Dr. Gridlock: Your traffic and transit questions

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Robert Thomson
Monday, June 21, 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. I was away on Cape Cod last week and got back over the weekend. I see plenty of questions in the mailbag about recent traffic and transit developments. I'll look for ones that could benefit from group responses and try to post them early.

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School Speed Cameras in Montgomery County: Robert, do you know if the speed cameras by the schools are still working now that school is over for the year? And have they been turned off Saturdays, Sundays, & evenings?

Robert Thomson: or not schools are in session.I've never had any problem with that. Speed limit is the same all the time.

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Sunday Southbound I-95 Traffic: I attend a language church that meets my language needs in MD every Sunday and while driving back home to Woodbridge, VA the southbound on I-95 is laways backed up for miles south while the northbound I-95 HOV remains open with minimal traffic - we need the state of VA to reverse it to southbound HOV that would greatly relieve the traffic?

Robert Thomson: The Virginia Department of Transportation says it sets the weekend direction on the I-95/395 HOV reversible lanes according to what its traffic counts show is the most heavily traveled direction.They're open to all southbound traffic from 6 p.m. Friday s until 2 p.m. Saturdays. They're open to northbound traffic from 4 p.m. Saturday until 6 a.m. Monday. If you're traveling in the other direction, it's quite likely that traffic will look better on the side with the extra lanes.

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HOV-2 lanes in Virginia: Good morning Dr., I've been commuting on I-66 for a few weeks since my last move, and I'm convinced that most days the HOV lane is the slowest moving lane on the road. Are you aware of any potential changes being discussed to help the HOV lane move along? Maybe separate it from the other travel lanes like the express lines on I-395? End the hybrid exemption? Go to HOV-3? It's certainly not worthwhile to arrange carpooling the way it currently runs.

Robert Thomson: There has been talk about going to HOV-3 on I-66, and there's a study about improving overall traffic flow on the Interstate. That may result in plans for putting more buses in the HOV lanes.Enforcement is very difficult in those lanes, because as you note, they're not separated from the regular traffic by anything other than white lines, making it easy for cheaters and tough for police.I'd love to see the hybrid exemption go away. There's no justification for it. It was clear in the original legislation that the provision was supposed to go away. But the Virginia General Assembly has routinely extended it for a year in each of its annual sessions.That doesn't sound like much hope for short-term relief, does it?

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HOV Lanes on I-66: I suspect that removing the HOV lane restrictions on I-66 outside the beltway would improve traffic for everyone. HOV enforcement just causes delays for everyone as offenders either get caught and mocked by the other drivers or merge out of the HOV lanes just in time to avoid getting caught. Half of the cars in the HOV lanes are hybrids with only a driver. Removing the HOV lanes won't cause these drivers to stop carpooling since they aren't doing it today. It will also reduce the need for busses to merge into the HOV lanes when they get on at Rt 50 or I-495 and out of the HOV lanes as they reach Nutley. Why not make traffic on I-66 flow freely and eliminate the HOV lanes.

Robert Thomson: Okay, I don't see how both these things could be true: That the HOV lanes on 66 are crowded now, as our previous poster said, and that removing the HOV restriction would make traffic better for everyone on 66.What am I missing?

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Red light cameras: I heard on the news this morning that there are some new red light cameras in Arlington, but in the same segment, they said that locally, red light cameras create more read end accidents. So, how does putting in something that is likely to cause more accidents a good thing?

Robert Thomson: I should have mentioned this in my look ahead at the week's traffic and transit issues on the Dr. Gridlock blog. The four locations in Arlington where the red light cameras are in place:-- Eastbound Lee Highway at North Lynn Street. Fort Myer Drive at westbound Lee Highway.-- Westbound Lee Highway at Washington Boulevard.-- Northbound North Glebe Road at Fairfax Drive.As I recall, the traffic studies suggest that rear end collisions may increase at intersections with cameras, but side-impact collisions may decrease. The side-impact collisions are the ones more likely to be serious, personal-injury crashes. The rear-end ones tend to be fender benders.

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14th Street Bridge Phases 2 - 8?: Any update from the masterminds at DDOT on how long Phases 2 thru 8 will take? Since Phase 1 inexplicably took a year, just wondering if this nightmare will be over sometime before 2017.

Robert Thomson: Yes, that was a bit of a mystery, because the first phase, as explained to us in spring 2009, was supposed to last three months, and instead took a year.Here's the critical explanation as provided by my colleague, Ashley Halsey III, on The Post's Commuter page of Sunday, June 6:"The right lane of the bridge has been closed for months, far longer than had been anticipated, because DDOT engineers determined that it wasn't having a huge traffic impact. So, they used it as a staging area for work on the bridge tower, the pilings that support the bridge and painting."That lane will reopen as the rest of the work rolls out in seven phases, each expected to last three to five weeks."The thing I'm worried about for you 14th Street Bridge users is whether you're now having any trouble getting into the correct northbound lane to reach either 14th Street or the Southeast-Southwest Freeway. How's it going?

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SmarTrip balance transfers: I've been trying to get a (large) balance transferred from an unusable SmarTrip card to a new one. I've done everything I'm supposed to do (register the card, etc), but the SmarTrip people somehow have taken (so far) two weeks to do what was supposed to take two days. They say they are "backed up" and promised after 5 pm last Thurs. It's now Mon. How much time can it take to do an electronic transfer?? Any ideas how to light a fire before I get REALLY irritated?

Robert Thomson: Sorry that's happened to you. Riders who've shared their experiences with me have generally been satisfied with that particular aspect of the SmarTrip program: the balance transfer part. We may be going through a difficult period right now as Metro personnel convert all the fare equipment for the fare hikes scheduled to take effect on Sunday.

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Chinatown Gates intersection: People are ignoring the no turns signs. I hate to say it but the intersection needs cameras.

Robert Thomson: This is a reference to the H Street intersection that now has pedestrian crossing configuration known as a Barnes Dance, or at least a modified Barnes Dance. There's a traffic light cycle in which pedestrians can cross any way they want to.It should be safer, and traffic should flow better through the intersection, but it really depends on drivers obeying the no turn signs. That's no turns at any time. No rights. No lefts. When I saw it on the first day, I thought the signs probably needed improvement, and that the traffic control officers were going to need to watch over things till people got used to the pattern. But I understand the officers are no longer stationed there. I'll go back and look.

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Offloaded Train: Hi Dr. Gridlock:Last week, my red line train was offloaded at Dupont Circle around 9 AM. As it pulled away, several people were still on the train, and none seemed concerned they were "stuck" and unable to get off. Are some passengers allowed to stay on an offloaded train? It seems if whatever the problem is causes the train to be taken out of service, all passengers should be removed for safety. Thanks for your clarification on this.

Robert Thomson: They may have gotten a ride to the Brentwood Yard. A train that gets taken out of service isn't going to make any more stops, just because people stayed on board. Normally, Metro personnel would make repeated announcements over the loudspeakers and flash the lights on the train. If that failed to get a passenger's attention, he or she might notice that everyone else was leaving the train.Did none of that happen?

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Technology in Pursuit of Revenue Enhancement: Dr. G: Great column yesterday about all of the high-techiness that will be used by Fluor to raise revenue in NoVa's HOT lanes. so, how come municipalities can install red light or speed cameras that can have the ticket pre-printed if the computer decides you won't be able to stop or slow down lin time, but still use paint on wooden boards to set speed limits?It's clear that different sides of the same road in the same spot frequently merit different speed limits, and that sometimes (like most of the time on the Beltway or I-95) the speed limit should be about 15mph, though occasionally 75 mph is reasonable and prudent. the variable speed limits on I-95 by the Wilson Bridge are nice, but 55 mph is laughable outside of rush hour and everyone ignores them. What will it take to bring technology into the non-revenue-raising sectors of traffic management ?

Robert Thomson: I'm all for using technology to catch speeders and red-light runners. I think they're a great untapped source of public revenue.There's no more variable speed limit on the Beltway near the Wilson Bridge. The funding for that program expired. And I don't recall anyone saying it worked well. Enforcement was the problem, as it so often is with our basic traffic rules.

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Metro to Dulles: I'm starting to think that expansion of system to Dulles is a big mistake.Metro cannot take care of the routes it has now. How can it handle more cars and stations.The rush hour trains are already full. How is the system going to be able to handle more people with more stations. Only so many trains can through Rosslyn in an hour.The money being spent on Dulles needs to be used to improve current infrastructure.

Robert Thomson: I think that's a very legitimate question, given Metro's very obvious problems maintaining the trains, tracks and stations we have now. Also, the problem with getting trains through the Rosslyn tunnel remains unresolved.This is the same problem we have throughout our transportation system: Rails and roads. Governments can't afford to maintain what we've built.But I don't believe the solution is to shut down rail lines or highways. I think we have to figure out how to finance the maintenance.

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HOV Lanes: I understand the posters thoughts on eliminating the HOV lanes. At the busy interchanges, you get bunches of cars and buses trying to merge across 3 lanes of traffic to get to the HOV lane, in the hopes it might move better than the other lanes. Just to hit the brakes as we approach the next merge. For example, every evening the fastest lane in I-66 westbound approaching the Nutley street merge is the right shoulder. Common sense says it should be the slowest due to merging traffic, but for some reason it's not.

Robert Thomson: That's interesting about the right lane. I wonder if drivers tend to avoid the lane where people are going to be accelerating and decelerating. Might drivers be trying to reach the farthest left lane they can, whether or not they are carpoolers?

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Re: HOV Lanes on I-66: The HOV lanes on I-66 give people the artificial need to merge all of the way to the left lane to get into them and back to the right to exit. This extra merging causes people to slow down. Eliminate the HOV lanes, and you eliminate the excess merging. The other option would be to provide separate on ramps and off ramps for the HOV lanes on I-66.

Robert Thomson: Yes, I understand the difficulty that you and other travelers are pointing out about the merging. Separate exits -- or more separate exits than we have now -- would be a good solution. (Though it doesn't seem to help much at the separate left-hand exit from I-66 to the inner loop, does it?)

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Red Light Cameras in Arlington: I think the cameras in Arlington- at least with the interesection I'm most familiar with (Glebe/N Fairfax) are very welcome. Every morning- cars jam the two turn lanes to get onto 66 West- and they fill the intersection even when there's nowhere to go- easily 15-20 cars blocking the interesection. The Red Light Camera, I only see the one- is aimed at that exact location. So, in theory- they could be preparing to pad the penny bank.

Robert Thomson: If those red light cameras work the way they do elsewhere, drivers have to blow the red light clean to get a ticket. But I see drivers everywhere who demonstrate their ability to do that.

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Waiting around for HOV to be lifted: Dr. Gridlock,I drive into Pentagon City every night around 6:00 pm, and have noticed with growing frequency the number of cars parked along 27 southbound by the Pentagon, waiting for HOV restrictions to be lifted on 395. Hadn't this practice been made illegal a few years back, or am I wrong?

Robert Thomson: Yes, I do believe you're correct on that, and it's a question of enforcement, rather than the law itself.

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Payback: Doctor, when Metro offloads a train because some knucklehead got his briefcase stuck between the doors - is that a mechanical necessity, or do they just do it out of spite, and as a deterrent? I tend to think they offload just as payback, because after offloading, the train rolls merrily away, without any perceptible problem whatsoever.

Robert Thomson: It's really, really easy to bust the doors on a Metro train. You want those doors to work. You don't want to be riding on a train with malfunctioning doors. If drivers want to be evil, they could do it by jerking the train to a stop. They're not going to get away with the huge disruption of taking their trains out of service for no good reason.

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Silver Spring, MD: Re: Problem with WMATA and the bad Smartrip cardI should hate doing this but it works: If the WMATA bureaucracy is not functioning, one way to give it a kick is to call your elected officials who serve on the Metro board. My man, Chris Van Hollen, comes through for me and has comfortably secured my vote through this kind of constituent service.

Robert Thomson: I'm glad to see Congressman Van Hollen and his staff get credit for constituent services. (In case there's any confusion, Van Hollen is not on the Metro board. You can find a list of the board members by following this link: http://www.wmata.com/about_metro/board_of_directors/)

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95 South on Sunday : Dr. G- yesterday I was headed south on 95, around 11am- only to hit a giant wall of traffic from springfield all the way to Occoquan- where it magically disappeared. Any idea why crazy back-ups like this happen? I never saw tons of cars getting off a single exit, nor did I ever see an accident- it just was jammed.

Robert Thomson: I'm pretty sure that's just volume. Summertime volume. That's the area where VDOT is adding a fourth lane to I-95, and I hope it does some good opening up things. But it's hard to figure a long-term fix to delays on what's both a local Main Street and an East Coast Main Street.

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HOV shoulder-waiters: I HATE the shoulder-waiters on I-395 because when the time comes to move, they bomb recklessly into the traffic and everyone has to slam on the brakes. Why don't they all just go to the Pentagon parking lot and wait there?

Robert Thomson: Yep. That was a good story by Eric, highlighting the problem. We could do that one every couple of years.

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Ornge line issues: There have been some significant, unannounced service disruptions on the Orange line for the past 2 weeks. Many of them impacted the Courthhouse station the most -- the last station where people get on, but don't usually get off. Is there some policy about not announcing delays when they only affect 1 station? I've had to wait for 4-5 trains in the morning.

Robert Thomson: What happens with the Orange Line just about every morning is that the trains get thrown off schedule as they move through downtown, and they're still off schedule as they turn around and head back in from Vienna. Plus, as you know, there's just a huge number of people trying to get on at those western stations on the Orange Crush.I'm not sure it's possible to have delays affecting only one station, but I do agree that riders boarding at Court House face a special problem -- and will for the forseeable future. There are more and more people trying to get on there, and the trains arriving are getting more and more crowded.

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66 and HOV: I am about to buy another hybrid solely because of the HOV exemption. I thought the reason was to promote my kind of purchase.

Robert Thomson: It was, back when people weren't buying hybrids. That issue hasn't existed for years. There's no need for local governments to encourage the purchase of hybrids.

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Re: Metro to Dulles: I believe the plans for the Dulles line are for it to end at the East or West Falls Church station. Would it be possible to connect the two airports and have the line go to Reagan National Airport? I imagine that would be of most value to airport travelers as they wouldn't have to transfer trains two times. It might also help eliminate some of the crowding that would be caused by having a trainload of passengers converge at a station joining already crowded trains.

Robert Thomson: It would be very convenient for airport travelers. But this won't happen: There's no easy way to move an inbound train from the Orange Line tracks to the Blue Line tracks at Rosslyn Station. It would take a major, very expensive reconstruction for the benefit of a relative handful of travelers. In this case, it's better to have the passengers switch trains.By the way, the new line's tracks will join up with the existing system between East and West Falls Church, but the trains on the new line will continue on to Stadium-Armory Station before turning back. So someday, if you are coming in from Dulles Airport and want to get to Reagan National, you'd switch trains either at Rosslyn or at L'Enfant Plaza.

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Metrorail Cars: What is going on with the air conditioning on Metro this summer? I ride the Orange Line everyday and have noticed that very few of the cars have a/c that works.

Robert Thomson: air conditioning. And report the problem to the train operator over the intercom or use the complaint form on Metro's Web site.That said, it's sometimes tough to tell on these 90 degree days whether the air conditioning is really working. The doors are opening all the time. And if the train just entered service, the air conditioning might be having a limited effect.

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New York Ave & Florida Ave "circle": I gotta tell ya, Dr. G, that I think that the new traffic "circle" at the New York Ave and Florida Ave intersection is a disaster. I commute north on North Capitol Ave in the afternoon, and the cars on Florida Ave east-bound are backed up to North Capitol Street. These cars are "blocking the box" and preventing cars from traveling north (and sometimes south) on North Capitol as well as preventing pedestrians from walking safely in the crosswalks. Can't DDOT get more traffic control officer out there to control the situation? I'm really losing faith that DDOT is capable of doing anything except build bike lanes.

Robert Thomson: Thanks for the field report. I do think the traffic control officers can help get drivers through the early stages of these road changes. DDOT is going to have to keep a sharp eye on this major change, creating a virtual traffic circle around the Wendy's restaurant. That's a confusing area to begin with.But one thing the engineers know is that the regulars tend to get used to a change in a couple of weeks. My guess is that they'll have that in mind and won't make any drastic adjustment till things have a chance to settle down.

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Federal Adjustments for New Fares: In an article last week about the rush to put the fare adjustment in place, it was noted that the Federal Government had not been given enough notice to immediately increase SmartBenefits for federal employees in order to reflect it. Do you know when federal benefits administrators will have access to the information they need to make these increases?

Robert Thomson: I think the benefits administrators and the employees have access to that information right now. It's more an issue of the long lead-time the benefits people and employees need to make the adjustments. It's very, very unlikely that the Metro board is going to make any further changes in the basic fare structure it established last month, even though it must still give final approval to the plan this Thursday.

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metro fare increase: No mention has been made of a significant change to metro fare increase: the bus-to-bus transfer window has been reduced from 3 hours to 2 hours. This increases the bus fare in some cases not by .15 per trip but by $1.65 per trip. If people knew about this hidden increase,perhaps they would scream about it ... it's an outrage. Any thoughts on this?

Robert Thomson: I've mentioned this quite frequently since the transfer time reduction was proposed in January. A letter-writer to my column pointed out that it's important to riders in the suburbs, where there's a longer gap between buses than in the central area. Still, I thought that a reduction from three hours to two hours in the transfer time window was valid.

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Metro's crash one year later...: Has there been any progress in getting the trains back to normal? The jerky manual stops really make for an unpleasant ride. In addition the trains pulling all the way to the front make for some big time congestion in some of the stations. I do care about safety, but this has been 12 months of dealing with this mess.

Robert Thomson: Many, many riders share your frustration. But manual control of the trains, and pulling to the front of the platform, is likely to continue through this year. We don't even have a cause for the June 22, 2009, crash yet. Whatever the NTSB tells Metro, Metro will need time to implement the recommendations and test any new equipment or software before returning to automatic control.

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66 widening : What is happening with 66 widening inside the Beltway? Is it stalled? Is it happening? Who is in charge of pushing this? I tried to ask my local rep about it but got a non-answer. Should we be leaning on our local Va. reps if we want this to happen?

Robert Thomson: The first of the four "spot improvements" that will widen four sections of I-66 westbound inside the Beltway is just getting underway. They are controversial, but it's really lack of money that is slowing down the program. Virginia doesn't have much money to make any highway improvements. In fact, as I noted earlier, there's not enough money to properly maintain the existing road network.

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What else? metro fares: Metro fares are set to increase next week. Is there anywhere that I can find them? I didn't see them immediately on WMATA's website.

Robert Thomson: I'll talk more about this on the Dr. Gridlock blog this week, but one place you can figure out the impact on your ride is on our fare calculator:http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/special/metro/metro-fare-calculator/Another think you can do is use the Trip Planner on Metro's home page. If you enter a trip date after June 27, when the new fares take effect, it will calculate the trip based on the new fare.

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Arlington Red Light Cameras: I'm all for increased safety, but these things really seem more like revenue generators than anything else. I've seen stories that IF they increased the time of the yellow light by a fraction, the number of violations and crashes decline significantly. Also the frequency of rear end collsions increases at these intersections. I'd rather see police actually sit there and pull people over. I bet they'd catch a lot of people driving on suspended license, no insurance, drugs, etc.

Robert Thomson: There's definitely that downside to electronic enforcement: Officers pick up a lot of other violations when they stop speeders and red light runners. But violations of basic traffic rules have become so flagrant that officers need all the help they can get. I hope the four cameras in Arlington are just a start.

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4th Question: If I leave for Fenwick Island early on Thursday the 1st, will I be ok, or should I consider leaving on the 30th?

Robert Thomson: You should be find on that Fourth of July getaway plan. Generally, the Fourth of July and the Labor Day getaways aren't our big traffic problems. So many people already have gotten away.But thanks for the reminder about the upcoming holiday. I'd better start posting some information for it on the Dr. Gridlock blog. What I usually do around the holidays is post what I know and ask travelers to share their tips.

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HOT Lanes Enforcement: Once again over the weekend you used the "profit motive" as a defense against complaints regarding the difficulty of enforcement of carpoolers in the HOT Lanes. Perhaps you haven't been reading the paper or watching TV for the last sixty days or so but the "profit motive" can sometimes produce disasters. But inherent in your answer is that nothing has really been worked out yet. There's some mention of a "contract" with state police. How does that work ? Will it take traffic enforcement away from other problems ? Is it a dedicated force ? It still seems to rely on a visible identification of number of people though. Honestly, your readers deserve either a better answer or clear acknowledgement that no one really knows yet. And that is a big problem; at least as far as I'm concerned.

Robert Thomson: What I'm saying is that the HOT lane operators will have a clear financial stake in keeping freeloaders out of the express lanes. That profit motive could very well work to the benefit of the legitimate drivers using those lanes. Users of the HOV lanes across the region might well wish there were such an incentive to enforce the current rules.Fluor-Transurban will sign a contract with the state police to cover the cost of enforcement. There's no reason that should reduce other state police services in Northern Virginia when the HOT lanes open in 2013

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A/C problems: It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that a signififcant amount of complaints about the A/C on trains is actually due to the lack of A/C in the stations. The ambiant air temperature in so many of the underground stations is unbearably hot (over 90 deg) and the doors open at rush hour and stay open longer because of the crush of commuters rushing on and off.Additionally, the movement of the people forces increased circulation. This basically mixes the air in the cars with the air in the stations and the cars gradually come up to the temperature in the station.WMATA needs to find a way to lower the ambiant temperature in the underground enclosed stations during the summer months rather than improve the A/C in the cars to have any effect. Improving the A/C in the cars is a waste of money with the problem in the stations.

Robert Thomson: A lot of the air-cooling equipment in the downtown stations is pretty old now. When it breaks down, it can take a long time to fix. Last year, I went around with a thermometer and recorded the temps in various stations. There was quite a range. I'll probably do the same this summer -- if I can find that thermometer.

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Robert Thomson: I've got to roll. Thanks for the good conversation today. Stay safe -- and cool, too, I hope.


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