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Can Washington Handle 30 More Years of Terrible Traffic?
Comments () | Published November 7, 2011

Julie Wright and her colleagues feed traffic updates to some 100 radio stations and nine TV stations. Photograph by Kevin Koski

When he started at WTOP in 1986, he did traffic updates from 7 to 9 am and 4 to 6 pm. But traffic just kept getting worse, congestion spread into outer areas along with development, and now traffic is a 24-hour business.

On this morning, Metro Networks has more than a dozen reporters at work, some in offices and some in open cubicles around a central open space. All are chattering away, feeding some 100 radio and nine TV stations with traffic updates from Washington, Baltimore, Richmond, Raleigh, Greensboro, Virginia Beach, and Norfolk. The TV reporters have cardboard backgrounds behind them and remote cameras fixed to the furniture nearby, so they’re always on-air-ready. Everyone is tapped into a multitude of traffic-information sources, such as state Department of Transportation cameras, the Web site TrafficLand.com, emergency-scanner frequencies, and a traffic-tip hotline fed by drivers with cell phones. It’s a tsunami of information compared with the days when traffic reporting relied on fixed-wing aircraft circling the Beltway.

Russ is working the Baltimore region this morning, feeding his stations live and recorded updates every 15 minutes. He’s trolling his traffic sources via the bank of computers and radios before him, calling in to his police sources, and talking cogently to me all at the same time. Every few minutes, he breaks off practically mid-sentence to switch into a well-honed traffic-reporter voice of God and rip off another concise update. The multitasking ability, especially in the morning, is staggering.

Every day reliably delivers its own mini-crisis. And every once in a while—whether it’s snow, a chemical tanker, or some crazy guy on a tractor in the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool—all hell breaks loose. When that happens, the traffic reporter is the most important reporter in town. “It’s like putting together a puzzle every day,” Russ says. “You don’t know what, when, or where. You just know it’s going to be something.”

I spend a few hours hanging out with the Metro Networks team. It’s a hyper-caffeinated frenzy of traffic buzz, with a war-room atmosphere. In the office next to Russ’s, a smell of hairspray wafts through the air. Inside, Julie Wright is feeding updates to Fox 5 TV, tweeting, Facebooking, doing her own makeup, working her own equipment and lighting, and gesturing energetically at a blank green wall which, by the time it hits TV screens at home, magically has road and traffic graphics superimposed on it. Almost anything can trip the chaos switch, she cheerfully explains—weather, sunrise and sunset, even the end of daylight-savings time, which makes the commute home darker and somehow unleashes the crazy-driver gene.

Out in the main bullpen, Lisa Baden—who, with her short, dark hair and careful speaking style has the manner and looks of a schoolteacher—reels off her TV and radio updates, trying hard to sound upbeat. She started in radio as a DJ and took what she thought would be a temporary job in traffic reporting when that gig ended. “Here I am after 20 years,” she says. “It’s the most secure job I’ve ever had in broadcasting because the traffic keeps getting worse.”

In addition to all the standard Web and electronic sources, Baden takes cell-phone updates from drivers she trusts (including a guy she refers to as Trucker Bob) and who routinely travel the routes she’s interested in.

I ask her what major transportation projects over the years seemed to make a difference. She pauses as she runs through a list in her head. “The Wilson Bridge,” she finally says. “That made a difference.” Then she giggles at the absurdity of coming up with only one example. “I commend them for trying, though,” she adds, no longer laughing.

As they swap tales of traffic disasters between updates, there’s a camaraderie among the Metro Networks team—likely born of ridiculous hours and the stress of absorbing a firehose of complex data points and translating them under metronomic deadline pressure into coherent and concise updates. Perhaps there’s also a bond that comes from working in a business built on bad news. It can’t be easy to be a routine purveyor of disappointment and frustration. Jamee Whitten, another Metro Networks reporter, once got so depressed sitting in her car and listening to a traffic update reporting congestion on road after road that she decided to always find at least one open road to include in her updates. “So I can say something like ‘Route 7 is wide open!’ ” she says.

I wonder whether drivers entombed in gridlock really take pleasure in knowing that someone somewhere is enjoying a fast ride, but I keep my cynical view of human nature to myself. In any case, it’s touching that she cares.

Next: Technology's roll in avoiding traffic purgatory

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Posted at 10:30 AM/ET, 11/07/2011 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles