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

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Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, January 25, 2010; 12:00 PM

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock. He was online Monday, Jan. 25 to discuss Metro, another cold 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: Thanks for joining me today, travelers. Looks like we've got questions and comments on quite a few transportation topics.

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Washington, D.C.: Dr Gridlock - So the horrible crash was in June of '09 - when is Metro going to start running eight-car Red trains again? I am so tired of trying to board six-car trains at Gallery place in the morning rush hour. Its just not right that this mess should be like this so many months after the accident. Why can't they fix it?

Robert Thomson: I asked Metro's rail chief, Dave Kubicek, if there has been a reduction in the number of eight-car trains in operation as a result of the June 22 crash. He says no.

But riders -- particularly riders on the Red and Orange lines -- frequently write in to ask where the eight-car trains are. Here's my theory, and feel free to comment on it or offer your own theory: We never got as many eight-car trains as we thought we were getting when the newest rail cars arrived.

Many times over the past few years, Metro officials and Metro documents linked the arrival of the newest cars with Metro's intention to operate half of the rush hour trains with eight cars.

Let me illustrate with just one example, drawn from General Manager John B. Catoe Jr.'s Oct. 2 online chat on Metro's Web site. Here's the exchange with a questioner:

"D.C. Cleveland Park, DC: How come so many short (six car?) trains are running on the red line in the morning rush hour."

"Reply: Hi Cleveland Park. Half of our trains during the morning and afternoon rush hour are 8-car trains systemwide. We're maxed out in the number of 8-car trains we can run because we don't have more trains and because we don't have the power (electricity) to run more than that at this time. The goal is to be able to increase that to 75 percent of our fleet as 8-car trains and eventually 100 percent."

On the Red and Orange lines, it's more like a quarter of the rush hour trains are eight cars long. Many riders waiting on the platforms at say, West Falls Church or Grosvenor in the morning were thinking that every other train would be eight-cars long during the peak period. That just never happened. Some trains are eight cars long. But it's entirely possible that the average commuter on those lines won't see an eight-car train listed on the arrivals board as long as he or she is standing on the platform.

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Arlington, Va.: I believe that the appointment of federal officials to the Metro board is a very good first step to improving Metro's performance. From what I read in the Post yesterday both men appointed have impressive credentials: one with a long history in transit the other in regional planning. It is inexplicable why Metro's board is populated by people that live in the area, do not use Metro, and have no apparent expertise in transit. I actually hope the feds do a complete takeover of Metro.

Robert Thomson: I think the feds picked two promising new board members in Mort Downey and Marcel Acosta. One of their attractions was that they ride Metro.

To me, the important point about the Metro board is that it should be dominated by riders, people who consider service changes from the point of view of Orange Line riders, or X1 riders. Many of the current board members can do that, and also have a significant background in transit.

But at times, the board appears to be fragmented among people who are strictly looking out for the political interests of the jurisdiction that appointed them. Adding a few federal appointees won't change that.

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Bethesda, Md.: Is Chain Bridge really going to be completely closed all weekend for the next two weekends? I make almost daily round trips between Bethesda and Ballston, including on weekends, and the construction has been bad enough but I think the closures may drive me over the edge.

Robert Thomson: It's a fact, Bethesda. For the next two weekends, from 8 p.m. Friday through 5 a.m. Monday, expect to find Chain Bridge closed. We're getting near completion of the big rehabilitation project that began in June. It should be done in mid to late February.

But first, the contractor needs to work on the bridge deck and the approaches. Weekend closings were always part of the announced plan. They hadn't been necessary till now.

Canal Road still will be open, but drivers will have to find an alternative -- the Legion, Key, Roosevelt or 14th Street bridges most likely -- to get across the Potomac for those two weekends.

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Arlington, Va.: I've been a longtime supporter of mass transit, but starting in February, I'm out! My spouse has a new job and it will allow us to carpool. (Driving is much more efficient than the $14.00 per day it would cost for both of us to take the Metro... and that's -before- fare increases.)

So... what's the best, most-recommended rush-hour route for getting from Clarendon to downtown Silver Spring? Each of my co-workers who lives in Va. seems to have a different preferred route.

Robert Thomson: I'd keep it simple and get on westbound I-66 to VA 267 to I-495. There are other routes that would take you through the District, but that wouldn't be my favorite option at rush hour. This is not to say that my route will be trouble-free. You're likely to encounter heavy traffic at various points, including the Beltway exits in Silver Spring.

How about others?

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13th and Columbia: Can you explain to me why virtually every train running north of Gallery Place ends at Mt. Vernon Square? I find this odd since the majority of folks who ride the Green Line live in the neighborhoods beyond.

Robert Thomson: At rush hour, Yellow Line trains terminate at Mount Vernon Square. Green Line trains continue to Greenbelt.

I don't believe that the majority of people who ride the Yellow and Green lines live north of Mount Vernon Square, but those northbound trains are very crowded at rush hour. I often have to let several trains pass by before I can squeeze aboard. I find my best bet is to stand at the southern end of the platform. If possible, I wait for an eight-car train. (They have 'em.) People still don't spread out on the platform to use all the cars, and many want to be in the first couple of cars because they are getting off at Fort Totten to switch to the Red Line.

At off-peak times, the Yellow Line trains continue north to Fort Totten, where they turn around and head back in. The turnarounds can't be scheduled at rush hours. The time involved in maneuvering the equipment would reduce the frequency of trains. (The Yellow Line trains don't go past Fort Totten because it's too expensive for Metro.)

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Rockville, Md.: What did it mean that Metro doesn't have enough power (electricity) for longer trains?

Robert Thomson: Metro does have enough power to operate 50 percent eight-car trains during rush hours. Along with buying the newest cars, it had to upgrade the power system to provide that much juice at rush hours. It's expensive. So one way of cutting costs, Metro says, would be to operate six-car trains only.

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H1 Bus: Has WMATA reduced service on this already minimally run line? It's basically the only way to get across town, is always packed, and now runs only once or twice per hour during rush hour.

Robert Thomson: The H1, for those of you who don't use it, is a rush hour bus service linking Brookland and Foggy Bottom in DC. It should be running about every 15 to 20 minutes during the height of rush hour. I'm not aware of any announcements about changes in the service. It's not on the list of the changes that occurred recently, and it's not proposed as a service cut in the plan the Metro board will discuss this week.

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re: Mt Vernon turnaround: The problem is that 3 out of 4 trains are yellow line... meaning that it can be 10-11 minutes of waiting for a Green Line train at RUSH hour. What gives?

Robert Thomson: I haven't had that experience during the past three years of taking Green Line trains north from Mount Vernon Square. I have seen two Yellow Line trains arrive in a row. It crowds the platform, and many people won't be able to board the next Green Line train.

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Arlington, Va.: Hi Dr. G! I need your help answering a question that's been bugging me for a while, which is: what in the world do they paint the road stripes with up here, and how does it differ from what is used in other areas of the country? I ask this because I grew up in Florida and thus came to know nothing other than what is apparently the luxury of being able to see the lines on the road at night and in the rain. It rains almost every other day down there and the lines are just as clear in the rain as during a bright day. Here, it rains any amount and the entire road might as well be a giant mirror ... you can't see anything! A half-dozen lanes of traffic with no visible lines isn't exactly a recipe for safe driving. What gives?

Thanks!

Robert Thomson: I find that on many roads around here, the lane stripes are invisible. I don't like it. But I do think it's a pretty common experience for drivers in the northern climes. The sand, salt and anti-icing chemicals seem to dissolve more than the snow and ice.

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Clarendon to Silver Spring: I'd stay off the interstates and take the surface streets through upper NW.

Key Bridge, left on Canal, up Foxhall to Nebraska, past AU to Military, east on Military to 16th, then north into Silver Spring.

Yes, there are a lot of lights, but come spring it is a very pretty drive and is so much better than sitting on the Beltway.

Robert Thomson: Yes, that is a pretty route in the spring. In my answer, you see my personal reluctance to deal with those red lights. One thing I didn't note for the questioner: Why not experiment with a few different routes before settling on something? That also provides you with some options if traffic reports are telling you about a problem on your main route?

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Berryville, Va.: The last few times that there has been an incident on Eastbound 50 around the Gilbert's corner area (including this mornings tree down incident blocking 50 after Watson), there has been only one police car blocking the road, and no detour options given or posted. What gives?? Not everyone has a GPS or knows all the back roads to get around road closures!!

Robert Thomson: Sorry you encountered that. I'm not sure how quickly VDOT could get out there with message boards suggesting alternative routes after a tree falls in the roadway. And of course, in the Gilbert's Corner area, there aren't that many options. If Route 50 were blocked at Watson Road, nearby drivers almost certainly would want to turn north or south onto Route 15 (at the new roundabout)but aside from that, the options are limited.

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Disabled seating: No doubt you've dealt with this before, but I wasn't paying attention. I injured my knee recently which required me to sit rather than stand on the metro. Yet, I had no outward manifestation of disability. So anytime I was in the seats for the disabled/elderly, I got a myriad of dirty looks/evil eyes/unkind comments. Pregnant women were the worst--boy are they cranky. How do I deal? And really, whose business is it?

Robert Thomson: Nobody's but yours. Stand, er, sit your ground.

The more common complaint I get comes from the other side: Standees who qualify for those seats say they're not available. But I find many people won't ask for them. (The people in the seats should offer, but many don't.) The rules don't say the seats must be kept vacant for people who are elderly or disabled, only that they must be given up to people in need.

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Anonymous: In the most recent lunchtime chat that John Catoe had, I asked him whether there were any savings to be achieved by running 3 8 car trains instead of 4 6 car trains. He said yes, that the 3 8 car trains require one fewer operator, and that WMATA was considering the idea of running fewer, longer trains. (As someone who has done some work in the transportation field although not with WMATA, there are other advantages to this idea as well). Why isn't there more pressure to pursue this idea?

Robert Thomson: Yes, I saw the response to your question. Longer and fewer trains might help crowding in certain spots -- Orange Line heading into the Rosslyn tunnel, for example. But I haven't seen any plan that would do that. One issue for Metrorail officials might be in estimating how crowded the platforms would get at rush hour with longer gaps between trains.

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Rockville, Md.: Why is a bigger gap between trains during rush hour even considered? I get that there's a Metro budget deficit, but the point of the system is safe, efficient transport of people, particularly during rush hour. No one wants to raise fares, but it's nuts to have a system in which angry commuters are crammed onto trains or have to wait for several to come before they can squeeze on. I'm not looking for comfort so much as basic acceptable service.

Robert Thomson: Rockville, I think your feelings are shared by thousands of riders. Personally, I doubt that the Metro board is going to approve that type of service cut this week.

But I'd ask everyone to keep in mind that this current budget shortfall is small change compared to the one coming up for the budget year starting in July. Once we're done with this round this week, Metro is going to have to start showing us plans for additional fare increases AND service cuts to start in July.

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Northern Virginia: This is a response to all of the comments from last week about Metro going to Dulles. People seem to forget that the train goes both ways, and that there are a lot of people who commute into D.C. from the west. Loudoun County runs a few dozen buses into the city. These people are all potential riders of the Dulles line. Metro will provide a lot more flexibility than the buses, running during mid-day, and later in the evening.

Robert Thomson: I think it takes about four buses to handle the number of commuters who can ride on one Metrorail car. Once we get the new Metrorail line -- first out to Reston and then out to Dulles -- I'd organize bus services primarily to get people to the new Metro stations.

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SW Washington, D.C.: FYI, there are occasional Yellow line trains that go to Greenbelt, and occasional Yellow line trains from Greenbelt. No real logic to it, it just happens sometimes.

For the commuter to Silver Spring....good luck. That whole drive is a disaster going both ways.

Robert Thomson: There are a few trains at rush hour that are Yellow to Greenbelt. Metro decided a while back that when it was repositioning trains for rush hour service that -- rather than run them as empty trains to the annoyance of all -- it would take riders all the way.

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Washington, D.C.: "I'd stay off the interstates and take the surface streets through upper NW.

Key Bridge, left on Canal, up Foxhall to Nebraska, past AU to Military, east on Military to 16th, then north into Silver Spring."

I commute from Alexandria to Montgomery County (off 270) and the Beltway is fine at least to the 270 spilt in the morning. Coming home, I think the DC roads may help, but that can backfire too.

Robert Thomson: Another vote for having several options, I think.

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Silver Spring, Md.: For Clarendon to Silver Spring...

You can also continue on Nebraska until the end and make a left on Oregon and then right on Wise through Rock Creek Park. Make left at end on to I think West Beach Drive. At foot of hill (1/10 mile), bear right and then make first right and quick left on to ... the road that parallels West Beach. Make 2nd right on to North Portal (first right is Portal) which takes you to the circle at the District line where Colesville Rd (rte 29), 16th Street, and Eastern Avenue meet. You avoid 16th Street and Military Rd. this way. It's also the most direct route into Silver Spring if you're coming via Nebraska.

Robert Thomson: Not bad, thanks.

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Once we're done with this round this week, Metro is going to have to start showing us plans for additional fare increases AND service cuts to start in July. : I hope the MLB takes away the Nationals because our third class city's Metro will now close at 10 or 11 on a weekday, stranding thousands of fans from getting home. This area is really pathetic with mass transit.

Robert Thomson: There was a point where we weren't sure we'd be able to move fans in and out of Nationals Park without major gridlock. Metro is quite proud of its role in keeping things moving. (And is quite right to feel that way, I think.) I've heard of no service cut plan that fails to take into account the baseball season and the need to move people on the Green Line from Navy Yard Station.

Overall, though, your point about cutting transit service is well taken: This is definitely not a major league way to operate big city transit.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Instead of imposing a surcharge on everyone, why not eliminate the daytime off-peak fare? This would increase revenue but not at the expense of local residents.

Robert Thomson: It's certainly an option. One thing Metro will calculate is how many riders it might lose if it eliminates the off-peak fare and whether the resulting revenue will be sufficiently large to make it worthwhile.

I do think there would be many protests about eliminating the off-peak fare. There are plenty of people -- retirees, for example -- who very much appreciate the off-peak fare.

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Arlington, Va.: re road stripes: I just wish drivers on my stretch of old Lee Highway in Arlington would learn DOUBLE LINES MEANS NO PASSING! The speed limit is also 25 miles-per-hour, but don't tell that to people in their SUVs going 40 on a curvy stretch of road.

Robert Thomson: Oh, come on now. You know all those annoying things, like lane stripes, stop signs, speed limits and traffic signals are just advisories.

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Speaking of Gilbert's Corner.....: ....How has the traffic been flowing since the roundabouts opened? I recall a lot of scare-mongering by the anti-roundabout crowd, but I haven't heard any commentary about problems out there, which leads me to believe they're working better than the old traffic light did.

Robert Thomson: I'm planning to pay another visit to Gilbert's Corner and see how the four roundabouts are working and whether drivers are getting it now. (It was a learning experience.) But I'd also like to hear from drivers who use Route 50 or 15 and can compare traffic flow now to the old signal light days. Write to me at drgridlock@washpost.com.)

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Fare increases vs. service: A comment on the question of whether people would be willing to accept a fare increase for better service or a non-reduction in service. Not only do I think most suburban train riders would be willing to accept it -- 10 cents each way is only $50 a year, but for many its a real no-brainer. Federal employees get a transit subsidy. Unless you're at the end of the line or further (i.e., two trains, bus and tarin, etc.), you are not maxed out. Thus, a fare increase right now would cost many of us absolutely nothing.

Robert Thomson: I think that's reasonable. But let me make these two points for everyone:

-- There's no proposal to impose a fare increase in exchange for better service. The proposal is to impose a fare increase to keep service the way it is now.

-- This 10 cent surcharge the board is considering is nothing compared to the fare increase that's likely going to be proposed for the fiscal year starting in July. If there is a 10 cent surcharge, it's to keep service the way it is from March through June. Things will be different after that.

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Clarendon to Silver Spring: If you go outside of rush hour Rock Creek Park directions, how about Memorial bridge to Rock Creek then exit Rock Creek Park where you like on 16th St.

Robert Thomson: That's a good option outside of rush hour, but wouldn't work for a commuter at regular hours, right?

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Arlington, Va.: The federal presence on the WMATA Board is most welcome. Without external directors, the Board becomes too insular. The end result is Jim Graham calling John Catoe "heaven-sent" upon Catoe accepting the APTA Manager or the Year Award. This, of course, after the death of nine passengers and four employees in the months between announcement of said award and the presentation in Orlando in October. A federal director might have had the sense to tell Catoe to DECLINE an award he clearly did not deserve.

Robert Thomson: I think the board members were right to support Catoe, and as far as I can tell, the entire board did. He resigned on his own, and his resignation will not help Metro.

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Woodley Park, Washington, D.C.: Regarding pavement markings ... Jurisdictions up here are reluctant to pay for very expensive, fancy pavement markings since they will get plowed up every year. Jurisdictions are concerned with lifecycle costs, and those expensive markings are generally designed to last about six years or so. In Florida, they get the full 6 years out of the markings. In Maryland, you might get one year of use before they get plowed up, so they will tend to use less expensive stuff that is cheaper to replace every year.

Robert Thomson: Thanks, Woodley Park. And certainly, jurisdictions make many decisions about pavement types, road markings, snow clearing, etc., based on the climate conditions they're most likely to deal with.

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Takoma, Washington, D.C.: I hope I get this question in on time... I ride the 50 bus line on a regular basis...Now more than ever, it seems as the drivers are switching in the middle of the route (at the bus bay on 14th street) rather than wait to the end of the line. It's more frustrating when the drivers are not ready to pick up the shift on time. On top of that...the traffic in Columbia Heights is getting crazier by the week. Why do metro bus drivers have to switch in the middle of their route?

Robert Thomson: Takoma, I hadn't heard about that procedure on the 14th Street Line, but your description makes it sound like Metro is doing something more for the convenience of the operators than for the riders. The key problem, though, is that the drivers aren't ready to make the switch. Seems like having the switch occur near the bus garage would make that problem less likely, rather than more likely, so it's puzzling.

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Closing Metro's budget: I'm surprised that nobody has suggested raising fares for users of MetroCheck/Smart Benefits. Those rates are already subsidized, so it's not as if those users would be hit as much as those riders who pay 100% of their own pockets. And it's easy to implement because Metro knows which riders are using the subsidized cards.

Robert Thomson: I think this isn't going to happen. The SmartBenefits subsidy exists to provide an incentive to take transit, rather than drive. If Metro decided to raise rates on people who use the benefit, I think the feds would ask for their subsidy back.

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Cost cutting suggestion-eliminate transfer discount: HI Dr. G. In thinking about where to save $$$$ What about doing away with the transfer discounts? While I find it helpful I would also be willing to give it up to close the budget and provide future better service.

Robert Thomson: I think the Metro board of directors is at a point where it would like to hear all these ideas. One practical issue: Metro would have to calculate how many riders it would lose in making a move like this. Some of the discounts -- the off-peak fares, for example -- are designed to create an incentive for people to spend their money on Metro rather than drive.

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Silver Spring, Md.: In the past, you have cited the need to allot precious resources to real trouble spots as the reason that Metro police do not ticket Metro employees' cars filling kiss and ride parking lots. I have noted however that there are frequently 2-3 officers working traffic stops on N. Stuart Street at the Ballston Metro station where it is buses only. If 2-3 officers can be working traffic detail, why couldn't 1 be working parking enforcement?

Before the major station work started, there were days when the entire Silver Spring station kiss and ride waiting area was filled with parked metro employees' cars.

Deeply frustrating.

Robert Thomson: I do think there should be more transit police. The current force is spread way too thin. But I think ticketing people who abuse the time limits on the kiss and ride spots is a perfectly legitimate use of officers' time.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Clarendon to SS - why not just take Metro? It will be quicker than your ride, and you can read. Metro may not be perfect, but there are still fewer metro problems than traffic jams during rush hour on the Beltway.

Robert Thomson: I'd take Metro rather than do that drive, but Clarendon apparently has had it with Metro. I think travelers should do what they think works best for them. It's up to transit advocates -- and I'd include myself -- to make the transit system appealing to travelers.

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Washington, D.C.: I take 21st St., NW between Constitution and Pennsylvania Ave, daily to and from work. Jaywalkers on this street -- especially during GW campus hours -- are a nuisance and hazard. These folks insist on crossing anywhere on the road without warning and are a traffic hazard. Please advise.

Robert Thomson: Tough area. Those streets are narrow and crowded, so many people will just do what seems easiest to them at the moment and cross in mid-block. Many are on cell phones or are using earphones. You think at least they'd look up every now and then.

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University Park, Md.: Dear Dr. G: what's with the totally unnecessary messages on the I-95 electronic sign boards between the Baltimore and DC Beltways? "Travel time to 495 = 12-15 minutes; distance 13 miles." The first day they went up last week on the southbound hill after the MD 175 interchange, traffic crawled to a 40 mile-per-hour snail's pace, the right lane traffic was virtually stopped to the entrance ramp and I saw a couple of near misses. Everyone stopped to read the sign.

What with GPS and everything, we really don't need this cluttered info but if you wanted to make a difference you could get MDOT/SHA to put this alert up every time it rained: "Wipers on? Lights on! It's the law!" Despite Bob Marbourg and Lisa Baden's efforts, the number of drivers without headlights on rainy days would boggle your mind. I drive the corridor twice daily and more are off than on. This is a real safety issue and SHA could help out on it.

Robert Thomson: I really like the new addition of travel time messages to the overhead message boards. I think it's one of the better uses to which they've been put. What I don't like are long messages that drivers slowdown to read, creating more traffic congestion.

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Washington, D.C.: Can you help with METRO etiquette for my #1 pet peeve? Frequently when rushing to get onto a METRO car the person in front of me will step in to the car, and then stop, blocking the door. I guess they need some time to decide whether to go left or right. Well, the bell is ringing and I'm about to be closed out of this car unless they choose fast. So, what do I do? Say excuse me and wait for them to notice how rude they're being? Push my way through? Tap them on the shoulder? Help Dr.

Robert Thomson: Right-left, paper-plastic. So many choices in life and so little time to decide.

I'm sure many travelers instantly recognize the scene you describe. Happens at the ends of escalators, too, doesn't it?

I think "excuse me" should work, perhaps followed by a gentle hand on the back of the shoulder. Do it quickly, cause you know you're going to get whacked by the person behind you who's trying to avoid the closing doors.

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Arlington, Va.: What is the current timeline for the northbound 14th Street bridge project? Is it behind schedule? Are they planning to shift to blocking the middle of the bridge, as originally planned, any time soon?

Robert Thomson: I'll try to learn some more about the scheduled and post it on the Get There blog and on the Sunday Commuter page. The original plan was changed, so that only the right lane on the northbound bridge remained blocked through 2009. But things should change sometime this winter or spring, and work should move across the pavement.

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Re: Closing Metro's Budget: Not everyone who uses SmartBenefits is subsidized. At my organization, you can opt to have the money taken from your pay, but the organization doesn't match it, add to it, or give a discount (my last job did, it cost me $60 for $100 of metrocheks). So no, don't up SmartBenefits.

Robert Thomson: But it's probably a pre-tax deduction from your paycheck, right? (We have that at The Post.) In that case, it's still a form of taxpayer subsidy.

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Robert Thomson: Travelers, I've got to break away now. Thanks for the lively discussion. As usual, I didn't get to all your questions and comments, and see some I'd like to address either on the Get There blog or in my columns or on the Sunday Commuter page. Also, write to me at drgridlock@washpost.com.

Till next week, stay safe.

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