Dr. Gridlock: Your traffic and transit questions

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Robert Thomson
Monday, May 3, 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. Did the rain give you any trouble getting around this morning? Who's started using the car air-conditioner? Looks like it's going to stay pretty warm this week. We're starting to get some questions about our locacl traffic issues. Keep them coming, and see if you can help out some other commuters in these first couple of questions.

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Commuting - So. Md. to Branch Ave. Metro: Hi, I hope you can help me out here. I commute from So Md. to D.C. using Branch Ave. metro. I usually use Rt. 5 there and back but have recently discovered Rt. 4 (Penn. Ave.) and have been using it more and more. Leaving Branch Ave. metro, I drive down Auth Rd. to Allentown Rd, merge onto Suitland Pkwy, and then turn on Rt. 4. My problem is trying to do this in reverse. I can't figure out how to get from Rt. 4 back to Allentown Rd.Maps haven't helped me at all. It seems I can't access Allentown Rd. west from the Suitland Pkwy. Is this correct? Thanks!

Robert Thomson: Are there travelers from Prince George's and Southern Maryland who can help us with directions today?

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Leesburg, Va.: Can someone answer why 28 northbound (out of the Toll Rd) has been heavy, even stopped, with traffic? It seems like it was slowly building, but it's definitely noticeable esp. after the interchange at Innovation Blvd was completed. Is it really the Greenway's fault since they raised the toll?

Robert Thomson: I've had nothing but positive comments about Route 28 in recent times, because of all the interchange reconstruction. The removal of the traffic signal for the northbound traffic at Innovation should have made the flow better.How far north does the heavy traffic continue?

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Kingstowne, VA: Dr. Gridlock, do you know of a place where one can report typos on road signs? The signs that prompt me to ask this are in DC, but I often notice errors in Virginia as well.Went to a Nationals game the week before last and noted that the street signs at the corner of South Capitol and Potomac outside the ballpark are a mishmash: Several correctly say "Potomac Avenue" but one says "Potomac Street." At least DC got rid of the other sign, just up the road from there, that said "Pedestrain [sic] Prohibited." But in late March I also noted an orange sign in the DC-295 work zone that said "Shollder [sic] Closed."

Robert Thomson: I do hear about sign spellings from time to time. It's usually the various transportation departments that take care of them, the District Department of Transportation, Virginia Dept of Transportation and Maryland State Highway Administration. (Though, in the suburbs, it's possible signs were posted by the county or city transportation department.)The other problem I hear about is signs left up too long, after the issue has been resolved or the work done.

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Rush Hour?: When is "rush hour" according to Metro? I ask because I often arrive at my Blue Line station between 8:40 and 8:50. Over the past few weeks, trains are running 8-11 minutes apart - which doesn't seem like "rush hour" service to me. Does rush hour end at 9, so they are switching to slower service earlier?

Robert Thomson: Sometimes the trains arrive close together. Sometimes there are big gaps.As the rush hour develops the schedule gets less and less realistic. Trains may break down. But more commonly, they spend longer than they are supposed to at the more crowded platforms. A lead train waits a long time for riders to get on and off. The following train gets closer. When it arrives at the platform, there are fewer people waiting. So it travels through the station faster and gets closer to the train ahead and farther from the train behind.Metro has a plan for the Red Line that will decrease the number of trains in the hope of making the service more consistent. It will keep the same capacity on the line by boosting the number of eight-car trains.Would you like to see that kind of experiment on the other lines?I wonder how riders will react to the peak of the peak fare? This proposal seems quite likely to become reality this August. Riders could pay a surcharge of as much as 50 cents to ride at the peak of the peak, 7 to 9 a.m. and 4:30 to6 p.m. They'd be paying the higher fare but there's no promise of better service.

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Bus schedules: How do the buses get so far off schedule, even at less busy times? I was planning on taking an early (9:30 am) 92 bus this weekend, and I checked next bus before I headed out. The bus was over an hour behind schedule. I take the X2 on an almost daily basis, and it is rarely on time. This is ridiculous - how does Metro expect people to ride the bus, when they can't manage to keep them on something resembling a schedule? And how does DC expect to develop the H Street corridor when the transportation options there are so inconsistent?

Robert Thomson: The X2 is one of those difficult routes through the most congested part of the city, with plenty of construction in the H Street corridor, as well as plenty of traffic and red lights.This is one of the reasons people are pushing for dedicated bus lanes and street cars on various high-volume routes. They think it's a way to develop reliable transit service. On H Street, tracks are being laid as part of a streetscape project. But the District does not yet have the money for the actual streetcar operation.(I wonder about your experience with Next Bus. Many riders have told me that they don't believe they can rely on its accuracy, especially on the routes through congested areas.)

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For the Southern Maryland commuter: The person who submitted the very first question is correct that you cannot go left from Suitland Parkway to Allentown Road. If you pass under the Beltway, however, you can take the next left onto Forestville Road, pass back over the Beltway, and then go left onto Allentown Road. Total distance is just under a mile.

Robert Thomson: Thanks very much for the feedback to today's first question.

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Signs left up too long: Speakng of signs left up to long, how much longer till they take down the constructions signs about the Chain Bridge

Robert Thomson: End of May is when we're supposed to get the third lane back on Chain Bridge. I haven't heard about any more weekend shutdowns, such as we had this past weekend.

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Metro Center: Just a note to riders. I normally ride the Orange line during the morning rush. Last week I was delayed at home waiting for a repair tech and hopped on the train to come downtown at 11AM.The train was a complete pig sty. It's hard to notice when the trains are packed, but once emptied the cars are covered in trash, particularly left behind newspapers.People. Take your trash with you. No one is reading the Express you leave on the seat. Throw it out when you get off. We complain about budget cuts but force Metro staff to unnecessarily spend extra time cleaning after our mess.

Robert Thomson: I so agree with this. Just after morning rush always looks the worst to me. I've seen Metro people come through the cars and grab trash at the end of the line stations, but there's only so much they can collect before the train has to head back down the line.There are plenty of trash and recycling bins in the stations. Why is this so hard?

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Re: Toll Rd.: Generally it can back up from Waxpool, especially at the interchanges for Old Ox and Sterling Rd.Yes, I loved it when the interchange opened and they got rid of the light. But now, you can screech to a halt after going through the toll.

Robert Thomson: Thanks for the feedback on the Route 28 northbound congestion. Does it seem to be traffic going all the way north to Route 7, or does it generally ease up before that?We didn't experience much of a downturn in traffic during the recession, but there was some. Perhaps we're rebounding from that now?

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Metro's Smartrip changes, postponed from last year: Late last year, Metro announced that it would postpone the changes they had annouced to the Smartrip program. One of the most egregious elements of the announced changes were that any funds left on the card at the end of the month would be confiscated and returned to the commuter's employer, regardless of whether the money came from the employer or the commuter. Employers would have the choice of keeping the money or setting up a system to return it to the employee (which would probably be expensive for the employer).When Metro announced the postponement of this system, they said they would examine ways of improving this, but didn't make any commitment to changing it. Has Metro done anything in the meanwhile, or are they just going to roll it out late this year unchanged from last year?

Robert Thomson: The Post allows us a pre-tax deduction from our salary and we download the amount to our SmarTrip cards each month.)The problem will be if we get into the fall and Metro still hasn't announced a new approach that the employers and the riders can deal with before it takes effect in January.

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Huge yellow trusses: What are the giant yellow trusses in the median of the toll road. I assume that they're construction equipment for the metro line, but what do they do exactly?

Robert Thomson: Yep. The enormous yellow trusses will assemble the pre-fabricated pieces of the elevated rail line. We'll be seeing a lot of them between the Tysons area and Reston for the next couple of years.

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Signing of Construction Zones and Detours: As it has been over the past 6-8 months, the construction crews on the HOT lanes over the weekend AGAIN failed to put up proper signs and detours over the weekend. I was coming home along the inner loop of the beltway, and knew that the Braddock Road exit would be closed because of the numerous announcements here and by other news outlets.However, when I reached the exit, the only indication that the exit was closed was a police officer with his lights flashing and a single orange cone at the interchange entrance. There was not a single road sign or variable sign board stating that the exit was closed, and not a single sign after the closure directing drivers how to get around the closure.This seems to be a weekly occurrance, yet despite my e-mails to VDOT about the situation that is not isoated to this particular interchange, but a characteristic of the entire HOT lane construction process, the same poor management is continuing to occur. When are the HOT lane construction managers going to come to the realization that they need to inform drivers on the road when construction is occurring and how to get around closures resulting from their construction?

Robert Thomson: I'll ask about the signage. Generally, I've found that the VDOT Megaprojects office has been very, very good about spreading the word concerning upcoming lane, ramp and road closings -- of which we have had a lot and will have many more during the HOT lanes project, scheduled to end in 2013.Here on our site, I try to include at least some of the HOT lanes construction information in my Monday and Friday roundups. Plus, I do a nightly heads-up called "Headaches on the horizon" in which I routinely list overnight construction information for the HOT lanes. I recently did a feature for The Post's Sunday commuter pagef in which I summarized the HOT lanes work coming up this season. This is a high-impact year for the project,m and for the Dulles Rail project.

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DC Bike Share: Hi Dr. Gridlock, I was one of the people with an extended European vacation due to the Iceland volcano. On one of my extra days in Paris, I took advantage of their Velib bike share, and thought it was fantastic. I know that DC has a bike sharing program, but it hasn't been something I've been able to take advantage of because there are few too docking stations.I would love to be able to ride one of the bikes too and from work, but the additional time it would take for me to walk to a station and pick up a bike, and then walk to my office after dropping off the bike, would actually add time to my commute. In Paris it seems like there are docking stations with a large number of bikes every couple of blocks. Do you know if there are any plans in DC to expand the program so that more people can take advantage of it? I would love to be able to bike and not have to worry about someone stealing my own bike!

Robert Thomson: I think Gabe Klein, director of the District Department of Transportation, and his people are really into the bike sharing program and are anxious to expand it.Here's a Web site where you can read more about DC's SmartBike program:https://www.smartbikedc.com/I've heard good reviews of it from cyclists, who also would like to have more stations available around the city.

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Chain Bridge: The closures of Chain Bridge are devastating to traffic flow around here. I seem to remember that Just a few years ago the bridge underwent a major reconstruction. If my memory holds true, then why is all the current work needed so quickly afterward? If true it would seem that this is a major case of mismanagement.

Robert Thomson: The last Chain Bridge rehab equivalent to this one was done in the early 1980s. This project, which began in June, has drawn a lot of complaints from travelers. The timetable for bringing back the third lane has been pushed back several times. Plus, drivers feel like they're not seeing much work.The action is largely below the bridge rather than on the road deck.The other thing that annoys people is that when it's done and the inconvenience is over, it's still going to be the same old bridge -- only it should last longer.I get more complaints about this project than about the 14th Street Bridge rehab, which also is behind schedule.

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Peak Fare: Would that be measured when you entered the system or when you leave the system? If I get on at 5:45 pm would I pay peak fare even if I exited Metro at 6:15?

Robert Thomson: If you enter at peak time, you get charged the peak fare. I think that probably will apply to the peak of the peak as well, but it's a good question and I'll double check.The Metro board has not yet approved a peak of the peak fare or settled on the rate. It could decide to impose it only in the crowded core of the train system.If approved, the surcharge would probably take effect in August. The rest of the fare hikes would take effect on June 27. The difference is the time it takes Metro to adjust its fare equipment and software to account for this brand new type of charge.

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Rockville, Md.: Why has Montgomery County created many new "No Turn on Red" intersections? With all the Montrose Parkway construction, every intersection has no turn on red. The lights are so poorly timed that people heading north on 355 and going east onto Randolph can't turn right even when there is no traffic on the road. As other lights release east-bound cars (from the west), those cars then get a red so those exiting from 355 can turn right. There are no sightline problems or pedestrian crossings here - just stupid no turn on red signs.

Robert Thomson: Generally speaking, Montgomery County puts the no turn on red signs in congested areas where there's lots of traffic or lots of pedestrians or both. Drivers often look left to make sure they can squeeze into the traffic when making the right on red, but don't look right to make sure there are no pedestrians.The county Department of Transportation can always modify the signs but it doesn't surprise me that they would start out this way along a new roadway.By the way, I see many more drivers obeying the "right on red" part but not so many obeying the "after stop" part.

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Non-existent Yellow Line: Hi, I was wondering if you know why the Yellow Line has been running about nine minutes apart during the morning rush hour? I've started getting up ten minutes earlier -- 6:15 a.m. -- to make sure I'm not late to work in case I miss a train and have a long wait. FYI, I get to Crystal City at about 7:20 a.m. Last week the trains were consistently late and the platform was seven deep before the next Yellow train arrived.

Robert Thomson: I know we had a few incidents on the Yellow Line last week, the most serious of which was the derailment of a piece of track equipment that slowed service throughout the morning.Seems like there have been a lot of equipment failures lately.

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Takoma Park, Md.: I must say I'm all for the peak of the peak fare. Costs only go one way (up), and people always adjust. But if Metro had cut service and made the subway system less relevant to people's lives, riders would leave and new riders would not replace them. I'm not a D.C. native so I am VERY appreciative of effective public transportation, even if it is as buggy as Metro has been in the past 3 or so years. But if it ceases to be effective, then it's just a tourist ride and not public transport.

Robert Thomson: All good points. I'm still not sure about the peak of the peak fare. Some advocates describe it as "congestion pricing," which I think is a good idea if pricing can be used to encourage people to vary their travel habits.But with peak of the peak, 7:30 to 9 a.m. and 4:30 to 6 p.m., we're talking about many people who can't change their ride time without getting the boss's okay. They're a captive audience for a fare surcharge.Also: Metro is not suggesting that the overall fare hike and the peak of the peak surcharge will improve service. At best, it will keep it from getting worse.

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Pedestrian crosswalk -- Memorial Bridge: Dr. Gridlock: who is responsible for the roads and signage at the Virginia end of the Memorial Bridge? As a runner and biker, I have almost been creamed on several occassions using the crosswalks near what I think is the GW Parkway. I think a "yield to pedestrians" or "slow down" sign would go a long way. Most drivers are going way over the speed limit. I see little if any traffic enforcement, and I know that there have been accidents and injuries here. I would like to know who to write too. Thanks.

Robert Thomson: This has been an issue for the National Park Service all along the GW Parkway.

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Peak of the peak: Won't this new "peak of the peak" surcharge just force more riders to travel at slightly different times, which will cause traveling within the system simply terrible for huge blocks of time? I also think this surcharge will drive many people into their cars, crowding our already oversaturated and underdeveloped road system.

Robert Thomson: Some people will stop riding. The boss won't let them arrive at 9:30, but the boss will let them drive. Balanced against that: Many riders during the peak of the peak get a federal subsidy to ride transit. because it hasn't tried anything like this before.

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HOT Lane Management: Is there any indication as to how much it will cost to travel on the HOT lanes? Also, have they come up with a way of enforcing the high-occupancy status of vehicles traveling in the lanes?

Robert Thomson: I don't recall a limit being set on what the HOT lanes operators can charge to use the lanes. It's basically supply and demand. You don't have to use those lanes unless you think the money is worth your time savings.Everyone -- carpoolers and solo drivers alike -- will have to have an E-ZPass transponder. Carpoolers, or people who want the option carpooling, will get one with some sort of cutoff switch, so they don't get charged for using the lanes. In the beginning, at least, this will be enforced by police using their eyes to count the people in the cars.

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Chinatown: Has Metro figured out a solution to the heat situation at Chinatown, or is this going to be another awful summer? I've noticed that the station is already starting to get uncomfortably hot on days when the temperature is above 75 degrees...

Robert Thomson: I'm not aware of a new problem at Gallery Place for this hot-weather season, but I'll check.

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Why Metro?: If Metro is going to jack up both fares and parking, why should anyone bother riding? It would cost me over $15 to park and ride from the station closest to my house to work if the new fares are instituted. Not only that a trip that would take me about 30 minutes to drive from door to door (with $10 parking), while taking Metro takes over an hour door to door on a good day. So, please Dr. Gridlock, tell me why I should bother taking a system that will cost 50 percent more and take twice as long on a daily basis than driving.

Robert Thomson: You should do what works best for you. I never say otherwise.Metro needs a balanced budget. The finance people are aware that some people will stop riding as the fares go up. They take that into consideration when estimating revenue.By the way, I don't believe the daily parking fees will go up -- certainly not by the 50 cents in the latest proposal to the board. Suburban reps on the board are opposed to it as much as DC rep Jim Graham is opposed to cutting back the night-owl service on weekends.

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28 North: Traffic seems to ease on North bound 28 after passing the exit for Waxpool. However, there is consistently a back up once you exit 28 for 7 West. The culprit seems to be the light just after the exit (can't remember the intersection, but it's the first light after getting on 7 W from 28.) It seems to be timed disproportionately to the amount of traffic turning onto 7.Do you think that by virtue of the Sheriff's Office bring located on this street that light timing may be rigged?

Robert Thomson: I wonder if that backup might have anything to do with the construction of the new interchange at Route 7 and the Loudoun County Parkway in Ashburn?(No, I don't believe VDOT engineers are giving a break to the Loudoun County sheriff's office on the light timing.)

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thoughts on NextBus: I have not ridden a bus in a couple of months (commuting change) but my experience was the buses were not registering in the nextbus system. That is, I would check the system before i left my house, see that the next bus was 40 minutes out, walk to the stop anyway (it was only 3 minutes or so) and catch the bus right on time. It was not always true (don't get me started on the bus driver who thought his route was part of the NASCAR circuit) but often enough.

Robert Thomson: Yes, I call these the ghost buses. Either the GPS equipment on the bus isn't working or the driver isn't turning it on.

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DC to NYC on Friday: Hey Doc-G,Driving up to NYC for the weekend, leaving on Friday. Decided to leave after DC rush hour but risking getting into New York at rush hour. How bad is RH in New York, going into town? Did I make the right call? How bad will the NJ turnpike be? Any tips for my sanity? Thanks!

Robert Thomson: Should take you about four hours to reach NYC. I wouldn't wait too long after the DC rush. You'll find plenty of northbound traffic on 95 and the NJ Turnpike on Fridays. (E-ZPass is like gold on that route.)I don't know of an uncrowded route into New York, where I grew up.

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Would I like to?: "Metro has a plan for the Red Line that will decrease the number of trains in the hope of making the service more consistent. It will keep the same capacity on the line by boosting the number of eight-car trains. Would you like to see that kind of experiment on the other lines?"No I would not. Especially in the downtown core. People cannot efficiently spread out enough to properly fill the trains that well. Longer waits means you have to depend on those trains being filled and used to their full potential. I don't think people will be able to do that. Didn't they try this before like maybe 5 years ago and people hated it? Or maybe it was the mixed together with their late night 2 car train experiments that were horrible.

Robert Thomson: If the Red Line revision works like Metro says, I think it could be good. The service would be more reliable. You wouldn't get the weird gaps between trains that you have now.But this is theory. Many off-peak riders also experience longer than scheduled gaps between trains. We don't really know if reducing the number of trains solves anything.I do think riders have made some adjustments to the eight-car trains. But, yes, you still see cars that are really jammed and cars that seem half full on the same train.

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Route 28 Traffic: Traffic on 28 North is heavy from the Toll Road to Waxpool. It opens up again until the overpass for Route 7 West.Speaking of Route 7 West, now that the LC Pkwy overpass is open (YEA!), are other lights proposed to be taken down on Route 7?

Robert Thomson: I don't know of any other lights scheduled to come down on Route 7 because of the opening of the new interchangae with the Loudoun County Parkway. It's partially open now. The whole thing won't be done till mid-summer.If there's a Route 7 light you're thinking might come down, drop me a line at drgridlock@washpost.com.

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Peak of the Peak fares and Rail Passes: Does Metro have any idea how peak of the peak fares are going to be incorporated into rail passes, either the 7 days unlimited pass or the MTA/MARC or VRE weekly passes? I commute with a TLC and am seriously concerned as to how the pass will change as a result of Metro's changes, never mind what MARC may do in the near future.

Robert Thomson: That's a good question about the impact on passes. I don't believe we'll know for sure until the Metro board actually adopts a specific fare structure, which should be later this month.

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Train times: Is August really the best time to start testing? Kids out of school, Congress out of session, tourists avoiding the heat. It seems a bit unrealistic to get a good idea of how these things will work.

Robert Thomson: You mean about the peak of the peak fare, right? I don't mean it would be a test.The transit staff wants the fare increases to take effect as soon as practical, so Metro can start getting that revenue so the budget will be balanced. Most fare increases would take effect June 27.Metro simply can't do the peak of the peak then, say the finance people, because it's a type of fare increase that the current software can't handle. That's why they're talking about August. That's just as soon as they can do it.For judging the impact of the peak of the peak on revenue, Metro would need the experience of at least six months out of its fiscal year. And I think that's what you're saying: Metro would need to see ridership patterns over a couple of seasons.

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To Atlantic City on Friday: I'm driving myself to meet family in Atlantic City Friday night. I'll be leaving Centreville around 9 p.m., is it best to go all the way to the AC Expressway or simply take US-40 going in? They'll be leaving earlier in the day so they should be fine, I just don't want to waste a lot of time on back roads if there are other ways that will be better.

Robert Thomson: With a departure that late from our area, I'd take the turnpike to the expressway. Should take about three and a half hours.

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Red Line: A.Robert Thomson writes: I know we had a few incidents on the Yellow Line last week, the most serious of which was the derailment of a piece of track equipment that slowed service throughout the morning. Seems like there have been a lot of equipment failures lately.You see, this is what concerns me about the schedule changes to the Red Line: If Metro is short on subway cars, we'll get 6-car trains instead of the promised 8-car trains, but they'll be spaced further apart than now, even as we are asked to pay BOTH a peak-of-the-peak surcharge and a downtown station surcharge. Metro's new motto seems to be "Pay More for Less Service!"

Robert Thomson: Metro keeps trains in reserve -- "gap trains" -- for when trains break down. The derailment on the Yellow Line didn't involve any passenger cars. When trains are forced to run slowly, as they were on the Yellow Line because of that incident, Metro's unlikely to add any trains to the line.It's also a fairly large project to break trains up on one line for the sake of adding cars to trains on another line.So that kind of raiding shouldn't be a particular concern about the Red Line plan. However, I do think you're overall point is valid.Consider this: Metro's five year capital plan promised that be now half the trains at rush hour would be eight cars long. That's not the case now, and won't be under any current plan.

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Robert Thomson: Travelers, thanks for spending all this time with me. One of the big themes today has been the peak of the peak fare proposal on Metro. I think I should write some more about that on the Get There blog.Also, I'd better check out the traffic along Route 28. And there are some other issues in your unpublished comments I'd like to get to, such as what's going on with the lanes on Pennsylvania Avenue downtown. Watch the Get There blog for further postings, and write to me anytime at drgridlock@washpost.com. That's the mailbag from which I draw the letters we publish in the paper. So if you'd like your letter published, please include your full name and home community.I hope to talk with you again next Monday. Stay safe.


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