Dr. Gridlock: Your traffic and transit questions

Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, February 22, 2010; 12:00 PM

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock. He was online Monday, Feb. 22 to discuss Metro safety and its fare hike, the still snowed-over bike paths and your transit and traffic questions from across the Washington region.

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.


Robert Thomson: Hello, travelers. Welcome to the weekly chat. I see a good variety of current topics here in the mailbag.


McLean, Va.: Any word on the Chain Bridge closing for this weekend 2/27 and 2/28? Thank you

Robert Thomson: No, no word yet.


Annapolis, Md.: I had to travel downtown each of the last two weekends and each time parked in a parking garage. I was surprised to see that, where the parking lane was still covered with snow, cars parked in the second lane from the curb, thus narrowing the streets to one lane in each direction and causing significant backups.

This was not allowed in Annapolis, and I suggest it should not be allowed in D.C., either. With D.C. so happy to jump on the tiniest parking violation, ticketing and if need be towing these cars could raise significant revenue and make for much easier driving.

Robert Thomson: Yes, those cars should have been ticketed and towed. There were plenty of parking violations all across the region that didn't get attended to in the aftermath of the storm.


Washington, D.C. : this ought to be an obvious no-brainer that Metro has already planned for, but when the Metro reaches Dulles, will the lines be re-configured to provide no-change-of-train service between the short-haul airport (Reagan) and the long-haul/int'l airport (Dulles) for passengers and their large, heavy suitcases?

Robert Thomson: It's a good idea, but I know of no plan to do that. The current plan calls for trains to run between Dulles and Stadium-Armory Station. I'm not sure how difficult it would be to move a train from the inbound Orange Line track to the outbound Blue Line track at Rosslyn. Might require a major reconstruction. If so, I think it's unlikely we'll see that. Passengers would have to change at Rosslyn or at L'Enfant Plaza.


Ellicott City, Md.: With Virginia's new administration, is there any formal attempt you know of to repeal or amend the Move Over law?

If people knew about it, i.e. that driving past a police cruiser on the shoulder is a misdemeanor, I believe there would be an enormous electoral backlash against those legislators responsible for it.

Do you know if Maryland and D.C. have similar laws?

Robert Thomson: I can't imagine the new administration will attempt to repeal the Move Over law, designed as a protection for police and emergency workers parked on the shoulders. Most states have such laws, but Maryland does not.

The laws require that drivers move to the next lane on a multi-lane road or, if that's not possible, slow down. It doesn't seem to be that difficult to comply with.


Washington, D.C.: Metro riders all need to get on board with the fact that there is only one way out of WMATA's current budget crisis, and that is for the contributing jurisdictions to increase their operating subsidies. Yes, this may mean that taxes may need to go up in certain jurisdictions, or that extremely hard choices may have to be made in others, but there is in fact no other viable solution. There is no more fat to cut at headquarters; Metro needs to spend every capital dollar exactly where it was intended, rather than moving those dollars to operations; riders can only be counted on to pay so much more in increased fares and fees; and service can only be cut so much more. Increased subsidies are the only answer, and that can only happen if riders express to their respective elected officials that Metro is a priority for scarce resources- politicians won't put Metro funding at the top of the list of priorities without political cover. Riders - make your choice - pay for Metro or not, but understand what your choices will mean.

Robert Thomson: I agree with this, but I don't see any sign of it happening. Metro's board of directors needs to lead the way. They need to send a formal appeal to Maryland, D.C. and Virginia. Even if they think the jurisdictions will turn them down -- which is quite likely -- they need to make the effort.

Riders would need to get behind such an effort the same way parents get behind efforts to increase funding for public schools. Without the riders, who else is going to get behind Metro's leadership? Most taxpayers in the jurisdictions are not regular riders of Metro. What's to convince them they should car if you have to pay more to ride, or you get less service while paying more?


Arlington, Va.: Do you have any suggestions how a Metro Rider can actually influence Metro Rail operations?

Last week I emailed every Va. Board of Director member, the ATU Local 689 union, police contacts and every WMATA contact form on the website regarding the dangerous over crowding at Gallery Place. Generally the response has been a huge black hole - I have to assume that my concerns went into the trash never to be seen, and never to have any influence on the situation whatsoever.

But I do have to thank the Police for responding - one Police Captain responded with the standard "the day in question" experienced events which caused overcrowding - which we all know frames the common event of dangerous overcrowding as a rare occurrence.

Robert Thomson: I believe Metro's managers are well aware of the problem at Gallery Place. In fact, it came up during a larger discussion among board members and staff last week about whether the policies imposed after the June 22 crash need a review.

That's because a big part of the problem at Gallery Place is that the trains on the Shady Grove-bound side of the Red Line platform pull to the front of the platform. Requiring that they do so at all stations while under manual control was a good safety move. It means we won't have doors opening in the tunnels.

But the policy has created a new problem that is most apparent at Gallery Place. That station wasn't designed for this. There's no a crush where the people leaving the Red Line platform encounter the people coming up from the Yellow/Green line platform.


McLean, Va.: They had to make Move Over (or slow down) a law? I was taught (lo these many years ago) that it was one of those things you were just supposed to do.

One thing I've noticed in McLean is that where the front end loaders were used to pick up snow on residential streets, they destroyed some curbs, and some storm drain covers. Does VDOT pay for the repairs, or do homeowners have to get their insurance companies involved?

Robert Thomson: Have you contacted VDOT about this yet? You can do it by e-mail if you like: novainfo@vdot.virginia.gov


Silver Spring, Md.: RE: no-change-of-train service between Reagan and Dulles.

The switch configuration at Rosslyn will not easily allow an inbound Silver Line from Dulles to proceed down the Blue Line to Reagan. A train would have to come into Rosslyn and then reverse out down the Blue line, which would take a fair amount of time. So, in short, without a new switch there will always be a connection to get between Dulles and Reagan.

Robert Thomson: Anybody know how it got to be called the Silver Line? I haven't encountered anyone at Metro who knows the origin. In The Post, it just starts to appear, as in, "the new line, known as the Silver Line ..."


Silver Spring, Md.: Have there been any updates on Metro's plans to revise the Smartbenefits program to a monthly rollover? This month's storms were a relatively unforeseeable event in terms of altering your withholding in advance, and I'll be carrying about $60 in unspent fares into next month as a result. Under the plan Metro publicized late last year, that money would have disappeared into limbo at the end of the month.

Robert Thomson: Because of such issues, Metro asked the IRS to allow it another year to figure out the details of the SmartBenefits conversion. That means it won't change till January. I would hope that this time, we'll hear the details while there's still time to discuss them and for everybody to plan for the conversion.


Washington, DC: Hi Doc. Apparently due to construction on the inbound 14th Street bridge, the lane markings are very confusing -- it appears that there are two sets that merge and diverge. I have repeatedly experienced and seen close calls on that bridge because one person thinks he or she is just motoring along and another person thinks the first person is changing lanes. Honking, braking, and general aggravation ensue. Why can't they just lay down some clear markings?

Robert Thomson: Yes, that's certainly become a tricky spot. But I think many other drivers have discovered their own spots where the lines have faded this winter. I doubt we'll see much action on that till the roads are completely clear of snow and ice.


Arlington, Va.: I appreciate that the roads are still a work in progress, but our region's government snow clearing efforts are willfully ignoring those of us who cannot afford a car, and rely on transit stops, sidewalks, and paths to get around.

Two people dead in Prince George's county, kids are photographed in the Post walking in a road next to a plowed-in sidewalk, and all we hear is the old canard about how it's the adjacent property owner's responsbility to clear.

Guess what? It's not happening, and people are dying. Start cleaning and fining these people, make WMATA clean out their own transit stops, hold the cities/counties/Fed Gov't to those same standards, and crack down on speeding drivers. It's more than TWO WEEKS after the storm, and I'm tired of having to wear a stupid reflective vest just to walk home Frogger-style from work at night.

Robert Thomson: So often, we've been told that in dangerous driving conditions we should leave our cars at home and take transit, bike or walk. But that common wisdom is turned on its head this month.

Bad as driving is, walking is even worse. Even standing still at a bus stop can be dangerous. I say at a bus stop, but few people can actually wait at the bus stop right now. They're either covered with ice, or the passengers have to bound through a ridge of ice to reach the bus when it stops.


Road repair budget: Any chance McDonnell will be able to keep his campaign promise to 'not' raise taxes while managing to fix Virginia's roads after Snowmageddon? He also said he'd address major transportation problems too....

Robert Thomson: I don't see how he's going to be able to address "major transportation problems" as we define them. That would take actual money. I don't believe there was any way either candidate for Virginia governor was going to solve Northern Virginia's transportation problems.


Rockville, Md.: Metro Funding Source

The jurisdictions should so what they do all around the country - add a fee on car rentals at the airports and rooms in motels so that tourists pay the fee thus not incurring the wrath of local voters. In Dallas more than 50 percent of the car rental costs are "taxes" going to the locals; in Phoenix tourists help pay for some arena. It would be payback for the fees our folks pay when they go to Dallas, Phoenix, etc.

Robert Thomson: I think that's a fine idea, but I think we'd need others. Look at the size of the problem: Metro faces a $189 million shortfall in its operating budget,the budget to keep the trains and buses running. But it also hasn't figured out where to find much of the $11 billion it says it needs in this decade to pay for new buses and trains, and maintain what we've got.

What you're proposing is a form of dedicated funding for Metro, and that's good. But I think there would have to be several sources of that revenue -- and those of us who live here might actually have to provide some of it.


Cleveland Park, Washington, D.C.: Hi Dr. Gridlock - I've lost track of the Chain Bridge weekend closings. I know the planned closings were postponed due to bad weather. Have the closings happened yet? And when is Chain Bridge scheduled to be back to normal? Thanks!

Robert Thomson: I think the two weekend closings were delayed three times because of bad weather in late January and February. I've not heard any new dates for that work, which involves painting and concrete repairs.

But there seems no way the contractor can meet the goal of getting the bridge back to normal by the end of February. This weekend work involves the full closing of the bridge, and nobody wants to switch that to a weekday project.


Silver Spring, Md.: If I were the Metro Board, I would not only propose but also enact the drastic fare increases and service cuts necessary to keep the agency afloat. Commutes like the Friday following the two snowstorms show just how vital a properly functioning Metro is to the region, so maybe experiencing the pain of significant cuts would cause enough public outcry to force the Federal and state governments to adequately fund Metro. Money is far from the only problem facing the transit agency, but there's no hope of fixing any of the other problems without it.

Robert Thomson: That certainly would energize Metro riders into a constituency for transit service. There's plenty of rider anger about the service -- we all know that -- but I don't see that anger getting directed into some meaningful action, like pushing the local governments to provide more money for both the operating and capital budgets.

You're right that money isn't the only problem facing the transit agency, but the money issue has become so big, there's no way of avoiding it. We need a vocal constituency for Metro right now.


Chevy Chase, Md.: Just writing to let you know that I support clearing the snow off the trails. I'm a frequent user of the Capital Crescent Trail from Bethesda to D.C., but for now I'm tying up narrowed and/or snow-covered sidewalks. An active community is a healthy community, and green commuters should be rewarded for their lifestyle with a Bobcat or two!

Robert Thomson: Yes, I think the biking and walking routes got short changed in the storm cleanup. But come to think of it, there aren't too many travelers who feel satisfied with the cleanup.

I've been saying in my column that the transportation agencies needed to be realistic with us in early February about the natural disaster that was coming our way. None of them had the resources to deal with three feet of snow. They all have reasonable plans based on experience dealing with six-inch storms. But what we had this month was a once in a lifetime experience for us and for the cleaner-uppers. None of us was prepared to handle it well.


Washington, D.C.: My patience is gone. I get that the snow this winter is at historic levels and I get that attention must be paid first to the roads. But as a DC resident, voter, tax-payer, pedestrian, and bus rider, I am upset that the District not only directs no efforts to making pedestrian routes clear, but seems to spend more time and energy clearing parking spaces along the roads! I walk from Columbia Heights to Cleveland Park daily. The sidewalks along Klingle bridge and Porter St are not clear (some abut public property, but many sections abut private property).

Pedestrians must walk in the street amidst speeding vehicles. This is bad enough but then the District cleared the parking lane along Porter by plowing a mountain of snow onto a section of sidewalk that had been cleared. And the Quebec House apartment builing plowed all of the snow off of their private parking lot into a bus zone on Porter St. Too bad for the wheelchair-bound guy who uses (or used to) that bus stop. I've reported all of these conditions to the District, including providing building management phone numbers where I know them, and NOTHING has been done.

Robert Thomson: Travelers across the entire region will find your description a very accurate reflection of what they've been looking at for two weeks. The condition of the sidewalks and bus stops is deplorable.

But we don't have enough government or contractor equipment to clear the sidewalks. And I think it's been proven beyond a reasonable doubt that we don't have enough equipment to clear the roads either in a winter disaster.

We need to discuss what to do about that, but I hope we won't decide to pay for the equipment and workforce it would take to deal easily with a winter we're unlikely to see again.


Adams Morgan: I would like to give WMATA bus drivers on the 42 line both a yay and a nay for dealing with the snow and the awful commute the past few weeks.

Yay goes to the bus drivers who keep their patience and do there best to get as many riders on the bus as possible so we can all get to work/home eventually.

Nay goes to the bus drivers who go whizzing by bus stops without stopping - even though there is plenty of room in the back of the bus - if they would just ask people to move back.

This was particularly true at 9 a.m. on 2/19 at the corner of 19th and Columbia when both bus #2183 and bus #2204 went right on by despite being only half full. Incidentally, I emailed WMATA about this incident but have gotten no response.

Robert Thomson: I think all of the transportation agencies have been overwhelmed with the volume of complaints they've gotten. I understand what you're saying on the buses. Even yesterday, when I was riding Route 70 buses up and down Georgia Avenue, the drivers had to deal with difficult conditions created by the snow banks. But so did the passengers. Many stops were difficult to reach, and if people could reach them, they couldn't easily get between the stop and the bus. (Our northbound driver did tell people to move back. Sometimes it takes just one person to create a bottleneck in those close quarters.)


Washington, D.C.: How does Metro explain Next Bus' consistent inaccuracy and the tendency of buses to arrive and leave ahead of schedule?

I use the D2/D1. The D2 either arrives at my stop before the predicted time by Next Bus, or as was the case this morning - the D1 arrived 40 minutes after the Next Bus prediction.

Robert Thomson: We've talked about the D buses several times. They've got a particular problem getting around the streets of Glover Park and Georgetown, where the streets are narrow and the buses have to negotiate their way around snow banks and parked cars. A street that might be passable for cars might not be so easy for a bus, especially at an intersection where the bus has to turn.

On Next Bus: I love having this real-time arrival system. I think the concept is a breakthrough for transit users. But it clearly isn't something we've been able to rely on this month. I used it yesterday while waiting for the 70 bus to come up 7th Street and Georgia Avenue. The farther away the bus was, the less accurate the prediction was. The predictor said the bus was seven minutes away. Then 10 minutes later it said it was four minutes away. The four minutes lasted about seven minutes.

And I consider that a very good experience compared to some of the stories you travelers have been telling me. Your stories are often about these ghost buses, the ones that the predictor says are arriving, but we never get to see them.


Bethesda, Md.: RE: Capital Crescent Trail

Yes, this was a huge storm, and I would not expect the trail to be plowed the next day, but the problem is it is -- never -- plowed and takes several weeks to melt. It is not even close to being rideable right now. So, instead, I ride a bike down Wisconsin Ave to get to work, which gets drivers unhappy and puts my life at risk. All for the want of a very small amount of plowing in the scheme of things.

Robert Thomson: What do we mean when we say we understand that this was a huge event? We usually go on to say that something about our transportation network should have been restored by now. What leads us to believe that?

There's no one who can tell us what should have happened by now. We have nothing to compare with this winter.

I don't say that out of lack of sympathy. Plenty of people were just trapped -- and remain trapped -- by these storms. The consequences for people who don't have cars has been particularly strong, and lingering.

But those who can should modify their behavior in light of the natural disaster we suffered. If you think you're taking your life in your hands by using a certain form of transportation, research your options. Wisconsin Avenue is well served by trains and buses. Other parts of the region -- of the nation -- should be so lucky.


Washington, D.C.: Please reiterate to your readers that it is downright unfriendly and un-neighborly and of course, illegal, at least in DC, to "reserve" a public parking space, even after one shovels out said space. Many people live on snow emergency routes and absolutely have just as much right to park in any public space, regardless of the effort that others may have put into clearing that space. Folks that may consider themselves righteous and good neighbors are doing this, and they need to stop.

Robert Thomson: There's a lot of well-worn lawn furniture out there on the city streets. It's certainly true that people have no legal right to reserve spaces. Still, I feel some sympathy for those who do after spending several hours digging the vehicles out.

On some streets, I saw the best possible solution: The residents of the block got together and dug everyone out, so that there was no issue of only a few having access to street parking.


Alexandria, Va.: Any updates on the 395 HOT Lanes project?

Robert Thomson: No, that's still stalled. It's partly about solving community issues with the High Occupancy Toll lane plan, but also partly about whether the project can go ahead in the current economy. Meanwhile, the Beltway HOT lanes project is starting to get back on track as it emerges from the snow cover.


Sick of the Snow: The most insane thing about the constant whining about the snow cleanup is that since this literally happens only one of about every SEVEN winters (1996, 2003, 2010), if we kept budget levels constantly high enough to battle this kind of disaster, everyone -- and I do mean everyone -- would be whining about how the budget is bloated. And frankly they'd be right since we don't regularly get these levels of snowfall (as proven by people's utter ineptitude in dealing with it -- see the lady with the Navigator from the other week on the Dr. Gridlock column).

I'm not saying that the area has handled it well, but seriously people, please get some perspective.

Robert Thomson: I think there's no one alive who can tell us about a winter like this, with three major storms and a couple of minor ones. (At least, they seem minor in relation to the three huge ones.)

I remember every Washington winter since 1988, and I find it impossible to say whether any particular agency did a better or worse than it did in similar circumstances. There haven't been similar circumstances.

Remember how after the '96 winter so many people went out and bought gas-guzzling SUVs, so they'd be ready for the next big one? I fear we're in for some similar type of reaction now, like generals figuring out how to fight the last war. Snow plans can be improved. Communications and coordination can be better. But there's no point investing in the staff and equipment to quickly return the transportation network to normal after huge back-to-back storms. Think of what other transportation improvements -- the improvements we discuss every week here -- that we could pay for with that money.


Capital Crescent Trail: I miss biking the trail, but it's hard to complain when I see things like a little old woman standing in a lane of traffic on Old Georgetown Road because there is no walkable path within 1/2 a block of her bus stop.

Robert Thomson: There have been many scary scenes. Higher up in the discussion, a commenter pointed out the riveting picture by a Post photographer showing children who had just gotten off a school bus walking along a busy highway. They were in a travel lane and there was nothing they could do about it. If a car came too close, they'd have to throw themselves into a snowbank. Not much chance.


Washington, D.C.: Re: SmartBenefits: With the new fare increases effectively this coming Mon.,3/1, how will SmartBenefits be affected?

Robert Thomson: No effect on SmartBenefits -- other than that our benefits will be drawn down more quickly. But that's probably small change compared to what we're probably in for when the Metro board tries to balance the next budget, the one starting in July.


Fairfax, Va.: Supervisor John Cook of Fairfax County recently stated in a public meeting that a bicycle is "not a transportation device". What do you think of this statement?

Robert Thomson: I didn't hear what the supervisor said or the context, but I certainly think of the bicycle as a transportation device. I think our feet are a transportation device, too.

Think how far we've come: I certainly remember when the car was king and all others had to scatter before its path. One of the most encouraging developments in U.S. transportation over the past decade has been the growing awareness that we have to offer people a variety of ways to stay mobile.


Dulles to National on Metro: How many passengers might actually need to make this connection? Very few would be my guess, and they will all probably be able to use escalators with their rollerbags or backpack, as they are prepared to do at their exit stations. Metro should forget about this minor inconvenience to a very few and address the much more important issues it faces.

Robert Thomson: It would be nice to solve that one, but given Metro's other fundamental problems -- many of them requiring huge gobs of money to solve -- I think the airport to airport passengers are probably in for a transfer rather than a direct trip.


Anonymous: this might be better for your colleague Pearlstein, but this area had better hold onto some of the stimulus dollars to fix these roads! The pot holes are winning! I have even seen where snow plows ripped up speed bumps.

Robert Thomson: Even though we don't have the roads completely cleared, we already are facing the next problem, with potholes. I do see the road agencies starting to turn their attention to fixing them, but we're in for some pretty rough rides in the next couple of weeks.


Robert Thomson: Travelers, I've got to break away now. The snowstorm clean up has certainly been the dominant element in today's mailbag. Many of the questions and comments I couldn't get to also are on that theme. I'll see if I can post some more of them on the Get There blog. And please continue to write to me about all your transportation concerns at drgridlock@washpost.com.

Stay safe, and let's pick up the conversation again next Monday.


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