Dr. Gridlock: Metro problems, weather delays and new parking fees

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Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, January 4, 2010; 12:00 PM

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock. He was be online Monday, Jan. 4, at Noon ET to discuss Metro, a rough weather weekend and the District's new parking fees.

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.

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Robert Thomson: Happy New Year, travelers. I hope everyone made it safely through the holidays, so we can once more try to find out way through our traffic and transit problems. Got enough of them to deal with, as you'll see today.

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Fairfax, Va.: Dr. Gridlock: You asked last time for assessments on the response of local jurisdictions to the snow removal. I have to say that Fairfax County gets an F for abandoning the job before it was complete. Here we are two weeks later, and many streets have turning lanes that were never cleared and are still inaccessible (in some cases both left and right turning lanes are blocked leaving a single lane for all vehicles), and huge piles of snow that have turned to ice still sit in the middle of residential streets and many secondary roads.

Robert Thomson: I'm sorry to hear that. In the Virginia system for snow removal, very little of the road space is the responsibility of Fairfax County. VDOT does most of the work, and it's a big job. Any road with a state route number -- and it seems they are everywhere in Virginia -- is the responsibility of VDOT.

If it's a private street, then snow clearing is likely the responsibility of the residential association. The county does just a few miles of streets marked with blue signs that say something like "Fairfax County Maintained Here to There".

If you've spotted an unsafe road location in Virginia and the road has a state number, call 800-367-ROAD to report the problem.

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Takoma Park, Md.: I parked at the Takoma Park station the other day in a car with handicapped tags in the handicapped spot, and used my handicapped Metro pass to get around.

When I got back to my car, I had a parking ticket.

Seems they're now ticketing anyone who doesn't have a District of Columbia license plate who parks in one of the handicapped spaces at the Takoma Park, Md. station.

This seems to me to be a territorial dispute between Maryland and D.C., and we, the people, are caught in the middle.

How does this parking ticket get adjudicated? How do we fight it?

Could I get $54 million for ineptitude?

Robert Thomson: I believe that the parking for the Takoma Station is within the District of Columbia. Was the ticket issued by DC police or by Metro transit police? I'm not aware of any territorial dispute over parking for people with disabilities at Metro stations. Write to me with more details. (The parking ticket should include information on how to challenge the ticket.)

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Olney, Md.: I wasn't able to participate in last week's chat and when I read the transcript I wanted to chime in on the discussion about clearing sidewalks and bus stops. I was constantly on the alert for people walking in the street or standing in the street while waiting for busses after the storm and wondered how we could get at least the bus stops cleared when they're not on anyone's property.

How about making it a community service project for Scouts or schools? Individuals or groups could "adopt" a bus stop or series of stops that they will pledge to clear after each storm. Younger kids could be supervised by adults to ensure their safety while shoveling. It would be a challenge given the amount of snow that can be dumped by snowplows but it's better than hundreds of people across the area standing in the road waiting for their buses.

Robert Thomson: This is a significant problem in a big storm. Many pedestrians were forced to walk or stand in the streets as they went to catch their buses.

Metro isn't responsible for clearing the bus stops. No way that would work, given the number of stops in the region. The stops have to be on somebody's property. Might be a private owner or it might be a municipality.

That said, I do like Olney's idea for taking action. My first thought was that it sounds like the adopt a road programs that operate now in most jurisdictions and clear litter from the roadways. This, of course, would be a somewhat different task. We'd have to think through the safety issues for the people doing the clearing, provide them with the equipment to do the job and give some guidance on how to do the work safely and effectively.

That's a challenge, but on the other hand, it sure was a challenge for people to get around on foot and on transit after the storm.

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Prince George's County, Md.: I recently saw a map that had U.S. 50 from 495 to Annapolis as I-595. Are there plans to expand or upgrade 50-west in Md.?

Robert Thomson: I think that federal funds set aside for Interstates were used to upgrade US 50 to what you see now, but that's it. There's a curious back story with the I-595 designation, which is not used on the highway signs. I'll check on that with the Maryland State Highway Administration, and report back to you on the Get There blog after the chat.

But basically, what you see is what you get. And given the region's other transportation needs, I wouldn't expect local leaders to be calling for any further spending on US 50 between Annapolis and the Beltway.

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Arlington, Va.: Has Metro already implemented their service cuts? There seemed to be a good bit longer between trains this a.m. If I had been 20 seconds later getting to the lower level at Rosslyn I would have had a 12-minute (!!) wait for the next blue train. During "rush hour". This is going to get really painful for those of us who stick with the system isn't it?

Robert Thomson: There were some train problems this morning on several lines, but no, Metro has not yet made cuts in train or bus service to balance its budget. The only thing announced so far is a curtailment in the hours of the customer service call center.

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Alexandria, Va.: Again, this year, relatives got lost (a little bit) on the way to Alexandria, from points north.

The issue is that at some point on I-295, while heading south through the district from Maryland, there's a sign that reads, "I-295 ENDS" - of course, I now that is just becomes D.C.-295 and little changes, but is that really necessary? I figure that sign does more harm than good ...

Robert Thomson: I'll bet that sign is there more for legal purposes than for driver guidance.

The highway's designation changes because the original plan for running Interstates through the District changed back in the middle of the last century. The black and white signs that say "295" are just something the District put up to help through travelers stay on the road they want. I hope that confusion will disappear with the construction of the new 11th Street Bridges in that area, but the construction is just getting underway.

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Washington, D.C.: Similar comment as below with regard to unfinished snow removal. Was driving up Rt. 29 in Montgomery County the other day just past Four Corners. The sidewalks are completely ice covered and impassable, even right at several bus stops. The job is NOT done until it's done.

Robert Thomson: You mean in that area around the Northwest Branch, to the north of Four Corners, where we just got the new $3 million sidewalk? That was a problem area after the storm. Not sure who's responsibility that is. (I guess nobody else was either.)

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Silver Spring, Md., 20910: Montgomery County in the Silver Spring area gets an "A" for snow removal from me! Our area was passable by Monday morning and almost manicured by Monday evening.

I don't want to know what it cost or how much they'll think they need to keep it all up, but it was a job well-done!

Robert Thomson: Silver Spring streets were among the areas getting the benefit of both State Highway Administration and Montgomery County snow removal. I also think they did a real good job. In fact, I think the snow removal services in the entire region were pretty effective, though travelers today and on other days have pointed out lingering trouble spots. (Note the comments above about Route 29 and about roads in Fairfax County.)

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Orange Line question: Hi Dr. Gridlock, I ride the Orange Line from Virginia Square to Farragut West every morning, around 9:00 a.m.. I am constantly surprised by the poor Orange Line service each morning around this time. This morning, I threw myself into a packed train that left many people on the tracks at Virginia Square and Clarendon/Court House stations, and the notification signs did not indicate when the next train would come. They are often 10-15 minutes apart after 9, which means that they are packed and miserable. My theory is that the Orange Line runs many of its trains at what Metro considers to be "peak" rush hour (8:00 a.m.) so by 9:00 all of these trains are still making their way back to Vienna. Does Metro deliberately slow down Orange Service after 9 or is just an unfortunate side effect of rush hour? It's really poor service, and a shame that it most impacts Arlington residents who choose to live in a more Metro-friendly area, but get worse service than those in the exurbs.

Robert Thomson: Many, many riders complain to me about the service on the western side of the Orange Line in the morning. The two main issues for these riders are the spacing of the trains and the number of eight-car trains.

About a quarter of the trains on the Orange Line at rush hour are eight-cars long. So most riders won't get an eight-car train.

By about 9 a.m., late in the rush hour, there's another issue about the spacing of the trains: It's not much different from a long bus route, where the buses get bunched up and then there are long gaps between bus arrivals. Something similar happens with the trains. It's a long way to New Carrollton and back to Vienna. By 9, there can be very long gaps between trains.

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McLean, Va.: Spent Christmas vacation in Southern Utah, where there is no traffic. Rush hour is about 10 minutes in the morning, or evening. Heavy traffic means you get caught behind a herd of sheep going to or from the mountain pastures.

Interesting hearing people there complain about traffic in St. George (which also has no traffic) and Las Vegas (which has very little traffic.)

Robert Thomson: Southern Utah: one of the most beautiful parts of the planet. It's basically one big national park. I hope it stays the way it is. We'll keep the office towers and the shopping malls -- and the traffic that comes with them -- here.

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Anonymous: The person in Takoma raises a good question. Who is responsible for Metro parking lots?

Metro parking lots are a feeding ground to write tickets. When the gas prices ramped up quickly and the lots were filling up, the tickets flowed fast and heavy. I parked in a restricted spot at 9:45 a.m. and got a ticket timed at 9:54 a.m. I once got two parking tickets at a Metro station over an expired tag. The first ticket brought it to my attention, the second ignored the temporary extension posted in my rear window I received after filing for it online. The first ticket was from the county police, the second was from the local town (Cheverly). All this over a missed vehicle inspection.

I found it odd that these jurisdictions patrolled Metro lots and were looking for such infractions. I never see them posted when it's dark at night and people are walking to far parking lots or walking home.

Robert Thomson: Metro is the biggest operator of parking facilities in the Washington region. Many people that I hear from would not want policing left to the Metro transit police. There aren't enough of them to do the job.

People raise two concerns with me: First and foremost, is the security of the parking areas. People want more patrolling to protect the vehicles against break-ins and the riders against robberies. Second, they want illegal parkers ticketed. I don't recall anyone asking for more checks on tags and inspection stickers.

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I-595: The story on I-595 is that that is the official designation for US-50 between the Beltway and roughly the southern end of I-97 near Annapolis. Federal Interstate funding was used for a major portion of the reconstruction of the road to Interstate standards and it was to be renumbered I-595 at the completion of the project. Notice how some signs (exit signage on the Beltway, for example) have the US-50 shields positioned off-center; this was because they were leaving room for the I-595 shields.

Ultimately, Maryland opted not to post the I-595 designation because the US-50 numbering was so well-known to the public that they felt it would have caused confusion. In official records the road still bears the Interstate designation, but "hidden" or "secret" Interstates of that sort are not unprecedented--even the District of Columbia has one, as the stretch of the Southwest-Southeast Freeway between the exit for the Third Street Tunnel and Barney Circle is officially I-695 but is not signed as such.

If you have access to the Washington Post from January 7, 2002, you can find the original Dr. Gridlock's column on this issue.

Robert Thomson: Thank you. (You're not doing this from memory, are you?)

Here's what my predecessor, Ron Shaffer, said in that column:

"Although Route 50 between the Capital Beltway and Annapolis was built primarily with federal funds to interstate standards, the head of the Maryland State Highway Administration at the time, Hal Kassoff, convinced the feds that the interstate marking would be more confusing than leaving the road simply as Route 50.

"We already have I-95, I-195 (to Baltimore-Washington International Airport), I-295, I-395, I-495 and I-695 (Baltimore Beltway). I-595 was available, but how many more similar-named roads do we need?"

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Silver Spring, Md.: Olney has a good idea. I shovel a bus stop that backs up to a park. I worked for a solid hour on it on Sun. the 20th. I couldn't make it all the way to the intersection. I told some neighbors, and somehow it got finished. Shoveling is good exercise for the able-bodied. We should prepare for next time. Someone was using a snowblower across the street, and he was probably the one who cleared the snowbank from the plowing. I had been just concentrating on the bus stop itself and the sidewalk. Between all of us, the stop and access to the street and the bus itself were cleared. No stepping into or climbing over snow mountains.

Robert Thomson: There are various ways people can and do take responsibility for helping each other in a storm. It might be clearing the sidewalk and steps for an elderly neighbor, or digging out a car for someone who can't do that on his or her own. Bus stops could fall into that category, too, in certain locations.

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Snow Removal: Hope your holidays were nice! I'm hoping you can help me, or point me in the right direction. I live in a townhouse community in Arlington. For years the community hired its own snow remover, but recently we stopped, as our roads are technically county roads. But after the big storm last month, the county never treated our roads - plowed or treated. I contacted the county several times to ask them to treat the roads (they never did) and to ask if we could hire our own snow remover. They said no, due to liability issues. So now we're caught in a catch 22. Do you have any insights into this? Thanks so much!!

Robert Thomson: At this point, I'd be pretty frustrated and would start making calls to the Arlington County Board. You can find the board members listed on this page:

http://www.arlingtonva.us/Departments/CountyBoard/CountyBoardMain.aspx

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Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C.: Dear Dr. Gridlock: Hope you had a terrific New Year's Day. The escalator at the Q St entrance to Metro is out again. it lasted a whole month!

Robert Thomson: The situation with the escalator bank at Dupont Circle's Q Street entrance should be an embarrassment to Metro. This escalator outage problem has existed since October. I understand it takes a long time to fix these things and that they are very susceptible to breakdowns. But enough is enough. This is a very heavily used station without adequate service for a quarter of a year.

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Beltway Signage: Why can't signs on 495 state inner loop or outer loop?

Adjectives such as South, North, West, etc don't really work when the road is a circle.

Inner loop would tell me the direction of traffic from Telegraph road would tell me if I am going to head into Md. or toward Tysons, 95 South etc.

Robert Thomson: We have this discussion quite a bit. In fact, I've talked about it with some of the regional transportation officials who are involved in signage and in putting out the announcements about where lanes will be closed for construction. We all try to figure out what's the best, clearest way to describe where something is occurring on the Beltway -- inner loop, outer loop, I-495 South, I-95 North.

I know that whatever I try, some drivers will get confused. And I also recall that on my very first online chat in 2006, I managed to add to the confusion. When a reader asked me to define inner loop and outer loop, I used the clockwise and counterclockwise explanation -- and got it exactly backward. There may still be people looping around endlessly based on my description.

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NW, Washington, D.C.: Weird observation - with all the track maintenance work, I've noticed the Metro subway rides being quite bumpy. It literally felt like we hit a pot hole one time and the suspension swayed for a large part of the ride.

Am I overreacting or has this been noticeable to others? I'm a 7 p.m. rider so it's a little less crowded and the train conductor seem to go a little faster with less traffic, so that could be part of it.

Robert Thomson: I haven't noticed any particular change on this lately. I do find that on open track stretches where the speed can be higher, riders can get quite a bang when the train passes over a track switch.

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Adopt a bus stop.: Adopt-a-highway works on the groups' schedule (weekends, summertime, etc). I think we'd be hard-pressed to find folks willing to shovel out a bus stop, especially kids on a snow day, and especially if folks have to drive to get to said bus stop. Just my two cents.

That being said, if there was a bus stop in my front yard, I would absolutely dig it out.

Robert Thomson: Yeah, that's a good point. There are several differences between adopt a highway and adopt a bus stop that would have to be taken into account: Time, difficulty and safety prominent among them.

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Herndon, Va.: A few hopefully easy questions because I won't be able to make the chat.

While driving up 395 to 295 toward Pennsylvania Avenue all last week for a hockey tournament at Ft. Dupont Ice Arena, there were signs that said "Freeway Closing 1/9/10". Which freeway are they talking about? Am I going to have to go over the Wilson Bridge to get up 295 to Pennsylvania Ave now?

Why is Virginia raising tolls on the toll road? By now, Metro should be paid for. This may have already been answered.

Comment: The construction on the Silver Line seems to be going fantastically quick. Pillars are going up quickly around West Falls Church though Tyson's is going to be a rough one (underground was the better option).

Coming off the Toll Road onto Spring Hill from the West, there are three turn lanes. Can someone from the VSP come out and police these turns. In the mornings, my wife and I turn right to head to the light to turn right again, however, we're stuck behind people who use this lane to cut across three lanes of traffic and either turn left or go straight through the light.

Thank you and keep up the great work!

Robert Thomson: Those message boards should have been changed by now. The Southeast-Southwest Freeway is not going to close. There will be some lane closures starting next week in connection with the removal of some little-used ramps in the area. I'll give you more details about the hours and such when they become available. Watch the Get There blog for that.

The Washington Metropolitan Airports Authority raised the tolls to help finance construction of the Metrorail extension to Dulles.

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Vienna, Va.: Hi Dr. Gridlock - love the chats! Not a question, really, but a comment. I'm a faithful Metro rider - even with its delays and annoyances, for me, it's inherently better than driving. My comment is really on the future of the system. Metro is having serious budget problems, delays are constant, the infrastructure is aging...I mean, let's face it, it needs an overhaul (which, given the budget and other resource constraints), which won't happen. I'm just concerned about the additions of the silver line out to dulles. I know we're years and years away from that, but I don't believe that Metro will have improved significantly by that point, and I'm not confident that the system will be able to handle the expansion. What are your thoughts?

Robert Thomson: I think that's a legitimate issue. A little hard to tell right now what conditions will be like in the middle of the next decade.

Metro certainly has to work out how it will handle all the trains needing access to the Rosslyn tunnel. And for this or any other expansion, the region's governments are going to have to subsidize the purchase of equipment and the operations of the lines.

But my bottom line: The transit system needs to grow with the region. We can't avoid making plans for expansion based on our concerns -- however legitimate -- about the problems the system is having today.

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Arlington, Va.: Metro's Next Bus system needs some recalibrating. I have noticed that if you do it by I-Phone or similar device that it gives you the idea that the next bus is 45 minutes away when it is actually fifteen. Yesterday, for example, my Next Bus told me that the L2 was coming in 51 minutes when the schedule showed eight. I caught the bus.

Robert Thomson: I think Next Bus generally has worked well, but there definitely are some problems and you noted one. There are ghost buses that don't show up when you check by phone or by mobile device. Sometimes, I'm told, the drivers aren't turning on the equipment, or are accidentally turning it off, so the system isn't picking up the presence of these buses.

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Washington, D.C.: As a resident of Woodley Park, I'm interested in the new parking meter regulations that are to take affect in mid-January.

D.C. says that they will be enforcing meters on Saturdays, however they say this will be downtown. I regularly have visitors from out of the area and they generally park on Connecticut Ave. which has meters but are not enforced on weekends.

I don't consider this area to be downtown, but for these new parking purposes, is this downtown? Where exactly are the meters "downtown"?

Robert Thomson: Good question, and one among many about the parking changes that I hope to clarify for everybody before the new system takes effect, which should be at the middle of this month. My plan is to provide more information on the Get There blog and on this coming Sunday's Commuter page in The Post.

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Reston, Va.: Hello, and happy new year. My question is about local radio traffic reports. Where and how do stations get their information? I ask because it often seems outdated or incorrect. For example, this morning I listened to Lisa Baden on WTOP telling me that the toll road was "good" at 8:08 a.m. Problem was, I was sitting on the toll road for 40 minutes (and that was only to get from Wiehle Avenue to the beltway). I assume this was because of an accident on the right shoulder at the exit for Rt. 7, because once I got past that the pace increased dramatically.

So do the local stations all rely on one source of information? Do they have their own cameras? How frequently do they update their information? Finally, which local radio station do you think has the most complete and accurate traffic reports?

Robert Thomson: I haven't done a complete survey of local radio traffic reports, but for my own travels, I listen to the every-10-minute reports on WTOP.

I've not seen Lisa at work, but I have watched Bob Marbourg in the afternoon. He has police scanners, traffic camera views on video screens and transportation agency web sites all around his work space. But the main thing he relies on is you. That is, drivers calling in to provide eyewitness accounts from the roads.

I don't know how he does it. Between the radio reports, he's constantly picking up the phone, listening to the drivers, asking relevant questions and keeping it all in his head till he does the next radio report.

Of course, he's also working with three decades of knowledge about our local transportation network and what kind of a problem is likely to generate what kind of an effect on traffic.

Even with an every 10 minute report, no station is going to be able to keep up with the constantly changing conditions on all the routes our drivers need to hear about. (I think once when we were trying to come up with a traffic map for our Web site, I counted three dozen roads that commuters use to get in and out of Washington, and I probably undercounted.)

There's a constant stream of information coming in to the traffic reporters but it still covers a limited number of roads and there are further limits on how much any reporter can absorb, process and provide in the relatively short time available during your commute.

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Washington, D.C.: Bob, when Metro passengers jump on a train through closing doors, and get stuck - the conductor will usually get on the intercom and threaten to offload the train and put it out of service.

Since I have been a rider, they've followed through on this promise twice, crowding the station platform and sending the rush hour commute into disarray. Do you think this is a vindictive move, intended as payback and a deterrent for passengers ... or do the trains legitimately develop door malfunctions that require repair? That seems kind of doubtful because the operator is able to close the doors just fine after they offload the train.

Robert Thomson: I seriously doubt that the Operations Control Center would allow any train operator to take the train out of service out of revenge against the passengers. I've heard train operators make those sometimes angry, sometimes exasperated announcements about the consequences of blocking the doors. I also know that it's extremely easy to cause a door to malfunction and that once that happens the train is likely to go out of service.

So on this one, I'm pretty sympathetic with the operators -- even though I don't like to be lectured. A couple of knuckleheads holding the doors can inconvenience several thousand train riders at rush hour.

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Washington, D.C.: I thought Metro was supposed to be adding Smart Benefits onto your card automatically the first time you use it each month, starting this month? When I existed the Dupont Circle station this morning, my SmarTrip card read negative $1.20. So much for progress.

Robert Thomson: Actually, the progress was that Metro postponed that plan for a year. I say progress, because many, many riders were absolutely baffled by what this new system would involve and Metro wasn't giving riders and employers enough time to deal with the consequences.

So riders, keep doing what you have been doing to load your SmartBenefits onto the SmarTrip cards. But a year from now, we are likely to go to the new system in which the benefits are downloaded as needed at the fare gates. That will indeed be progress, because you no longer will have to stand in line at the vending machines at the start of each month.

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Robert Thomson: Travelers, I do have to break away now. In the mailbag, there still are plenty of comments. Two themes I see are comments about the snow cleanup and about what's likely to happen with Metro service cutbacks. I'd like to continue both those themes with postings on the Get There blog later on, so please join me there. Also, write to me any time about our local transportation issues at drgridlock@washpost.com. If you want me to consider your question or comment for publication in The Post, please include your full name and the name of your home community for the sign-off at the bottom of our letters.

Till next week, stay safe out there.

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