Dr. Gridlock tackles your traffic and transit issues

Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, October 19, 2009; 12:00 PM

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock. He will be online Monday, Oct. 19 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.


Robert Thomson: Hello, travelers. There are questions and discussion points in the mailbag about quite a few traffic and transit issues today.


Fairfax, Va.: The beltway is closing this evening from 9:30pm until 5:00am as well as Tuesday evening. Why isn't The Post doing more to alert the public to this situation?

Robert Thomson: I have these two basic ways of sharing alerts about road work that may delay you:

-- The Sunday Commuter page, which includes "Dr. G's Tips," in The Post.

-- The Get There blog here on our site. I try to post information about projects as soon as I hear it, then round up lots of stuff that could affect your trips into "The Weekend and Beyond," a Friday morning posting, and "The Week Ahead For Traffic, Transit," a Monday morning posting.

Here's what I had today about tonight and Tuesday.

Beltway Closing

The Beltway's inner loop will be closed overnight tonight and Tuesday about a quarter mile before and after Gallows Road (Exit 51). Meanwhile, the three left lanes on the outer loop will be closed during the same hours.

Workers will be lifting steel beams into place for a new bridge at Gallows Road. This is part of the HOT lanes project.

The inner loop lane closings will start at 9:30 p.m. each night. All lanes will shut from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. Detour: From the inner loop, up the Gallows Road exit ramp through the traffic signal at the top of the ramp and back to the Beltway.


Anonymous: Why does it take so long for the light bulbs to be replaced in street lights?

Specifically, the ramp to go to 295 from Indian Head Hwy (210 North). All the lights are out!

Numerous other place as well have burned out lights at overpasses and on the highway.

How come they can build new bridges and highways but cannot replace the lights?

Robert Thomson: Help me here: I don't know of a ramp that goes to 295 directly from Indian Head Highway. I always have to get onto the Beltway first to make that transition. Have I been wasting gas?

I think the lights down around there would be the turf of the Maryland State Highway Administration. I'm not sure whether the issue on that particular ramp would be burnt bulbs or something related to road work.


Washington, D.C.: D.C. is planning to replace the Douglas Bridge and I noticed they want to build a draw bridge to allow for the passage of large vessels. Since the 11th Street bridge is not a draw bridge this basically means boats headed to the Navy Yard.

How many large boats go to and from there (I only see the same boat there all the time)? How often do they open it now? And is it really worth the added expense of building a draw bridge if the use is infrequent? Can't they move that function downstream to the Anacostia Naval Annex?

Robert Thomson: There may be readers today with a more specific knowledge of this than mine. But as I understand it, federal law says that states and municipalities must maintain access to navigable waters. There are many places in the country where those waters are rarely used by vessels tall enough to create an issue with the bridges, yet the standard is maintained. (I think the Triboro Bridge in New York City is one such location, with a very expensive drawbridge rarely if ever used.)

I can understand this: A bridge is going to last a long time (we hope). And the need to navigate could change over the decades, so there's a legitimate concern about preserving options.

By the way, I know there are plans to build a new Douglass Bridge to take South Capitol Street traffic over the Anacostia, but am not sure when that's going to happen. I think the 11th Street Bridge reconstruction will come first.


Palisades, Washington, D.C.: Hello, I see the road closures and advice for participants in the Marine Corps race this Sunday but I live on MacArthur in the section that's going to be closed, so I'm looking for a bit different information. Will I be able to walk around the area and will I be able to walk down Canal to the finish line? If so, do you know what time the roads open back up?


Robert Thomson: For everybody, I haven't seen the road closings list yet for this Sunday's Marine Corps Marathon. In previous years, the street closings imposed by DC and park police have started at 4 a.m. and continued to 1:30 p.m. As a walking spectator, I've not had any serious problem getting around during the run.

In the northwest part of the course, these roads have been closed to traffic in previous years:

-- Key Bridge

-- Canal Road NW from M Street to Reservoir Road

-- Reservoir Road NW from MacArthur Blvd. to Canal Road

-- MacArthur Boulevard NW from Foxhall Road to Reservoir Road

-- Foxhall Road NW from Canal Road to MacArthur Boulevard

-- M Street NW from Canal Road to Wisconsin Avenue

-- Wisconsin Ave NW from M Street to K Street

-- K Street NW from Wisconsin Avenue to Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway

I'll definitely be getting more information about this year's event and posting it on the Get There blog.


Bethesda, Md.: I was driving down Democracy Blvd past the speed camera in front of Walter Johnson High School around 6:15 this morning. I knew the camera was there and was only going 25 miles an hour in a 35 mile an hour zone and despite this I saw a blue flash as I went by. Either this is a defective camera or Mongomery county is cheating it's citizens to make more money at our expense.

Robert Thomson: There have been cases when cameras misfired, even though they are routinely checked for accuracy. Most of those tickets don't get mailed. They get thrown out by the screeners in Montgomery County. If you should get a ticket, don't just pay it, as some people do. There are instructions on the form about how to protest it.


Arlington, Va.: There is some talk by the GOP candidate for govenor in VA about widening I-66. Is that possible or do the legal agreements from when I-66 was built prohibit this ?

Robert Thomson: Yes, it is legally possible to do that. GOP candidates for governor, who don't count on getting too many votes from Arlington County, advocate widening I-66 inside the Beltway, thus drawing the admiration of commuters who life in Fairfax and the outer suburbs, where governors can be made or broken.

Those voters should wonder about where the money might come from to finance a widening inside the Beltway. I've seen no credible plan to finance such an expensive project.


Savage: I just moved WAYYY outside the Beltway to an area where I have several routes home. (Note address above.)

Have you ever done an article on traffic-reporting GPS navigators?

Robert Thomson: No, I haven't. That's an interesting topic. I'm curious about whether many of you have such devices. (I have a standard GPS, no live traffic data. I figure I'll hear about any big problems on WTOP's traffic reports. I'd use the GPS to find a way around any huge jam.)


Washington, D.C., Capitol Hill: This year I went to a couple of games and walked to the stadium. Could something to either increase the lighting along the way, maybe park a police car along the way, since it is a very lonely walk both to the stadium and back to the Hill. I walk along New Jersey as suggested and there a few dicey blocks.

Thank You

Robert Thomson: I've done the same. Times I've walked down N.J. Ave, the sky has supplied sufficient light. But I've never walked back that way. I either board Metrorail at Navy Yard (entering on the New Jersey Avenue side) or take the bus (that used to be Metrobus N22 and is now the Circulator).

I think many of us expected bigger crowds in the first couple of years, so we thought it unlikely anybody would feel lonely and therefore vulnerable on N.J. Avenue, either to or from the games. I should go back and check out the street lighting, since it doesn't look likely that we'll experience a surge in attendance.


Wheaton to Washington and back: Hey Doc,

Gotta say that the Metro accident has really improved my commute. I started driving the next day and haven't looked back. Coming down GA Ave to 16th Street to get to downtown has my travel time cut in half. On the way home, it's through the park and still saves 20 minutes over taking Metro. And with my husband in the car with me, we end up with saving more than $5 a day between the two of us.

Here's my question though: As surprisingly easy as the commute from Wheaton to downtown is, the drive home, up Georgia Avenue can be a real pain. The worst part? From Forest Glen Road to the turn for Viers Mill. It's by far the worst of the commute and for the life of me, I can't figure out why. Why, doc, why is GA Avenue OUTSIDE the Beltway worse than inside?

Robert Thomson: I think the issue is basically volume. You've got a lot of traffic coming off the Beltway and heading north on Georgia. Plus, at least in my experience, there are plenty of points where turning traffic can get backed up during peak periods.

We did better creating north-south routes than we did on east-west routes. So the Beltway is going to pump a lot of cars onto your route.


Alexandria, Va.: Since the past four days were such a weather-bust, most of us will be doing our serious foliage viewing next weekend. Can you suggest an A-list leaf place that isn't a horror to return to the city from on Sunday?

Robert Thomson: I like the Snickersville Turnpike, between Route 50 and Route 7 in Loudoun County. But I invite others to comment on this question. I don't do much leaf-looking around here, because I pretty much get my fill during annual early-0ct vacations at Acadia National Park in Maine.


Chevy Chase, Md.: New traffic enforcement cameras were recently installed on Connecticut Avenue in Chevy Chase, Maryland, just south of The Chevy Chase Club, to replace an older set of cameras. Early this morning during rush hour on October 7, 2009, as I was travelling south on Connecticut Avenue past these cameras, I noticed that the south-facing cameras flashed several times, capturing a couple, if not several, cars in the group of cars travelling with me. Being extremely aware of these cameras, I am extremely conscious of my - and others - speed during this stretch of Connecticut Avenue. No one in my group of cars was travelling faster than 28 miles per hour in this 30 mile per hour zone.

Would Dr. Gridlock please ask the Montgomery County police authorities to test and assess whether these traffic enforcement cameras are working properly? I strongly suspect that they are not.

Robert Thomson: Those cameras are operated by the Village of Chevy Chase, rather than by Montgomery County. As I said in response to another reader above, people shouldn't pay tickets if they think the ticket was issued in error. They should follow the protest procedure described on the ticket. This has not been a huge problem since the state authorized the program two years ago, but it does happen.


Alexandria, Va.: Good afternoon Dr. G,

I quit. I no longer have faith in Metro to provide adequate service at any time other than rush hour. I'm a grad student who has been stuck waiting at L'Enfant Plaza for 45 minutes too many times. I'm sick of the constant weekend track work that makes it maddening to metro into downtown on a weekend. I'm a big proponent of public transportation, but even I have my limits.

Metro can have my business back when I can get from Ballston to Huntington in less than 90 minutes at night and when I can get downtown in under an hour on the weekend. Until then, I'm in my car.

Robert Thomson: This is a huge problem for weekend riders and completely understand why they would prefer to drive on weekends rather than wait for Metro.

Metro does put out advisories near the start of each month about what work is coming up on what weekend and then repeats them. We print the announcements on the Get There blog. So it is possible to do some planning around these situations.

Meanwhile, I'm holding out some hope for this: Metro is revising its maintenance plans to cluster more work on evenings and overnight hours, so we may see less weekend work starting next year.


Rockville, Md.: "Robert Thomson: No, I haven't. That's an interesting topic. I'm curious about whether many of you have such devices."

I have a Garmin Nuvi with free lifetime traffic. I find the delay info (green, yellow or red indicator with minutes of delay) isn't always that acurate.

However, one time it kept trying to send me a different way (driving home from Courthouse to Rockville). The turns and routing made no sense. I ignored it and went the way I knew. The GW Parkway was majorly backed up and it was trying to route me around it. Next time, I listen to it.

Robert Thomson: Got a couple of interesting responses like this one on the GPS question. I also have a Nuvi, and have come to trust it in almost all cases. It sometimes plots out a route that looks weird to me, but it turns out to safe time. I've now memorized some of its recommended routes in the Washington area and use them routinely. It's helped me discover several useful shortcuts.


Burke, Va.: "Most of those tickets don't get mailed. They get thrown out by the screeners in Montgomery County. If you should get a ticket, don't just pay it, as some people do. There are instructions on the form about how to protest it."

That's not the case in D.C., where I discovered there are many many erroneous tickets mailed every day. Not only that, but the language DC uses on the back of their tickets makes it seem like it's next to impossible to defend yourself against the citation. Is the process done differently in Montgomery County than in D.C.?

Robert Thomson: I get many complaints about the DC system and few about the Montgomery County system. The DC complaints are basically that it takes a long time to protest a ticket, or to receive an acknowledgement that the protest has been received.


GPS devices: Might I suggest that this would be a good topic for your blog? One of my cars has a sat-nav built in and I could provide ample comments, but they wouldn't work well in the weekly Q-and-A format. The blog also gives other people more time to respond with more detailed commentary.

(For what it's worth, I love having the sat-nav, but it's crucial to remember that no such device is perfect and that blind adherence to its directions is a good way to get lost. Consider that any time a road construction project results in the redesign of a road, the device's information will become outdated ... ask anyone who uses the Wilson Bridge and the nearby interchanges.)

Robert Thomson: Thank you for the blog suggestion and also for the comment about the construction problem.

My Nuvi is lost at the Springfield Interchange and around the Wilson Bridge. Recently, a traveler pointed out to me that following a GPS device now will take drivers onto the wrong side of the newly-revised I-95 southbound split north of Baltimore.

I know I could buy updated maps for the GPS, but I'm reluctant to spend the money. What I would do, if I go this way, is by the deal that gets lifetime updates.

We should talk more about these issues on the blog.


Germantown to Philadelphia: I'm moving shortly, from Silver Spring to Germantown. I make frequent trips to Philadelphia. To get there from Germantown, my GPS has me taking 270 to the beltway to 95. It seems like there has to be a better option than this. Any ideas? Thanks!

Robert Thomson: You may be one of the travelers who stands to benefit from completion of the Intercounty Connector, which will provide a new link to I-95 north of the Beltway. But you'll probably get impatient waiting around for that.

There are alternatives, but I don't see them saving you any time. Here's one you might test out, if you're not trying to make a dinner reservation in Philly:

Take Route 27 north to I-70 then head east to Baltimore's Beltway, take that up to I-83 and head north, get on Routes 30 and 222 to I-76 into Philadelphia.


Indian Head to 295: Yep, there is a big flyover ramp that connects Indian Head Highway to 295. Of course, that ramp backs up frequently in the mornings, so sometimes it is better to get on the Beltway and attack it from that angle.

Robert Thomson: Thanks for this response to my earlier question about getting from Indian Head to 295.


ICC: Are you planning to attend any of the public information/comment sessions on the ICC that are coming in the next couple of weeks? If so, will you write about them?

Robert Thomson: Yes. There are two informational forums on the ICC toll plan and then two public hearings. I'll remind readers about them on the blog and go to as many as I can.

The other forums I want to get to -- at least one -- are the ones Metro is going to hold about the upcoming transit budget. (Key words: fare increases.) There's one tonight in DC and one Wednesday in Northern Virginia. Probably more to come.


Washington, D.C.: When does the Benning Road project finish up? Also, I don't understand why DC is putting street cars in the middle of Benning Road? It covers maybe 6 blocks. Metro Bus does the same function. Is there a plan to further expand street car service? I'm also concerned about safety. The cars are in the middle of 4 (or 6) lanes of highway. How are people supposed to get on and off the cars without causing huge traffic disruptions?

Robert Thomson: I believe the Benning Road project should be done by the end of the year. This spring, Mayor Fenty got that one back on schedule after some delays. That was a good thing, because that road was just miserable to drive on.

The track thing I understand: The streetcars still are years away, but why tear up the streets twice? Let's get the tracks in there now. And it's not going to be a six-block route. The line should take people along H Street to Union Station.

Plenty of details still need to be worked out, including how to maintain safety at the stops, but I think that can be done -- it's been done plenty of other places.


Six-Car Trains: Dr. Gridlock,

Do you know if Metro has considered adding signs to the platforms to notify passengers where the end of a six car train will be. I know this would greatly facilitate boarding and help passengers spread out on the platform. Often times, when I am in a station that I do not frequently use, I misjudge where the train will end and there are dozens of us running to reach the last, crowded door of the train.

Robert Thomson: I like the idea for signs, though I wonder if Metro is reluctant to do that because the policy is not necessarily permanent. It's a necessary step, I think, while trains are under the control of the operators. Once the automatic train controls are restored, stopping at the end of the platforms should no longer be necessary.


JDLand: Douglass Bridge is "not before 2011," but they need to find the funding first. Probably from the Feds.

Robert Thomson: JD runs one of the best community Web sites I've ever seen. If there's something going on in Southwest Washington, such as an issue about the ballpark, the bridges, the waterfront, you'll find it online.


Alexandria, Va.: Regarding Mr. Halsey's story yesterday about the Prince George's County Beltway, I've lived in the D.C. area for 35 years and have been driving for just over 20 years. I've always thought the PG Beltway is the most dangerous stretch. I don't know whether the editors will let you use this comment, but I think the danger stems from a cultural thing in that PG driver seem to take an automatic "Up-Yours" attitude towards everyone else. That is:

--It seems like to PG drivers a lane change somehow doesn't count unless you cut someone off; slowing down to slot in behind someone is apparently seen as an admission of a lack of manliness.

--A PG driver does not care if no lane is going at his preferred speed, as he'll just weave in and out of traffic (without a signal) in an attempt to go at his preferred speed. Anyone in the way is to be tailgated and given the finger even if it's impossible to move over.

--Slow traffic is to be bypassed on the shoulder, and anyone who blocks the shoulder is given the finger and honked at.

--Use of headlights at night or in the rain is merely a suggestion; as long as the PG driver can see, why would he need headlights? (Wait, that's becoming the norm throughout the D.C. area.)

--Many drivers insist on driving in any lane but the right lane, yet they expect everyone else to melt out of the way when they decide to cross four lanes (without a signal) at the last second to reach an exit.

Robert Thomson: I disagree. I think the very interesting situation described on Sunday's Commuter page by Ashley Halsey III is not about Prince George's County. It's about the fact that I-95 and the Beltway overlap in Prince George's. It's the most dangerous section of the Beltway because that's where the long-distance drivers -- in a hurry, tired and distracted -- overlap with our local travelers.


Robert Thomson: Travelers, I have to break away now. I do see several questions in the mailbag that I think I can answer with a little more research and post on the Get There blog this week. Also, there are a bunch of comments related to GPS systems that I think I can pull together for a blog entry and invite further comment.

I hope to chat with you again next Monday. Stay safe.


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