Dr. Gridlock tackles your traffic and transit issues

Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, October 26, 2009; 12:00 PM

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock. He was online Monday, Oct. 26 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. Welcome to another edition of our conversation about all things traffic and transit in our region.


Burke, Va.: On Friday Lena Sun told us about the testing of ARINC's changes to Metros safety control computers to prevent crashes like June 22 (where a coworker of mine was injured in fact), and that the testing would be done this morning.

Has Mr. Catoe announced the results of the tests that he ran this morning? Does it meet the NTSB requirements?

washingtonpost.com: Metro to test new software for crash-avoidance system (Post, Oct. 23)

Robert Thomson: What ARINC and Metro were planning to test during the morning rush is software that could serve as a backup to Metro's track circuit monitoring system, something that would warn train controllers of a problem with the monitoring system.

I would think Metro and the company would want time to evaluate the results of the test. And it seems a bit early for the National Transportation Safety Board to have anything to say about it, based on one test.

The NTSB still hasn't determined the cause of the June 22 Red Line crash, though it has determined that there were problems with the track circuitry in the crash zone. Until the NTSB announces the results of its investigation and Metro has a chance to deal with the findings, trains are going to remain under the control of the operators rather than relying on the automated system. There's no timetable for a return to automatic control.


Silver Spring, Md.: Another sign John Catoe needs to be fired: Metro is testing anti-crash software during rush hour. Regardless of the secondary backup aspect of this particular software, you don't test products during rush hour, when there are thousands of people on your trains. We're not your crash test dummies.

What communications consultant said this was a good idea?

Note to Metro: Install said software in bus drivers.

Robert Thomson: I don't see any problem testing this backup system during rush hour. In fact, that seems like a good idea. It needs to work during rush hour if Metro is going to adopt it.

If safety were an issue in the testing itself, I don't see any reason Metro should value the lives of its peak-period customers over those traveling in the off-peak.

Metro didn't have to take down its train-monitoring system to perform this test. The software, if its found workable, would add a layer of protection to the system.

Since the crash, Metro has taken several steps to ensure trains safety and try to win back public confidence. But I'm sensing from these questions that the confidence-building part hasn't been completely successful.


DC: Dr. Gridlock, can we get a link to the Get There blog on the front of the Local section? The redesign requires me clicking through three pages to get to your column/blog, something good for site revenue, but annoying. The redesign was not necessary and seems counterproductive.

Robert Thomson: It's still there! Whether you're looking at the national/world home page or the new Local home page, you can find a link to my Get There blog conveniently located near the top of the page. You don't even have to scroll down.

On the Local home page, just look at that box with the orange cones that says "Commuter Hot Spot." You'll see a link there to "Blog." That's me, the blog.

For those of you who haven't seen this yet, we've got a new version of the washingtonpost.com home page for people who live in the Washington area and need to know about things like traffic on the GW Parkway or delays on the Orange Line.

(They may check washingtonpost.com in Los Angeles, but probably not because they care about our traffic.)

We'd love to get your feedback on whether this new thing is working for you. We're trying to make it easier, rather than more difficult, for you to get the information you need about local travel and to share information about problems that concern you.


Annapolis: Why at BWI are there no loading ramps for the shuttle buses that run from the parking structure to the terminal and back? Did no one know that it is hard for some of us to haul our selves up steps with baggage? Couldn't baggage have been predicted? Why don't they build ramps with overhangs that the buses could drive up to so we could just roll onto the buses? Or have the buses run on sunken roadbeds like the Metro in DC. The MAA needs to rethink the shuttle buses to make them compatible with strollers, wheelchairs, rolling luggage and people with sore knees and hips.

Robert Thomson: I love that idea. It's the first time I've heard that suggested. I'm trying to think of an airport that has such a system for its buses now. Has anyone seen this? Anyone familiar with the BWI setup for the shuttles on the arrivals and departures levels see a potential flaw with such a ramp design?


Bowie, Md.: Have the Wilson Bridge improvements helped significantly with congestion during rush hour in that area?

Robert Thomson: I think the bridge traffic and the traffic on the approach from Maryland is significantly better now that the new bridge is complete. The big remaining problem is the lane squeeze on the outer loop approaching Telegraph Road, which will remain till the interchange rebuilding is complete in a couple of years.

One attempt to deal with that congestion is the Variable Speed Limit system, which I think would make a big difference -- if drivers obeyed the signs. But I don't see that happening.

Dissenters on any of this?


Arlington, Va.: We've survived--just barely--another Marine Corps Marathon and I continue to wonder if there isn't a better way to handle the disruption these events have on the DC Area. It took me almost two hours to get from Arlington to Chevy Chase DC for church with almost every access from Virginia to DC closed.

I took the Teddy Roosevelt Bridge to the E Street Expressway, where four lanes ended up down to one in order to access Mass. Ave. During that time, I only saw one police officer directing traffic (at 25th and M) and saw two ambulances caught in the gridlock at Washington Circle.

So is there a better way to handle the traffic on the streets when the Mall, Gtown, and Rock Creek Park are all closed for events?

Robert Thomson: You cite one way, which is to have more enforcement personnel on the streets in DC and Arlington. I don't get many complaints about the Marine Marathon traffic, or any of the events that take place on Sunday mornings and early afternoons. The Saturday events are a totally different story. There's widespread fury with their impact on traffic.

In defense of the Marine Marathon: It gets a great deal of advance publicity. The jurisdictions involved put out route maps and lists of street closings well ahead of the event.

Still, I know many people are inconvenienced because they can't make a wide swing around the affected area or take transit.


Woodbridge, Va.: Hi, I was wondering if you could tell me whose bright idea it was to put the flashing sign on the I95 HOV this morning (10/21) advising drivers that an HOV compliance checkpoint was ahead. I can appreciate the State Police wanting to improve the safety of their officers in the dark, but it is a bit like cutting of your arm to keep your fingers from getting cold. The ensuing traffic jam caused thousands of drivers from Woodbridge and points south an extra 10-15 minutes to their commute and probably an extra dollar or so in fuel costs for a third of them. I am sure the few dozen tickets issued before the sun came up do not nearly generate sufficient revenue to offset these costs to Virginians. It would be far preferable for them to just wait until the sun comes up, if there is that much concern for safety. Signs do slow traffic down. I recall once spending 30 minutes in a five mile delay on I95 southbound in North Carolina until we passed the sign that said "No Construction Today All lanes open". Of course people quickly get used to the signs so if they are there a few days I am sure traffic will go back to normal, but then the question becomes what is the point in the first place? I would really appreciate it if you could let us know who we should complain to.

Robert Thomson: General comment first: One of the leading issues for drivers who write to me is how crowded the HOV lanes are getting and couldn't the police do more enforcement.

Until they do enforcement. Then drivers complain that the enforcement causes congestion. The police know that, and they also know that any enforcement operation on an Interstate endangers both the commuters and the police, so they try to be very careful about the setup, and sometimes halt an operation if its causing too much congestion.

I understand your frustration about the signs. It's important that the DOTs in our region limit the use of the signs to information that's valuable to drivers at that moment because -- just like the enforcement operations themselves -- the use of the signs causes congestion as drivers slow to read them.

I'm not sure I can argue with a police decision to enforce the HOV rules when it's dark out. The morning HOV time is 6 to 9 a.m. The sun rose this morning at 7:29 a.m., and of course, it will continue to rise later. If they can enforce only in broad daylight, it's going to really hinder enforcement, isn't it?


Washington, DC: Annapolis' question on BWI raises a good point. Have you investigated if the Metro design for the IAD station will allow easy, horizontal access from the station to check-in; and from baggage claim on to Metro? You don't need to be a rocket scientist to know that travelers to our int'l and long-haul airport will be arriving/departing with LOTS of heavy baggage not conducive to either escalators or stairs.

Robert Thomson: I don't believe there's a design yet for a Dulles Airport Metro station, but just to speculate, I doubt there will be the same type of step problem our commenter identified with the BWI buses. Certainly, the airport platform will be flush with the train car doors, as they are at every station, but you'd expect that the airport station design would take special account of the luggage likely to be coming along.

Many will recall that for years, the gap between the National Airport station and the airport was difficult for travelers. The airport station was planned while airport terminal planners were still unsure what type of design they'd wind up with.

By the way: I've gotten a lot of complaints in the past year from Metrorail riders about having to step over luggage, or avoid swinging bags, on the train cars.


Vienna, Va.: Hi

Any word on the progress (or not) being made on the Chain Bridge? I come in early enough on the mornings, but end up taking Clara Barton across the American Legion in the afternoon (because CB is such a mess).


Robert Thomson: Complaints about the Chain Bridge reconstruction tailed off after the first few weeks. I just mentioned that there was a lot of advance publicity about the Marine Corps Marathon that helped some people plan. The Chain Bridge, not so much.

A lot of our attention at the time was focused on the start of the 14th Street Bridge reconstruction (which I haven't got many complaints about ever). And the starting day of the Chain Bridge project caught everyone by surprise. Since then, DDOT made some improvements in traffic signal timing and the design of the lanes on the Virginia side that seem to have helped.


Airport busses/shuttles: Are all created equally? Different buses require different heights. The Metro uses uniform standards for their trains - not the buses.

The buses should "kneel" for those who have may experience problems getting on and off.

Robert Thomson: I've never seen those BWI buses kneel and am not sure they can. Seems like we'd want them doing that at every stop if they could.

I do see your point about losing flexibility on bus designs once you've poured a lot of concrete to create ramps.


Rockville, Md.: "see a potential flaw with such a ramp design?"

Well it would be useful if people do not get on the ramp and fall off when the bus is not there.

Robert Thomson: Agreed. But I think I've seen similar ramp designs for streetcars. They have railings and bright paint on the concrete to prevent pedestrian accidents.


Marathon closures: Its not just the Marine Corps Marathon. If it were just one or two huge events each year, it would be one thing, but the number of major events requiring extensive road closures has just exploded in the past few years. I know its not every weekend, but that's what it feels like sometimes. Seems like organizers think "Hey, let's have our race in DC!" and never consider that people live here and actually use those roads to get about their daily lives.

Adding 30-45 minute detours to get around the closures isn't much fun. Its not possible to take mass transit from DC to a lot of places in the outer suburbs on a Sunday morning.

Robert Thomson: If I were king, I'd limit the number of Saturday events, and schedule them for Sundays instead. The Sunday ones seem to have far less impact. (Don't read that as "no impact.")


BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport: Hi, Dr. Gridlock--

To the comment from Annapolis-- the shuttle buses that operate at the BWI Marshall Airport parking lots are "kneeling" buses. They have the ability to lower the front of the bus to make it easier to board and exit the bus. Customers may simply ask the driver to lower the bus for easier access.

The shuttle bus drivers for the BWI Marshall Express Lot provide luggage assistance for travelers.

Thank you for flying BWI Marshall Airport.

Robert Thomson: Thank you. I've used BWI for years. It's my airport of choice. I've thought about the interior design of the buses, but never noted the kneeling ability.

Over the years, travelers have asked me about why there can't be a sidewalk from the terminal to the daily garage. (I said I thought that would be a waste of money because few people would use it.) And they've urged public transit providers to provide more service at later hours. (By the way, I've found Metro's B30 bus to be a convenient way to get to and from the airport via the Greenbelt Metro station.)


Rockville, Md.: "a police decision to enforce the HOV rules "

How about state of the art cameras to do the job? They may miss a few where you can not see how many are in the car - but it would get more than they get now.

Robert Thomson: The camera thing comes up in the context of the HOT lanes in Virginia. Either cameras or some sort of infrared detector that would figure out how many people are in a car, since carpoolers would travel free in these High Occupancy Toll lanes.

Aside from issues about whether that technology is workable, some people are raising privacy concerns.


Alexandria, Va.: Why were the HOV lanes on I95 in Virginia closed yesterday?

Robert Thomson: I think that was because of the Marine Corps Marathon, which was using the 14th Street Bridge and the HOV lanes on I-395.


Marathon: I agree that the organizers give advance warning, but the warning is essentially: "Everything is closed. Good luck." I take Metro often on weekends, but now weekends are becoming horribly unreliable with track maintenance. So what's a person to do if they want to get into DC during the multiple marathons and street events?

Robert Thomson: On the weekend track maintenance issue: In the short term, look for the announcements Metro puts out every Thursday about that weekend's work. That tells you the zones where the work is occurring and how much extra time you should build in if you're traveling through those zones. Also, around the start of each month, Metro puts out a preview of what will happen on each weekend.

Long-term: Since everybody knows that the weekend delays are a real pain, Metro is trying to develop a new method of scheduling that will concentrate work on particular lines during the late-night hours of operation and the hours when the system is shutdown. That would significantly lighten the burden on weekend travelers, though some projects -- like switch replacements -- are so big they'd still have to be done over weekends.


Washington DC: Hi Dr. Gridlock, I've just recently started taking the VRE and I love it...but why is there such a gap between trains in the afternoon. I leave from L'Enfant and the gap is from 1:21 to 3:51. Why no intermediate train?

Robert Thomson: I'd love to see more service at more hours on both VRE and MARC. That's an important part of the transportation future in an metropolis that's going to get far bigger than we're visualizing now. But I'm not sure the demand for service is there yet in the early afternoon. Both Maryland and Virginia are having budget problems now that are going to limit their operating budgets for transit. Plus, there's always the issue of whether the freight lines that own tracks will clear the way for more passenger trains.


Vienna, Va.: I may be alone, but Metro doesn't really need to get my confidence back. I don't doubt that they are will try to prevent future accidents. But the fact is that even with the recent accident, Metro is probably still safer per passenger mile than driving, especially around here! Rather than focusing so much on what Metro is doing, I would like to see our local elected leaders doing more to make sure that Metro gets the funding it needs to overhaul its systems before system deterioration causes more problems!

Robert Thomson: I certainly agree that Metrorail is a lot safer than driving around here. But among many people, the June 22 crash and the slowdowns that followed compounded some confidence problems they already had. That's real bad timing for Metro. The transit system needs to win a permanent, reliable source of government funding, and it also needs to balance its budget for next year during a down economy that is straining the resources of the governments that support it.

Metro leaders have begun to go around the region to discuss this with the public. Metro gets to give its side and the people get to respond, then they discuss. There was a good session like this in Falls Church last week and I hope more are scheduled.


Washington, DC - HOV enforcement: Dr. Gridlock, Germany already does photo enforcement, on the Autobahn, of drivers on cell phones. They mount a camera on the median barricade and point it at the front of oncoming traffic and an operator monitors the images from a service road. This way the lanes aren't blocked, only one person is on location and they can even identify the driver to assign points.

Robert Thomson: Watch for the next comment I post.


Arlington, Va.: Camera or infrared camera to enforce HOV. I can beat both. I wonder how may folks will buy my dummies. One or two large dogs would even work with infrared.

Robert Thomson: What do you think?


Washington, DC: Bravo Dr. Gridlock for sticking up for HOV enforcement. I am not originally from here but have the ability to read signs on I-395 and I-66 and am well aware of the HOV times. As such, I travel on other roads because I am by myself in the car. I am so tired of the self-important people in this area who just flagrantly violate rules and think these roads were made for them and only them. I've seen some heavy enforcement on the ramps to I-66 of of Route 7 and hope they keep it up until people stop violating the rules. I absolutely do not mind a few extra minutes of wait time if these violators are being properly dealt with.

Robert Thomson: I want to do another one-two on this issue. Watch for the next comment.


Ballston, Va.: HOV enforcement is about revenue not about making the roads safer. HOV enforcement actually makes that section of roadway more dangerous.

With the current mess at I66 and the beltway they should end HOV both inside and outside the beltway and keep the green arrow lane open 24/7!

Robert Thomson: This reflects the other side I hear about enforcement -- any enforcement of any traffic laws, including those against speeding and red-light running.


Anti-crash software testing: I am an electrical engineer and although I don't work on the Metro system, I can speak about the general principles of safe software testing. Generally, there would be several test modes. The first set of tests would run in your software development area (not on the "real" trains) to prove that it is operating as designed, in the simulation environment. Then, since a simulated environment can't fully duplicate the real thing, you run the software on the real system, in this case Metro during rush hour. During this test, you don't allow the software to actually -do- the train/switch control, but have it report what it would have done if the control part had been turned on. The software is running in parallel with the actual operational software, but it is safe since the new software is not actually controlling anything. The software is reporting on which decisions it would have made or not made. Afterwards, you need a thorough review of how it operated and can then assess it's capability more thoroughly. Then, finally, after it has been tested in this fashion through several iterations, you would field it to the trains with real passengers.

Like I said, I'm not an engineer for Metro, so I can't speak to what they actually did, but that is the gist of what should have, and probably was, the basis of their test program.

Robert Thomson: Thank you for commenting on this. I'm not an engineer of any sort -- and I'm self-certified as a traffic doctor -- but your description made good sense.


Arlington, Va.: I was on I-66 East yesterday (Sunday) headed back into Washington from Fairfax and to my great surprise the green arrow lane was open. Do you know why?

Robert Thomson: No. I'm checking with VDOT. It does seem unusual that the shoulder lane would be open on a weekend. VDOT did extend the weekday hours during which the shoulders are open, but I hadn't heard anything about weekend hours.

Just a guess: It might have been done as a special occasion to manage traffic related to the Marine Corps Marathon.


HOV Enforcement - again: Germany uses human operators when the camera is in use so these judgment calls can be made. I hope they use the same after-the-event review of all the photos before they are mailed to the registered owner of the vehicle. Admittedly, the child behind the driver's seat may not be visible in the photo, so a combination of visible and infrared should be used. Even with this, you will never catch everyone. The point is basic enforcement.

Robert Thomson: As you describe this system, I think I understand why it comes up more frequently in the context of the High Occupancy Toll lanes rather than the HOV lanes. Once we have toll lanes, there will be real money at stake, and the lane operators will think it's worthwhile to finance greater enforcement.


Arlington, Va.: Dr. Gridlock,

The DC area has 4.5-5.5 million people already, and any metropolitan area this size needs more than just two VRE and three MARC lines. Boston has more commuter rail than we do, and it's not nearly as big population-wise. Philly has far more as well.

Yes, it's going to require building more tracks, right-of-way and NIMBY issues, but what other choice do we have? Metrorail is at near-capacity as it is, and 20 miles from downtown is the realistic extent we can run subway trains because after that it gets look long time-wise and distance-wise.

Dulles SHOULD have been on a new VRE line that stops in Tyson's (connecting with an Orange line spur there), Reston, and going further out to Sterling and Winchester.

Robert Thomson: That's a very good description of our need. As you probably know, both Maryland and VA have plans to expand and improve their commuter rail services, but the programs are overdue and underfunded.


Washington DC: Easy way to enforce HOV, mandatory loss of license for 6 months, period. Second offense impound car for one year.

Robert Thomson: That was my first instinct, too. But I've gotten so many letters over the years from people who accidentally wandered into the lanes. Just had one recently from a traveler confused by the rules: She and her husband were debating whether she could continue driving in the HOV lanes after the restrictions took effect at 3:30 if she were already in the lanes at that time. Answer: She can get a ticket at 3:30, even if she entered the lanes earlier. I can't see suspending her license on a first offense like that, can you?


Dulles Metro: Someone told me that there actually is already a Metro station built at Dulles - that it was incorporated many years ago in anticipation of the day when Metro would go there. Is that true?

Robert Thomson: That would have shown a remarkable amount of foresight and optimism about the future. Maybe some area set aside for a future station, but I can't believe there's one already built. Come to think of it, I hope it's not true, because if there's a station there, it's not easy to spot. I'd really like it to be near where the planes are.


Springfield, Va.: The variable speed limit system around the Wilson Bridge project is possibly the biggest waste of money after the Dulles Rail and HOT lane projects. The corridor is just too small for it to be effective, and the signs rarely change. The biggest problem is that even if the speed limit is changed, there's not enough space on either end to effect the flow of traffic through the clogged area. I wonder now if they are even using it anymore.

Robert Thomson: The Wilson Bridge Project says yes, it's still in use. Thanks for your description. I had been thinking that it was mainly an issue of enforcement -- which is difficult, for the same reasons we've been discussing in regard to HOV enforcement: Enforcement creates its own traffic problems.


DC: I doubt that most commuters know the 10-digit phone number to reach Metro police. Thanks for including it in your column. But the number should be posted prominently in every car and station. Also, most cell phone systems will usually route 911 calls to the operator in the jurisdiction where the call is being made. If you have a phone that works inside the Metro system (I realize that not all services are connected), it probably wouldn't be hard to have 911 calls go straight to the Metro police. Our instinct in an emergency is to dial 911, not look for an office number.

Robert Thomson: In my column Sunday, a letter writer described the problem of using the call box in a train car where someone is acting out. (I'll give you a link to the column next.) I suggested two alternatives: One is to go to the next car and use the intercom there, another is to call transit police on your cell phone. I've got the number on my speed dial.

Certainly, people can use 911 to report emergencies aboard trains. Many of us see things in Metro cars that in our minds don't amount to emergencies. There might be some school kids acting up, for example, and we just want order restored. People may be reluctant to use 911 in what to our minds are gray areas of behavior. But it's also true that a 911 call might wind up being handled by transit police anyway.


washingtonpost.com: Dr. Gridlock: Metro call boxes can invite danger (Post, Oct. 25)

Robert Thomson: There's the link to the column about the call box issues.


Robert Thomson: We've had so many good issues come up in this discussion that I've lost track of the time. Need to break away now. If I haven't gotten to your issue, give me a nudge at drgridlock@washpost.com. Or join me again next Monday, and we'll go at it again.

Until then, stay safe out there.


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