Dr. Gridlock: Traffic Reports, Mileage Taxes and More

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

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock. He was online Monday, March 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. I see a bunch of questions and comments already about a good range of local transportation issues. So let's go, and keep them coming.

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Silver Spring Md.:What's the latest on the Silver Spring transit center construction project? This morning was the first sign of activity I've seen in quite a while. Not that I expected them to be out there during the snowstorm, but I'm not seeing a lot of progress even in good weather.

Robert Thomson: The site clearing and other preparation started in the fall, and the project managers have said it will take about two years to build the three-tier transit center for buses, taxis and kiss & ride drop-offs. I thought they made decent progress during the winter on removing the old bus bays, the concrete bus parking areas and the old kiss & ride parking, among other things.

My main concern has been the construction project's consequences for regular riders. The shift of the bus stops to nearby streets was very disruptive, and I was worried about the pedestrians getting to the bus stops and the train station entrance.

It's not an ideal situation, but it's working fairly well now. The traffic control officers and the police are a big help. Plus, I think the project's managers have made some good adjustments for safety. For example, they installed a concrete barrier to protect people walking to and from the station up Wayne Avenue. (That partly protects the pedestrians from themselves by preventing them from dashing across Wayne Ave. at midblock.)

What do others think about the current setup at Silver Spring?

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South Riding, Va.: How much TLC do the roads in our area need? I always hate it when they put off needed maintenance due to budget concerns. As a home owner, I have learned that spending money on preventative maintenance is an investment and often saves money in the long run as you avoid having the roof cave in (or pieces of concrete falling off overpasses). I hope that VDOT does what is needed to keep our roads in working order and doesn't let the current recession delay needed repairs.

Robert Thomson: It is a very great frustration to the Virginia, Maryland and DC transportation departments that they don't have more money to spend on maintaining what we've got, let alone building anything new. Maryland and Virginia, which seem to have the biggest issues with maintenance, have been warning about the declining resources for several years.

Right now, they are very much looking forward to the federal stimulus money. They plan to spend much of it on preserving the roads and rails, rather than developing new construction plans. I think that's the right thing to do. First of all, it's logical to make preservation a priority. And it also fits the definition of the stimulus as a jobs program.

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Washington, D.C.: Dr. G., I've been seeing signs on the Roosevelt Bridge saying "GW Parkway northbound construction, expect delays." Any idea what kind of project and what kind of delays they are referring to? Is it part of the Pimmitt Run project?

Robert Thomson: There are several projects underway on the parkway north of the Roosevelt Bridge. One is the erosion control project under the bridge over Pimmit Run. But I think those signs probably have to do with the drainage repair project at the scenic overlook just past the Spout Run Parkway exit. That's just getting underway. You may find the right lane northbound closed between 10 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. It's supposed to be done this fall.

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Arlington, Va.: So Metro is looking into service cuts, while at the same time looking to spend its stimulus money on new LCD for the station. This is just laughable from a budget perspective. What is the possibility of a service cut to trains frequency. I am afraid they could target trains at night, which could lead to higher drunk driving as people are discouraged from taking Metro.

Robert Thomson: Metro has been considering service cuts that include lengthening the gap in both train and bus arrival times. That's about the nastiest cutback we're likely to face. Many riders would be affected, and it's not the way we want to go.

I don't have a problem with Metro's $230 million list of things on which to spend stimulus money. The LCD program, as I recall, is meant to save money over the long run.

The Metro board, which meets about this on Thursday, has been considering whether to use $30 million in stimulus money to close its budget gap. There's a limit to how much of the stimulus money could be used in solving the problem with the operating budget.

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Wesley Heights: I caught the tail end of your radio show with Bob Marburg on WTOP. Will you be doing that again? I sure hope so.

Robert Thomson: Thanks, I'd love to do a show like that again with Bob Marbourg, whom I and many other local travelers think of as the voice of transportation in our region. He kindly invited me to join him for a radio show in January during which we offered advice about travel during the inauguration weekend.

What he does during his weekday afternoon shifts on the radio is truly amazing. I write two newspaper columns a week, and do a daily blog, and consider that a lot of deadline pressure. But he's got a deadline every 10 minutes.

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Burke, Va.: Do you commute? How long? And what do you listen to on the radio for traffic reports?

Robert Thomson: I'm Dr. Gridlock. I don't commute. As soon as I turn the ignition key or smack down a SmarTrip card, I'm at work. Everything I experience on the roads and rails helps me figure out how to share useful information with you.

If I've got to get somewhere at a certain time, I'll check the route on Google Maps and look at some of the main traffic Web sites, including washingtonpost.com/traffic, Traffic.com and Trafficland.com. In the car, I listen to the reports every 10 minutes on WTOP. For a transit trip, I check Metro's Trip Planner, and check my e-mail for any of the alerts that I signed up for on Metro's Web site at www.wmata.com.

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McLean, Va.: Why are they promoting per-mile taxes on vehicles instead of gas taxes? Don't they accomplish the same thing?

If I pay a per-gallon gas tax, I have an incentive to use a more fuel efficient vehicle (that would also be lighter and cause less road wear). With a per-mile tax, that fuel efficiency incentive is gone.

Robert Thomson: I think this question is really important, and I've heard many transportation experts argue for shifting from a gas tax to a tax on vehicle miles traveled, but I'm still not convinced.

For a vehicle miles tax, there's got to be some way for the government to determine how far your vehicle has traveled. I'm not crazy about that kind of monitoring, even though I use a SmarTrip card and an E-ZPass already.

And as you say, the gas tax creates an incentive to buy a fuel efficient car, as well as to drive less.

But from the point of view of the people trying to raise revenue for transportation improvements, the gas tax is a loser. Md Transportation Secretary John Porcari said recently that our entire transportation system is financially dependent on people using more gas every year. People aren't doing that and we don't want them to do that. So how do we pay for the new stuff we want?

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Falls Church, Va.: How do you request a bus shelter from Metro? There used to be one at Foggy Bottom many years ago before they relocated the GW hospital, but it was never replaced after the construction.

Robert Thomson: I think that's not Metro. It's the local jurisdiction that does the bus shelters. The District, for example, has a deal with an advertising company under which the company installs and maintains bus shelters in exchange for the right to put up advertising in them. So I think in this case, you can make the request through the Mayor's Citywide Call Center, at 311.

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Bowie, Md.: Is the opposition to the Purple Line concerned witht the eventual routing or the fact that it will link Prince George's County and Montergomery County better(and thus have more people from PG going to MoCo)? I would think that people would like the multi-modal routes better - isn't that what going green is all about?

Robert Thomson: The pushback on the Purple Line has mostly to do with the routing. In the Bethesda-Chevy Chase area, some people complain that this is going to damage the scenery on the hiker-biker trail, which is a railroad right of way and the best path for a light rail line, in my opinion.

The other center of concern is in Silver Spring, and I think this is the more serious issue: Trains would most likely run through downtown Silver Spring at street level. Silver Spring has undergone a rebirth lately thanks to the downtown redevelopment, but it's also brought a lot more traffic. So many people would prefer to see the light rail line trains go underground. Trouble is, that would add a lot to the cost -- maybe enough to deny federal funding -- and it would mean eliminating some stops in Silver Spring.

On the green issue: I used to hear a lot from intercounty connector opponents that the project wasn't green and we really should be spending our money on transit. Now, I hear a lot from Purple Line opponents saying we really shouldn't be spending our money on the transitway because it's not green enough.

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Washington, DC: As the wife of a traffic reporter....I know, its not an easy job. Have some sympathy for the job they have to do in a short period of time.

Robert Thomson: I completely agree. Watching Marbourg doesn't let up. As soon as he's off the air, he's taking calls from travelers telling him what they're seeing. He seems to keep most of that in his head, rather than taking notes, but he's always ready to go when the next "8" roles around. I couldn't do that.

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Reston, Va.: Hi Dr. Gridlock! I'm an express bus commuter (Reston East to Crystal City). Last Friday morning I was surprised, and pleased, to see a HOV enforcement operation in place on 66 East.

As a bus commuter, I have a great view of how the HOV system is abused in this corridor; on several occasions I have kept track and seen 6, sometimes even 8 out of 10 single-occupant cars - not counting hybrids. Recently I even saw a man in an SUV drive past an officer while pointing behind him to a car seat - only to get a good view of that car seat a few moments later to see that it was empty!

I'm beginning to wonder if there shouldn't be dedicated bus lanes on 66, simply due to the clear difficulty with HOV enforcement. I'm just hoping my route doesn't get canceled due to budget cuts. Even though my bus is over capacity nearly every morning, it's one of the routes noted in the state budget as a possible cut.

My only comment to the Virginia State Police is to keep up the good work, and try a Tuesday or Wednesday next time, as Friday traffic is generally quite light. Thanks for your columns and chats!

Robert Thomson: There are a lot of cheats. A lot of the I-66 enforcement occurs on the ramps. They'll never get everybody, and some people are willing to take a chance on getting a ticket. I think the only effective way to run HOV is to separate the lanes. I think the HOT lanes (high occupancy or toll) are the way of the future. They'll be open to carpoolers and buses for free, and they'll be managed more effectively to catch cheats. (And no free ride for hybrids.)

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WTOP Washington, D.C.: Dear Doctor, With reference to Sunday's column, when I ask myself how could we do a better job and serve more people, it's not for lack of time in our traffic reports: our Boss says take the time to tell the story. Our editors and news anchors adjust the length of other stories when traffic becomes a dominant story. Although Traffic is a region wide global topic it is something which each person takes very personally.

Most drivers have an idea about what to expect and want to be assured that this not one of those times that requires a major change in plans. When it is your turn to take avoidance actions, you need to know where and what you can do, and with the help of our customers and callers this is the type of actionable information we strive to offer.

Bob Marbourg

WTOP Radio

washingtonpost.com: Better Traffic Management, Not Reporting, Needed (Post, March 8)

Robert Thomson: Bob is obsessed with getting people where they're going. Like many other travelers, I won't forget the Feb. 2008 night he stayed on the job hours late to try to help drivers out of the frozen over Springfield Interchange.

My Sunday column is 20 inches long, and I always feel squeezed for space. Readers ask me why I didn't mention this or that issue they're hot about. People who write in about radio traffic reports have a similar gripe. They wonder why they can't hear about their route during each on air report. I always wind up thinking I have it easy as a writer, with my 20 inches of space, compared to the people who talk traffic on the radio.

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Alexandria, Va.: There are now signs that the Washington Street project has been postponed in Alexandria. I cannot find anything on the Web site about why it was and when it will happen. Any idea?

Robert Thomson: Thanks for the reminder. I'll check on this and tell you what I learn on the Get There blog.

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Washington, D.C.: I commute from the Van Ness-UDC station to Union Station every day on the Red line. Two of the three long escalators at Van Ness have been out of service for over a week now, which means that there is only an "up" escalator and everyone has to walk down. On Friday, a young man who was walking down with a large carry-on almost lost control of his luggage half-way down the escalator, but managed to grab it before it took out multiple people in front of him (luckily, I was behind him). This is not the first time that a majority of the escalators at Van Ness have been out of commission, and when I ask the kiosk attendant, he says that he's very sorry, but he has no idea when they will be fixed.

I really don't have a question for you , but this lack of service just makes me furious. Maybe I should drive to work.

Robert Thomson: A station manager should be able to address that question. There's a schedule available to all of us, and the station manager should have access to the very latest information.

At Van Ness, for example, I can see on Metro's Web site right now that two escalators -- one between the middle landing and the mezzanine and the other between the street and the middle landing -- are busted. One is the subject of "a safety work order" and was supposed to have been back in operation by last Thursday. The other needs a short-term repair and is supposed to be back in service tomorrow. (Sometimes, Metro just has to wait for a city inspector to show up and say it's okay to turn it on again.)

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Vienna, Va.: Will the I-66 hybrid exemptions be renewed this year?

Robert Thomson: Every year, this exemption -- which I think should have gone into the sunset long ago, as it was scheduled to do -- is renewed. The General Assembly is adjourned now. I'll check on whether Gov. Kaine has signed the annual extension bill and report that on Get There.

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Fairfax, Va.: I have a question about the HOT- I495/I66 Interchange construction. A few weeks ago, the construction shifted the eastbound lanes of I-66 at the interchange. However, in shifting the lanes, the line demarcation is unclear and ambiguous. There are double sets of lines, extremely light line markings, etc. Although I have not seen any accidents, I have seen people slamming on their brakes because they are uncertain if they are even in a lane or not. I understand that the lane shift is probably not permanent, but the lanes need to be marked more clearly. Who is the best person to address these concerns to?

Robert Thomson: I'll go drive that and check with VDOT. Speaking of lane markings, there are a lot of problematic stretches of road right now, as we come out of winter.

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McLean, Va.: With all of this talk about more funding for rail, will they be doing anything to ensure the quality of customer service that rail provides? Amtrak still needs to improve it's customer service.

If more than one airline can use each of our airports and air corridors, can we allow another rail company to use our train stations and rail corridors? With the competition that would motivate better customer service, would there be more demand for rail?

Robert Thomson: We're in this spot because no private company wanted to run a passenger rail line. And Amtrak never seems to be out of financial trouble. So I'm not optimistic we're going to see any volunteers to run the railroads.

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LCD screens: How do they save money? I'm all for informing passengers, but that's a service improvement. And a nice one at that. But where does it save money?

Robert Thomson: I'm getting my LEDs and LCDs confused. Upgrading the platform lights is supposed to safe money on electricity and replacement costs. Putting the flat screen monitors into the stations, and starting the "Metro Channel," is a way of keeping passengers better informed and creating a new opportunity to raise money through advertising.

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gas tax/vehicle mile tax: If tax revenues aren't enough, raise the gas tax. How hard is that to figure out?

A vehicle mile tax will face the same problems--people may stop driving as much too. All it would do is replace one tax with another. Some people would pay more (drivers of fuel efficient cars), others would pay less (SUV drivers), and overall everyone would pay on average more, because they need more revenue.

It seems totally politically cynical--maybe a tax is acceptable because no one knows how much they'll pay, whereas they do with gas taxes.

If there's going to be a tax on driving, regardless of gas, put it on using high-use roads during rush hour, or on going into the urban core, and such.

Robert Thomson: I'd raise the federal and state gas taxes right now, but I don't have to get elected to write my columns. When gas prices are high, politicians who know better succumb to the argument that "This is just the wrong time to raise gas taxes." And when prices are low, because the economy is bad, politicians who know better succumb to the argument that "This is just the wrong time to raise gas taxes."

Meanwhile, thousands of local drivers and transit users complain about the congestion and delays that can only be solved by spending some money -- money we don't have because we didn't raise gas taxes.

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Robert Thomson: Thanks, travelers. I thought we had a lively one today, and I hope to chat with you again soon. Stay safe out there.

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