Dr. Gridlock Tackles Your Traffic and Transit Issues

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Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, September 21, 2009; 12:00 PM

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock. He was online Monday, Sep. 21 to diagnose all of your traffic and transit issues.

The transcript follows.

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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Robert Thomson: Hello, travelers. It's great to join you for the first chat of September. Lots of questions and comments on traffic and transit issues.

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Eastern Market, Washington, D.C.: Hello Doctor. What is up with all the recent morning delays on the Blue/Orange line? It seems we used to go for long stretches with no real problems and now the last month or so there is a problem just about every morning. Is Metro taking staff and resources from Blue/Orange and putting them on the Red line mess, or what?

Robert Thomson: I don't know of any particular problem that should have been vexing Blue/Orange travelers during the past month. (Maybe it was just your turn?)

The question about whether the Red Line problems caused equipment to be taken away from other lines came up periodically during the summer. Metro people told me that didn't happen. And in fact, there really wasn't any good reason for moving trains over to the Red Line. The problem for much of the summer wasn't with train cars, it was with the circuits between Takoma and Fort Totten.

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Arlington, Va.: Thursday evening a friend and I drove out to the Comcast Center in College Park and had a horrible time following the signs to the place. There was one sign on Rte 193 that mentioned Comcast and, by luck, we made it on to the Maryland campus and had to ask four students how to get there because there were no signs. This would be acceptable if the arena were reserved for campus denizens but, supposedly, they expect outsiders to make the trip.

Robert Thomson: It seats almost 18,000 so signs would be nice. Here's a link that might help other drivers in finding their way to Comcast Center:

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Silver Spring, Md.: Dr. G,

Can you please tell me what to expect on the Red Line for the next four years as they do their work? I'm very worried about this, and I don't know if I understand it exactly. Is it true that there will be no weekend work and only work Monday - Thursday evenings after rush hour? How badly will this affect riding the metro during this time?

I am in grad school (at night part time) and I'm very concerned that at the end of a very long day of work and class I will be dealing with 20-30 min waits for trains and double the ride home. Can you please clear some of this up for me? When does it start?

Robert Thomson: This longterm rehab could start early next year. The whole project will take about 48 months. The first phase, from Rhode Island to Judiciary Square, will take about 18 months. The next phase, from Judiciary Square to Dupont Circle, will take about a year. Then the rehab from Rhode Island Avenue will take about 10 months. Fort Totten to Silver Spring will take about eight months.

This is all work that must be done anyway. The most interesting aspect is that Metro plans to try a new approach to the timing, focusing the work in the late hours on weeknights so as to disrupt travel as little as possible.

Metro managers think they can schedule this in such a way that it won't add significantly to the normal times between trains after evening rush hours. That's the remains-to-be-seen part. Can they really hold to that?

Also, while this would be a big improvement over the current approach to timing maintenance, it would not completely eliminate weekend work. You'd still have situations -- such as the switch replacement at L'Enfant over Columbus Day weekend -- when Metro must do a project

so big it can't be accomplished in a string of overnight efforts and must take days of single-tracking.

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Fairfax, Va.: Dr. G,

Is there any reason why I-66 Eastbound has been so much more congested the last couple of weeks during HOV hours in the am?

Robert Thomson: I-66 eastbound varies a lot in the morning: Depending on the day, it might be bad, really bad or horrible.

I was out there this morning, because of a specific congestion problem that got started last week because of construction related to the Beltway HOT lanes project. The HOV exit from 66 to the inner loop and the regular traffic exit from 66 to the inner loop used to enter the Beltway at separate spots. Because of the construction, those two streams of traffic from 66 now merge before reaching the Beltway.

Even VDOT didn't like the results last week, and made an adjustment in the lanes over the weekend to try to ease traffic flow. When I tried it this morning, it wasn't too bad, but I don't have the same perspective as someone who does it every day.

Generally speaking, traffic was bound to be worse during the past couple of weeks, because vacation season ended and we all went back to school.

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Washington, D.C.: Dr. Gridlock:

I appreciated your suggestions on getting to FedEx field. I am attending the U-2 concert next week and have never been out there. I'm getting anxious about getting there (and back!) especially in view of the debacle at the Paul McCartney concert. Any suggestions? Thanks

Robert Thomson: I was hoping that some folks planning to go to the Tuesday, Sept. 29, concert at 7 p.m. would see the Commuter page feature I did on getting to FedEx Field. It wasn't just for football fans.

Much of the information I put in there would be relevant to concerts as well as Redskins games. There's a link below.

Many people will be in the same spot as you: They don't normally go to FedEx, so some drivers are going to make mistakes, or at least go slowly.

Key thing is to get there early. I thought that was the heart of the problem for people going to the summer's Paul McCartney concert. There will be three Beltway exits available: Landover Road, Arena Drive and Central Avenue. The Maryland State Highway Administration recommends Central Avenue as the least congested.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Do you know of any plans for Metro to stay open late on the 29th for the U2 concert at FedEx Field? The last train leaves Morgan Blvd. at 11:25, and assuming the concert ends at 11, there's no way thousands of people can make the mile trek to the station in that time. Thanks for your help!

Robert Thomson: Metrorail shuts at midnight on week nights, unless somebody pays to have it stay open late to handle crowds for a special event. As "Silver Spring" noted, the last Blue Line train leaving Morgan Boulevard in the direction of Franconia-Springfield departs at 11:25 p.m.

Metro hasn't announced any plans to stay open late on Sept. 29, but I'll check and post information on my Get There blog. It's a very expensive proposition, and I feel sure Metro won't be doing it unless someone associated with the concert is willing to pick up the tab.

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Anonymous: Oh dear Doctor ... in the two times I've taken metro in the last two weeks from Gallery Place to Crystal City during the evening rush hour, I've had to wait for a yellow line train as three green line trains came through. That's right - three green line trains for every one yellow line one. Any reason for that?

Robert Thomson: I don't recall exactly what the ratio is supposed to be, but it should be at least two Green Line trains for every Yellow Line train, because of the much heavier ridership on the Green Line.

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Baltimore: I wondering if you or any other chatters can tell me how much time I should allow to get from Anne Arundel County to FedEx Field next Tuesday for the U2 concert. (Metro is not an option for us.) I've heard the horror stories about the Paul McCartney concert last month.

Robert Thomson: This is a popular topic today. Would anyone like to offer driving advice for the concert?

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Herndon, Va.: I went to Comcast Center on Saturday for a volleyball match and found the arena easily. Take Rte. 1 south to 193 West (follow the signs!!!) and then turn in where it says "Event Parking" which I believe is the turn with Metzeroff (the first light if I recall correctly). The arena is right there along with softball, lacrosse/field hockey and their intramural fields. Plenty of parking around it unlike Cole Field House and Shipley Field.

A few months ago, I personally drove around that area and found that while there aren't a ton of signs around there, there doesn't need to be. Simply follow the signs for event parking.

Robert Thomson: Thanks, Herndon. This goes back to the exchange about reaching Comcast Center at College Park.

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Washington, D.C.: Welcome back. Have you heard whether Metro has instituted new policies to improve bus service? I'm specifically referring to policies to prevent bus bunching and early buses (more than 10 minutes ahead of schedule).

Why don't they have drivers who are early or bunched (the second bus) wait at a major stop (say near a Metro stop) for 5 minutes? They hold trains for "schedule adjustment." This morning, after a LONG wait, two buses came back to back. That meant the second bus remained empty for its route while the first bus was crowded.

The new Nextbus system is a fine idea, though unavailable to me because I do not have a cell phone, but it does not mean that buses should no longer run on schedule.

Robert Thomson: Anybody who takes a bus that has to travel a long way through the core of our region is familiar with bus bunching. You wait a long time, then three buses arrive at once.

The trailing buses catch up with the lead bus, because it's stopping at red lights and it's picking up the most passengers.

Metro has been studying some of the longest and most heavily used routes to try to make bus travel more sane. It worked on the 30s Line (Pennsylvania Avenue Line), the Georgia Avenue Line and the 16th Street Line, among others.

All were improved, but not completely fixed. You'll still find buses bunching up along those lines.

The techniques for fixing the schedules includes putting more supervisors on the lines with more power to hold buses so they're spread out better. Metro has done some of this, and has a plan to do more.

And you're right about the trains: They get bunched up, too. We saw that a lot on the Red Line during the summer. Some of the reasons are the same: The lead train encounters more passengers boarding and spends more time at a station. The trailing train encounters fewer passengers and tends to catch up with the first train.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Doc,

Just a general gripe: I read a lot of letters to the editor in our local papers about speed cameras and how much opposition there is to them.

I have really only one point of contention with the use of the cameras: Why do people have to slam on their brakes and slow to 10 or 15 miles per hour below the posted limit?!

Robert Thomson: I see that too, sometimes. That's one of the downsides of speed control devices, even speed bumps: Drivers speed up till they encounter them, hit the brakes, then speed up again once they're past them.

Police Chief Roy Gordon in Chevy Chase notices it, too, at his speed cameras on Connecticut Avenue, so he sometimes places portable speed cameras down the avenue to pick up drivers who speed up again.

But I see another, more hopeful, thing: On Sunday, I rode my bike past the school on Wayne Avenue in Silver Spring where the speed camera is. I stopped for a while, and -- because I'm such a traffic geek -- watched the cars approaching the camera zone. Rarely did I see brake lights (or camera flashes). It looked like people had gotten into the habit of obeying the speed limit in that zone.

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BWI to IAD: I live near BWI, but I have an international flight leaving out of Dulles at 9:30 pm on a weeknight. Given all the traffic I expect to encounter, how long should the drive take? I'm thinking of just leaving around 3 or 4, hanging out at a mall near Dulles, and then going to the airport in order to avoid really bad traffic.

Robert Thomson: I get such questions a lot, and they worry me. It will be like, I've got out of Dulles at 6 p.m. Tuesday. I'm catching a cruise ship that leaves from LA two hours after the plane lands. What time should I leave for Dulles?

I always want to say, Leave Now!, so I can't hurt them with my answer.

Even though you should be in pretty good shape, because you've got highways all the way and you can use the lightly traveled Dulles Access Road, rather than the toll road, I still like your plan for reaching the airport area at mid-afternoon and just waiting it out around there. On a long trip across this region, you never know what problems you'll encounter on the road till you're on the road.

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Fairfax, Va.: Dr. G, How do jurisdictions set speed limits on local roads? Why do similar roads have different speed limits? For example, Backlick Road between Braddock Road and Little River Turnpike is 40 mph. Four lanes, lots of driveways and side streets. Columbia Pike between Gallows Road and Lake Barcroft is 45 mph. Four lanes, fewer driveways there. Old Keene Mill through West Springfield and Burke is 40 mph. Four lanes, no driveways. Silverbrook Road from Laurel Hill to Lorton Road, 35 mph, four lanes, no driveways.

Robert Thomson: There are national and state standards for speed limits on the different categories of roads, but speed limits can be adjusted depending on local conditions -- or local petitions to government.

Traffic engineers talk about the 85th percentile rule. They usually set speed limits at the mph they think about 85 percent of drivers will comply with because those drivers find it reasonable.

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Olney, Md.: I don't get it. How hard is it to find FedEx Field? You look on a map, or on a computerized map page, and take the Beltway exit that it's near (and as you state, there are 3 of them, and all of them say to FedEx Field). From the District, it's even easier: just take E. Capitol St. to it.

Also, there are a million signs pointing one to "College Park/U of Md." from the Beltway. Just take Route 1 south. From the north on Rt. 1 there is a big sign saying all events are gotten to from 193. And at the big traffic light at Metzerott Road, the signs say it's right there. If you call or look it up, it's easy to describe: 193 one light west of Route 1.

Back when there was no Metro, no Internet, and even when Shirley Highway was US 350, everyone knew how to get to RFK Statdium, the the Baltimore Civic Center, the Capital Centre, Cole Field House, without much complaint. Now that it's so much easier, everyone is helpless. I really don't get it.

Robert Thomson: With FedEx, the issue isn't so much finding it as it is getting into it on time for your event. You may know how to get there and know exactly how long it should take in ordinary traffic. But lots of people traveling around you are going to the place for the first time. They don't know the little things, like you should change lanes now because this exit is coming up, or this lane is going to end.

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New driver: I'm a Metrorail-commuter who has been detailed to a worksite in NW D.C., not near any Metro station. Any tips on driving Rte 123 from Vienna into the District? Is it impossible, or are there good times and bad times? Alternate routes? I appreciate the help!

Robert Thomson: Main thing would be the construction project on Chain Bridge across the Potomac. The bridge is down to one lane in each direction, and that has slowed traffic considerably. I wonder if you might be better off getting onto the Beltway and going up to River Road to reach Northwest DC.

Advice from others?

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I-66 E: Yeah, it's a mess. Took us 50 minutes to drive from the Monument Drive HOV entrance to I-495 two Fridays ago. In the HOV lane.

We gave up and now take Braddock to 495-395.

Robert Thomson: Thanks for this response to my earlier question to travelers on I-66. Each September, we see really bad traffic on certain main roads. Then it eases a bit as some drivers say "This isn't working" -- or words to that effect -- and find alternatives that are somewhat less annoying.

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Frederick, Md.: Considering how awful the commute is for people who live in the D.C. metro area, is there any hope that the federal gov't or large corporations will start mandating that a percentage of their staff telework each day? I'm a federal employee and have the benefit of teleworking one day a week, but I don't see much of a push to get more people teleworking. It seems to me that it would benefit the environment (less cars on the road), the company (teleworkers tend to get more done at home than in the office - in my experience), and the employee.

Thanks!

Robert Thomson: I think teleworking is a big part of successful traffic management. There's a lot of help available for getting programs started, but the public and private employers need to accept it. (Too many bosses feel a loss of control when they can't see their employees.)

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Bus bunching: This is not like trains - buses can pass each other. Do not hold them! Often the spread out again I travel the S bus on 16th St quite often and see bunching come and go along my route. This is helped by the express bus.

Holding buses is not the answer as often bunched buses spread out again.

Robert Thomson: I've been on an S9 -- the 16th Street limited stop service -- when it's been right on the bumper of the S9 in front of it. Drivers may take it upon themselves to skip a stop, or they might now. They're certainly not going to do it if a passenger is asking to get off.

Supervisors need to be in control, either by getting out there on the route, or by controlling the line through GPS and radio.

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Fairfax, Va.: BWI to Dulles driver: For an international flight at 9:30 you want to be at Dulles by 7:30 at the latest, given the time it takes to get in from parking lot, through security, out to concourse, etc. I'd leave BWI area by 5:30 pm, just to be safe. Unfortunately, the earlier you leave, the worse the traffic will be once you get to the Beltway.

When we go in the other direction (from Fairfax to BWI) we allow at least 1 1/2 hours driving time, leaving home about 3 hrs before flight time for domestic flights; but Dulles takes longer once you get there.

Robert Thomson: Thanks for this advice. I do think the Beltway is likely to be the worst part of that trip.

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Hyattsville, Md.: With the recent decision by DC to only do emission testing, instead of doing a road worthiness checks, do you think it is a good idea? I suspect that some of the safety equipment is already checked while checking emissions.

I also think that the drivers are not willing to or forget to keep their vehicle in good shape if the inspection station doesn't force them. Finally, this puts more of the burden on the MPD since they can still pull you over for these infractions.

Robert Thomson: I'm not sure about this. DC cites statistics showing that inspections don't do much to improve overall safety. Of course, it also saves the government money and possibly improves its popularity if it doesn't maintain inspection stations. The emission testing is being maintained because it's a federal requirement. There aren't that many states left that require annual inspections -- Maryland isn't one of them.

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Robert Thomson: I have to break away now. Thanks for joining me today, and for all the good questions, comments and advice for other travelers.

I'll try to follow up on some of the published and unpublished questions you asked. For example, I'll check with Metro about the U2 concert night.

Till we meet again next week, join me as often as you can on the Get There blog here on the site, or write to me at drgridlock@washpost.com.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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