Dr. Gridlock Tackles Your Traffic and Transit Issues

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Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, June 15, 2009; 12:00 PM

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock. He was online Monday, June 15 at Noon ET to diagnose all of your traffic and transit issues.

The transcript follows.

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Robert Thomson: Hello, travelers, and thanks for joining me again for our regular Monday chat. There's another good variety of comments and questions in the mailbag. There are a few I need your help with, so I'll try to post them early and give you time to comment.

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Prince George's County: When the Metro garage elevators are out of service for the umpteenth time, is it too much trouble to post an "Out of Service" note on each floor of the garage, especially for the people who park in the handicapped spaces on the upper floors? (I'm looking at YOU, College Park Metro station staff.)

Robert Thomson: Seems like you'd also want that posted right at the garage entrance, too. Was this today? I'm curious because there's nothing showing for College Park right now on Metro's online list of elevator outages, although I have seen occasions when the listings have not been current.

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Rush hour to BWI: Hey! I adore our chats, and have a rather banal question for you now, but one that I really need help with: what is rush hour to BWI like? I'll be leaving from Takoma Park this Wednesday, to pick up someone arriving at 6 PM. Any thoughts on when I should leave? Today, maybe? Thanks!

Robert Thomson: I find any airport question tough, because I know people are counting on me to help them time a trip that could go way wrong because of a last-minute problem on the roadways. So my answers tend to be conservative.

Leaving Takoma Park to pick up someone at 6, I'd get rolling at 4:40. These are the places I've encountered rush hour congestion: The 95/495 junction, the construction area for the Intercounty Connector (even though all lanes are open) and the last stretch on I-95 before branching off onto I-195. Then you've got the options of parking in the hourly lot, standing in the arrivals lane or using the cell phone waiting area.

One other thought: My airport van driver tells me that the company recommends that drivers get off 95 at Route 100, then get onto the BW Parkway, then pick up I-195. They say it's faster than 95 to 195.

Others on this?

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Woodbridge, Va.: I'd like to know if you know why there seems to be constant back-ups in the HOV lanes on I-95 in the morning. This happens nearly every day and seems to have been going on for about a month now.

Robert Thomson: Woodbridge, What section of 95 are you talking about? Down toward where you start? I haven't heard any other complaints from down there lately. I've been driving up I-395 occasionally during the past couple of weeks, to check on traffic generated by the 14th Street Bridge project, and the HOV lanes always look very inviting to me. They've also looked good in the traffic camera views.

Please write back on this, and others, tell me if you're experiencing the same thing on I-95.

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Western Alexandria: I love the new Wilson Bridge Trail it is a great addition to the area. I've already bicycled on it twice. There is one thing that needs improvement though.

I like that the borders between Va. DC and Md. are shown. I don't like that the "VIRGINIA" part of the D.C. Virginia border is obscured by warning paint for the drawbridge though. As a Virginia resident, I would like to see that corrected.

Robert Thomson: I'm going to try to get out there to the trail this week and see for myself. (And they call this work?) What I'd like to do is get a few pictures and use them on an upcoming Commuter page, maybe this Sunday.

I noticed that when I posted the rules for using the trail that cyclists are concerned about the 10 mph speed limit. (Walkers, not so much.) The bikers think it should be raised to 25 mph.

And about signage: Trail users also were saying that the guidance isn't ideal at this point. John Undeland, a spokesman for the Wilson Bridge Project, said the trail still is a "work in progress." There are going to be more signs, and that 10 mph speed limit won't be enforced immediately by park police. Undeland said that project managers were anxious to get the trail opened just as soon as they could, because so many people have been looking forward to it.

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Alexandria, Va.: Is there any way the Park Police can better police the tourist buses that stop to let passengers on/off on the road near the Lincoln Memorial? There are signs clearly posted that state they can't do that but the buses don't care at all and this really hurts us drivers trying to get home after work. Thanks for your help.

Robert Thomson: This has been a problem during the tourist months ever since that bus stop area on Bacon Drive opened a couple of years ago. I've seen it myself quite a few times: The buses overstay their welcome in the parking area on the right side, as rush hour traffic is building.

Park Police should enforce the rules, which are quite reasonable, and get those buses out of there.

Tell me this: Is there a reason -- give this problem -- that you avoid going a block down to 23rd Street and making a left turn there on the way to Memorial Bridge? Wouldn't that also allow you to skip one traffic light at Lincoln Circle?

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Carderock: Something needs to be done about the one lane bridge on MacArthur Blvd. In the evening, around 5 and 6, the traffic going east is not able to get across. I often sit, not moving, for four or five light cycles because the people coming the other way do not move up quickly enough. The light cycle timing needs to be changed. Any thoughts?

Robert Thomson: I've heard similar complaints, but have not visited the site to see for myself. (I've got a bunch of complaints that fall into that category. I like to see for myself before drawing conclusions, and it's a big region -- and you travelers have a lot of complaints.)

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Washington, D.C.: As one of last week's complainers about potholes on the northbound 14th Street Bridge, I'm happy to report that yesterday I drove over it and the potholes were filled. I don't know when they did it, but I'm glad they did.

Robert Thomson: It was last Monday night, after you complained. DDOT saw the complaints, but the department also had its own people experiencing the potholes that morning. So they arranged with the contractor to do the fixing that night.

Please do keep letting me know what your experience is with the 14th Street Bridge project, and the Chain Bridge project. Sure wish VDOT could get that traffic camera on the VA side of the Chain Bridge fixed. It could be very helpful to travelers, but it's been "Temporarily Unavailable" for about a week. (The one on the DC side works.)

This is my overall take on the projects (so you can write in and tell me I'm wrong): Traffic at both 14th Street and Chain Bridge has been looking pretty good on weekdays and weekends for the past week. We're starting to get into summer vacation season; plus, drivers now know what they're dealing with and have made any necessary adjustments. The one complaint I'm getting now comes from people using the Key Bridge. It's been bad, they say, and they think they're getting bailout traffic from Chain Bridge and 14th Street.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Good morning -- In a recent discussion, I believe last week, someone asked about the extreme temperatures at the Metro Center station. Sorry, but I didn't think the response of 'older stations tend to get that way' was very informative. Perhaps the better question should be whether or not Metro plans to do anything that might help bring the temperature down? It's awful down there, and the full heat of summer hasn't even started yet!

Robert Thomson: Yes, Metro does have a plan to install new cooling equipment for many stations. But it's never going to feel like your living room -- unless you keep the windows open. At the underground stations, the heat pours in. Other nominations for hottest stations have included Farragut North and Ballston.

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Congratulations WW Bridge: Now that the WW bridge is 99.9 percent finished, it is a dream to drive across. All of the discomfort during the building is well worth it. It is a joy to wake up in the morning and hear the traffic report that the WW bridge is clear and moving well. Yes!!!

Now if we could only get a Metro bus to cross it and connect MD to a Metro station in VA.

Robert Thomson: Bridge won't really be finished till we get a permanent transit connection across it. Regional leaders can't make up their minds on what they want. The bridge was designed to handle a rail link across it, but I think we should go for a bus rapid transit system in the short run, then go for rail in the longterm. A bus rapid transit line could link Metro stations on the two sides of the river, and join Alexandria with National Harbor.

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Rockville, Md.: Hey Dr. G,

Any idea what was going on with the red line yesterday that caused the single tracking all day around Bethesda?

Robert Thomson: Yes, sadly, I think that was the second case during the weekend in which a person was hit by a Metro train. Here's what The Post reported about the Bethesda incident:

About 1 p.m. yesterday, an unidentified woman "placed herself on the tracks" at the Bethesda Metro station and was hit by a Glenmont-bound train, forcing authorities to temporarily close the station, Metro spokeswoman Candace Smith said. Coupled with scheduled maintenance elsewhere on the Red Line, the incident caused major delays, Smith said.

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Washington, DC: To the cyclists and pedestrians pondering a higher speed limit on the Wilson Bridge trail, I urge you to visit "shared" bike trails on bridges in other cities. On just about any of these bridges you will find overly aggressive and speeding biking, which endangers pedestrians, joggers, and other bikers. The Williamsburg Bridge in Brooklyn is a perfect example. There is a shared path for bikers and pedestrians -- but if you're on foot expect to be harassed. I applaud the transportation authority for having the foresight to prevent this before it becomes a problem on the Wilson Bridge.

Robert Thomson: I think the rules for the bridge trail were set by the Maryland-National Capital Park Police, and agree that their first priority should be safety on a trail that's likely to be crowded with bikers and walkers more focused on the great views up river than on each other's movements.

On behalf of bikers: When I walked across the Roosevelt Bridge pathway, I noticed that the commuter bikers, the pros, were invariably polite and considerate when passing walkers.

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Re: Lincoln Memorial: If you're going down Independence Avenue the 23rd Street suggestion isn't an option. But I've found that Independence is faster than Constitution most evenings, until you hit the backup caused by the buses and the light pattern.

Robert Thomson: Tell me more about the Independence side. I've been over on that side of the Memorial just once in recent times. Most of my experience is on the north side, along Constitution, Bacon and 23rd.

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Air conditioning in Metro stations: It's not just Metro Center, although that is a glaring example (and Saturday night was particularly unbearable, at about 10 p.m., a point at which you'd think it would have cooled down).

Part of me wonders whether Metro is turning down the A/C to save money.

Robert Thomson: Waiting at an underground station during summer afternoons and evenings teaches me all I need to know about tandoori cooking. Those stations are very efficient about retaining the heat of the day.

I don't believe Metro has changed its policy on the temps for the stations, the trains or the buses. The stations are the real problem. The equipment at many is very old and needs upgrading. There's a plan to do that, but it's taking a long time to implement.

Me, I walk up and down the platforms till I can find a pylon that's putting out cool air, and that's where I stand.

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Washington, D.C.: You asked last week for increased commute times impacted from the Chain Bridge Road work. I can say my commute is only a minute or two longer coming down Foxhall towards the Key Bridge- mostly because of massive amounts of cars coming from MacArthur Blvd. BUT- if I were to take my old route home- across the key bridge- I'm confident I would experience 15-20 mins extra. I have taken to jumping on Whitehurst Fwy to 66 to get into VA and it's much faster. But I know that as I turn onto the FWY- I see the VA side of the Key- and it has not looked good at all the last week or two.

Robert Thomson: Thanks for that helpful report, and keep them coming. (Of course, there really aren't that many options on bridge crossings. That's what travelers were complaining about when they heard that DC was going to engage in longterm rehab projects on two of the bridges.)

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Chain Bridge: A plea to my fellow Chain Bridge drivers: Since the bridge is running one lane in each direction at each time, we have now lost the right turn lane at the end of the Virginia side of the bridge (intersection of Chain Bridge Rd. and Glebe Rd.). I can see that there is a right turn arrow, but I'm not turning right, and there isn't anywhere for me to move to allow you to turn right while I wait for a green light to go straight. That "lane" you see at the intersection is about 4 feet long and not large enough for even one vehicle. Stay off your horns.

Robert Thomson: Indeed, there are plenty of drivers heading back along Glebe Road, and not much they can do for drivers turning right onto Chain Bridge Road. (DDOT and VDOT, maybe some signage to point that out and stop harassment of drivers?)

Or do you drivers see another solution on that side of the bridge?

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Washington, D.C.: I am a District resident, and I do not own a car currently. I walk, and I use the bus and subway frequently. I'd like to point to another widely ignored problem in downtown D.C.: many bicyclists are illegally riding on the sidewalk. I have nearly been struck by bicyclists a few times, and I don't see any enforcement by D.C. police. I think that it would be helpful if the D.C. government better publicizes the restrictions on biking on downtown sidewalks. Moreover, let's see some enforcement, too.

Robert Thomson: There is a pretty big zone downtown where bikes are banned from the sidewalks. Has anyone ever seen a sign warning bikers about that? I haven't. Biking manuals do point it out, but what are the chances a biker is going to see the manuals?

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Laurel, Md.: Hello and thanks for taking our questions. Any idea on when the years-long project on Kenilworth Avenue will be finished? Do you know how long this has been going on and what they are doing? I have never seen a project take longer to do what appears to be nothing.

Robert Thomson: This is a major project: the $35 million reconstruction and renovation on Kenilworth Avenue NE around Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue. It involves reconstructing several bridges on Kenilworth, doing storm and drain work, as well as the roadway reconstruction and resurfacing, street lighting and other related stuff. It has been going on for a couple of years, and I think under the original timetable was supposed to be done this spring, but will now take till the fall.

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Metro AC issues: Stations aren't the only areas that are overheated. I've been in 5 metro rail cars in the last two weeks (orange/blue lines) that have had -heat- on, to the point where they've had to evacuate the cars, and move travelers to the adjacent cars.

Robert Thomson: Some travelers think they've been seeing more cars shut off than usual. That's the best explanation I've heard for why. Normally when people tell me about overheated cars, I advise them to get the car number and contact Metro, but this shouldn't be the case here. Metro should already know about the problem if the cars had to be shut off.

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Independence Ave: At rush hour, Independence generally backs up starting at 15th Street and sometimes as early as 14th (or worse). It's a combination of losing a lane due to bus parking which starts after 15th and the short light signal where the Independence traffic joins up with Maine Avenue traffic. The backup tends to ease after the left turn lanes which send cars back eastbound on the way to 395 or down Independence (this is just after 17th Street). Sometimes it takes 10+ minutes just to get from 15th to where it loosens up.

Robert Thomson: There's really no excuse for buses parking beyond the reasonable time limit at designated locations, and certainly no excuse at all for parking in travel lanes. And now that you mention it, I think I did notice those buses on outbound Independence near 15th Street last week. This was on Wednesday, after the shooting at the Holocaust Museum, and I was walking down 14th and 15th in the early evening so I could call in about the current conditions approaching 14th Street Bridge. So I didn't focus on Independence.

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Re: Chain Bridge: Without extensive knowledge of the work being done on the bridge, it looks like it would help if the entire southern lane of the bridge didn't have to be blocked off. If there were room for just 3-4 cars to wait for a green light to continue straight on Glebe Rd., those turning right might have a chance of getting through. This would also move traffic through the area faster. Of course, they may need to keep that entire area blocked off for construction purposes, in which case that wouldn't be possible.

This is not an issue on the other end of the bridge, as everybody must turn right onto Canal Rd.

Robert Thomson: I'm thinking back to the painting of the Legion Bridge, when the Maryland State Highway Administration was able to work with its contractor to reconfigure the work area that was creating a merge problem for GW Parkway traffic coming onto the Beltway. Perhaps it will be possible for DDOT and its contractor to adjust that construction zone on the Virginia side of the bridge to accommodate outbound traffic turning onto Chain Bridge Road.

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Robert Thomson: Travelers, I have to break away from the chat now, even though -- as usual -- I've got a bunch of comments and questions I'd still like to post, several of them in response to questions I asked you. Later this afternoon, I'll try to get some of them up on my Get There blog. And come back and join me again next Monday. Stay safe in your travels.

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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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