Dr. Gridlock: Metro problems, snow delays and holiday weekend travel tips

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Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, December 28, 2009; 12:00 PM

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock. He was online Monday, Dec. 28, at Noon ET to discuss your travel plans for the New Year's holiday weekend, Metro's ongoing problems and diagnose all of your traffic and transit issues.

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.

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Robert Thomson: Welcome, travelers. Thanks for spending part of the holiday week with me. Let's talk traffic and transit.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: Suggestion for Metro -- update the estimated travel time between stations that is posted at each station. My ride from Shady Grove-Dupont Circle (posted at 30 minutes for the pat 22 years) is usually 37-40 minutes (and was that long prior to the crash). There may be riders that actually rely on this this information. Have a happy new year.

Robert Thomson: Happy New Year to all. You're reminding me that this is our last chat of 2009. (I think we'll have plenty to talk about in the New Year.)

That's an interesting point about the travel times. Another traveler was saying recently that the times on Metro's Trip Planner no longer match actual trip times. Are others having this experience? I could test it out in the new year. I'd get some travel times from Trip Planner, then go out and ride.

I think it's inevitable that manual operation of the trains -- a safety precaution since we still don't know what caused the June 22 crash -- is going to continue to slow the trains on all lines.

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Annandale, Va.: The traffic tie-ups and disruption caused by the hot-lane construction around the Gallows Rd. exit off the Beltway are just unbelievable and made much worse by the inadequate and sometimes missing signs noting changes. To top it off, secondary roads in the Gallows Rd. area, notably the Camelot subdivision, were left virtually untouched by snow removal crews. Nice going VDOT.

Robert Thomson: The High Occupancy Toll lane construction is having a dramatic impact on travel along the western side of the Beltway in Virginia. While the lanes are open at rush hour, it's inevitable on a project of this magnitude that the building will have some effect on travel. Even the slight lane shifts around the bridges makes a difference.

Sorry to hear about the problem with the signs. I'll try to post more details about the HOT lane work on our Get There blog. Also, VDOT has a very good Web site for information about lane closures and traffic changes for all the big Northern Virginia projects, including the HOT lanes: www.vamegaprojects.com.

Also sorry to hear about the plowing issue. If you find the same conditions in the future, try calling (800)367-ROAD to tell VDOT about the problem with a particular road. (All of the region's transportation agencies were stretched by the storm cleanup. I do think that was bound to happen given the extreme nature of what they were dealing with.)

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Boston: I think everyone in the DC/NoVA/MD should just ignore obnoxious comments from New Englanders. I was born and raised in NE. After college I moved to DC and lived in DC/NoVA for 20 years. Now I am back living in NE. People are just as freaked out about snow here (ok, maybe a little less freaked but our grocery stores were jammed the night before the storm too). And people here can't drive in good weather; their driving doesn't get any better in bad weather. I think we do recover a little more quickly, though. This is probably because our cities and towns do more budgeting for snow removal and have more equipment available. I can imagine in this economy that many municipal governments rolled the dice and decreased the amount alloted to inclement weather line items.

Evidently it's the law here that you have to clean the snow off your car. It's unfortunate that there has to be a law for what is just common sense. If you can't clean off your car then you shouldn't be able to drive it.

Robert Thomson: Thanks, Boston. We did get a bunch of comments from Snow Nation last week telling us that we in the Sunny South need to improve our performance in bad weather.

Complaints about people leaving their car roofs covered in snow, driving too fast for conditions, failing to use their headlights and signal lights were fully justified. Unless you got your driver's license from a Crackerjack box, there's no excuse.

But like you, I've not noticed a markedly different performance in parts of the country that have much more experience with snow. I do think northerners are likely to prepare their vehicles better and carry the emergency supplies needed. That's where experience really pays off. Also, I think practice makes them better able to deal with issues like where to toss the driveway and sidewalk snow, and what's proper etiquette for dealing with residential street parking.

Our governments: I thought they did pretty well in handling this storm. I was watching for any evidence of skimping on snow clearing, but didn't see it -- or hear about it from travelers. A better test will come if we have a weekday storm.

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Washington, DC: Traffic light timing: The traffic lights by the tidal basin are not in sync with each other and it is causing massive traffic jams for the morning rush hour traffic. Previously they were in sync and traffic moved smoothly through those three traffic lights. What will it take to get those traffic lights back in sync with each other to alleviate traffic jams going buy the Tidal Basin? Thank you.

Robert Thomson: I figure you're talking about Independence Avenue? I can ask the District Department of Transportation about that. Lights do get out of sync for a variety of reasons, including mechanical and electronic problems, and changing traffic patterns.

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Arlington, VA: I commute to work to Ashburn by car (we have one gas-efficient family car only) and my husband commutes by Metro daily into Georgetown. We are considering moving to Leesburg and for John to start riding the Loudoun County Transit Commuter Bus DC lines into Rosslyn or the State Department.

This will change his on-foot commute very little, once he is in DC. But we're curious; what have you heard about the satisfaction with that bus line for Leesburg-DC for daily commuters?

Robert Thomson: Because of the nature of my job, I'm much more likely to hear criticism than praise about any transportation system. People rarely write to me and say, "Doc, just wanted to let you know the X2 was right on time today."

I haven't heard from from riders on the suburban bus lines, including Loudoun Transit. As always, I invite such comments. Send e-mails to drgridlock@washpost.com.

For those of you who aren't familiar with Loudoun Transit, here's the basic idea: Loudoun County Transit operates rush hour service from park and ride lots in Loudoun to destinations that include West Falls Church Metro, Rosslyn, the Pentagon, and the District. The bus line also provides service from West Falls Church Metro to job centers in eastern Loudoun.

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Silver Spring, MD: WMATA needs to widen the Red Line platforms at Gallery Place. It sounds like that Sun. morning incident involving the man on the tracks was an accident; he did not intentionally place himself there. The platforms are far too narrow, especially near the escalators. This would be too narrow for any station, but especially for a transfer station.

Robert Thomson: Police are still investigating the Sunday morning incident at Gallery Place. Judging by the time and the date, it's unlikely that crowding was an issue. But I do agree there at times at places like Gallery Place and Metro Center when the platform seems too small for the crowd.

I've never felt in danger on a platform here. I did once on a BART platform after an Oakland A's-Yankees game. Fans kept coming up the escalator onto the platform. I thought at the time that the station personnel should have turned off the escalator until one train came through in each direction to carry the crowd from the platform.

Here in Washington, I've been saying for a while that I wish Metro personnel would do more to control crowding at some of the downtown stations during peak periods. So many of you complain about either poor behavior around the doors or about the train operators shutting the doors too quickly. I think station personnel could ease that problem by taking greater control of the platform.

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Falls Church, VA: How much time and money does Metro spend on polishing brass? I see plastic wrapped rails in the stations every once in a while, and I ask WHY do they bother, with all the other needs the system has?

Robert Thomson: They're kind of proud of that. I believe it's know as rebronzing, and it's handled by the Office of Plant Maintenance. You're most likely to see it occur during station enhancements. Those are makeovers that happen at each station once every 3.75 years.

I'm not sure I'd want to say, Okay, skip some of that maintenance stuff. The whole system is aging. The effect is especially strong in some of the older downtown stations and on the older train cars. Let's not provide reasons to let anything deteriorate further.

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Silver Spring, MD: Dr. G, Happy Holidays! I noticed that the Metro was virtually empty this morning, yet was running on a full rush hour schedule. How much money would Metrorail save by taking a train or two off of each line on "shoulder days" like this when a disproportionate number of people are on vacation? I love having trains every 3 minutes, but I'd rather the money get spent where it's needed...

Robert Thomson: Happy Holidays to you, too.

I think Metro's leaders -- looking at the budget problems ahead -- would love to get a lot of suggestions from riders about what they should preserve and what they could afford to let go to save money. In fact, I think they find it frustrating when people with real experience riding the system don't come forward with ideas.

The Metro board is planning to meet on Thursday, Jan. 7, to talk about some service cut backs that might help close the $40 million gap in the current operating budget.

On the menu of potential cutbacks: No more eight car trains, longer gaps between trains and buses, closing some station entrances at off peak hours.

I don't mean this next thing to knock down your idea, but rather to extend the discussion: Metro can find itself in trouble when it makes a judgment about what ridership is going to be like at a particular time of year or week. I think I have a question in the mailbag that will allow me to expand on this. I'll look for that now.

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Washington, D.C.: Will Metro be running late on New Year's Eve? Thanks

Robert Thomson: Yes, till 2 a.m. Then it will also run trains till 2 a.m. on New Year's Day.

That wasn't the original plan for New Year's Day. The transit authority staff planned to shut down service at midnight, because ridership usually is extremely light on New Year's Day. (I think running service an extra couple of hours each night will cost about $200,000.)

But DC board member Neil Albert objected to the New Year's Day plan. He said it's a Friday night, and people will be going to DC's entertainment areas -- and they'll want to get home. So the staff modified the original plan and will keep the entire system open to accommodate entertainment-seekers.

What do you think of that? We don't want people with too many cocktails in them to drive home. On the other hand, Metro is going to be finding other ways to save that money, and those ways might affect your own travels.

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Washington, DC: Does Metro automatically step up whatever security measures it has in place in the wake of an airplane incident like the underpants bomber? Personally, I have never understood why a would-be bomber would bother to evade security measures to blow up an airplane when he could just step into a crowded Red Line car during rush hour and kill as many, if not more, passengers. Sorry for the morbid question, but this worried me over the weekend.

Robert Thomson: As a frequent transit rider, I don't feel any less safe on Metro knowing that a guy tried to set his pants on fire aboard an airplane. I don't expect transit police to react based on that one incident.

Travelers should resist giving up traditional freedoms of movement unless they are satisfied that the restrictions are reasonable and very likely to improve everyone's safety.

Metro transit police have been taking steps to upgrade their counter-terrorism efforts. I applaud that. They've been doing so in a reasonable manner, rather than by over-reacting to any particular incident.

Generally, I'm a lot more worried about my fellow riders' safety from common forms of crime than about a terrorist attack. I'd like to see the transit police force expanded so that we could see more officers on the trains and buses to prevent thefts and harassment of passengers.

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Fairfax, Va. : Despite the warm weather on Saturday and Sunday, many local bus stops are still difficult to reach. What can be done to rectify this safety problem, which occurs with every significant snow accumulation.

Robert Thomson: Many suburban bus stops are either difficult to reach or positioned poorly. In snow storms, Metro isn't responsible for clear the bus stops. (Actually, I agree with that policy. It would be an impossible task for Metro staff to shovel out every bus stop.)

It's up to either the local jurisdiction on the adjacent property owner to clear the area.

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Toll Rd/Beltway Intersection: This morning the far right lane where the Toll Road merges onto the Beltway was still not completely plowed. This week that shouldn't be a problem but if this is still unplowed next Monday it won't be pretty (or maybe I should just say it will be uglier than usual). Any better way to let VDOT know than notifying you?

Robert Thomson: For that or any complaint that has to do with VDOT maintenance, I'd either call (800) 367-ROAD, or use VDOT's online "Report a Road Problem" form: http://www.virginiadot.org/travel/citizen.asp

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Fairfax, Va.: I would like to thank VDOT for recognizing that the pavement on the left (shoulder) lanes of both loops of the Beltway through the US 50 interchange was insufficient. However, their fix was just to mill down the uneven pavement, which makes the lane just as bad as it was before. Could you please ask them to try again?

Robert Thomson: Doesn't sound like they're done. Opportunities for paving have been pretty limited in the past couple of weeks.

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Vienna, VA: Hi Dr. Gridlock,

Thank you for these chats. I was wondering if you had any news on the lane blockage on inbound 15th Street between F and G Sts., NW caused by some facade work on the Old Ebbitt Grill Building? It seems unnecessary to block this lane just to provide parking for construction workers -- indeed many times it is blocked and there are no vehicles there. Or it is only partially blocked, creating confusion. How much longer will it be this way and to whom should I direct my complaint? Thanks and Happy 2010!

Robert Thomson: Been like that for a while, right? I'll take a look.

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Washington, D.C.: What is the solution to lack of funding for Metro and road problems (see the big potholes on Constitution and the giant dip headed west near the FTC)? Do Virginians and Marylanders who use and burden our system pay their fair share?

Robert Thomson: I'm not sure anyone anywhere in this nation pays his or her fair share for the maintenance of any part of our transportation system. Congress is supposed to debate that in the coming year, but as of now, we don't have any plans to pay for what we use.

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Alexandria, Va.: I don't have a Metro bus stop (or any bus stop) on or adjacent to my property. But I have to disagree about Metrobus not being able to shovel out their bus stops. It's certainly not my responsibility. Metro has a maintenance and operations budget. They should figure out to use it to do the things that they need to do to serve their customers...

Robert Thomson: Metro indeed has an operations budget. The transit authority is on course to overspend it by $40 million. It's on course to overspend the next budget by $170 million. If Metro announced that it was going to hire the additional staff to shovel snow from bus stops across the metropolitan region, riders should have a fit.

Metro will almost certainly be cutting their transit service over the next six months. It can't be expanding its obligations.

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Reston VA: I don't know how to handle this situation. There is an intersection that I travel every day in Reston that is a dedicated right hand turn lane onto Weihle Ave. Before the intersection, there is a street sign that says that cars have to yield to people in the cross walk. Does that mean we have to stop when we have a green arrow and someone is in the cross walk or only when the light is red and someone is in the cross walk? Thanks

Robert Thomson: All I'm working with is the way you describe the scene, so forgive me if there's a factor I'm not taking into account: Don't hit the pedestrian. It's not a judgment call. Pedestrians are never in season. Doesn't matter what color the light is.

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Sidewalks?: I'm a walker and this past week reminded me once again of my 2nd class status as I tried to negotiate my way around 5 foot snow drifts that had been pushed onto the sidewalks by snow plows. I know that in most places property owners are responsible for clearing sidewalks in front of their properties, but what about stretches of road that are owned by municipalities? Do cities take any responsibility? Yes, I know its a big job and yet it has to be dealt with. This morning on my way to work I passed a wheelchair bound man on his way to work. What did he do last week when the side walks were piled with snow? What about the blind lady who I see negotiating my neighborhood with her cane? I can climb over snow drifts but what about them?

Robert Thomson: Walking was difficult for many people in the wake of the big storm. I saw plenty of sidewalks that were completely covered over for days, forcing people to step out into travel lanes. For people with disabilities, of course, it was especially difficult. Something to keep in mind in the months ahead when you hear discussions of how expensive it is to operate the MetroAccess paratransit service.

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Anonymous: Why is there no plans for a metro subway to Fort Washington?

Robert Thomson: Metro is no longer in the construction business. For any extension, it's going to be up to the local jurisdiction to find a way to finance the construction. It will be up to the entire region to pay for the operation.

The Metrorail extension to Dulles is an example of this. Any extension out to Fort Washington would be up to Maryland to finance, and I don't know where the state would find the money within its current revenue system.

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Response to Alexandria...: Most Metrobus stops are on sidewalks. You are required to shovel the sidewalk in front of your home or business. Ergo, you are required to clear the bus stop.

Robert Thomson: Yes.

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Arlington, VA: With the snow shutting down the outdoor stations of the Metro last week, does it still make sense to have the entirety of the Silver Line above ground?

Robert Thomson: That's a fair point. It's a pretty rare thing, of course. There was the December storm, then there was the President's Day weekend storm of 2003. But the line through Tysons and out to Dulles will become very important to air travelers and to the 100,000 people who work in Tysons Corner.

Still, I'm not sure the huge expense of building that 23 mile line underground would be offset by a one-day hit to above ground service a couple of times a decade.

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Kingstowne, VA: It seemed to me in driving around last week that the problem of uncleared roofs on vehicles wasn't as bad as it's been in the past. I wonder if you noticed the same.

My speculation is that this storm was deep enough that people who park outside (the only ones who would have snow on the roofs) had to do serious shoveling AND clean off the hood and trunk to be able to use their cars at all, and in the course of doing so it maybe caused them to do the roofs too. In smaller storms, many people just leave the snow on the hood and the trunk and let the wind blow it off as they drive. (I used to think that was funny too....when I was 16 years old and knew everything....)

Robert Thomson: I had written on the Get There blog that one of the advantages of a big storm was that it would be impossible for drivers to pull away from the curb without clearing off their car roofs.

So when I saw cars last Monday wearing these big white top hats, I was stunned. I agree with you that there weren't many of them, but I was just so surprised there were any at all.

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Laytonsville, Md: Early Happy New Year. I was just wondering about how safe the Metro parking stations are, in particular the Shady Grove and Rockville stations. I recenlty moved to Maryland and am currenlty driving to my place of work in DC. However, I am thinking about using Metro to commute. I have to be at work by 0630 and I would have to be at the metro station between 0515 - 0530. I would love to use Metro, even if that means getting up at 4 am and out the door by 5 am. However, I won't give up my safety. If the metro stations are not safe enough, then I will stick to driving.

Robert Thomson: Happy New Year.

At the December meeting of the Metro board, the transit police showed us charts listing the stations in each major jurisdiction with the highest crime rates (vehicle and non-vehicle). None of the stations on the western side of the Red Line in Maryland was on that list. (New Carrollton topped the Maryland list.)

There are no guarantees in this life, but I think you'd be making a perfectly reasonable decision to park at either Shady Grove or Rockville. Most people are more worried about getting there early enough to find a space than about crime in the lots and garages, but given your hours, you should be fine on that.

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Alexandria, Va.: Dr.G., Last week I was reminded that as much as I love snow - it brings out the worst selfishness in local drivers.

I commute through Old Town -- which did a decent job of clearing the main lanes, but no so good at clearing 100% of the parking lanes. Undaunted, parkers parked against the snow oblivious to the part of their cars that obstructed part of the traffic lanes. Furthermore, those drivers in the travel lanes that were obstructed by the parkers, simply and obliviously moved into the second travel lane - without regard to the drivers in that lane.

Ugh.

Robert Thomson: Yes, based on experience, those drivers would probably have begun their explanation by saying, "I had no choice but to ... "

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Robert Thomson: Travelers, enjoy the light traffic and relatively uncrowded transit for the rest of this week, have a safe New Year's Eve, and join me again next Monday when we can look forward to all our new travel problems of 2010.

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