Dr. Gridlock Tackles Your Traffic and Transit Issues

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Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, August 10, 2009; 12:00 PM

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock. He was online Monday, August 10, at Noon ET to diagnose all of your traffic and transit issues.

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Robert Thomson: Hello, travelers. I hope all your voyages today are well air-conditioned. This afternoon, I'm going to go out and check some temperatures in Metro stations. But first, we've got a good mix of questions and comments about driving and transit trips.

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Baltimore: I am heading from Baltimore to the Outer Banks on Friday. Usually, when I make this trip, I leave on Sunday. In an effort to reduce the amount of traffic I hit from the north side of 495 to Richmond, when do you think I should leave Baltimore? My thinking is that if I hit 495 around 9:45 a.m., I should have a window between morning rush and weekend travel that is at least tolerable. On target? Off base? Thanks.

Robert Thomson: I like that. From my own driving and from checks of the traffic cameras, that post morning-rush traffic looks pretty light right now. So I think your plan for dodging DC traffic is logical. But I post this question early so that other travelers can offer their advice.

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Rockville, Md.: Now that Metro has installed NextBus signs at the bus stops, how soon do they realize there's too many stops? (Every 1/10 mile, each side of major intersections, all sides of landmarks, etc.)

Robert Thomson: We did a Commuter page feature in the Sunday Post in which we went around the region to experience Metro's new NextBus system. I'll post a link to that in a minute.

I agree that many of the routes have way to many stops for anything like a reliable timetable. Lately, as Metro has reviewed the most popular routes and tried to make service more reliable, it's gone for maintaining the stops but layering on new express routes. A compromise of sorts to make everyone happy.

During my NextBus spot checks, I felt like I was seeing the effects of too many stops. For example, as I waited for an S4 bus at 16th and M streets NW, I saw that the NextBus mobile Web site indicated it was one minute away. And it was so: I could see it one block away, in front of the Capital Hilton. But it just sat there.

Finally, I walked down to see what was up. Just a lot of people boarding, and one many was in a wheelchair, so the ramp needed to be extended. Then when it finally pulls away from the stop, it has to halt for a red light.

It slows the service, but it's difficult to take bus stops away from people.

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washingtonpost.com: Bus Arrival Predictions A Plus, With a Few Bugs

Robert Thomson: If you look at that link, you'll see some of the other things we found in our wanderings to test NextBus.

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Chinatown: Just curious. Do private companies have to seek approval to or pay any fees for closing down lanes on busy DC streets to accommodate construction?

My specific gripe is the construction on H street approaching 17th street where there is oftentimes only one thru lane.

Robert Thomson: That's H Street NE, right? That's one of the District's Great Streets projects, which I think will wind up being terrific improvements for neighborhoods and travelers alike.

But drivers along Benning Road and H Street have found the reconstruction of the streets very disruptive. Yes, it's all supposed to be coordinated -- all the utility work and the resurfacing of the streets and sidewalks -- but it doesn't always look like that to the drivers who are crawling along narrowed, bumpy roadways. In the spring, Mayor Fenty announced that he was getting the Benning Road part of the project back on schedule.

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RE: Baltimore to OBX: Does the traveler realize that the stretch of I-95 south of Springfield is usually worse congestion-wise than the Beltway? I recommend almost everyone heading from B'more to consider Rt 3/301 south over the Nice Bridge, rather than subjecting themselves to the greater-DC area...

Robert Thomson: Got a couple of responses already for our Baltimore driver heading south. And I agree that I-95 south of the Beltway is just ghastly. But on a Friday morning just past rush hour, is he really going to have a worse time on 95 than getting through all the congested intersections along 301 in Southern Maryland?

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For Baltimore: I like the 301 to 17 route for Outer Banks trips and on a Sunday morning, it would be practically empty. Yes it's not a highway, but with fewer cars average trip length is about the same and much less stressful.

Robert Thomson: I've often recommended that as an alternative to 95 -- even if it's just to give a frequent traveler a different view -- but keep in mind that our Baltimore driver wants to leave for the Outer Banks on Friday this time.

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Downtown: Why on earth would Metrobus drivers ever turn off the GPS devices in their buses, other than the fact they don't want their tardiness to be tracked?

Robert Thomson: Metro assistant GM Suzanne Peck, explaining to me some of the things that might cause a Metrobus to disappear from the NextBus system, said that some drivers might be turning off the GPS devices. She didn't say she knew why that was happening, but suggested they weren't familiar enough yet with how to operate the GPS, antenna and other NextBus equipment aboard the bus, and that they would get more training.

That's an interesting idea about deliberately turning off the device to avoid tracking, but that wouldn't allow them to avoid Metro's street supervisors.

I've heard of delivery trucks turning off their GPSs so the drivers could take a nap, but I'm not sure that a driver on a busy bus route would be in a position to accomplish the same thing.

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Silver Spring, Md.: My wife and I gave up on the Red Line last month. Two fares (one partly subsidized) plus parking at Forest Glen or Silver Spring was more expensive than gas plus government-subsidized parking (even at market rates, it would be cheaper). Factor in the delays, crowding, unreliability, and discomfort, and it was the only decision that made sense.

I shudder to think what the Red Line will be like when the hordes of schoolkids return.

Robert Thomson: I was asking Metrorail riders this morning on the Get There blog if they had changed their habits because of all the summertime disruptions. One letter writer had given me his specific calculations showing that he could save money and time by driving instead.

(I've never been a travel ideologue, and always tell people they should figure out what works best for them and do it.)

I think we're all lucky that this Metrorail crisis is occuring during the relatively quiet summertime -- of course, we all would have been luckier if it hadn't happened in the first place.

The troubled zone on the Red Line between Takoma and Fort Totten should be repaired by the end of the month, and that would remove the main cause of the delays riders have experienced over the past month and a half.

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Washington, DC: I have a question about the Purple Line, and excuse my ignorance as I have not been keeping up on it. Who will administer such a line? Will it be Metro or the MD transportation folks? When is this estimated to be completed by? How far along are we in this process, we have no funding for it yet correct?

This sounds like a great idea on paper but one that will not be realistic when it comes to funding. If it's separate from metro I can see huge problems arising when it links to it on the Red Line, and if metro DOES control it I can see huge problems because, well, it's metro.

Robert Thomson: I was writing about this in my Sunday column, and will give you a link in a moment. Metro, which is out of the construction business now, won't be building either the rail extension to Dulles or the Purple Line transitway in Maryland. But it could wind up operating the Purple Line, just as it's going to wind up operating the Dulles rail extension.

The two aren't the same: Dulles rail will be a fully integrated heavy rail line. The Purple Line will be light rail -- something our region hasn't seen in the modern era.

The Maryland Transit Administration, which is building the Purple Line, could wind up operating it as well. (It operates the light rail in the Baltimore region.) Or, it could work out a deal to have Metro operate it.

No matter what, the fare system can be integrated with Metro -- especially since one of the reasons for building the Purple Line is to link up the Red, Green and Orange lines. Maryland and Metro officials are saying they fully expect riders to be able to use their SmarTrip cards, or whatever version of electronic fare cards we're using in 2017, which seems like the best guess for when the Purple Line would start running.

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washingtonpost.com: Purple Line and Metro: Will They Work Together?

Robert Thomson: Use that link to see my Sunday column on the Purple Line.

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Falls Church, Va.: The Post's article today about the ineffectiveness of the Metro oversight panel underscores why I oppose dedicated funding for Metro. Budget approval by the area's governments is perhaps the only real accountability that Metro has.

washingtonpost.com: Subway Oversight Panel Is Virtually Powerless, Despite Metro Safety Concerns

Robert Thomson: I think there needs to be federal oversight of our transit systems' safety, nationwide. There's at least one bill in Congress now that would deal with that.

The dedicated funding plan in which an annual federal contribution would be matched by a local contribution does come with strings attached, including some federal representatives on the Metro board.

Metro needs oversight, but it also needs money to make the fixes it's been asking for over many years.

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Fort Washington, Md.: Dr. Gridlock,

Why does this area INSIST on doing construction work on Sunday night? I was returning home on I-70 past Hagerstown last night and was stuck for an hour and a half because the right lane was closed. Once I got past that, I was stuck on the Beltway near Telegraph road for another half hour (2 left lanes closed). I originally estimated I would be home before midnight; I did not make it home until 2 a.m.! Granted, this shouldn't be done during rush hour, but don't they realize commuters are trying to drive back into town after being away for the weekend?

Robert Thomson: I was just asking David Buck, spokesman for the Maryland State Highway Administration, about your question -- particularly the I-70 part of it. (Telegraph Road is the Wilson Bridge project.)

About the I-70 situation, Buck said in an e-mail: "We have heard loud and clear about the delays along EB I-70 last night and our construction office is currently taking a look at the schedule of work hours."

But he also wrote about the more general idea of the balancing act that highway departments do in planning the road work schedules.

On one hand, he said, we're in the busiest part of the travel season, now through Labor Day, so the highway departments have to take vacation traffic into consideration.

On the other hand, drivers want these road improvement projects done as quickly as possible, so they can end the pain and experience the gain. Crews work nights to avoid tying up commuter traffic, and they work only Sundays through Thursdays, to minimize the impact of lane closures on weekend getaways. Some of those limited overnight hours involve the time it takes to set up and take down the work zone equipment.

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Fairfax County: I subscribe to the Post for Friday thru Sunday delivery only and I read the paper online on the other days. I can't find your Thursday columns on the site and I was wondering if (a) you continue to run a Thursday column and (b) if so, you could tell me where to look for them. Thanks!

Robert Thomson: Yes, my Dr. Gridlock columns appear Thursdays in the Extras and Sundays in the Metro section. I can't find recent Thursday ones online either. I'll ask about that and see if we can get them posted online. (It's not some secret marketing decision. More likely a tech glitch. We're not holding anything back from online publication.)

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Dover, DE: It may just be my bias, but the traveler to the Outer Banks could consider the Bay Bridge to US 50 to US 13 down Delmarva. A much easier drive, and I love the BB-Tunnel. Once past Salisbury there is very little weekend traffic increase.

Robert Thomson: That's a nice drive -- past the Bay Bridge.

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Arlington, Va.: Dear Dr. Gridlock,

How are these so called "Hot Lanes" here in Va. going to benefit myself, my friends, and family who use 395, 495 and I-95 but, can't afford to pay for using this new HOV Hot Lanes once they're built ? It seems like to me that they're being built for the rich and/or elitists and not for the average lower Middle Class/Poor working man/woman out who are in the majority out here. Life's hard enough to afford out here now. What are your thought on all of this matter ?

Robert Thomson: Couple of thoughts about the HOT lanes:

Not even the people who expect to make money off these toll lanes think you're going to use them every day. In other places that have them, people use the lanes when they think it's worthwhile. A common example is: If you're late to pick up a child at day care, and you might be charged a dollar a minute for that, it becomes worthwhile to get a faster trip in a toll lane.

People who get into carpools can ride in those lanes for free.

People can still use the regular lanes for free.

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Germantown, MD: I've always been curious about the way people refer to Metro as "heavy rail" as opposed to trolleys which are light rail. If Metro is Heavy, what does that make MARC and VRE?

Robert Thomson: heavy

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too many bus stops: You can't take bus stops away because every stop has a little old lady who needs that stop and can't walk an extra block. Don't mess with them! :)

This is why, however, buses need to have priority signaling, so that they can meet the needs of all riders and still keep a reasonable timetable.

Robert Thomson: Yes, I think a study of bus movements, as tracked by the NextBus GPS system, may very well provide extra evidence of why we need bus-only lanes and signal priority for buses on some heavily-traveled routes.

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Glover Park, D.C.: Why is NextBus so inconsistent depending on the line? I find it works almost perfectly for the 30 series buses, and the 42, however, not as reliable for the D1/D2 buses.

Robert Thomson: I spent an hour and a half checking bus arrivals at Franklin Square last week, so I watched a lot of 42s go by. The NextBus results were decent, occasionally way off. I didn't test the 30s or the D buses. (By the way, I'll go back at this again in a couple of months and see if there are changes to report.)

All the routes you mention go through congested areas, but the 30s Line involves some particularly long trips through the worst traffic in the region. The D route (Sibley Hospital-Stadium Armory) has similar problems.

Even though NextBus is based on GPS readings, it's still making calculations that involve weather conditions and typical traffic congestion for whatever time of day you're traveling.

One thing: The NextBus readouts usually get more and more accurate as the bus nears the stop. Ten or 15 minutes out is less accurate.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I just wish Metro would give us more information on what is going on with the investigation and when we might expect resumption of regular service. What exactly is causing the delays? What are they doing and what are they learning or is this just a holding pattern until they figure out what to do to solve the problem? How long is this going to go on? Will we still be getting these unhelpful metro alerts about delays "because of the ongoing investigation" in January? If we sort of knew when it would end it would be more tolerable. Where is the light at the end of the tunnel?

Robert Thomson: I'm sure the Metro people feel like they've been putting out a vast amount of information since the June 22 crash. But I think they're overestimating how much is reaching the riders.

Metro also tends to focus on the engineering rather than the human equation. Most riders don't want to know how to build a track circuit. They want to know why the train ride is taking so long.

There are two main reasons right now for a long train ride. On the Red Line, trains still go one at a time through the crash zone between Takoma and Fort Totten. Just like a bottleneck on a highway that backs up cars for miles, the bottleneck on the Red Line backs up trains all along the route.

On any line, there can be a slowdown if Metro inspectors have a question about a particular track circuit and want to check it out. Until they've satisfied themselves that the circuit is working properly, they slow down the trains going through that zone.

The Red Line should be in much better shape by the start of September. It's unclear when the track circuit review will be completed. And it's very unclear at what point trains will return to automatic control.

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Fairfax, VA: Is there anything Metro says about safety issues that we can believe? Now this latest story indicates that there was a known train separation failure in March casts suspicion on much they have said about the June crash. What's next??

Robert Thomson: I think Metro has consistently failed to get out in front of the safety issue since the June 22 crash. My Post colleagues are being very aggressive in digging out details about Metro safety. In other words, they're doing their jobs.

In many cases, Metro comes off looking like it's waiting for stories to appear, then reacting to them, rather than taking the lead in disclosing information that would help people decide whether they want to take a train ride.

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Robert Thomson: I've got plenty of good questions and comments left here, but I need to get away so I can take some temperatures in Metro stations. (Air temperatures, I mean.)

I'll try to address some of the issues and questions we didn't get to on the Get There blog as the week goes on. (That includes the one about H Street at 17th. The commenter wrote back and said it's NW that's the concern, rather than NE.)

Please rejoin me next Monday, and stay safe -- and cool.

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