Dr. Gridlock: Metro problems, construction issues and your traffic questions

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Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, December 7, 2009; 12:00 PM

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock. He was online Monday, Dec. 7 to discuss your travel plans for the holiday weekend, Metro's ongoing problems and 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 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: Hello, travelers, and welcome to our weekly chat about all local transportation topics. There seem to be plenty of Metro questions coming in today, but also some issues about driving and long-distance travel. I'll try to post ones early on that could benefit most from your additional comments.


Silver Spring, Md.: I've been under the impression that turning on headlights when it's overcast or raining was the law in all three local jurisdictions. However, after driving on the Beltway in the rain recently, I couldn't help but notice the number of cars driving without lights, and when I turned on the traffic report on the radio, the reporter spoke of turning on headlights as if it were merely an advisory. I kept hearing things like: "You might want to turn on your headlights in this weather." I didn't think this was an option rather than a requirement.

Robert Thomson: The laws are generally framed as wipers on, headlights on. There also are laws about turning on headlights a half hour after sunset till a half hour before sunrise.

Traffic radio reports do a pretty good job at reminding drivers to turn their lights on during rain or snow. (I pay attention to this, because some travelers have written to say they think this is not the case, and I have to disagree with them.)

More generally, it's just common sense to have the lights on. It's not just so that you can see. It's also so that others can see you.

The lack of light use is one of the top 10 annoyances among my readers. It's such a simple thing to do, and so many people ignore it. I like to have all the lights on, front and back, though the laws refer only to headlights.


Dupont Circle: Dear Dr. Gridlock: Thank you for researching the ongoing problems with the Q St escalator at the Dupont Circle Metro. I didn't use it this morning, but two of the three still weren't operational by Friday. Another issue with this: since the escalators have been down, Metro has done nothing to clean the down escalator. That means leaves and litter have been accumulating, which makes it a hazardous trek down, especially in the rain. So Metro, when you have an escalator exposed to the elements, please keep that in mind. Thanks!

Robert Thomson: The situation with the escalators at the north exit from Dupont Circle Station is bothersome to many Metro riders. I understand that escalators are constantly running and are exposed to the elements, so we're bound to have problems, but this situation at Dupont Circle has been going on since mid-October.

That's a very long entrance/exit and not a spot where people want to be walking either up or down. The Metro Web site now lists these return to service dates for the two escalators: Dec. 18 and Dec. 25. (Makes it sound like a Christmas present to riders.)


Silver Spring, Md.: I had a strange thing happen on Saturday during the snowfall. I was driving behind a police car, staying about 4 or 5 car lengths behind as I would with any car in front of me, considering the snowy road condition. Traffic was moving about 25 mph. Every few minutes the police car would put on the lights on top of the car, but only for a few seconds. I wasn't sure what to make of it, but didn't think much of it. If I was in front of him, I probably would have pulled over. After about the 4th time of turning the lights on, he stopped the car, got out and pointed to me and I could see he was yelling. I stopped (still 4 or 5 car lengths back) and opened my window so I could hear him. He said he was trying to tell me to drive further behind him, I was too close and could cause an accident. I was really taken aback and all I said was I was really sorry. I apologized two more times. He said he was trying to warn me with the lights and could have given me a ticket a few miles back. Is this a way police say to get further away? I've never seen this before. I told my wife when I got home and she was just as surprised, since I'm a careful driver. I haven't had an accident in 30 years. Is this kind of bizarre? Thank you.

Robert Thomson: I'm not at all familiar with use of emergency lights for that purpose. It would have mystified me.


Dupont Circle: Hi Dr. Gridlock!

Just curious if metro trains are still supposed to stop at the end of the platforms? I was getting on train number 5160 Thursday last week at New York Avenue and he didn't stop at the 8 car mark but rather the 6 car mark.

Thanks! A Faithful Red Line Rider

Robert Thomson: There's been no change in the rules since the summer. All trains are supposed to stop at the front of the platforms, the eight-car mark, no matter how long they are.

But I've seen what you've seen: Occasionally, a train will stop at the six-car mark for no apparent reason. Fortunately, the times I've seen it happen -- at Mount Vernon Square and at Rockville -- the trains were six cars long, so it didn't create a problem for the passengers on board.

The reason for the rule -- which I agree with -- is that it means the train operators don't have to remember how long the train is. They just always stop in the same place, guaranteeing that all the doors will open on the platform.


Arlington, Va.: In a perfect world, all senior Metro management would be required to walk into Archives station when it's wet and snowy. The tilt of the floor and the relentless wind make it especially treacherous to try to keep one's footing on Metro's slippery (but pretty) floor tile.

If I break a bone this winter because of Metro's decision to value design over safety, I'm suing.

Robert Thomson: What I'm most worried about this winter are the outdoor platforms. The policy of stopping all trains at the front of the platforms -- which I've just said I agree with -- does mean that more train is going to be out ahead of the platform's overhang and exposed to the elements.

Those paving tiles can be very slippery. I hope Metro will be extra vigilant about treating and clearing the exposed areas of the platforms this winter.


Bethesda, Md.: Hi,

Where can one find more info about the changes to the Smart Benefits program? I get my benefits deducted from my paycheck pre-tax, so I know the changes to my routine are minimal. But still, there is zero info on the wmata.com site about what changes, if any, I will need to make come January.

Robert Thomson: I think Metro -- and we in the press -- sometimes overestimate our ability to get the word out.

Bethesda, you've got nothing to worry about for January: Because of all the confusion and frustration around the planned changes in the SmartBenefits program, the transit authority decided to postpone it.

We've had that in the paper and online, and Metro's home page displays the information. You can see Metro's statement at this link:


Travelers don't have to memorize what we write. There's no quiz and no grades. But there's a tremendous amount of information coming out all the time from the transportation agencies. It's prudent to check online and in the various papers for information. All of us in the local press are trying to get you the information in a timely fashion. I use the Get There blog to do this.


Rockville, Md.: What about the Montrose Parkway construction? The timing of lights on the cross streets is terrible and creating major backups.

Robert Thomson: For everyone, the latest development on the Montrose Parkway West construction project:

There's a new traffic pattern at a heavily traveled junction in North Bethesda. The Montgomery County Department of Transportation has opened the last segment of Montrose Parkway West between East Jefferson and Old Georgetown Road.

Eastbound traffic on the parkway now has direct access to the new underpass beneath Rockville Pike that emerges onto Randolph Road.

On the light timing: I've driven the parkway between I-270 and Rockville Pike, but have not tried to reach it from cross streets, other than Old Georgetown. The lights on cross streets could be timed incorrectly, but I'll make this guess: The timing almost certainly will be designed to favor traffic on the parkway during peak travel periods.

Light timing is controlled by the Montgomery County Department of Transportation.


Union Station: Any idea what happened to 8 car trains on the Red Line? For a while there, we were getting them about every 3 trains, and they really helped. Now, I never see them and the Red Line is as bad as ever.

Robert Thomson: Usually, I hear that from Orange Line riders, though Metro says there's been no scaling back on eight-car trains. Other riders want to dispute that?


Arlington, Va.: Dear Dr. Gridlock,

Any idea if Metro is considering opening up its Next Train arrival feature (available online as well as WAP capable phones and PDAs) to be accessible by simple text message? It would definitely benefit those who don't like to wait 15 minutes for a train at night or on the weekends and have not yet invested in an iPhone or Blackberry.

Robert Thomson: That's a good idea. I haven't heard that discussed, but haven't asked about it specifically. One caution: I'm not sure how accurate Next Train is on lines involved in late night or weekend maintenance. I think the single tracking throws off the train prediction system.


Annandale: Google map the intersection of Little River Turnpike and Braddock road for reference please.

This intersection has just finished a reconstruction. The southbound lane of Braddock now has three lanes (one left, one straight, one straight and right). The straight/right lane has its own lane on 236 that starts at the light. Thus, there is no Westbound traffic on 236 in this lane. Between the straight/right turn lane and the curb is an unused piece of paved shoulder that is wider than most cars.

Common sense would dictate to make this paved shoulder a right only (right on red) lane.

This would allow all of the cars that are turning right and stuck behind the cars going straight. Drivers have to idle and waste gas while sitting at this light when they could have a dedicated right turn only lane.

Who plans these intersections?

washingtonpost.com: Little River Turnpike and Braddock Rd, Alexandria, Va.

Robert Thomson: That was a Virginia Department of Transportation project. It began over the summer, and the goal was to add a second turn lane from eastbound and westbound Little River Turnpike (Route 2336) to northbound and southbound Braddock Road without widening the right of way. I can't tell from the Google Map satellite view whether the intersection would have met the engineering standards for an extra lane, allowing right turns only.


Navy Yard, Washington, D.C.: Dr. G,

Who do I directly a complaint to about the mess that is the intersection of S. Capitol St. and M St SE/SW in the evenings? Lane markings are disregarded--commuters consistently use a straight only lane as a turn lane despite ample markings, people pull out into the intersection when there is no hope of getting through and it just causes further congestion, and you need divine intervention to get across if you're a pedestrian, even if you have a walk signal. I'm regularly honked at and cursed at for telling cars they have to stop so I can legally cross the street. It's maddening and I'm at my wits end.

Robert Thomson: That's the big intersection near Nationals Park, right? We have plenty of traffic control officers from the District Department of Transportation along M Street during baseball season. Perhaps they could return for the off-season as well.

I've been across that intersection plenty of times as a pedestrian. It's quite daunting for walkers because of the heavy volume of traffic and the aggressiveness of drivers.


Washington, D.C.: Tell Silver Spring, following police car, to next time get the officer's badge number and complain to the watch commander. A little feedback is a wonderful thing, especially concerning police officers who don't know the law.

Robert Thomson: Washington is referring back to the exchange about the officer who used lights to warn a following driver to drop back. Seems like an officer might use a judgment about how close a car should be in snow, but I know I would have been baffled about what the officer was trying to communicate with the lights.


Bethesda, Md.: Thanks. I missed it on Waashington Post and I use a flash blocker to stop annoying websites, so the wmata.com frontpage doesn't show for me unless I allow it to. And going through the links to the Smart Benefits pages (including the link labeled "Important information about SmartBenefits") yielded nil.

Robert Thomson: Bethesda is talking about the announcement from Metro that it was postponing the change in SmartBenefits that had been scheduled for January.

I said in a column and blog posting that I agreed with the decision to postpone the changes, but that I found the whole episode weird. Metro sprang this big, confusing change on riders way too late. And I know the announcement about the postponement got around slowly. Even as the postponement was being made public by Metro, or own personnel office at The Post was e-mailing employees to advise us to prepare for the change.


Farragut North, Washington, D.C.: Any idea what the construction is going on on the Farragut North platform and when it will be completed?

Robert Thomson: Should be done soon. Metro discovered during a routine inspection that there was a crack in the ceiling over the platform at Farragut North. A section of ceiling is being replaced.


Little River and Braddock: Regardless of whether or not it is a right turn on red lane, people use it as such. It does not appear to be large enough for a turn lane, but most people use it anyway.

Robert Thomson: Thanks for that perspective on the design issue at Little River Turnpike and Braddock Road.


Alexandria, Va.: For the gentleman following the police officer, I would have flashed my break lights at you and probably pulled over to get you off my tail. At 25 miles/hour your 5 car lengths is about 1.36 seconds. You "should" leave 2-3 seconds between cars on dry roads. Just because you've never had an accident doesn't mean you know how to drive in the snow.

Robert Thomson: I'm not saying our driver did anything wrong in the Saturday incident involving the police car. But I do find that Washington drivers are fairly consistent about following too closely, no matter what the weather. (And don't tell me it's pointless to leave a safe distance because someone from another lane will move in between.)


Usually, I hear that from Orange Line riders, though Metro says there's been no scaling back on eight-car trains. Other riders want to dispute that? : I catch the train to Vienna every weekday around 5:45 and I never see an 8 car train. And it's always packed, so packed I sometimes can't get on the first 2 trains that come through.

Robert Thomson: Another rider saying that there's been a decline in the number of eight-car trains. Is there anyone who does consistently get an eight-car train on any line?


Laurel, Md.: I was driving on I-95 South this morning around 6:15 and came upon a potentially dangerous situation. Construction on the ICC is ongoing, however, this morning construction crew had a large bright worklight aimed in a manner that was blinding to drivers on the southbound lane. Is their any way to inform them of this potential hazard? Thanks.

Robert Thomson: If you see something like that and you have a cell phone with you, hit #77 to let the state police know right away.

Once you reach home or office, you could use this link to contact the ICC project management office:


[By the way, this traffic alert is making the rounds and I thought I'd share it with all of you:

The Outer Loop of the Beltway at the Route 29 Overpass in Fairfax has 2 right lanes closed as the result of a water main break--Repairs are anticipated to take 5-6 hours, which will impact rush hour. Anticipate delays.]


Burke, Va.: Have you driven in the new left lane of the Beltway through the shift over US-50 in Virginia?

This is a terrible paving job by the contractor, as the left lane of both loops is extremely bumpy and uneven. If this is considered a proper travel lane by interstate standards through a work zone, than I'm on some kind of mind altering medication. Not only that, but the left lanes on both sides do not drain rain or melt water as fast as the rest of the roadway, causing unexpectedly unsafe condition through this zone.

Robert Thomson: No, I haven't tested that one yet, but will do so. For those of you who want to know more about the Beltway/Route 50 work, which is part of the HOT lanes project, here's some information posted by the Virginia Megaprojects office:


There are a couple of ways to contact the Megaprojects office. The phone hotline is: 877-959-5222. The e-mail address is: info@VAmegaprojects.com


Vienna Metro Rider: On the 8-car train question: I ride between Vienna and Rosslyn twice a day five days a week. I would say that on average I get on an 8-car train once per week. I don't know what percentage of trains should be of the 8-car variety, but my 10% is a data point for you on what one rider has observed.

Robert Thomson: That's very helpful, thank you. If others would like to share their experiences on eight-car train frequency after the chat, write to me at drgridlock@washpost.com.


Annapolis, Md.: Thank you for mentioning the ignorance/inconsiderateness of those driving without headlights. Folks, it's December and we are approaching the shortest days of the year. I was amazed at how many people this morning at 7 a.m. did not have their headlights on. Automatic lights are not an excuse.

Can we invent some hand gesture (not involving the middle finger) that we could use to those immediately behind us, to help them out? I suggest rolling down your window and making two "duck-quack" motions. Any thoughts?

Robert Thomson: I've heard of that "duck quack" hand gesture as an old-time way of telling other drivers that they have forgotten to turn on their headlights.

I'm not a big fan of any driver hand gestures. Too easy to misinterpret. I've heard the "duck quack" gesture can be misunderstood as one driver telling multiple occupants of another car that they talk too much.


Silver Spring, Md.: Eight car red line trains ... never see them. There was a time that there was a mix of six and eight cars, now only six.

Robert Thomson: I've got a few more to show you on the eight-car train issue. I think this is very interesting, and thanks for sharing experiences. I don't mean to offer these comments as conclusive about what's going on with any line.


8-car trains on Red Line: I'll dispute it. Eight-car trains on my Red Line route are rare at rush hour, morning or evening. As in once or twice a week, and I'l traveling at least ten times in that week.

Robert Thomson: Another coming up.


Gaithersburg, Md.: I know am too late for your chat. In answer to your question about getting an 8-car metro train, I travel from Shady Grove metro to Gallery Place and back during morning and evening rush hours. I almost always get an 8-car train. The trains that stop at Grosvenor are 6 cars.

Robert Thomson: This is the one comment I've seen with a positive view on the eight-car question.


From Atlanta to Silver Spring, Md.: Coming back from Atlanta the Saturday after Thanksgiving, we drove up I-81 to Va 7. The total mileage was less than 20 miles longer than coming up 95, and traffic moved at speed the whole way--which was stressful on I-81, because that meant two lanes pretty much bumper to bumper between 45 and 80, with lots of morons shifting from lane to lane to gain a car length here andanother one there. Wouldn't want to make that trip in bad weather or with lots of trucks. For Christmas, I think we'll try coming up US 29 from Charlottesville. Given that driving back from Atlanta is always worse than going west, even on the PATP or doing north, even on the NJTP, the Garden State, and either I-95 or I-84 -- why do the folks in Virginia put up with it?

Robert Thomson: Thanks, this is good feedback on our holiday driving issues. You were smart to be driving on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, rather than on Sunday. And I'm sure many readers would agree completely about the stresses of I-81 driving at any time.


Arlington, Va.: Would you happen to know of any upcoming paving projects? I ask because my commute takes me along George Washington Parkway between the bridges and the Beltway, and the northbound road is so rough from potholes that I think my car needs to get an alignment. A repaving of this road would be an enormous benefit to drivers, I think.

Robert Thomson: We're moving toward the end of paving season, when the asphalt plants shut down for the winter, but pothole patching is something that can go on year-round. GW Parkway has that longterm project at the Humpback Bridge, so that's going to be rough for a while.


North Arlington to Navy Yard?: Dear Dr. Gridlock and fellow chatters,

I see three main choices for getting to the Navy Yard from my home in Clarendon:

I-66 to Conn Ave to 7th to M Arlington Memorial Bridge to Independence to Maine to M. 395 to South Capitol to M.

I know nothing about commuting into the city and which routes are, in general, the fastest. GoogleMaps says that each route is almost exactly the same number of miles, so I'm interested in thoughts on traffic, including frequency of major backups. If one way is better in the morning and another at night, I'd like to know about that too.


Robert Thomson: Sorry to post this so late in the chat. Usually, we can get some helpful advice from our travelers.

I'd vote for 395 to South Cap to M. But since this sounds like a job change, rather than a one shot trip, why not try all three versions and see what works best for you? You might even find that one works better in the morning and another better in the evening.

Speaking of where the backups are, we do have that reconstruction project on the northbound 14th Street Bridge (395) but so far, I haven't heard many complaints about this from drivers.


Harwood, Md.: Dr. G, I know this comes up all the time, and the answer is "no," but still: Last Monday I planned to take Metro downtown to meet a friend for coffee and a movie. I parked at the New Carrollton station, but just after I passed through the gates I learned that a train had struck a person at Gallery Place, causing significant delays. Because I was cutting it pretty close already, I rescheduled the movie and went home.

But in order to do so, I had to pay $1.35 to exit the station, and another $5 to exit the parking lot. That's $6.35, and it's just plain wrong. I know Metro needs money, but so do I. Thanks for letting me vent.

Robert Thomson: Before exiting, I'd go talk to the station manager to see what can be done about the fare and fee. If you didn't have any luck there, then I'd try the customer assistance line at 202-637-1328.


Dec 24 - D.C. to Raleigh: Hi Dr. G: I'm in the unfortunate situation where I must drive -on Dec 24th- some time after work lets out (1pm-ish) from D.C. to Raleigh. Given that it's not going to be pretty no matter when I leave, what would be the lesser of all the evils in terms of departure times from D.C., if you - had - to leave D.C. anywhere from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. on the 24th?

Are there routes other than I95/I85 (or I95/US64) that would be a decent alternative route?

Robert Thomson: The 24th is a Thursday, for those of you who haven't checked the calendar yet. The Christmas getaway is usually not as bad as the Thanksgiving getaway, because people can spread out their travels more at Christmas, but it still would be bad.

If all things are equal in terms of the weather, I'd vote for leaving late, on the 8 p.m. side, and stick to the main highways.


Police Lights: The chatter says he was following 4-5 car lengths behind the cop car. The cop car stops; the policeman gets out and points at the driver. The driver stops 4-5 car lengths behind the cop car. There's no way that happened. In the time it takes to pull over and get out, the driver would've been well past the cop car.

Robert Thomson: Details, details.


Silver Spring, Md.: In regard to the new Montrose Parkway favoring its users - shush! It's great if you happen to be going in the favored direction. And favoring parkways is why parkways are made.

Robert Thomson: Yep. What I'm saying is that it makes sense if the lights are timed to favor the parkway traffic, but not to the point of creating excessive backups on the side streets.


Chinatown, Washington, D.C.: Hi Dr G. I have a question about NextBus. Does it take a bus route's schedule--or more specifically, an official departure time--into account, or does the system merely calculate how far a bus is from its next stop? To clarify, I grab my bus each afternoon at its third stop. So when I check to see when my bus is coming, I wonder if the system allows for the fact that the bus might be waiting at its orgination point five blocks away and won't leave until it's supposed to ... or does thge GPS merely calculate that it is five blocks away and will therefore be to me in six minutes?

Robert Thomson: That's a good question, Chinatown. When I was researching Next Bus issues, I didn't ask it that way. I do know that the GPS based system can be thrown off by a variety of traffic issues, or even the length of time it takes to off load and load passengers at a stop a block from where you're standing.


Washington, D.C.: I would much rather have Metro raise the fares than eliminate any service. I'm already stuck with rush-hour only buses; if they go away on Friday after Thanksgiving, how am I to get to work? Buses in Chicago and San Francisco are $2.00. I think here we could go to $1.50.

Robert Thomson: This is an interesting and important topic. We didn't get into it today, but I'll write more about the Metro fare increase/service cut issue on the blog this week, and plan to do something for the Post Commuter page on Sunday as well.


Robert Thomson: Travelers, there were so many interesting questions and comments today that I went into extreme overtime on the chat, but have to break away now. I saw several things still in the mailbag that I'd like to deal with later this week on the Get There blog. Plus, there's at least one issue here that I'd like to form into a question for our "Taken for a Ride" discussion group. And remember that you can write to me any time at drgridlock@washpost.com. (If you're writing to me for publication in my Dr. Gridlock column, please include your name and home community.)

And stay safe out there till we chat again next Monday.


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