Dr. Gridlock tackles your traffic and transit issues

Robert Thomson, Cyndi Zieman
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, November 9, 2009; 12:00 PM

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock. He will be online Monday, Nov. 9, at Noon ET to diagnose all of your traffic and transit issues. This week, Dr. Gridlock is joined by Metro's SmarTrip director, Cyndi Zieman, who will answer questions about the changes in the SmartBenefits program.

Submit a question or comment now or during the discussion.

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 Local Living 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.

Dr. Gridlock also hosts his own discussion group, Taken for a Ride, where he tries to help ease your travel pains.


Robert Thomson: Good afternoon, travelers. I'm ready for any of your local traffic, transit, walking and biking questions. But today, we also have Cyndi Zieman on to discuss the recent issues about the change in the SmartBenefits program. She says: "I am the Director of SmarTrip program, and I'll answer your SmarTrip questions this afternoon. I'm looking forward to your questions. Cyndi"

What have you got for us?


15th Street, NW, Washington, D.C.: The 15th street contraflow bike lane is an absolute disaster. Traffic has not slowed. It's still as dangerous for cyclists. Street cleaners cannot get to the curb or they will rip off the reflective covers that indicate the bike lane. Cyclists are going the wrong way. Cars are parked in the lane. 15th street does not feel part of the neighborhood. There are mispelled words like "yield" in the bike lane. Please tell me this is not permanent.

Robert Thomson: I haven't had a chance to see the new bike lane that the District Department of Transportation created on 15th Street NW last month. It's between Mass Ave. and U Street.

David Alpert, who writes the always interesting Greater Greater Washington blog, did a posting about it.

That section of 15th Street is one-way northbound, and is heavily used by commuters on their way north to join up with 16th Street NW. The new bike lane takes riders in the opposite direction, southbound.

I gather this design was a compromise, worked out after talks between DDOT and the neighborhood. Is this an experiment that just won't work, or is it something that travelers are going to get used to after a couple of weeks?


Arlington, Va.: What gives with the Orange Line this morning? I waited at Clarendon for over 20 minutes before I finally shoved my way into an Orange Line train. They were coming 8 - 12 minutes apart, at 8:00 a.m. ... the very height of rush hour on that leg. The platform was getting dangerously crowded in the middle (I was on the head-end; there were no eight-car trains so being at the rear end was pointless), and yet not a single announcement was made.

Robert Thomson: Yeah, I think the Orange Line took it on the chin during this morning's rush. On the eAlerts sent out by Metro I see two problems. The first was round 7 a.m. A train malfunctioned at Cheverly, creating delays in the direction of Vienna. That could eventually have thrown off the schedule in the inbound direction as well, because trains were slow to reach Vienna and turn back. The second problem reported


Bethesda, Md.: The Beltway outer loop will be closed at I-66 overnights beginning tonight. The flashing message signs don't indicate when the roadway will reopen each morning. At what time is the Beltway expected to reopen, and for how many days will this closure recur?

Robert Thomson: Yes, that one, which is part of the HOT lanes project, is a big deal, involving a detour out to I-66 and back.

VDOT will close the Capital Beltway outer loop lanes at I-66 from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. each night through Thursday while crews install steel beams for a new bridge at I-66 East over the Beltway. The I-66 westbound exit ramp to I-495 south will also be closed overnight.

One outer loop lane will close at 9:30 p.m. and by 11 p.m. all through traffic will be detoured onto I-66 West to Exit 62 (Nutley Street), then turned round onto I-66 East back to the outer loop. The detour may add 15 to 20 minutes onto a trip during the peak overnight hour between 11 p.m. and midnight.

Travelers, if I think something will be a big headache for you, I try to post it on my Get There blog. You could find this particular one mentioned in my Friday roundup, called The Weekend and Beyond, and in my Monday morning look-ahead, called The Week Ahead in Traffic and Transit. Also, each evening at 7 p.m., I post an item or two that I think would be particularly relevant to travel in the next 24 hours.

If you see that I'm missing big-deal items that should be included, post a comment on the blog or drop me a line at drgridlock@washpost.com.


Washington, D.C.: I've read over the document that was posted on the Metro website in advance of the board meeting, addressing customer concerns. From what I read, employers who provide the benefit on a pre-tax basis can elect to stay in the SmartBenefits program as it is now; direct benefit providers can transition to the new system, where unused benefits are credited to the employer.

If we elect to stay with the current SmartBenefits program, allowing benefits to accumulate, will the monthly benefits store to different purses or will all benefits (transit and parking) be lumped together on the card, like they are now and be constrained by a $300 card balance?

Cyndi Zieman: Hi Washington, it's an option we're exploring as an interim measure, but no final decisions have been made yet. We plan to provide a presentation to our Board in early December. The Board canceled the presentation originally scheduled for last week.


Rosslyn, Va.: Currently, I can add my benefits (government)to my SmartCard any time during the month. But the new process will automatically add the amount the first day of the month, without a trip to the add fare machine?

Cyndi Zieman: Hi Rosslyn, the benefit amount will be made available on your card when you touch the card to any SmarTrip target, whether farebox, faregate, or parking gate. Simple as that!


Washington, D.C.: If my commute normally costs $80 a month and end up not going to the office for a week during that month due to illness, work travel, or vacation, what will happen to my leftover money? Should I be changing my SmartBenefits allocation monthly (at least 6 weeks in advance) to avoid losing money that I've put in that account?

Cyndi Zieman: Hi Washington, certainly if you're able to make change in your allocation with your employer, then you should do so. But if that's not an option, currently the remaining balance is returned to your employer as a credit. With that said, we are continuing to explore other ways to treat the unused benefits and will let you know in December if something changes.


Silver Spring, Md.: Can you shed any light on Ike Leggett's decision not to deploy police officers to ease congestion during last week's signal meltdown? Legett said because the signals were working, albeit unsynchronized, that he did not think police could help the situation.

Yet the problem was actual gridlock -- caused by drivers who entered intersections and blocked them when the light changed. It seems to me that police could have prevented that, and allowed the signals to keep traffic moving.

Back when D.C. cared about traffic, officers used to be stationed at critical intersections like 14th and Constitution to prevent just this sort of blockage.

I think Ike, as usual, dropped the ball.

Robert Thomson: This was a real mess for two days. A busted computer through off the timing of traffic signals throughout Montgomery County. The Grid Spouse was among those trapped in congestion at Four Corners, so I got a complete, highly emotional briefing. And certainly, I encountered the problem in my own travels.

But I wound up agreeing with Leggett's decision, and said so in my Sunday column. Police officers would have been a big help at the intersections if the signals had been out. People around here -- many people -- don't know to treat them as a four-way stop, or disregard the rule.

But if it's a question of signal timing being thrown off, the police aren't going to be much help and have a chance of making things worse. They can control their own intersection, giving some more time for drivers heading in the rush hour direction. But what they can't do is sync the timing from intersection to intersection. That's what the computer is for. So even with offers along Route 29 or Conn Ave, we still would have had the traffic congestion for commuters, as long as the lights were out of sync.


Hyattsville, Md.: Hello,

My employer has a pre-tax Smart Benefits program. What will happen to the money I have on my card from that program when the new program starts?


Cyndi Zieman: Hi Hyattsville, any remaining balance on your card will remain on your card when the new program starts.


Robert Thomson: I published a partial response to Arlington about the Orange Line this morning, and want to finish that here.

The second problem reported shortly after 7 am. was a signaling problem at West Falls Church, creating delays in both directions.

I would have expected both loudspeaker announcements and notifications on the electronic message boards, so people on the platforms in Virginia would know what was going on. Arlington, you're saying that didn't happen?


Hyattsville, Md.: Hello Dr. Gridlock,

Following the accident, trains began stopping at the end of the platform at every stop. When will things return to normal, with trains stopping in the middle of the platform?

This weekend, I noticed that some trains were stopping in the middle of the platform, while others were stopping at the end.

Robert Thomson: All trains should still be stopping at the ends of the platform. When Metro GM put the trains under the control of their operators after the June 22 crash on the Red Line, another safety step he took required the operators to stop the trains at the ends of the platforms.

I completely agreed with that. Too often, operators were forgetting that they had eight car trains, rather than sixes. So they'd stop with a car in the tunnel and open the doors. We were lucky we didn't lose anyone.

This policy is likely to continue as long as the trains are under manual control. John Catoe says he doesn't know how long it will be before automatic operation returns.


Silver Spring, Md.: Question about the downtown Silver Spring area -- Is there a reason that there aren't any crossing guards outside the immediate area around the Metro station? For instance, are they just there to facilitate bus and pedestrian traffic around the construction of the new transit center?

I think it would be great to have these guards at major pedestrian intersections as well. I'm personally familiar with the Wayne/Georgia Ave intersection (though there are undoubtedly other intersections that could benefit from a crossing guard) -- pedestrians walk out while opposing traffic has a dedicated turn light, preventing them from turning ... and then those in the turn lane jump the light to make up lost time, therefore running the risk of hitting pedestrians when they do have the right of way. It's incredibly dangerous, and it makes me angry to watch both entitled pedestrians and impatient drivers completely ignore the rules of the road, just to get somewhere a few seconds quicker. Could an intersection like Wayne/Georgia ever get a crossing guard?

Robert Thomson: I'd love to see that, too. The intersection you describe is in a state of anarchy -- as is that entire stretch of Georgia Avenue. I do remember asking police about that section, in the redeveloping area of Silver Spring near the Discovery Channel building and the new downtown shops. They said that despite appearances, it has a relatively low rate of pedestrian accidents. That surprised me. Nobody there follows the rules. But then again, drivers are moving pretty slowly.

The crossing guards along Wayne Avenue are there because all the bus stops got moved out of the train station terminal and out onto the streets for the transit center construction. I salute the crossing guards. They're going a great job under very difficult circumstances. Many drivers and pedestrians ignore them. But the guards are people's best defense.


Robert Thomson: Travelers, you'll notice there was a gap in Cyndi's responses. She wasn't ignoring you, and she didn't run away screaming about your questions. We accidentally kicked her computer off line. But I think we've got her back now.


MetroRider: Last week's communications meltdown halted transfers of SmartBenefits to SmartTrip cards. Riders with SmartTrip cards could still use them at Metrorail faregates because the value is stored on the card. With the new changes coming in January, the virtual benefits "purses" will not be stored on the card (only the personal one will). How would Metro riders be able to use their SmartBenefits come January in the event that we have a repeat of last week's issues? What are Metro's contingency plans?

Cyndi Zieman: Hi MetroRider, once the new system's implemented, the data on your card will automatically reload the monthly benefit without communications from the central computer. Sorry for the delay in responding, I was having some computer problems.


Reluctant Commuter: Dr Gridlock,

It is not unusual for the Metro platforms to be so crowded with people waiting for a train that I feel unsafe. Has metro thought about having staff on the platforms to manage the traffic?


Robert Thomson: I would really love to see more Metro staffers on the platforms at rush hour. More active staffers. I said so repeatedly over the summer, during the troubles on the Red Line.

Riders constantly complain about the difficulties of getting on and off the trains, and about the doors closing before anybody has had a chance to get on. Once, I heard about a baby carriage getting stuck in the doors.

These are all situations that could be alleviated by better platform management.


Arlington, Va. Orange Line Again: There might have been notification on the electronic message boards -- I have a hard time making them out from the inbound platform end (and for what its worth, you can't actually see them at all from the other end or much of the middle -- they're hidden behind the escalator & mezzanine. But my loathing for the placement of PID displays in most stations is entirely another problem). There wasn't a single audio announcement, though.

Robert Thomson: That's not right. There should have been announcements over the loudspeakers. The e-mail alerts are no substitute for that.


Annapolis, Md.: First of all, thank you for participating in this chat. However, given what I've been reading for the last several weeks, this is a discussion that should have taken place much earlier in the year.

As the administrator of the qualified transportation benefit program for my non-profit, I am extremely frustrated with the lack of communication from Metro. Back in August 2008, we were notified that SmarTrip upgrades were in the works to comply with the IRS mandate by setting up different purses on the card.

I downloaded a copy of the SmarTrip Program Update presentation at the November 6, 2008 Board meeting, which outlined the proposed upgrades and associated timelines. Then in April 2009, I received a press release entitled "SmarTrip customer service improvements planned," regarding a new SmarTrip web site and automated phone upgrades. This was the last communication I received until I contacted my Metro representative in mid-October to check on the status of the upgrades. On October 8th, I was emailed a copy of the October 2009 presentation, outlining the changes I had anticipated and the new provision about unused funds not rolling over to the next month.

I immediately contacted my representative and expressed my concerns as it related returning unused funds to our employees. I attended the October 20th seminar and can tell you that this issue caused a firestorm. Adding insult to injury, I'm reading that these changes were made by Metro back in January, but were never communicated to the Riders Advisory Council, the Metro Board or participating employers.

I feel like this was just thrown at us at the last minute. We, like many other non-Federal employers, are having to spend money consulting our tax professionals to find out what to do, because this unilateral decision by Metro is contrary to the way the regulations were written (Section 132, Q/A 15-allowing carryover of unused benefits from one month to the next). It is putting an added burden on those of us who have to process payroll, as we will constantly be adjusting payroll deductions, just to return $.05 in unused benefits. A better solution would be to set a threshold amount for each purse, allowing unused benefits to accumulate in that purse but not to exceed the current limit of $230 at any time.

If you had communicated your plans earlier in the year to employers, you would have received feedback as it relates to potential problems for accounting departments.

Cyndi Zieman: Hi Annapolis, we gave updates to employers in early October 2009.


Silver Spring, Md.: How will the new Smartbenefits system divide voluntary employee contributions between the parking and fare pools? The enrollment form currently does not specify where the funds go (only the amount to be with-held).

My Metro fares are approximately double my parking costs, so I would run into problems if the funds are not divided accordingly.

Cyndi Zieman: Hi Silver Spring, you'll need to communicate with your employer how you want your funds allocated.


Rockville, Md.: "Cyndi Zieman: Hi Hyattsville, any remaining balance on your card will remain on your card when the new program starts. "

But into which "bucket"? My employer adds money to my SmarTrip card every month but so do I (as I have expenses greater than the benefit). When January 1, 2010 rolls around, where will that money go - into the benefit bucket which goes back to employer if unused or into my money bucket to cover expenses greater than the benefit provided each month?

Cyndi Zieman: Hi Rockville, any personal money you add to your card will remain in your personal stored value account.


Washington, D.C.: Re: Next Bus - What a joke!

At first I found it somewhat accurate during morning rush hour, but at other times there appears to be a disconnect between the NextBus info online and that which one receives over the phone regarding NextBus. As time passed, it has become clear to me that it needs to be scapped until they get everything properly synched.

I was told by Metro 'customer service', that sometime NextBus info won't appear if the buses GPS system or satellite link is down ...

"Really so what happened? It said online a minute ago that the next bus is due in 10 mins, now it says the next bus is due in 40 mins, what gives? "

Any light you could shed Doc, would be appreciated. My comments are unrelated to recent system wide communication failure, but are more an everyday occurence.

Robert Thomson: We did a Commuter page feature a few weeks after Next Bus started in which three of us went around and tested the system. At that point, over the summer, we found it was working pretty well, although there were some glitches. For example, I had the same experience you did: The bus is approaching, and then it's not.

The explanation you got from customer service is consistent with the explanation I got about why this sometimes happens. Another part of the problem with accuracy can be that, even though it's based on GPS, the system still is making a calculation about the time it takes to get through traffic. Sometimes, the computer's calculations about traffic aren't any better than ours.

I do plan to make another round of tests on Next Bus so I can say from personal experience how I think it's going now.


Washington, D.C.: Dr. Gridlock, I love my SmarTrip card - until something goes wrong with it. I don't understand why the WMATA Web site doesn't give you an option to report a broken card and request a new one. Instead, you have to mail it off and ... wait... for them to send you a new one.

And while I'm at it, WMATA, why can't users see on the Web site what their SmarTrip balance is? Or have the option to add value from a credit card or bank account before they get to the station?

Cyndi Zieman: Hi Washington, from the WMATA website you can send an to smartrip@wmata.com to report a damaged or lost card. The self-service SmarTrip website will allow you to view your card balance and transactions by January.


Washington, D.C.: Why was the announcement, for the changes in the SmartBenefits Program made at this time? Most employers need at least one-half month's notice, by the employee, to change their level of payroll deduction. This leaves most employees very little time to readjust their deduction level.

The Metro announcement itself was very vague as to the details of the changes. Could the first announcement have been accompanied by the presentation that is now on the SmartBenefits web page?

I have found the navigation, to the SmartBenefits web page to be confusing and it isn't obvious where to find the announcements about the program changes. Could it be revised?

Has Metro provided any guidance to the employers when benefit funds are returned for lack of use? Is there someplace the employer's administrator of this program can go?

Some employers pay all the benefits, some employers and its employees have a matching program and other employers do not match any funds the employees themselves set aside for SmartBenefits.

Cyndi Zieman: Hi Washington, Metro communicated SmartBenefits changes to employers in early October. We have noted your suggestion for the SmartBenefits webpage and will follow up.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Cyndi,

Can you explain which IRS guidelines the new SmarTrip changes comply with? Is it the separate electronic purses or is it the use or lose aspect? If it's the use or lose piece, is there a difference for the regulations for employer contributions as compared to employee pre-tax contributions? If so, why are those differences not reflected in the new set up?

Cyndi Zieman: Hi Washington, the minimum requirement is that we separate the transit purse from the parking purse. The IRS guideline is IRS Ruling 2006-57.


Rockville, Md.: I am 68 now and have two "smart cards" and neither is for Seniors. Can I get them moved over? I never get downtown to ask about this. It has been three years now.

Cyndi Zieman: Hi Rockville,

Please contact the Regional Customer Service Center which specializes in SmarTrip card issues. Call them at 888-762-7674 or email them at smartrip@wmata.com. They can help you out.


Annapolis, Md.: Cyndi Zieman: Hi Annapolis, we gave updates to employers in early October 2009.

The question was why wasn't this communicated prior to early October - like maybe when the contract was modified back in January?

Metro requires that our benefit changes be submitted by the 15th of the previous month. Since this change about the unused benefits being credited back to the employer was not communicated prior to early October, we are scrambling to find out what to do (we provide on a pre-tax basis).

Cyndi Zieman: Hi Annapolis, Metro began its communication campaign directly with employers in January 2009, but we aggresively started reaching out in early October.


Friendship Heights, Washington, D.C.: With regards to your piece last Sunday about D.C.'s plan for more streetcars and who should operate them it is just nuts that three different local jurisdictions are coming up with their own plans for streetcars.

Particularly between D.C. and Maryland but even between D.C. and Virginia there are routes that only make sense if they cross state lines.

For example, it is just silly that D.C. is looking at a Georgia Avenue line that would not cross into Silver Spring and also link up to the purple line.

A couple of other points on streetcars in D.C. - I cannot comprehend how D.C. is looking at potential lines and not looking at Wisconsin and Connecticut Avenues for service but instead is looking at all of these odd spurs that seem to have a limited market.

Finally, I think D.C. examining this K Street Transitway before sorting out the how and where of the new Blue Line through downtown (which will be an absolute necessity once rail to Dulles is completed) will work is also just silly and potentially a waste of money. Does it make sense to spend money on a street level east west transit route when we need an underground one to keep the current system functioning?

Robert Thomson: My Nov. 1 Commuter page featured details on the District's plan for new streetcar services.

Friendship Heights, thanks for looking at that and for your comments.

Who's going to drive these things once they're built by the local jurisdictions? How many masters will control our transit systems? No decisions have been made, and I'm hearing good arguments on all sides.

But I do see why the separate jurisdictions are interested in setting up their own construction plans. The DC lines, for example, are not being built primarily to serve regional commuters. They're meant to supplement Metro's regional service by linking city neighborhoods, helping their residents stay mobile and encouraging community development. That's a supplement for Metro, not a replacement.

Those factors are controlling decisions about the placement of streetcar routes. For example, why put one down Wisconsin when you already have the Red Line there?


Herndon, Va.: Ms. Zieman, thank you for participating today. Your SmarTrip staff have always been very friendly and helpful, although I've learned that they aren't usually the folks to call about future plans.

My question: What's with SmarTrip bus charges lately? I've been monitoring my balance closely, and several times this past week (not just on Blackout Thursday), I've ridden for as much as 4 or 5 hours after paying a single $1.25 fare.

I always look gift horses in the mouth, because if I don't, the other end tends to kick me later. In this case, I can't help but see the revenues that support buses I want to keep running, slipping through the system.

Cyndi Zieman: Hi Herdon, the transfer is valid for three hours. However, we've noted that your transfer appears to valid for 4 to 5 hours. We'll follow up. In the future, please feel free to let us know immediately if you see a discrepancy in the fares charged. Thanks again for bringing it to our attention.


Chevy Chase, Md.: Wondering what recently happened on the south lane of the Frederick Douglass bridge - there is extensive damage to the ironwork and jersey barrier which impedes if not blocks passage for the bike/pedestrian walk. Will DDOT close this, and if so, how long will it take before it is re-opened? For those of us who use these bike/ped lanes to commute, it's a serious impediment. Thanks for your support of all commuters, including biker commuters.

Robert Thomson: Thanks for letting me know about this. (Travelers, if you spot some new problem out there, let me know on the Get There blog or by sending an e-mail to drgridlock@washpost.com)

I checked with DDOT spokesman John Lisle about the Douglass Bridge, and he checked with Frank Pacifico, the supervisor for street and bridge maintenance.

Lisle said DDOT discovered the problem during a test of the bridge span on Sunday morning. Now, DDOT workers are removing the obstruction from the sidewalk and dismantling the damaged rail so they can fix it.


Arlington, Va.: Since, I'm with the government I don't really mind the retunrning the unused portion at the end of the month to my employer. My question is about the funds that are my card on December 31. My understanding is that this will roll into my personal "purse". I just want to make sure this isn't going into my "transit" purse and is then going to be refunded to my employer at the end of January. This balance has been years of a mixture of benefits from several employers and adding money myself. I have only been with my present employers a short while and almost none of that balance left over at the end of the month is from this employer.

Cyndi Zieman: Hi Arlington, you are correct. Any balance remaining on your card on December 31 will remain in your personal stored value purse.


Arlington's Orange Line problems this morning: The fact that this person had to write into you to find out what the massive delays were on a morning rush-hour trip just underscores the abysmal job Metro does of communicating with its riders. Regular riders can tell when something's up; we're adults, just tell us what's going on and we'll have information that will help us make a decision or, possibly, calm us down and prevent us from calling and yelling at Metro employees.

Robert Thomson: I agree with this. And in fact, I'd apply it to all our transportation agencies. Managing a modern transportation network is not just about deciding what to build and building it, then fixing stuff when it breaks.

The agencies should be focusing more and more on getting current information to travelers, so they'll understand the state of the entire transportation network and what they're options are for getting where they're going. This requires a more immediate and more regional monitoring and communications system than we have now.


Form the Burbs: I'm confused by what is being said about SmarTrip. I use my card for both work and private, so I am adding my own money to the card for private travel and since I don't get enough benefits to cover my commute. If I have added money to the card and there is a balance will this be "refunded to my employer? It's my money not theirs. Am I supposed to now have three cards? One SmartTrip, one for uncovered commutes and one for private trips?

Cyndi Zieman: Hi Burbs, any personal money that you add to your card will remain on your card.


re: Metro staff on platforms: One afternoon on the red line at metro center two women came running up to the train as the doors were closing. One of the women reached out with a plastic soda bottle. The doors closed on it and then opened again and the women entered the train.

Robert Thomson: When I say that I'd very much like to see more Metro staffers actively controling the platforms, I don't mean to let the riders off the hook. I see dumb, or rude, behavior all the time.

The easiest way to get a train taken out of service is to fool around with the operation of the doors.


Washington, D.C.: When will I be able to check my balance or add funds online with my smart-trip card the way I can with my Starbucks card?

Cyndi Zieman: Hi Washington, you'll be able to check your card balance and see your transaction history on the SmarTrip website in January. This will be a password protected site and only you will have access to your information.


Forestville, Md.: My SmarTrip card fails to read at many stalls. Its probably time for a replacement! I receive Smart Benefits and load my card at the beginning of each month. I took my card to Metro Center and was told that the only way to resolve card problems is to mail the card to Metro.

Dilemma: During the time it takes Metro to process my card, I'm paying my own fare. Do I trust Metro enough to be prompt? Not to mention that I will then have to transfer my Smart Benefits to a new card number with my employer, which adds more time to the game. Why, if Metro is trying to get everyone to use SmarTrip cards, do they now offer such limited customer service options? There used to be a time when you could get service at the Metro Center window. Are they trying to just force people to buy new cards, thinking we'll go that route to avoid extra hassle?

Cyndi Zieman: Hi Forestville, I recommend the following, first buy a new card, register it and then give the number to your employer to have your employer load your benefits onto the new card. Then mail your failed card to the Regional Customer Service Center, with a note indicating the issue. The center will transfer the balance from your failed card to your new card, and if the card is found to be defective, they will reimburse the $5 card cost.


Silver Spring, Md.: So Metro has barred independent inspectors from assessing their compliance with safety standards. Another in a long line of mishaps by inept Metro management.

At what point will you lose faith in John Catoe and the board? Because I have none.

The board should be elected by the population it serves, not made up of elected officials who rarely use the system. Is it possible to get referendums of the state legislators to make such a change?

We riders need and want accountability from Metro, Dr. G. We don't believe the system is well managed, well designed, or well run.

washingtonpost.com: Metro barred safety checks on tracks, data show (Washington Post, Nov. 9)

Robert Thomson: There are several comments in the mailbag today along the same lines. They are in reaction to the latest story by our Joe Stephens and Lena H. Sun regarding Metro's relationship with the Tri-State Oversight Committee, a regional body that is supposed to monitor whether Metro is following safety rules.

The latest story compounds the already strong impression that it's way too easy for the transit authority to skirt scrutiny by the governments that support it and by the public in general. I wish both the Maryland and Virginia general assemblies would pay attention to this when they convene in January. In DC, the head of the council's transportation committee is Jim Graham, who happens to be the chairman of the Metro board of directors this year.


Cyndi Zieman: Thanks for joining me for the chat today. I want to reassure you that we are doing everything we can to aggresively move up the timeframe for implementing the new system features. We will post any changes to our website and issue a news release. Enjoy this beautiful fall weather.


Bethesda, Md.: It's awfully difficult to find info on state highway projects in Maryland.

The outer-loop's exit at MD 187 (Old Georgetown Road) is being modified, but it's not clear what the intended final outcome looks like. Do you know?

Robert Thomson: I relayed your question to David Buck, spokesman for the Maryland State Highway Administration.

He says SHA has a resurfacing project using federal stimulus money on MD 187 itself between Center Drive and North Brook Lane.

SHA is using part of the area within the I-495/Old Georgetown Road ramp to stage vehicles for this project. (This is not part of the I-495 resurfacing.)

Buck says the only impact on the ramp is the placement of a concrete barrier separating the ramp traffic from the equipment.

Generally speaking, there's lots of information about Maryland road projects available at www.marylandroads.com.

For motorists info., the MD 187 project is just underway. We are currently working on drainage inlets, sidewalk and other concrete work on the SB side of MD 187. Next week, we will move over the NB side. Milling and resurfacing will likely be completed early next spring, depending on the weather.


Better way to the mountains: Does anyone have a better route to the Shenandoah mountains from Maryland? Coming from Columbia, we go down 95 S to 495 to Rte 66 West to 29 South to Warrenton. My 90-year-old dad has a vision problem which makes the traffic hard to take. We tried coming up through Leesburg once but it was a much, much longer route (although we did enjoy a trip on Whites ferry). Thanks!

Robert Thomson: Group?

Usually, our chats and my blog and columns stick close to home, but this is the time of year when many people become interested in long-distance routes. I'm planning to do a Commuter page feature for Nov. 22 that updates our annual guide to getaways.

If you have a response for Better Way to the Mountains, but can't get it in during this chat, please send it along to me at drgridlock@washpost.com, and I'll post it on the Get There blog.


Springfield, Va.: Hi Dr. Gridlock: my husband and I (separately) take the 18H from the Pentagon to Springfield. Sometimes the bus simply doesn't show up, but the next scheduled one does. As you can imagine, this is really frustrating when you're just trying to get home after a long day. Do you know what happens to that rogue bus? Why does it never show up? Do buses in that situation just go back to the bus depot?

Robert Thomson: Buses could either breakdown, or get stuck in traffic for so long that they might as well be the next scheduled bus. That's what the Next Bus tracking system was designed to help us with. Although, you'll see above that at least one traveler questions how well it's working.

Check it out yourself. Start by looking on Metro's Web site.


ah, last minute, please take: I have two cards, personal and work, I only add SmartBenefits to work card. Will Metro be able to tell the difference between the two cards??

Robert Thomson: You've probably seen now that Cyndi is signed off. I really appreciate her joining us today to field the many questions we're getting about the SmartBenefit program changes. We'll continue to cover these developments. Also, I'll save all the unpublished questions on SmartBenefits and see how many I can answer, either on the Get There blog or for an upcoming Commuter page feature about the changes.


Foggy Bottom dweller: Thankfully, I rarely have to use the Beltway. Saturday morning, however, I was on it again and aggressive drivers are as big of a problem as ever. Couldn't video cameras be placed in locations where they could track the progress of a driver weaving thru traffic and speeding and then record the license number and the driver's face? Ticketing in this manner would be much safer for the police. Video would be more compelling in court than still photos. It would require real-time staffing but we have to do something about all of the horrific accidents that keep happening. No enforcement means that the situation just keeps getting worse.

Robert Thomson: Many travelers -- and I -- agree with your description of the problem. A lot of us are not yet ready for your proposed solution.

I don't have the slightest problem with the red light cameras and the speed cameras, which photograph license plates of vehicles that violate specific laws. The civil fines are issued to the owners of the vehicles.

More general video monitoring of drivers leading to criminal citations is a big leap up from what we have now. While don't like the current free for all on our highways, I worry about the civil rights implications of constant video surveillance of our roads.

I'd love to hear what others think on this, so please write to me at drgridlock@washpost.com.


Kensington, Md.: I have fantastic news: I'm ready to start using the Silver Spring Transit Center! The Washington Post tells me I should've expected to start using the center in 2009. Any word on an updated date to completion? I could not find any information on an end-date on the otherwise helpful transit center construction web site.

washingtonpost.com: Silver Spring Transit Center

Robert Thomson: I was talking recently to David Dise, director of general services in Montgomery County, to get an update on the transit center. Lots of people were looking at nice green grass growing at the site and wondering what was going on -- nor not.

Dise says the project is about four months behind schedule. Most of the delay resulted from issues about utility relocations. They found ways to avoid disruption of Colesville Road, he said.

It sounded right. Utility relocation is a nasty business on any major transportation project I've encountered. He told me we'll now see this: That construction pit is going to get about twice as big over the next few months. Then the concrete and steel structure of the transit center will start to rise quickly.

People who ask me about this aren't so much eager to use this new transit center. They want the temporary bus stops off Wayne Avenue and the nearby streets and back in the central, convenient location next to the Metro and MARC stations.


Robert Thomson: Travelers, I've got to sign off now. Thanks for sticking with us through the problems we were having with Cyndi's Internet connection to the chat. And thanks again to Cyndi for joining us today. It was the first time we had a guest on the transportation chat. (And if you have suggestions for other people you'd like to talk to, let me know.)

As always, I hope we'll be together again next Monday. I'll copy all the questions still in the mailbag and pay special attention to the remaining ones about SmartBenefits.

Stay safe.


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