Confusion on the Slug Line
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Word of Change Spreads Slowly in Casual Carpools
Slugs in Pr. William Lot Grapple With New Plan
By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 22, 2004; Page B01
It was like the first day of school yesterday, and everyone was trying to find the right classrooms.
"Do you know where the Navy Yard line is?" asked a driver who rolled down his passenger-side window in the pre-dawn light. He was trolling a Prince William County parking lot for two members of the commuter subspecies known as slugs.
A solo driver who picks up two slugs has an instant carpool and can ride the faster high-occupancy vehicle lanes along Interstate 95 into the city.
But in the past few months, slugging has become so popular at the vast Horner Road lot in Prince William County that lines have snaked into traffic and cars searching for passengers have clogged a nearby main road. County authorities decided they had a public safety problem. So yesterday, they imposed a new system meant to sort out would-be carpoolers by destination and make it easier for drivers to find them.
The result was confusion. Hundreds of half-asleep commuters, from Air Force colonels to government office workers toting insulated lunchboxes, wandered around in the dark trying to determine where they should be standing.
"It was there, then it was over there, and now it's over here,'' said Carey Payne, 53, of Dale City, who had just located the 14th Street/L'Enfant line. "It's a work in progress."
Along the interstate through Prince William County, nearly 30 miles from the District, where rush-hour commutes can stretch to an hour in heavy traffic, getting into carpool lanes can save precious minutes. The slug system can provide the ticket by giving commuters a chance to form ad hoc carpools -- saving drivers time and saving their passengers time and money.
Safety and traffic concerns have forced Prince William County officials to step into the heretofore informal self-governed society of slugs. But officials knew enough to tread lightly. They allowed the slugs themselves to vote on how and where to split and relocate their lines.
There were no public hearings, no VDOT traffic surveys, no pricey consultants.
"The slugs will figure it out on their own," said David LeBlanc, who runs the closest thing to a slug governing body, the Web site www.slug-lines.com.
He said the popularity of slugging, along with a recent expansion of the Horner Road lot, forced the reorganization. The lot already had separate slug lines for the Pentagon and other Northern Virginia destinations. As of yesterday morning, it also had lines earmarked for different destinations in the District.
Before the reorganization, LeBlanc put up alternative plans on his site and slugs voted electronically.
This being the Washington area, slugs were lobbied for their vote.
Even the bus company weighed in. "Option 3 is seen by PRTC management as the best of the alternative solutions from a 'bus service' perspective,'' read a flier posted on a bus shelter.
Instead, option 2A won out, which split off the 18th Street crowd from the L'Enfant Plaza-ites and Navy Yarders.
"Our main concern was a solution to get traffic from backing up onto Telegraph Road," said VDOT traffic engineer Derek Schuler. "We know they know how their system works. Here's how they wanted to do it."
On hand yesterday morning were VDOT engineers and county officials.
"So far, so good," said Steven Stevens, a Prince William official on hand to watch how things were working shortly before 7 a.m.
But others thought the old way was better.
"Someone always has to screw up something when it's working right,'' said Noreen Ryan of Lake Ridge.
Slugging became popular after the HOV-3 lane restrictions went into place on I-95 more than 20 years ago. Some clever driver pulled over next to a bus stop and asked if anyone needed a ride. Soon, people would stand in the morning near bus stops but actually looking for rides.
The term "slug" arose from their description as counterfeit bus riders, according to VDOT. Drivers who picked up slugs were also known as "bodysnatchers." By 1999, according to a traffic study commissioned by VDOT, more than 3,000 people slugged to work -- the vast majority of them on I-95, where carpool lanes are the most restrictive, requiring three people per car.
Traffic specialists credit Northern Virginia with having the most highly developed slug system in the country, even though it exists almost solely along I-95. The area's HOV-2 carpool lanes, such as those on I-66 and I-270, have never developed such popular slug lines. Transportation officials speculate that that is because commuters are less willing to ride with a single stranger than with two strangers.
In the Horner Road lot yesterday, Farida Hacene, 55, of Woodbridge agreed that the scene was like the first day of school. "And the teachers aren't showing up."
"A lot of people didn't print out the directions," said Dennis Cannon, 52, a Fredericksburg resident who slugs into his job at the Treasury Department. Just then, another bodysnatcher pulled up, looking for the Navy Yard line. "They changed the lines?" the driver asked Cannon, almost in a panic.
"Down around that lamppost," Cannon yelled back. The driver flew off.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
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