Dr. Gridlock: Metro problems and holiday season travel tips

Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, December 14, 2009; 12:00 PM

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock. He was online Monday, December 14 to discuss your travel plans for the holiday weekend, Metro's ongoing problems and diagnose all of your traffic and transit issues.

A 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. Looking through the mailbag, I see a good variety of traffic and transit questions. I'll start by posting the ones that could most benefit from your feedback.


North Arlington, Va.: I have to attend an all-day class at the Ritz Carlton in Tysons II on Thursday. I plan to use I66/Route 7/International Drive to get had planned to use Route 23 to Old Dominion and then Glebe Road. I have heard horror stories about Route 23 between Vienna and McLean because of the construction. What is your recommendation for the best way home? Thanks.

Robert Thomson: I think the main traffic issue you'll encounter on the way home after an all-day class is holiday shopping traffic, mostly headed toward the malls. (And you mean Route 123, Chain Bridge Road-Dolley Madison Blvd., right?) I haven't heard much complaint in the past couple of weeks about traffic related to construction on either the Dulles Metrorail project or the HOT lanes, the two big projects along Route 123.

But I thought I'd post this early, so others could jump in. Otherwise, I'd just go with the Route 123 plan for the return trip.


Silver Spring, Md.: Almost 2 weeks ago in daylight I went past a school at about 40 mph and saw a flash go off behind me from a camera as I passed. I saw that the speed limit was 25 mph.

However, I haven't received a ticket in the mail.

What are the chances that my tag was recorded but that Montgomery County has failed to send me the notice vs. the possibility that there was a glitch and my tag didn't get tagged, so to speak?

Robert Thomson: That's entirely possible. A lot of the camera images are thrown out because of some ambiguity. It might be that the reviewer can't determine which vehicle in the photograph committed the violation or some inability to read the plate number. The fine notices usually arrive within two weeks.

If you'd like more specific information, or would like to turn yourself in, call 866-818-3844.


Tyson's Corner, Va.: Dr. G,

Any idea when the construction will be finished on Spring Hill Road between Rt 7 and International Drive? I assume this is metro related? They seem to be widening the road and they have been working on a sound wall for what seems like forever ...

Robert Thomson: I thought that work on Spring Hill Road was utility relocation related the the Dulles Metrorail project. The Metrorail construction along Route 7 is just getting underway, and that has been the focus of my attention because it will affect so many drivers. That will go on for a few more years as the Route 7 lanes are shifted, the service roads are closed and the median is widened for construction of the elevated rail line. I'm sure the utility relocation will be done sooner, but don't have a date on it.


Washington, D.C.: Natinal Geographic's exhibit of terra cotta warriors is attracting flocks of buses to 17th St NW. Sometimes these buses stop anywhere they want to and block DeSales Street. I saw drivers who were trapped by buses talk to the bus drivers who ignored them.

National Geographic needs to take some responsibility for this. Presumably they track their group sales and should know when hordes are descending. They need to post someone on 17th St and probably M St, too, to keep the streets clear for moving traffic. Thank you.

Robert Thomson: Seems like an issue for DC police, or for the Mayor's Complaint phone line, 311.


Getting around Tysons at this time of year: I have to say I did not entirely follow the first question you posted because the person who wrote it left out a bunch of words. With that said, I used to work in McLean and live in Fairfax (near Woodson High School) and I found that in December the best thing to do was to avoid VA-123 between the Dulles Toll Road and Tysons. In the afternoons, I used to get onto the Toll Road, go west to Spring Hill Road, exit, then get back on going the other way and then take the Beltway. Sure, it cost me 50ยข, but it was faster than sitting in the inevitable half-hour backup.

For someone going in the other direction to Arlington, my suggestion from the Ritz-Carlton is to go left out of the front of the hotel (going AWAY from Tysons I). At the end of the road, go right onto International Drive. Pass under the Toll Road and at the next light make a right onto Lewinsville Road. It crosses over the Beltway and you can then go left onto VA-123, go one light further to Chain Bridge Road, or keep straight ahead to Kirby Road or Williamsburg Boulevard. The person submitting the question ought to take a look at a map to see if any of those routes might work--the benefit is that you avoid the construction in the Tysons area.

Robert Thomson: Thanks for that very detailed response to the North Arlington traveler.


Silver Spring, Md.: I'm deeply disappointed by WaPo's defense of Catoe.

Spending $20 million of ARRA funds on M Channel? Denying safety inspectors access to the tracks? Catoe's had three years to address the multi-jurisdictional issue which every GM has used for an excuse. Not to mention the bus accidents, the Ft. Totten accident, and the failure to plan long term fixs for Metro's most basic flaw, a two track system hamstrung by a single train with mechanical difficulties. Not to mention the communications issues.

Reshuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic is not a solution. I do not share Mr. Zimmerman's or Mr. Graham's rose colored view of our GM and I will be voting accordingly in November.

Robert Thomson: There isn't anyone who's going to be voting against Zimmerman and Graham -- not legally, anyway. That's one of the interesting, and debatable, things about the transit authority, or any authority, really. There's very little direct accountability to the public. You can't vote out the Metro board. And you certainly can't vote out the general manager. (That would be up to the board.)

I thought The Post made a good point in the Sunday editorial: Who is it you think is going to do a better job than John Catoe as Metro general manager?

Do you really think that firing the general manager is going to get the tracks rebuilt? Or that the Metro bureaucracy would suddenly get all of the riders' problems solved if he left?


Washington, D.C.: Was there some issue with the Red Line this morning? The platform at Union Station was jammed at 6:30 a.m. I had to wait about 8 minutes for a train to Farragut North and when it came it was almost packed. Another came shortly and I got on that, but nothing was ever announced in Union except, "A train is leaving Rhode Island Avenue and will service your platform shortly." The whole time, the ETA board was stuck on 4 minutes and 7 minutes.

Robert Thomson: I didn't hear about any Red Line disruptions this morning. There were no alerts about any problems in the Union Station area from Metro. Others have information?


Springfield, Va.: I am glad that the Fairfax County Parkway will finally be completed with the final section going through the old Ft Belvoir Enginnering Proving Grounds under construction. My question is: where/how is it going to link up with the current parkway? Right now the FC parkway becomes the Franconia-Springfield Parkway at Rolling Road.

Robert Thomson: Check this map -- it's the clearest image I can find at the moment:

That should show how the parkway's new section will join the already-built part and take drivers to I-95 and Route 1.


Rockville, Md.: On photo-tickets. Last year, I got a mail ticket for a 40/25 violation that contained obviously wrong information. It said the citation was recorded at 6:30 p.m. in February, but it's obviously bright and sunny in the photo.

Is "this couldn't possibly have occurred at that place and time" a valid defense, or would they just say I did it sometime, so pay the fine.

Robert Thomson: I would advise anybody who committed the violation to pay the ticket. Otherwise, I'd just follow the directions on the violation notice and fight it. Doing so would help not only the driver but also many other people. I've found the managers of the speed camera program to be very responsive to citizen complaints -- legitimate complaints -- and they have adjusted the program to tighten up when they discovered problems.


Washington, D.C.: I am a recent transplant and will be driving the reverse commute from D.C. to Landover, Md. on Route 50. Am I in for a lot of traffic?

Robert Thomson: Yes. New York Avenue (Route 50) is the site of several reconstruction projects. Their affects on traffic will peak in the spring and continue for many months after that. The two key ones are the reconstruction of the 9th Street NE Bridge over NY Ave and the reconstruction of the New York Avenue bridge over the railroad tracks. These will involve lane shifts and closed lanes.


Union Station Parking?: I am taking Amtrak to New York City Sat - Mon. Do you know if a car can be left at Union Station's garage for this time period?

Robert Thomson: Yes, the parking garage at the station is always open. But I think this is expensive. I just took a very quick look for rates, and I think it's $19 for 12 to 24 hours.


To North Arlington: For coming out of Tysons, pull out your map and use the surface streets! I recommend Magarity, Great Falls, Westmoreland, and Washington Blvd. These are all residential so you won't be going fast, but you will be moving.

Robert Thomson: Thanks for the response. I can see a few more comments in here related to Tysons, and will post them soon.


McLean, Va.: There's no easy way from Tyson's to Arlington in the late afternoon. Mall traffic, and office workers heading home, make it a zoo no matter what way you go. Once you're off of International onto 123 you're ok. The left lane on 123 closing before the light at Anderson rather than after doesn't make things much worse, but it is a surprise to some.

If you're really paranoid turn left on International instead of right and go to Lewinsville and then to 123. Not faster, but less hassle, maybe.

Robert Thomson: Thanks for all this very practical advice on getting in and out of Tysons. If you're not familiar with the area and don't know why this is such a big deal, Tysons Corner is not only a major shopping area for the Washington region, but also one of its biggest employment centers. Plus, it's the junction of a few major commuter routes. Add to that two of the nation's biggest transportation projects: The Metrorail extension to Dulles and the High Occupancy Toll lane construction on the Capital Beltway.


D.C. to Raleigh, Christmas Eve: I'm hoping you can get to this today: I must leave DC on Christmas Eve to drive to Raleigh, N.C. I can leave as early as 2pm or as late as 7pm. What time in that window would be the 'best' time to depart, realizing that it'll be a madhouse regardless.

Also, is there a route besides MD5/US301 or US1 that is an alternative to 95? Is there one that starts someplace west of the District, say, Fairfax?

Robert Thomson: Out to the west, people will take I-66 to Route 28 to Route 17 back to I-95. Christmas Eve traffic will be heavy everywhere, though. It will be a combination of regular commuters, long-distance travelers and last-minute shoppers. In your limited time frame, I'd go for the late departure, though I think it will still be crowded then -- just not as bad as the earlier hours. What do others think of the southbound escape?


Arlington, Va.: I was wondering if you have any update on the Chain Bridge construction project. I believe we are approaching the 5th month of the 6 month construction project and I'm hoping it will wrap up in late January. Do you know anything about how that is progressing and if it might complete on time?

Robert Thomson: I haven't heard of any snags that altered the original time frame, which had the project wrapping up in January, as you note. I'll check on that. I know that many people are anxious for that one to go away.


re: Catoe: It does seem unlikely that anyone could manage WMATA better -- the system is an unholy mess and I wouldn't wish that funding search or bureaucracy on my enemies.

But that said, one major, MAJOR problem Metro is having, particularly in 2009, is the complete lack of transparency. We keep getting the message, "Everything's fine... oh, except we killed a dozen people this year. We're better than ever... oh, except there's no money." In their (failed) efforts not to reduce ridership numbers and thereby cause an even bigger crisis, Metro is alienating and offending what "customers" it already has.

What Metro really needs is a TRUE culture of transparency, and it needs to happen at every single level from the top down. Maybe then the platform- and train-based communications would even start to touch reality, and riders could at least have the tools at hand to make informed decisions.

Robert Thomson: That's a good review. I disagree with one part of your analysis: I haven't found anyone at the transit authority looking at 2009 and saying, "This is great." In fact, many people I talk to are pretty realistic about this having been a tough year for Metro and its riders, with some major service issues looming for next year, too.

I do agree that Metro has major, continuing problems in dealing with day to day service, especially in helping riders cope with disruptions. My take is that Metro tends to treat most problems as engineering problems. When something breaks, people step in and fix it as best they can. But that's only part of what it takes to serve riders.


Washington, D.C.: Crossing the street at a crosswalk in downtown DC seems to be growing more and more scary. Too many drivers don't actually STOP at the crosswalk. Instead they continue creeping towards the pedestrians at a slow speed.

I have been chased across crosswalks by these drivers, and a couple of times the cars were so close I involuntarily screamed in fear.

Drivers, STOP MEANS STOP. It doesn't mean "slow down to 10 miles/hour." It saves maybe one-fourth of a second to keep moving instead of coming to a full stop - is it really worth it? Taxi drivers are particularly guilty of this.

Robert Thomson: Good observation. I think it's not just downtown DC. One of my biggest worries: Right turn on red after stop. Too many drivers don't get to the "after stop" part of that rule.


Red Line This Morning: I stood around at Metro Center for nine minutes (8:30 - 8:39) waiting for a Red Line train to Silver Spring. When I finally got on it, it was unusually full the whole way down the line. (Usually most of the crowd clears up at Union Station and after that seats are plentiful and easy. Not so, today.)

After being stuck with a "door problem" train and a 10-minute wait before that on my orange line-to-metro-center leg of the commute, I was definitely tired of Metro by the time I got to work.

Robert Thomson: The aging equipment is becoming more and more of a factor for Metrorail commuters. Metro needs money to fix those age-related problems, but it also needs to respond more quickly to daily service issues and communicate better with riders during those problems, so they know what they're up against.


South Dakota Avenue, NE: OK, so here's the $128,000 Question: who's getting fired because of the bumbling mess regarding the traffic signal at New York and Bladensburg? What were these people thinking? Why weren't experts consulted?

Robert Thomson: Many drivers on New York Avenue suffered through the installation of a new pedestrian signal at Bladensburg Road last week. The District Department of Transportation seemed surprised that the timing had such an effect on traffic, and worked on getting it adjusted.

Your question reminded me of something: It's difficult to recall the last time I heard anyone call for firings as a solution to a traffic problem. In fact, I don't recall hearing from any traveler that any of the secretaries of transportation in our region be fired for failing to solve a problem -- or creating a problem -- with the daily commute. Yet many people immediately recommend firings as a solution to Metro's problems. Why is that?


Odenton, Maryland: Why do Metro operators hate their passengers so much? Often we're treated very rudely when an operator addresses us.

Robert Thomson: Many Metro train and bus operators show obvious consideration for their riders, and a little bit of that goes a long way to brightening a trip.

And the opposite is true: A little sourness on the part of an operator sticks with you the whole day. Orders from the bus or train operator are my pet peeve. We don't work for you. We're the "customers," remember?


Washington, D.C.: I'm really aggravated at my daily traffic commute on I-66 eastbound near the 495 interchange. I had heard a few weeks/months? ago that VDOT was supposed to adjust the ramps/exits, but it seems to have gotten worse. I see 495 traffic moving at a faster rate than it did before but 66 delays have gotten worse. It's outrageous that it takes 25 minutes to go 4 miles. Is VDOT planning to revisit this, or are we stuck with it until they finish the HOT lane project?

Robert Thomson: VDOT did make an adjustment on the exit ramps from eastbound 66 onto the Beltway's inner loop, and I don't know of any plans for a further adjustment.

This goes back to September, but the slow traffic is still a frequent complaint. The exit ramps for HOV and for regular traffic were reconfigured as part of the HOT lanes construction project, and they're set to stay that way -- the way you find them right now -- till 2011. (Happy motoring.)

That was always a difficult exit for regular traffic. There were several merges involved. But the reconfiguration added an extra one, at the point where the HOV and regular traffic come together before joining the inner loop.


However, I haven't received a ticket in the mail. : It's only been 2 weeks? Give it another 2 weeks. I got one a month after the infraction.

Robert Thomson: That's the longest gap I've heard of in MoCo camera tickets.


Cleveland Park, Washington, D.C.: Next Tuesday I am scheduled to take an early flight out of BWI (7:45) and am having some heartburn over how to get there early enough using public transportation (I am flying back to a different airport, so taking my car isn't an option).

It looks like the earliest MARC train is at 5:45 out of Union Station, leaving me with an hour to get from the train stop to the terminal and through security. Are there options I'm missing? Thank you and have a happy holiday season!

Robert Thomson: That's cutting it pretty close. Too many things would have to go right. I don't know of another transit option. The first B30 Metrobus of the day is scheduled to leave Greenbelt Station at 6:10, so I wouldn't recommend that. I think under the circumstances I'd go for a private airport van.


For 123: I live right off 123 and see Tyson's Galleria from my apartment window. I haven't encountered terrible traffic in the last several months. However, I'd avoid Route 7 at all costs. I commute to work every morning and night and I hate it. The lights are so poorly timed that it creates massive backups. Add in the people going to the mall and you have a recipe for disaster. Hope this helps!

Robert Thomson: Thanks for that. Lots of good advice today from people who live, work or pass through Tysons.


Red Line this Morning: We arrived at Union Station at 7:24 this morning. Had to wait for the third Metro train headed for Farragut North before we could even enter the train (the first two were packed too full). Then we were told that the train in front of us had door problems and we had to wait while they offloaded passengers at Judiciary Square. Then, of course, we had to wait in the tunnel and were at Judiciary Square for awhile so those passengers could squeeze onto our train.

Robert Thomson: A lot of comments -- all negative -- about the morning commute on the Red Line.


Red Line: Was busier than usual at 9 a.m. Van Ness and Cleveland Park as well. Busier the way it usually is when there's been some "earlier incident that has been resolved." No announcements today though.

Robert Thomson: This isn't the end of those complaints.


Silver Spring, Md.: Regarding rudeness of Metro Employees.

I take the Y bus down Georgia to Glenmont to Metro Center and back. I don't have much contact with Metro driver but the bus drivers are usually very polite. I get frustrated with Metro as we all do but I don't blame the day to day workers.

Robert Thomson: Got some other comments as well about our Metro train and bus operators.


Why do Metro operators hate their passengers so much?: Most just do their job. Many are pleasant. Some are downright hilarious, trying to keep my commute sane with a little humor.

One of them died in June.

Give them a break.

Robert Thomson: Yeah. If you do a particular commute day after day, you may start to look forward to finding yourself aboard a bus or train with a particular operator who uses a phrase in announcements that's particularly welcome, or offers a little extra assistance to passengers.


Red Line: Had a train with a mechanical failure at Brookland/CUA in direction of Shady Grove according to announcement about 8:15 am, but that's not 6.

Similarly though, at Gallery Place we were fortunate to have 5 trains pass on the opposite side of the tracks (to Shady Grove) before the first train arrived in route to Glenmont via Union Station.

My supposed 14 minute commute accordin to wmata's trip planner is averaging 30-35. I've accepted it, but wish I could have my coffee as compensation. Of course the trains are too crowded to raise it to my lips, so never mind...

Robert Thomson: Trip Planner gets thrown off by any disruption, but you're saying something different: That the posted time no longer is realistic. That would be the first time I've heard of such a thing regarding the trains. It's a routine part of a bus rider's life.


Arlington, Va: Does Metro keep track of what are its most profitable and least profitable scehduled runs? In other words, does Metro make money on, say, the 8:15 train each morning out of Vienna or a similar out of Shady Grove? Are any trips money losers?

Robert Thomson: The entire transit system is a money loser. Fare box collections don't come anywhere near covering the operating expenses for bus or rail. (I don't know of any transit system in the U.S. that meets its expenses through the fare box.)


Arlington, Va.: Based on recent Post articles, Metro is terminating, reassigning, or allowing to retire (and not replacing) six or seven top managers as a partial result of the deadly accidents this past summer and fall and for not allowing the Tri-State Oversight Committee to inspect the safety of track work. Most of the managers mentioned had nothing to do with the accident while the manager (Asst. Gen. Manager Rail Transit Delivery - before the latest / last reorganization by the outgoing Deputy GM - the one who had the responsibility for everything in RAIL (track maintenance, systems (signal) maintenance, rail car maintenance, train operations, etc. is apparently - not only - still on the job, this manager will act in the Deputy GM job until it is filled. Why?

Robert Thomson: I have not heard or seen anything from Metro that amounts to saying "we fired this guy because he ... " So the issue you raise is difficult to assess. Investigators still have not determined a cause for the June 22 crash, so I don't believe it's possible to lay that one on any particular manager or set of managers. Denying track access to the safety inspectors was just awful, and it's something that every Metro rider should remember. If people were removed from their jobs because of that, good. But no one has said that.


Washington, DC: Why can't North Arlington take a 28A or 28B bus from West Falls Church station to his class at the Tyson's Ritz Carlton? Wouldn't that be more convenient than to deal with the traffic on those roads? Of course, he or she would have to leave home early to get the bus, to ensure that the bus gets to West Falls Church station on-time and the same happens at the Ritz Carlton. On his or her return home, North Arlington can take a taxi to West Falls Church station or catch the same bus, right?

Robert Thomson: Taking cars off the roads is almost always a good thing, but it doesn't sound like North Arlington would be better off stuck in traffic on a bus than stuck in traffic in a car. The car might offer more options on routes, while the bus is just going to follow its designated route.


Arlington, Va.: My morning commute on the Orange Line from Ballston to Federal Triangle is always far longer than Metro claims. Like this morning. The train was waiting at Ballston (never heard why) when I got on; then it stayed there another 5 minutes. We stopped between every station until after Foggy Bottom, because of a train ahead of us. If we were waiting so long at Ballston, how was there a train ahead of us until Rosslyn?

Robert Thomson: Metro's Trip Planner is very helpful, and I use it all the time to calculate the time a transit trip will take, but it does have its real-world limitations. It give you the ideal travel time, and Metro is becoming less and less idea.


21114: Usually I try to remember there are thousands of us and fewer of them (Metro folks) and the chance they are getting bad attitude from one of us can impact their attitude as well!

Robert Thomson: Excellent point. I've seen bus drivers withstand a lot more guff than I would take.


Alexandria, Va.: Between Metro's complete indifference towards its customers and Washington-area motorists' complete indifference towards pedestrians, my New Years Resolution is to buy my first car.

And firing Catoe (and a broad slice of the bureaucracy beneath Catoe) isn't a matter of fixing the problems. That comes later. First, we show that the people with who aren't interested or capable of fixing the problems aren't working for Metro anymore.

Until then, I have no confidence in the agency, and I'll look forward to sitting in traffic instead. One more car's worth of damage to the climate and the regional traffic, but at least I'll be comfortable and rid of Metro employees.

Robert Thomson: I completely understand the frustration you're expressing -- and am sure it's shared by plenty of people reading this chat -- but I wouldn't buy a car in the hope of having a positive effect on anything, including my commute. Those hoping to have an effect on our transit system could look at joining the Riders' Advisory Council, where you'd get a chance to speak truth to power.


Robert Thomson: Thanks for all your questions and good advice. I've got a couple of things from today that I want to carry over to the Get There blog. (Including an update on Chain Bridge construction.) So please join me there throughout the week. And as always, write to me at drgridlock@washpost.com. Stay safe and join me again next week.


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