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Alborn: Answers to Budget Questions Begin with ‘No’

By AL ALBORN
Contributing Editor

It’s interesting watching the Prince William County FY2014 budget process play out form a coffee house on the East China Sea in Japan. It adds a level of abstraction to, what at least to me, should be a simple process.

In past years, the budget process was conducted in relative obscurity out of the public eye. Budget committees were formed to gather citizen input; however, (in retrospect – I served on four), the committees in which I participated were more for “show” than “go”. And then, on 11 November, 2011, we finally recognized what was going on with our money.

We started noticing that most of our supervisors (some more than others, I exclude Chairman Stewart and Supervisor Candland) were dipping into our pockets to use taxpayer dollars for what were clearly private purposes, pet causes, entertainment and amusements, self promotion and memorialization on a grand scale, and perpetual incumbency protection schemes.

No policies were violated because there were… well… no policies to cover what we come to call discretionary funds. Some might call it stealing our money. I will make no such charge, preferring the term “apparent misappropriation”.

As we dug deeper into where our money was going, we discovered that the entire budget process was created around a simple quid pro quo system of mutual benefit between County Government and our elected officials. While we were successful in eliminating the what we now recognize as “small change” we call discretionary funds, we also uncovered an even grander scheme of avoiding the budget process called “carryover funds” (or intentional over-collection of our money) to fund the growth of government, off the books projects and causes, and supervisor projects.

We have very good reasons not to trust what Prince William County does with our money. If we hadn’t caught our supervisor’s hand in the cookie jar several times during the past year (perhaps its time to go back a few years and see what we missed), I wouldn’t be writing this blog post.

Many of us have simply lost faith in how Prince William County Government establishes our tax rate, what it spends our money on, and our budget process.

We have learned that county government intentionally over-collects taxes and fees, creates a “shadow budget” to move projects out of the formal process into a “lightning round” of special projects and causes during what we have come to call the “carryover process” (or, what to do with the leftovers), and has become adept at creating ways to funnel “carryover” money to supervisors through the creation of various reserves (such as the employee and staff retention or the transportation and road improvement funds).

You know, I respect John Jenkins and Frank Principi for living up to their brand. Both are liberal Democrats. We expect them to fight for every dime of our money they can get so it may be redistributed among county groups and causes as government sees fit. That’s what Democrats do! That’s what they were sent to the McCoart Administration Building to fight for! Every time I grumble because Jenkins or Principi are arguing for even higher taxes, more public programs, and increased funding all round… I quietly whisper, “Gosh, I wish these guys were Republicans fighting for my side.”

Corey Stewart and Pete Candland are also living up to their brand. They are fighting for lower taxes, smaller government, more accountability, and more funding for core services such as public safety, libraries, and schools.

While proposing dramatic reductions in things many of us believe government simply shouldn’t be doing, they are also protecting our public safety folks, proposing raises for county staff and teachers, taking care of libraries, and making sure those things only government should be doing are done correctly.

That’s what I expect Republicans in conservative Prince William County to do when they get a seat on the dais. I’m glad they are fighting for my side.

Prince William County needs a “reset.” After years of achieving the dubious distinction of having one of the highest real estate tax rates in Northern Virginia (“effectively messaged” as one of the lowest real estate tax bills in Northern Virginia to divert attention from our true status), its time to start saying “no”:

…”no” to an even higher tax rate

…”no” to an ever expanding Government

…”no” to the diversion of public money to private purposes

…”no” to dollars taken out of our pockets to pay for perpetual incumbency protection schemes

…”no” to obvious conflicts of interests when it comes to funding our not for profits

…”no” to the quid pro quo agreement between our Board and county staff and among board members to quietly go along with excessive spending, questionable projects, the growth of Government and other nefarious uses of our money

…”no” to the intentional over-collection of our money to pay for projects and causes intentionally left out of the formal budget process to be funded quietly during an end of FY “lightning round” process called “carry-over” funds”

…”no” to anything but a flat tax in FY2014 and beyond to return to some sense of accountability for our money in Prince William County, Virginia.

Let us not forget how we got here.

The people who spent those discretionary funds, benefitted from those carry-over funds, and engaged in schemes for years to divert taxpayer dollars from core services to questionable uses are the one’s negotiating our tax rate.

I have little confidence that all but a couple sincerely want to change the way the process currently works.

We have absolutely no reason to trust that things will be different in the future unless we see a new respect for how much of our money is collected and how it is spent in FY2014.

If those who share my opinion agree, we also must say “no” to some of the incumbents in 2015.

We gotta clean this mess up sooner or later. I prefer sooner.

It’s time for a walk on the beach. I think I’ll order a latte to go and watch the morning waves break on the coral.

News
School Questions Swamp Budget Session

By AL ALBORN
Contributing Editor

I attended the latest in a series of fiscal year 2014 budget information meetings on Saturday at the Prince William County Government Center.

I always enjoy watching budget director Michelle Casiato’s mastery of the process. Prince William has three Triple A bond ratings and has won numerous awards for their budgeting process. I understand that the process is “bullet proof.” I also understand that the process has nothing to do with how much money Prince William County collects or what the government spends it on.

All things considered, I’m not sure if I take comfort in knowing that they are incredibly efficient at both ends of the process.

First, let’s get the important stuff out of the way. Casiato provided coffee and doughnuts. The coffee was excellent (which is unusual for stuff you get at government meetings) and the doughnuts were Dunkin, so this meeting was off to an excellent start.

Deputy County Executive Chris Martino was also in attendance and assured me that the coffee and donuts were not paid for with taxpayer dollars. My mind put at ease, I enjoyed two of them.

Dave Cline, Associate Superintendent for Finance & Support Services, Prince William County Schools, also joined us. He may reconsider ever returning to one of these meetings. The entire almost two hours was devoted to questions about sharing, maintaining, and paying for school system sports fields.

Topics also included the history, pros and cons, and future of the county’s current revenue sharing agreement with the School Board, student populations, school district planning and boundaries, construction projects, and the school board budget cycle.

Wallingford (as we say in the military) requited himself well under fire. He answered a broad range of questions without hesitation or assistance for the duration of the meeting. Two thumbs up.

I really don’t remember any questions about Prince William County’s budget during this meeting, although Casiato did provide detail and background on questions about the School Board budget.

It was also round one on Community interest in what happens to approximately half of the revenue collected by Prince William County, or that the 56.75 percent as provided in the existing revenue sharing agreement between the county’s Board of Supervisors and its School Board.

We may have ignored the School Board budget in the past; however, those days are over.

We’ll be back.

I grabbed a fresh cup of coffee and a doughnut on the way out the door. This was a good meeting.

Addendum: Thanks to John Wallingford for showing up today. He didn’t have to. He was a good sport, handled a variety of levels of frustration with aplomb and a sense of humor, and was generally a group pleaser.

*This post has been corrected

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Slugs Get Personal Details of Lives of Strangers

By LAURA CIRILLO

Talking among slugs is usually frowned upon, that is, unless the driver initiates conversation. And when the driver does initiate conversation, it’s usually guaranteed to be pretty interesting.

Many drivers follow the unspoken rule, besides to confirm their destination and maybe bid farewell to their passengers at the end of the ride. But every once in a while, slug riders will encounter a chatty driver.

Considering most slugs who ride together are complete strangers, it can be surprising how much people will divulge about their personal lives.

Phone calls can be the most telling about a person, especially when taken on speaker phone. Many times, I’ve been able to tell a person’s marital status, how old their kids are, and evening plans, just from a simple phone call. And it’s not that I’m so interested in who these people are or what they do, but it isn’t really hard to figure out.

Alright, and maybe sometimes I do get a little curious.

Once, I rode with a driver who took a call from a friend during the ride. Though he wasn’t using a speaker phone, my interest quickly peaked when I heard him start discussing something really personal – he started telling his friend details about his divorce!

At first, I thought, clearly I must be misunderstanding the conversation. No way would someone talk about something of that magnitude with strangers in the car, right? But as the conversation continued, it became more and more clear that was exactly what he was talking about.

Last week, a woman I rode with one morning took a phone call from the principal at her daughter’s school. No big deal at first, until she started to argue with the principal and talk about very private things that had been going on at home.

She referred to her daughter’s teacher as immature, and insisted that the teacher be punished for her daughter’s troubles in class. Clearly, this was not a quick phone call, and being in the front seat, I was pretty uncomfortable – especially once she hung up the phone and wanted to complain to us about it afterwards. Awkward!

It’s not just the conversations that are overheard in the car that can be revealing. Occasionally, drivers are very open about their personal lives with their slugs, regardless of not knowing each other. Sometimes I wonder if it is because the slugs are unfamiliar that they feel more comfortable opening up. Maybe it’s knowing that the chances of running into the same people again are slim that makes people feel safe discussing their private matters? I’m honestly not sure.

Just recently, I got into a car with a lady who was very talkative. Although I’m usually not one to talk much early in the morning, she was so animated that I couldn’t help but chat with her. She started by chastising herself for running late again that day, and saying how hard it was to get out of bed any earlier. I know that feeling all too well.

“Thank goodness I don’t have any children!” she exclaimed. “If I did, I’d never make it to work!”

I laughed, and she asked if I had any kids. I told her that I don’t, but that I’d probably have to quit my job when that time comes. I have enough trouble getting out of the house in the morning!

Quickly, the conversation transitioned to whether or not we were married, dating or single, and she began to tell me how much she hated dating. She had just separated from her boyfriend of one year, and was getting back into the dating scene. She went on to tell me in detail how they had broken up, and about the guys she had been out with since. She talked about text conversations, their dates, and what they did for a living. It certainly wasn’t anything that I needed to know that morning, but still, the conversation was flowing so easily that it felt like we were old friends.

It wasn’t until I started to get out of the car that I considered that I may not ever see my new pal ever again. I might never know which guy she chooses, and how it turns out for her. And if I did run into her again, we may not even recognize each other. That’s just how slugging works.

To me, it’s fascinating that people are willing to share so much with their unfamiliar passengers, but when they do, I have to wonder why. I have to think that sometimes, people just need someone to talk to. And hey, I have no problem being that person. Though the odds are that we won’t be BFFs, I don’t mind providing a little slug therapy every once in a while.

As long as I can take my nap on the way home!

 

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No Pity for Tardy Slugs

SLUG TALES

By LAURA CIRILLO

Running late is the worst feeling.

I take that back: running late in the morning, in the rain, when there’s traffic, no parking at the commuter lot and no cars waiting to pick up slugs is the worst.

Seriously, sometimes I feel like I just can’t seem to get it together in the morning. No matter what I do or how early I get up, I always find myself running out the door at the last possible second and rushing to the commuter lot. Oh, who am I kidding? I never wake up early!

Why do I do that to myself? Every day, I say that I will get up earlier, that I’ll get on the road sooner. I won’t be late tomorrow! No, tomorrow, I will be on time. But it never fails… tomorrow, I’ll be saying the same thing.

And I’m confident that I am not alone in this. There are days where I am literally running to the slug line with not a second to spare, sure that I won’t find any slug drivers still waiting to pick up, but I almost always find someone running just as late as I am.

Luckily, there are several drivers who I come across who pick up at the commuter lot in the last ten minutes or so of the commute. Once the clock strikes 9 a.m. and the High Occupancy Vehicle lanes open up to all traffic, drivers have no incentive to pick up slugs. Some drivers will even take their chances by entering the HOV lanes minutes before 9 a.m. without any slugs. So the closer it is to 9 a.m., the less the chances are of finding a slug ride.

And there is almost nothing worse than standing in the slug line, wondering if anyone will feel bad enough to pick up a poor, lonely slug, or if that tardy slug will be left behind with no choice but to take the bus to the Franconia-Springfield Metro station.

As many times as I’ve been late, I’ve been left in that very predicament. When there appear to be no more cars going to L’Enfant Plaza, my ultimate destination, I’ll usually walk over to the slug line for the Pentagon. Not only am I usually more likely to find a late driver there, but there are always cars sitting close to the HOV entrance, which means gives me hope that someone will drop off near a Metro station. Any Metro station. Hey, desperate times call for desperate measures.

Unfortunately, the drivers who sit and wait to enter HOV solo after 9 a.m. take very little pity on late slugs. When I’ve been in this sort of critical situation, I’ve approached the waiting drivers with other late slugs to ask if they’re going anywhere in or around downtown Washington. Sometimes, drivers will agree to drop off near their destination; other times, they will flat out refuse.

Recently, I asked a driver waiting by the ramp if he was picking up slugs.

“Nope,” he replied rudely, rolling up his window. Geez, he could have at least been polite about it!

I’ve been fairly fortunate and haven’t had to take the PRTC Metro Direct bus – a great last resort when there are no other options, but it takes sooo long to get to work that way – so the bottom line is that I’ve got to step it up.

I swear I’ll start getting up earlier. I’ll make my breakfast and lay my clothes out the night before. I’ll have my lunch packed and ready; I’ll even take a quicker shower. No more delays, no more distractions…

Starting tomorrow. Seriously.

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Friendly, Breakfast-Offering Driver Fools Slug

By LAURA CIRILLO

I feel like I’ve been duped.

This morning I parked at the new Telegraph Road Commuter Lot only to find there were no cars waiting to pick up slugs. I wasn’t surprised, as the lot is still very new, and in the handful of times I’ve parked there so far, I’ve yet to see any drivers waiting.

So I set off walking from the new lot to the Horner Road Commuter Lot, where I knew I’d be more likely to find a ride. As I was making the trek, an SUV pulled alongside me, and its occupants asked if I was going to Washington.

I told them that I was going to L’Enfant Plaza and they said OK, so I hopped in. The couple was really nice, and even asked if I wanted some of the breakfast they had picked up on the way. I politely declined, but thought, what nice people. They had saved me from the remainder of a pretty long walk, offered to feed me, and then were dropping me off at my destination, even though the lady mentioned she was going to the State Department.

Or so I thought.

Once we were on the High Occupancy Vehicle lanes, I had to at least close my eyes – I’ve been so tired lately. Rushing as usual, I had forgotten my sunglasses in my car, but it was a bit dark and dreary this morning anyway. I dozed off almost immediately.

When I opened my eyes, we were approaching the exit for the Pentagon, but I realized the driver was getting into the left lane to exit toward the Memorial Bridge, which does not lead to L’Enfant Plaza.

“Wait!” I wanted to call out to him. “Where are you going?!”

We shouldn’t be going left! L’Enfant is straight ahead, across the 14th Street Bridge!

Instead, I said nothing, slowly realizing we must have misunderstood each other. I was assuming they would drive me where I told them I was going, and they must have assumed that I had agreed to get out near the State Department, where she was going. Well, we all know what happens when we assume.

Oh well, I thought. I’ll just have to get out by a Metro station, so that I can get to my office. At least I had made it to Washington, which was closer than I had started at the commuter lot.

Just then, I heard the couple in the front seat discussing where they were going to drop off.

“She’s going to, uh, ‘Elephant,’ I think she said,” said the lady.

“Elephant?’ Where’s that?” asked the driver.

“I don’t know where ‘Elephant’ is at. Maybe straight ahead?” she wondered. She said she’d call her friend and ask if there was a Metro nearby, to get to ‘Elephant.’

Wait a minute: they don’t even know how to get to a Metro station from here?

I started to feel uneasy; my apparent good luck this morning had run out. I’ve been desperate and taken rides to 18th Street NW before, but usually only as a last resort, since it’s so far from my office. The traffic is always backed up forever, and once I get there, the Metro stations are still six or seven stops away. So inconvenient.

But at the same time, I couldn’t complain about getting a ride. I was just frustrated with the situation in general, and I was definitely going to be late to work.

Finally, we were approaching the Foggy Bottom Metro station, but traffic was unmoving. The driver asked if I minded walking the last couple of blocks, and I thought, why not? The road was so congested that I might as well walk the rest of the way. And maybe it would help me to blow off some steam, too.

As I got out of the car, I reminded myself again that I was closer than I had started, and it could always be worse.

And maybe I wasn’t duped, but that misunderstanding certainly cost me quite a bit of time this morning!

At least I made it to work.

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Friend Saves Day after Parking Lot Amnesia

By LAURA CIRILLO

I love it when I walk out to the Slug Line right outside of my office building and get a ride right away.

I hate it when I realize halfway there that I’m not parked in the commuter lot where the driver is going to drop me off.

The week before school started again, I found myself in this very predicament. I left my office right at 5 p.m, walked out to the Slug Line and found a line of cars sitting idle, with no slugs waiting in line. Because I had plans that evening to attend a concert, I was thrilled to be in a car and heading back towards home so quickly.

Usually, my ride home is spent either napping or tweeting commuter-related traffic alerts on Twitter to keep my fellow slugs updated during rush hour, but that afternoon, I was eagerly texting my friends to let them know that I was on my way to meet them… until I realized that I wasn’t.

All of a sudden, like a ton of bricks, it hit me: I was being driven to the Horner Road Commuter lot in Woodbridge, and I was not parked there.

During the summer, I had been able to park at the Horner lot almost every day, so I had become used to getting in the returning Slug Line. However, I had to make a stop on my way in that morning, which set me back and forced me to park at the commuter lot at Va. 123, near Occoquan, where I could take the last OmniRide bus.

It was the first time in a long time that I had parked there, and it had totally slipped my mind. Just as panic began to set in, I started to think – how could I get from one lot to the other?

When picking up Slugs, the driver calls out their destination, and unless requested otherwise, that is where the Slugs will be dropped off. It is understood that neither slug nor driver will ask later along the ride to be dropped off somewhere completely different or out of the way.

And since there’s always another passenger in the car, I would have to assume that they are most likely going to be dropped off at the same location. I certainly couldn’t ask at that point for the driver to take me somewhere else, regardless of what hardship it might cause me.

The lot was definitely too far for me to walk. I wondered if I should call a cab. Would I have time? I had places to go, people to see! Did I even have cash? Ugh.

I sent a flustered text message to one of my friends whom I was meeting up with that night, knowing that she’d be coming down the highway from work as well, hoping that the timing would work so that I could ride with her.

And luckily, the timing worked out perfectly. My friend came and saved the day; she picked me up at the commuter lot and we both made it on time to the concert with the rest of our group.

When we got home after the concert that night, still on a high from the music and dancing, my friend turned to me and asked, “So, where is your car?”

After all of the excitement, I had completely forgotten to go back to pick up my car that night. Oops…

Let’s just say I’m a lot more careful now to remember where I’ve parked each day!

 

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Wife Wishes Slug Driver Would Put Up Car Windows

To roll the windows up or down when riding with Slugs? That is the question.

When cruising solo or with familiar people, that question is more easily answered. But when driving Slugs up and down the High Occupancy Vehicle lanes, it could be a bit trickier.

Sure, the weather has been beautiful, and who doesn’t love the fresh air? Problem is, Slugs don’t usually have a say in opening or closing the windows, or adjusting the heat or air conditioning – and technically, Slugs are supposed to remain “seen and not heard.” So, what’s a Slug to do when the driver decides to go full speed ahead with the windows down if they’re not comfortable?

To the non-commuter, this topic may seem silly; however, as a Slug that has experienced this very situation more than once, I can tell you, it’s nothing to joke about. Rolling the windows down at 70 mph or more can be a very serious issue.

Back when I used to Slug from Potomac Mills mall, I once rode with a gentleman who pulled up to the Slug line with all four windows rolled down. I remember the weather was beautiful that morning, in the 70’s and not a cloud in sight. It was the kind of day that you might be tempted to call in sick, just to stay outdoors and soak up the sunshine, rather than being stuck in the office all day. But I digress…

I was first in line, so I hopped in the backseat while another passenger sat in the front passenger seat, and off we went.

Drivers normally roll the window down to call out their destination when they approach the Slug line, but generally speaking, all windows are up and the heat or AC is running once they’re on the highway.

At first, the breeze felt nice and I daydreamed about staying out and enjoying it all day. Then came the hardcore heavy metal, which was quite unexpected, coming from this 30-something professional (driving a hybrid, by the way). But, whatever. Music choice is not something that bothers me either way, but it was VERY loud.

When we got onto the HOV lanes, I assumed that the windows would go up, the AC would be circulating, and the music might be turned down a bit. The really crazy screaming part of the song had just kicked in, and I began to accept that my morning nap was not going to happen that day. Not to mention, my hair was whipping around in the wind, getting more and more tangled by the second.

I decided at that point that rules were meant to be broken, at least some of the rules are, and it was time to roll my own window up. However, I was still new to the Slugging world, and not yet comfortable complaining to the driver. Instead, I used my phone to record the part of the ride, and jokingly sent it to some friends. Welcome to my world, I told them. The wonderful world of Slugging!

A few weeks later, I rode from the same commuter lot one morning with a lady I’d never met before. As we waited in the lot for another passenger, her cell phone rang, and she said it was her husband. They hadn’t realized that they were both driving to work on the same day, and he told her that they should have planned to ride together.

Shaking her head and laughing as she hung up the phone, she exclaimed, “I can’t ride with him! I can’t stand his music, and he insists on leaving all of the windows down, even with Slugs in the car!”

Hmmm, I thought… her husband couldn’t possibly be the same man I’d ridden with just a few weeks earlier, could it?

Just as the thought ran through my mind, there was the same 30-something hybrid driver, music cranked and windows down, pulling in right behind us in the Slug line.

His wife waved at him in the rear view mirror, and again, shook her head.

“I hope he at least turns the music down when people get in,” she wondered out loud.

I wanted to tell her, no. No, he won’t turn the music down.

And he won’t roll those windows up, either.

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Slug Tales: Why Didn’t I Call for a Ride Sooner?

By LAURA CIRILLO

Alone. Desperate. Panic.

These are just some of the thoughts running through my mind as I watch the commuter bus drive away – the bus that I should be on right now.

I remember this feeling from the handful of times I missed the bus in my school days. Dreading going home to get a ride to school from my parents, along with a lecture about being on time. This is so much worse than that.

If only I had made the earlier Yellow line train on Metro to get to the Pentagon sooner. Instead, I had to wait 12 minutes for the next train. And when the next one finally came, I worried that I wouldn’t have enough time to make it to the bus. Arriving at the Pentagon Metro Station with only a minute to spare, I ran as fast as I could toward the bus bay only to find the bus pulling away before I could reach the doors.

“Please, stop the bus!” I called out to the bus supervisor.

But she refused. “Should have been here on time,” she said, shaking her head.

I thought of the bus having to stop at the stop sign on the way out of the Pentagon parking lot, and tried to catch it there, but to no avail. The driver wouldn’t stop since it wasn’t a designated bus stop, and the Pentagon Police can be strict about pick-up and drop-off locations.

So here I am now, standing alone in the South Parking area of the Pentagon. I’m right near the Slug lines, but won’t be able to slug for another hour. And even then, I can’t slug to the commuter lot where my car is parked. I feel helpless.

And hot. I’m drenched in sweat, and I’ve only been standing here for about 10 minutes. Thank goodness for my Android phone and mobile internet, so I can check for other options. The next bus isn’t due for almost two hours. Sigh. I decide to get back on the Metro towards Franconia-Springfield; there’s a connector bus that will bring me back to Woodbridge, but not to my car. Maybe I can call a friend to pick me up. But no one answers.

Probably because everyone is at work. It’s still early in the afternoon, which is why I’m in such a bind in the first place. I left my office early that day because I wasn’t feeling well. Now I’m feeling 100 times worse.

The Metro car is stuffy and feels like it’s moving slower than usual. As we finally arrive at the Franconia-Springfield Metro Station, I look out the window just in time to see the Metro connector bus driving away. My heart sinks. Now what?

Why did I ever leave my office? I would have been better off just waiting until the afternoon buses started running more frequently. The next bus won’t come for another 40 minutes. Why didn’t I just call for a Guaranteed Ride Home?

The Guaranteed Ride Home Program has been really helpful to me before. As a member of the program, commuters can take advantage of a free ride home in the event of an emergency, illness or unscheduled overtime up to four times a year. I used it once when my supervisor sent me home sick one morning, and was grateful to use it then.

I fumbled through my wallet for my membership card and called the number. When an operator answered, I frantically explained that I was sick, sweating and oh, halfway home from my office.

“So you’re no longer at work?” asked the operator. “That’s a big no-no… but let me see what I can do.” I’m sure she could hear the desperation in my voice.

When she came back, she explained that participants in the program are only supposed to be picked up at their work location. However, since I hadn’t used my membership in the last year, she offered to send a ride, reminding me not to leave my office if I needed a guaranteed ride home again in the future.

Incredibly thankful, I went outside and waited for the car to arrive. About 20 minutes later, I was in an air-conditioned cab, finally heading home. Well, to the commuter lot. Good enough.

I was so relieved to get into my car and drive home that afternoon. Not to mention I was in bed before dinner that evening, exhausted after the entire experience.

Looking back, I know better than to depend on public transit to get me anywhere quickly when I’m in a hurry. Getting anywhere on time via public transportation means planning, and arriving earlier than it seems necessary.

And if I’m ever sick at work again, I won’t waste any time calling for a Guaranteed Ride Home. What a lifesaver!

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Slug Tales: I Slug, Therefore I’m Fast

For most people, living close to work means a shorter commute. Unless, that is, you live anywhere in the National Capital Region.

When I purchased my first home earlier this summer, I considered the distance between home and work. Initially, I had been looking for homes outside of Prince William County, further north along Interstate 95, where I could ride the Metro to work every day. However, considering my utter hatred for the Metro system, it’s probably best that I’m not stuck riding the train every day.

And my friends and colleagues who drive into Washington aren’t necessarily getting to work much quicker than I am from Dumfries, anyway. I’ve heard people complain about commutes less than 10 miles taking close to an hour. By slugging, I can usually get from my front door to my desk in that same amount of time! Plus, I save a ton of gas by only driving to nearby commuter lots. If that’s not a win-win situation, then I don’t know what is.

Radio personality Rocky Parrish, of 106.7 The Fan’s Kevin and Rock Show, fondly remembers his time spent slugging, recently recounting his days of meeting clients in Arlington and Washington. On mornings where he had to drive from his home in Alexandria into Washington or Arlington, he says he preferred to stay the night before at a friend’s place in Woodbridge, just so that he could pick up Slugs to access the High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes, getting him into the city faster.

Parrish laughs as he recalls pulling up to the slug lines in his SUV later during the morning commute at the Horner Road commuter lot, or in the evening at the Pentagon, and seeing the excited looks on the slugs’ faces, knowing there would be room in his vehicle for everyone waiting. I know exactly how that feels!

Experienced slugs or drivers like Parrish have seen just how quickly you can drive from the commuter lots in Prince William County to areas in and around Washington, but some people don’t seem to believe it. When I tell people where I live and where I commute every day, they ask me how I do it and why I haven’t moved closer to my office. In fact, if I could afford to live comfortably in Arlington and have the same amount of space that I have now, maybe I would – but hey, that’s another story.

The fact of the matter is, although I certainly don’t live very close to where I work, my commute really isn’t so bad when things go smoothly. Of course, there is the occasional major traffic incident that backs everything up from here to Timbuktu.

But luckily, those incidents are typically few and far between (knock on wood!), and with social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter, slugs can easily check out the current traffic situation and any potential obstacles in the commute before ever leaving home.

It may seem unbelievable to think that my 30-mile commute from Prince William County could take the same amount of time or less than commutes from areas further north in Virginia, but I’d say that’s a true testament to the slugging system and a big part of the reason it tends to work so well.

And it’s a good thing the system is working so well for me, because now that I’m a homeowner, I’m not going anywhere anytime soon!

 

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Slug Tales: Driver in Tears Causes Concern

Slugging is typically not a very emotional experience.

Sure, a driver might get angry with another driver. A Slug might be afraid when a driver isn’t driving safely, or they might be upset by the driver’s choice of radio station. A Slug might even be annoyed when the driver is driving too slowly.

But usually, those types of feelings occur in extraordinary circumstances, which are few and far between. Generally speaking, Slugs and drivers meet at the Slug lines, ride together to work or back to the commuter lot and part ways without any feelings between them at all.

That’s why it seemed so strange when I noticed the driver I was recently riding with was crying throughout the entire ride.

Let me back up for a moment. That morning was not unlike any other morning, where I desperately searched for parking and hurried to the Slug line to make sure I was able to get a ride. A lady had been waiting as another Slug and I approached her car, and I got into the back seat. We all said good morning and confirmed that we were going to L’Enfant Plaza, and we took off onto the High Occupancy Vehicle lanes – it was all just like any other morning.

The music was turned down fairly low, but I could hear that it was a gospel music station playing on the radio. Although that station isn’t something that I would normally choose, I find that the music can be pretty catchy and don’t mind it at all. That is, until I began to notice the driver had a case of the sniffles.

At first, I thought maybe she suffered from allergies, like me. I took a deep breath in through my nose – nope, I was breathing just fine this morning, not stuffy at all. But her sniffles continued. And when I took a closer look, peering through the top of my dark sunglasses, I noticed a tear dripping from the bottom of her cheek.

I watched, not knowing what to do, as the driver wiped tears away from her eyes and continued driving. She didn’t say a word, but it was clear she was upset as she went on, quietly crying.

I wondered if the passenger in the front seat had noticed. And I wondered what could possibly be making her so sad. Was there any chance she was just having an emotional reaction to the song on the radio? That has happened to me before, although usually only when I’m alone.

I pondered other possibilities as well. Maybe today was her last day at work, and she was sad to say goodbye to colleagues who had become good friends? Could it be a fight with her husband? A lost family member? I couldn’t help but hope it was nothing so serious.

Then I realized that maybe she needed someone to notice. Maybe she needed help. I remembered the small pouch of Kleenex in my purse, and pulled out a single tissue. Normally, Slugs are expected not to speak to the driver unless the driver initiates conversation, but I decided it was best in this case not to ignore our troubled driver.

Offering her a tissue, I asked if she was alright. Giving a small, slightly embarrassed laugh, she insisted that she was fine, and quickly wiped her tears away. She made a couple of comments about the weather, about how hot it had been and how glad she was that it had stopped raining, but once she was quiet, I noticed the crying again. I wasn’t sure what else to do.

I got out of the car that day and thanked her for the ride as I always do, but never had I ever meant it more when I told someone to “have a good day.” All day, I thought about our Slug driver, and hoped that she would find some relief from whatever was upsetting her that morning. Maybe it sounds silly, but I hoped that my small offer in the car was a reminder that she wasn’t alone, and that there are people around who care. Maybe it didn’t help at all or wasn’t enough, and then again, maybe it was just what she needed.

I suppose I’ll never know what made our driver so emotional that day, but that’s just how the Slugging system works – Slugs and drivers rarely ever speak or get to know each other because they may or may not ever see each other again. And maybe it’s for the best that way. Either way, I hope that lady has seen better days since our last encounter.

 

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Slug Tales: Stopped by a Cop

Never will I ever risk getting a ticket on Northern Virginia’s High Occupancy Vehicle Lanes.

By not having a minimum number of passengers during the restricted hours, Monday through Friday from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. northbound and 3:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. southbound, drivers take the chance of being ticketed, and those fines are not cheap. According to the Virginia Department of Transportation, the HOV lane fines in Northern Virginia range from $125 for the first offense to a maximum of $1,000 plus 3 points on your driving record for subsequent offenses.

Unless you’re driving a motorcycle or a hybrid with clean special fuel license plates, you’d better have passengers in your vehicle when the restriction begins, or money to burn if you get caught violating.

Not that I drive to work often, since I prefer to Slug or take the PRTC OmniRide bus, but you can bet your bottom dollar that I will pick up Slugs whenever I do end up driving. I’ve even picked up desperate Slugs I’ve passed at the Pentagon, left waiting after the restrictions are lifted at 6 p.m. As if speeding tickets aren’t bad enough, I would much rather follow the rules and avoid an expensive ticket, while helping my fellow commuters to get home at the same time. It just wouldn’t be worth it to me to drive solo and chance getting pulled over. That would really ruin my day!

Once, I drove in to my office in Washington, DC so that I could leave early for an appointment that afternoon. Although I had planned to leave by 2:30 p.m. to ensure that I was off of the HOV lanes when the restrictions began, things came up and I wasn’t able to leave until after 3 p.m., leaving me only 15-20 minutes to drive as far as I could southbound on HOV.

I started to panic when I encountered traffic after passing the exit for Springfield, as the clock ticked closer and closer to 3:30 p.m. My heart raced as I scanned the shoulder of the highway for strategically placed Virginia State Troopers, just waiting for violators as a lion stalks its prey. I barely made it to the highway exit at Lorton, narrowly avoiding a ticket (and a total panic attack).

Last week, while waiting in the morning Slug line for a ride at the Horner Road Commuter lot, another lady decided to leave the line and get her car to drive the gentleman at the front of the Slug line and myself. She said she hadn’t planned on driving and needed gas in her car, but it was past 8:30 a.m. and we didn’t know if there would be anymore drivers picking up so late. We were grateful when she pulled up to the line and picked us up that morning, and thanked her for offering to drive.

As we cruised north on the HOV lanes, I noticed a car come speeding up next to us from the passenger side mirror. The driver, who I did not realize was a Virginia State trooper, looked at us and then changed lanes to get behind our car, flashing his lights. Realizing she was being pulled over, our driver mumbled that she must have been speeding, and promptly pulled onto the shoulder.

I felt badly for her, considering she wasn’t even planning to drive that morning, and I really didn’t feel like she was speeding. I wish I had noticed that the car next to us was a police officer, so that maybe I could have given her some warning. Oh well.

The driver rolled down her window as the officer approached, and went to hand him her driver’s license, but the officer seemed uninterested.

“Do you have anyone in the backseat?” he demanded, peaking into the front driver’s side window.

The driver rolled down her window to show the backseat passenger, which satisfied the officer. However, he informed the driver that the tints on her window were too dark – he must have not been able to see into the vehicle beforehand, and thought she was trying to get away with violating the HOV rules.

In the end, the officer let the driver go with a warning that her window tint was illegal in Virginia, though he didn’t actually measure the tint after pulling her over. The three of us agreed that it most likely wasn’t the tint that was an issue; he probably just wanted to catch an HOV violator to write a ticket.

And I’m glad that the officers are on the lookout for HOV cheaters. Too often, I see single drivers cruising up and down the HOV lanes during restricted hours, enjoying all of the benefits of the HOV lanes without taking any passengers off of the road. This only contributes to traffic, and isn’t fair to those of us who obediently follow the rules.

One thing I can promise is that I will never be one of those HOV violators. No sir, not me. I was upset about a $35 parking ticket – there’s no way I’d risk getting fined $125 or more for an HOV violation! I just wish others would feel the same. And what’s the point in cheating, when you can always pick up Slugs?

Look for Slug Tales on Twitter @SlugTales, follow me and tweet me your commuting news, tips and stories.

 

 

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Tweet, Connect, and Share Your Commute

Well, I finally did it. I broke down and joined the Twitterverse.

Never ever in a million years did I think it would happen, Sure, there are millions of people taking part in the worldwide phenomenon known as Twitter, but I never really saw the purpose. After all, what’s the point in tweeting, when I have Facebook? What could I possibly have to say that my “followers” would really care about? Who would even follow me?

And then, it hit me. There are tons of people using Twitter! And call me crazy, but I’d be willing to bet that some of the people out there tweeting are also commuters in Northern Virginia. Commuters who, like me, want to know when there’s parking available at their favorite commuter lot, or when there’s an accident blocking traffic somewhere along their commute. Wouldn’t life be so much easier if we could communicate this to each other every day? Enter Twitter.

CLICK HERE TO FOLLOW SLUG TALES ON TWITTER

The day I opened the Peep app on my Android Smartphone for the first time, I thought, this could really make a difference. From my conversations with other commuters, it’s clear that there is a need for better communication among us – not necessarily once we’re riding in a car, but before we even get to that point.

Slugs have been searching for a tool to communicate about the length of the Slug lines, the availability of rides in certain locations and other factors that affect our daily commute. Twitter can be that tool. And commuters can feel comfortable using it, while keeping their identities protected. To create an account, users can choose any nickname or “handle” to start tweeting, so there’s no need to use your real first and last name.

But what about commuters who use other methods of transportation, besides the Slug lines? No problem! PRTC OmniRide bus riders can tweet when buses are running late or when they have “standing room only.” Commuters who use the VRE train or the Metro can tweet when the train is delayed for whatever reason. As any of us who commutes knows there are often complications that we come across when traveling to and from our jobs. If we started to notify each other about these obstructions, giving other commuters a heads up before running into the same problem, maybe it really would make a difference. Maybe it would even help facilitate a quicker ride home and less traffic jams. Who knows?

Even when there seems to be no news to report, commuters can connect via Twitter to start new Slug lines – in Manassas, Stafford, or Fredericksburg, for example – or to share stories about a funny or unusual commuting experience. But for my new Twitter account to be a success, I need YOU!

Look Slug Tales on Twitter @SlugTales, follow me and tweet me your commuting news, tips and stories.

Let’s make this whole Twitter thing worthwhile. See you in the Twitterverse!

 

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Slug Tales: Slugs Don’t Forget Cutters

Just like it was in elementary school, cutting in line is one of the greatest offenses a Slug can commit.

When a Slug cuts in line, or takes a ride out of turn, things are sure to get ugly. Not only will the other Slugs left behind talk negatively about that person and maybe even yell at them directly for cutting, but the offender will have made a name for themselves as the most hated in the Slug line.

I’ve heard Slugs in the line talking about people who have taken rides out of turn, either by just casually walking up to a car and getting in while a line of Slugs wait patiently, or by “pretending” to be friends with the driver. The “will call” rule applies when a driver knows a Slug somewhere in line and calls out for them to get in, even if they are not first in line. I don’t see it happen particularly often, but it does happen, and although Slugs might grumble about it when the line is long, they typically just accept the driver’s choice.

When I’ve planned to meet with friends for a ride in the past, I’ve made sure to arrange for them to meet me somewhere away from the Slug line, so that it doesn’t appear that I’m jumping in line or stealing a ride. I would hate to make myself unpopular amongst my fellow commuters!

And Slugs don’t forget cutters. I know that I’ll never forget the habitual cutter I used to run into in the bus line at the Pentagon. When I would leave work too late to Slug home in the evenings, I used to make my way over to the Pentagon to catch the bus. Sometimes when there are several OmniRide buses loading at the same time, the lines will be moved around slightly to accommodate each of the buses in the bus bays. After catching the bus regularly for a while, I began to notice that one lady in particular was taking advantage of the bit of chaos created by lines being moved, and would jump from her spot in the middle of the line, somehow ending up at the front of the line to board the bus.

For weeks, I watched this happen and wondered why no one was speaking up. Other people in line would even comment to each other, clearly taking note of her cutting in line, and every day, it made me more and more angry. Why was she getting away with this? Why isn’t anyone saying anything to her? When I’d see her each evening, I would think of her as “The Cutter” and I’d wait for her to make her move to the front of the line. She never failed.

One night, I decided that I’d had enough. I must have had a bad day, or maybe I was just tired of seeing this happen without any repercussion. A couple of times before then, I had told myself that the next time The Cutter cut in line I was going to say something to her, but didn’t. I’m just not a confrontational person. But I wasn’t taking it anymore. There is a line, and it was time she started respecting it!

The bus pulled up behind its usual spot in the bus bay, and sure enough, The Cutter “inconspicuously” made her way to the front. This time, however, it was me at the front of the line. As she approached, clearly thinking she was going to jump in front of me, I stopped her in her tracks.

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there’s a line going here, and I’m pretty sure you just came from back there,” I said, fed up.

Another gentleman standing behind me backed me up and told her she could not cut. The Cutter mumbled something back about how the line was being moved and she was just following everyone, but she wasn’t fooling us. No way – I know your game, lady. Back to your spot you go!

Well, not quite. She didn’t exactly go back to where she came from in the line, but she certainly didn’t get in front of me.

Proud of myself for finally standing up to her and her cutting ways, I wondered if I had taught her a lesson. Her cutting was not going unnoticed, and she wasn’t going to get away with it anymore — at least not as long as I was standing in the line.

While I’ve never seen that lady again since that day, I’ve wondered if I stopped her from breaking the rules. One thing’s for sure though – if I ever did see her again, I’d always remember her as the lady who cuts in line! And as a commuter, cutting in line is one offense that you definitely do not want to be known for.

 

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Slug Tales: Radio Stations Offend Some

If there’s one thing that I enjoy more than sharing my own Slug Tales, it’s hearing the tales from others who also Slug.

Whether you are a commuter or not, the stories are usually pretty entertaining – and especially as a commuter, I can relate to some of the experiences my fellow Slugs have shared. Often times I’ll check my Facebook account during the morning commute, and every now and then I’ll run across a friend’s post, either complaining about a slow driver or dirty car, or enjoying the driver’s chosen radio station.

As far as radio stations go, I honestly don’t mind what a driver chooses, as long as they don’t leave the radio off completely. Although I’d never complain directly to the driver, I just don’t like the awkward silence. Some noise is better than nothing at all. And I’ve ridden in cars with all types of music playing – typically the news on WTOP-FM, but some drivers prefer country stations, hip-hop stations, Christian rock, and so on. One of my personal favorites is The Kane Show on 99.5, which is pretty funny. The host, Kane, airs prank calls, which tend to get the whole car laughing out loud.

While I’d say I’m pretty easy going when it comes to the radio station, I do recognize that not every Slug feels the same way. I’ve heard complaints from Slugs about music being too loud, or too vulgar for their taste, or perhaps they don’t like listening to stations with a religious or spiritual theme. Personally, I think people tend to be too easily offended these days, but that’s just my opinion. The few times that I have picked up Slugs, I’ve purposely chosen a generic pop or news station and make sure to keep it at a reasonable volume, so that everyone is comfortable.

Last week I overheard two ladies in the Slug line talking about a driver one of them had ridden with recently, who listened to loud rap music on the drive in one morning, and then called into the radio station to win a contest. I laughed on the inside as the lady described the driver going as far as grabbing a pen and paper to write something down before calling in, while speeding on the High Occupancy Vehicle lanes on Interstate 95. Her friend shook her head and told her what she would have done in her situation, but the lady explained that she didn’t feel comfortable complaining or asking the driver to stop and focus on driving safely.

One of my Facebook friends recently posted that she was riding with the “slowest Slug driver ever,” which also made me laugh because I could relate. I think all Slugs probably feel that way at some point during our travels. And it always seems to happen to me on the day that I’m in a hurry to get to work, too. But again in that situation, complaining to the driver or asking them to “speed it up” is not really an option, as much as I’ve wanted to do just that.

It’s true that Slugs are somewhat at the mercy of their drivers for a safe and comfortable ride, and the way each Slug chooses to handle difficult circumstances is up to the individual. But if there’s one thing we can do to make it easier, it’s by sharing our stories and laughing about them later.

If you are a Slug and have a funny or unbelievable Slug Tale of your own, we welcome you to share it! Please follow Slug Tales on Twitter @SlugTales or post to the PotomacLocal.com Facebook wall, #SlugTales!

 

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Summertime and the Commute is Easy

 SLUG TALES 

Except for the time I spent going through the public school system, I have never been so excited for summer vacation to begin.

In addition to the busy summer we have planned this year – lots of weddings and other events to attend, with beach trips and weekend getaways packed in between – I have been looking forward to school getting out just as much as any elementary, middle or high-school student. And yet, I don’t yet have children of my own and I’m not a teacher; I don’t even work for the school system.

So what does summer break mean to me, you ask? It’s very simple: no more school buses on the road and more parents working from home or taking leave for vacation, both of which usually indicate there will be less traffic and more parking available. I love summer!

When I started my job in Washington two years ago this month, school was already out for the summer and I generally had very little trouble finding commuter lots with plenty of parking. Granted, this was also before Potomac Mills drastically reduced commuter parking in February 2011. Once I started commuting, I would tell friends how easy it was to commute, especially as a Slug. My daily routine consisted of driving 10 minutes to the mall, parking and hopping in a car directly to L’Enfant Plaza. In the afternoon, I would head back to the Pentagon to catch a ride home. Simple enough.

But I was spoiled by the light rush hour traffic during the summer, and unaware of how much that would change once those pencils and books were back in action, come September. By then, I had noticed a major increase in traffic, especially on local roads, and again when crossing the 14th Street Bridge into the District.

And then parking became even more difficult following the reduction at Potomac Mills, and I became a sort of Slugging nomad. It took some time to find a commuter lot that both fit my commuting needs and had space to park. I tried various locations, methods and combinations of transportation, and then had to figure it out all over again after moving twice.

Nonetheless, all year I have been counting down the months, weeks and days to June 15, or better yet, June 18, the first day of the expectantly easier summer commute.

Last summer, I was able to park at the ever popular Horner Road commuter lot in Woodbridge almost every day of the week; whereas, during the school year, it’s generally only possible to park there on Fridays. I love the Horner Road lot because I can Slug directly to my office and back, without having to use the bus or Metro. And with the news this week that police are targeting parking violators at the Horner lot, my fingers and toes will be crossed that the parking situation this summer will look as good as last year.

 

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Slug Tales: Out-of-Towners Just Don’t Understand

By LAURA CIRILLO

Although very popular among commuters, slugging is sure to be one of the most misunderstood practices in the Washington area.

Over the time I have spent slugging to Washington from Northern Virginia, I have come to learn that this unique system can seemingly only be truly understood by those who have done it. In conversation with my friends and family who have never experienced the Slug lines, in short, they just don’t seem to get it! Getting in cars with strangers… isn’t that something we were taught as children not to do?

People ask questions, like “isn’t it true you’re not allowed to talk?” And “how do you know that you’re all going to the same place?” As an experienced slug, these questions are fairly easily answered. But for a non-commuter, or someone who sticks to the familiarity of the regular carpool or bus route, Slugging seems to be such a foreign concept. Why would you want to ride with a car full of strangers anyway?

While visiting family in New Jersey over the weekend, I was once again reminded of how strange slugging can seem to people who are unfamiliar with the idea. After finding out that I work in Washington and commute from Virginia, the first question asked is usually how I get back and forth.

Of course, if I say that I take a bus or Metro, there isn’t much explanation needed. And since I often use public transit, sometimes it’s much less complicated to just leave it at that. But slugging is so much more interesting, especially to those who have never heard of it before.

At first, my family seemed completely confused about slugging.

“So, you’re basically hitchhiking?” they asked.

Well, not really. Though I can see how they’ve made the connection, what comes to mind when I think of hitchhiking is a guy on a side of the highway with his thumb sticking out, carrying a knapsack on the end of a stick. Real original, right? That may not always be the case, but slugging is way more organized than that.

As I enlightened my out-of-state family members, I explained how slugs convene every morning in designated commuter lots, and stand in specific lines destined for specific locations, either to the Pentagon or surrounding areas, or Downtown Washington.

“But how do the drivers know where to drop you off?” they inquired, still perplexed.

And so I continued on about how many slugs are dropped off near certain buildings, Metro stops, or other agreed upon intersections or locations.

“And do you pay when you get in the car?” they asked.

That’s when I like to explain how slugging is mutually beneficial to drivers and riders alike; the drivers benefit by picking up enough riders to access the High Occupancy Vehicle lanes on Interstate 95 or 66, the slugs get a free ride, and everyone gets to work faster than they would by using the regular lanes or other methods of public transportation.

By this point, my family seemed to begin to understand the system, at least a little bit, but still expressed concern about me getting into cars with people that I don’t know. They worried that it’s dangerous, that I could be riding in cars with serial killers. Luckily, I haven’t met one yet, but I tend to reassure my loved ones by telling them how many thousands of us slug without any serious problems every day of the week.

Sure, I’ve ridden in cars that smell funny or don’t have AC; I’ve ridden with drivers who don’t let their passengers sleep or with other slugs who tell crazy personal stories – but honestly, I’ve never felt personally threatened by anyone while slugging. In fact, I find that with few exceptions, people are generally quite pleasant and just trying to get to work or back home.

By the time we moved onto other conversations, I wondered if I had adequately portrayed the slugging system to my extended family. For the most part, slugging is the quickest, and mostly painless way to get in and out of our far-away city offices. Still, I can see why it seems so strange to non-commuters to ride with strangers every day.

Maybe it is a little weird, but it works for us – and really, that’s all that matters!

 

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Slug Tales: Bus Commuters Share Family Bond

By LAURA CIRILLO

When it comes to commuters, you could say that we’re like a family.

A big, somewhat dysfunctional family – but a family, nonetheless.

Sometimes commuters get mad at each other and bicker, like the two passengers who argued over a noisy cell phone conversation on an OmniRide bus. Sometimes we antagonize each other as siblings do, like the driver who road-raged her way up the High Occupancy Vehicle lanes on Interstate 95.

Then again, there is a certain sense of camaraderie amongst commuters that perhaps only those of us who make the trek in and out of the city each day can completely understand.

On an OmniRide bus last week, the driver waited as a passenger fumbled through her purse, looking for spare change. She didn’t have enough cash on her SmarTrip rechargeable fare card to pay for her trip into Washington, so the bus driver allowed her to sit down to look in her wallet. Looking through her bags in the front seat, other passengers began to realize that she may need some help.

One passenger asked how much she needed, while another passed a few dollars her way.

“Is that enough?” someone asked from a couple of rows back.

When she still came up 20 cents short, the driver told her not to worry, that he would take care of it.

Grateful, the passenger took her seat and thanked everyone for their help. She hadn’t realized that the funds in her account were so low, and just didn’t have enough cash on her. The other passengers replied that they had been in her shoes before, and were happy to help.

On Monday, June 4, OmniRide’s Spring Service Change took place and some of the bus schedules were changed. This seemed to create a bit of confusion at the commuter lot located at Va. 123, where I often catch the bus. Some commuters were aware that there were changes but hadn’t checked to see if their regular bus route was affected.

It took a few extra minutes for passengers to board the bus, as several people stopped to ask our new driver if their stop had changed. The driver seemed frustrated, apparently not understanding their hesitation.

This set the bus’ departure back a couple of minutes, and the driver was clearly anxious to get moving.

“Wait!” someone called out from a window seat. “Someone is running to catch the bus!”

Our regular driver would always wait when people were rushing at the last minute. As she always said with a smile, “No rider left behind!”

This driver certainly didn’t share that theory. Exasperated, she complained that we were already leaving two minutes late, and that latecomers were not being fair to the passengers who arrived on time.

“We don’t mind waiting,” said a passenger in the second row.

“Maybe you don’t, but you can’t speak for everyone else on this bus!” the driver replied.

She ended up waiting, and then mildly scolding the late passenger, reminding her of the scheduled departure time.

Still, it was reassuring to see my fellow passengers supporting each other, yet again. If I am ever the one running late, or searching my wallet for fare money, I hope that my commuter family will be as willing to jump in and lend a hand.

Sure, commuters may have moments where they argue and don’t necessarily get along with each other, but what family doesn’t? At the end of the day, I’d like to think we all look out for each other, too.

And isn’t that what family is all about?

 

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Slug Tales: Commute Determines New House Location

By LAURA CIRILLO

House hunting has got to be one of the most exciting yet disappointing, fun yet stressful processes in the world.

As I close on the purchase of my first home this week and prepare to move, I can’t help but reflect on everything that has gone into making this huge decision.

Of course, I had to find a house that we could afford, in an area where I wanted to live – that was the tricky part. Considering the market’s currently low inventory, and the high percentage of foreclosures and short sales that we came across, it was fairly difficult to find homes that matched my list of needs and wants.

And as a commuter, one of the big, blaring items on my list was a neighborhood located adjacent to a commuter lot.

Not just any commuter lot, either – I wanted to live close to a commuter lot with Slug lines and bus routes that go back and forth near my office in Washington, where there’s actually parking available and I don’t have to leave my car in a ditch and hope that I won’t get a ticket. That was much more difficult to find than I had imagined!

In the beginning, I confined the search only to Lake Ridge, refusing to look in any other zip codes. There are several commuter lots in or around the Lake Ridge area of Woodbridge, and living there would put me much closer to them from where I currently live, just outside of Montclair. Sure, I live near a commuter lot now, but what good is it when there’s never any parking?

I mentioned this concern through my search to other Slugs, many of whom sympathized and agreed that living in Lake Ridge would definitely be an advantage. One driver told me that a friend of hers moved from Dumfries to Lake Ridge, just to ease the commute. I knew I wasn’t the only one.

Needless to say, I was thrilled to find a house we loved, right where I wanted to live. However, when our home inspection brought some major issues to light, we had no choice but to back out of the contract. Heartbreak. I thought we’d never find a better house, let alone a house that made me fall in love like that one did.

So the search continued. I realized soon after that we’d probably have to start looking outside of Lake Ridge, if we ever wanted to find a home. Limited the search to just a few neighborhoods in one zip code was proving unsuccessful and very disappointing.

And then we found “the one.” It was love at first sight and we were ready to make an offer immediately. This one may not be in Lake Ridge, in fact, it’s not far from where I’ve been living for the last year. But it’s beautiful, and totally worth the extra 10-20 minutes on Interstate 95, to drive to commuter lots in Lake Ridge. Well, that’s how I feel now. Perhaps I’ll think otherwise after living there for a few months, but we’ll see how that goes.

In any case, I’m glad we’ve found a place that we love, even though it doesn’t necessarily fulfill my commuting needs. At least I know there’s a PRTC OmniRide bus stop within walking distance, even if I can’t park at the Route 234 Commuter Lot up the street.

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Slug Tales: Parking Habit Leads to Fine

I got my first parking ticket yesterday.

Yes, I’m aware that parking is allowed in designated spaces only, and that I was partially parked on the crosswalk. I know it’s against the rules. But I was desperate. And everyone else was doing it!

Coming from Montclair, the closest commuter lot is on the corner of Va. 234 and U.S. 1 in Dumfries. Less than five minutes from my house, it’s so conveniently located, and there’s a Slug line that I can take directly to the front door of my building. Coming home, there are two bus stops adjacent to my building, so I can just hop on in the afternoon and relax until I get back to my car – no long walks or getting on Metro. Hallelujah!

With all of those benefits, there’s only one big, fat problem: parking.

To be at work at 9 a.m., I don’t need to Slug until 8 a.m., at the earliest. And don’t tell me to “just get there earlier.” Rumor has it that lot is full by six o’clock! How much earlier could I possibly get there? I don’t have the option to change my hours, as much as I would love to get home earlier than 7 p.m. every evening.

The commuter lot at Va. 234 also happens to be one of the only in the area, and with its easy access from U.S. 1 and Interstate 95, many commuters come from areas in Dumfries, Triangle, Stafford, and even Fredericksburg. With such fierce competition, I don’t stand a chance at 8 a.m.

For the longest time, I had completely ruled out the chance of ever parking at that particular lot. I tried a few times without luck, before giving up and sadly passing by a line of cars waiting to take Slugs exactly where I needed to go, only to sit in traffic on my way to another lot.

And so, I became resigned to the fact that I’d have to move further north to Lake Ridge if I ever wanted to be within a reasonable distance of a commuter lot.

That is, until one Friday, when I gave the Route 234 lot another try, and stumbled upon open parking spaces.

Score! I thought. I’ll start parking here on Fridays from now on!

Then, I became spoiled by “Route 234 Lot Parking Fridays.” I started going to the lot on Mondays, too… then Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays! Sure, I was parking illegally, in spots painted with hash marks. But there were cars parked literally anywhere there was room – on the sidewalk, in the grass, on the curb. It just goes to show that commuters around these parts are THAT desperate for parking.

Every day, I worried that I’d come home to a parking ticket, but for weeks, I reveled in not being ticketed. I even found a regular illegal parking spot, and was occasionally annoyed when some jerk parked in it before I got there. I was saving so much in gas, getting on the road earlier, getting home so much easier – life was good.

Until now. Yesterday morning, I parked a bit further from my usual spot, dangerously over the line of the crosswalk. When I returned yesterday afternoon, my heart sank to find a little white envelope stashed under my windshield wiper. My luck had finally run out.

Of course, I plan to pay the $35 ticket. I broke the rules, and I acknowledge that. But I won’t go out without a fight – at my earliest opportunity, I will visit the police station to contest the ticket, as the reverse side of the ticket allows. It may not do any good for my wallet, but I feel compelled to voice my concerns about the lack of parking in our area to whomever it may concern. Commuters aren’t being flagrant of the law by parking illegally – we are just desperate for parking. I simply cannot pay this ticket without explaining myself… and perhaps pleading for a little mercy. I’ll let you know how it goes.

In the meantime, you can find me in traffic on I-95, going back and forth to the Route 123 commuter lot.

Traffic
Slug Tales: ‘Can you hear me now? Yes, WE CAN’

By LAURA CIRILLO

The sign posted front and center in each PRTC OmniRide bus is quite clear, asking passengers to use cell phones briefly and only when necessary.

Yet from time to time, I have to wonder if that sign is either blatantly ignored, or if some riders are just completely unaware of its existence. And it just so happens that those same riders who disregard the sign also seem to be the ones lacking in the common sense department. I would assume that boarding a quiet bus full of sleepy commuters would be an indicator that noisy cell phone conversations are not appropriate. But we all know what happens when we assume.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not above turning around and giving the cell phone offender a dirty look, which is usually no problem, considering they’re almost always sitting directly behind me. Yesterday, I had to shoot the stink eye at a lady in a particularly loud conversation with her realtor. Yes, I’m sure the conversation was super important, but I’m guessing it probably could have waiting another 45 minutes for her to get off the bus.

One morning, I ended up taking the last OmniRide bus from the Route 123 Commuter Lot in Lake Ridge, as I was running a bit later than usual. The driver waited as a man, running even later than I was, hurried to catch the bus. He politely thanked the bus driver for waiting, but I noticed as he made his way back to a seat that he was holding a cell phone to his ear.

Oh great, I thought. So glad we waited for this guy!

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who hoped he’d quickly end the conversation, now that he was on the crowded bus, but to our dismay, the casual conversation continued.

He chatted on and on until we were nearing the Pentagon, when suddenly a female passenger expressed her agitation and abruptly asked cell phone guy to cut it out. They bickered back and forth, until the female passenger called out to the bus driver to reiterate the cell phone policy. Keeping her cool, the bus driver used the intercom to remind all passengers that cell phones were to be used only in case of emergency, and that calls should be kept to a minimum.

But cell phone guy wasn’t going out without a fight. He refused to hang up, claiming he had a family emergency, and shot back by saying the other passenger was harassing him. I wondered if the bus driver felt like she was breaking up an argument between children, as she calmly asked him again to finish his conversation as quickly as possible.

Luckily, the argument didn’t last much longer, since we arrived at the Pentagon bus stop soon after. What impressed me, however, was how the bus driver dealt with the altercation between the two passengers. I’m sure she is used to grumpy people who aren’t exactly thrilled to be going to work every morning, but she remained unruffled and diplomatic in handling the situation. It certainly didn’t stop the rude passenger from being obnoxious, but at least the driver kept things from getting too out of hand.

Hopefully, her announcement was a good reminder of the cell phone policy to other passengers.

And if that fails, one thing is for sure – any passengers who insist on using their cell phone will get the stink eye.

Traffic
Slug Tales: Driver Hates Sleepers

By LAURA CIRILLO

When it comes to the rules of slugging, it really depends on who’s in the driver’s seat.

While some Slug drivers prefer to drive in complete silence – sometimes without even turning on the radio – others would rather engage with their passengers, asking where they work and how their day is going. Some drivers encourage their slugs to use the visor to block the afternoon sun, while others would be appalled if a slug were to make any adjustments in the passenger seat.

Personally, I’m pretty easy to please when it comes to slugging. Once I get in the car it’s lights out for me until we arrive at my commuter lot. In fact, I very much look forward to my afternoon power naps during the drive home so I happen to prefer a nice, quiet ride. I’ve come to depend on these naps so much that missing one makes me feel like a cranky toddler by the time I get back to my car. Some days, a good nap is what helps get me through the rest of my evening, giving me enough energy to go to the gym, make dinner, and do whatever I need to do before crashing for the night.

One afternoon, a coworker and I waited in the Slug line destined for the Horner Road commuter lot in Woodbridge, and an older gentleman picked us up. I should have known from the moment I got into the backseat that my power nap was not going to happen that day.

This driver was definitely a talker. He immediately began a pretty friendly conversation with us, asking the usual questions about what we do, how long we’ve been commuting and so on. He had been driving Slugs for years, although he actually worked somewhere in Maryland – he would pick up and drop off Slugs, in order to access Interstate 95’s High Occupancy Vehicle lanes each day. And then we discovered that this was no ordinary Slug driver. This man was very, particular, shall we say, about his “rules.”

Just as I started to get comfortable, with my sunglasses covering my closed eyes, the driver informed us, “One thing I hate is for slugs to be sleeping in my car.”

My eyes opened and I responded immediately, hoping not to look guilty of this clearly inexcusable offense.

As the conversation continued, the driver explained that he didn’t think it was fair he should have to stay awake to drive home, while his passengers were sleeping soundly.

He added, “If I gotta stay awake all the way home, so do you!”

I hoped he couldn’t see me rolling my eyes behind him. I mean, really, weren’t we both doing each other a favor? Isn’t that the point of slugging? Without the two of us in his car, he wouldn’t even be able to drive the HOV lanes to get home so quickly, at least not without a ticket. As long as we weren’t bothering or distracting him from driving, why should it matter what we were doing?

Throughout the ride home, my friend and I texted each other back and forth.

“Y do we always get the crazy ones?” she asked.

“LOL… IDK! Just lucky I guess,” I replied.

Besides not letting us sleep, our driver was fairly pleasant, and of course we appreciated the ride. But ever since then, I have always wondered if I’m offending the person I’m riding with by sleeping along the way.

Hopefully, most slug drivers don’t notice my shut eyes behind my dark sunglasses, but if they do, I hope they don’t mind. I certainly don’t mean to be rude; I just need my power nap.

It could always be worse – at least I don’t snore.

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