Dr. Gridlock

Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, March 16, 2009; 1:00 PM

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock. He was online Monday, March 16 at 1 p.m. ET to diagnose all your traffic and transit issues. This week, Post reporter Lena H. Sun joined him to discuss the latest news about Metro's budget.

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: Welcome, travelers. Lena Sun, The Post's transit reporter, is joining me today. She can take on questions you have about traveling on Metro and about what's up with Metro's budget. Are we going to see service cuts, or fare increases? We've got a variety of questions about traffic and transit so far. Keep them coming. But let's get started.


Chevy Chase: What are your thoughts, if any, on Fred Hiatt's op-ed in today's paper?

washingtonpost.com: Breaking the Gridlock on Paying for Roads

Robert Thomson: First, I agree completely that we need a national transportation policy and program. The last big idea we had for moving people was the Interstate highway system. Ever since we moved past that, people have been looking for a free ride.

But it's becoming more and more obvious that we need to spend some money to create a travel system that work for at least the first part of the 21st century.

Fred talks about funding a new system through an increase in the gas tax and, later on, a tax on vehicle miles traveled. I'm fine with the gas tax increase but not yet convinced about creating a new system that installs a device on each vehicle that measures the miles traveled. How is that better than a gas tax?


Alexandria, Va.: On WTOP this morning during the CBS national news, there was a story about commuters in Oakland sharing cars to cross the Bay Bridge to use the carpool lanes and skip the toll. They call it "casual commuting" -- of course we call it "slugging."

Robert Thomson: Traffic on the Bay Bridge can be monstrous at rush hour, but it would seem about normal to many drivers on I-66, or 395 or certain sections of the Beltway.

The Bay Bridge has encouraged carpooling for decades. The incentive is getting around the toll. I think that's the way of the future around here. Right now, the incentive is to get a quicker trip. In the future, it will be to get a quicker trip while dodging a toll. The HOT lanes concept. But carpooling alone won't do it in decades to come. We need better systems of rapid buses using those tolled lanes for free.


Bethesda, Md.: What is the timetable for restoring the automatic door functions on Metrorail trains? Presently the doors cannot open to discharge and accept passengers at the platform until the train stops and the operator leaves his or her seat, crosses the cab, opens the window, observes the platform and activates the doors. This delay contributes to crowding around the doors, both in the train cars and on the platform and slows everything down.

Lena Sun: Hi there Bethesda. As far as I know, there are no plans to change the procedure. It's a safety issue. That's why the operator has to stick his/her head out the window to make sure your hand or leg is not caught in the door before the train moves on.


Friendship Heights: Has WMATA removed the provision that allows bus drivers to receive overtime while on vacation yet?

Lena Sun: It's a provision in the contract with the union. And I don't believe that management has asked to have that provision removed. Even if management asked, I seriously doubt the union would agree.


Alexandria, Va.: Please remind your readers to always use traffic signals. I can read your car's "body language" but it is a lot clearer if I see a signal. This is soooo important in all kinds of traffic, especially bumper to bumper traffic. Please stop trying to surprise me in my lane.

Robert Thomson: I'm interested in your opinions on why people seem less inclined to use their turn signals. When I've asked about this before, many people say they don't want to take a chance that another driver in the adjacent lane will see the signal and speed up to block the lane change.

I know that happens sometimes, but don't believe it's a comprehensive explanation. I've stood by intersections and watched drivers turn. (Yes, that's my job.) Maybe about half the time, drivers use their turn signals.

The most recent time I did this was in downtown Silver Spring, where I was looking at the impact of the transit center construction, which moved all the bus stops out onto the streets. Montgomery County put traffic control officers out at the intersections to help direct pedestrians and drivers. The officers aren't mind readers. They can't tell if a driver wants to turn without seeing a turn signal. But many drivers just can't bring themselves to flip that lever.


Fairfax Commuter and WP Subscriber: I've often heard that WashPost leaders call the paper a "local" paper above all. But the recent case of the man struck and killed by Metro train shows how far short the paper is in its coverage of news that really affects local readers. My commute on Friday was affected by the accident on Metro. You covered it briefly in your online column but no news about whether they guy fell or deliberately jumped. So I scan Saturday's paper and find....nada about this story. Big spread on the renovation of the Md. old Senate chamber -- there's news that really affects me so profoundly -- but zilch on the accident that affected hundreds or thousands of people and left questions about whether Metro platforms are getting more crowded and dangerous or an individual acted recklessly of his own volition. Finally, today, I saw a teensy brief that still answered none of these questions. But thank goodness I have a deeper, more informed sense of the plight of tourists who don't recognize the Lincoln Memorial.

Lena Sun: Hi. Actually, we updated the online information several times and as soon as we knew he was on the track intentionally, that information was included. Our policy is generally not to report suicides. In the case of Metro accidents, we often end up doing so because many others are affected. The editors made a decision not to write something for the Saturday paper because the incident was cleared up relatively quickly, and did not take place at the height of rush hour.

If you subscribe to the paper, you would have seen a fairly long story that I wrote in Sunday's Metro section that identified the man who was killed and that he was a Metrobus driver who had been on administrative leave.

In today's paper, that brief was about a separate incident involving yet another accident. Different from Friday. Metro is still investigating how the man got on the tracks.


Clarendon: The recent problems on the Orange line highlight another transit-related problem in Arlington -- the relative scarcity of taxis. When there are problems on the Orange line, many passengers head above ground to seek taxis. But, the taxi supply in Arlington is so fragile that a spike in demand leads to complete system meltdown. On such mornings, assuming one can get through to Red Top, passengers can wait for up to an hour for a taxi. And good luck trying to flag down a taxi from the sidewalk -- most cabs are on their way to pick up a fare they've been dispatched to. This is not a problem in the District. Even on the busiest mornings, one can hail a taxi on most main roads within five minutes. Any thoughts about why this problem exists and why it's tolerated by the county?

Robert Thomson: I'd like to hear from other travelers about whether they experience a difference in cab availability between Arlington and DC. It seems logical to me that there would be more cabs available in the denser traffic grid of DC than on Arlington streets -- but aspects of our traffic system are not always logical.

I'm not sure I could judge by the example of what happens when there's a problem on the Orange Line. Do you see taxi companies identifying that market and responding very quickly? If it were my company, I wouldn't be pegging my supply of cabs to the occasional overflow demand of an Orange Line breakdown.


Washington, D.C.: What I'm not understanding is why is there even STILL a budget issue with metro after they received more stimulus money then what there gap was? It would make sense to plug the hole with part of the money! It seems to me that Metro officials are hiding something about that budget!

Lena Sun: Actually, Metro is trying to decide whether to use some of the stimulus money to plug the budget gap. Here's the issue: stimulus money is a one-time fix. You use it this year, fine. But next year, you start out $29 million in the hole. And that's before factoring in all the other costs that are going to go up the next year.

Plus, stimulus money is for capital projects. That's for buying heavy equipment, like new rail cars and new buses and other machinery to keep the track infrastructure working. If you take $29 million of those capital dollars for your day-to-day operating costs, that means the agency will be buying fewer new buses and other equipment they need to keep the system working for the long term.


Alexandria: Is there any follow up on the postponed work for Washington Street in Alexandria?

Robert Thomson: I've got a call in to the Alexandria transportation department about this. But just double check me to make sure I'm asking the right question:

We're talking about the two-phase effort on North and South Washington Street that begins with work on the curbs and sidewalks, then in July moves out into roadway reconstruction between Green and First streets?


Alexandria, Va.: Is the Blue line split from Franconia/Springfield proposal dead?

Lena Sun: I don't think so. But the planning folks who are in charge of that have been pretty busy since the beginning of the year with the inauguration and then looking at routes and services for possible reductions as part of this never-ending budget process.


Falls Church: Funding has been approved for the Dulles Metro. For a while they have been doing utility work. When will the real serious constructing going to start?

Robert Thomson: The serious stuff starts this spring. If you commute through Tysons, you'll notice it at the Route 7/123 interchange. The ramps will be reconfigured. Then Route 7 lanes will bulb out to make way for the construction of the elevated rail line along a new median.

The work on Route 7 is likely to be more disruptive than the work on Route 123. The new line will run on the north side of 123, but down the middle of 7. The part of the line west of Tysons out to Wiehle Ave is the least disruptive for drivers because its in the middle of the Dulles Access Road.

While the work is beginning for real this spring, the really big construction years will likely be 2010-2011. Trains will be running by the end of 2013, if the schedule holds.


Beltsville, Md.: So what happens if/when the HOT lanes fail to produce the kind of revenue that the private companies expect and they go bankrupt? Would they simply be shut down, taunting us with lanes no one can use because craven politicians and stupid drivers who don't like "taxes" sold out?

Robert Thomson: The toll rates haven't been set yet on the Virginia HOT lanes, the first we'll see in the Washington region. HOT lanes have been successful elsewhere. Virginia isn't selling the Beltway. In a worst case scenario, I don't see anything that would prevent control from reverting to the state. Those lanes wouldn't sit idle.

Why not try this? We know how bad traffic is now. We know we haven't raised enough tax money to fix things. What would people do to break out of the mess we're in?


They can't tell if a driver wants to turn without seeing a turn signal: I'm a native of NY but now live in Silver Spring. The driving habits of Maryland drivers are really scary, and it begins with their refusal to put on turn signals to change lanes or turn. I've meant to ask you about this because I heard from someone (maybe read?) that it is not Maryland law for drivers to use their blinkers. If that is the case then Maryland politicians need to get it together and change the law. Do you know if that is true?

Robert Thomson: Yes, that's true about MD law. I think the General Assembly has a bill to change that, but am not sure of its status.

I'm not sure how much the law has to do with it. There's a law about going 55 on the Beltway -- there are even signs that say so. People seem to pick and chose among the traffic laws they believe should be followed.


Metrorail Train Doors: Lena, the doors used to open automatically when the train stopped at the platform. Then they had some problems with doors opening at the wrong time. Now the automatic system is disabled and the operator uses manual control to open the doors. This causes a delay in loading and unloading and the delays add up. When the problem was first discovered the work-around was described as temporary until the door systems could be fixed. That was some time ago. See your article of April 17, 2008, Metro Puts Train Doors On Manual.

Lena Sun: Hi. I'm doublechecking, but I don't think that has been fixed. There was some interference from the track signalling system that made the train doors sometimes open on the wrong side. Not good.


Annandale, Va.: Dr. G, has anybody done study on how the metrocheck system could actually be reducing the funds available to Metro? It sounds funny, but, the basic concept of the metrocheck system is to change commuter behavior. If the behavior isn't changed (the commuter is already using the bus or subway), then the government is giving a benefit to a commuter, rather than WMATA. In other words, as much as $200 per month may be going to commuters who have not changed their mode of transport, instead of giving the money to WMATA, which needs it.

Robert Thomson: There's a couple of things we refer to loosely as a transit subsidy. One is the direct payment many federal employees receive to use transit. I think that's still $120 a month. You travelers can correct me on that. The other is the pre-tax benefit, allowing employees to divert part of their income before taxes into transit fares. The stimulus bill allowed the pretax benefit to increase to $230 a month. That's still coming out of your salary. You just don't have to pay taxes on it.

These are both a huge indirect subsidy to Metro. They reward people for taking trains and buses rather than driving. Whether Metro gets that money from the riders or directly from the federal government, it still helps Metro's budget.


Gas Tax: having an installed device is way tooo much - big brother, anyone??

But I do agree that those who drive the most should pay up, as should those who insist they just have to have a huge vehicle for the non-existent scout troop.

Robert Thomson: I do worry about the Big Brother element -- the government having a device in every vehicle that is capable of tracking its movements. But I've already crossed that threshold, which is why I'm ambivalent. What I mean is that I use a SmarTrip card on transit and an E-ZPass on the highways. So what's the difference?

I think it's this: I need to be convinced that the Vehicle Miles Traveled tax is way better than the gas tax at raising revenue and rewarding good driving behavior.

Many smart people in transportation say the gas tax is unworkable. Goverments won't raise it, because they fear political retribution. And it brings in less money each year because vehicles are becoming more fuel efficient. But how is the VMT better on those things?


Washington, D.C.: I'm always amused by questions that start out "you need to tell your readers that" they should be doing some basic driving-related activity, like using turn signals. Just a guess, but I bet most of the people who are interested enough to read your column are smart enough to do that. Although maybe I'm deluding myself.

So here's my approach: I really wish there was some kind of enforcement on using headlights in the rain. My mom doesn't have fantastic eyesight, although she's legal to drive, and I have been in the car with her when she didn't see a car coming in the rain and turned out in front of it. It was scary. Headlights are important. People are idiots. (Okay, that's my real observation of the day.)

Robert Thomson: I think about the same thing: The crowd that's reading our chats, the Get There blog and my Dr. Gridlock columns generally cares about doing the right thing -- or they wouldn't take the time to read stuff like this. Sometimes, I think we're just reinforcing each other, or offering little reminders.

But I have been surprised by some comments and letters. A driver questioning a ticket he got for not stopping at a red light when he was making a right turn. Or people looking for me to support their right to speed.

On the lights thing: Of course you're right. All our jurisdictions have laws about using lights when using wipers, to increase visibility. I've been impressed about how many people don't do that. The early March snowstorm was an example.


Van Dorn Street: Is Metro planning to replace their ancient bike racks? Some of them look like they are from the dark ages, with unaligned, rusty prongs that do more to damage a bike than protect it. Can't these be ripped out and some more modern, inverted "U" type racks be installed?

Lena Sun: I believe there was $475,000 that was included in the just-passed omnibus spending bill for bike racks and lockers. I know they want to get rid of the old ones and gradually put in the "U" type racks.


Arlington, Va.: Perhaps the theory is that as we move more towards electric and alternative fuel vehicles that a gas tax wouldn't raise the necessary revenue.

Robert Thomson: That's good. But isn't there a transition phase during which a gas tax encourages people to seek those alternatives? As soon as we impose a tax on vehicle miles traveled, the tax is the same for drivers using any power system, right? A gas tax, meanwhile, encourages people to use more fuel efficient cars, to lower their tax payments.

But then, to address my own question, the various commissions reporting on this say we should increase the gas tax for a period of at least a decade, before switching over to a Vehicle Miles Traveled tax.


Re Mr. Hiatt's column: Denmark has about the same population as Maryland. Denmark and the Netherlands are both slightly larger than Maryland in terms of land area. I don't see how their mileage-tax mechanisms would scale up to a nation as large as -- and as individualistic as -- ours.

Robert Thomson: Yes, I'm not sure how the politics of this would work. U.S. politicians are afraid of the political consequences of raising the gas tax. But aren't they also in for a rebellion against the notion of attaching monitoring devices to their vehicles?


Potomac: The public subsidy has increased to $230 per month as part of the recent stimulus act. However, for federal employees this might not kick in until May depending on how long it takes for the agencies to process the change in benefits.

One note, increasing the public transportation subsidy will really only help Metro if it gains new transit riders. The new rate will cover virtually all transit costs (not parking though) even if you live at the end of the train AND take a local commuter bus. I am interested to see how many people decide a free ride is better than driving downtown.

Increasing the subsidy means that the government is paying more of the costs and the individuals are paying less. My transit costs have not decreased due to the subsidy increase, but my reimbursement will increase.

Lena Sun: Yes, I think it will be interesting to see what difference, if any, this bump up in transit subsidy will have on ridership. it's not just federal employees. Lots of private employers say they won't be able to kick in the benefit until May as well (including mine, The Washington Post). For those who aren't aware, the transit benefit has gone up from $120 to $230.


I'm not sure how much the law has to do with it.: If the law isn't on the books then they probably aren't teaching it/emphasising it in driving school. If they change the law then it would be incorporated into the lessons.

Robert Thomson: I understand that point. But I'm remembering how much time was spent in driver ed in teaching us about stopping distances and how they increase at higher speeds. That seemed like one of the more memorable aspects of drivers ed, and I'm not seeing those memories reflected on our highways.


Washington DC: Have you ever seen someone on a bike waiting at a red light? It seems to me that every cyclist I see zips through the reds after the barest of pauses, at best.

Or perhaps I'm just frustrated because after dealing with a weaving cyclist all the way down 13th street this morning, I had to slam on my brakes to avoid one running a red light a couple blocks from my office.

What's the deal? All the rights, none of the responsibilities?

Robert Thomson: I resist treating any travelers -- drivers, bikers, walkers -- as a class. Sure, I see plenty of bikers blowing through stop signs and red lights. What does that tell me? Do I make assumptions about all of them? Do I think that as a group they should be denied certain rights in traveling? Lumping them all together isn't that helpful.

Same way I feel about judging drivers' behavior by their license plates or vehicle type.


Arlington, Va.: I'm troubled by the miles-driven tax proposal. Quite aside from the privacy concerns -- which to me are entirely warranted, despite what I'm sure will be a round of absolute assurances to the contrary -- why scrap a consumption-based system that already works in favor of a completely new system?

To implement a miles-driven tax, all cars would have to be equipped with some kind of device to record time and mileage. That can be mandated for new vehicles based on model year, but what about retrofits? Who pays for those, and how long will it take to retrofit every vehicle in the country? How will we protect the devices against tampering, and how will we report miles driven? Will everyone have to go to a designated gas station or something to have each vehicle's device read? If that is the case, be prepared for huge lines.

On the other hand, we already have a fuel tax. It is based on consumption of a non-renewable resource. If you have a vehicle that gets great mileage, or you don't drive much, you pay less; if you have a gas-guzzler or drive a lot, you pay more. The problem is that the fuel tax is far too low. Rather than switch to a miles-driven tax, why not simply raise the fuel tax over a five-year period so that it is on a par with tax levels in European countries? It doesn't require any new equipment, it doesn't require any new infrastructure, and it doesn't impose a new reporting requirement on individuals.

Robert Thomson: "Arlington" introduces a new element into our discussion: The problem of how the tax information will be transimitted from the vehicle to the tax authorities for the assessment of the payment. A gas tax paid at the pump seems so much simpler.

I'll introduce a new element, too: Should there be a tax on transit users? Something added to the fare that goes into a pool of money for transit improvements? That idea was included in one of the national commission studies last year.


Robert Thomson: Travelers, thanks for very enjoyable exchange today. I'll be with you again next Monday. Until then, please join me on the Get There blog. And if you'd like to contribute a letter to the Dr. Gridlock column, send it to me at drgridlock@washpost.com.


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