)! I can't believe anyone would defend that kind of bad behavior.

Eric Weiss: I was astounded at some of the comments when I was on the phone with them. Some people just feel their time is more important than others'

But, unfortunately, there are those who will take advantage of the low odds of getting caught, even though the police are actively trying to nab them.


Washington, D.C.: I keep hearing conflicting reports about whether or not there will be Metro cuts. Do you know?

Lena Sun: Here's what I know. There will be personnel cuts. Metro says it plans to eliminate at least 313 positions, most of them are administrative. About half of those positions are filled. Those are supposed to begin later this month.

There are another 578 positions that would be affected if the agency also reduced service. But the board has said they don't want to even talk about service cuts until they have squeezed every cent out of potential revenue and trimmed all other expenses.

Plus the stimulus is going to mean more capital dollars for Metro. That would allow the board, if it chooses, to take dollars out of the capital budget to plug some of the hole in the operating budget.

My bet is that they end up doing a combination of things: trim more, up their revenue estimates, move money out of capital, and if that doesn't close the entire gap, make some minor service adjustments.


More ads in Metro stations -- why not?: I know we don't want a constant barrage of advertising. But with so much unused space in Metro stations, especially on the underground platforms, I'd be surprised if this wasn't being looked into as a way to help out with the budget. Heck, you could even plaster the walls going down the escalator.

Lena Sun: Yup. London Tube has moving ads down the sides of its escalators, I believe. Metro has been trying to get more advertisers. But guess what? Not as many advertisers have the bucks to do it these days. The feeling is that it may be more cost-efficient to advertise in other types of media.


Northern Virginia: Almost a month later, what lessons have we learned about daily mass transit from the transit experience on inauguration day? I was disappointed that some options like special express buses were grossly underpublicized, but bus rapid transit seems like an interesting, relatively cheap model for expanding our options. I took Virginia Railway Express and am now a fan for life. A seat for every ticketholder, no lines, lots and lots of advance preparation producing well-informed staff--it was great. One final thought: the bike valet service made a huge difference. Any chance of institutionalizing that?

Eric Weiss: Ahh, lessons learned. I think you are correct that the express buses were underutilized. Part of the problem is, yes, a lack of timely publicity about them, but I think another problem is that residents and visitors think of Metrorail when they think of public transport.

I'm glad you had a good experience on VRE--but I wonder how many more folks could have squeezed onto the trains if they didn't limit it to tix sold in advance.

As far as bikes go, yes, another success. But since inaugurations are once every four years, don't know if permanent bus valets around downtown are neeed. However, they are building a bicycle center at Union Station that will make it easier to make the transfer from bike to transit.


My commuting sin: Is leaving my newspaper on the Metro seat so the next guy can read it. What's the problem?

Lena Sun: You know, I think that's an excuse for laziness. Have you ever ridden the trains as rush hour ends? They are littered with people who have left their newspapers "so the next guy can read it." If you don't want to be considerate and do your job to keep public space neat, think about it in a more selfish way.

Metro personnel have to go through the trains to pick up garbage every day. The budget squeeze may mean fewer people to pick up after people like you.

Do the right thing. Take your stuff with you and stick it in the recycling. Or the regular garbage if you cant be bothered with taking the three seconds to find the recycling bin.

Anybody else out there want to weigh in?


HOV Runners: And judging by the comments section of your article, it seems lots of people - more than mentioned in your article - still run the gauntlet. Did you not get a chance to go out there and see for yourself? HOV Cheaters Run the Numbers: 65 MPH vs. $1,000 (Post, Feb. 15)

Eric Weiss: Yes, I went on a ride-along with a trooper on HOV patrol on I-395/95. Very interesting. I was surprised by the number of law-enforcement/government vehicles who use the roads as well as hybrids. Also, enforcement is stronger than you would think, because the cops hang out on the ramps, where it is easier and safer to nab violators. So if you are on your daily commute, you might not see the enforcement out there.


Arlington, Va.: One thing about 66 that many people forget: If one is coming from or going to Dulles Airport, it's perfectly legal to drive on 66 alone even during the HOV hours. I've gotten some dirty looks while making that trip.

Eric Weiss: Yes, I've written a story about the vague definition of "airport business" and how it serves as a loophole for some to use the HOV lanes.


Pentagon City, Va.: I'm the reader who submitted the question two weeks ago about rush hour service at Pentagon City ending around 9 a.m. I've tracked it for the past two weeks and the first train to arrive after 9 a.m. -- usually at 9:03 a.m. -- has changed from Mt Vernon Square to Fort Totten every morning. After that they come every 10-12 minutes. Can you get an answer from Metro as to why we're charged rush hour fare for non rush hour service when ever other line gets trains every 4-5 minutes? It sure makes it frustrating if some dumb tourist blocks the escalator and you're stuck waiting 12 minutes if you miss that 9:03 train.

Lena Sun: I called and could not get an immediate answer. But I'm going to post your question and ask someone to follow up and check the schedules. Thanks for taking the time to track the service. Steven, if you're reading behind, can you please follow up with planning and see what the schedule is supposed to be and what the trains are actually doing?


Burke, Va.: It's my fondest wish that every judge in PW County, Fairfax, Loudoun, and all the rest carefully write down the names of EACH AND EVERY shameless HOV violator from that article, and save that list . . . because all of those dopes are going back to court. It's the LAW, people. If you can shrug off a $1,000 fine, maybe it's time to re-think your priorities.

Eric Weiss: Everyone in the article has been ticketed and found guilty of multiple HOV violations, so the court is well aware of them. In one case, a driver lost his licence after a speeding ticket because the judge saw all the HOV violations.


Clifton, Va.: HOV laws discriminate against those tax payers/drivers who for whatever reason can't meet the occupancy levels set forth by the law. Their job hours, type of work or family situation prevent them from having more than just the driver in the car. HOV laws and HOT lanes are unconstitutional.

Eric Weiss: If you don't have the required number of passengers, you can always use the regular lanes. The HOV lanes are reserved for those with the required number of passengers. What is unconstitutional about that?


600 Fifth St NW: With the stimulus bill passed, the talks about layoffs at Metro and the resulting service cuts are all now moot points, because the stimulus bill makes sure Metro gets plenty of funding. Right?

Lena Sun: So is it a coincidence that your address happens to be the same as Metro's headquarters building? I'm guessing you're a Metro employee who is worried about upcoming layoffs.

My understanding is that the elimination of those 313 positions is almost a sure thing, regardless of what happens with stimulus funds.

A bigger question is what will happen with the 578 positions John Catoe has talked about being on the table. Those are linked to service cuts, and it's not clear what's happening with service reductions.


Arlington, Va.: Is there any news if Metro will be getting some of the stimulus money. It seems like everything else is getting millions, why not Metro?

Lena Sun: Metro IS getting stimulus money. In anticipation of that, the transit agency has drawn up a $325 million list of its top-priority projects that will meet the goals of the stimulus. These are capital projects.


Metro cuts: Any talk of Catoe and the other highly (overly?) paid directors taking a cut? If I were a Metro employee about to lose my job, I'd want to know what sacrifices the big wigs were making.

Doesn't Obama keep saying we're all in this together?

Lena Sun: You are kinda mixing apples and oranges. Catoe is the general manager and he gets a salary. And yes, he has said he will give up his raise this year in light of the budget difficulties.

The transit agency does not pay the board of directors.

The Metro board of directors are a mix of elected and appointed officials. Some get a per diem. Some, like the members representing the District, don't receive any compensation. Then there is Marcell Solomon, an alternate who represents Prince George's County. For the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2008, he received nearly $73,000 from Prince George's county for his Metro work and other county service.


Constitutional Issue: Freedom to travel has been identified as a Constitutional right more than once. Taking public roadways for private profit (HOT) or restricting to multiple occupants (HOV) restricts the freedom of travel of the indivudal. No court has yet held but the argument is pretty easy to identify.

Eric Weiss: Public-private partnerships were approved by the Virginia General Assembly. The Beltway project is new construction--in other words, it would not have been built without private investment.

The proposed I-95/395 project would also be a partnership with the state and would involve the private entities paying for new construction, overpasses, park-n-ride lots and, if actually approved and built, a new highway to Fredericksburg. The companies would also give the state a big check for increased bus service.

Other states have done similar things, so I wonder how it would be unconstitutional. But I am not a lawyer.


A suggestion: If Metro is reading this, then I have a suggestion for you. I propose that you raise rush-hour fares ONLY for riders who use SmartBenefits. I have SmartBenefits, and it's a tax-free benefit that reduces my commuting costs to zero. Given that it's a tax-free benefit up to over $100 each month, raising fares for this group of riders (which I believe includes all federal employees) would avoid unduly burdening non-subsidized riders who pay out of their own pockets. But only rush-hours, since that's when we're commuting to and from our jobs.

Lena Sun: Well let's post it because all you federal employees get your commutes subsidized. (Not me.)


Recycle it yourself!: Yes, Lena, it's laziness. Take the paper with you, and toss it in the correct bin. The trains at night are a mess and it's not fair to the Metro employees to clean up after us!

Before the Express, I would argue that leaving a nicely folded A-section for the next person wasn't a bad idea, but that free paper The Post insists on handing out has literally trashed the system. I routinely pick them up off the floor and recycle them (I'm a daily and Sunday subscriber).

Lena Sun: Getting lots of comments on this newspaper issue.


newspapers: I am very happy to see a newspaper on a Metro seat, because I almost always take and read it. I interpret leaving a newspaper for other riders as thoughtfulness, not laziness.

Lena Sun: And after you read it, do you leave it on the seat? My experience from riding the train is that the cars are full of newspapers.


Washington, DC: I despise the fact that we don't support public services like Metro enough, so Metro has to get money from advertisers.

That said, I would welcome more advertisers if they were required to display illuminated ads that would make it possible to actually read in the subway without damaging one's vision. (Foggy Bottom, I'm talkin' about you!)

Lena Sun: Isn't Foggy bottom the station that has those really really bright lights?


Washington Post's opinion on newspaper etiquette: I wonder why newspaper employees advocate single-use newspaper behavior... hmmm... perhaps so that the maximum number of papers is sold? Bad for trees, good for The Post.

Lena Sun: and here's another person's opinion.


Kingstowne, Va.: Please, no additional ads in subway stations! In addition to lighted boxes for use as intended, they are already on the sides of trains, wrapped around columns, hanging from upper platforms, and even on the tile. And given that for the stations I frequent, all the ad space is bought up by one advertiser for a period of time, do we really need more of the same?

I've been a rider for many years and one of the things I liked best about the ads in stations was that there were designated places for them (the lighted boxes), and not all over every surface available.

Please, no more uglification efforts!

Lena Sun: I think a lot of other riders out there probably share your view. Also, after several weeks, you gotta wonder if anyone is even looking at them, or merely trying to tune them out.


Dupont Circle: re raising rush hour--Not all using Smart Benefits are federal employees and some of us have commutes which are more than $120 month which is the limit we can have taken off our salaries before taxes (note--taken off our salaries, not paid by employers). My commute is $360 a month--I wish someone else was paying for mine!

Lena Sun: Maybe there's a way they can raise it just for the federal employees!


Spare me the "constitutional" nonsense: I'd like to see the guy who's sending in the "constitutional" silliness try that argument in court. Not only will he lose, but he might be sanctioned (i.e., ordered to pay what amounts to a fine) for making a frivolous argument that wastes the court's time. The US Constitution is completely silent on anything that could relate to this issue in any way, and the same is true for Virginia's.

(Yes, I am an attorney.)

But I must admit that I was surprised that none of the people quoted in the article the other day tried to trot out the lame excuse that "the taxpayers paid for this pavement, who does VDOT think they are claiming to restrict it, blah blah." Or did you get that sort of sob story and simply decide that it was too stupid an argument to waste readers' time with it?

Eric Weiss: The violators I spoke to didn't really try to excuse their behavior, although one accused the state of enforcing HOV laws simply to raise revenue.

Even the lawyer who I spoke to didn't really try to excuse himself, although he did try to weasel out of having his name and quotes in the paper.


Arlington, Va.: Please don't waste (electronic) ink on the HOV/HOT is unconstitutional theme. Freedom to travel is not the same as freedom to travel on any road at any time.

But if our friend feels so strongly, I suggest s/he go for a drive down Pennsylvania Avenue (or E St.) from 17th Street to 15th Street. I'm sure the Secret Service will bow to his/her constitutional argument.

Eric Weiss: Interesting point. The federal government is constantly closing streets in the District without asking the city's permission.


Alexandria, Va.: What happen with the Blue line split? Is Metro going to move forward with this or is it dead? It seems that Metro for a little money (change a few sign) can give better service with no capital expenditures.

Lena Sun: Short answer: not much. The last time I checked, it was still pending. My gut tells me that some board members may not be in favor of this because it hurts their constituents, and therefore asking staff to get more feedback. Also the folks who are in charge of this area were also heavily involved in planning for the inauguration and dealing with the budget.


Ballston/Foggy Bottom: Can someone please explain why it is taking so long to fix the escalators at both Ballston and Foggy Bottom? This has been going on since August, and the "rehabilitation" dates are still being pushed back.

Lena Sun: Lots of complaints about escalators at Foggy Bottom. The overhauls take a long time because it's difficult to get replacement parts, I'm told, because there aren't that many manufacturers left.

I know there is an elevator at Ballston that was just taken out of service for a major overhaul.


Fed Employee: As a federal employee I resent your comment. My commute is well over $150 a month, only because my low salary makes it impossible for me to live in the District. If we had salaries comparable to our private sector counterparts, I'd be making $60,000 more a year than I am as a first year attorney. Then commuting and paying for an aprtment wouldn't be an issue. But with a studo renting for more than half my monthly pay, that $100 is nothing.

Lena Sun: You're right.


Fed Employee: Not all users of SmartBenefits is a federal employee. Some people work for private employers and elect to set aside some of their salary to have pre-tax transit dollars. Also, plenty of federal employees spend more than the subsidy every month because most federal employees can't afford homes close in.

I vote for more ads (just ignore them if you're not interested) and no fair increase. And increase fares on the buses too. Why should rail users be the only ones penalized?

Lena Sun: On the ads front, I doubt there will be the kind of increase needed to cover for the budget shortfall.

You are right that rail riders pay for a lot more of their ride than bus riders. But every time that argument comes up to raise bus fares a bit more, certain board members object. Current Metro board chair Jim Graham believes the people who ride the bus can't afford to pay more.


Washington, D.C.: Please mark my vote in the column of someone that think WMATA is doing an excellent job with the hand it is dealt. I have lived in three spots in the city and had three different jobs so have used different WMATA commuting routes and methods. All things considered I think things are run very well at a good price. WMATA needs to always try and improve and stay ahead of the game like any large company must. It beats driving any day!

Lena Sun: okay. let's post this one too.


Papers on the Metro: I love the excuse that train riders are being so considerate when they are leaving their papers "for the next person to read." How come it's never a paper for which somebody has an expensive subscription, like the Post, the Times, or the WSJ? The vast majority of papers left on trains are the free throw-aways, and the people who "considerately" leave them for the next person are just lazy.

Lena Sun: I have to agree with you here.


Whatever happened to: Getting rid of the carpeting in Metro train cars? I thought this was supposed to produce measurable savings. I'm all for keeping the cushioned seats (hey if you're going to be sitting for a while, may as well be comfy), but I wouldn't be heartbroken to see the carpet go.

Lena Sun: They're going to do it gradually as they run out of carpet.


Falls Church, Va.: What's going on with NoVa's very own bridge to nowhere? The pedestrian bridge at 7 Corners has been complete for months except for the fact that doesn't meet in the middle. In the meantime we have to put up with a lane that is still closed for the ongoing construction project.

Eric Weiss: Bridge to Nowhere. I like it.

The bridge project you are referring to is in "suspension" because the steel truss originally delivered had some cracks in it. Uh oh!

The project is on hold until a new truss is fabricated and delivered this spring, according to the always helpful Joan Morris of VDOT.


Lena Sun: Okay. So Eric told me I was too mean so we better sign off and hope you all have a safe, smooth ride home.


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