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Dr. Gridlock: Your traffic and transit questions

Robert Thomson
Monday, December 13, 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 see questions about many driving issues and some Metro issues as well. Let's get started.

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No primary offense: What's the logic behind having things like cell phone talking while driving not be a primary offense? I see Maryland drivers talking on their phones all the time. But my understanding if even if a police officer saw that, they'd be powerless to do anything unless the driver was also doing something else wrong.

Robert Thomson: Yes, in Maryland officers must see a driver doing something else wrong that would constitute a primary offense. Only then could they stop the vehicle and issue a ticket for failing to abide by the hands-free cell phone law that took effect Oct. 1.That was the watered down version that could pass the Maryland General Assembly, which has a tough time with stricter traffic laws.Main benefit of the current law: The fact that we're talking about the issue of distracted driving.

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Lights on: Is there any reason automakers don't have headlights come on automatically when the windshield wipers are on? I've been shocked by the number of drivers who don't turn on their lights, even in driving rainstorms. Maybe technology is the solution.

Robert Thomson: Here's another issue that bothers many of my readers, but is tough for enforcers: The requirement to turn on headlights when using windshield wipers.I think some vehicles even now have a feature that turns on the headlights when the wipers are in use, but it's not a requirement imposed on manufacturers.I think that's two out of three of the driver behaviors that most annoy people. The third would be failing to clear snow from the roof of a car before driving, another law that's difficult to enforce.

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Frustrated on the "Green" Line: Can you explain to me why Metro runs so many Yellow line trains that terminate at Mt. Vernon Square during rush hour? Recently, as many as 4 out of every 5 trains at Gallery Place have been Yellow, with a Green line train rarely coming through. What gives? This makes for a long wait for anyone living north of Mt. Vernon Square. This isn't a one time thing... it happens almost every day.

Robert Thomson: I think it depends on what time you ride, though clearly you're talking about rush hour, since the the Yellow Line trains are terminating at Mount Vernon Square.I hear similar complaints from time to time about Blue vs. Orange Line service. The trains get more and more off schedule as the rush hour develops. Gaps between trains narrow or widen in different sectors. That messes with the sequence of the trains after a while.

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Conductor communication: Today, people were saying they didn't know what was going on while stuck on the train. Why is it that whenever there is a problem on the rails, the conductor never says anything or if they do say something, it's incorrect 90% of the time? Do the conductors not get any information whle they're operating the train or do they get information and just choose not to report it?

Robert Thomson: The train operators are supposed to announce the reason for a stop between stations. That's why many riders hear the announcement that the train is holding because there's a train directly in front. (See previous answer regarding train bunching during rush hour.)If the operator isn't making an announcement, the operator isn't following the rules.

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Rockville's Viers Mill bike bridge?: Do you know when the pedestrian/cyclist bridge over Viers Mill Road on the Rock Creek Trail will open?

Robert Thomson: I believe it's supposed to be done next spring. That bridge is a weird looking thing, and I suspect many drivers wonder about it.The Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission is building a 605 foot-long bridge for hikers and bikers on the 15-mile-long trail that also will provide a safe crossing of busy Veirs Mill for neighborhood residents. The project got underway in December 2008.

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Escalators: I've long thought that there has to be something really rotten going on at Metro to explain the chronically nonfunctional escalators. This is the most convincing explanation I've heard. Your take?

Robert Thomson: I know there's a pick system and Metro's consultant commented on it in the report about how to improve escalator maintenance. I don't recall that being cited as a primary factor in our escalator difficulties.They break down too often in the first place. They're old, exposed to weather and in constant use. They need to be replaced, just like the oldest rail cars are being replaced with modern equipment. But that's really expensive.

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Please teach Metro how to use Twitter: Can someone please teach Metro how to use Twitter? That way I don't have frantic coworkers stuck at a station wanting to know what "Delays both dire" mean? What my email said was "Delays both directions" which makes far more sense, but if you're stuck in a station and all you have is Twitter and you see the word "dire," you're going to assume a bad thing.

Robert Thomson: I think Twitter users can rest assured that the transit authority does not talk like that.In fact, don't you think Metro riders have so much experience being on the receiving end of "Delays both directions" that they can fill in the blank?

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Arlington - Military Rd - Median Question: Are there any rules of guidelines for installing medians on roadways? Military Road in Arlington recently had a few medians as well as curb outs installed. I can understand the purpose -- to slow cars down -- but the way they were constructed seems dangerous. Instead of a gradual incline for oncoming traffic it's a dead-hard curb. I'm sure the intentions were to make it safer, but the road seems very dangerous now.

Robert Thomson: I'm not familiar with the engineering requirements. Sounds like you're talking about a pedestrian safety technique that's being used more and more across the region. The traffic departments will create a median that serves as a pedestrian refuge, and push out the curbs on either side so that the pedestrians have a shorter distance to cross and cars have to go more slowly when turning the corners.These designs also have the effect of slowing down traffic, because drivers get cautious when they see a narrower space -- more cautious than they getn when simply seeing pedestrians.

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Stand back, doors closing:

Robert Thomson: In a couple of earlier answers, I talked about the trains getting thrown off schedule during rush hour, especially late in the rush hour.If you are waiting on the platform, and it's getting really crowded and you see from the message boards that there's a long wait for the next train, you can be pretty sure that train will be jammed with people who boarded at other crowded platforms.A huge portion of the passengers will get off at a key station like L'Enfant Plaza, either because they work there or because they're transfering.The odds are pretty good that several following trains are going to arrive very quickly and that they won't be anywhere near as crowded.So the practical thing to do is wait for one of those trains.That said, we need more eight-car trains at rush hour, we need more reliable equipment to avoid breakdowns, we need to get back to automatic control of the trains, and we need to operators to avoid suddenly closing doors on big crowds.One further note about that: The operator in the lead of a group of bunched up trains is trying to get that train back on schedule. The longer the train spends in each of those stations with a big crowd, the harder it will be to get back on schedule.

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Overnight parking at Metro stations: We are taking the Amtrak from Union Station to NYC this Friday morning, and coming back Sunday morning. I've searched for information on parking overnight at Metro stations, but the WMATA web site has nothing. Any external links I've found that supposedly refer to overnight parking are always broken, which indicates that Metro has removed the information. Can you wring some answers out of them about parking overnight on Friday and Saturday? Have any of your loyal readers just gone ahead and tried it, and maybe have any experiences to share?

Robert Thomson: There are only three stations where you're officially allowed to park overnight in designated areas. These are the locations: Level 1J at Franconia-Springfield Station, the lower level of the Huntington Station garage and theCherrywood Lane side at Greenbelt Station.I'd also like to hear from travelers with experience parking overnight at Metro.

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Clearing snow off of car - don't forget lights: In your article about how to deal with the snow, you mentioned clearing off the car completely. But for too many folks, that just means the windows. Having your lights on behind packed snow helps no one, so please remember to clear the snow away from both the front and back lights!

Robert Thomson: Absolutely right. It not only helps you see, but also be seen.On Sunday's Commuter page, I offered some advice -- practical advice, I hope -- for drivers, transit users and residents about how to handle winter weather. Here's a link.

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Fire at Metro Center: Is there any word about the cause of the track fire on the Orange and Blue Lines at Metro Center this morning? Aside from the half hour delay that I experienced as a result, I am growing increasingly concerned about safety on Metrorail (or lack thereof) and will probably start driving into DC from Vienna soon.

Robert Thomson: Yes, it was an electrical fire involving a light fixture and some debris. Also, late in the rush hour, there was no Blue or Orange Line service between Foggy Bottom and Federal Triangle becaue of a switch malfunction. (Mark Berman was reporting these things on the Dr. Gridlock blog this morning.)You may feel more in control when you drive, but there's no evidence that driving is safer than taking the train. We tend to highlight problems on Metro -- we certainly highlight train, bus or escalator accidents. One reason is because they're unusual and therefore newsworthy. (Another reason is that they affect a lot of people.)I think I wouldn't quit riding just because of an electrical fire. Metro has been having problems with these little fires for years. I don't believe there's any greater fire danger now than in years past.

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Shady Grove Platform: What sort of timeframe have you seen with respect to the scheduled platform work at Shady Grove? Why would they choose the coldest months of the year to rehab an outdoor platform when that work will result in the need for single tracking--thus causing large groups of commuters to wait outside for the train, instead of the normal practice of occupying both sides with waiting trains. Am I overly pessimistic to suspect that this will also cause major back ups with trains waiting to get into the station and ripple down the Red line?

Robert Thomson: Metro has to fix the platform, just like it had to fix the one at Rockville earlier this year. The Shady Grove work on the platform edges is supposed to start this week and last till the end of January. (Then in the spring, the platform tiles will be replaced.)I think this work will inconvenience many riders, because they'll be able to board on only one side of the platform.The reason for starting now, Metro says, is to do the single tracking required for the project during a period of relatively lower ridership, because of the holidays.

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Idylwood Bridge: Any information on when this bridge will reopen? The VDOT website still says late December 10-February 11. They must know by now whether there's really any shot of reopening in December.

Robert Thomson: I haven't heard a final word on that, but I think it's pretty unlikely the bridge will reopen by the end of this month. The weather has been turning against the construction crews lately. (The bridge work is part of the HOT lanes project.)

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W&OD Bridge Over 495: Is it reasonable to assume that the bike bridge over the Beltway will be torn down and replaced as part of the HOT lane project? If so, when?

Robert Thomson: Yes, but I believe the old bridge will stay open till the new bridge is done. The new bridge will be to the north of the old one, and I think the schedule still calls for completion by the middle of next year.

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Metro using the term dire: No I think regular Metro riders took that seriously.I got a call from a coworker that several other passengers were reporting to their car that Metro was reporting dire delays. She wanted to know what I knew (since I was at my desk). She's been a Metro rider for almost 10 years (and a Marc rider before that).

Robert Thomson: There certainly were Blue/Orange line delays this morning that many riders would have characterized as dire. My point is that Metro's announcements don't usually express the same level of outrage about service that the riders are feeling.

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Rock Creek Parkway Construction - Calvert Entrance: Could you look into the construction on the Rock Creek Parkway at Calvert Street? The US Park Police is not providing information about the length of the project, or giving any notice as to when the entrance onto the parkway in the mornings will be closed - it's random; today it was closed with no warning signs. Also, they station a police car at the top of the hill, blocking one lane of traffic in the morning on Calvert Street instead of letting the right lane go right straight onto the entrance ramp of the RCP. The traffic is backed up for miles. Thank you for any light you can shed on this.

Robert Thomson: Many of you are caught up in congestion in the morning heading south on Conn. Ave and trying to get onto the RC Parkway. This phase of the rehab project is supposed to last through January. I can tell you what's supposed to be happening according to the National Park Service:Access from the Calvert Street ramp to the southbound parkway is limited to the morning rush period. There is no access at all to the southbound parkway from the Cathedral Avenue ramp.Road construction continues behind jersey barriers in the northbound lane of Shoreham Drive from Cathedral Avenue NW to Calvert Street NW. Between 6:45 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. Monday through Friday, traffic will be able to enter the Shoreham Drive/Calvert Street ramp (adjacent to the Shoreham Hotel) from southbound Connecticut Avenue at Calvert Street, and go south Rock Creek Parkway toward downtown Washington.The Shoreham Drive/Calvert Street ramp will be closed to southbound traffic at all other times. Police will be present in the construction zone at all times to assist with traffic direction.Starting at 9:30 a.m., traffic direction will be reversed to northbound on the Shoreham Drive/Calvert Street ramp. During all other times of the day, traffic will be able to proceed northbound only on the ramp.Cathedral Avenue: After 9:30 a.m., traffic will be able to go northbound only onto Cathedral Avenue NW to Woodley Road and Connecticut Avenue, NW. There will be no access to the Shoreham Drive/Calvert Street ramp and the parkway from southbound Cathedral Avenue at all times during this phase of construction.

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Robert Thomson: Travelers, I need to break away now. In the mailbag, you've left me some things I need to check, or at least offer you more comment about. I'll try to do that as usual on the Dr. Gridlock blog. You can reach me anytime at drgridlock@washpost.com, and I hope you'll join me again next Monday. Stay safe.

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