Dr. Gridlock

Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, February 23, 2009; 1:00 PM

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock. He was online Monday, Feb. 23 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.


Robert Thomson: Hello, travelers. There's a lot going on in local transportation. I think the top story right now is what's going to happen to Metro service as the board of directors grapples with a budget gap. But there are plenty of other big stories, like plans for using the federal stimulus money, the upcoming road construction season, the question of whether I-66 will be widened inside the Beltway, whether we should switch from a gas tax to a tax on vehicle miles traveled -- and why some of the Metro board members don't ride Metro.

Let's see what you have to say.


Washington, D.C.: I have been a daily commuter on MetroRail's red line for over 20 years now. While I have put up with declining service, aging and dirty rail cars, and increased rush hour crowding, I have never feared for my physical safety on the trains, and in fact, I've considered commuting via train safer than dealing with rush hour traffic in my car. But last week's multiple derailments may have changed my mind. Do you think that the derailments indicate that there are physical problems with the system that could jeopardize my safety as a commuter? Thanks.

Robert Thomson: No. I don't believe the derailments last week indicate that Metro riders should fear for their safety.

What happened last week: A maintenance truck popped off the tracks near the Court House Station. Hours later, it was put back on the tracks and popped off again. That managed to mess up an entire day for many Orange Line riders. In the evening, a Yellow Line train with no passengers derailed outside Mount Vernon Square.

Metro continues to investigate that incident. But it's important to note two things: It involved one of the 5000 Series cars, which Lena Sun reported last week have been involved in at least 13 of the 20 derailments since 2001.

Also, the incident occurred at a chronic trouble spot: A place where the tracks curve and there's no guardrail. It's the second time since the start of 2007 we've had a derailment under those circumstances. The National Transportation Safety Board said Metro should put in the guardrails at such spots, and Metro has been complying by installing scores of them.

The spot where the derailment occurred has been on the schedule, due for work this coming weekend.


Friendship Heights: I am skeptical about some of the things WMATA is using its stimulus money on.

$6.7 million for bathrooms in the bus garages?

$2.7 million for energy efficient light bulbs - WMATA already uses energy efficient light bulbs and installed them more than 5 years ago but 2.7 million buys an awful lot of compact flourescent light bulbs - at $10 a bulb that is 270,000 light bulbs!

And this $48 million for a test track just seems like a boondoggle. Is WMATA actually admitting that the new rail cars are delivered not having been tested? If that is true then WMATA needs a new chief of procurement.

But alternately it should not be difficult to do this testing when the system is closed or to do it at the end of the red lines on the weekend when a lot of the trains are turning around at Grosvenor and they should have no trouble finding some open track.

I just have a hard time with what this agency is doing after years of crying poverty.

Robert Thomson: I haven't priced any bathrooms lately, but did have a chance to look over the $230 million list of projects Metro put forward for its share of the federal stimulus money.

Not all of it is going to be spent on things that will be on public display, but it's still important. Transit authority managers are anxious to get that test track. Metro does test new cars before putting them into commission for passenger use. That would be a process familiar to many people who ride the Green Line on weekends and have put up with the delays caused by single tracking of trains while the new cars are checked out on the other track.

Another helpful project will be the upgrading of the oldest track in the system, on the Red Line between Rhode Island Avenue and Judiciary Square.

There are some other elements of the plan I can talk about, but they'll come up in other questions.

Key thing to remember about the stimulus money is that

Robert Thomson: "shovel ready" phrase.


Silver Spring, Md.: Where are the new signs that Metro promised would provide more information than we currently receive? I'm sick of looking for when my train will arrive and having to wade through elevator and escalator outages in other states.

Robert Thomson: Silver Spring, it sounds like you're refering to the Metro Channel program, which would upgrade the information system in stations through the use of video screens placed along the platforms and on mezzanines.

I saw a presentation about this last year and came away liking the idea. It has the potential to offer riders a lot more information they want in a lot shorter time than is possible through the electronic message panels in use now. Also, this new system could be used to increase Metro's advertising revenue. That's something many of you have been calling upon Metro to do as you review the plans for balancing the transit budget.

Although the idea publicized last year, it was presented as a longterm project. Now it's possible to advance it through use of the stimulus money.


Silver Spring, Md.: Now that we have been manhandled into getting a "stupid" card why is it so hard to put money on it?

In the Glemont station there are 3 machines that allow money to be put on the cards and always a line. Meanwhile the 6 machine giving paper fares stand empty.

I live paycheck to paycheck so I can't put a lot on at once. I will not do anything to register the card since I don't think Homeland Security needs to know where and when I travel.

Robert Thomson: Here's another one regarding use of the stimulus money: One of the items on Metro's spending list really got my attention because the need for it is so obvious: Metro plans to spend part of the stimulus on upgrading the fare vending machines in the stations so most of them can handle SmarTrip transactions.

Since Metro did away with paper transfers on Jan. 4, the lines at the limited number of SmarTrip machines have on many occasions been ridiculously long, while the regular paper Farecard machines have no lines.

Upgrading the machines is a terrific use of the stimulus money and can't happen soon enough.


Washington, D.C.: In light of Metro's budget woes, shouldn't the wages and benefits of Metro's union employees be on the table for discussion? Shouldn't we be considering asking for concessions from Metro's workers? I'm just saying...

Robert Thomson: I don't like the idea of cutting working people's paychecks, whether they're public or private employees. And it's especially unhelpful in a recession.

Metro's staff is taking a hit as part of this budget problem. More than 100 people got layoff notices last week.

Reopening contracts negotiated in good faith should be far down the list of potential solutions to this budget gap.


Tenleytown, DC: What was going on on Nebraska this morning? The road was shut down between Newark and New Mexico causing a ridiculous traffic nightmare. Was someone really stupid enough to shut that road down for AU construction during the middle of morning rush?

Robert Thomson: John Lisle, a spokesman for the District Department of Transportation, says the problem this morning was wires down at the intersection of Nebraska and New Mexico avenues.


Washington, D.C.: "Metro continues to investigate that incident. But it's important to note two things: It involved one of the 5000 Series cars, which Lena Sun reported last week have been involved in at least 13 of the 20 derailments since 2001."

How would riders identify these cars (and maybe wait for another train)?

Has Metro filed suit against the manufacturer of these cars?

washingtonpost.com: Train on Yellow Line Derails at D.C. Station

Robert Thomson: My recollection is that Metro has been working with CAF, the manufacturer, to fix these troubled cars. The 5000 Series had a lot of problems.

If you're concerned about riding on them -- something you've probably done scores of times over the years if you're a regular Metro rider-- it's easy to identify them. Look at the number on the side of the rail car. If it starts with a "5", it's a CAF car.


Arlington, Va.: Will any of the stimulus money go to fix those next-bus signs in various locations, such as Rosslyn. At Rosslyn, the signs were quite accurate and then were taken out of service due to a supposed glitch somewhere out of service. They still operate as clocks but with the wrong time shown.

Robert Thomson: No. Fixing the Next Bus system is not part of the stimulus package. Next Bus, a tracking system that -- if it worked -- would allow riders to figure out when the bus is coming to their stop, is supposed to be fixed later this year.

I hope that's on schedule. This is a vital upgrade to our transit system. Some of the longest minutes of the day are spent staring up the road trying to spot an overdue bus.

The system was introduced but suspended in 2007 because it wasn't accurate enough.


Washington, D.C.: I haven't gotten a look at WMATA or D.C. government plans for the stimulus monies. To your knowledge, does any of the money link directly to the street-car system in the works? Capital costs or operating?

Robert Thomson: Street car expenditures would be done by the District Department of Transportation. I think there should be an announcement about construction plans in a few weeks. We've been waiting a long time for progress on this front. The first thing that was supposed to happen was construction of a demonstration street car project in Anacostia. The District bought the street cars a while ago, but they've been sitting in the Czech Republic pending construction of the rails for them to run on.

Meanwhile, the District has not announced plans for spending its stimulus money. Gabe Klein, the new director of the District Department of Transportation, says the department is trying to decide whether to go for a lot of little projects or a couple of big ones, possibly including reconstruction of the 11th Street Bridge.


Defoliation: It is just ghastly and depressing to drive around the Virginia beltway and see the ever-expanding denuding of the area of trees, in the pursuit of the idiotic HOT lanes. Will there be any restoration of the landscape when this is over? How long will it take to build?

Robert Thomson: The work on the HOT lanes (high occupancy or toll) is obvious to anyone driving on the western side of the Beltway in Virginia.

I think it's essential that we increase our highway capacity, as part of a broader transportation program, and the HOT lanes are an innovative way to do that.

I agree with you that the impact on the Beltway's appearance is quite striking, but I never thought of it as a scenic highway. The expansion is being done within the Beltway's right of way. So it's not as disruptive to the landscape as Maryland's Intercounty Connector project.

HOT lanes on the Beltway should be done in 2012.


Washington, D.C.: Wanted to write you about a potentially dangerous Metrobus loading situation. The restaurant Buca di Beppo on Connecticut NW near Florida Avenue has placed their valet parking at the bus stop there. Cars for the valet line up in the bus stop, forcing the buses to stop either in the middle of the road (if there is more than one bus) or behind the cars, very near the Florida Ave slip lane.

Is this legal? Thanks.

Robert Thomson: A valet stand in a bus stop? That can't be legal, and it's certainly dangerous.


North Bethesda, Md.: Hi,

I live at the corner of 355 (Rockville Pike) and Georgetown Road. It's becoming unbearable to wait for the green light to proceed south on Old G. Why? Because people who do not live on my street use it as a through way. I noticed other parts of MoCo use a cannot-turn sign during certain times. Do you think this is possible?


Robert Thomson: Rising traffic volumes are a source of tension in many neighborhoods across the region, so I understand how you feel. And the county and state certainly do try to limit commuter access to residential streets, or they take measures to calm traffic on those streets. But I'm not sure your location would qualify. Route 355 and Old Georgetown Road? Those would be two major roads, unless I'm missing something in your description.


Dulles Rail: Any updates on this and was anything extra included as part of the stimlius funding?

Robert Thomson: Dulles Rail is doing fine. Local officials are very confident that they'll win federal approval for full funding of phase one within a couple of months.

You'll see construction activity pick up in the spring. No need for stimulus money.


SWDC: Regarding avoiding 5000 series cars: That seems a little overboard. If we're going that route, then shouldn't we avoid the 1000-4000 series cars, too? Since the crashworthiness of the older cars was an issue in the Woodley Park accident, you might argue that it's still better to be in a derailment-prone newer train car that has structural safety features lacking in the first-generation models that are more prone to "telescope" in a crash.

Robert Thomson: I agree. I'm not recommending riders avoid those rail cars. I ride them frequently.


re: Buca di Beppo: This place is just outside my office building and the valet situation is horrid. All the tour buses unload packs of kids there, blocking traffic and obscuring the Metro bus stop there so that Metro drivers can't see to pick up passengers.

Robert Thomson: Thanks for expanding on the previous comment about this situation. Tour buses shouldn't be using a Metrobus stop any more than valet parkers should.


Springfield, Va.: There has been much recent discussion regarding the HOT lane proposals for I-95/395 and 66. I Have been told that the contract between Virginia and Fluor does not prohibit the number of eligible riders to be increased in order to qualify for HOV, i.e., free, status. Will Fluor just be able to raise HOV-2 to HOV-3 or -4 on 66, or HOV-3 to HOV-4 on 95/395? What is to prevent them from raising either to HOV-5?

Robert Thomson: Virginia is mandating that HOV3 be free on the HOT lanes.


Springfield, VA: It's still a mystery to me, and maybe you too, as to how authorities will sort out HOT cheaters from toll payers. Currently State Police can monitor cars on exit ramps - you've either got three, or you've got a ticket. When we have HOT, how will they figure out who paid and who's cheating?

Robert Thomson: I've asked about this lots of times, but it is still a mystery to me how this will work. The project managers need to come up with a way to make sure that carpoolers are not charged, and to catch cheats at the same time. They seem very confident that they can do this, but they haven't settled on a technology.


Alexandria, Va.: I'm still amazed that people think that the government that couldn't stop Bernie Madoff from stealing billions of dollars does care about the activity on your Metro fare card or your EZPass.

Way to be paranoid people. Unless you are actually a serial killer or something - then you should worry about the gov't tracking you....

Robert Thomson: I understand why people are reluctant to be tracked. (And I'm saying that as someone who has a SmarTrip card and an E-ZPass.) The same issue is likely to come up when we get into a full-blown discussion of converting from a gas tax to a tax on vehicle miles traveled. How will the government accurately measure your vehicle miles?


opening Metro later: One of the suggestions in your column was to open Metro later. This is terrible for the people who have to work early, and those are most likely to to be in low-income jobs and need metro. We keep making it more and more difficult and costly for people in low-income jobs to get to work and then we complain if wages go up ... .

Robert Thomson: I agree. Some of my readers have said they'd be willing to accept a slightly later opening time, but I don't believe there should be any change in hours. That would be a serious hit to many workers. Not just those with early start times, but also to those who work overnight shifts and take a late Metro train or bus to reach work and then look for an early train or bus to get home.


Falls Church, Va.: Any word yet on when the long over-due pedestrian bridge at Seven Corners will be done? Not only is it STILL not done, in the course of construction they took down the Exit Only signs for west-bound Rte. 50 traffic so now all of the traffic entering 50 from Rte. 7, Wilson Blvd. and Broad St. now have to contend with the maniacs from Rte 50 try to speed through the entrance/exit lane to avoid the back-up in the two left lanes. Put the Exit Only signs back up and enforce the rules. A very dangerous intersection has been made worse!

Robert Thomson: I think the problem with the bridge was that a beam arrived with a crack in it, and had to be sent back. I'll get an update and post it on my Get There blog. (Meant to do that earlier, so I apologize for the delay.)


Washington, D.C.: It is deplorable that Metro is considering ONE cut. They should be ADDING service, not taking away, in this current environment. If there is a shortfall then so be it. If GM can access billions from the Feds at the drop of a hat, then so can Metro.

Catoe, don't you dare cut the Yellow line service to Fort Totten.

Robert Thomson: Metro GM John Catoe doesn't want to cut transit service. He and his staff have been looking for trims that would have the least impact on bus and train riders.

Still, I don't believe any of us needs to join in and endorse service cuts.

At the federal level, it's very difficult to pry loose money for public transportation. That may change in the next couple of years, but it's still the case that transit operations get shortchanged compared to highway spending.


VMT: While I'm surprised that Obama rejected a VMT out of hand, I don't see what it really gets us. Let's assume the tracking doesn't really infringe any civil liberties . . . but at that point why should we care if someone is driving mile after mile at 2am, or driving through, say, Nebraska? The only thing they're doing is polluting, which is pretty well covered by a gas tax.

Now, if they're contributing to congestion, fine, but it seems like we have a way to handle that already, like London and other large cities with a restricted zone. The opposition is political, not practical though.

Robert Thomson: Many smart people are endorsing the Vehicle Miles Traveled tax, but I don't see it. At least not yet.

We do need alternatives to the gas tax. Maryland Transportation Secretary John Porcari pointed out last week that our transportation financing system is completely dependent on people driving more every year.


If transit service is cut back, so what? We can always drive, just like the Metro board members.: What peeves me most about Metro board members and the attitude that public transit may not be convenient is that I don't have a car. I don't have the luxury of driving if I'm late. I don't have another option besides metro rail and bus. These board members should be ashamed of themselves at best and kicked off the board at worst for not using metro. It's fine if someone doesn't want to use metro, but for goodness sake please keep it functional for those of us who rely on it every single day.

Robert Thomson: You're right to be angry about this. If Metro board members are going to make decisions about service cutbacks, they ought to know what they're doing. And they can't know what they're doing unless they regularly experience the frustrations you experience with train and bus service.


Robert Thomson: Thanks for joining me today. I look forward to discussing these and other issues with you again in two weeks. In the meantime, please look in at my newspaper column and Get There blog. And stay safe in your travels.


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