Dr. Gridlock

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Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, March 30, 2009; 1:00 PM

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock. He was online Monday, March 30 at 1 p.m. ET to diagnose all your traffic and transit issues.

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: Welcome, travelers. We have a variety of questions about roads and transit already in the mailbag. And keep them coming. Let's go.

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Waldorf, MD: Rt. 5 South towards Waldorf is getting worse, but what bothers me the most is that there is land on both sides to expand the 2 lane highway. Is there any fix to the congestion in the future?

Robert Thomson: In fact, there are big plans to widen Route 5 north and south. It's just that there's no money yet to build anything.

I wrote about that on my Get There blog. See this entry:

http://voices.washingtonpost.com/getthere/2009/02/maryland_dreaming_of_route_5_u.html

There should be a hearing next winter on location and design plans, followed by state approvals in spring 2011. One possibility under consideration is to create HOT lanes (High Occupancy/Toll) on Route 5. I like the idea as a way of financing the project, adding capacity and managing the traffic. What would drivers think of that option?

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Manassas, VA: I saw a lot of construction around Navy Yard Exit. Especially the exit closest to the Centerfield gate. Is that construction related to Metro and will it be finished by Opening Day?

Robert Thomson: The Nationals' home opener is Monday, April 13, against the world champion Phillies. It's essential that the Navy Yard Station exit on the west side, the one for Nationals Park, be open.

There has been construction around the west entrance, and there were a few dates when the entrance was closed for safety, but I've heard nothing about that interfering with Metro riders once the season starts.

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Howard County, Md.: I continue to be amazed at how few drivers turn their headlights on when it is raining, even though it's a law in Maryland.

Any chance the authorities decide to crack down on this safety hazard? If one third of drivers had their headlights on while it was raining mid-day over the weekend...I'd have been shocked.

Robert Thomson: I agree with you. You'd think drivers would do this out of common sense -- to increase their visibility -- completely aside from the fact that it's the law.

But this is one area where I'd prefer education to enforcement. Since by definition we're talking about times of bad weather and low visibility, I'm not sure about the safety of a police enforcement zone along one of our major routes. Aside from the hazard to the officers and the drivers pulled over, there's also the dangers of the slowdown that would occur as other motorists look to see what's happening.

(Some of you may also recall that I don't like the idea of using the overhead message boards to convey information like "Headlights on when wipers on" because it could do more harm than good, as drivers slow down and focus on reading the message.)

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Silver Spring/Glenmont: Last week there was a giant flashing strobe light installed on top of the water tower next to the Glenmont metro station. This light is so incredibly bright it is unbearable at night. It comes through my thick curtains and the flashing is causing sleepless nights. Who can I complain to about this? It can't be an airplane safety issue because the tower isn't really that tall compared to the altitude of airplanes.

Robert Thomson: On the water tower? It doesn't sound like a Metro creation. Can you tell me more about the scene?

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Washington, DC: Here is how frustrated I am with Metro these days. I live half a block from the Van Ness metro station and work 3 blocks from Union Station. My transit subsidy covers 100 percent of my cost of commuting via Metrorail. HOWEVER, this morning, I handed in a parking application. Why? Because I prefer sitting in traffic in my own car than dealing with Metro. The derailment in Bethesda Friday was the final straw on this camel's back. I have commuted to work for almost 25 years, and have witnessed first-stand the deterioration of Metro from a clean, well-functioning to a filthy, unreliable failure whose performance is so bad that its own managers don't ride it to work. No matter who much it costs me to drive, that is money worth paying to avoid being injured or worse in a derailment.

Robert Thomson: I understand your frustration -- shared by thousands of riders on Friday afternoon when two trains derailed near Bethesda -- and think you should travel the way you find most convenient.

I've been stuck on the wrong side of service disruptions, too, but still take Metro to and from The Post newsroom because I think driving my car is more dangerous and because I can't stand the idea of warehousing my car all day long for $11 in a garage.

Tell me: Have others switched from transit to car out of sheer frustration?

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Fairfax, Va.: On of the major complaints about the Metro system is that it is a two-track system instead of a three-track system, making it very difficult for trains to move around disabled trains and other trouble spots. Have we learned anything? Will the Metro extension to Dulles be a two-track system or a three-track system?

Robert Thomson: Two tracks to Dulles. It's a good point you're making about the inflexibility of the two-track system. We always compare ourselves to NYC in this regard, partly because we envy the ability to run express trains.

But it also costs a fortune. (Wait. Dulles rail already is going to cost a fortune. For three tracks, make that two fortunes.) The issue is a bit similar to the one about whether the rail line through Tysons should be above ground or in a tunnel. It would be much, much better to put it in a tunnel. But then, if they did, they wouldn't be able to afford the rail line in the first place.

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Alexandria, Va.: I've been reading about Braess's paradox, where sometimes if you close a road traffic flow improves (it's happened in Seoul, Stuttgart and New York City). Do you have any suggestions for D.C. road closures?

Robert Thomson: Hah! I'm thinking how well drivers reacted to closing Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House. The closing of Klingle Road did not appear to help traffic.

I know Mayor Bloomberg in New York is considering the closing of Broadway at Times Square to turn it into a ped only area. But I'm having trouble thinking of anything I'd experiment with around here, even in the grid pattern of downtown Washington, which allows the most opportunities for traffic to use alternative routes.

You have any roads you'd target?

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DC: I travel to and from DC each weekday from suburban Maryland. I take a bus to the subway and the subway to Farragut West. While waiting for a subway, the message boards tell me what trains are arriving minute by minute, but out on the street, waiting for my bus, which only comes once every 30 minutes during rush hour, I have no way of knowing if I've just missed my bus by a minute or am on time. Can't Metro put some message boards on bus stops like they do in the subway? Thank you.

Robert Thomson: Yes. That's the way of the future. Metro is working on a program called Next Bus. The system wasn't ready for prime time when it was rolled out, and Metro General Manager John Catoe suspended it until it could be fixed. (It wasn't accuate enough.) Next Bus should be operating again in July, and I think it would do wonders for bus transit.

It would allow riders to track approaching buses on the Web or on mobile phones. Some information could be displayed electronically at very busy bus stops.

Some riders are so anxious to use Next Bus that they want to be beta testers -- using the system while it's still being tested. But Metro is reluctant to do this. Officials say they don't want riders getting stranded by a system that still has bugs to work out.

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$11 a day in a garage?: Dr. G, I believe you work downtown, right? (Aside from the commute being your workplace, of course.) Where did you find a garage for $11 a day? I'd like to know so I can park there! My old office was $16 a day.

Robert Thomson: $16! I don't believe the garages around 15th Street NW are up that high. But I'll tell you, I haven't garaged my car just to get to and from The Post since 2000. At that point, I calculated I'd save $850 a year by taking Metro. (That includes the gas money and other car expenses.) Pretty sure it would be more now.

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Rockville, Md.: Dear Dr. Gridlock,

Please help! I'm supposed to go to an event at National Harbor this evening. Is there ANY good way to get there from the Grosvenor/Strathmore area other than slogging out rush hour on the Beltway?

Thanks!

Robert Thomson: You could take Metro to Southern Avenue Station and board the NH1 bus to National Harbor, but bad as the Beltway is, that's how I'd go to National Harbor from Grosvenor. The bad part would be the northern arc of the inner loop, but it usually eases up around College Park.

You regulars think I'm wrong?

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Alexandria, Va.: For every person that stops taking metro because of a bad experience, there will be someone else that swears off driving because of a nightmarish traffic jam somewhere down the line, so it all balances out.

Robert Thomson: Notice that Metro ridership did not drop after last year's fare increases? In fact, it went up. Many riders have bad experiences where they feel like they've been smacked in the face by the transit authority, but despite that, they still ride the trains and buses, because over the long run, it still works better for them than driving.

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Washington, DC: Almost every week, somebody offers a comment asking you to tell your readers to drive better (whether it be slowing down, speeding up, using the left lane only to pass, etc.)

My comment is not directed at the readers, but at the law enforcement agencies of the area. Every single day, without fail, I see police officers driving aggressively, speeding, tailgating people, and switching lanes without using their blinkers (this is the one that angers me the most).

I don't know if it's an endemic problem among police officers nationwide, but I notice this every day with police not only in DC, but also in Montgomery County, Fairfax, and along the Dulles Access Road (which I use regularly). It is infuriating to see the people that are supposed to be enforcing our laws, blatantly disobeying them. They are supposed to set the example for everyone else.

Now I understand that sometimes they are headed somewhere on a call, and must speed without using their sirens, etc. However, this cannot be the case everyday with almost every police car I see... And switching lanes without blinking (which literally 99% of police do) is simply UNACCEPTABLE.

Can you please write a column about this issue, with the hopes of changing attitudes and training in local police agencies?

Robert Thomson: Thanks for the suggestion. (And by the way, I like to hear from travelers about things they'd like to see in Dr. Gridlock columns, or on the Get There blog. Aside from telling me in these weekly chats, please add comments on Get There or send an e-mail to me at drgridlock@washpost.com.)

In my four decades of driving all across the country, I've certainly noticed that many police departments have officers who employ creative driving tactics. While I'm reluctant advocate any tracking devices for everyday vehicles, I think they do have a place in official vehicles. The technology exists to put black boxes that can monitor speeds and other issues inside police cars.

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Bethesda, Md.: Friday's trip home on the Red Line was a challenge made worse by poor communication by Metro.

The most frustrating was after a long ride having the train pull into Friendship Heights about 7 pm and being told that the train would not stop at Bethesda, with no further instruction. I was among many riders getting off the train, without a clue of how to get to Bethesda. I asked one employee on the platform who directed me to a supervisor.

Someone was already asking the supervisor if the next train would go to Bethesda, she didn't know which, if any of the trains would go to Bethesda. She said that there was shuttle bus and told us how to get to the bus bay. I expected that there would be some one directing us to the shuttle bus. No such luck. I tracked down an employee who directed to me to the shuttle bus, it was on the street rather than the bus bay. Nearly every one on the shuttle had found out that there had been a derailment after they got out of the system.

Even though I got in the system around 6 pm, the announce was that there was single tracking due to a train experiencing mechanical difficulties outside Bethesda and that there was single tracking, we were told that there were moderated delays. Since this is usually temporary, I continued on metro rail rather than go to archives and get on the 36 to get to Friendship and then the Ride On to Bethesda.

Because Metro was less than forthcoming, I didn't use the back up plan they had encouraged me to develop. This lack of candor showed up in the notices about delays being for "scheduled maintenance." Metro owes it to its raiders to be more forthright about what problems are being encountered.

Robert Thomson: There's still too much confusion during these incidents, even though Metro has been working for at least a year on improving its communications with riders during emergencies.

By 6 p.m. Friday, Metro employees in the stations should have received enough information to guide riders.

That said, staying on the trains when they're single tracking almost always beats getting off and taking a bus -- especially the bus bridges that Metro sets up in emergencies. The buses don't hold enough people and the roads are so congested at rush hour.

If the line is shut down, it's another matter.

One thing I found encouraging on Friday evening: Because I knew about the Red Line problems, I walked over to Mount Vernon Square after work to take the Green Line up to Fort Totten, where I could transfer to the Red Line outside the most congested area. On the Mount Vernon mezzanine, each fare gate had a yellow sign advising incoming riders that there was a problem in the system. That's a step forward. On the other hand, I didn't hear any announcements on the speakers or see anything on the electronic message boards about the Red Line disruption.

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Grosvenor to National Harbor: Seems counter-intuitive but the southern route of the beltway can be faster. Check the traffic reports and plan 1 hour either way. If you do go through Virginia, be sure to get in the local lanes just before Rte. 1 or you will bypass National Harbor.

Robert Thomson: Thank you for the suggestion on the Grosvenor to National Harbor trip. At afternoon rush, the outer loop does tend to be better, though I worry for our traveler about the drive past Tysons and also about the congestion around the Telegraph Road interchange, where the lanes narrow.

Generally, though, I've heard good things about the Wilson Bridge now that all the lanes are open.

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Dupont Circle: What is up with the Metro alerts? On Friday I received one at 4:38 about "mechanical difficulties" at Friendship Heights and nothing else until almost 11 pm. If I had received a message about derailed trains I would have worked out a different route and not have missed my MARC train at Rockville. This morning I heard on WAMU about the escalators being out at Dupont South, but received no Metro alerts.

Robert Thomson: I think I saw more alerts than that on Friday afternoon and evening, and definitely saw alerts this morning about the escalator and elevator problems at Dupont Circle.

One thing I do not recall seeing on Friday afternoon was advice on alternative ways of getting around the disruption.

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Navy Yard: can you direct me to the map and street closures for the Cherry Blossom run on Sunday? I have to be somewhere on Sunday morning and want to know where the no-gos are more than 24 hours in advance.

Robert Thomson: check out this map of the course:

http://www.cherryblossom.org/images/09images/09-10MCourseMap031009.pdf

I don't believe this is going to be as disruptive as the National Marathon was.

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Silver Spring, MD: Metro ridership is up as people changed there riding habits in response to high gas prices last summer, then the lousy economy since. Many/most riders do not take it by choice. In fact, I think people in a position to be choosy, are deciding in increasing numbers to drive. You can ask the Metro board about that.

By the way, it's not a single incident that makes people feel this way - its several years when you can't get through a week without major delays that we decide to skip the train. I'm sure WMATA has great statistics on their outstanding performance, but riders know that delays are much more common than they were 10 years ago.

Robert Thomson: Many, many people tell me they take Metro by choice. Many others tell me they drive by choice. Lots of other people -- whether transit users or drivers -- fall into a habit and are reluctant to change, or even to experiment with other travel options. The most striking case to me are the folks who do the extreme commutes, coming in from Pennsylvania, or Delaware or West Virginia. Even when the commute clearly diminishes their quality of life, they are reluctant to make a change.

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headlights and wipers: Okay, maybe I'm just naive, but why not just force car manufacturers to manufacture all U.S.-marketed cars to that the lights are triggered automatically whenever the wipers are on? Problem solved.

Robert Thomson: Clearly an option. But I sure would rather see drivers do this on their own, because it's commonsense, rather than set up another requirement.

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Silver Spring, Md.: "I was among many riders getting off the train, without a clue of how to get to Bethesda."

Walk up Wisconsin for 20 minutes?

Robert Thomson: I'll bet lots of people did that. But how would you react if you, a paying customer, asked a Metro employee how to get to Bethesda and the answer was, "Well, you could always walk."

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Washington, D.C.: When an up escalator stops working on Metrorail, how hard it is for station personnel to switch the down escalator right next to it to "up" mode?

Sometimes when I change trains at Gallery Place, the down escalator between the Red and the Green/Yellow lines is running but the up escalator next to it is still. Then there is a huge bottleneck of people trudging up the huge escalator steps.

Seems to me it would be easy for two Metro workers to get at either end of the down escalator, have everybody get off the escalator for a few seconds, then flip a switch to reverse the direction. But maybe I am naive.

Robert Thomson: I am definitely not going to argue that this is always well thought out -- in fact, sometimes I find the escalator pattern baffling -- but on some occasions it appears to me that the decision is based on the particular configuration of escalators in the station.

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Chantilly, Va.: My sister's in town and wants to see the cherry blossoms. We plan on doing it Sunday, April 5th, and I wondered what would be the best way to get there. I had suggested taking Metro to the Smithsonian station and walking slowly, taking our time, over to the Tidal Basin (she's got arthritis and walking can be painful for her). Is the the only option? I'd heard of the Circulator Bus, but it doesn't seem to go right to the Tidal Basin, unless I'm mis-reading the route map.

Robert Thomson: Look at the transportation options on this page:

http://nationalcherryblossomfestival.org/cms/index.php?id=406

Consider driving, parking at Hains Point, and taking the free shuttle. Or taking a taxi. I worry for her on that walk from Smithsonian Station to the Tidal Basin. That's a pretty good hike for a person who has pain when walking. (Hope you two get to see the blossoms. It's hard to pass up a chance to see them.)

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Washington, D.C.: What happened on the Red line between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. to cause a huge delay? The news (and Wmata Web site) said that the weekend work to fix the problem from Friday was completed. I left my apartment, got on a train and it took me almost a half hour to get to Union Station from Silver Spring.

No announcements made. None.

Robert Thomson: I'll have to check. I don't know of any problem on the Red Line at that hour. There was a problem over at Federal Center SW, because of some emergency track work, but I don't see how that could have affected your trip.

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Seven Corners: Any word on the pedestrian bridge? It's a fine looking structure with attractive landscaping, too bad that it doesn't meet in the middle.

Robert Thomson: I know there was a problem with one of the pieces for the ped bridge. But I don't have the latest on the schedule. Will check.

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Fairfax, VA: Why is I-66 in such terrible shape? Most other roads in the area get repaved periodically as needed, but I-66 never seems to be repaired.

Robert Thomson: It is bad. I hate that stretch just west of the Beltway. I'll check with VDOT on whether there's going to be a resurfacing anytime soon.

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Robert Thomson: Well, travelers, I should scoot now. I'm determined to get on one of those new S9 buses this afternoon, this being the first day of that new express service on 16th Street NW. I hope to talk to all of you again next Monday, so stay safe.

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