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Dr. Gridlock Tackles Your Traffic and Transit Issues

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Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, September 28, 2009; 12:00 PM

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock. He was online Monday, Sep. 28 to diagnose all of your traffic and transit issues.

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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: Must be the invigorating chill in the fall air: I see plenty of good questions and sharp comments in the mailbag.

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Rockville to Reston: Hello,

I realize that the construction in the 495/Tysons area is awful. But, please explain to me why people slow up before the ALB until the exit for the toll road. It drives me nuts that every day, once people drive past the exit, traffic clears up.

Thanks, Frustrated

Robert Thomson: I know you won't believe this: An aerial survey done each year by the Metropolitan Council of Governments shows that traffic in that zone has gotten better. You could interpret that to mean it used to be horrendous and now it's only terrible.

The improvement came when Virginia widened the ramp leading to the Toll Road. That eased what had been a solid backup of eight miles on the Beltway heading south.

Over the summer, I did a Commuter page feature based on the Council of Governments report. It includes a map showing the highway zones that got better and that got worse. Take a look, and see if the report matches your experience.

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Catoe should resign: Dr. Gridlock,

The 9/27 article by Joe Stephens and Lena Sun about how putting newer Metro cars on the ends was a PR move and not really for safety -- while Mr. Catoe was touting that they were safer even though no studies had been done -- is beyond disturbing.

With everything that has gone wrong with Metro over the past few years, from the Red Line crashes to the increased signal outages on the Red and Orange lines to the bus drivers who should have been suspended or fired but weren't... why did Catoe get a 3-year extension? Metro's lack of funding is not an excuse for the rampant safety and PR blunders.

Catoe should resign and agree to cancel the 3-year deal he just got after this scathing article.

Robert Thomson: Joe, Lena, Lyndsey Layton and James Hohmann have been doing what reporters are supposed to do: Holding government -- in this case, the transit authority -- accountable for their actions and for the state of the system.

But it didn't surprise me that the Metro board gave General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. a three-year contract extension last week. The board -- which did tell the previous general manager, Richard White, that it was time to go -- has confidence in the replacement they picked for Catoe.

That said, I think it was real clear at the time the 1000 Series car were shuffled around to put them into the center of trains that no one knew whether this procedure would actually improve train safety. Many people were calling for it at the time, and said it was a good idea when the transit authority did it.

I think it was a waste of time and money. But that doesn't translate into, The top guy should quit.

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Northern Va.: Is there a formal agreement between VDOT and contractors about what times non-emergency work maybe conducted on our major highways? A few weeks ago a lane was closed at 7:30 a.m. on the toll road for routine tree trimming. This morning trucks were moving on/off the inner loop of the beltway (HOT construction) at 7:45 a.m.. I always thought work like these examples couldn't start before 9 a.m. New rules ... or no rules?

Robert Thomson: The general standard is that there are no lane closings on major commuter paths during rush hours, and those hours are usually defined as 5 to 9:30 a.m. and 3:30 to 9 p.m.

If there's work within those hours, someone -- often the contractor employees -- has made a mistake. You'll hear Lisa Baden or Bob Marbourg chiding them for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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South Riding, Va.: Just two comments I hope you can react to:

(1) While I would not have fired Mr. Catoe, I certainly would not have renewed his contract as the board did, as if making believe that the system is not on the brink of collapse. He is ultimately responsible for everything that happens on Metro.

(2) The tolls planned for the ICC perhaps best underline the folly of trying to move away from gasoline and other government taxes to fund construction and maintenance in favor of sleight-of-hand private and public-private arrangements. Thanks.

Robert Thomson: Metro has problems. We talk about them all the time here. Over the summer, Metro managers could have been far more aggressive in addressing riders' frustrations, especially because of the Red Line slowdown. Metro was doing things that directly addressed safety. (The moving of the 1000 Series cars wasn't one of them, but operating on manual control, giving extra attention to the track circuits and stopping trains at the fronts of the platforms were good safety steps.)

But they're way too passive on some things that are very important to the daily experience of riding. For example, I'd like to see them do a lot more to control crowding during boards at stations.

These problems didn't mean the system was collapsing -- though sometimes over the summer it might have looked that way to daily riders.

Couple of thoughts on the ICC tolling plan: That one -- unlike the Virginia HOT lanes -- is not a public/private partnership. That's strictly MD government. The 35 cents a mile proposed toll is the high end of the toll range. Also, Maryland transportation officials are estimating that the average driver is going to go 6.6 miles on the ICC, rather than the full 18 miles.

That said, I think the simplest, most straight-forward thing to do to raise money for transportation projects is to increase the gas tax.

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Washington, D.C.: Is there any place in town where the police actually enforce the rush-hour parking restrictions? Because it sure ain't happening on Connecticut Ave.

Robert Thomson: I don't see D.C. police doing much to help out anywhere at rush hour. I think the way to go is to increase the number of traffic control officers under the District Department of Transportation. That would give us a force with a specific mission, working for an agency directly responsible for controlling congestion on the streets.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Dear Doctor Gridlock,

I live near the Bonifant Road part of the ICC construction. It is so depressing to see (and hear) all the work. After reading the articles and comments last week about the proposed tolls on the road, I can't help but wonder if it is really going to help people's commute. I fear that it will be used primarily by trucks (part of which is good to get them off the secondary roads) and that we, as consumers, will end up paying the price of the toll through increased costs at the store, after having already paid for it by our tax dollars. What do you think?

Robert Thomson: I heard some interesting things last week at a briefing by Maryland transportation officials when they outlined the toll plan.

They think drivers are going to be slow to take to the ICC at first. It's opening in segments, which will limit its overall usefulness to drivers, and there's the tolls. (Another thing about the tolls: You'd really want to have an E-ZPass on the ICC. If they have to take a picture of your license plate and send you a bill, they'll add a $3 service charge.)

It's a variable toll, significantly higher during peak periods, so that's going to limit the traffic.

Relatively few trucks are expected to use the new highway, at least in the early going.

So they're not really looking at an immediate, violent swing in traffic patterns from the ICC.

On your point: It's hard to assess the economic impact of a new highway. For example, we could pay more for services if plumbers and delivery people and contractors start adding the cost of tolls to our bills. But on the other hand, they may be adding in a travel time cost right now.

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Shady Grove, Md.: Dr. Gridlock, what kinds of infractions do the Metro parking police look for? I've seen a motorcycle parked in a prime car space for weeks at Shady Grove, as well as an increasing number of cars and trucks parked with wheels crossing the lines into an adjacent space. Does Metro even bother with these kinds of situations?

Robert Thomson: Sometime during a discussion of enforcement with transit police chief Michael Taborn, he's likely to point out to you that the transit police department is a relatively small force charged with protecting trains, buses, stations and parking areas spread out across 1,500 miles. Metro is among the biggest providers of parking in the Washington region, so that's not a small chunk of the overall transit operation.

I don't say that in the sense of, Oh, give 'em a break. But I think that if we're going to call for better enforcement of the parking rules, we're also going to have to back an expansion of the transit police force.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Why on earth is the repaving taking so long on the beltway north of the American Legion Bridge? ... There has been zero progress since late August.

Robert Thomson: I drive that stretch of Beltway a lot and lately have gotten a bunch of questions about the timetable, so I'm asking the Maryland State Highway Administration for an update.

But in my experience, this hasn't been a real long time for the resurfacing of a major commuter route. Highway officials will always point out that they could work a lot faster if they could work during around the clock -- and if you didn't mind seeing traffic backed up to Pennsylvania.

That stretch of Beltway -- short as it is -- carries 226,000 vehicles a day. Because of that volume and the delays that would result from rush hour work, the resurfacing work that began last month is confined to 9 a.m. - 3 p.m. and to overnights Sunday through Thursday.

(Notice the previous comment from a driver rightly upset about the delays that result when Virginia road work extends into rush periods.)

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Washington, D.C.: A general question: Are you optimistic about the ability of Metro to continue to, well, -effectively exist- in the next 10-15 years?

I am on the brink of buying property and moving from an in-town, walk-to-work rental hovel to a suburban, Metro-to-work blissfully spacious townhouse. I am -so- ready for the move, but I am put off by the prospect of being dependent on Metro for the next 10-15 years to get myself to work.

It just seems like the system is in such a steady decline, I don't have to try to hard to envision a day 5 or 6 years from now when the delays are so long, the safety problems so great, the crowding so horrible, that it just ceases to be a feasible way to go to work. And if moving means a daily driving commute, I might just stick to renting my hovel and give up on The Ownership Society.

Robert Thomson: Metro is as important an asset to the region as our residences are to us as individuals. (And you'll note that closeness to Metro is reflected in the price of that residence, because any seller knows what an asset Metro is.)

I was a New Yorker during the period of severe service decline on the city's subways during the 1970s, so I know things can get bad, and I know how bad they can get. Improvement in our transit system isn't going to just happen. It's going to take us demanding it, and voting for it.

This is partly about Metro management doing a better job, but only partly. We really do need to invest a lot more in the system. For example, it's ridiculous that a region this wealthy hasn't replaced the original cars that were running on Metro when the system opened.

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Arlington, Va.: Your discussion over the weekend about the limits to adding new transportation supply (in the context of working at home) should ring true for everyone in the region.

Even before current expansion projects, anyone who rides Metro can tell you that the inner core of the system is at capacity: trains are packed to the gills; platforms take dangerously long to empty at rush hour; and trains regularly back up wherever two lines merge. Meanwhile, new road projects cost billions and take decades, and no plans even exist to unclog the Potomac River bottlenecks.

The trendy demand-side answer is that "people should live closer to where they work," but it's unrealistic: too many people change jobs, and there are too many benefits to having four bedrooms, only a handful of neighbors, and a yard full of trees.

But what's really scary are the forecasts for growth: millions more people and more jobs in this area over the next decades -- driven by the government job engine and the private industries catering to it. Maybe what we need is a policy to keep some of those jobs somewhere else and stop subsidizing the reckless growth of the D.C. metropolitan area. Maybe it's time for you to start championing that as an aid to solving gridlock. Surely there are lots of cities that could use the growth and jobs we're attracting. (I'm looking at you, Detroit!). What do you think?

Robert Thomson: Arlington is referring to my column on Sunday, but the thoughts are also a good follow up to the previous question and comment about Metro.

We say we can't build our way out of congestion, but that applies to transit as well as roads. Even with new investment, we won't have enough money for all the rail cars, new stations, new parking garages and new tunnels we would need to break through congestion.

We've got to use the entire tool bag, and that includes being smarter about coordinating development and transportation.

I'll talk more about that this week on the Get There blog. This is what I said in the Sunday column.

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Falls Church, Va.: Dr. G.

Sometime reader, first time commenter: I want to say Yay! to the new mixing bowl and Wilson Bridge. I work off of 295 and typically had been getting there by cutting through D.C. (395) and hopping on to 295 south; this morning I decided to drive the dreaded Beltway to 295 (outer loop) and was it beautiful! I cruised right along without a snafu (and now I have just jinxed it all)..took me less time to get to work, and I had to drive seven miles more than on my usual route.

I've done this in the evening home as well a few times and again, it was almost nice. and again, took me less time to get home.

I'm sure all I need is one accident to mess it all up, but it was nice this morning (a caveat: I am glad I was not on the inner loop this morning, that was not looking like much fun)

Robert Thomson: The Springfield Interchange reconstruction and the new Wilson Bridge have made a big difference. Completion of the new Telegraph Road Interchange will relieve another severe bottleneck along that route.

A few years from now, if things go according to plan, that 395 to 295 trip should get better, with the reconstruction of the 11th Street Bridges over the Anacostia. (The 14th Street Bridge part, not so much.)

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Rush Hour Enforcement: As somebody who had my car towed from in front of my house because I left it parked there until 7:05 by mistake one morning I'd say that rush hour enforcement on Connecticut Ave. is ridiculous!!!

Robert Thomson: On a lot of our transportation issues, you've got officials trying to balance the needs of commuters with the sometimes contrary needs of residents.

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Washington, D.C.: Regarding transportation to the U2 concert at FedEx Field tomorrow night, the Going Out Gurus (well, one of them anyway) recommended against using Metro. He suggested that the walk back to the station after the concert would not be safe.

I plan to take Metro anyway, but would like your thoughts on this. I've never been to FedEx Field -- is it ok to walk to the Metro Station?

Robert Thomson: I think it's absolutely fine to walk the 9/10 of a mile between Morgan Boulevard Station and FedEx Field. Most of that is along a sidewalk, and there's bound to be a big crowd of other pedestrians.

Metro is going to keep the Morgan Boulevard Station open till 1 a.m. after the concert to accommodate concert-goers.

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Washington, D.C. : Posting early since I will be traveling during your chat ... will Metro be staying open late if need be to get all of the people home from the U2 concert at FedEx Field tomorrow (Sept. 29th) night? I believe it is sold out, which means there are more people in that stadium than a Redskins game (360-degree seating + field seating could be 110,000)! Please say yes, because I really don't want to drive.

Robert Thomson: I apologize for not seeing your question till now. As I said in the previous answer, Metro will stay open late specifically for the concert-goers. Given that it's going to be a huge crowd, and given that the last concert with Paul McCartney caused such intense traffic, I think Metro is the best bet for getting to and from the show.

You're still going to be in a crowd, but I think it will be less frustrating than driving.

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Terrible Traffic on Dulles Toll Road Near Tysons: Do you have any idea why traffic is so bad traveling eastbound on the Dulles Toll Road in the AM after passing the toll booths in Tysons? It appeared that the problem was a back-up of people trying to exit onto Rt. 123 North towards McLean. My commute normally takes me 35 minutes but now it is taking me 50 to 55 minutes.

Robert Thomson: You've got a lot more people using that 123 North exit this month because the exit from the Beltway for 123 North is closed this month. (HOT lanes construction)People are following the detour from the Beltway onto the Dulles road eastbound to reach 123 North. I believe that's supposed to be done around the end of the month, but I should get an update and post it on the Get There blog.

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Arlington, Va.: I am driving to FedEx for U2 tomorrow night from Arlington. Suggestions/tips/tricks for surviving my journey? Thanks.

Robert Thomson: If you are going to drive, leave real early, but still expect to be stuck in traffic. This is a 7 p.m. concert on a week day, so there will be a combination of concert traffic and regular rush hour traffic.

If you're coming along the Beltway, as most drivers would be, use the Central Avenue exit to reach FedEx. The Maryland State Highway Administration recommends that one as less crowded than the other options, Arena Drive -- now open full-time, and Landover Road.

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Rockville, Md.: I am a daily Red Line commuter and have noticed that the noxious odor that sometimes occurs around the outside of the trains has been worse lately. What exactly causes this odor, and is it hazardous to breathe in?

Robert Thomson: That sounds like the problem we have from time to time with the brake pads on the trains.

I don't want to be giving medical advice -- I'm not that kind of a doctor. But I've heard no reports of people being sickened by breathing the station air, despite the off-putting smell.

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Rockville, Md.: Hi Dr. Gridlock - have you heard anything about the SmarTrip upgrades that were supposed to happen this past month (i.e., being able to load passes onto SmarTrip cards, etc.)? Is Metro still relatively on track to implement those upgrades soon, along with the online loading of SmarTrip value that was scheduled for January 2010? Thanks!

Robert Thomson: Thanks for the reminder, Rockville. Upgrades in the SmarTrip cards would be welcome news to many, many riders, and I should check for an update on the timetable.

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Arlington, Va.: The Metro Transit Police may not have sufficient numbers to enforce parking restrictions. But they can create the perception that said restrictions are enforced.

In the case of the motorcycle, make a big show of impounding that vehicle. Invite Fox5 News for the festivities, and let them show the driver screaming "Where the bleep is my BIKE!!!???" Do that a couple of times and the myth of enforcement will take root.

Robert Thomson: Transportation officials often cite the Three E's for problem-solving: Engineering, education and enforcement.

But sometimes, this variation can be more effective: Enforcement, Enforcement, and publicity about Enforcement.

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Reston, Va.: I am a 5 ft. tall woman who rides Metro. During the rush hour when I cannot get a seat, there is no place to hold onto in some of the cars. No vertical poles are available and I am unable to reach the overhead handles due to arthritis. More often than not, I am sandwiched under someone's smelly armpit or below indescribably bad breath. Why did Metro purchase these cars?

Robert Thomson: The Grid Spouse shares your concern. I hear about it all the time. The 6000 Series cars, the newest in the fleet, are the ones with the steel hand grips, installed because that style of car has bigger areas without poles than the older cars.

I'm 5' 11", you might might categorize this as "Easy for him to say," but I find the main problem for people is when they're trying to get near the end doors as their stop approaches. That's when shorter people can't find anything but a fellow passenger to grab onto.

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Rockville, Md.: I am a regular Marc Train Commuter on the Brunswick Line from Gaithersburg to Union Station. I was wondering why Marc can't communicate to the media (tv and radio) that there is a significant delay on that line. A couple of weeks ago there was a significant delay on the Brunswick Line and my sister and I didn't know about it until we reached the Gaithersburg Marc Train Station. We were told by people who had cell phones that receive emails. Before we left we heard nothing on the news or the radio that there was a delay. Whats the deal?

Robert Thomson: This is a guess based on a couple of years of receiving e-alerts from MARC: A lot of the problems that delay the trains haven't occurred by the time people leave their homes for the stations. Also, the original problem changes quickly -- either getting better or worse in a hurry.

That's one of the limiters in the growth of the suburban rail system: Commuters want a predictable trip.

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U2 Concert: I've never been to FedEx field, and I'm driving there tomorrow night from Annapolis. Can you recommend a route? I reviewed the info on the website already, but it doesn't seem to apply to those of us coming from the Annapolis area. Do I need to go all the way out to the beltway?

Robert Thomson: You don't have to go to the Beltway. For example, you could go south on Route 301, then head west on Central Avenue (Route 214). But I think that unless I heard on the radio traffic reports that the Beltway traffic was stopped, I'd come in on Route 50 to the Beltway, then go south past the first two FedEx exits, at Landover Road and Arena Drive, and get off at the Central Avenue exit. That's the one the Maryland State Highway Administration recommends, because most people tend to get off at the first two exits, leaving Central Avenue as the least congested.

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Arlington, Va.: Dr Gridlock:

I have sort of made a hobby of thinking of ways to improve metro. I have also traveled extensively, and used many different subway/metro systems. The one that I feel we could learn the most from is the one in Santiago, Chile. While Santiago has 5 lines and 82 stations and only runs from 6 AM until 11 PM (and opens at 8:30 on Sundays) which is equatable with metro, it carries a whopping 2.5 million people. It was also started to be built around the same time around metro.

I have two lessons to learn: The first is that during rush hour, there are employees who stand on the platform at the most crowded stations (mostly transfer stations), one by each door of the train. These employees, do two things; first they cram everyone onto the train they can (rush hour trains in Santiago are much more packed than DC). The second thing they do is ensure orderly entrance/exit from the train, which speeds the rate which the trains exit the station, making it a faster system. It also has the added advantage of having employees where the people are so they can be seen and heard when necessary.

The second is that while most trains to not have bench seating (similar to metro), they have significantly more doors than metro. This should be a lesson to the future train cars (7000 series). There can be many efficiencies taken care of by adding more doors. Faster stops, less of a problem of crowding by the doors (that only DC seems to have), and generally a faster experience. Bench seats are not needed for this (even though I thought so previously). Instead, more doors will do the trick.

I can go on for hours about what I think metro should do, but those are two examples taken from another metro system not that dissimilar to DC.

Robert Thomson: One of the great things about talking transportation in a metropolis like Washington is that so many people can share experiences they've had in other places, so we can compare and contrast and pick up some good ideas.

I like the first idea a lot, and have been making similar suggestions for platform control in my columns. I'm not so sure about the second, the one about the doors, because I'm concerned about how that would effect seating capacity, and also because I know that door breakdowns are one of the top causes for trains being taken out of service.

I'm pretty sure plans for the 7000 Series call for the same number of doors as we have now.

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Robert Thomson: Gang, we've gone into serious overtime this week -- because you've sent in so many good questions and comments. I've got to break away, but did spot a couple of unpublished things I want to try to put up on the Get There blog this week, like the one about how to know the hours for the reversible lanes on some DC roadways.

Also, you make me realize I should do a Get There posting specifically about Tuesday's U2 concert. Next week, I'll be on vacation, but write to me anytime at drgridlock@washpost.com, or comment on the Get There blog.

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