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Dr. Gridlock: Your traffic and transit questions

Robert Thomson
Monday, December 20, 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. As Christmas approaches, we can exchange advice on holiday getaway issues. And I think there's plenty to talk about on the local transportation scene as well. Let me know, for example, if you'd like to discuss Metro's new passenger inspection policy, or whether you think the Metro board should be re-invented, as the Greater Washington Board of Trade is proposing.One other think you could help me with: For this coming Sunday's Commuter page in The Post, I'm planning to write the transportation Year in Review. Probably a list of the top 10 stories. What stories would you nominate?I've got a few thoughts: Blizzard cleanup, Tysons Corner construction projects, Metro fare increases, Fairfax County Parkway extension opensMetro escalator problems, resignation of John Catoe, Pennsylvania Ave bike lanes. What would you add or subtract?

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Thursday Night Travel: We are planning to leave Arlington after work on Thursday. Any advice for heading toward NJ and avoiding long delays?

Robert Thomson: This is the first of a bunch of questions I see in the mailbag concerning getaways.I think Thursday afternoon will be the peak of the getaway for Christmas, but as I've been saying on the Dr. Gridlock blog, it shouldn't be as bad as Thanksgiving Wednesday. Nothing is as bad as Thanksgiving Wednesday. At Christmas, people can spread out their departures a lot more -- except for people with specific work obligations or children in school.That said, I think it's still going to be rough on I-95 at the Delaware toll plaza in Newark. Same deal as at Thanksgiving: The construction of the highway speed E-ZPass lanes in the median is eating into the toll plaza booths and into the approach and depature area.The Delaware Department of Transportation says that at Thanksgiving, it saw a 10 percent drop in traffic, and it was still backed up for many, many miles.People avoid the toll plaza either with a short detour around the plaza or a big detour around I-95 in Delaware. That might take them up into Pennsylvania or across the Bay Bridge and up Route 301.In a moment, I'll publish some links to some previous blog postings about these alternative routes.

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Driving North on I-95: Forgive me for I know you covered this during Thanksgiving. We're driving to NYC Dec. 26 and returning to DC Jan. 1. Is the fiasco at the Delaware toll plaza still there and, if so, would you mind giving us the link to the alternative routes you so kindly published last month?

null null: Links:Delaware warns of toll plaza back-upThanksgiving's biggest bottleneck (and alternate routes)

Robert Thomson: Yep, I'll get you those links. You're doing well with your scheduling, by the way. Those should be off-days for holiday travel. Just watch out for the weather forecast this weekend. Christmas Day may bring in a winter storm along the East Coast.

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Driving to BWI: Good Afternoon Dr,I have a 3:30pm flight out of BWI on Thursday the 23. What would be a good time to be leaving the Chantilly area?Thanks and have a Merry Christmas

Robert Thomson: And to you!This is a very common type of question to Dr. Gridlock -- and one that makes me really nervous to answer. We're talking about destinations into which you have invested a lot of money and emotion. So I tend to be very conservative in answering them.The first thing I always say is that anything can happen when you're traveling through the heart of one of the nation's most congested region's at a peak travel period.So it's best to have a sense of some alternative routes before you depart. Also, be checking the traffic reports. You can always look at our traffic map here on washingtonpost.com. But once in the car, I'd tune into WTOP for the reports every 10 minutes.On your route, you'll find lots of traffic on I-66, the western side of the Beltway and up I-95. Still, that's likely to be your best route, so think of anything else as a backup plan.Backups would include using the Dulles Toll Road or Route 7 at the start of your trip, then getting off the Beltway before you reach I-95 and taking Route 29 up Route 100. You could take Route 100 to I-95 or the BW Parkway and then go north, connecting with I-195 to the airport.Thursday is likely to be the busiest day of the Christmas season at BWI. Parking may be tight. Watch the electronic signs for advice on what lots might be full.You're trip is about 60 miles, and under good circumstances, I figure it would take an hour and a half. But if I'm catching a plane on a getaway afternoon, I'd double my time estimate. (With luck, you'd arrive at the airport in plenty of time, but it's best not to count on luck.)

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Metro - December 24/25: Will Metro be open regular Friday hours for December 24 (close at 3:00am) and regular Saturday hours for December 25 (open at 7:00am) or is there some other schedule? Thanks.

Robert Thomson: Here's what I posted on the blog this morning about Metro's holiday schedule:Metrorail will be open from 7 a.m. to 3 a.m. Friday, Christmas Eve. On a normal weekday, the train system opens at 5 a.m., but Christmas Eve will be a holiday for many people in the D.C. area. The same schedule will apply on Christmas Day, New Year's Eve and New Year's Day.Metrobus will operate on a Sunday schedule from Christmas Eve through Sunday, Dec. 26, as well as from New Year's Eve through Jan. 2. A modified weekday schedule will be in effect from Dec. 27 to 30.MetroAccess will cancel all subscription trips on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year's Eve and New Year's Day. All trips during those time periods must be reserved separately.

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Construction at the I-95 DE toll plaza: Is the construction causing delays northbound or in both directions?

Robert Thomson: Both directions.

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Top 10 Stories: the MARC 'Hell Train' better be in your Top 10. NEVER FORGET! lol :D

Robert Thomson: Thanks, I appreciate the suggestion for my Year in Review Top 10 transportation stories. That's a good one.

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Bag Search: Metro always cries how poor it is. Wouldn't money spent in ionizing technology be better spent on more cops and frequent patrols? This could go a long way is reducing frequent rider complaints about bad behavior. Bag checks are silly if they aren't done everywhere and for every passenger.

Robert Thomson: Readers can get a pretty clear idea of how much I hate the idea of police squads stopping Metro riders by reading my Sunday column.I think the inspection strategy makes a lot more sense as a way of using up a federal grant than it does as a way of stopping terrorists.On your point: When I talk to riders about transit security, they are much, much, much more likely to say they'd like to see more police on the trains and around the station parking areas than they are to say they want somebody searching their stuff. (Come to think of it, they never say the latter to me.)In response to my column Sunday, I got a note from a reader asking, Don't I believe there could be a terrorist attack on Metro?Yes, of course I do. The train systems in Madrid and London have been targeted. My beef is with the idea that searches add more to our security than they detract from our liberty.Metro says these inspections are not a response to a specific threat. Anytime the government wants to get into your stuff, there's a specific threat -- it's to your rights.

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METRO Noise: I remember riding to Glenmont and hearing an ear-splitting noise in the tunnel prior to reaching the final station; is this on purpose so as to wake up customers who may be sleeping on the train? What produces the noise?

Robert Thomson: It's not to wake anybody up. That much I know. Waking up riders is the job of the train operator, who does it by making repeated announcements and flashing the interior lights on and off.I'm not sure what the bang was. Sometimes a train makes a loud noise when the wheels go over a track switch. If you hear something like that, report it to the train operator over the intercom, or to a station manager.

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kudos to metro: I was caught in the pentagon Christmas ornament suspicious package snafu last week and wanted to compliment Metro on its handling of the situation.My bus pulled into the Pentagon, we were told promptly we could not disembark there unless we worked at the pentagon, we went to Pentagon City, and I was on a shuttle in less than 10 minutes.In all, I was only 45 minutes late to work, and I think that was pretty amazing. I know Metro doesn't get lauded for doing its job well a lot, and I wanted to say that they handled that situation very well.

Robert Thomson: I think Metro transit police and other transit officials do many good things to protect us. (The praise for the overall response to that incident wasn't universal. I heard, for example, from a bus rider who couldn't understand why a bus driver didn't divert even though he knew passengers wouldn't be able to disembark.)I've long said we need more transit police. I'd like to see many more of them on the trains and buses, and in the parking areas. As it is, they're way too spread out, given their responsibilities.

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Christmas Morning Flight: My boyfriend and I have a flight out of BWI on Christmas morning. Do you know if the free shuttles from the Amtrak station will be operating?

Robert Thomson: Yes, they'll be operating. One source of real-time information about BWI Airport conditions is the airports Twitter feed. That's at: http://twitter.com/#!/bwi_airportI find it has a lot of helpful information for travelers who are within a couple of hours of their flights.Also, if people are going away for just a couple of days, like for the Christmas weekend, consider parking in the daily garage rather than the economy lots. It's not going to be that much more expensive for a couple of days, and you'll be sheltered. (Think of the possibility of a winter storm this weekend.)

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Top ten: I think you may want to consider adding MARC/VRE woes--the frequent issues with both commuter trains. Also, I would talk about the advent of HOT lanes on I-495 in Virginia and the ICC in Maryland.

Robert Thomson: Agreed on MARC/VRE woes. HOT lanes, too, though I'll probably wind up combining that with the Dulles rail project -- neither is done, but they're both having a high impact on travelers, especially around Tysons Corner.ICC, I thought about, but wasn't sure. It's not done yet, and much of the construction has been away from other roads, so it's had a relatively low impact on travelers this year. It definitely will be on the Year Ahead list, which we plan to run on Jan. 2.

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RE Metro Christmas Eve: I just checked the WMATA Website and it says that December 24 will be open 5 a.m. to midnight and December 25 will be a Sunday schedule. That is different from your answer above. Can you confirm which is correct? Thanks.

Robert Thomson: I promise that after the chat, I'll double check with Metro, but for now, let me show you exactly what I see on Metro's home page:s Day (Saturday, Jan. 1) with a Sunday schedule slated each day."

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Top 2010 stories: I suggest broadening the issues of Metro fare increases to Metro funding (under-funding?) and also reporting on whether Metro had made any headway on such quality of service issues as manual train control, no A/C in summer, trash fires, communication issues, shortages of drivers and operators, and on-time performance metrics.

Robert Thomson: That's good. I think Metro has made slow headway on restoring automatic train control, but that's still a long way off. On the others, not so much progress. For example, I get as many complaints about Metro communications as I did two years ago, before Metro began a push to improve communications.

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Metro fare increases: I am somewhat conflicted about the recent decision by Congress to increase the subsidy to $230 as this just insulates federal workers from fare increases, thus making it easier for Metro to raise fares every year it seems with little outrage among riders. Most of us non-feds get no subsidy or we are allowed to use pre-tax dollars, which provides only a minimal savings for most riders.Metro even admits they don't really consider how fare increases affect people's budgets, especially lower income workers who receive no subsidy and have to live far away from their jobs.What will it take to increase people's outrage over the increase in metro fares?

Robert Thomson: Given the size of the fare increases this year, I thought the riders were very accepting of them. The only way I can explain this is your point about the subsidy of up to $230 a month offered to riders who are federal employees.That was supposed to expire on Dec. 31 and return to the previous level of $120. Since the fringe benefit to federal employees amounts to a huge indirect subsidy to Metro, the transit authority was very concerned about the return to the lower level. Metro officials estimated they would have lost $5 million to $10 million over the course of a year.Let me pick on one of your points: I do think Metro considers the impact of fare increases on personal budgets. For one thing, Metro's financial officials calculate how many riders they expect to lose anytime they increase fares. But for another, I have seen them worry about the impact of fare increases on bus riders, many of whom have lower incomes than the typical train rider and are less likely to be getting a federal fringe benefit.

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To Points South: Dr. Gridlock,I'll be leaving for Charleston from Crystal City as early as 4 PM on Wednesday. It's an 8 hour drive under normal circumstances down I-95.How much do you think the holiday traffic would add to the travel time? Is it even worth trying to leave Wednesday night, or should I turn in early and set off in the wee hours of Thursday morning?

Robert Thomson: I think there's likely to be a getaway boomlet on Wednesday afternoon, and it would add a bit to your travel time -- particularly in Northern Virginia. But if the 4 p.m. departure works best for you for other reasons, I think I'd stick with that.Leaving at off-hours is often very helpful, and I've frequently recommended that, especially around Thanksgiving. But one thing to keep in mind is that this can throw off your body clock. You want to be driving when your body is telling you that you should be asleep. Watch out for that.

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Wednesday Drive to Massachusetts: Dr. Gridlock-I'm driving home for Christmas in Worcester, Mass. on Wednesday. I can leave at about 2:30, possibly earlier, and of course later.I'm trying to decide what time to leave, and more importantly, if there's a route I should take to avoid New York and possibly tolls? I've also heard there may be backup in Deleware as well...Thank you!

Robert Thomson: Have a safe trip. I don't have any argument with your departure time, as long as you know that you'll encounter some combination of holiday getaway traffic, mall traffic and commuter traffic at various points along the way -- no matter what route you take.You might, for example, find a clot of traffic in Sturbridge, MA, toward the end of your trip, if you're taking the Mass Pike. (I'd take it, despite the toll.)As for avoiding New York, there are lots of options. Rather than try to repeat them all here, please click on some of the links we put in higher up in the chat. They should take you to places where you'll see all the route options we've suggested and that other travelers have suggested. (Also, so many people ask about this that I think I should repeat some of them this week on the Dr. Gridlock blog.)

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Christmas Schedule: The Metro Website Actually says two different things:http://www.wmata.com/rail/schedules/holiday_schedules.cfm gives the 3 am closing.http://www.wmata.com/about_metro/news/PressReleaseDetail.cfm?ReleaseID=2381 gives the midnight closing.

Robert Thomson: I think that second one is from 2008.

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Robert Thomson: Travelers, thanks for joining me today. I need to break away now. (Have to take a drive.) I'll try to further address some of your holiday scheduling and route concerns on the Dr. Gridlock blog over the next couple of days.Be safe, and have a happy Christmas.

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