Washington Commute: Interview With Dr. Gridlock, a.k.a. Ron Shaffer

Why traffic is getting worse, what local officials could do better, useful Web sites, and more

Ken Adelman (adelmank@aol.com) has been conducting What I’ve Learned interviews since 1988.

Washington traffic doesn’t just seem to be getting worse; it is getting worse—by the day,” says Ron Shaffer. “We’re heading for a transportation catastrophe.”

Shaffer has retired from the Washington Post after spending the last 20 of his 35 years there fielding commuters’ gripes in his Dr. Gridlock column.

“I got 500-plus e-mails a week since day one of this column. People are so frustrated. Some didn’t really care if I did anything concrete for them—they were just grateful for the chance to vent.”

Shaffer, 61, was born in San Bernardino, California. His father managed a dairy plant, and his mother was a housewife. While in high school, Shaffer became a sportswriter for the local paper.

He was attending the University of Southern California when he was drafted into the Navy and sent to Vietnam. During 27 months there, he taught English, adopted a Vietnamese orphan, and wrote articles for the Pacific Stars & Stripes . Peter Jay, a Post correspondent in Vietnam, liked Shaffer’s articles and later hired him for the Metro section.

Before becoming Dr. Gridlock, Shaffer was a reporter and editor. He coauthored a book on a Washington sting operation— Surprise! Surprise!: How the Lawmen Conned the Thieves —and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for a series exposing corruption in local poverty programs.

Along with writing his column, Shaffer hosted an online chat about traffic and gave several speeches a week to civic organizations.

Shaffer’s wife of 28 years, Vi, is a research vice president with the Gartner Group, an IT consulting company. They live in Centreville and have three children: Mary is a hairstylist, Carrie does marketing and event planning for the State Department Federal Credit Union, and Peter is an electrician in Baltimore.

Shortly before Shaffer’s retirement, we talked about what he’s learned.

Why is Washington traffic so bad?

Because more and more people are moving here, which is because we have jobs. County supervisors keep expanding housing for these additional people in clumps outside the Beltway. There are subdivisions for 5,000 people in a clump, with no improvements in either mass transit or roads.

Like where?

In Loudoun County, the eighth fastest-growing county in the country; in Prince William County, one of the fastest; and increasingly in Stafford County. It’s a nightmare—such wild growth without any road improvements.

Business in our region is booming. Fairfax County has an unemployment rate of 2.5 percent. That’s phenomenal. Other counties are similar. The region has 337,000 government jobs, with loads of consultants attached to them.

Rush hours in Washington are expanding. Now they extend from 6 to 10 in the morning and from 4 to 8 in the evening. Outbound I-66 is congested even at 2 pm on weekdays. People trying to beat the traffic are caught in traffic.

There’s a lot of pain out there. People are looking for answers.

Metro was supposed to be the answer.

Partly. But Metro was built with the District as the area’s hub, with spokes radiating from it. Metro was never designed to alleviate cross-county commuting. Yet that’s what many jobs and housing patterns now entail.

For instance, from Rockville in Montgomery County, people will drive down to the Beltway, around it to I-66, out I-66, and then up the Dulles Toll Road to the Dulles corridor. They have nothing at all to do with DC.

Around half of our jobs are now cross-county. Metro has nothing to offer them.

What should we do?

More people could try working from home. Most work happens in front of a computer. There’s no reason many people should leave their home computer, drive 40 miles to the office, sign onto a computer there, work for hours, and then drive 40 miles back to their home computer. Employers have to learn that this isn’t cheating. People actually will work at home.

Or at least see if you can work in satellite office centers nearer to your home. They have all the tools you need. Southern Maryland has many, which are well positioned and could preclude you from going into DC. Each has a computer, telephone, copy machine, and fax.

Alternatively, work a four-day week or change to two shifts—say, from 6 am to 2 pm and then 2 to 10 pm. Such changes in work patterns and hours would help traffic congestion a lot.

But many jobs require face-to-face interactions.

Yes, but not every day. So maybe work at home one or two days a week. Even better, come into the office just one or two days.

If everybody took just a day a week at home, there’d be 20 percent less traffic each day. Take my word for it: We’ll be forced into such moves whether employers want them or not.

We also should better accommodate bicyclists and walkers. We now have hit-and-miss bike trails, often full of potholes.

How about high-occupancy toll, or HOT, lanes?

HOT lanes are operating in Southern California with success. Toll rates change by the minute, so when the road becomes congested, the fee rises to discourage additional drivers from entering these lanes.

Virginia is planning one for the stretch of the Beltway from Springfield to the Dulles Toll Road and on 395/95 from the Pentagon exits all the way down past Fredericksburg. They’ll add more lanes outside the existing ones. The tolls will pay for this construction. Since Virginia won’t have to spend money on it, the state is loving it.

Critics claim this type of road favors the rich, but to me every car in the HOT lane is one less car to ride behind in conventional lanes. We should at least give this a try.

How about carpooling?

I think it’s helpful, but “slugging” is the new approach.

Slugging entails people assembling at a designated meeting point in the morning. Someone driving alone will pick them up and take them to a common destination in the city. That way, they get to use HOV—or high-occupancy vehicle—lanes.

Slugging is growing by the thousands. It’s a wonderful thing—totally unregulated by the government, but it works. You can see how at Slug-Lines.com. It’s one of the more successful group-transit ideas.

We also have 800-745-ride, where someone at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments will match you with a carpool. That’s been helpful.

Only 13 percent of people in this region use mass transit—even with so many facing hour-and-a-half commutes each way.

Obviously, lots of people want to drive their own car. They want to retain control. That way they can leave work whenever they want.

Which local government is best on traffic and which worst?

The Maryland State Highway Administration is best. It’s most aggressive in getting roads and interchanges built. It’s been getting rid of stoplights like crazy on routes 4, 5, and 29.

Virginia does none of that. But Virginia is leaving Maryland way behind on HOT lanes.

How about the District?

It’s trying in bits and pieces, but there’s no room to build more roads or expand mass-transit facilities. The District is all built out.

DC doesn’t synchronize its stoplights, which aggravates me. When I ask about this, I’m told that the lights are synchronized. But there isn’t a smooth flow, since traffic on cross streets is just as heavy as on the thoroughfares.

And the lights may be synced to a certain driving speed. So if you’re going 25 miles an hour, you hit all green lights, but if you’re going much faster—or slower because you’re choked in traffic—then the lights won’t be synchronized.

I’m told that Amsterdam has an overhead electronic signal that tells motorists how fast to drive to hit all green lights. We should have that around here.

My biggest gripe is about poor highway signs, especially in Virginia. On interstate highways out west, you’ll see big, clear signs giving the next three off-ramps and mileage to each. Then you’ll see another big sign with the exit by name at the off-ramp.

In Virginia, you might get one sign with no mileage indicator. Over the exit itself, you get a sign that says exit, which helps nobody. You’d better remember what exit it is.

Out west, you also find signs over intersections with the name of the cross street—all lit up and big. Not so in Virginia. At night you can’t see any sign. You have no idea what intersection you’re at.

You’d think that would be an easy, cheap public service for the highway department. Having worked with the Virginia Department of Transportation for 20-odd years, I’ve learned that nothing is a good idea to VDOT unless it’s their idea. VDOT officials are great at batting down ideas that come to them.

I once asked one of the officials about overhead signs. She told me, “There’s no constituency for that idea.”

Come on—all three jurisdictions passed “lights on/wipers on, wipers on/lights on” laws. You’re telling me that such a move had a bigger constituency than good road signage?

How about online traffic help?

Each state transportation department has a Web site with the latest construction projects, timetables, and designs. The Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project has its own site— wilsonbridge.com. So does the Springfield interchange, where I-395, the Beltway, and I-95 all come together— springfieldinterchange.com . Traffic there is being separated on three levels—for local, express, and through traffic.

The Intercounty Connector site, iccstudy.org, tells you about that project, which has been in study for 50 years now. It’s currently planned as a six-lane road running from Rockville to Laurel. It’s supposed to be finished in 2010 and will be a huge help—sort of an outer Beltway segment.➝

Montgomery County is a disaster. That jurisdiction wins the prize for the most congestion. It’s very prosperous and full of jobs but still has no intercounty connector. The county has just too many people and too few transportation improvements.

The new Virginia governor, Tim Kaine, has stressed transportation more than any other area governor I can remember. That was his top priority upon taking office. He proposed giving localities more control over land-use planning so they can reject proposals and cut down on growth.

Yet we don’t hear local supervisors endorsing this approach. They’re used to approving one development after the other, regardless of transportation. So even if Kaine can get them this power, I have a hunch they won’t use it. They’ll just keep on going. It’s almost suicidal.

That’s because they get more tax revenue with more development.

I’ve heard that such growth doesn’t pay for itself in services—police and schools. Loudoun County is miles behind with its schools. Apparently, services cost more than the tax revenue. Regardless, supervisors are just addicted to more residential growth, even without transportation development.

Another approach is for drivers to make life in the car more enjoyable. I’m big on books on tape or CD. A lot of people really like them—so much that when they finish their commute, they’ll drive around the block to finish the tape. It’s a huge help, as is satellite radio.

What else can commuters do?

Go to MetroOpensDoors.com, look for the Trip Planner box on the right, and put in information to learn the mass-transit options open to you. Maybe there aren’t any good ones, but maybe there are.

Ask your employer if you could work at home or at a regional satellite center one day a week or more. Many people assume they can’t, so they never ask. If you ask, you may well get approval.

How did you get interested in traffic?

I was with the Post for 35 years and commuted to work from outside the Beltway for 25. I just felt the pain of it. One day I mused to the executive editor, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have an Ann Landers of traffic, so people could vent and find out things?” He said, “Fine, Ron. Do it.”

That’s all there was to it. No study or anything.

What are your big lessons on Washington traffic?

That county supervisors are obsessed with approving development even though there’s no transportation improvements accompanying that. Look at the Shady Grove area in Montgomery County, where there’s a proposal to build 4,500 to 6,000 more housing units with no additional roads. Route 355—Rockville Pike—is a nightmare even in the middle of the day.

I’ve learned how hard it is to move government toward the public good. Remember putting up good signs? “No, we don’t put up safety messages. That’s against our policy.” Or readable overhead signs at intersections—why can’t they do that? It’s not expensive compared with building a new interchange at $30 million. These officials are simply stubborn and not helpful.

Some days I dream about going down to Florida, to a little town called Flamingo at the bottom of the Everglades. It has a motel, a marina, and nice beach. Best of all, it’s at the end of a 38-mile road—with nothing on it and no roads leading into it, since it goes right through the Everglades. On 38 miles of road, there are practically no cars, no traffic signals, no stop signs, and no congestion. I dream about that.

TAGGED IN:

More from News