Dr. Gridlock Tackles Your Traffic and Transit Issues

Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, June 8, 2009; 12:00 PM

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock. He was online Monday, June 8 at Noon ET to diagnose all of your traffic and transit issues.


Robert Thomson: Good afternoon, travelers. Looks like there's already a good variety of traffic and transit issues in the mailbag. I see a couple on which I'll need your help and will try to launch them early so you can reply.


Annapolis, Md.: I'm writing to complain about a signage (really, a lack of signage) problem my husband and I encountered a few weeks ago when we were trying to avoid a miles-long back-up on the outer loop of the Beltway in Maryland. We were going to Bethesda from Annapolis, and decided to take Route 410 from Route 50. Both of us have been on various parts of the road many times, but never the stretch through Takoma Park, where it takes several turns -- none of them marked when you're going east to west. Since the road changes names multiple times as well, we had to guess at least 2 or three times on the right way to go -- and each time, we guessed wrong. Would it kill the Maryland DOT to put in some signs for those of us without GPS in our cars? We saw more of Takoma Park than we'd ever seen before, but we really weren't on a sightseeing trip.

Robert Thomson: That was intrepid, trying to reach Bethesda from the junction of Routes 50 and 410. I've had personal experience getting confused about how to stay on 410, but can't say, off the top of my head, how many black and white 410 markers there are between Route 50 and 16th Street in Silver Spring, where that route gets easy to follow on the way to Bethesda.

If you're bailing out at that point to avoid the congestion on the northern arc of the Beltway, there aren't too many options. If I were unfamiliar with the area, I might even have decided to swing south and follow the inner loop around to Bethesda.

One issue this raises: How bad does the traffic report have to be to bailout of the highway you're familiar with?

And another thing: A key to our transportation future is giving drivers information about current conditions and their options. We have GPS, radio traffic reports, overhead signs, and that's good. But we're not putting the resources we need into making sure people can really use the network of roads we have. And we have to, because there aren't that many new roads coming.


Alexandria, Va.: I'd love to walk across the Wilson Bridge, and maybe every biker knows where the access points are, but none of the press coverage provided the information I need: how exactly do I get to the bridge path from the Virginia side?

Robert Thomson: Most of the feedback I got involved confusion about the approach from the Maryland side. See if this map helps for finding your way on the Virginia approach.

And from the MD side, what I suggested was that the Oxon Hill Park and Ride would be a convenient staging area. This is a Google map link.


Great Falls, Va.: Dr. Gridlock,

Last week a writer asked you whether Maryland will issue speeding tickets using work zone cameras even when work is not being performed at the construction site. Your response was not clear, at least to me. I think you implied that the answer is "yes". Is that the answer? Thanks.

Robert Thomson: Yes.


NW, D.C.: Can Metro trains be run 100% automated?

Hopefully this is not Hollywood-based stupidity, but I always thought that Metro trains could be run centrally and the operators were there to fine tune hiccups such as the train not going far enough in the station to open the doors safely to the platform.

Robert Thomson: Yes, the trains could be operated automatically all the time. But there are lots of hiccups in our system. The automatic train controls need to be upgraded for precision stopping, such as you'd see on the BART system in the San Francisco Bay area, where there are markers on the platforms indicating where the train is going to stop.

BART also has train operators aboard in case of emergencies or if circumstances require that the trains be operated manually.


Washington, D.C.: Why were there no announcements about the red line delay this weekend until Friday night? I ride every day and never heard anything about an announcement (and there were no messages scrolling on the boards in the stations) until I was caught up in a "scheduled" delay Friday night. And yes I'm sure Metro's website had it up, but let's just suppose that I don't check their website every hour of every day scanning for announcements. If there is a delay coming up, I rather hear them in the station while waiting for my train.

Robert Thomson: I noticed on Sunday, while heading from Silver Spring to the Nats game, that many Red Line riders seemed unaware they were heading into delays, for switch replacement at the Brentwood Yard. (Otherwise, they would have gotten off with us at Fort Totten and transfered to the Green Line.)

I was pleased with the announcements I did hear, because they included two warnings against eating and drinking on Metro. But I didn't hear any announcement in the stations or on the trains about the weekend delays. There was a service announcement posted on the electronic displays on the platforms.

Metro has started doing this good thing: Toward the end of each month, Metro posts an announcement on its Web site listing the weekend work coming up during the next month. Here's the one for June.

Also, Metro's e-Alert system, which you can sign up for by line, usually puts out messages about the upcoming track work delays.


Stuck in traffic, Md.: Any idea when the construction on DC-295 will be completed? I thought initially it was scheduled to be over by April 2009. Clearly they've missed this deadline. It's been going on for years! Help!

Robert Thomson: I think that one is supposed to be done by the end of September. My recent trips on 295 have been quicker, and I'm no longer avoiding it by taking alternative routes. How about the rest of you.


Red Line rider: Re: today's article about metro train operators opening doors when not all cars are on the platform, isn't the answer simple? You do it once and you're fired. If you're not smart enough or careful enough not to put your passengers at this kind of risk, you don't belong in this job. Why does Metro bother with second and third chances with these employees?

Robert Thomson: "The beatings will continue until morale improves."

Here's what Lena H. Sun said in her story today:

"Operators are suspended for 12 days without pay for the first offense. A second offense disqualifies them from operating a train for 18 months, and the third offense results in firing."

I've got some sympathy for the operators on this one. It's up to Metro managers to fix this. I think they could do it by requiring every train, no matter how long, to stop at the front end of the platforms.

If they just keep bouncing the operators every time this happens, we're going to lose a lot of operators.

Here's a link to Lena's story.


Silver Spring: I'm familiar with 410 and sometimes have trouble dodging it through Takoma.

Next time, Annapolis, take Route 50 all the way and then go up 16th street all the way to East-West highway.

Robert Thomson: Thanks, Silver Spring, on that guidance for our intrepid travelers who tried to work their way from Routes 50/410 to Bethesda.


Gaithersburg, Md.: Why can't DDOT shut down all outgoing traffic on the Chain bridge in the morning and in-bound from Virginia in the evening during construction on the bridge?

Robert Thomson: I think that so far, DDOT doesn't believe that drastic step is necessary. It would inconvenience many drivers on both sides of the river.

I've been driving Chain Bridge and also looking at the traffic cameras since the one lane was closed off last week. After the first couple of days, I saw improvement, and I think that's what DDOT is seeing. But you travelers should tell me if you think that's not the case.


Oak Hill, VA: After last Friday night's Nationals game we were waiting, after being herded by a less than friendly officer who mumbled about "idiots". A little background, a train arrived and pulled up short, but the doors didn't open and the train later moved forward. People moved forward to board the train but the doors didn't open. Then "Officer Friendly" again bellowed for people to move back. The train began moving and the officer mumbled about the "idiots". To whom was he referring, the Metro driver or the patrons or both? Would this case be reported? Obviously the driver stopped short but the doors didn't open. The train still stopped short, there was a delay, shouldn't this count too? One last thing, Metro police officers -- drop the attitude -- the crowd was small and there's no need to act like it's a Redskins game. People with badges seem to get big attitudes, too bad there was no name badge to be read.

Robert Thomson: I've taken Metro to Nationals games twice in the past week. Both times, transit police and station managers had the platform under good control. They were authoritative without being rude. Before the game, they were trying to get people to head for the best exit. After the game, they were trying to get people to move down the platform so the entire train would be loaded before departing.

The one problem: A station manager was making an announcement to people on the platform. It was impossible to hear.


Washington, D.C.: Submitting early since I won't be around during the chat.

In regards to Lena Sun's story this morning about Metro doors, she states that Metro doesn't want to have trains always stop at the front of the platforms for fear that regular riders will won't know where to stand for their usual spot, but why would that matter -- I get on the fourth car at my stop to be at the escalator when I exit, but if the car now moves up, I'll be on the fifth car but still in the same place on the platform when I get off the train. Am I missing something here?

Robert Thomson: Sounds like it would work fine for you. Others would get used to it after a few days.


Oxon Hill, Md.: Where did you get the rules that you posted for the WWB Trail?

A speed limit of 10 mph is ridiculous and is inconsistent with M-NCPPC Park Rules and Regulations for Prince George's County From Chapter IV:

Section 3. Bicycling

C. Bicycles shall not be operated at a speed greater than reasonable and prudent for existing conditions.

D. No person shall operate any bicycle in excess of twenty-five (25) miles per hour, unless speed limit is otherwise posted or directed.

E. Bicycle trail users shall yield to vehicular traffic at intersecting roadways.

F. Bicyclists and hikers shall keep right except to pass and bicyclists must alert other trail users before passing.

G. Bicycle trails are considered to be "Public Bicycle Areas" and as such are subject to regulations in the Maryland Vehicle Code.

I was surprised by the 5:30 am to midnight rule. I was on the WWB Maryland Interchange Stakeholder Panel, and in all of our discussions it was agreed that the trail is a transportation facility that should be usable twenty-four hours a day. None of the other bike-ped crossings of rivers in the Washington area have limited hours of operation.

The trail is a wonderful facility, and much praise should go to all the agencies that worked to make it such. There is a little more work to be done, especially in eliminating the bumps at seams and expansion joints. The kludge for wiring or something across the trail is a hazard that should be remedied. I went over it at a modest speed and the jolt caused my water bottle to fall out.

It was great seeing so many cyclists on the trail. I put some photos online. One person in the Maryland convey had a camera mounted on the handlebars and shot a nine-minute video as he crossed the bridge.

The WWB Trail is a wonderful addition to the region's trail and bikeway network. Virginians who come across the bridge will want to visit National Harbor. They can also explore Oxon Hill and discover the Oxon Hill Farm, the Oxon Cove Trail, Oxon Hill Manor, the Henson Creek Trail, Fort Foote National Park, Fort Washington National Park, the Colonial Farm, and Piscataway Park.

Robert Thomson: I've got a few more comments in the mailbag on the Wilson Bridge Trail. The list of rules that I posted on my Get There blog comes from the Wilson Bridge Project. I don't see anything in the M-NCPPC rules that rules out a lower speed limit in a particular area.


RE: Chain Bridge: I suspect that things are running smoother up there because traffic has gotten significantly worse at the Key Bridge.

Robert Thomson: Congressmen Moran, Connolly and Wolf wrote a letter of protest Friday to Mayor Fenty about the 14th Street Bridge and Chain Bridge projects starting almost at once and without much notice to travelers.

That's bound to put additional pressure on the bridges in between, which aren't noted for smooth travel under normal circumstances.

But I have to say this: I haven't seen any reason so far for I-395 commuters to avoid the 14th Street Bridge northbound. The first phase of construction closed off the right lane but has maintained four lanes. Despite the very heavy , traffic has flowed pretty well. That may not be the case when we move into other phases this year, when parts of middle lanes will be shut.

Please let me know about your experiences with all the bridges. Do others find traffic extra heavy now on Key Bridge?


Closed metro cars: About two weeks ago on the Orange Line at rush hour, there were two trains in a row with several cars shut down. What's with that? It wreaked havoc on the commute. I think there were about 6-7 closed cars between the two trains.

Robert Thomson: Sometimes there's a problem with a car, or cars, but Metro wants to keep the train in service, so it shuts off access to that car. Have other riders noticed many cars out of service lately?


Chain Bridge Impact: I have never crossed the Potomac on 123, but I do take the Key Bridge in and out every day. And I can say with 100% certainty that traffic towards the Key Bridge from western DC/eastern MD (Foxhall/Canal) is definitely worse than it was a month ago before the work started. I would say it's an extra 5/6 minutes of wait time- and that's at 3:15/3:30 when I'm crossing. I don't know how much worse it is 4:30-6...

Robert Thomson: Thanks, I'd like to hear about the crossings from more travelers -- and also whether it's gotten so bad that you think you need to find an alternative.


Alexandria, Va,: The backup on the 14th Street Bridge this morning didn't seem to be due to the just underway construction project, but because of some truly massive potholes in the travel lanes. Is DDOT going to do repair work on these areas? I would hate to hit them at speed.

Robert Thomson: Thanks for noting that. I'll check with DDOT. It appeared to me that I-395 traffic was sluggish, but the key traffic cameras with bridge views were out of service this morning. (I hope that doesn't happen regularly. The cameras are very helpful to drivers during this project.)


Fort Washington, Md.: The Woodrow Wilson Bridge Trail is a wonderful addition to the region's expanding network of trails and bikeways.

We need to work together to make sure that the trail does not have an unreasonably low speed limit. The rule should be changed to "Bicycles shall not be operated at a speed greater than reasonable and prudent for existing conditions."

We also need to make sure that the trail is accessible 24 hours a day. This is a recreational and transportation facility. What other transportation facilities have limited hours of operation?

Robert Thomson: I agree with you on the 24 hours issue. That's probably a policing resources question at the moment.


Woodrow Wilson Bridge: We walked the pedestrian path yesterday. Nice views of D.C. The only complaint is that for most of the path, the only divider between pedestrians and traffic is a 5 foot high barrier. Above that, there is no fencing or any other barrier that would prevent road debris, etc from hitting a pedestrian. Yes, it's cool, but I don't think it's very safe.

Robert Thomson: I'm not sure yet that pedestrians and cyclists are properly protected on the Wilson Bridge Trail. The writer cites a good issue about the quality of the barrier.

Also, I'm not convinced yet by arguments in favor of a higher speed limit for bikers. The path is 12 feet wide. There's no runoff room on either side if a problem develops in a congested area.


Door Problems: Just a comment, last week on the Orange line, I got on a car that the doors would not open on the right side. They opened fine on the left at Rosslyn and Foggy Bottom ,and then at Farragut West when they open on the right, everyone kept waiting for them to open, but they never opened and off we went to McPherson Square. Then, they didn't open again but we all noticed other people getting off in the other trains and someone called on the intercom. The driver then said if anyone was in a car with the door not opening, then to walk through the doors at the end of a car into the next car and then get off. So people started to do that, walking between the cars, but it was very slow cause the cars were jammed. About 20 seconds after the driver said that, the train started moving. It was pretty chaotic. Luckily they opened at Metro Center on the left and I got off there too. I'm hoping they took the train out of service, but it was not good, especially when the train started moving with people going through the doors.

Robert Thomson: I'm thinking back to the comment about individual cars out of service and wondering if door problems could have been a reason for that. And again, what Metro may have had in mind is keeping the functioning cars in service rather than taking the whole train out.

I think if I were the operator, I would have immediately reported the condition to the operations control center, and if I were in occ, I would have ordered the car cleared while the train was in the station.


Sterling, Va.: It looks like the interchange at Rt 28 and Nokes Blvd is in the final stage of completion. Signs up says that Nokes Blvd is reopening today and that the intersection of Rt 28/Dulles Center Blvd and Rt28/Severn Way are closing. Are these closings permanent, and will the intersection of Rt28/Steeplechase be closed also?

Robert Thomson: Here's what I know from VDOT about Route 28 and Nokes:

You should be seeing the new traffic pattern about now. This includes newly completed ramps at the interchange. Meanwhile, the old connections at Dulles Center Boulevard and Severn Way are permanently closed.

The new ramps are part of the $58 million interchange project that included a new Nokes Boulevard bridge over Route 28 and the elimination of a traffic signal. Those were done in early May.

The intersection at Steeplechase Drive was unaffected by this phase of construction. But this summer, the intersection will be converted to a signalized right-in, right-out access, a pattern that will remain through 2011 when Atlantic Boulevard is completed.



Every day I ride a bus home from the Pentagon, and we enter onto the HOV-3 lanes of 395 Southbound.

Each and every day I watch as each car goes by with only 1 person in it. I'd say easily 17 out of 20 cars only carry 1 person, and the HOV lanes are jammed and at a stand-still.

Why can't police get these people? It would be so easy!

Robert Thomson: VDOT says the violation rate is about 1 in 4. Violations of the HOV rules are a top complaint among my readers, but enforcement can be tough. It's not particularly safe for police or the motorists in the area. And any enforcement action creates its own traffic jam.


Georgetown: I haven't noticed any significant change on my way out on the Key Bridge in the evenings, but I've noticed it takes a couple extra cycles at the light to get on to the bridge. I'm crossing the same time as the previous poster, making a R off 34th and immediate left on to the bridge. Mornings are always awful!

Robert Thomson: Thanks, Georgetown. Most of our river crossings are rated "awful" so sometimes it's tough to pick up a change for the worse.


eating on Metro: A group of at least 30 tourists, all eating breakfast (fruit cup, bagels, etc), entered the Rosslyn Metro on Friday (and passed three employees who said nothing). Is there somewhere we can all donate $1 to buy large stand-up signs that say NO FOOD OR DRINK to post at the entry of of every stop? They have one at King St and it doesn't look that pricey.

Robert Thomson: Yes, we've got one in Silver Spring, too, right by the escalator. It notes there's a fine of up to $100 for a violation. Earlier in our conversation, I noted that I heard two announcements about the eating and drinking rules on my Red Line/Green Line trip to Nationals Park. They seemed directed at tourists.


Washington, D.C.: If the cyclists on the WWB ped/bike path act anything like the cyclist on the Capital Crescent Trail, then I am in favor of the 10 mph speed limit. Walkers have rights, too, and that includes not being terrorized by speeding cyclists.

Robert Thomson: I think this is going to be a continuing issue for us.


Washington, D.C.: I'll second the complaint about massive potholes on the 14th Street Bridge going northbound. I just drove over the bridge, and I was fortunate to be able to move a bit into the lane next to mine to miss two big ones. I'm sure it's contributing to morning slowdowns, because going over them at normal speed would have been very unpleasant.

Robert Thomson: Thanks for that extra information.

Reminds me: The speed limit has been lowered to 35 mph for the duration of the project. (DDOT should still fix the potholes.)


Friendship Heights: I heard plenty of announcements about this weekend's trackwork while riding to and from the Nationals game yesterday.

Robert Thomson: Thank you. Sometimes, whether riders hear a particular announcement is a question of the particular route they're taking. Other times, we don't notice the announcements. (And some other times, there are no announcements.)


Red Line: Why is the Metro Center station so hot these days? I've gotten off there for the last 3 years and don't remember it being this warm. I can only imagine what it will be like by August at this rate.

Robert Thomson: Those older stations on the Red Line are pretty bad in the hot weather. So are the ones at the ends of tunnels, where the incoming trains are pushing in the hot air before them.


Washington, D.C.: Regarding the termination of train conductors who violate the Metro door procedures...

Progressive Discipline is a basic tenet of all union contracts. Workers have to be given a chance to correct their behavior.

I am sure that Metro management would like to take swift action against scofflaws, but workers have taken steps to protect their jobs; and rightfully so.

Robert Thomson: I agree.


Robert Thomson: There are many, many comments in the mailbag -- still -- but I must break away for today. I'll copy all the questions and see if I can do some on my Get There blog this week. In particular, I see the one asking for more information about parking to use the Wilson Bridge Trail, so I'll gather something on that. And thanks for your comments about the continuing issues of the bridge reconstructions and the Metro doors opening in tunnels. I'll keep on those issues, too.


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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