Dr. Gridlock: Your traffic and transit questions

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Robert Thomson
Monday, April 5, 2010; 12:00 PM

The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock, Robert Thomson, was online to take all your questions about Metro, traffic throughout the region and other transportation issues.

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Robert Thomson: Welcome, travelers. Thanks for joining me on such a beautiful day. It certainly makes us feel like traveling, even if it's just a short walk, but it's crowded out there.

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Future Metro Parking: Do you know of any plans to add parking (metro or private) in the area of the new Tysons West Station? With parking at stations closer in (West Falls) one would hope that at least one of the Tyson area stations has parking for the thousands of individuals that commute from the area into DC but are not walkable to the future stations.

Robert Thomson: The four new stations in Tysons won't have parking. People will get to and from them on foot or on bus. The Whiele Avenue station at the end of the line in Reston (the temporary end of the line) will have a big parking garage.Tysons is trying to recreate itself as an actual community, rather than as a parking garage with some shops and offices. A model is the stretch of the Orange Line between Rosslyn and Ballston.

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Pentagon City station closed for several hours Saturday: I've heard that - contrary to what metro announced - there were no shuttle buses to take people around the closed station when it closed for several hours due to a bomb threat. is that true or not?I was on an orange line about the same time, and that was bad enough - wall to wall people. My heart goes out to those poor unfortunate souls.

Robert Thomson: Here's what Metro said about the situation during the Saturday afternoon incident at Pentagon City: "During the station closure, one dozen shuttle buses helped move people around the closure, but delays were extensive along the entire Blue and Yellow Lines."That's not a lot of buses. One train load probably would have overwhelmed them. The problem with the bus bridges set up to get around closed stations is that it takes a while to assemble the buses and by then, there are far too many riders waiting to use them.

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Message Boards: Maryland has begun putting estimated travel times on their traffic message boards. I was wondering when they would. This has been a common practice in other metro areas for years.Anyway, my question is, are the messages broadcast or sent over Internet in any way that one can see them in advance? It would help to know the driving time from Greenbelt to I-270 BEFORE getting on the Beltway.

Robert Thomson: Yes, go to this Web page:http://www.traffic.md.gov/travinfo/dmsSigns.aspThere, you'll find images of Maryland's overhead message boards, including the ones that display the GPS-based travel time information.Not everyone likes them. Some people think it increases traffic congestion as people slow to read them. I think the travel time information is the one of the best uses those message boards have been put to. As long as the information is something of immediate use to drivers, I'm all for it.

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Poor braking techniques: A recently column indicated that I am not alone in being sick of getting jerked around on metro because the conductor doesn't know how to brake smoothly. And the worst is when they announce a station, come to a complete stop, and THEN move up a few feet without even telling you. With the newer cars, there are few places for someone who is 5'3" to grab on to ANYTHING. I think it would be great to have these drivers get put on a crowded train where they are jerked around AND then have them try and exit when the train starts up with no warning.

Robert Thomson: I talked about this in my Sunday column:http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/04/03/AR2010040302936_2.html?sid=ST2010040303493It's a real common complaint, with the trains under manual, rather than automatic control. That means they're being driven by the operators in the front cabs, and some are more skillful than others.I try to make my move from a seat toward the exit while the train is between stations, so that I can get near the door and hold onto something by the time the train approaches the station.Most operators will say something like, "Stand clear! Stand clear! Train moving forward!" before lurching again, but it doesn't always happen.

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Metro Service Cutbacks: Mr. Thomson: for months now in this forum, riders have pointed out that Metrorail has already instituted service cutbacks. And for months now in this forum, you have written that Metro tells you that no, there have been no service cutbacks.They're lying.Since before Christmas, I have noticed a distinct slow down in the number of trains on the Red Line inbound from Silver Spring and the time between trains. Five minutes is the norm and this morning it was seven. No announcements, nothing, just a "normal" morning. (Even with Obama going to the Nats game, there was no appreciable Nats crowd slowing things down.)This has been true for months now yet you keep repeating the Metro lie that there have been no service cutbacks. I'm not the only rider who has noticed nor is this the only line on which it has happened.Which means Metro has instituted service cutbacks on the rail lines and are lying if you are told otherwise.I have relied on Metro for commuting for 20 years. Ninety percent of the time, my commute is uneventful. But I'm getting tired of Metro's repeated lies and the Post's reporting those lies as truth.

Robert Thomson: There's no question the trains are running slower. and that service is less reliable under manual control. If you're saying that you have evidence that Metro is running fewer trains on the lines than it used to, please share that evidence with me. Write to drgridlock@washpost.com.

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Commuting from Dumfries Va to New Carrollton Va: What is the best way to commute on a daily basis from Dumfries Va to New Carrollton using piblic transportation? What is the quickest way to get to Metro Rail or is it better to take VRE? I do not understand VRE and how it connects to Metro.

Robert Thomson: I'd take VRE to L'Enfant Plaza and then get on the Orange Line to New Carrollton. Anybody have other advice?

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Speed bump or camera: Hello,Do you know how difficult it may be for our condo building to petition Montgomery County to place a speed bump on our street? It's a 1/4 mile stretch between Old Georgetown/355 and Nebel Road. Too many people use it as an access road instead of using Montrose Road--which was designed for this volume and speed of traffic. Our street should be mostly used for the residents and grocery store shoppers.Our condo board has heard that there is a waiting list of 200 places for cameras in MoCo. Getting a speed bump seems like the best option. There are over 1,000 apartments in this stretch and we could get the support of all the buildings.Thank you.

Robert Thomson: Submitting a petition is relatively easy, if the people along that stretch generally agree on what they want. Getting the speed bumps is harder. The county evaluates each situation to determine the best solution. Speed bumps and speed cameras are meant to slow traffic not to deter it from entering a street. There are other ways to do that.

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Dangerous Motorcycle Riders: Yesterday I was once again witness to a group of about 15 very dangerous motorcycle riders flying through heavy traffic (on I-95 North in Howard County) and creating an extremely hazardous situation for travelers. These motorcyclists travel at very high speeds (probably 80-100 or more) and weave in and out of traffic. I have seen them before but was wondering if there is anything law-abiding citizens and the police can do to stop them. It is only a matter of time before they create a huge crash and kill somebody.

Robert Thomson: If I were driving along there and had a cell phone, I'd call #77 to get in touch with the nearest state police barracks and report the behavior, which amounts to aggressive driving.

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Parking at Metro Lots: Hi, Dr. G. I have the same situation addressed in your Sunday column a few weeks ago. I have to go down to DC mid-afternoon every 2-3 weeks, and the most convenient Metro station is New Carrollton. I am handicapped and can't walk from the further lots. I typically arrive about 1 p.m. and there is always a sign saying the lot is fullk even though I can always see open spaces (8 last Wed. afternoon, and that's from driving around the outside of the lot).Sadly, Metro pays its lot employees $8/hour w/no benefits. But parkers pay $4.25 to use the lot. That means that if only 2 additional cars park each hour, Metro comes out ahead financially.A well-kept secret is that the Landover lot always has plenty of spaces, but I'd still prefer NC.Thanks.

Robert Thomson: put up the signs at the entrance so people won't pay for parking spots that don't exist. But there's no system for them to figure out quickly that space has become available so they can take the signs down. Very frustrating.I think under those conditions, and if I had a disability, I'd use the MetroAccess paratransit service.

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Chain Bridge: I am curious why the Chain Bridge project, which was originally scheduled to have finished in January, has slipped so much? Could it possibly been a surprise to the parties involved that January and February are winter months and perhaps not the best months for outdoor projects? And even with that, how does a two-week period of snow storms translate into a 4+ month delay?

Robert Thomson: The first slippage occurred last summer, according to DDOT, when the roadway was reconfigured in an attempt to improve the traffic flow somewhat. Around here, Jan. and Feb. have been great times for road construction work -- until this year. The weekend closings of Chain Bridge were postponed more than any other project work I was aware of, though they certainly weren't the only projects that faced repeated delays.It is frustrating that the work will take till the end of May before the third lane is restored. Let's hope they can beat that timetable.

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Finishing MD Beltway resurfacing: Do you know the schedule for continuing the resurfacing of the MD Beltway between American Legion bridge and 270? I'm mostly worried that they forgot to finish - for some reason, they never did the ramp leading from Clara Barton Pkwy southbound to 495 South (the same section where they replaced the bridge last year). Don't know why they didn't repave the ramp while they were doing the bridge work.

Robert Thomson: I'll ask about that. The first priority, as I recall, was to complete the resurfacing on the regular travel and merge lanes on the Beltway. The harsh winter weather, starting in December, could have led to delays. I think paving work needs temps to be above 50 at night.

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Silver Spring, MD: Re: NextBusHave you heard anything lately on the NextBus service? I use it on the J2/J3 in Montgomery County and have found it to be unreliable since December. Buses disappear, buses suddenly appear and the sometimes it's right on the button. I still check it but have found that I can't count on it anymore. Is this only happening to me or is it time to send NextBus back to the garage (again) for a tune up?

Robert Thomson: marked as a minute away, see it marked as arriving -- but never actually see a bus. And a bus might show up at the stop when Next Bus says there's none scheduled.Metro staff is scheduled to make a report to a Metro board committee about this on Thursday.

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Gaithersburg, MD: In all the talk of Metro fare increases, I haven't heard much about parking rates. Is the $1.15/day increase pretty much a done deal, or are they still debating?

Robert Thomson: Nothing seems to be a done deal at the moment. The Metro board will need to make decisions this month. The parking fee increase wasn't in the general manager's proposed budget, but was added for consideration later. The suburban board members are likely to resist any substantial increase. Still, they need to come up with $189 million somehow.

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Downtown gridlock: Afternoon traffic exiting D.C. towards Virginia was a nightmare last week. It took me an extra hour to get home. Nothing was being done on 14th Street to prevent vehicles from "blocking the box." The government employees who are supposed to direct traffic were no where to be found.

Robert Thomson: There aren't enough traffic control officers to handle the downtown gridlock we were experiencing last week -- and may very well see again this week. They can handle a few intersections but not an entire downtown. It's not just the blocks relatively close to the Tidal Basin. I saw gridlock as far north as Mass Ave.

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Red Line (last week): Hi Dr. Gridlock - love your chats. I don't know if anyone has noticed this during the p.m. rush hour last week -- when riding between Rhode Island and Silver Spring, the train slows down. At times it even stopped for a couple of minutes between stations. It happened to me four days in a row. It's just too frustrating! Any idea why?

Robert Thomson: I want to double check on that. I've experienced it, too. And I don't see any track workers out during those times. I know Metro has been working on the track circuits in that zone and thought that was the cause of the slowdown, but it has been going on for a while now -- not just during the p.m. rush.

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Washington, DC: I'm sill flipping through the April 2, press release regarding the closures and restrictions around the Convention Center/Shaw neighborhood to be instituted next week for the Nuclear Security Summit. The mess will begin Sunday evening and continue through Tuesday.Can/will you be stripping this info down to something easier to comprehend?

Robert Thomson: I know what you mean. I did a quick posting to our Get There blog this morning, just to alert drivers and transit users that we're in for a real challenge Sunday night through Tuesday night in the Mount Vernon Square area.Many streets will be blocked to both drivers and pedestrians. There will be parking restrictions. Metrorail won't serve the Mount Vernon Square Station and many Metrobuses will be detoured.I'll keep reminding people about this, and try to boil this down to something more digestable. Plus, we should be able to develop a map to use online and in the newspaper.

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ICC & Shady Grove Rd: Dr. Gridlock, do you know when the first leg of the ICC will open at Shady Grove Road?

Robert Thomson: Late this year.

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Montgomery <-> Loudoun traffic: Is there any long term plan for handling traffic between Montgomery County and the Loudoun tech corridor? Has some kind of rail option been considered where one could ride directly from the end of the new Dulles metro line to Shady Grove?

Robert Thomson: No, that rail thing won't happen. Metro hasn't come up with a final plan for getting the extra trains through the Rosslyn tunnel. The new line will begin operating between Whiele Avenue in Reston and Stadium-Armory. route.

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Metrorail service cutbacks: If the trains are being operated slower due to manual controls that is the same as a cutback in service; if you're running a train every 7 minutes rather than every 3.5 then you've effectively halved the number of trains in any given time period.

Robert Thomson: Yeah, it doesn't make too much difference to riders what's causing it. Metro says it's deploying the same number of trains each day, but the run times are longer and less reliable. That still leaves you waiting on the platform with hundreds of other people, passing up trains till there's one you can squeeze aboard.

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Metro parking: Quote: "Metro employees at the parking lots and garages put up the signs at the entrance so people won't pay for parking spots that don't exist. But there's no system for them to figure out quickly that space has become available so they can take the signs down."How much of a system do you need? If the attendants can count the cars going in, they should be able to count the cars going out. Anybody could develop a simple electronic system that would do the same thing. And why do the attendants have to put up and take down signs? Every roadside motel has a Vacancy/No Vacancy light that can be switched on and off. In fact, spaces in all the lots in the system could be monitored by a couple of employees watching the security cameras (someone IS watching them, right?). Metro just doesn't have to be the mess it is.

Robert Thomson: What I'd like to see is a system like the one used at National Airport, where you can look online to see how many spaces are available in the parking areas before you have to make a decision on whether to head for that station.But I don't see an agency with a $189 million budget gap investing in something that expensive right now. (National Airport has -- what -- three garages and a lot, right? Metro is one of the largest -- if not the largest -- provider of parking in the Washington region. The scale of expense would be quite different.)

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Pedestrians and Crosswalk Laws: Dr. Gridlock -I am a new resident in DC but a long time car-free straphanger. I am downright shocked with the state of enforcement in DC when it comes to pedestrians and crosswalks. In every similar city I've been to, motorists go to great lengths to yield to anyone who even hints at his/her need to cross the street. Here, however, you can spend ten minutes waiting for a gap in traffic so you can dash across the street. I've seen pedestrians stranded in the middle of a median-less street while cars zoom all around them. Whenever a motorist follows the law and yields, other motorists honk their horns angrily and speed around the stopped car. Why do motorists flagrantly violate this law? Do the police care?

Robert Thomson: I've lived in New York -- city and suburbs -- Montreal, El Paso, Honolulu, as well as Washington (city and suburb). I've visited 48 states and Europe. But I can't really say that pedestrians are treated better elsewhere than they are here.Not that I think they're well treated here. Drivers do exactly what you describe. I've seen a lot of bad behavior by drivers toward walkers in the past week, when traffic has been so heavy. And this is at a time when police have launched the annual Street Smart campaign for pedestrian safety.

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Cutback evidence: the evidence is that most days since before Christmas (blizzard week excluded of course) I have had to wait longer and longer for a train to arrive at Silver Spring (am) and Farragut North (pm). The over-crowded platforms at both stations are also evidence.I'll start taking photos of the arrival boards with the increased times and send them.

Robert Thomson: Sure, please do. It's tough for an average rider to monitor a particular station for a long period during the same time frame each day. And it's impossible for a rider to tell how many trains are operating on a line at any given time. (But if I'm wrong about that, please tell me what the secret is, and I'll look at it. What I try to do periodically is pick a station and watch the Next Train arrival times and count the number of cars for each arriving train. What I can tell from that is that service routinely deteriorates as the rush-hour progresses.)

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Speed humps in Montgomery County: The Montgomery County speed hump policy is spelled out here: http://atms.montgomerycountymd.gov/TraffPkgDiv/tmp_html/speedhumps.htmBasically, the process requires resident concurrance (80% of affected residents must agree), speeding a certain amount over the speed limit (generally 7 MPH), and minimum traffic volumes on the roadway in question (100 vehicles per hour).

Robert Thomson: Thank you for these specifics related to the earlier exchange about traffic control on a neighborhood street.

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Dumfries to New Carrollton: To the Dumfries to New Carrollton guy--I'd VRE to Union Station and take MARC from there to New Carrollton. VRE and MARC have a cross-honor agreement that will let the rider take the MARC segment for free. See the VRE web site for more info.

Robert Thomson: Thanks, I hadn't thought of the option of using both suburban train lines.

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Old Georgetown/Nebel: I'm conscientious about driving the speed limit on that stretch (and always stop for pedestrians, even if they aren't in the crosswalk.) I use it because you can't turn left from southbound 355 to eastbound Randolph. I've not lived here long and haven't been able to figure out another way. I'd take a different route if someone would point one out to me that wasn't 3 miles out of my way.

Robert Thomson: I think this is going to be easier when Maryland finishes the interchange at Rockville Pike/Montrose Parkway/Randolph Road. It's been opening in stages.

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Metro Service Cutbacks: I can name one right off the top of my head. Trains have begun terminating at Grosvenor-Strathmore at 3 PM instead of 4 PM. On top of that there are regular waits of 10+ minutes for the next train out to Shady Grove. To add further insult metro insists on running 6 car trains out to Shady Grove and not 8 car trains. Those smaller trains fill up completely when the next train to Shady Grove arrives in to Grosvenor-Strathmore at rush hour.

Robert Thomson: The six-car, eight-car thing is a special gripe of mine. To get money for the long-term capital improvement program that ends this year, Metro pledged that half the trains at rush hour would be eight-cars long. That has never happened. Now, Metro is considering the complete elimination of eight-car trains to save money. This should not be on the table.

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Cops at intersections?: Quote: "There aren't enough traffic control officers to handle the downtown gridlock we were experiencing last week -- and may very well see again this week."That's one of the things cops are for! In every other big city, police officers routinely control major intersections during rush hours and other high-volume times. When was the last time you saw a D.C. cop on traffic duty?

Robert Thomson: The DC police department does a very poor job of traffic control. (I mean as a department, not as individual officers.) I'm glad that the District Department of Transportation is in charge of the traffic control officers, but I'd like to see the force expanded. I'd rather this was the transportation department's mission, as opposed to the police department mission, since the police deal with so many other enforcement issues.

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Anacostia Streetcar Project: What's going on with the Anacostia Streetcar Project at South Capitol and First Sterling Ave? I haven't seen any workers there lately; lanes are still partially blocked.

Robert Thomson: I think there are some issues, including utility relocation. I'll check.

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Dumfries to New Carrollton: The person who wants to use VRE to get to New Carrollton can take VRE to Union Station and then switch to a MARC Penn Line train to New Carrollton. The MARC portion will be free, because they have a sharing agreement.From the VRE website:Our cross honor agreement with MARC allows VRE riders, with a valid tickets, the ability to transfer for free to reverse-flow MARC trains. Reverse-flow trains are defined as trains that are going in the opposite direction of the rush-hour commuters.Riders are permitted to board on any VRE or MARC train leaving Washington until noon and return to Washington on any VRE or MARC train returning the same day, with the same ticket

Robert Thomson: Thanks very much for that elaboration.

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Kingstowne, VA: I know VDOT hasn't made any public statements about which roads may receive a 70-mph speed limit when the new law takes effect on July 1. Have you heard anything about what we might be able to expect in that regard? (For example, two local candidates that come to mind are the Shirley Highway express lanes and the Dulles Greenway.) I'm also wondering if you've heard anything about whether VDOT might re-assess some other speed limits at the same time. For example, I-66 between Fair Oaks and Manassas is one of the best roads in the entire Commonwealth, but it's posted at 55 and 60 mph when it could easily be posted at 65 (and, when it's legal, 70), and the same is true of the Dulles Toll Road. I see it as a bit of a joke that this stretch of I-66 is posted with the same 55-mph speed limit that applies to the vast majority of two-lane roads in Virginia where you pass by going over the center line in the oncoming vehicles' lane. (I can understand a lower limit on the eastbound lanes of I-66 near Fair Oaks because the road east of there is such a terrible road that it makes sense to want drivers to slow for it.)

Robert Thomson: No, I haven't heard any word yet -- official or unofficial -- about increasing the speed limits in Northern Virginia. And I don't recall receiving any letters lately from travelers calling for faster driving in the region. When I get letters about speeds it's usually more specific, such as people venting about other drivers going too slowly in the left lanes.My experience is that when drivers in the Washington area can go faster than the posted speed limit, they do.

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Robert Thomson: I've got to break away now, but hope you can join me again next week. Meanwhile, I'll try to figure out the answers to the several questions above about slowdowns on various Metro lines and about the ramp paving at Clara Barton.Stick with me on the Get There blog, where I'll also post the latest advisories about traffic and transit -- and I hope something new on Thursday about how Next Bus is doing.Stay safe and enjoy traveling in this beautiful spring weather.


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