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

Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, January 11, 2010; 12:00 PM

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock. He was online Monday, Jan. 11, to discuss Metro, another cold weather weekend and the District's new parking fees.

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: Good afternoon, travelers. Looking at the mailbag, I see lots of questions about potential fare increases and service cuts on Metro. Also, the changes in DC parking rules also looks like a hot topic. But there are other issues too -- snow removal, for example -- and I'll get to as many as we can.


Arlington, Va.: Dr. Gridlock: to your question about riders' preferences in regard to cutting service or increasing fares to maintain the current level of Metro service, I'd opt for an across-the-board fare increase on Metrorail. Ten cents was proposed. How about 15 cents and a guarantee that 15 minutes would be the maximum wait between trains?

Also, what is with the draconian lighting on Foggy Bottom's platform? The lighting on platforms has always been gloomy throughout Metro. Although I like the idea of indirectly lighting the archways, I've always wished Metro would turn the brightness up a notch. When passing through Foggy Bottom a few times this week, though, I noticed that the platform was so dark that it prevented reading. This is annoying, but more important, it's a safety hazard. Putting this together with the threat of 30-minute waits and Metro's utter disregard of aggressive panhandlers and unstable characters, I'm concerned that platforms are turning into the equivalent of a dark alley. I wondered whether any security cameras were operating, and if so, I sincerely doubt the lighting is good enough to capture any trouble, much less prevent it.

All that said, I doubt that improved lighting is a priority for Metro at the moment. If there were one change I could make to Metro to improve service, it would be to decrease the wait between trains, on both weekdays and weekends. To increase the wait to 30 minutes is unacceptable and will turn riders away, for the inconvenience and the safety issue. Has Metro studied whether a dramatically swifter system would increase ridership and revenue? Does Metro have any goals to improve wait times? My sense is that it is so completely crippled that the best we can expect is the same poor status quo.

I agree with Chris Zimmerman that if a fare increase will improve service to some extent, let's bite the bullet and do it.

Robert Thomson: Arlington, your mind is a seething torrent ranging across a vast array of issues. Let me see if my much slower brain can respond briefly to the points you're making and then we can elaborate later.

-- The Metro board is asking riders to consider what amounts to an emergency 10-cents a ride surcharge to keep things the way they are now. Board Chairman Jim Graham of the District rejected a proposal to ask the public to consider up to 20 cents.

-- Lighting is a problem in many Metro stations, especially the older ones downtown.

-- A guarantee of waits no longer than 15 minutes would be an improvement. Metro is not proposing improvements.

-- Metro actually has a plan to slightly lengthen wait times on the Red Line.

-- Chris Zimmerman, who would have prefered the option of up to 20 cents, did not propose it to improve service. He wants to prevent service from deteriorating further.


Arlington, Va.: Doc G.,

I've noticed (visibly) that the spacing between rush hour trains has been increasing. Why if they claim they haven't changed anything is this happening?

Robert Thomson: One of several good questions that Zimmerman asked at the Thursday board meeting went like this: If ridership is declining, why do so many people say the trains and buses seem more crowded?

Metro officials say they have not cutback service. None of the cutback proposals offered last week by General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. was approved by the board and Catoe told me he did not plan to implement any of them on his own. (He has the authority as general manager to make "minor" adjustments in service.)

The best answer I have for you at the moment is that there have been many problems with Metro equipment, and it has the effect of widening the gap between trains and buses along many heavily-used routes, so we notice it.

But this topic is very much open for discussion.


Bethesda, Md.: What is Metro's timeline to have the escallators working again at the Bethesda station? I've seen very little work being done to address the problems with all three escalators. Will it take having a Metrorail passenger collapse trying to climb the steps of the longest escalators in the system to get them working properly? Probably not since Metro is making a bad habit of killing customers.

Robert Thomson: The two escalator outages that I've heard the most complaints about are Bethesda and Dupont Circle. At each station, the escalators between mezzanine and street are a trip in themselves. Metro doesn't list any current outages at Dupont Circle. (Anybody disagree?) For Bethesda, Metro is saying that one of those escalators needs major repairs and will be out for the rest of the month. The other busted one should be back well before that.


Brambleton, Va.: How can one request getting a stoplight at an intersection? Specifcally I am in Ashburn - Ryan Road and Northstar Blvd. It's currently a four way stop but there have been a few accidents and way more close calls at this intersection.

Robert Thomson: I think you want to start by contacting VDOT's Northern Virginia office to ask about that, but you, or anyone else in the region wondering about whether a light can be installed at a particular intersection, will probably be in for a long wait. A traffic signal isn't always the best solution to a problem. In fact, signals sometimes make the problem worse.

This is what VDOT engineers would look at, and it's pretty similar to what traffic engineers everywhere would review:

-- the number of vehicles and pedestrians that use an intersection

-- the intersection's physical makeup

-- nearby development

-- traffic delays during peak hours

-- average vehicle speeds

-- nearby construction plans

-- crashes that have occurred there


Bethesda escalators: I'm not a regular on that side of the line, but one night about two weeks ago, the only operational escalator was going down. My understanding is that if only one escalator works at these deep stations, it should always be in the up direction. Didn't a man have a heart attack and die having walked UP the Bethesda escalator?

So I e-mailed Red Line customer service and received a prompt, detailed reply.

About Dupont Circle.

Thanks, kids. Responding to customer service inquiries in a timely fashion is nice. Actually reading the customer's inquiry? Priceless.

Robert Thomson: Well, I think you're doing the right thing. The Dupont Circle situation was an obsession for quite a while, so the Red Line people might have simply made a mistake in answering you.

Now, Bethesda is a big problem and people should be complaining abou that. You're absolutely right that if there's a functioning escalator at that location, it should be in the up direction. (Though a long walk down on an escalator also can be hazardous.) I'd start by telling the station manager to see if you can get action.


Washington, D.C.: Letting everyone know that there is a massive water main break on 17th and P Sts NW. Drivers should avoid the area. The water has flooded down 17th Street and as far as I can tell from the video it's reached O St.

Robert Thomson: Thank you. And other readers, please, if you spot something going on that you think other travelers need to know about, you can contact us through the comments on the Get There blog, through Twitter and by writing to me anytime at drgridlock@washpost.com.


Arlington, Va.: How much "fat" exists at Metro which could be cut? I'm still incensed over Metro's expenditures a year ago on expensive conference room tables.

Robert Thomson: I think if any of us sat down and studied Metro's budget line by line we'd find things to cut. But not enough to make a difference on the main things riders care about. Metro has to cut $40 million from it's current spending plan, for the budget year that ends June 30. It also has to cut $175 million for the budget year that starts July 1. That's not chump change. We're in trouble.


More funding for METRO: It is obvious that METRO needs more funding. I propose a "Take your car to work day" On said day everybody who normally takes the METRO gets in their car and drives to their destination. It will create a nightmare. No traffic will move. DC will not be able to function. Maybe people will realize what an important part METRO plays and be willing to fund it.

Robert Thomson: Hah! I've heard of walk to work days and bike to work days and Try Transit days, but never a take your car to work day.

In a way, that proves your point. We already have way too many cars on the roads. Nobody needs to encourage more.

I do see what you're driving at: If everybody did come in by car, the region would be shut down. Shouldn't take that to prove what a valuable asset we have in Metro.


Bethesda, Md.: In the articles I have seen about metro's proposals to cut costs, I have seen no mention of pay cuts or even a pay freeze. I once heard that something like 80 percent of the expenses of metro were labor costs (please correct me if I am wrong on this number). Considering that riders pay a higher percentage of the cost of metro than the percentage paid by riders of most transit systems in the nation (and that is for what is increasingly becoming lousy "service"), I think that metro look a little closer to home for cost savings. Do you know why rolling back labor costs, as part of a larger solution, are never mentioned? Do they believe that their drivers will bolt and take jobs with other mass transit systems, and the rude people in the kiosks are in high demand somewhere else? Does AIG want to hire their management team? What gives? Sorry, I'm just baffled.

Robert Thomson: There are plenty of hard working people operating our trains and buses. I don't see a good reason the region's failure to finance the transit system should fall largely on them.


Washington, D.C.: In the past few years, when somebody in an online chat would complain about crowded trains, especially on the Orange and Red lines, Lena Sun had almost a rote answer along the lines of, "Metro has new cars on order, and they should be here in a few years." Whatever happened to all those cars on order? Were the orders cancelled?

Robert Thomson: First, let me note that it was the hard work and great reporting of Lena H. Sun and Joe Stephens that brought to light the problems with Metro oversight and the denial of access to inspectors.

We now have all the rail cars we're going to get for a while. The next order won't arrive for a few years. It's targeted to handle the rail extension through Tysons to Reston.

We should have more cars. But the thing is, we'd have to pay for them.


re: Bethesda escalator outages: It's all well and good for Metro to say that two of the escalators at Bethesda need repair, but over the last week there were 4 days when not a single escalator of the three (including the "in service" escalator) were running. So your choice is to heft up the stairs and pausing periodically while others rest (making the climb take up to 20 minutes, which it did for me on Thursday), or waiting for the 50 people crowding the station to elevator up. How would Metro respond to that?

Robert Thomson: They'd say they're working on it. (And thanks for riding Metro.) I know the escalators are aging and exposed to the weather and break down all the time.

Still, you'd think that problems like the ones at Dupont Circle and Bethesda -- inconveniencing thousands of people and perhaps endangering some -- would draw a bigger response. This isn't the last time this is going to happen.


Cleveland Park, Washington, D.C.: With regard to the proposed service cuts on the Red Line to help save money - I ride the Red Line in the early hours (before 6:30 a.m.) before the accident over the summer trains would show up every 6 minutes. Afterward, and still now, trains are nine to 12 minutes apart. If the proposal is every eight minutes, frankly, that'd be an improvement. Though if the push to eight minutes means 15-20 in the a.m., I may decide to start driving.

Robert Thomson: Many Red Line riders told me they were stunned to see this part of Metro's plan to reorganize service on that line:

Increase the scheduled time between rush hour trains from the current five minutes, to six minutes.

Six minutes between trains? they said. It's a deal.

If you'd like to review the plan for revamping the Red Line schedule, take a look at this posting I did on the Get There blog, but keep in mind that the Metro board did not approve this plan when it was presented last Thursday:


Metro hasn't cut service?: That's bull hockey. At 8:30 am last week, I waited 11 minutes for a train from takoma to downtown. Usually the wait is 2 to 4 minutes.

Robert Thomson: It's difficult to judge based on a day or two -- even based on waiting on a platform at your regular time. There are so many things that can screw up the timetable. Again, Metro says it has not cutback the number of trains scheduled for service.

One of the things I've been doing whenever I can is watch the train arrival times on the "Next Train" service on Metro's Web site. There are plenty of long gaps between trains. I notice it especially on the Orange Line and the Red Line. Those are both very long lines through very congested areas. The trains bunch up just like buses, and they sometimes breakdown, creating even bigger gaps between arrivals. A problem in one area affects the entire line.


Arlington, Va.: Why does it seem like Jim Graham holds the Metro board hostage? He says no 20-cent increase, and that's it. He says no bus increase, and that's it. I'm ok with rail increases, but only if there are bus increases as well. Buses serve a lot of areas and cost a lot of money to run (gas isn't getting any cheaper), so why should they be immune? One Metro board member should not get the power to override all decisions.

Robert Thomson: The transit authority's constitution gives each jurisdiction veto power over important changes. So the District could block the proposal to ask that people consider a fare surcharge of up to 20 cents per ride.

That didn't mean the board would wind up approving 20 cents. It just meant that would be the highest figure it could consider.

Graham is consistent: In these situations, he always says he doesn't want to get the public riled up unnecessarily about the size of a fare increase or the extent of service cutbacks.

He also represents the interests of the District, and specifically of his ward in the District. For example, he said he was distressed that so many of the proposed mezzanine closings were at stations in the District.


Arlington, Va.: Question on the Bus vs. Rail debate ...

The last few fair increases have been targeted at Rail ... while bus faires have basically remained the same. My question is, when will bus riders pay their fair share? Also, when we will Metro start charing a fair market rate for metro access? That program is basically bankrupting metro.

Robert Thomson: The fare surcharge, if approved by the board after the public hearing this month, would affect both bus and rail. But you're right that the burden of adding revenue has fallen more heavily on rail riders.

Also, the cost of MetroAccess, the service for people who are elderly or disabled, is an enormous problem for Metro and will need to be addressed.

Metro's leaders can't keep telling us about all these money problems without coming up with a way to address the cost of bus riding and MetroAccess. It's just not credible to do otherwise.


Arlington, Va.: When a door on one of the metro trains will not close why do they take the whole train out of service? Why don't they just empty that car, lock it, and keep the train moving?

Robert Thomson: They sometimes can block off the one car. Depends on the extent of the problem. I've heard from people who get angry when they see a train on a crowded platform with one car blocked off, but the reason may be that the operations center decided to block the one car rather than take the whole train out of service.


Ashburn, Va.: You recently answered a question about snow clearing, saying that VDOT is responsible for all state-numbered roads. I commute to Fairfax and observe that, compared to the snow-clearing efforts on the roads in Fairfax County, the job done on Loudoun's is lame and pathetic. It doesn't make sense. Why should this be so?

Robert Thomson: There were many variations in snow-clearing across the region after the blizzard, but I don't believe they had to do with county borders. (Remember, the Fairfax reader was complaining that the situation was worst in that county.)

Oddly, I think I've gotten more snow clearing complaints in the past week than right after the storm. People are getting really annoyed at those lingering packs of snow on some sidewalks, curbs and streets.


Washington, D.C.: Instead of encouraging mindless bellyaching, why not talk about these LOGIC behind parking policy?

When you park your car on the street, you're making a private use of public space. You should pay for that privilege.

Metering spaces guarantees that spaces turn over several times a day, helping to bring customers to businesses.

Robert Thomson: Actually, that sounds like a pretty good statement of the situation. Parking meters were the original form of congestion pricing. They were installed partly to generate revenue from the use of public property and partly to encourage turnover on heavily used streets. The more turnover there is, the fewer people are driving around endlessly in search of street spaces.


Bethesda, Md.: This morning at around 8:30am the elevator at Bethesda was broken, in addition to two escalators. The working escalator was going up.

I've also noticed that when the elevator or escalators are out at Bethesda there is often no mention made by the train operators. It would be nice if metro could get tehir act together at Bethesda.

Robert Thomson: Thanks for this report.


Anonymous: Dr. Gridlock:

I just read a letter from one of readers that does the NYC to DC commute often enough he provided alternatives to the traffic and the tolls which included using 301 and 295 on occasion. I live in Prince George's County right off BW Pkwy/295. My mom still lives in the city off of 295 and Penn. Ave. My preferred airport for travel and visitors is BWI.

All that to say I travel the route frequently and have noticed MANY drivers use it as an alternative to 95 and thus the traffic is unbearable almost any time of day. The stretch from NASA Goddard to Powder Mill Rd or even the Laurel exits can be a parking lot at 2 p.m. Saturday or Sunday afternoon. Are there any plans for this stretch? Who can we contact for upgrades to BW Pkwy.? It would not be logical to go to 95 if you live in certain parts of D.C. or east of the city.

Robert Thomson: I believe that part of the parkway is controlled by the National Park Service. It's unlikely an organization whose middle name is park is going to whack down all those trees to make more room for cars.


Arlington, Va.: Hi, Dr. Gridlock,

Why doesn't the Metro just increase the base fare to $1.50 and then do each distance increase by $0.25? The nickels and dimes left on MetroCards and SmartTrip passes never disappear, and going by quarters would be much easier.

Also, it would be quicker for passengers to put money into the automated machines and for those machines to dispense change.

Robert Thomson: One thing I haven't mentioned about the fare plans during the chat. This surcharge of up to 10 cents is to keep things the way they are now through June 30. It won't be too much longer before Metro needs to tell us what combination of fare increases and service cuts it's considering to close the $175 million gap it expects in the budget year starting in July.


Olney, Md.: I wanted to warn Metro riders to be careful with their belongings, particularly cell phones, and particularly outside rush hours. One tactic thieves use is to grab a bag of someone who doesn't seem to be paying attention, just before the doors close, allowing the snatcher to run off the train before anyone can follow or even know what happened. Ever since I saw this happen I've tried to remember to keep a grip on my bag(s) when sitting in a less-than full train (packed trains don't allow for grab and dash, though they allow for pick pocketing), and pay attention to those around me.

However, a few weeks ago, I was riding the a red line train toward Glenmont at 7:30 pm, after rush hour, absorbed in something I was reading on my iPhone, when someone tried to grab it. I was holding it up at eye level (to reduce neck strain), and just before the doors closed at Ft. Totten, a guy grabbed at it before he dashed off the train. Fortunately I had a tight enough grip on it and he didn't get it.

It was startling, but I wasn't hurt and it was a good wake-up call. Everyone should remember to keep a grip on your things, especially your electronic devices, and always be aware of your surroundings!

Robert Thomson: Electronic devices are a particular target. Metro transit police warn us to pay attention to our surroundings, and if we're really worried, put the device away. It seems to be very much a crime of opportunity.


Farifax, Va.: Re: D.C. Parking meters with 10 p.m./Sat extension and Handicapped Parking (HP)

I usually go into DC at night and on the weekends to enjoy the activities like dining, theatre, etc. I usually park on the street because it is closer to where I am going. Parking lots/garages have a long walk from where you park your car to just get out of their lots.

So my question... 1) I have heard lots of rumors that my permanent handicapped placard issued by Va. is not accepted in D.C. in the handicapped spaces/meters. So far I have not had an issue - have I just been lucky?

2) What are the rules for parking in a metered space with an handicapped placard? (yes I know I have to be in the car, etc.) specifically, do I get "extra" time not shown on the meter? Do I have to actually move my car when the time has expired? If so- how far do I have to re-park? (This is important to me since distance is the problem with my leg disability).


Robert Thomson: Since I wrote the blog entries and the Commuter page feature about the changes in the parking meter rules, many of the questions I've gotten are about the rules for parking in spaces set aside for disabled people.

I've heard of no planned changes in those rules, but I will double check and post something on the blog after these numerous inquiries.


Washington, D.C.: Do you know if the District eventually plans to replace the remaining coin-operated parking meters with the "Smart Meters" that have been popping up in places? I'm all for making parking more expensive, but I'm also a big proponent of making it easier to pay for.

Robert Thomson: I think you'll see a lot more of those green multi-space meters. But the District also will be testing other types of payment systems, including, I think, those that allow payments through transponders, or over cell phones.


Robert Thomson: Travelers, I have to break away now. Thanks, as always, for a lively discussion. While Metro issues dominated the chat today, I still have many questions and thoughts from you about fare hikes, service cuts, crowding and escalator outages. So I'll talk more about those things on the Get There blog. Also, as always, write to me at drgridlock@washpost.com.


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