Dr. Gridlock: Your traffic and transit questions

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Robert Thomson
Monday, May 17, 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. Anyone planning to bike to work this Friday? I hope the new Pennsylvania Avenue bike lanes are ready by then. But some drivers may not feel the same way. Drivers, what trouble spots are you seeing on our roadways? Transit users, what do you think of Metro's peak of the peak fare proposal? We'll take your questions and comments on all our local issues.

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MORE Metro hikes?: Realistically, what is the ceiling for hiked Metro charges? Also, is there -- or will there ever be -- consideration given to a potential flat fair? Personally, even though it might cost me a little more overall, I'd be happy to pay a flat $2.00 just to know what I was paying every time. This is getting ridiculous, and trying to save a few cents per ride now I feel like is just going to come back and bite us in the butt in the long run ...

Robert Thomson: Complicated, isn't it? The maximum fare probably will be set at $5. But then you'll have to add the peak of the peak surcharge to that. It's not clear yet what the Metro board will do on peak of peak. That could be 10 cents or 20 cents. I think 20 is most likely, though the board does have the ability to peg it as high as 50 cents.Flat fare is not the direction Metro is going on. As you can see from the peak of the peak proposal, the fare system is trending toward the more complex.I think the flat fare probably would be higher than $2. Probably more like $2.50 now. But the key issue is a jurisdictional one. The inner jurisdictions won't go for it. It raises fares for short-distance riders, for the sake of lowering them for the long distance riders.

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Rockville, Md.: Why does it take WMATA so long to put service disruptions in their database? Friday morning the Red Line had a problem due to "standing water" on a track (and it hadn't been raining that morning or the night before). Going to the WMATA website, and the most recent reported disruptions are for April 26th.

Robert Thomson: Metro's eAlerts can be a bit spotty. I get them for all lines. I also look at the alerts coming across on Metro's Twitter feed: http://twitter.com/WMATAMetro also puts the alerts on its Facebook page:http://www.facebook.com/WMATAThe archived reports on service disruptions have slipped recently. I can't find any reports for May. This would be a good area for Metro to maintain, given the recent interest in transparency and accountability.This is the archive I'm talking about:http://www.wmata.com/rail/disruption_reports/archived_service_reports.cfm

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Riding the Red Line: While riding the Red Line last week, the conductor made an announcement I found very curious, basically blaming the rough, jerking nature of the ride on the fact that the cars on the train were mixed from various series of Metro cars and thus incompatible, so there was nothing he could do about it.I have never heard this before and it seemed completely wrong. My problem with the bad ride seems related to short stops and sudden stops and starts, not the cars themselves. Do you have any insight into this?

Robert Thomson: When Metro decided to place the old cars, the 1000 Series cars, in the middle of the trains after the June 22 crash, transit officials told us this would probably contribute to a rougher ride and more maintenance, because of the difficulty in merging the technology of new and old cars. So the operator was telling the truth.But there's a bit more to it than that. Some of the smoothness of the ride depends on the operator's skill at stopping and starting. Some operators just aren't that good at driving. (As you know, the trains were built to be operated automatically.)The issues with manual control go beyond the rough stopping and starting. Manual control also creates more wear and tear on the equipment, leading to more frequent breakdowns.History shows that operators do get better at driving the trains with more experience.

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Bikers: Dr. Gridlock-Why are so many rescources being devoted to bikers (i.e. the new bike lanes). It is not fair that a few bikers have to inconvience the thousands of of drives.

Robert Thomson: That's a question I know many drivers are asking, because the transportation departments are trying to boost the number of bike lanes to make their streets more bike friendly.I know what the transportation departments would say: Remember when HOV lanes seemed like a crazy idea? Now they're crammed with carpoolers. (As well as cheaters.)That's the idea with bike lanes. They're not being set up because there's such a huge number of cyclists now. The governments want to encourage more people to get on cycles. for commuting as well as for just general getting around. The main way to do that is to make cyclists feel safe on the roads.

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Senior Discount: Yesterday the Post published a letter from someone who is about 85 saying that the senior fare should be limited because some seniors have enough money to go full fare. This might indeed be true but senior and disabled fares are voluntary and you have to apply for them and somehow be certified to get the benefit. If you don't want it or want it off-hours that is a personal choice.

Robert Thomson: Despite Metro's continual budget crises, there hasn't been any push to diminish the reduced fare for seniors and people with disabilities. I just don't see there being much support to change this.By the way, I've been meaning to answer this recent FAQ: Seniors and disabled people would pay half the peak of the peak fare, as long as they're using their special cards or passes.

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Metro Faregates: On the Metro, when at the faregate, why do some people wait for the faregate to fully close before inserting their farecard or tapping their SmarTrip card? During rush hour that is quite a hassle for the people behind those that practice this nonsensical method.Here's a helpful hint: When the person in front of you inserts their farecard and the gate opens and they walk through, you can go ahead and insert (or tap) your card, the machine will read it and the gate will remain open for you (if you have enough money on the card, ofcourse).I've seen this happen for an entire line of people where the faregate never actually closes! The line moves by very quickly and efficiantly when folks do it this way. However, there's always that one person that just stops, stands there and waits for the faregate to close before inserting or tapping their card. Ugh, frustrating especially when in a rush.

Robert Thomson: So that's gone away.I think lots of riders would say that tourists with paper fare cards are the most likely source of a backup at the fare gate.

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H ST. NW: If I remember correctly they tried to stop turns at the Chinatown gates intersection before and the signs would disappear. At least during rush hours. What is going to happen to this Barnes Dance intersection when the attention is gone and the workers directing traffic work another intersection?

Robert Thomson: I think that's a real concern -- that once the traffic control officers are gone from the Barnes Dance intersection at 7th and H streets NW in Chinatown that drivers will start turning left and right again. That would be bad for safety and for efficiency. The experiment with the all-way pedestrian crossing could fail because of that.

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Metro's Money Woes: Why is there no consideration of opening up segments of the Metro to filming? Areas of the Metro closed at night and not under maintenance could generate revenue, why not change the current policy? If it's not a safety issue for New York, Chicago, or Baltimore...why here?

Robert Thomson: As I recall, Metro makes it pretty tough on film makers. They have to comply with Metro rules. For example, Metro once had a problem with showing anyone running on a platform, because Metro wants to discourage people from doing that.It's distracting to see a movie set in Washington where the person enters a subway station and then winds up riding a train that's clearly from another city.

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Toll Road chokepoints...revisited: Since I saw no update in the "Get There blog" this week, so I'll ask again - why the closed and unrepaired toll booth at the Dulles Toll Road main plaza eastbound?

Robert Thomson: Sorry, I still don't know.

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14th st Bridge: Is the 14th street bridge project wildly over schedule? I thought the entire project was going to take 2 years...but its been about a year and they seem to only have finished half of one lane? Do you know when it is projected to end? thanks!

Robert Thomson: Yes and yes. The entire project is supposed to take two years. But when it was presented to us one year ago, we were told that the lane closings on the northbound span would take place over the first year. In other words, they should be wrapping up about now.Judging by driver comments and my own experience, this hasn't been a huge problem. The closing of the right lane has been the least disruptive thing for traffic. I thought that when the lane closings began to move out into the middle, we'd see traffic worsen.That's still going to happen, only now it's set to begin in June. As soon as I know the new schedule and the details on the lane closings, I'll publicize them.

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left ramp for I-370 from Shady Grove Road: Is this left entrance ramp for I-370 permanent? It seems like a disaster, with the narrowing lane (from 2-1) and that the left lane to get to the exit is too short, not to mention the left exit for shady grove metro just beyond this left exit, creating a rush hour jam. I am guessing this is related to the ICC.

Robert Thomson: Yes, this is an ICC thing. The traffic shift occurred to make room for workers to build a bridge related to the Intercounty Connector project. That portion of the new highway is scheduled to open late this year.The State Highway Administration thought this would result in traffic congestion and suggested some alternatives. I can repeat them for you in case it helps anyone:As an alternate route for motorists on west/southbound Shady Grove Road currently using I-370 to get to I-270, motorists may continue on Shady Grove Road beyond I-370 and turn right onto MD 355 (Frederick Road).Drivers heading for I-270 south traveling from points north should consider MD Route 118 (Germantown Road), Middlebrook Road or MD Route 124 (Montgomery Village Avenue/Quince Orchard Road) to reach I-270 and avoid Shady Grove Road.

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Alexandria (ffx county) Crosswalk: Do you know what is the proper procedure in Fairfax County to request a cross walk?

Robert Thomson: I know the county transportation department has an online form:https://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/contact/mailform.aspx?ref=3064But the county notes that if it's a state-maintained road, as most of them are, then VDOT is going to have a say on this. The county also notes that you might contact your county supervisor's office. (I often find that contacting the office of the supervisor, or the council member is a big help on advancing such projects in the DC region.)

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Bike to Work Day: Is the good Doctor going to participate in Bike to Work Day this Friday?

Robert Thomson: I was thinking about it. Haven't done it yet. Friday is a busy day for me, because it's the day I write "The weekend and beyond" for the Get There blog, the Sunday Dr. Gridlock column and the "Dr. G's tips" feature for the Sunday Commuter page. So I try to avoid fieldwork on Fridays.But it is tempting. I've been a strictly recreational cyclist -- never experimenting with using a bike to commute. Bike to Work Day is a great thing because it lets people like me experiment with bike commuting in the safety of a convoy.

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re: waiting for faregate to close: This is correct, and I agree, except for handicapped gate. You have to wait for that to close before you can scan your card or it does not register.

Robert Thomson: I have a few more comments in the mailbag in response to the getting through the fare gates issue. I'll show you them, too.

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Re: Metro Faregates: To the Original Poster: I've found that you can't insert a paper farecard until the gates close but you are absolutely correct on the SmartTrip front. It is annoying. Also, Bethesda still has the Express Lanes marked for the SmartTrip. Do the other stations not?

Robert Thomson: I've been using a SmarTrip card for a long time, but I do remember having trouble with this when I was using a paper fare card. Also, I'd swear there have been times when the gates closed on me when I was following the person in front of me closely at rush hour.

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SmartTrip only turnstiles: They still exist in Bethesda at least and I wish they could be installed at Farragut! What's so confusing about them?

Robert Thomson: Couple of travelers wrote in to say they like those lanes. I think what happened was that a lot of riders thought they were for something besides the SmarTrip cards. Thought they couldn't use them even though they had the cards.

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SmartTrip Express Lanes: Actually Pentagon City still has those express lanes and I love the heck out of them as the lines of tourists/mall rats piles up at the other normal lanes. More express lanes say I!

Robert Thomson: I'm not aware of Metro removing the lanes from any of the stations where the experiment occurred. Nats fans who get off at Navy Yard Station and use the Half Street entrance still see them there on the right hand side as they exit.It's just that the transit authority decided after a test period that it would not expand their use to other stations.

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Metro smelly and dank: Hello Dr.,Had an occasion to ride the metro for a looong time yesterday, and noticed that the air is really bad and some elevators smelled like hobos had been living there. Mostly at L'Enfant Plaza. Is there any air circulating in that underground system?

Robert Thomson: I think we haven't quite reached the point where Metro turns on the air cooling system in the stations -- I'd better double check that and report back to you. What I'm remembering is that last summer, I went from station to station spot-checking the temperatures.Metro's Plant Maintenance Department has its hands full trying to maintain the aging equipment, especially in those original stations in downtown DC.Riders, let me know what you're experiencing as things start to heat up.

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metro gates: I now wait because I have been burned by the person in front whose card doesn't work and gets out on my card. I got a large bruise to prove it.The ones that annoy me are what I call the "out darn spot" people. The ones that rub their card multiple times, they get an error message for connecting too many times and it takes the system a few seconds to reset.

Robert Thomson: I've had the first experience and observed the second.

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Peak Peak Fares: Having peak peak fare means that visitors, seniors, and diabled leaving the museums at closing will get hit with higher fares. Already visitors I have had (if more than two people) find parking in a garage in the District to be cheaper than the Metro. Those of us on the Red Line at the outer edges are getting worse service and at a higher price. Until Metro gets escalators repaired on Red Line and keeps them repaired, there should be no fare increases.

Robert Thomson: As I'm sure you know, Metro traditionally charges by time and distance, so it's not a new thing that riders who take the longest trips pay the most, or that people who travel during rush hour pay the highest rate. The peak of the peak would be an extra tier on the time element, though. Under the plan, this surcharge would be added from 7:30 to 9 a.m. and from 4:30 to 6 p.m. weekdays.Like you, I'd love to see those escalators fixed. Right now, the leading complaint-generator is Bethesda Station, where the two escalators between the platform and mezzanine are out. I'm hoping that the new general manager, Richard Sarles, is going to be able to make some progress on the escalators by assigning teams to tackle specific trouble spots.Throughout it's budget problems, Metro has never promised that fare increases will lead to better service. The most anyone will say is that conditions may not deteriorate as quickly thanks to the fare increases.

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Bikers: Bikers should be licensed and ticketed if caught on cameras running lights, stop signs, etc.

Robert Thomson: I had an interesting letter noting that in Idaho, cyclists are allowed to treat stop signs as yield signs and red lights as stop signs. The letter argued that other states should follow this example, because it's more realistic. What do you think?

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RE: Speediness at Metro Faregates: When your SmartTrip card is only reading, say, 8 or 9 in 10 swipes (as mine always has done, even when it was new), going through right on the heels of someone else going through the faregate can actually mean your card didn't register, and that you'll have to deal with it getting off.And deity forbid that you should actually bother -- or in some cases, be able to find -- a station manager to help you deal with it when you're exiting. Easier to piggyback on another passenger's exit and short the system a fare.(I have, on occasion in the past, been literally unable to find any WMATA employee near the fare-gates at Silver Spring.)

Robert Thomson: Okay, I obsess on this as much as anybody. I've had the experience of putting down my card on the reader and having nothing happen. Then I go one gate over and it works fine. But because I have that problem sometimes, I stretch out my arm as far ahead as possible with the SmarTrip card so I won't actually be in the gate when I find out if it's going to work. That way, if it doesn't work, I won't be blocked in by the person behind me.

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Interior of Metro Cars: Dr. Gridlock -Had a chance to ride on of Metro's test cars with the new flooring and seat covers a couple of weeks ago. I liked the alternative - the car certainly looked much nicer than the oldest cars in the fleet. Any word from Metro on which flooring option or seat cover option they are leaning towards (or is the test still going on)?

Robert Thomson: No, I'm pretty sure Metro is still developing plans for the interiors of the 7000 Series cars. That's the next generation, but they still haven't been ordered.As I recall, Metro had three test cars. When I see them, it tends to be on the Green Line. There were three different floorings, but the idea was to get away from the carpet. One of the floorings didn't look so good. I thought the darkest color was standing up better than the others.

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Uncaring metro worker: Good afternoon,Yesterday I was lost in the metro system and asked for a particular exit. A metro employee slouched in a chair gave me directions. I was on my mobility scooter. When I got to where she directed me, the other metro person said I couldn't exit b/c there were only stairs there! Dontcha think the first person should have thought about that? It wasted a good 10 minutes of my time...

Robert Thomson: My experience over the past 22 years with Metro employees has been really good. I've found them almost always helpful and active when I had a question. But I've certainly heard from many riders who haven't shared my luck. The bad experiences people have are usually very similar to what you just described.

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Arlington, Va.: Dr G., when will the Eastern Ave bridge work be completed? The delays on 295 are terrible, and with all the other work being done around the region it can be hard to plan alternate routes. Thanks.

Robert Thomson: is scheduled to last into October. But that's much better than the original plan, which would have had the rebuilding last for two years.Drivers today would have encountered a new traffic pattern on the southbound side of 295, with the lanes shifted to the left.

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Peak-of-the-Peak: Say I rely on the D5 bus to connect me to Foggy Bottom station in the morning, and I have my commute timed to get to the station well before 7:30 to avoid the future peak-of-the-peak surcharge. Yet this morning the bus was ten minutes late (surprise!) and I got to Foggy Bottom after 7:30. Would I still be exempt from having to pay the congestion surcharge, having transferred from a bus, or would I be forced to pay, despite having tried to play by the rules?

Robert Thomson: Yeah, you'll be stuck. The surcharge would be assessed when you go through the Metrorail fare gate. (There won't be any surcharge on Metrobus riders.)I'm thinking it would be the same as a driver who gets stuck in traffic on I-66 and doesn't reach the Vienna Station till after 7:30.

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Paper farecard surcharge: What happened to the proposed surcharge for using a paper farecard? Visitors to the DC area won't notice an extra fee added on for the occasional Metrorail ride in comparison with the daily commuters who use SmartTrip. I thought it was a great idea...

Robert Thomson: riders still are paying with cash.

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faregates: One of the biggest problems with the faregates is that the Smartrip card readers often don't work properly. You can stand there forever tapping the card trying to get the stupid thing to recognize it. And then suddenly it will. No rhyme or reason. It almost seems like the network is too busy or something so it can't register. It's very frustrating. The station managers seem clueless about this too.

Robert Thomson: I'm not sure if its the card or the reader in the fare gate. As I was saying earlier, I've had problems at particular fare gates, then just moved over one gate and had the card work fine.

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Metro faregates: Sometimes I stop and allow the gates to close before tapping my smart trip card, because the card is old and doesn't work perfectly. I cant believe my brief delay really inconveniences the previous poster, maybe he/she just needs to relax and accept that everyone in the world doesn't do things his or her way..

Robert Thomson: If you're saying we all need to be a bit more patient, I'd certainly agree. Many of the things that raise our blood pressure in Metro last for just a few seconds. (Many but not all. Some last 45 minutes.)But I do think it's best for us all to limit the annoyance we spread to our fellow passengers if at all possible. I think my top peeve in this category is: People who step off the escalator and then stop. What are they thinking?

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Ten Years Later: I rarely ride Metro & until last week hadn't changed at Metro Center during rush hour for a decade. Wow! It looks to me that it's right on the cusp of becoming so crowded that it'll be gridlocked. Is anyone looking down the road to when there'll be so many riders that the they'll overwhelm the system?On a more optimistic note, several young & healthy passengers gave their seats to my older, partially disabled friends.

Robert Thomson: Glad to hear about the latter. It doesn't always go that way.On the former, yeah, plenty of Metro officials have been warning us for years that the system is going to reach capacity, both on the trains and on the platforms. Once we get all eight-car trains, there's no more room.When people say, "We can't build our way out of congestion," they're usually talking about highways. But we're going to get to the point where our transit system is full. What are we going to do about that?

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"a lot of riders thought they were for something besides the SmarTrip cards. Thought they couldn't use them even though they had the cards.": That's user error; nothing wrong with the concept and execution. If there are riders who can't figure out the concept of "SmarTrip only" let 'em use the other turnstiles with the tourists

Robert Thomson: Yeah, that was my feeling too. Of course, the express lanes would work only at certain stations, where you have a wide bank of fare gates. If it's an exit with one regular gate and one gate for disabled people, for example, Metro wouldn't have been putting in an express gate anyway.

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Metro Faregates: I'm the one who submitted the faregate question. In fact, it does work with paper farecards (I do it every morning, you should try it.) So, while the gate is still open from the person in front of you, insert your paper card... poof the card is read, the gate remains open and your card pops up, all in one smooth motion. It really works folks.

Robert Thomson: Well, you set off the busiest thread in today's chat. This often happens: I'll think that people will probably want to talk about a big policy issue, like the peak of the peak, which is going to cost so many people a lot more money over time. But it will be the common every day experience, like how you get through a fare gate, that really gets people's attention.

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Smart trip only lane at Navy Yard station: I'm pretty sure the faregate that is marked as Smart Trip Only at Navy Yard's Half Street exit also take paper fare cards.

Robert Thomson: That's my recollection also. I think the sign remained after the express lane experiment was abandoned.Seems like a lot of you think Metro should go back and try again on the express lanes.

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Train malfunction: I was on the red line this morning around 8:40, and we were asked to get off (I believe at Farragut North) due to a train malfunction. How often does this happen? Do you know why?

Robert Thomson: Seems like it happens about a half dozen times a day. There are lots of reasons a train can be taken out of service, unfortunately. The most common one is a door malfunction. It doesn't take much to bust the car doors.You know how the operator can start yelling at everyone over the loudspeaker about standing clear of the doors? That can be really annoying. But it's more annoying when you have to get off a disabled train onto an already crowded platform and wait for another train.

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Bike to Work Day: I am a pedestrian and Metro Rail commuter from the Ballston area to near Franklin Square downtown. This morning, yet again, I had to dodge a bike rider as I was using a crosswalk when I had the light. This one was going through the crosswalk and then hitting the curb cut through to now use the sidewalk, I mean the sideRIDE, to continue his trip. I am all for people using bikes, but I have close calls all the time with riders who decide to ignore the traffic signals and fly through intersections. Please, please, PLEASE obey the signals.

Robert Thomson: Hard to argue with what you're saying, and it's certainly rare -- extremely rare -- to see a cyclist obeying the traffic laws. (I'm pretty sure, by the way, that Franklin Square is in the part of downtown DC where cyclists are banned from the sidewalks.)But generally, and unfortunately, I find that all kinds of travelers will obey only those laws that they are forced to obey, either because they're afraid they'll get hit by another traveler or because they think they'll get a ticket.

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"Out Darn Spot" people: I love that term and shall use it from now on. I think most people don't realize the SmarTrip card is not magnetic but uses radio frequencies to communicate. So no need to rub, just hold it near, look for the green light, and move on!

Robert Thomson: Even better: Someday, I hope, we'll be using all-in-one travel cards that can be used to pay all tariffs, whether it's a parking charge, or a Metrorail ride or a highway toll.

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DC vs Portland, Ore: How come a town like Portland, Ore -- as reported in this weekend's Post Travel section -- can operate mass transit for FREE downtown and offer an all-day streetcar pass for $2, but the mass transit folks in our area apparently can't even understand that cutting back service and increasing fares makes it harder for any but the wealthy to get around? Is it a matter of priorities, brain cells, or what?

Robert Thomson: Portland is certainly the place that transit advocates and smart growth advocates point to as the role model for the nation.That city certainly has a great transit system, with many features I'd like to see us adopt -- streetcars, for example -- but we can't become Portland. We have the second largest subway system and, I think, the sixth largest bus system in the nation. And all our transit equipment is getting older and breaking down. If we want something better, we've got to figure out how to pay for it.

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Robert Thomson: Travelers, thanks for a lively conversation today. I think I'll continue today's discussion about the fare gates on the Get There blog. I also think I should do some more on the blog and in the newspaper about the issue of bike lanes, bike travel and sharing the road.Plus, there are several other topics still in the mailbag that I'll try to get their on the blog and in the column. Write to me any time at drgridlock@washpost.com. I hope to chat with you again next Monday. Stay safe.


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