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More Transportation Chat

During our biweekly online discussion on Monday, I ran out of time before I ran out of questions and comments from readers. That's the usual scenario. But this time I thought I'd post some of the ones that I didn't get to. Your thoughts on these would be most welcome.

The chat was very heavy on Metro issues, naturally enough, since the Metro board just approved its biggest every fare and fee increases. People argued all sides of that.

Metro-area Resident: "For me, Metro is what it is. Really, Metro is not that bad. I think what folks don't realize are its problems are the result of "niceties" they like the most when comparing Metro to older subway systems.

"Metro generally has nice facilities, and is thankfully clean. However, Metro is an over-capitalized system, which requires high ops and maintenance costs. I know this seems like a crazy question, but has anyone asked Metro to look at the long-term costs of maintaining the escalators within the system?

"In my simple commute, my origin and destination stations have a minimum of four escalators each. Of which, one is typically down bi-weekly, and one station just had them all re-done which was completed this summer. Not knowing the costs, it just seems to me that low rise/run staircases could accommodate the general public needs. The staircase at Capitol South is a good example. With the proposed fare increase, has anyone reviewed the long term operating cost of the rail system with an eye to reduce costs?"

The heavy dependence on escalators is a chronic problem for Metro. Like the two-track system that prevents the use of express trains, this problem has been present since the system's creation, and no one has thought up a practical way around it. Metro stations are built deep. The escalators could not be replaced by stairs, though that would certainly keep us in shape if it didn't kill us. An elevator system big enough to handle the needed capacity would be too expensive.

Metro GM John Catoe did a review of Metro's costs before proposing this round of fare increases. Metro continues to look at other cost saving measures. Eliminating the carpet in the rail cars is a promising idea. The short-lived experiment with four-car trains was not.

Falls Church, Va.: "My 88-year-old mother was visiting and we took Metro. I use a Smartcard, but we armed her with paper tickets. Why does Metro print them in such pale green ink? The panda is the only thing you can see on the card if you are old. She could barely make out the arrow in daylight, let alone in the gloom of the stations."

The paper cards seem especially annoying after experiencing the ease of using the SmarTrip card. The main reason I went to the SmarTrip was that I hated trying to shove the paper card into the fare gate slot. (Easily annoyed, I know.) Metro is trying to get us all to convert to the electronic card.

One reader was asking for thoughts on why the commute between the District and Waldorf seemed to be getting worse. That drew this response:

Waldorf, Md.: "Branch Ave. gets backed up in two places, where the three lanes go into two near the hospital, and the Brandywine lights. The Brandywine lights needs to go away and that intersection completely redesigned. I haven't figured out what is going with 210, but I suspect it is the timing of the lights.

"There are times the light in front of a green is red, and with hundreds of cars on that road, it simply backs up. This is why Maryland needs to get their act together and get a rail system to Waldorf and La Plata. If MARC goes into West Virginia, there is no reason a train can't go to southern Maryland."

Do you have any other ideas on what might be happening with the Southern Maryland commute?

Alexandria, Va.: "Hi Doc,
I am deeply concerned about the curbside HOV lanes on Washington Street in Alexandria. They pose a significant threat to the safety of folks trying to make a left turn across the oncoming traffic. Three people I know have been T-boned when trying to make left turns across two stopped lanes of traffic, only to find out too late that someone is moving from half a block away in the HOV lane.

"I also witnessed a fourth accident in which a Fairfax County police car T-boned a car making a left turn across the three lanes. I would recommend getting rid of the HOV lanes on Washington, or moving them to the left lane so that vehicles making left turns can see what's coming, as their vision isn't blocked by stopped cars. An informal poll, taken by me standing the corner, found that more than half the HOV traffic had only one occupant in the vehicle.
Thanks for listening."

Washington, D.C.: "I drove through Seven Corners this weekend and found it the most frustrating thing I've experienced in quite a while. I was on Route 7 heading west (from Alexandria to Tysons) and the traffic lights were out of sync, meaning long stop-and-gos, from Columbia Pike all the way to Seven Corners.

"And then once you approached the actual intersection, the signage was so poor and so close to the intersections that everyone had to make decisions too late and depend on other cars to let them in. What a disaster! This could be avoided if there were signs well ahead of 7 Corners that advised drivers which lanes to be in."

Boonsboro, Md.: After arriving 45 minutes late today because my MARC train "was following a freight train," I am again tempted to start driving to work. How can we get across to the decision-makers that people will not pay a premium for bad service when there is an alternative? I don't go back to restaurants that give bad service, either."

I wouldn't blame any of those long-suffering riders on the Brunswick Line for converting. CSX owns the tracks and CSX puts its freight trains first.

Your Advice Sought
Mitchellville, Md.: "I am interested in finding some other way to commute to D.C. other than Metro because of the scheduled increases. Presently I park at Landover and ride to Farragut West. I've checked online and there doesn't appear to be any alternatives that make sense financially and/or logistically. Is this conclusion accurate?"

Washington, D.C.: "Colonial Parking in my building raised their monthly rates to $240. The best price I can get within walking distance is $210. My wife's building is $275 per month -- up $100 in 3 years. I need to drop off two kids from two different schools no earlier than 8 am and pick them up no later than 6:00pm. Are their any options you can think of other than to drive? I drive my wife to her office, so there are four people in the car and no room for carpooling."

This sounds like an example of a commuting problem that traffic planners have not been able to solve: "Trip chaining." People need to do lots of stuff on their way to and from work. It's not easy to switch from driving to some other mode of transportation. Any solutions here?

By Robert Thomson  |  December 18, 2007; 5:35 AM ET
Categories:  Commuting  
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I think what we all need to do is re-orient our thinking a bit. We don't pay "a premium" for MARC and Metro; we pay their price instead of extra gas and parking, hassle and time. You're welcome.

Posted by: Stick | December 18, 2007 7:36 AM | Report abuse

I want to know what the VDOT policy is on informing people of accidents and other delays with the electronic signs above various roads throughout the area. Very early Saturday morning, there was a horrendous crash right at Rte. 28. By the time I came up to it, there was a car on its side, a couple of stretchers in the road and the jaws of life. The accident had been there for a while, however not a single sign on Rte. 28 or on I-66 alerted drivers to this. So you have four high-speed lanes of traffic that now have to cram into one exit lane and not a single police officer helping with detours. I did pass a Fairfax County police office in a car what trying to exit though.

At the same time I was driving home, my fiance was too, however she was almost rear-ended and side-swiped by the same vehicle. Not a word of this full closing of I-66 was mentioned on XM's traffic station either.

Will VDOT ever use those signs for something more than telling us about delays once we are already in them. There is a sign on Rte. 28 North near Rte. 29 and I-66 that never has anything on it, however the sign past Rte. 50 on I-66 will tell me that there are delays from Exit ## to Exit ## after I'm already in the delays. This does me no good (first, people in this area know street names, not exit numbers; second, I can see I'm already in the delay, why not tell me about it sooner so I could take another route should I wish).

Who is accountable for this lack of common sense? VDOT, Virginia State Police, Fairfax County Police, Gerry Connolly, non Northern Virginians who feel that 90% of our money should go to the rest of the state?

Posted by: Jarrod | December 18, 2007 9:49 AM | Report abuse

The accident was on I-66 West around midnight. Had a brain fart.

Posted by: Jarrod, pt.2 | December 18, 2007 9:50 AM | Report abuse

It's 7 Corners. Enough said.

Posted by: Anonymous | December 18, 2007 10:42 AM | Report abuse

I submitted a question asking when Falls Church was going to wrap up the utility work that takes away two lanes of Broad St. (Rte. 7) most mornings. It's true that the backups that this generates are mostly limited to Falls Church itself, but it still affects a lot of people.

I've been submitting questions about this work for a long time, but this issue just hasn't ever gotten Dr. Gridlock's interest.

Posted by: Tom T. | December 18, 2007 11:00 AM | Report abuse

No, it's not "7 Corners, enough said." I was on Rt 7 going west on Saturday afternoon between 395 and Skyline, and it was packed because the traffic lights were all messed up. While you were stopped at a red light you could see the light directly ahead was green, but by the time you got there nothing was moving because the light ahead of that one was red. They need to fix the lights on that road.

Posted by: arlington | December 18, 2007 11:07 AM | Report abuse

The Overhead Electronic Variable Message Signs can be beneficial, but they can also cause more traffic as drivers almost slow to a halt to read them. For example, in Maryland, I-495 slows EVERY morning between College Park and Silver Spring. Almost everyday, the message on the electronic sign just past Exit 20, MD 450 will read "Delays to and on I-495 West". This sign causes a back-up on the Outer Loop for nearly 4 miles as drivers come to a halt to read it. I'm sure this is true for other electronic overhead signs across the state. Announcing accidents and unusual delays are great, but announcing delays during peak travel times that are the same everyday, is a bit unessessary. Daily commuters should know what to expect along their routes.

Posted by: Upper Marlboro | December 18, 2007 11:10 AM | Report abuse

The Seven Corners intersection is in serious need of a redesign. It may have been adequate 50 years ago, but it would be very hard to argue that all that's needed there is for there to be a retiming of traffic lights. The tangle of roads at the heart of that intersection is wholly inadequate for today's traffic volume through that area. It's almost impossible to pass through (except on US-50, of course) if you're not willing to block the box. Westbound Wilson Boulevard to southbound VA-7 is probably the worst maneuver to have to make given that there is no sort of traffic control beyond a yield sign where you merge onto VA-7. If I'm ever in that area needing to go from Wilson Boulevard to VA-7 I bypass the intersection via either John Marshall Drive or Peyton Randolph Drive, then Williston Drive into Patrick Henry Drive.

Unfortunately, I have no idea how one would go about redesigning it. The Magic Roundabouts in Swindon and Hemel Hempstead work great there, but I have a feeling those designs wouldn't work here because too many people would refuse to follow the rules on yielding and using their turn indicators.

Posted by: Rich | December 18, 2007 11:24 AM | Report abuse

Last night at 7pm, as per SOP lately, horrendous crash at Waxpool and Rte 28 interchange, headed Northbound on 28 towards Rte. 7, backing up traffic on 28 to the toll road.

Cause? Too short left-hand exit lane (for Waxpool) backing up the Rte 28 left lane, car attempting to cut right out of the backup, gets T-bone creamed by middle lane 40MPH+ traffic, multiple car accident results.

Dr G: Any VDOT comment on this abortion of an "interchange"? Any VDOT plan to alleviate this danger each and every evening rush hour? Does VDOT ever evaluate what chaos their "designs" have wrought?

Posted by: nocando | December 18, 2007 12:16 PM | Report abuse

The real problem with the 28/Waxpool exit is that the left exit ramp dumps traffic into another sea of traffic lights. The exit ramp should have flown over Pacific Blvd, and even Broderick(?). Anyone wanting to go onto Pacific could take the right hand exit.

Posted by: rahaha | December 18, 2007 3:09 PM | Report abuse

what kind of idiot thinks a place called "seven corners" is going to have nicely flowing traffic?

Posted by: Anonymous | December 18, 2007 3:09 PM | Report abuse

Rich, what makes you think cars around here have turn indicators?

Posted by: Anonymous | December 18, 2007 3:50 PM | Report abuse

A-men to the posts particularly the one by "rahaha" on the 28-Waxpool interchange. This interchange was out of date from the day it opened. What idiot at VDOT thinks all the volume headed from 28 North to Waxpool West is going to be able to "fit" into one single left exit lane? The current width of the flyover could accommodate two narrow lanes but that would be too much of an easy, practical solution for VDOT.

Posted by: xyv1027 | December 18, 2007 3:52 PM | Report abuse

I'm curious if anyone knows how to figure out what the Metro fare increase will be between specific stations. I see on the Metro website they've given the price increases based on composite miles but that is useless - i have no idea how that translates to my commute.

I called Metro to ask if they're going to post the new rates in the find a station section so that people can plan their budget and was told that they have no idea.

Posted by: Washington, DC | December 18, 2007 4:04 PM | Report abuse

From Dr. Gridlock: Tom T., I was just driving through that congested work zone on Broad Street this afternoon. Looked like the crews were still burying the utility lines, and then they'll work on fixing the road surface. Once that's done, the project will resume in the spring with work on the curbs and sidewalks.
The City of Falls Church puts a lot of useful information about the project (including detours) on this Web page:

Posted by: Robert Thomson | December 18, 2007 4:54 PM | Report abuse

WDC - You're absolutely correct that there's scant information available on the actual fare hikes. It takes a fair amount of work to figure out the personal impact - which had me fuming. What we already know is what Mtero calls its "boarding charge" - the fee they'll charge you just for the privilege of passing through their turnstiles (even if there's a major system disruption and you exit the station before boarding a train).

So Charge #1 is $1.65 - covers boarding and your trip of up to 3 miles.

Charge #2 covers miles 4 through 6 at 26 cents per mile.

Charge #3 covers anything higher than 6 miles at 23 cents per mile.

Hope you don't have to pay for parking at a metro lot.


Metro's site does have information on mileage between each of its rail stations (e.g., Addison Rd. to Archives is 7.61 miles)

So, that at least give you a starting point, but Metro's so far forcing us to do the math on our own. A Bronx Salute to us from Metro if you ask me - they've got us over a barrel and want us to ask for more.

For my own part, I think I'm leaving Metrorail altogether for the MARC trains between Baltimore and DC. Fares and parking fees all considered, it's cheaper to take the train (and much more civil!!) than to put up with Metro and their hassles, and their disruptions, and their lack of security, and inability/unwillingness to call Transit Police on customers behalf in response to an emergency.

Posted by: Pete | December 18, 2007 8:03 PM | Report abuse

@ Upper Marlboro

I've driven in Maryland, the reason why people come to a stop for those signs is they aren't used to seeing anything like that. You know, like turn signals when changing lanes, so it scares them to see something they don't normally see. It's alien to them. Don't believe me, how many Maryland drivers use their turn signals when changing lanes? Of the 25 or so I encounter every morning on I-66, maybe 2.

Posted by: Jarrod | December 20, 2007 12:52 PM | Report abuse

Dr. G,

Thanks! I knew you'd come through!

Posted by: Tom T. | December 20, 2007 12:55 PM | Report abuse

Jarrod, why would you use your turn signal? Are you some kind of mama's boy?

Posted by: Anonymous | December 28, 2007 3:34 PM | Report abuse

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