Dr. Gridlock Tackles Your Traffic and Transit Issues

Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, July 6, 2009; 12:00 PM

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock. He was online Monday, July 6 at Noon ET to diagnose all of your traffic and transit issues.

The transcript follows.


Robert Thomson: Hello, travelers. Hope your holiday was a very pleasant one. I did some traveling myself. Flew from BWI to Manchester Airport in New Hampshire for a long weekend and just got back this morning. I do that drive sometimes, but hate it, and much prefer to navigate the Northeast corridor by plane to either Manchester or Providence.

But there's plenty of local issues on your mind today, and I'll start responding now.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Dr. Gridlock, Sorry to post early but I was hoping you could bring the following to METRO's attention. This morning (7/6) at 7:10AM all three of the escalators at the Pentagon's South entrance were stopped. One was entirely blocked off (even though it has a sign on it that it will be fixed by 7/3). None of the escalators were being worked on by technicians.

Perhaps more annoying was when I reached Union Station, they had one of two escalators closed on the "trains" side of the platform. So everyone getting off METRO at that exit as well as all of the morning commuters arriving from VRE/MARC/AMTRAK were having to go single-file up and down one escalator. The most frustrating part was the closed escalator was intact and not one employee was working on it. If no one is going to work on it why not keep it open for walking? Having only one escalator available at a very busy entrance/exit point was not the smartest.


Robert Thomson: At Pentagon, we seem to have two escalators out for major repairs. The updated fix dates are Wednesday and Friday. It does seem odd that two would be out for major repairs at the same time. If two of three are busted, Metro would normally stop the third one and use it as a stairway, allowing for two-way foot traffic.

Over at Union Station, we've also got two busted ones confronting train passengers. One is supposed to be back on Thursday, but the other not till the end of the month.

By my count, Metro has 46 elevators and escalators out of service today.(!) There are other stations besides Pentagon and Union Station that have multiple problems. Woodley Park and Metro Center are among them.


Washington, D.C.: Dr. Gridlock--I am very disappointed at your response in last week's chat to the person asking that they yellow line service to Fort Totten be extended to the rush hour. Why wasn't your response that it should not be because this extended service delays green line passengers who should not pay rush hour fares for delays? Or that in a time of severe budget crunch, it is outrageous that Metro is wasting tax and fare dollars on duplicative service to the least travelled line? Or, you could have reminded the chatter that this service already happens during rush hour (though it is not supposed to) so green line riders already face daily rush hour delays. I doubt you'll post this because the Post does not address green line service issues.

Robert Thomson: Is your complaint that there's too much or too little service up to Fort Totten? Would you prefer the Yellow Line operate to Fort Totten at rush hours?


Washington, D.C.: I'd like to ask you a question that I have not seen addressed anywhere: during the massive delays as a result of the accident, were we all paying rush hour fares for trains that were 10-20 minutes apart during rush hour to and from work, and for a good portion of one of the weeks, on shuttle buses? If so, then that is absolutely outrageous. I understand why metro had to seriously alter service, however we then should not have been charged at a rush hour fare. I meant to take a look at how much was being taken from my smart trip, but I honestly kept forgetting. Any word on this?

Robert Thomson: I haven't heard any discussion among Metro board members about changing the policy on when peak fares are charged. Given Metro's budget problems and the strong likelihood of a significant fare increase next year unless there's a big infusion of either local or federal money, I think it's more likely that we'll hear a discussion about eliminating the off-peak fare.


Rockville, Md.: When will the chain bridge repair work be completed?

Robert Thomson: It's scheduled to be done in January. I haven't heard many complaints lately about commuting over the bridge and have been assuming that's because we're getting into summer vacation season.

I expect to hear a lot more from travelers about Chain Bridge and 14th Street Bridge in September, when the traffic volumes build back up again.

One of the three Chain Bridge lanes is shut off for the entire eight months of this rehab project. Down at 14th Street Bridge, the right lane northbound is blocked. But that project will move to another phase in a couple of months and one of the middle lanes will be blocked. I think that might be more problematic.


Queenstown, Md.: Are the transit/parking provisions at Nationals Park the same for special events (like John-Joel concert this weekend) as for games? Can we expect shuttle buses to free RFK? And special Metro train configurations? etc.

Robert Thomson: Thanks for the reminder, because I need to check on transportation arrangements for the Saturday night concert. I have not heard of the Nats Express shuttle running for any special events -- besides the pope's visit, as I recall. Metro normally would put on extra trains if an event sponsor paid for the additional service, and I'll check on that, too, and post what I learn on the Get There blog.


Rockville, Md.: Is the Red Line back to normal? It seemed so on my morning trip but the Metro website (woefully slow in updating) still says delays on the Red Line.

Wasn't the Red Line operating "normally" Saturday night for the fireworks?

Robert Thomson: The Red Line is back to normal speeds except in the zone between Fort Totten and Takoma where the crash occurred on June 22. The shuttle buses aren't operating in that zone anymore, because transit users are better off taking the trains, even if they're running more slowly in that particular area.

Red Line riders, how was the first commute with almost-normal speeds?


Silver Spring, Md.: I just want to thank you for the extra effort you put in to keep us informed on the METRO situation in the past two weeks.

Robert Thomson: I see lots of Metro questions in the mailbag today. (There are a couple of driving questions, too, and I'll get to them.) During the past two weeks, riders have been very concerned about the safety of the system. They also were growing increasingly frustrated with the slowdown on the Red Line.

Reporters Lena H. Sun, Lyndsey Layton, me, and a scad of other Posties were hoping we could be useful to riders during this crisis, so thanks very much for your note.

This just in: Metro is saying that the Takoma Station will close tonight and tomorrow night at 10 o'clock. This is for the continuing investigation into the crash.

Since that again splits the Red Line into two segments for those late-night hours, the shuttle buses will make a comeback, operating between Silver Spring, Takoma and Fort Totten. (At Silver Spring, where the station is being rebuilt, the shuttles stop on Dixon Avenue.)

Metro also is noting in a statement that while the Red Line speeds are generally back to normal, the slowdown in the crash area could throw off service during the morning rush. If that gets real bad, Metro says, some Red Line trains could be turned around at Rhode Island Avenue and sent back up the line to Glenmont.


Arlington, Va.: re: Red Line "Back to Normal"

I'll say "almost." It took me 31 minutes (I timed it, from curiosity) to get from Metro Center to Silver Spring this morning. I caught a train just fine at Metro Center, but the ones behind it, according to the board, were 14 and 21 minutes away! (At 8:02 a.m.) We then held for 2 minutes at each of the next three stops (Gallery Pl, Judiciary Sq, Union Station) for "schedule adjustments."

Looks like the commute is taking 10-15 longer than normal, but that beats the 25-35 of last week!

Robert Thomson: Thanks for this update. This shows the impact of the Takoma-Fort Totten slowdown, even though the 35 mph speed limit has been lifted from the rest of the line. Trains can bunch up the same way buses do. So to maintain some sort of regular service, Metro will either hold them for a couple of minutes at stations, or off load them and send them back to ease crowding at stations up the line. (There's another option, but I haven't heard about this lately on the Red Line: Trains will occasionally skip a stop to put the schedule back in balance.)


Alexandria, Va.: I do not know how thoroughly you checked with local governments before recommending that bicyclists should use both streets and sidewalks, but you should know that in both Alexandria and Arlington it is illegal to ride a bicycle on the sidewalk.

Robert Thomson: I don't recall recommending that cyclists favor either streets or sidewalks. Recently, we had a discussion about the DC rules in which I noted that there's a downtown zone where cyclists are barred from riding on sidewalks (though many cyclists don't obey that law). In other areas, where it's legal to ride on sidewalks, cyclists can use either the street or the sidewalk, but they have to follow the applicable rules.


Arlington, Va.: So how long did it end up taking for metro to clear out after the fireworks. We walked nearly 3 miles to our car, not because he had to, but because we just wanted to avoid the crowd. Would we have been better off just waiting a bit then heading to the subway?

Robert Thomson: I was on an out of town trip this weekend, but can give you some information to form a judgment. This is what we posted on the Get There blog at 11:35 p.m. on July 4:

"Riders are continuing to fill up cars across the Metro system, but the post-fireworks traffic surge has passed.

"At the Federal Triangle station on the Blue and Orange lines, riders tell Staff Writer Yamiche Alcindor that they have waited more than 45 minutes to catch a train. But at the Smithsonian station, there were no longer lines to get on trains after 11:30 p.m.

"Red Line trains passing through Metro Center are still full, but crowds are thinning."


Red Line Commuter: I rode the Red Line (from Wheaton to Union Station) early this morning and had a fairly regular commute. However, the electronic screens that should be alerting me to the next train were completely blank heading into the city. Only about two minutes before the train arrived did it actually tell me this was happening.

Robert Thomson: Yes, I've had many similar experiences with the electronic message boards during the past two weeks, and I'm sure many of you have too. The message boards are often blank, at least in regard to the train arrival times. Sometimes, they give arrival times that turn out not to be right. Also, the Trip Planner on Metro's Web site, normally a very helpful calculator, isn't much use on the Red Line right now.


Gaithersburg, Md.: I came in from Shady Grove this morning and the train was packed. We were standing-room only before we ever left. By the time we got to D.C., people were crowding in just like last week, although the train did seem to be moving faster. Are they not running as many trains?

Robert Thomson: I haven't been on the trains yet today. (Flew into BWI this morning and just made it to a computer in time for our chat.) But from the reports I'm hearing, Red Line service is better than last week, but not normal. That's because of the continuing slowdown of trains between Takoma and Fort Totten.

I just checked with Metro spokesman Steven Taubenkibel about how many trains were operating this morning.

He said there were about 30, which would be fewer than normal, and it's because of those slower speeds through the June 22 crash zone.

He said that based on this morning's experience, Metro is planning to add more Red Line trains this afternoon. But if train controllers find the Red Line is backing up as a result, they may have to turn some trains at stations all along the line.


Type faster: or I'm going to have to go back to working.

Robert Thomson: I should do shorter answers. They generate more questions.


Pentagon City, Va.: I'm looking at the Arlington County bike map (available here -- http://www.bikearlington.com/bikemaps.cfm), which has a quick summary of bike laws. "In Arlington, bicycling is permitted on sidewalks except where posted."

I can't speak to Alexandria, and I would rarely recommend that a cyclist choose a sidewalk over the road, though.

Robert Thomson: Without speaking to any one specific area with it's own issues, I'd also say that the sidewalk is rarely a good choice for cyclists. Sets up too many conflicts with pedestrians who are not expecting them.


Alexandria, Va.: Are cyclists allowed to ride on the GW Parkway? I seem to be noticing this more south of Alexandria, and it seems selfish and dangerous considering there is a perfectly good bike path right next to it. There is little to no shoulder, so cars are forced to veer over to the left to get around these people, and holds up traffic if there is no room to do so, because people in the right lane have to slow down until they can pass.

Robert Thomson: This has been an issue for a while. I believe the park police maintain their ban on cycling anywhere on the GW Parkway, though some of the serious cyclists would much prefer to use the parkway rather than the trail in that southern area.


suburbs: Doctor G:

Do you think the packed subway cars after the crash were themselves a safety problem? I passed up some cars because I just could not bring myself to enter them. Plus it seems there would be more wear and tear on the car with the additional weight.


Robert Thomson: I don't believe that packed subway cars are a safety problem. We have that every day someplace, and not just on the Red Line. Platform crowding is a concern. That's one of the main reasons Metro would turn around a train and send it back up the line to pick up more passengers.

Riders still need to think about spreading out along the platform, especially to take advantage of the new stopping point for the six-car trains at the forward-most point on the platform.


RE: peak fares after accident: I'm as frugal as the next person, but on the day of the accident, you made it out alive. That is a GIFT and worth much more than you may have saved with an off-peak fare.

Seriously, I get and agree that Metro should have lowered the fares, but if they didn't, I wouldn't fuss. I'm grateful to be ok.

Robert Thomson: One thing Metro does do -- and I believe did the night of the crash -- is allow passengers to leave the station for free, using the same way they came in, if an emergency has developed and there are going to be major delays on the line.


MoCo: I rode in a Metro car today with the non-skid flooring. I thought it looked terrible and very dirty. Maybe they just haven't had a chance to clean it since the weekend festivities, but I thought it looked worse than the carpet. Maybe it was the blah grey that didn't match the seats.

Robert Thomson: I see those test cars on the Green Line from time to time. They looked great the very first day Metro sent them out, but they look nowhere near as good now. I think the darker flooring held up better than the gray ones. I'm also bothered by the fact that they don't match the color scheme of the rest of the car. That's really apparent with the gray floors.


Reston, Va.: Hi Dr. G. I'm driving up to Massachusetts this weekend and have to make a choice of going Friday or Saturday. I'll be leaving here very early 4:30 is and heading the non-95 route through PA until I get to NY. Any thoughts on which day "Normal" traffic would be worse?

Robert Thomson: I think that if you're leaving at 4:30, Saturday is the better day, because you won't hit morning rush traffic. The thing about a long distance trip is that even if you time it to miss our Washington rush period, you're almost certain to land in the midst of someone's. In the Northeast corridor, you've got so many possibilities.


Silver Spring, Md.: Bicycles on sidewalks:

Montgomery Co. is yes.

Check http://www.waba.org/areabiking/bikelaws.php

for a complete summary.

Robert Thomson: Thanks, Silver Spring. The Washington Area Bicyclist Association Web site has lots of very helpful information for riders all across the region. It has a guide to some of the local laws, and great safety tips.


Late notes: I was over 45 minutes late to work because of un-announced issues on the Orange line. I think a passenger got sick and then things snowballed because multiple trains had to be off-loaded. My question: is metro still considering issuing some sort of late note for people to take to work? I'm lucky because I can come in at flexible hours. Nevertheless, it still reflects poorly on me when I stroll into work 45 minutes late. Plus, I was pretty steamed that metro didn't mention the delay or keep riders informed.

Robert Thomson: The only eAlert I saw this morning from Metro was a reminder about the slowdown in the Red Line crash zone. Steven Taubenkibel at Metro says there was a morning problem with a report of smoke on the tracks at West Falls Church that caused a delay to Vienna, but that was all he knew of.

I haven't heard any discussion at Metro recently on the late note issue. Some transit system does that. Is it Boston's T?


Cycling on the GW: I'm one of those cyclist that ride on the southern part of the GW on the weekends. The trail on that side is not really conducive to serious cycling, the traffic is nothing like that on the northern half (which I'd never, ever, ride), the runners appreciate it, and there is absolutely no signage forbidding it.

Robert Thomson: It's been a while now, but I did check with Park Police, who told me that cycling is banned along the entire parkway. I have also heard from cyclists who say, as you do, that the trail is problematic in that area.


Arlington, Va.: Can you tell us what is happening on Chain Bridge? One lane was blocked off from traffic 4 weeks ago and virtually nothing has happened.

Robert Thomson: So far, says the District Department of Transportation, most of the work has been on the underside of the bridge, out of sight of the drivers who can see only that their bridge has gone from three lanes to two lanes. DDOT spokesman John Lisle told me that the department and the contractor tried to figure out a way to get the rehab work done without permanently shutting that lane, but couldn't come up with anything. It's necessary as a staging area, even if the work phase is underneath.


Union Station, D.C.: Nothing personal against the earlier poster, but I'm frustrated by all the posts that demand "rush hour service for rush hour fares." Whenever anyone rides metro, they are not paying the full cost of their fare. The local governments subsidize metro to make it affordable to a larger share of the population. Metro has been underfunded for years now. Instead of complaining to metro, maybe people should focus their anger at the federal and local governments to subsidize metro more heavily.

Robert Thomson: We still don't know what exactly caused the June 22 crash, or whether more money for this or that would have prevented it or made its consequences less severe. We do know Metro needs more money for expansion, maintenance, equipment and operations. That should be part of the national debate going on right now over how to finance our transportation system.


More on Union Station: I exit at Union Station, and the single escalator at the front of the station where the Glenmont train now stands is creating a dangerous situation. People in the first car of the train couldn't exit the train and were yelling at the train operator to not close the doors. Other people were standing right next to the train, because there was no place for them to move. Somebody is going to get hurt unless they fix that escalator or let it be used for walking during rush hours. Does Metro really want yet another lawsuit filed against it?

Robert Thomson: Union Station is one of the most heavily used stations in the system. Problems with multiple escalators there is bound to have a serious impact on crowding.


Hampton/Fairfax, Va.: I don't know if you have any contacts with the VA State Police in the Hampton Roads area, but thought you might be able to get an answer. While working down here, I notice that HOV enforcement on I-64 seems to be non-existent. I constantly see violators during the designated afternoon hours, at least in the non-reversible lanes through Hampton and Newport News. After living in Fairfax (and seeing at least token HOV enforcement) for almost 20 years, is there any reason it's ignored here?

Robert Thomson: I constantly hear from carpoolers in Northern Virginia and Maryland who complain that our HOV rules are under-enforced. It's a difficult task for state police. They can cause traffic jams and safety hazards any time they set up an enforcement zone. I imagine it's the same for the troopers along I-64, but I don't have experience in that part of the Commonwealth.


Arlington, Va.: Hello Dr. Gridlock - Is there any chance of stopping the extension of Metro through Tysons Corner? While I agree that the subway needs to go to Dulles, it should be a direct link to downtown without intermediate stops. But Tysons? Let's face it. Tysons Corner is a wretched hell hole and it will always be a wretched hell hole. Metro will not change that. And in light of the recent Metro crash the money being wasted on Tysons construction could be put to far better use. What can we do to stop this foolish waste of taxpayer dollars?

Robert Thomson: Tysons should never have been built without a transit plan, and I really hope this retrofit works the way planners intend. This Metrorail extension is key to turning Tysons into a livable city, rather than a space station. And Tysons is key to the future of Northern Virginia.


Arlington, Va.: Are we going to have to suffer with this idiotic policy of all trains stopping at the far end of the platform forever now? Isn't all of this manual control going to put more strain on the brakes and other systems, wearing the cars out faster?

Robert Thomson: I totally agree with Metro's decision to have all trains stop at the most forward part of the platform. It's a safety move. Way too often, eight-car train operators were forgetting they were driving eights, and would stop where the sixes stop.

No good. Doors open in the tunnel.

Best long-term fix: A better, more precise train control system than we have right now. (This is largely independent of the train control issues raised in the June 22 crash.)


Robert Thomson: Travelers, There are so many good questions and comments, I lost track of the time and need to break away now. One thing I'd like to do because of the number of Metro questions and comments -- especially Red Line issues: I'll post some of them on the Get There blog this afternoon. (Good thing the temperature is moderate today. Riders are pretty hot.)

Stay safe.


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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