Dr. Gridlock: Your traffic and transit questions

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Robert Thomson
Monday, August 16, 2010; 12:00 PM

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Robert Thomson: Hello, Travelers. Bring on your questions and comments about our local transportation issues.

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Just a comment..........: I am a fairly new rider on the Metro, since June on the Green Line to Smithsonian, and just wanted to say, as a "young" senior, I often get offered a seat in the afternoon by many very nice young men & women and just wanted to let them know that it is very much appreciated! These are not near the "senior"' designated seats, but all over. THANKS!

Robert Thomson: That's great to hear. Most of our discussions online and in The Post newspaper involve problems getting people to budge from the seats reserved for people who are elderly or disabled. The other thing I find is that some riders won't ask for the seats to which they are entitled.I'm glad you've had a much better experience.

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Ohio Drive: I have to go from DC to Ft. Belvoir tomorrow afternoon. Easiest way would be to take Rock Creek Parkway to Memorial Bridge. Is Ohio Drive open then?

Robert Thomson: Here's the schedule for Ohio Drive, where the National Park Service and the Federal Highway Administration are rebuilding the roadway:AM rush hours (6:00 am-10am) Ohio Drive will be two lanes of inbound traffic only. Non-rush hours will have one lane in each direction. PM rush hours (3:30 pm-6:30 pm) Ohio Drive will be two lanes outbound only.

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Green Line slowdown: When going outbound from the Fort Totten station, on the Green Line, every train appears to heavily brake at the two rail switches. If this the case, are there any plans to improve these switches to eliminate these braking periods?

Robert Thomson: I haven't heard of any plans to replace those switches. This is the first I've heard that there might be a problem with them. Have other riders experienced the same braking on trains? I have not noticed this on trips out to Greenbelt.If I'm correctly understanding which ones you're writing about, those would be the ones where the Yellow Line trains turn around at off-peak hours.

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electric cars on HOV?: Any word on whether the new 100% electric vehicles will be able to use HOV lanes around DC?

Robert Thomson: That's an interesting issue. I don't recall any discussion of granting an exemption to the carpool rules so that electric cars could use the HOV lanes.I guess this would apply only to Virginia, where hybrids now get a break. Maryland never got into that.The break for hybrids in Virginia keeps getting extended by the General Assembly, long after it outlived any value it originally had.Originally, it was intended to encourage the purchase of hybrids. That encouragement no longer is needed. Yet there are plenty of hybrids in the HOV lanes, limiting the lanes' usefulness for the carpooling we're still trying to encourage.

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H Street Bridge and Trolley to Union Station: Two H Street Bridge questions: 1. Has anyone complained about the fact that the H Street bridge "bounces" when one is stopped at one of the lights for Union Station? Is this a sign of a real problem with that bridge? 2. How is the trolley going to get from 3rd and H Street, N.E. to Union Station?

Robert Thomson: I've heard no complaints about the bridge. I know it is not unusual for a bridge to bounce. You would experience that sensation walking across the Golden Gate Bridge or our own Wilson Bridge, for example. They're designed to sway -- somewhat. You wouldn't notice that in a moving car, but would detect it when stopped at a light or when walking.The District, I believe, wants to run the streetcar in a tunnel under the bridge, rather than across the bridge.

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Broken Metrobus fareboxes: Five times over the past week, I've boarded a Metrobus and found that payments weren't being accepted. Are fareboxes breaking down more often for some reason? How much is Metro losing because of this?

Robert Thomson: I know that the fare gates' performance has been slowed slightly by the new programming Metro had to do as it adds functions to our SmarTrip cards. I suspect something similar is going on at the parking exits, where drivers tap their SmarTrip cards to pay and exit.

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Streetcars?: You said: "The District, I believe, wants to run the streetcar in a tunnel under the bridge, rather than across the bridge."Well, then it's not really a streetcar anymore, is it? Sounds like a subway. This is just more evidence to me that this entire streetcar project is a wasteful project designed solely for politicians concerned about the yuppie vote.

Robert Thomson: It isn't terribly unusual to run a streetcar through a short segment of tunnel. I believe that's how streetcars got under Dupont Circle in the mid-20th century. Longtime residents may remember other cases.Maryland's Purple Line will have at least one tunnel segment to overcome a steep grade.The District's streetcar plan is based on several ideas: The city wants to provide connections between neighborhoods that Metro can't handle. And it wants to encourage redevelopment of neighborhoods around these new streetcar stops.

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HOT lanes on I-95: Dr. G,What's going to happen to traffic on I-95 on weekends when the current free, restrictionless HOV lanes on I-95 convert to expensive HOT lanes? What is this going to do to traffic in the mainlines? Will it just be unbroken gridlock from Richmond to the Potomac, instead of just from Fredericksburg like it is now?

Robert Thomson: At the moment, there's no deal to put HOT lanes on I-95. Arlington County is challenging that idea, plus, the times are just not good for financing such a public-private partnership.If it does happen, then yes, drivers who now use the lanes for free on weekends would have to pay a toll. The toll rate would vary depending on the demand for the lanes. What the operators of the lanes sell is a faster trip. So the toll would rise with the demand and some people would decide to stick with the regular lanes.

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Ocean City: I have been living in the DC area since 1996, but have never been to Ocean City. That is partly because of the reports of traffic backups. I realize the window of opportunity for the year is almost over. When is traffic the lightest on Saturday? Before 9:00 am? after noon?

Robert Thomson: Saturday before 7 a.m. and between 5 and 10 p.m. and Sunday between 7 a.m. and 11 a.m. and after 10 p.m. For Labor Day Monday, go before 11 a.m. and after 10 p.m.Me, I'd wait till after Labor Day and go on a nice September weekend, when the weather is still warm, but the traffic is diminishing.

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Philadelphia Trolleys: Philly and I think Boston trolleys both have short stretches underground and the Philly trolleys are definitely not subways.Any word on when the construction will be done? The roads over there are just awful.

Robert Thomson: I believe that the work on H Street is scheduled to continue into 2011. It's one of the District's Great Streets projects, designed as a very extensive makeover of the H Street/Benning Road corridor, with the Starburst intersection in between.This was about a lot more than laying streetcar tracks. In fact, the track-laying program was something of an add-on to the original project. Doing it now, along with all the other work, means that the city won't have to tear up the streets a second time just to lay the track.But the streetcar program does mean that there will be further disruptions along H Street even after the street paving and sidewalk rebuilding is done. Eventually, for example, the city will have to put in streetcar stops. I don't have a schedule for when that's supposed to happen.

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Bad Driving?: There may be a legitimate reason behind this, but there seems to be a preponderance of metro operators who have a problem maintaining their speed. Every time I'm on the train, it's speed up, halting, speed up, halting, a non-stop nausea-inducing cycle. Can they not maintain speed? Are they taking their hands off the "dead-man's switch"? Or is something going on that we're just not aware of? It used to be just bad going into stations, but now it's in between as well.

Robert Thomson: One reason for this is that some train operators are better drivers than others. The trains were meant to be run automatically, with the operators just monitoring the equipment. After the Red Line crash, the drivers took control, and we still don't know when the trains will return to automatic.Using the drivers as operators means there's more wear and tear on the equipment -- and on the passengers. They're supposed to be a certain number of minutes apart, according to the schedule. But it doesn't take long to mess that up at rush hour.

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More on Streetcars: As a follow-up to my earlier question, I note that there is an old above-ground parking lot between 2nd and 3rd Streets N.E. at H. Also buildings on 2nd Street between G & H have recently been torn down. Is the idea to take the street car down that embankment and then through the tunnel under H Street itself? I have just been trying to figure out how they are going to get there.Since I am over 50, I hardly consider myself a Yuppie, but I do support the Streetcar plan even as a non-bicyclist, I support the new bike lanes throughout the city. Thanks for your efforts!

Robert Thomson: I just noticed that David Alpert has a map of the possible streetcar route on his Greater Greater Washington Web site. Here's a link:http://bit.ly/9nbrcUI don't believe the city is targeting Yuppies in particular with it's streetcar plans, though I'm sure they'd be welcomed aboard. I think a lot of the people now riding the X2 Metrobus would welcome a streetcar ride along H Street and Benning Road.By the way, some cyclists are concerned about the streetcar plan: They worry that bike tires will get caught in the streetcar tracks. The District is working on a solution.

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Metro Saftety: I got on at Union Station on Saturday and there was a man angrily yelling at me and my party on the Union Station platform. He seemed mentally unstable and was not physically threatening us, but just to be safe (given the Chinatown/L'Enfant fight), I called 911, only to be transferred to Metro security. I described the man, said what was going on and frankly, the Metro call center seemed not to care. By the time we hung up, the man had gotten on the train toward NY Ave. I'm glad nothing REALLY bad happened. Also on the same trip: two people eating and drinking McDonald's on the train and people who stole from the system by running through the gates two-at-at-time while the manager did nothing!

Robert Thomson: If you get a lame response when you report an incident, it's really discouraging. But Metro transit police officials would tell you that you did the right thing. I asked Deputy transit police chief Webb about this last week: Most of the stuff we see in the transit system isn't clearly dangerous at that particular moment, but we worry that it could escalate into something. Should we call the police? Yes, he says, they want to hear about it.One issue is that it takes a while for transit police to respond. They have a huge territory t0 cover. I think there should be more of them.

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Follow-up to Orange line slow down between the East/West Falls Church: Have you found out why trains on the Orange Line travel so slowly between these two stops? It's been happening for months now!

Robert Thomson: No, I haven't. I know that Metro says there is no scheduled slowdown between those stations. There's no work zone, no heat-related slowdown, no problem with the track.

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HOT Lanes on 95: I have a very strong objection to converting the existing HOV to HOT on 95. Reason is that something bought and paid for by the taxpayers is being taken away. At least the extra HOT lanes on the beltway are in addition to the current lanes and nothing is being taken away from current users.

Robert Thomson: If the HOV lanes on I-95 are converted to HOT lanes, nothing would be taken away from the carpoolers who use them now. They would still get to use the lanes for free.The new users of the lanes would be drivers who don't meet the HOV3 requirement. They would pay for access to the lanes.Why is that not fair?

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Speed bumps/humps: Is there any evidence that these things really work? They are sprouting up like crazy in my hometown of Vienna. Seems like people actually go faster between them and then nail the brakes right before they pass over. Why not just enforce the speed limit?

Robert Thomson: You're question about the speed bumps is totally legit. I've talked to some planners who question their value, because impatient drivers do often speed up between the bumps, defeating their purpose.But we do need some engineering approaches to controlling neighborhood speeding. No community of taxpayers would support the expense of enforcing speed limits on all our local streets. (And they probably wouldn't go for speed cameras everywhere, either.)

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95 South on Fridays: Fridays seem to have really gotten bad for commuters on Friday afternoon/evenings. I'm new to living down there so I was wondering if this will let up once kids go back to school?

Robert Thomson: I-95 south traffic tends to ease up a bit once the kids are back in school. A lot of the summer volume on Fridays is vacation traffic.

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Streetcar stops: They'll have to tear up the road to put in streetcar stops? Why? Isn't the advantage of a streetcar over Metro that it can just be boarded like a bus?

Robert Thomson: The advantage over Metrorail is that the streetcars would connect neighborhoods that don't have easy Metrorail connections. For example, an H Street/Benning Road Line would connect the Minnesota Avenue Metrorail station with the stop at Union Station.One of the disadvantages about bus routes is that many people who might give the bus a try don't understand where to catch the bus or where the bus is going. Planners try various things to overcome this confusion. Many streetcar systems use small station stops to focus people on transit. Plus, the stops enhance safety. Most systems are not like the San Francisco cable cars, where riders just hop on and off in regular traffic lanes.

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Follow-up to Orange line slow down between the East/West Falls Church : Me too! I just went out there Saturday afternoon, around 6pm and we *inched* along between the two stations. I could have walked faster.

Robert Thomson: The weekend was a bit different. There was definitely track work between Vienna and West Falls Church from Friday night through Sunday night. Trains were sharing a single track between those stations and your westbound trip approaching the work zone would have been slowed.

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New parking meters in D.C.: Hello Dr. - Will all of the new kinds of parking meters still accept coins? Believe it or not, not everyone has a cellphone and not everyone wants one. I do however, carry a baggie full of quarters in my glove compartment. Been doing so for 30 years now and see no good reason to change. Thanks.

Robert Thomson: My Commuter page feature in Sunday's Post was about the District's various experiments with new-style street parking systems. There are now zones where you can pay by cell phone, or pay by space number or pay by entering your license plate number.From what I saw at these zones last week, there's still nothing faster than popping some quarters in a meter.But I am glad the District is experimenting with these new systems and giving people a chance to comment on them. When the street parking rates went up, the most common complaint I heard wasn't about the rates themselves, it was about the need to haul around so many quarters.Here's a link to the Commuter page feature:http://bit.ly/9ImVG0

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Heading south: I am planning to drive to Charleston, SC next Sunday for work. I make trips down to the Carolinas 2-3 times a year, but this is the first time I've gone this far in one shot. On my past few trips to either NC or the Northern part of SC I've taken 29 through VA which takes me down to Greensboro, and I was thinking of that route again this time (mostly to avoid I-95). My question for you and other chatters is, what is 29 like past Greensboro? Is it still a nice trip passed Greensboro into SC, or should I consider going to 85 and 77 once in NC?

Robert Thomson: Anyone have thoughts on this? I don't have any reports that go that far south.

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Cellphone Coverage Deployment: Does anyone know the status of the deployment of expanded cell phone coverage by AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile (the carriers) in the remaining twenty-seven underground stations? I'm sure I'm not the only person wondering when I can surf the Web underground.

Robert Thomson: When the coverage expansion started in 2009, Metro said it would take till 2012 to get the whole system wired for underground service. The initial expansion affected about 20 platforms (and I say platforms, not entire stations), and then it was supposed to expand gradually from there till it eventually included all the underground stations and the tunnels, too.I have a T-Mobile BlackBerry. (That's what The Post gives us for work use.) It's gotten much more receptive underground, but there are still plenty of places where it's useless. In fact, there are above ground areas where it's useless, too.

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Metro not collecting fares: Ok so I am a bit compulsive about this, but it is generally what I do for a living. I can track very well exactly how much I travel on Metro and what it is costing. I get SmartBenefits and know exactly how much goes on to my card. I ride to and from work, and some office to meetings (which are tracked on my calender.)I figure that Metro is not charging me for about 6-8% of what it should be. I only add to my card SmartBenefits, and have not raised what I claim with the new fare increases, yet my card still has $300 on it at the end of each month, and usually a balance for SmartBenefits.I do not miss that much work and the extra trips more than should make up for it. This has been going on for years. So where is the budget problem if Metro can't be bothered to collect what it is owed?

Robert Thomson: Now we know who was behind the $189 million budget shortfall!

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More about streetcars: "The District's streetcar plan is based on several ideas: The city wants to provide connections between neighborhoods that Metro can't handle. And it wants to encourage redevelopment of neighborhoods around these new streetcar stops."Wouldn't it be cheaper to add more Metrobus lines or even a new Circulator? And doesn't the claim that redevelopment requires streetcars rather than Metrobuses or Circulators indicate that the sub-text means "more young white professionals" because that demographic wouldn't be caught dead on a bus next to their cleaning ladies or the busboys at their favorite new restaurants?

Robert Thomson: It would be cheaper to add Metrobuses and Circulators. (Not that it would be cheap. It still would be expensive.)But planners in various jurisdictions who like the streetcar programs note that developers won't listen up when you talk about adding buses. Developers are more likely to put their money into areas that are getting a transit system with more permanence.A streetcar line and streetcar stations are likely to be around for a while. All Metro has to do to abolish a bus route is hold a public hearing.The class issue that you raise is one that I've heard many planners talk about. But they don't necessarily break it down by mode. They think that there are plenty of ways to get more people to try buses. They think about the design of the vehicle, for example. (Notice the design of the Circulators and of the newer Metrobuses.) They also think about amenities, like WiFi, to attract more people onto the buses.

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Bikes vs. Cars: Dr. G,Now that the micro-minority of bicyclists have succeeded in getting DC to assign them exclusive space on the street, did you happen to go out last Thursday afternoon and count the number of bicyclists using their exclusive lanes vs. the number of motorists gridlocked in traffic?

Robert Thomson: On Thursday afternoon, I was out looking at the new programs the District has launched to make it easier for motorists to park on city streets.District Department of Transportation Director Gabe Klein's approach is to offer people more options for getting around the city. Bike lanes may encourage more people to bike, just as new Circulator buses or streetcars may encourage more people to take transit, and safer crosswalks may encourage more people to get out of their cars and walk. Any of those things would have an effect on the number of drivers and could reduce traffic congestion.Park of the reason for increasing street parking fees at the start of this year was to discourage drivers from cruising for a street space, one of the major sources of traffic congestion in any urban area.

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I know that the fare gates' performance has been slowed slightly by the new programming Metro had to do as it adds functions to our SmarTrip cards: It's so annoying. Ther person behind me is already slamming their farecard down and trying to shove me through. They don't realize my card hasn't deducted yet. They think I'm just standing there bewildered by the system.

Robert Thomson: Yes, I'm sure there are plenty of people unfamiliar with Metrorail who would say this is a trivial issue -- the fare gates stay closed just a beat longer than they used to. But for regular riders used to the rythmn of a rush hour trip through a fare gate, it's highly noticeable, and at least a bit annoying.

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Robert Thomson: Thanks, everyone, for joining me today. I'll be away for the next two Mondays and will talk to you again here in September. In the meantime, drop me a line at drgridlock@washpost.com, or stay in touch through the Dr. Gridlock blog.Stay safe.


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