Dr. Gridlock Tackles Your Traffic and Transit Issues

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Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, May 26, 2009; 12:00 PM

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock. He was online Tuesday, May 26 at noon ET to diagnose all of your traffic and transit issues.

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Robert Thomson: Hello, travelers, and thanks for joining me on a special Tuesday edition of what's usually a Monday discussion. I see plenty of traffic and transit concerns in the mailbag. On some of them, I'm going to invite you to join me in addressing the writers' concerns. Also, tell me about your experiences getting around on this day with an amazing amount of rain.

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Silver Spring: Was the flooding at the SS Metro today caused by the construction at the transit center? And with the escalators under two inches of water, how long will they be out for repairs?

Robert Thomson: That must have been on the north side of Colesville. I didn't see any problem on the south side this morning. Metro spokesman Steven Taubenkibel says there were problems with lots of escalators this morning, because of flooding, and Metro is trying to get them all back online.

As I get updates, I'll post them either here, during the chat, or on the Get There blog later.

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South Riding, Va.: How quickly can the Metro respond to an unexpected increase in passengers? I know that Metro looks at events planned in D.C. and estimates for riders when planning their service. What flexibility does Metro have to change those plans?

Robert Thomson: That's an interesting question. Sounds like you might have a particular situation in mind?

Just off hand, I can't recall any specific response to an "unexpected" increase in passengers since the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when Metro did an outstanding -- vital -- job in moving people.

In other cases -- as you note -- Metro may increase train service for a particular time period, such as the Cherry Blossom Festival, or for a particular event, such as a game at Verizon Center or Nationals Park. In some of those cases, trains will be positioned to enter service if crowds are very heavy at particular stations.

I don't know of any case in which Metro simply decided that there were an awful lot of people in certain stations and decided to add trains on the spur of the moment to accommodate them.

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Arlington: What is 95 really like on the weekends between D.C. and Richmond? I'm going down on Saturday morning and coming back Sunday night. When do I ideally want to leave by to avoid sitting in traffic wishing I had a monster truck named Inferno that spits fire at other cars and would let me just roll over all the little cars in my way?

Robert Thomson: Leave early. Come back late. I've never enjoyed a smooth trip on 95 during a warm-season that was during the day. With your schedule, you should have the HOV lanes available in both directions, but south of the HOV lanes, you're dealing with plenty of long distance traffic. I figure you're starting from Arlington, so I don't believe I can recommend some of the standard options, such as taking Route 301. But readers may have some suggestions on time and route.

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Alexandria, Va.: Dr G -

I've submitted about this in the past, but didn't get an answer (I know you're busy though!).

Are the platform displays at both Eisenhower and King Street going to be fixed? Eisenhower constantly shows no future trains, until there's a train approaching (1 min left). King Street at times shows the wrong train, and other times shows a "#" sign when it's supposed to show the number of minutes.

Robert Thomson: Hi, Alexandria. First, I should explain what things look like behind the scenes on the chats. There are plenty of questions in the mailbag when I sign on, and then plenty more come in during our session. I figure I get to about half of them. I always save the rest to see if I can address some during the week on the Get There blog.

I had not heard about this problem with the platform signs at Eisenhower and King Street stations, but will ask Metro about it.

I've seen other problems with the signs at other stations, but nothing as consistent as what you report.

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Question about neighborhood signs: Hi Dr. Gridlock,

I've long wondered about those black/white signs that usually have 4 digits and an arrow on street corners all over my neighborhood (e.g., 4309 (arrow pointing right)), and I'm sure all over every neighborhood in the U.S. What do they represent, and who is meant to read them?

Robert Thomson: The sign makers must have skipped my neighborhood. The only thing I can relate to is the type of sign that indicates the address numbers on that block, so that people know which way to turn.

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Alexandria, Va.: Is there any relief in the near term for the now daily backups on the outer-loop between Van Dorn and Telegraph? The construction has been going on for months, and during that time I did experience occasional backups. However, for the past three weeks or so that area has had daily delays at around 9 a.m. (when I enter the beltway at Van Dorn).

Also, are there any plans to improve safety (signage) at the merge between the through and local lanes on the inner loop at Telegraph? That area is downright dangerous, with 50-60 mph traffic, numerous on-ramps from both the left and right, and lanes that disappear suddenly with little or no warning. It can't possibly stay like this for the next few years!

Robert Thomson: I'm afraid you're going to be dealing with that construction at the Telegraph Road interchange for quite a while. The scheduled completion is in 2013. That's the last big section of the Wilson Bridge project.

The problem for drivers is that the outer loop narrows by a lane before the interchange. Lately, there's been a lot of work on interchange ramps and on a new bridge above the Beltway.

The project is using the Variable Speed Limit program in an effort to get drivers adjust their speeds so that they don't create a worse bottleneck at the work zone, but it will work only if drivers actually obey the speed limit signs.

Some other readers have complained about the signs in that area, in particular the signs guiding drivers to the Thru and Local lanes. One problem is that the lanes are not in their final location, because of the construction, so the ones on the outer loop side aren't the permanent ones.

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who was it that said..: escalators are never out of order/broken. Those are called stairs.

Robert Thomson: Metro is cursed with these escalators. They are an original sin of the transit system that several generations of engineers and planners have been trying to deal with ever since.

I hate to see them used as stairs. The steps aren't positioned for that and people can get hurt.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Is there a station more poorly serviced than Glenmont? We pay more than anybody else in our direction of the Red Line but are in the group that gets only half the service. Again, more money for 50% of the service! (Metro's rationale for this is nonsense.) Our garage fills up by 8 so forget about going in late. The closest garage thereafter isn't safe. Our garage has been undergoing construction for many months and this makes parking even tougher. Glenmont is the first and last stop and thereby services a wide area but Metro treats us like dirt.

Robert Thomson: You're talking about the turnbacks at Silver Spring (and at Grosvenor) to keep more service in the transit system's core, because there are more riders there. I don't see that changing anytime soon. It would take more rail cars and more money. As we saw during the budget debates this spring, Metro doesn't have either.

One suggestion: There's plenty of parking near the Silver Spring Station. Those aren't Metro garages. They are operated by Montgomery County. You can get a monthly parking permit or use the meters.

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Re neighborhood signs: Hi again,

Sorry, I should have been clearer. In my neighborhood at least, the numbers don't correspond to my street at all. They aren't like street signs which indicate the 1200 block left, and 1300 block right. The ones I've seen driving around over the weekend are all 4 digits, and the sign is always white with black letters, no matter what.

I've wondered if perhaps the numbers indicate the 4 digits on the end of an extended zip code? Like my parents live at xxxxx-2008 in California, but I've never noticed if they have a sign indicating 2008 in their neighborhood.

Does that help?

Robert Thomson: Thanks for writing back. But I'm still baffled. I can't see the need for that kind of signage on the extended ZIP codes. Anybody else have a clue on this one? I'd like to figure it out.

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South Riding, Va.: No real situation. I rode the Metro on Sunday and got caught in the crowd going to see the Nationals play at home. It was a holiday weekend, and it didn't rain as forecast. It wasn't as bad as the Cherry Blossom Festival/peak bloom.

Robert Thomson: Thanks, South Riding. I thought Metro and the District Department of Transportation developed pretty good plans for handling the ballgame crowds. Most frequently, the crowds aren't huge. This is the sort of situation where Metro normally has trains ready to enter service at the end of games to alleviate overcrowding.

I do get complaints about crowding after Verizon Center games and some Nationals games. But I've never felt threatened by crowding on those platforms -- the way I did on the BART platform after an Oakland A's game, when police were not controlling the number of people taking the escalators to the platform.

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Washington, D.C.: Question regarding public transportation:

I will soon be commuting in from Columbia, Md. to Foggy Bottom on a daily basis. I am familiar with the MTA service, but was curious if there were any other forms of transit that did not involve me driving into town.

Thanks.

Robert Thomson: If you're talking either MTA commuter bus or MARC train, you're pretty much locked in to driving to a park and ride lot.

But it sounds like one of the MTA commuter buses from Columbia to downtown Washington, or from Columbia to the Silver Spring Metro station, could work for you. Problem with that?

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Pentagon City, Va.: Dr. G -- will WaPo transportation coverage ever extend to cover walking and biking in more depth? D.C. is launching a bunch of innovative bike/ped projects, and while you (roads) and Lena (transit) are great, nobody at the Post seems especially tuned in to this growing mode of transit. Hypothetically, if DDOT were to create a new walking villa, like NYC on Broadway, I fear that WaPo coverage would concentrate only on the impact to drivers and/or transit.

Robert Thomson: Not so, Pentagon City. I care very much about all travelers, whether they drive, take transit, bike or walk. And there are plenty of people here at The Post, as well as among the people who write to Dr. Gridlock, who have questions about walking and cycling. I'm hoping to do a Sunday Commuter page feature this weekend or next about cycling safety issues. (But as you say, Lena H. Sun is terrific on transit.)

The NYC experiment with making Times Square more walker-friendly is very interesting. It just got started this past weekend.

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RE: Arlington and 95 South: Leave before 9 a.m., and take HOV down all the way. Once 11 a.m. hits, you might as well not go. It gets that bad. It once took me 3.5 hours to get to Richmond from Lorton on a Saturday.

Rule of Thumb with I-95: Leave when it probably is the least convenient for you and most other drivers.

Robert Thomson: Thanks for the response on traveling 95 over the weekend.

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Washington, D.C.: Any news regarding what is going on with the bridge on South Dakota, NE at Vista St.? I moved from NW to Brookland a year ago and have seen very little progress on this project. The southbound lanes are all shiny and new ... and blocked off, while traffic is cramming into the northbound lanes.

Any news when they might open the southbound side and start working on the northbound? With the construction on Brentwood, it's tough to get to New York Ave. these days.

Robert Thomson: DDOT spokesman John Lisle says there were some problems with the designs for the project, but those problems have been corrected. He notes also that a lot of the work is being done under the bridge, so it may not be visible to drivers. (That's a frequent issue with our local bridge projects. Probably will come up with the 14th Street Bridge rehab, too.)

Lisle says the SD Ave. bridge contractor is finishing the area in front of the abutments before switching the lanes to construct the rest of the bridge. They should be done by the end of June. Then the contractor will switch the traffic to the southbound span.

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14th Street Bridge work? : Hi Doc -- does it start tonight? I leave downtown to take I-66 back to Tysons each evening in my hybrid, via 14th St. Any alternate routes you can suggest? Thanks!

Robert Thomson: Not tonight, but starting tomorrow if the schedule holds. And remember, the work is on the regular lanes of the northbound span only.

Check my Get There blog entry from this morning.

Alternatives are tricky on this one. Let's see how traffic moves in the early going to see what alternatives might work best. (I'll be out there.)

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4-digit neighborhood signs: My guess about those signs are that they're state route numbers, since I notice them all over the place in Virginia, where almost all of the roads are state roads.

Robert Thomson: Very common indeed in Virginia. But don't you find it surprising that they'd be all over the commenter's neighborhood?

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Arlington, Va.: Has Metro ever seriously considered ripping out its escalators and replacing them with stairs? The outside escalators are obviously the most troublesome, but Metro can't keep the interior escalators running consistently either.

Robert Thomson: I'd rather that technology and engineering just caught up with our need to have working escalators. We have some very deep stations that would require some serious vertical ascents. The elevators couldn't handle the demand from people who couldn't handle the stairs.

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Silver Spring: Why do people insist upon driving thru running or standing water? It never ceases to amaze me that someone will try to drive their little sedan through 3 feet of water. Some have to be rescued -- they should get a bill. How would they feel if a rescuer was injured pulling them out of their car?

Robert Thomson: Our drivers are remarkably consistent in dealing with travel conditions. Many make no adjustment at all. On this blog this morning, I offered some advice for how to adjust to the heavy rain.

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"But don't you find it surprising that they'd be all over the commenter's neighborhood?": Depends on where the commenter lives. If you live in a neighborhood with a homeowners' association where not all roads are maintained by VDOT, then you wouldn't see the route number signs. But if you live in a neighborhood where VDOT maintains the roads, then you should expect to see them at every corner because VDOT puts up a route number sign at every corner of every VDOT-maintained road, even roads that nobody calls by number.

Robert Thomson: Well, this is the best explanation so far.

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Neighborhood signs: From the question about neighborhood signs, it sounds like the questioner is asking about the signs that show the route number, at least if the questioner is from Virginia at any rate. All roads in the "VDOT system" have route numbers, including neighborhood streets for which VDOT is responsible for maintenance. (That is: If VDOT plows your street when it snows, it's in the VDOT system; if VDOT doesn't plow the street and someone else like your homeowners' association is responsible for it, it's not in the VDOT system.)

Virginia has a far more extensive system of state highways than most states because there are no "county roads" like you see in, say, New Jersey, except in Henrico and Arlington Counties. To make a long story short, the reason dates back to counties being unable to maintain roads during the Great Depression and the Commonwealth taking over the roads in 1932 pursuant to the Byrd Road Act. (Independent cities, however, were NOT included, and they maintain their own roads except for Interstate Highways....perhaps one reason why Alexandria's roads are often more potholed than Fairfax County's.)

Anyway, you can usually find the route number on a small black-on-white rectangular sign located on top of a stop sign (where there is one). For roads that nobody refers to by number, these signs are the only ones showing the road number. If the number is preceded by an "F," it's a frontage road (example: F713 is the frontage road along US-50 near where the Jefferson movie theatre used to be).

Robert Thomson: And even if the locals don't use the route numbers to get around, it might be good guidance for emergency vehicles.

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Herndon, Va.: Strollers on the Metro... On Sunday, I got on the Metro and there were two strollers parked near the doors. The parents, sitting in the seats near the door, didn't seem to mind that they were blocking the entrance. One stroller was a double-wide one. They got on at Vienna when the train wasn't full, but it quickly became standing room only. I saw many people struggle to get past them to get off and on the train. I fail to see how they didn't notice the problem they were causing and find a way to move the strollers out of the path.

Robert Thomson: Some of those strollers are like the Land Cruisers of the sidewalk. Impossible to get around. Now, I understand your point about how some people seem to zone out on the fact that people are trying to get around their equipment. But I'd also like to point out that this is a reason for liking the newer Metro cars, the ones that eliminate some of the seating around the doors. I find it easier to maneuver around luggage and strollers in those cars.

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Athens, Greece: Heading home to Virginia after three years. I noted an interesting requirement for new drivers here. They HAVE to post in their car an N on the back window indicating they are a new driver. It is a RED N on something. There are stickers and also little t-shirts with big Ns on them hung in the back window alerting everyone behind them that they are NEW and learning. It helps to give them wide berth, and or a bit more patience. Interesting, and wondering if this might be an option in the states for our "new" drivers.

Robert Thomson: Welcome back, Athens. I think there are some states that do this. I like the patience factor, but wonder if this amounts to a scarlet letter for the new drivers.

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Rockville: Dr Gridlock, what's the right thing to do in this situation: a two-lane road becomes three lanes at a light. This happens quite a lot in my neighborhood and no one seems to know the answer. Is one of the two right lanes a right-turn only? A left-turn only? Who do I talk to about getting signs for these intersections? Thanks!

Robert Thomson: Sometimes, it's just to provide drivers with more options at the intersections. If it's a turning-only lane, it should be marked as such.

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Alexandria, Va.: Just got back from New Jersey. What is the deal with the 'jug handles' and no left turns?

There are also more useless signs on the roads than useful ones. Example -- our hotel was the second right after a jug handle, the hotel sign was after the second right and was about the size of a cafeteria sign.

The hotel access road was behind and parallel to the jug handle which was not visible from the road. People thus turned onto the first turn (jug handle) instead of the second turn (hotel).

Is just as confusing typed as driven.

Robert Thomson: Very common in N.J. The locals are used to it, but it doesn't help an out of towner trying to find a hotel. It should reduce intersection congestion and collisions.

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Next Train Displays: The next train displays can't show anything until a train actually leaves the terminal, so nothing will come up at Eisenhower until the train leaves Huntington. You can see the same thing happen at Rockville, the trains only show up on the inbound side on the display 3-4 minutes before showing up at the station.

At King Street, the displays sometimes have trouble figuring out which trains will get to the station first just beyond junctions where lines merge.

Robert Thomson: This is one of two responses I see to the question about the lack of next train information at Eisenhower and King Street stations.

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re: Eisenhower sign: The Gallery Place station has a similar problem regarding Huntington-bound trains (that start a run at Mt Vernon Sq). My theory is that for trains starting a run at the endpoints (Huntington and Mt. Vernon Square), the first stops (Eisenhower and Gallery Place) don't know when the next train is going to arrive until it actually departs from the endpoint. Just a guess however...

Robert Thomson: Yes. It is possible to baffle the system. Saw an example this morning on Silver Spring platform when a northbound train pulled in onto the southbound track, becoming the next southbound train. Nothing on the sign indicated that. And there was no announcement in the station or on the train.

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Silver Spring: It was the south side of Colesville. Approx. 7:30 a.m. Could only go up the single escalator facing north, which they had shut off to accommodate people going in both directions. Water was flowing from east to west, and you could see mud accumulating around the base of the escalator.

Robert Thomson: I got on a train there at about 10 a.m. and saw no effects of flooding. Hope you find the same on your way back.

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Robert Thomson: I have to break away now, though many good questions and comments remain. Please join me again on Monday. Meanwhile, check the Get There blog. I'll copy all the remaining comments and see if I can post some during this week.

Stay safe out there.

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The 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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