Dr. Gridlock: Your traffic and transit questions

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Robert Thomson
Monday, September 13, 2010; 12:00 PM

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Robert Thomson: Hello, travelers. We haven't had a chat since mid-August. Do you think that traffic and transit congestion in the D.C. area has returned to normal after the summer lull?Let's look at some questions that have come in about road projects and changes on Metrorail.

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Kingstowne, VA: I read in the Get There blog about how the final segment of the Fairfax County Parkway is supposed to open this Friday (at least in one direction). WTOP reports that it's opening today. Which is correct?

Robert Thomson: I'll try to double check that during our chat, but I can tell you the latest I have from the Virginia Department of Transportation on the scheduled opening of the parkway extension:"Friday evening, Sept. 17, the northbound lanes of the new Fairfax County Parkway segment will be open to traffic from Backlick Road to the Franconia-Springfield Parkway.""The parkway intersection at Boudinot Drive and Fullerton Road will open early Saturday, Sept. 18 to allow southbound traffic onto the parkway from the Boudinot Drive ramp." The full parkway extension will be open by Tuesday, Sept. 21, VDOT said.

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driving under the speed limit: Hi Doc! Can you explain to me the people who drive 5-10 miles under the speed limit in the left lane? I'm finding this happening more and more often, particularly on four lane divided highways, like route 7, the GW parkway, and I-66 inside the beltway.I don't mind if they're in the right lane, but often times there are two cars going the exact same *slow* speed in both lanes, holding up everyone behind them, and causing a hazard when you others come up on them unexpectedly.

Robert Thomson: I'm sure plenty of readers have thoughts about this. I totally agree with you that drivers should not be in the left lane if they're going to drive 5 to 10 miles under the speed limit. The left lane should be used for passing, or in preparation for left turns or left exits.I drive at the speed limit if conditions allow and stay in the right or center lanes, unless there's someone even slower than me ahead, then I'll pass on the left.But under normal driving conditions, I don't see a lot of slow traffic in the left lane. In fact, I don't see a lot of slow traffic in any lane, unless it's rush hour.

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Cab from King St. to National Harbor: this Thursday morning. Will it be difficult to get a cab from that station (to National Harbor- NOT Georgetown Harbor) around 8:30 a.m.? Do cabs wait around that area or would I have to walk around to flag one down?

Robert Thomson: I thought I'd post this question early -- because I don't know the answer and am hoping that one of you folks who travel through the King Street Station can comment on the presence of taxis.That's a tough one, needing to get a cab to go across the Wilson Bridge to National Harbor. I would have thought it easier to take the Green Line to get closer to the destination before getting a cab, or a bus.

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Updated Metro station maps: Metro put out a news release a while back saying that they had updated all of the station area maps, and they included a sample map of Metro Center.I love the new maps and would love to see them included on their website, but I can still only find the old StationMasters maps, which are not nearly as detailed or helpful.Do you know if they are planning on putting the new maps online? It would be such a shame if they didn't!

Robert Thomson: That's a good idea. Metro announced in early August that it was updating the maps in the stations, offering a clearer guide to the surrounding areas, and to the bus and cycling routes nearby.I've always liked being able to go to Metro's Web site and click on the station name to see both the Google and the Station Masters maps, depending on what I needed to know. I hope Metro can supplement those options with the option of viewing the new maps, too.

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Monthly Pass: As Metro's fare system becomes almost as complicated as an adjustable rate mortgage, why do they limit the weekly/monthly passes to paper tickets only.Let me put a monthly pass on my smarttrip like many other major cities do, and this whole problem of exit fares go away.On one hand they promote the SmarTrip, but then they make it harder to use it.I got a SmarTrip out of convenience, and now Metro, in one of their dumber moves of the decade (which is saying something) wants to take the one privilege away.

Robert Thomson: The fare structure has indeed become more complicated over the summer. And now the situation with use of SmarTrip cards seems to be getting even more complicated.My understanding is that Metro wants to make passes available on the electronic cards, but until recently lacked the technology to do that. Now Metro is upgrading the fare system to allow for this, but I'm not sure exactly when we're going to see it. I believe the Metro board and staff plan to discuss it later this month.

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Cabs from King Street: There are usually a fair number of cabs at the King Street stop, more so than at the nearby Eisenhower Avenue stop. I'd imagine it ought to be fairly easy to get a cabbie to go to National Harbor because the trip back to Virginia is so short (that is, because they can't pick up in Maryland, it's easier for them to get back to look for another fare).I think King Street is actually somewhat closer to National Harbor than several Green Line stops, although I don't know if that's true of the Southern Avenue stop. (Branch Avenue is certainly further.) But given their locations, and the nature of the surrounding neighborhoods, I'd expect there to be more cabs at King Street than at Southern Avenue.

Robert Thomson: Thanks to everyone who replied to the question about getting a cab from King Street Station. I'll push out a couple of the other responses, too.

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National Harbor: There are water taxis from the Alexandria waterfront, behind the Torpedo Factory, but they don't start til closer to 11.If the OP can wait until then, I'd recommend taking the trolley (or walking if its nice) down to there, enjoying a cup of coffee or just the Old Town experience and taking the Water Taxi - it's $8, and drops off right at

Robert Thomson: Good reminder about the water taxis, thanks.

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For the Cab Rider: Red Top Cabs have a very useful online reservation system, so you could have a cab waiting for you when you get to King street. Not sure if it works for non-street addresses, but worth a try.

Robert Thomson: for each station.)

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Telegraph Road: When will the Telegraph Road project be completed? It is an absolute disaster right now. It can take 45 minutes to an hour to get through that section in the morning!

Robert Thomson: This is a high-impact season for construction at the Telegraph Road interchange, the last big phase of the Wilson Bridge construction project. (It was always going to be the last of the phases. ) The whole thing is scheduled to be done in 2012.

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Endless wait to take the driving test: It took my daughter five hours to finally get her driving test at the Arlington DMV office a couple of weeks ago. Then I saw an article in the WP about someone else waiting four hours in MD. Why don't the local DMVs go to an appointment system? It would ease the stress on the employees and improve customer service dramatically. They could pay for the new system by charging for the tests.

Robert Thomson: That's an interesting option. I'm not sure the public generally would support the additional fees required to finance an appointment system.John Kelly's column today certainly captured the frustration that many of us feel with the wait time at motor vehicle offices. I certainly share that pain. I've been to the Maryland motor vehicles office twice now, for a total of four hours waiting -- so far. Each time I get to the front of the line, the folks there tell me I need a new document. (To get an MD title for what is now a car titled in another state.) They've been very polite, and the information is helpful. I wish there were a way to get it all before getting on the lines.

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traffic next year: What do you expect traffic will be like, regionally, after the BRAC moves come into effect late next year?

Robert Thomson: Terrible. I think progress has been made, and is being made, but still, I don't see that we'll be ready with sufficient transportation improvements around Fort Belvoir or Bethesda.

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Keep Right Except to Pass: Regarding slow drivers in the left lane: In some jurisdictions there are signs that say "Keep Right Except to Pass" (more palatable than "Slower Traffic Keep Right"; no one wants to consider himself slow). I have seen a driver (not me!) pulled over on the New Jersey Tnpk. because he failed to yield to a car in the left lane that turned out to be an unmarked police car. I have never seen such a sign or such enforcement in the Washington area, but they couldn't hurt, and they might improve traffic flow. Some drivers have appointed themselves traffic czars (remember Nestoring?), and they block the left lane deliberately.

Robert Thomson: Yes, I do remember Nestoring. The term comes to us from John Nestor, who wrote a letter to The Post in the 1980s in which he said he preferred to cruise in the left lane because he thought it was safer. He would set his cruise control to the speed limit.That provoked letters to Dr. Gridlock for years and years (nothing recently) from outraged drivers. Nestor died in 1999.I think he was technically within his rights on the roads around here, but I didn't agree with him and would never do that. It just encourages road range.On the other hand: There's nothing in any of our local traffic laws that gives any driver the right to use the left lane -- or any other lane -- for speeding. Sometimes I fear that drivers simply want the left lane kept clear so they can speed, that it has nothing to do with a passing lane.

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Unaccustomed to Beltway Driving: Holy cow. I do not know how people do it. I work at home, and when I did have a job at the home, I had an all-metro commute. But this week, I had to drive on the Beltway from Silver Spring to the Dulles Toll Road almost every day, at various times.How on Earth do people drive the Beltway daily, at rush hour, and retain their sanity? Or their respect for humanity? Or their ability to be civil?Wow. I'm kind of impressed that anyone can do it.And also: Getting from the Toll Road back onto the Beltway is terrifying. There has got to be a better way to handle the signage. And, you know, having multiple police cars parked there with all their lights going - which was the setup late Saturday night - does not improve matters.Bright multicolored flashing lights, on top of all the confusing signs, bazillions of reflectors, and confused drivers? It just pushes a confusing situation toward panicky.And by Saturday I'd worked out which lane I needed to be in to get on the inner loop. (Through trial and error, not thanks to any signs.)

Robert Thomson: I'm not sure how many of us manage to maintain our sanity. The one thing that helps, as you note, is practice. Many commuters are veterans who learn how to deal with the pressure points and bottlenecks. September tends to be an especially difficult time, because many people are back from vacation and we have to relearn some of the coping skills.Also, many people change jobs or schools, and it takes a while to learn the new patterns.

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Robert Thomson: Early on, a reader was seeking clarification about the status of the Fairfax County Parkway extension. It's a bit confusing, because there was a ribbon cutting ceremony this morning to mark the completion of the new segment, but the new segment isn't actually open today.I double checked just now with VDOT spokesman Mike Salmon, who says: The northbound lanes on the parkway extension are scheduled to open Friday evening, and the southbound lanes are to open next Tuesday morning, Sept. 21.

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Metro: Hi - why are the metro signs that tell us when the next train is coming ALWAYS wrong. I arrived today to the one at the entrance telling me I had one minute to the train. I get down to the platform, it still says one minute and the train has closed it's doors and is leaving! one minute later it said arriving/boarding and the train was long gone. Add that to the almost 50% broken escalator rate I deal with everyday (Rosslyn, why do your escalators from the lower platform to the upper platform NEVER work?) my head wants to explode.

Robert Thomson: I haven't experienced quite the failure rate that you've had to deal with. I have noticed that there's a difference between the arrival times I see listed online and what is actually happening at the platform. (The Post's bureau in Rockville overlooks the Rockville Metro platform, so sometimes I compare the online arrival times with what I see happening out the window.)Generally, though, I find the station signs very helpful. Now always: I still see weird things regarding the number of cars in the arriving train. You know something's wrong if the sign says it's going to be a four-car or two-car train.As for those escalators, I'm with you. We have chronic problems at some of the busiest stations.

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Metro Question: What's the fastest way to reach Metro officials if you can't get to the call button at the ends of the metro car? There was an unattended bag the other day on a Metro car (luckily, the owner must have realized it was missing, because the bag was gone by the time I looked up from my phone where I was searching for a way to get in touch with officials - the car was too crowded to reach one of the call buttons). And what if a metro car was no A/C (or worse, no heat)? Is there a phone number or email address we should use? Or just try to speak with a station manager?

Robert Thomson: If you've got a mobile phone, I think it's a good idea to keep the transit police number handy: 202-962-2121Also, if there's a very obvious emergency, you can dial 911.For things like the A/C problems that have been chronic this summer, I always recommend moving to another car, and then using the intercom to contact the train operator. The Metro customer assistance office, at 202-637-1328, is open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays. In either case, tell them the number of the problem car. My experience is that they will take steps to get the car removed from service and the problem repaired. I think too few people report the problems.The one thing on your list that I think is least effective is telling the station manager about a problem with a particular train car.

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Memorial Bridge/Ohio Drive project: Will this thing ever end? When will Ohio Drive open again? First it was the end of July, then August...

Robert Thomson: The National Park Service project to repair Ohio Drive has been a serious pain for many drivers in west-central Washington this summer.Phase 2 took longer than the park service expected because some problems with the roadway were discovered only when it was torn up.But in terms of the overall project, the park service never told me it would get done over the summer. They were always saying October. That's still the target date for completion of the project.

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RE: Slow drivers in left lane of GW Parkway: The "slow" drivers in the left lane that I see on the GW Parkway *are* going the speed limit of 40 mph, but the prevailing speed (if there are no backups) is more like 50-55 mph. So, cars bunch up. My theory is that these people blocking the left lane, no matter what the speed limit is or how fast they are going, are on a power trip or are completely oblivious, neither of which makes for a safe driver.

Robert Thomson: No, I don't believe that's safe behavior. (I've got to point out I don't believe speeding is safe either.)It's hard to figure out what's on the mind of someone traveling in a sealed compartment, but my guess is that many of the people you see hogging the left lane on the parkway don't like to drive in the lane with merging traffic.

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Re: Driving under the limit: Most under-the-limit drivers I encounter are distracted by something, usually a cell phone.

Robert Thomson: People who drive in traffic for a living spot all kinds of distracted behavior. Cell phone use is the most basic, but they also see people with newspapers spread across the steering wheel, or computers on their laps.I won't even turn on my cell phone in the car. (Nobody needs me that bad.) But I do recognize there are plenty of other forms of distracted driving that get less attention, like fiddling with radio station buttons, or looking at maps.

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Arlington, VA: What's the status of the ceiling repair at Farragut North? This "project" has been going on since early this year. Also what is the reasoning behind metro not returning to automatic door operation? I understand why they are driving trains manually but just making the doors automatic would be a big improvement.

Robert Thomson: I don't understand why the ceiling repair is taking so long. Michelangelo did more in less time with the Sistine Chapel.Metro has been steadily making the repairs necessary to correct the electronic problem that could allow the doors to open on the train side away from the platform. Maintenance crews have been working their way through the Metrorail car series.That manual operation policy was imposed as a safety move, and I have to say, I support that completely. I don't want to hear about passengers popping out of open doorways onto the tracks.

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Columbus Day: I have to question the decision to close major blue/orange line stations like Metro Center and F. West on Columbus Day weekend. Unlike Labor Day Monday, most businesses stay open on Columbus Day (with the exception of the government). Also, anyone hoping to visit the Smithsonian on their day off would also be out of luck if their route included a transfer from the red line. Do you know if they considered evening track work at these stations to minimize the disruption?

Robert Thomson: I think the Columbus weekend shutdown at Farragut West and McPherson Square, and the partial closing of Metro Center, will be quite difficult for exactly the reason you state: A lot of people work on Columbus Day, and Metro will be severing the Blue and Orange Lines.I do understand why Metro picks long weekends to do switch replacements rather than attempting them in a string of overnight repairs. I once got to watch a switch replacement at Mount Vernon Square. That's a tough job, requiring a lot of work and a lot of coordination. Metro is closed for so few hours overnight that the workers would barely get their operation set up when they've have to start breaking it down to allow service to resume.

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Kingstowne, VA (again): Been meaning to ask you this question for a long time and I keep forgetting. Do you know where in Virginia one would submit a request for a new road sign? I drive south on Van Dorn Street near Franconia Road just about every day. Van Dorn is three lanes through there and the left lane becomes left-turn only at Franconia. But there's no advance sign warning that the lane does this.Most regular drivers know about it and (aside from a few jerks) they move over in advance, but there are plenty of people who don't live right around here who find themselves in the left turn lane and then stop and try to get over (thereby blocking the turn lane in the process....whatever happened to just going ahead, turning, then making a U-turn?).There really needs to be a "left lane must turn left at signal" sign at this intersection. Is this something that can be reported to VDOT via the same site you use to report potholes and the like?

Robert Thomson: Yes, we're probably thinking of the same thing: VDOT has an online form people can use to report non-emergency issues and make requests.Here's the link:http://www.virginiadot.org/travel/citizen.aspThere's also a phone number: 800-367-7623

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Single Tracking at Pentagon City on Sunday?: When I came down to Pentagon City station on Sunday around 11:30AM, they were single-tracking (the left side going north was closed). WMATA employees never gave me an answer - do you know what the problem was?

Robert Thomson: Track workers were replacing rail in that area this weekend. Metro hq does a good job getting the word out about weekend track work. The station managers, not so much.Near the end of each month, you'll find the information about the next month's worth of weekend track work on Metro's Web site. Then on each Thursday, the transit authority sends out a reminder.One place I know you'll find it: On the Dr. Gridlock blog each Friday morning.

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Toll Road Debacle: Dear Dr. Gridlock,Oh. My. God.The construction nightmare just east of the main toll plaza on I-267 where the access road merges onto the toll road and traffic tries to get to the Beltway exits is flat-out horrendous.The backups begin before the toll plaza and morning rush traffic is at a standstill. Two left lanes that funnel thru traffic to the I-66 connector and to Rt. 123 are gone, one of the exit lanes for I-495 to Baltimore is gone and the merging is suicidal.Do you have any word on progress for lane re-openings? Also, couldn't the thru traffic be routed onto the Airport Toll Road to the left?These vehicles have already paid their toll and just need some open road to get to I-66. This would alleviate a lot of pain. I have noticed some cars attempting to do this now, but the road is not configured for such a merge and it is a highly dangerous move.This mess is going to become epic as fall progresses, mornings get darker, and in any precipitation. Please help!

Robert Thomson: That's a difficult area to begin with, and now there's really intense construction on the Dulles Metrorail extension. I actually haven't had too many complaints about it recently, but your account is quite specific, and I think I should take a drive and report back to you.

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Do tolls reduce traffic?: This morning, WTOP has been asking if a Pay-To-Drive option on all of the area's interstates would solve congestion problems. Is there any proof that tolls do anything other than make people find other roads to use?Public transportation and carpools are not realistic options for many people. I was talking with someone who spent just a few days without a car recently about how hard it was to get around.I am sure the tolls on the Dulles Toll Road force people onto Rt 7. That may make traffic less on the Dulles Toll Road, but does nothing to reduce overall traffic and just makes the surrounding roads worse.Policy should get more people to use the roads that are designed to handle the volume, not fewer people. I am sure that traffic on Rt. 50 in Arlington would flow much better if people heading to/from DC were allowed to use I-66 instead.

Robert Thomson: I think that's about a study by the Council of Governments into the feasibility and value of charging drivers to use more of the roads in our region.I don't see much chance of that actually happening, though I do think we need to study it and have some rational basis for discussion.We've got the HOT lanes project and the Intercounty Connector, but we have yet to impose a toll on an existing lane in the DC region. That's a difficult threshold for politicians to cross.People will say, Didn't I already pay for that road?I've never seen that argument. Transit users pay for every Metro ride they take, yet their tax money went into building and maintaining the transit system.

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Congestion nightmare: I drive into the District on Interstate 95/395 and there is no rhyme or reason to why traffic is good or bad on any given day.Last Tuesday - the so-called "Terrible Traffic Tuesday" - was actually a breeze, but Wednesday was a total disaster.The traffic on 14th Street in the afternoon is just as erratic. It doesn't seem like anyone in power is actually trying to solve this mess, but instead all we get is just a passive "whatever happens happens" attitude.

Robert Thomson: Totally agree on your basic point. My take: The public will not support any policy that is likely to ease congestion because it will cost money.About Terrible Tuesday: I think it's overrated as an event, like Black Friday after Thanksgiving.People often write in and ask how long I think it's going to take them to get somewhere. As in, I live in Annapolis and I have a flight from Dulles at 7 p.m. Wednesday. What time should I leave home to make sure I don't miss my flight?I always have to warn people that no two trips across this crowded region are alike. People hate the erratic nature of travel as much as they hate the congestion.

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Robert Thomson: Travelers, thanks for sticking with me through this first chat of September. Please join me again next Monday.Meanwhile, please stay in touch through the Dr. Gridlock blog. And write to me anytime at drgridlock@washpost.com.Stay safe.


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