Dr. Gridlock Tackles Your Traffic and Transit Issues

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Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, August 3, 2009; 12:00 PM

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock. He was online Monday, August 3, at Noon ET to diagnose all of your traffic and transit issues.

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Robert Thomson: Greetings, travelers. Let's see what can be solved, or at least what we can vent about today.

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Washington, D.C.: Dear Dr. Gridlock: You've become daily reading for me since the Red Line accident, and I appreciate all your hard work.

I'm curious about Metro's pacing of its trains. When it has two trains, one going to Shady Grove and the other to Grosvenor, why does it schedule them to run closely together instead of evenly distributing times? When it has two trains two minutes apart and then a third train coming in 8 minutes after the second, that last train ends up consistently overcrowded. And this is at rush hour!

This has been a consistent pet peeve since I started riding Metro four years ago. It seems worse since the accident.

Many thanks.

Robert Thomson: I continue to think that Metro is underestimating how much of the information it's putting out in various ways is getting through to regular riders.

When I hear from riders -- like, all the time -- they rarely ask if the trains are safe to ride. They're not asking to see drawings of track circuits. They want to know when the train is going to get there, why it's going to be so crowded and when it's going to get fixed.

The Red Line slowdown should be fixed in a month, by the way.

Train spacing: I think Metro would love to space out the arrival times more evenly. That would better distribute the passengers. But the trains can bunch up, just as buses do. A rush hour train might spend an extra long time unloading and loading passengers at a big station. The following train will start to close the gap. As the following train gets closer, there will be fewer passengers to board it, because they all piled onto the lead train. So the following train will tend to catch up with the first one.

That's a chronic problem. But it's been even worse since the crash. On the Red Line, trains are still going one at a time through the crash zone, as a safety measure. That backs up the entire line.

On all the lines, Metro is being extra careful about the condition of the track circuits, and might order trains to proceed slowly through any circuit that it wants to check. That can also draw following trains closer to the lead train.

The immediate solutions are things we don't like: the controllers order trains to hold, or they order trains to unload all their passengers and head back in the opposite direction to pick up more passengers and relieve platform congestion.

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Takoma Park, Md.: When I drove on the outer loop of the Beltway on Saturday at 6 p.m., the entire inner loop was bumper to bumper from Rt. 50 to 270 because of the Paul McCartney concert...did people miss their concert? I have a U2 concert there in September and want to know how to avoid this mess. Thanks!

Robert Thomson: Lots of the 50,000 concert-goers ran into heavy traffic congestion trying to reach the 7:30 p.m. concert at FedEx on Saturday.

Concert-goers are different from football fans. They're less likely to get to the stadium very early so they can have a tailgate party. Also, many of them very likely were less familiar with the routes to the stadium and the parking situation.

Also, the Arena Drive/Beltway interchange is under reconstruction so it can be open all the time and not just for games at FedEx. That project won't be done till the fall.

I continue to think that the best bet for reaching any event at FedEx is to take Metro to the Morgan Boulevard Station and walk a mile north along the sidewalk.

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Alexandria, Va.: I'm taking a visiting relative on a day trip to Annapolis on Sunday and would like to also make a quick stop on the Eastern Shore. My concern is returning in the Bay Bridge traffic on Sunday afternoon/evening. Is there a time frame when it's particularly bad? Or should we just avoid it altogether? Thanks!

Robert Thomson: I'm not sure that on a sunny summer weekend there's any great time to cross the Bay Bridge. But the Maryland Transportation Authority, which operates it, suggests that the best Sunday hours are from 7 to 11 a.m. and after 10 p.m.

Avoiding it altogether isn't a viable option for most people, since it involves such long trips north or south.

The one advantage going west on the bridge is that you won't have to stop at the toll plaza.

But can you readers help refine this advice for our traveler?

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Arlington, Va.: I've been keeping an eye on the new website from Metro for tracking track circuit repairs. After watching it for the past week or so I've noticed a few trends. First is that the vast majority of the track circuit problems are on the Red and Orange Lines. Second is that the track circuit problems do not seem to get fixed in a timely manner on the Red Line. A full 76 percent of outstanding track circuit problems are on the Red Line!

Is there a reason that it takes much much longer to repair problems on the Red Line? You'd think with all the ongoing delays as a result of the accident metro would do everything in their power to improve the ride for those of us that take the Red Line. Also, the train operators are making an announcement that the continuing delays on the Red Line are due to the investigation that has now been completed.

Robert Thomson: What we're talking about here is the page on Metro's Web site that tries to keep everybody up to date on the crash and its consequences. That section of the site includes a link to a page specifically about track maintenance and monitoring. It allows all riders to see what track sections Metro is checking and where the trains are likely to be going slowly right now. Here's a link.

As "Arlington" says, it shows 13 circuit issues on the Red Line. Two are Blue/Orange and two are Orange. I don't know why so many right now are on the Red Line. If you look at the history page on all the repairs, you'll see a lot more line colors represented.

I completely understand your frustration about riding the Red Line right now. Each trip can be a very different experience. But I don't blame Metro at all for wanting to make sure the track circuits are functioning correctly or for slowing down trains while workers check them out.

Also, I like those train announcements that started last week. Yes, the investigation at the site is pretty much wrapped up. But it's not a bad shorthand. You wouldn't want the operators explaining the track circuit issue over and over again during your ride.

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Liverpool: Sir Paul waited until 9 p.m. to go on -- I'm assuming he was accommodating the stragglers.

Robert Thomson: Time for tea.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Just to show that Metro isn't the only one who can get it wrong. Yesterday I tried taking the El from Clark/Lake to O'Hare. I went through the gates all the way down to the platform only to be told Slow Zone reconstruction prevented any trains from traveling between Clark Lake and Western. CTA had set up shuttle buses to bridge the route. I went back up the stairs, past bantering CTA employees who had ignored me lugging my suitcase down through the turnstiles, up to the shuttle buses and was on my way to the airport and trains at Western within five minutes. After the initial CTA employees ignored me, every other CTA employee from bus driver to train driver was friendly, happy and had good information.

By the way -- when will the Post cover rider's dissatisfaction with John Catoe? When will we get some accountability from Metro?

Robert Thomson: The riders I hear from, as I was saying earlier, are asking mostly about practical things, like "Where's my ride?" I see calls for Catoe to resign or be fired a lot on the unsuckmetro blog. (But I figure, what are most people going to a blog called "unsuckmetro" going to call for, anyway?) Sometimes, they comment on my Get There blog, too.

We had a disaster on our transit lifeline on June 22. But it seems to me very Washington to immediately call for the boss's head. Let's find out what happened first. Also, one sure way to disrupt the transit organization and render it even less efficient than you think it is now is to start firing top people. As in, "The hangings will continue till morale improves!"

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Arlington, Va.: As the I-395 HOT Lanes project proceeds, how can Arlington residents living near the highway have aesthetic sound barriers built? Thanks!

Robert Thomson: There's no deal yet for the I-95/395 HOT lanes project, though we seem to be getting very close. On the Beltway HOT lanes project, the one in construction now, the VDOT/Fluor Transurban public-private team seems very tuned in to neighborhood concerns, about construction noise and highway noise. That gives me hope that a 95/395 team will be similarly receptive to community concerns.

Another thing: The Beltway project involves widening the highway by four lanes. That won't be the case on 395 in Arlington. They would convert the HOV lanes to HOT lanes.

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Washington, D.C.: I hope you'll have an update for us in today's chat about the outcome of the court hearing for the fellow who helped the geese cross the road.

If the court lets the ticket stand, I want to send him $10. To see a human being putting himself in harm's way to protect an animal is an eye opener, especially in this area. Seems like a worthy cause.

Robert Thomson: I haven't seen a goose update yet. Here's the story by Tom Jackman from today's Post.

I feel for the traffic court judge contemplating a conviction against the man who tried to help a family of Canada geese cross the Fairfax County Parkway.

I see the judge in a similar scene to the judge in "Miracle on 34th Street," when the political boss confronts him about the consequences of ruling that the defendant isn't Santa Claus. Yes, "you're going to be an awful popular fella!" the pol notes.

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Washington, D.C.: Dr. Gridlock, do you take questions about SmartBike? I recently joined (having not ridden a bicycle in 20 years and being terrified of riding on DC streets, I thought it best to have a trial run before purchasing a bicycle of my own) and am glad to report that riding a bicycle really is, as they say, just like riding a bicycle. After only a few days, however, I'm already frustrated by the limited bike stations. Biking seems to save me a grand total of about five minutes off my 2 mile commute (I walk otherwise) because of the walk between work and the nearest bike station. Do you know if there are plans to expand (and when), and if those plans will include some of the Metro stations by federal office buildings?

Robert Thomson: I think the District would love to expand this program. I'm not sure the current state of the economy lends itself to early fulfillment of that wish.

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Herndon, Va.: Dear Dr. Gridlock,

Do you take questions/comments about the Fairfax Connector, too?

I was talking to one of the drivers about the bus schedules. He said that the routes and schedules are set by "some guy in Texas on a computer." Do you know if that's true? Because if it is, it seems extremely stupid. Several of the buses are always late because of the traffic, which, of course, is something a computer can't see.

Also, while it's great that it's convenient to get in and out of D.C. from here, not all of us work in D.C. Getting from one end of the county to the other is a major pain.

Thank you for all you do.

Robert Thomson: I'm skeptical about the guy in Texas. The problem you describe sounds very real for any urban-area bus system. They always are in need of adjustment. Fairfax Connector recently did some cutbacks and expansions. The expansions, I believe, were designed to improve service in the western part of the county.

The usual way of identifying problems with bus schedules is to get supervisors out on the streets to watch the arrival times, so they can really see the impact of traffic congestion.

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Bethesda, Md.: The two hour delays getting in and out of FedEx field -- as it turns out, according to spokesman Zack Bolno, it's the fans fault for not being familiar with the venue. They must be saving money on "spokesmen."

Robert Thomson: Blame the victim? There do seem to be travel issues at our local sports venues when those venues are used for events other than the sporting events. The regulars get used to the travel issues, and traffic tends to ease up as the sports season develops. (I predict you'll see traffic congestion again around FedEx as the Redskins season begins, but that it will ease up as the season goes on.)

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Washington G: Hi Dr. G -- I know you addressed the issue of SmarTrip cards not working as well at the fare gates a few weeks ago. Did you ever find a reason? My card used to work 95 percent of the time while still in my purse (outer pocket). Now it does NOT work 95 percent of the time. Same card, same purse, same stations -- the only thing that I can think of that changed must be the gates themselves. Thanks.

Robert Thomson: Sometimes the cards crack, and then you have to mail them back to Metro for a new card. This isn't the same issue as the one we discuss from time to time concerning the paper farecards. They can be demagnetized by the contends of a purse or wallet. Even a cell phone in the same purse or pocket can knock out the farecard. The SmarTrip cards use a different technology, and can't be demagnetized, but they can break if kept in a wallet in a back pocket, for example.

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I love me some Metro: I really don't understand all the belly-aching. I've been riding Metro rail almost every day for the past eight years (I got rid of my car four years ago.) It's not perfect, but it works pretty well. I love that I don't have to drive anymore. Metro gets me just about everywhere I have to go. I save money and gets lots of healthy exercise.

Robert Thomson: I think many thousands of people feel exactly the same way you do. Still, I believe that in this current crisis, Metro has a tendency to deal with it as it deals with all crises: Metro tends to focus on the engineering problem, rather than the customer problem.

This is definitely NOT to say they should take their eye off the engineering problem, but they need to pay more attention to the very basic interests of people just trying to get around in the disrupted transit system. (And they have been taking steps in that direction.)

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The horror. The horror. : Conrad hadn't seen anything like the mess on I-95 and the Beltway to see Sir Paul at FedEx Field Saturday night. My husband left home in Tysons to travel to BWI to pick me up, and then we went directly to Landover. He left home at 4:00 p.m. We arrived in Landover at 9:00 p.m. -- Five hours! And that includes a $50 cab ride I took from the airport to the Maryland Welcome Center on I-95 to meet him to try and save time. It was hideous. The concert was truly incredible, but we will never, ever attend another event at FedEx as long as we live. It made Nissan Pavilion traffic look like a cakewalk.

Robert Thomson: Oh, that's ghastly. Just for the sake of the group discussion, here's an alternative scenario: You take the B30 Metrobus from BWI to the Greenbelt Metro station. He drives there and parks the car. You both get on Metro and take the train to Morgan Boulevard, then walk up to FedEx. (I'm not arguing that such tactics would work for everybody.)

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Bethesda, Md.: Just out of curiosity, how does the length of time of the NTSB investigation of the June Metro incident compare to other recent NTSB investigations of a similar nature? More time, less time, about the same amount of time?

Robert Thomson: I think there's nothing at all unusual in the length of time the investigation has continued. The NTSB needs to consider all the possibilities. The results could have important implications for the automatic train control systems used not only by Metro but also by transit systems across the country.

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Geese: I have to say I can see the police's side. What if someone had hit the guy? He would die or be injured and how about the driver? It is simply not safe to walk into the middle of a highway. What if one person was not looking up, was dialing a phone, changing radio, and didn't see him and other cars stopped? The potential for serious injury or death is there (the Weeks children died when a truck did not see traffic stopped).

That being said, he should have gotten off with a warning. This is a waste of court time, especially as the guy is unrepentant and told the cop he'd do it again (which might be the source of the ticket).

Robert Thomson: Here is the story about the tragic crash on I-81 that the writer is referring to.

"Geese" is making a fair point about the danger involved in the Fairfax situation, but I also think a warning would have been sufficient.

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More on SmarTrip cards: Is it possible to transfer the balance from one SmarTrip card to another?

Robert Thomson: Yes. If it's a busted card you've got, then Metro can take care of transferring the balance when you send the card in for a replacement. (But on the other hand, if you're just wanting to transfer the amount on your card to someone else's card, I don't know of any way of doing that at a fare vending machine.)

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Tysons Corner, Va.: I was reading about the Maryland SHA's project to resurface the beltway between I-270 and the American Legion Bridge. I definitely agree that the stretch of road could use a new coat of asphalt, but the story stated that this project was going to take a year to complete. Is that correct?

If it is, since when does it take one full year to mill and repave a 4-mile stretch of road, which will include nightly lane closures and other delays? Shouldn't this work take about one month?

Robert Thomson: I'll check with the Maryland State Highway Administration to see if I'm right on the answer I'm about to give, which is just based on some other projects.

The resurfacing of the Beltway means a lot more than painting it with asphalt. This is likely to be quite an extensive project. (As drivers who use I-270 know from their recent experience with Interstate resurfacing.) Also, there's going to be a break of a few months when the asphalt plants will be shut down by cold weather.

These are the details on the times when drivers might encounter lane closings: Single lane and shoulder closures along Monday through Friday between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., and overnight Sunday through Thursday evenings between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m.

Also, there will also be double and triple lane closures possible overnight Sunday through Thursday between 10 p.m. until 5 a.m., as well as overnight Friday and Saturday between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m.

Motorists should also expect closures on the ramps to and from Route 190 (River Road) and the Clara Barton Parkway overnight Sunday through Thursday between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.

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Arlington, Va.: re: HOT Lanes and sound barriers in Arlington, state delegate David Englin is involved in this issue, including having a webpage where he's taking comments from residents near the Shirlington area. If anyone wants to get further involved, it might help to start by contacting his office.

Robert Thomson: Thanks, Arlington.

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Smart Trip Card: You can call the hotline and they can transfer the amount from a broken or lost card to a new card. I've done it a couple of times.

Robert Thomson: Customer service center: 888-762-7874

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Metro Service: I agree -- Metro is great, I don't have a car, gets me where I have to go, blah blah blah...but they don't have to be so unfriendly about it! The passengers deserve a little respect, too...

Robert Thomson: Most Metro staffers that I encounter -- station managers, other station personnel, bus drivers, etc. -- are helpful and friendly. It's a shame that relatively few bad experiences that range from unresponsiveness to hostility can ruin a good ride.

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FedEx Field : Hi, Dr. Gridlock --

I take issue with Snyder's people and regular Skins fans suggesting that concert-goers who did not arrive in Landover were to blame for Saturday's McCartney concert debacle. Why should anyone be expected to arrive four hours early for an event and hang out in a parking lot in order to ensure smooth arrival? Frankly, that the Skins fans put up with this routine is what makes it acceptable for such mistreatment. Some of us have jobs or grocery shopping or kids' events and cannot spend an entire day on a two-hour event. From reading the blogs and comments today on this mess, most people left with a good three hours lead time. Seems like that would be reasonable from anywhere on the Beltway, yet it wasn't. The police and FedEx staff bear the blame, in my opinion.

Robert Thomson: I wasn't out there Saturday night. (Would have loved to see Paul, but didn't want to hassle with that traffic.) So what I'm saying here is not to dispute what you say about the scene, but to add these points:

The FedEx location was always going to be a problem. A modern stadium shouldn't be placed so far from transit and have to rely on one big highway. Also, as I noted before, the sports venues do a lot better handling the sporting events that they're experienced with than they do handling other types of events.

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Arlington, Va.: The goose guy got really, really lucky with other people's lives. I feel for him wanting to protect the geese, but if some driver had swerved into a collision to avoid hitting him, it would have been ghastly.

Robert Thomson: Got a lot of comments about the geese police. There's some from this camp.

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Save the Geese: I, too, would donate money to this man. I once stopped traffic on Route 28 in Rockville to help geese cross this four-lane road. My husband says, "Survival of the Fittest", but I could not bear the thought that those little baby goslings got run over.

Robert Thomson: ... and some from this camp. (Haven't heard anything on the court case, by the way.)

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Robert Thomson: Thank you for your many, many good questions and comments today. I've got to break away now, even though there still are dozens left in the mailbox. Please join me again next Monday.

I'll go back later into the mailbox and see if I can post some of your comments on my Get There blog during the week. The FedEx situation and the geese case are a couple of obvious possibilities, but there were many more issues raised today.

Stay safe, and let's talk again next Monday.

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