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With Lean Times on Horizon, Prince William set to Outline its Future

OPINION

I was a member of the Prince William County 2013 – 2016 Strategic Planning Team. It consisted of twenty appointees representing a wide variety of political, philosophical, and business points of view. It was a good mix.

Our first task was to develop a Strategic Vision Statement to frame the development of the Strategic Plan.

Strategic Vision Statement: Prince William County is a community of choice with a strong, diverse economic base, where individuals and families choose to live and work and businesses choose to locate.

This was used as the framework for our five goal areas (which follow).

Economic Development Goal: The County will provide a robust, diverse economy with more quality jobs and an expanded commercial tax base

The rational here is simple. Economic development pays for everything else. It creates new jobs in Prince William County, reduces the tax burden on homeowners, and creates multiple long-term streams of significant revenue.

 I’ve had the pleasure of chatting with and watching Executive Director of the Prince William County Department of Economic Development Jeff Kaczmarek several times. While Prince William faces unique challenges inside the “federal bubble,” and the change to our fundamentals resulting from sequestration and a general trend to downsize, I believe Jeff is our best bet to at least stay even or perhaps gain a little ground.

The “surprise” in this mix is Chris Price, Prince William County’s Director of Planning. He actually comes from an economic development background, and filling those empty strip malls with new small businesses is on his radar. While Jeff is focused on bringing in new business from outside Prince William County, and helping existing businesses grow, Chris has created a community development position to pay attention to revitalizing our community.

I believe these two Prince William County executives offer the mix we need for the future of Prince William County economic development.

We also added an educational element to our mission.

Education Goal: The County will provide an educational environment rich in opportunities to increase educational attainment for workforce readiness, post-secondary education and lifelong learning.

It’s simple (at least, to me), education is the price of a civil society. The best way to reduce crime, develop mutual respect for each other, and increase employment is through a well-rounded education system. I don’t mind paying for that.

I am interested in a little more oversight in the School Board budget process and greater involvement of our Board of County Supervisors.

Public Safety Goal: The County will maintain safe neighborhoods and business areas and provide prompt response to emergencies.

Full disclosure: I was also on the 2008-2012 Strategic Planning Team. We were organized by functional area. I was on the Public Safety Team. I became so interested in public safety that I volunteered for the Prince William County Police Department Citizens Police Academy to learn more about this complex business.

Public Safety is, to me, government’s prime responsibility. We want the police, firemen and EMT’s to show up when we need them. I suspect, considering the aging demographic in Prince William County, that is not a unique distinction.

Transportation Goal: The County will provide a multi-modal transportation network that supports county and regional connectivity

Transportation is one of those things that only Government can really do. Prince William County does it well. Prince William County Director of Transportation Thomas Blaser was on our planning team. He understands that moving people around isn’t just about putting cars on the road. It includes, trains, bikes, flexible work hours (to reduce folks on the road), and telework (to take people off the road). I believe the ways to move around (or not… that “telework thing”) will be there for our residents as Prince William County grows.

Human Services Goal: The county will provide human services to individuals and families most at risk, through innovative and effective leveraging of state and federal funds and community partnerships

While there are some things only government may do, there are some things that are best left to others. Prince William County is blessed with an army of volunteers and not for profits who focus on the full range of human services.

I would actually like to see greater utilization of Community Partners to reduce the size of our local Government. My only angst with our Community Partner program is its potential for politicization. Many of us will be watching to see if the process truly plays out objectively (as intended) free from political interference.

So, what’s next? The 2013-2016 Strategic Plan will be presented in detail at a public hearing in January 2013

Every meeting started with citizens time. If you still have comments or input, this is your last chance. Watch the Prince William County website or Potomac Local News for information on when this will be scheduled.

While our Board of County Supervisors will look to the Strategic Plan for a framework within which to allocate our tax dollars, it doesn’t drive where our tax dollars actually go. This is the ultimate trade-off. Would you prefer more police & firemen, or a larger school board budget? Is our investment in economic development worth fewer community partners?

The community is paying more attention to the budget process than it has in past years. I suggest that for those things not in our Strategic Plan that show up as potential budget items, operative question might be “why?”

The Strategic Plan defines “core services” for Prince William County, and we need a really good reason not to get the police or firefighters we need, fund education for our children, or support Community Partners in under served areas before straying into funding things that serve no strategic purpose.

I personally believe that the fundamentals for Prince William County are about to change. Sequestration, the wind down of foreign wars, and a trend to downsize the Federal Government, the engine of our local economy, will sent perturbations through the housing market, our projections for growth, and our revenue base.

I would suggest that it would be wise to focus on the fundamentals, and leave the “other stuff” on the budget floor to brace for the lean times ahead.

Al Alborn is a political blogger, and active resident who lives in Prince William County.

News
‘Manland’ Gym Funny, Unfiltered Place You Can’t Talk About

MOM ON THE RUN

By LIANNE WILKENS

“Ugh,” my son says. He leans back in his chair, flops his head backwards in disgust. “Seriously, can we talk about something other than the gym?”

My husband glances over at him, then at me, and we laugh. Well, I laugh, cheerily, happily. My husband chuckles, kind of a flat solidarity “heh-heh”. And that sound stops my laughter.

“OK,” I say, a little embarrassed. “I’m sorry.”

My son knows this is a delicate area, and, “It’s just that it’s the only thing we talk about!,” he adds. My husband, not sure how I’m going to react, nods gently in support of his son.

I started going to the gym last February. I began using the treadmill, then graduated to the elliptical, and got bored and added circuit weights. Then I booked a series of personal training sessions with the very patient Jeremy. And then, because I’m cheap and needed a buddy to make me go, I asked my neighbor Dave to “show me some weights.”

So Dave did. Kind, generous Dave took me under his huge muscular wing, and dragged me along through his weight training routine for the whole summer, and now I do it all by myself. And Dave’s weight training routine is that of a body-building man, so, ta-da, that’s what I do. Accidentally. Had I realized, I would have found someone less, um, focused to teach me, another woman. But oh well, now here I am.

Or, rather, there I am, at the gym, every single day. Though he’s busy and not around much, I faithfully follow Dave’s training schedule, each day focused on a different body part: shoulders, back, chest, arms, and legs, with abs on alternating days. It’s me and 15 to 20 men in Manland, lifting heavy things up and putting them down, over and over and over.

At first I thought it was pointless and silly. But I’m competitive, and only lifting one-third (or less) of Dave’s weight annoyed me, so I started to focus pretty quickly. And now picking up heavy stuff and putting it back down is what I do in my spare time, and what I think about, and, apparently, what I talk about. All the time. My transition into gym rat was sudden and funny, but I guess the novelty has worn off, and my son has finally had enough.

“So I can’t talk about it at all?” I can try to follow the rules, but … not talk about Manland? About all the characters, like the Professor, and GI Joe, and Matchy-Matchy, and Baby? Not tell about how Psycho Nikes hollers and grunts when he lifts, and I’m sure he’s going to bite his tongue off? Not describe how Altar Boy prays, loudly, for divine assistance with heavy weights? Not even tell embarrassing stories about myself, like when I couldn’t get the bar back on the rack, so I wrestled it to my lap, and then when I tried to pick it up it tilted and all the weights slid off the bar and landed with a clang on the floor, and then the other side did too, and all the guys turned and stared?

Manland is a hilarious place! The men are unfiltered, belching and arranging themselves, and their raw true selves are so funny. And the fact that I’m in there too, picking up heavy things and putting them back down, and watching my new muscles in the mirrors, and drinking protein drinks afterwards … it’s a remarkable new world, and I’m not allowed to talk about it? Really?

“Well, a little bit,” my 17-year-old allows. I grin – yes! It’s something he and I can actually talk about together, one small commonality – “But you’re not allowed to call them ‘quarters’ and ‘dimes’. You have to call them 25 pound and 10 pound plates.” He stabs his finger at me for emphasis.

“Yes, sir,” I say, and grin.

I wait a beat, then, “So can I tell you what happened at the gym today?”

Together, my husband and son groan and roll their eyes, and look at each other in resignation.

Lianne Wilkens lives with her family in Manassas. Reach her at liannewilkens[at]hotmail[dot]com.

 

News
Alborn: ‘Sheriff’ a Self-Proclaimed ‘Disruptive Influence’ on Local Politics

By AL ALBORN
Contributing Editor

So, who is the Sheriff of Nottingham of Prince William County?

The elusive blogger that has captured the attention of county residents and government officials agreed, for the first time, to be interviewed. He sat down in a coffee shop and opened up about the state of local government, the problems it faces as he sees them, and shared his disdain for the way local government is run in Prince William County.

During the past few months, we had exchanged notes and he finally offered to meet under certain conditions, the foremost was to protect his anonymity. I was surprised when a man I have never seen before ordered a cup of coffee and then approached me and said “Hello Al”, and then sat next to me. 

A blogger myself, I simply didn’t recognize him (and I know quite a few people). This surprised me. The writer goes by the pseudonym “The Sheriff.” I asked how I should address him, and he suggested I call him William Brewer. Brewer recognized me from the picture on my blog. He looks nothing like the picture on his blog.

With diverse connections in the county and a child who is a schoolteacher, Brewer started his blog in an effort to call attention to the actions of local government while protecting the interests of his friends, family and associates.

He felt compelled to write about things that he witnessed occurring in local government – penning mostly about things he disagrees with. His rising property tax bill was the “tipping point,” he said.

Brewer started The Sheriff of Nottingham of Prince William County in May. This was his first attempt at blogging, and he quickly hit a tone that resonated with his readers. Brewer now has 2,000 hits per day on his blog – a good number for a website with such a local focus.

Brewer is known for taking an adversarial tone toward those in elected office, as well as Prince William County Government employees. It’s all an attempt “to be noticed,” he said. He’s intentionally loud, and Brewer wants to control the conversation to get both the public and government’s attention. It’s a bid for both awareness and reaction, he said.

Brewer has intentionally cast himself a disruptive influence in Prince William County. He considers a lot of things our local government does with our money abuses of power. His first blog post was about the abuse of Discretionary Funds – monies that elected officials could spend as they saw fit. The Board of Supervisors later did away with those funds after much public outcry. Bloggers like Brewer to credit for the funds’ demise.

Brewer is now paying particular attention to what he sees as continued abuses of public money and bad behavior on the part of those who serve in local government. Most recently, one of his writings focused on the FY2014 budget process, and what he sees as unreasonable resistance to the flat tax proposal of Chairman Corey A. Stewart (At-Large) and Gainesivlle Supervisor Peter Candland. He opined that Prince William County operates without much public oversight. Most folks are just too busy commuting, raising their families, or getting on with their lives to pay attention to local government, he said.

“Character is what you do when no one is watching,” he said.

Brewer also has opinions about the Prince William County Board of Supervisors.

“There is nothing better than a reformed sinner,” Brewer said regarding members of the Board. “Every sinner has a past, and ever saint has a future.”

“There is nothing the public would love better than for a Supervisor to simply admit he made a mistake, and move on,” he added.

Brewer is more interested using his blog to prompt a change in the actions of Prince William’s Supervisors as a whole.

County Executive Melissa Peacor has also been the focus of Brewer’s writings. Gainesville District Supervisor Peter Candland earlier this month voiced a no-confidence bid in Peacor following what he called a flawed review of his 2014 flat-tax budget proposal. Brewer, too, has called for Peacor’s ousting.

“The buck always stops with the chief executive, and they are well compensated to take the fall when the interests of the enterprise outweigh the interests of the individual,” said Brewer.

Following Candland’s statement, members of the Prince William Board of Supervisors said they supported Peacor, who serves at the direction of the Board. Overall, Peacor said, the rise in the popularity of bloggers in Prince William County has not prompted a change in the way her office conducts business.

“[County] staff serves the community by carrying out the direction of the majority position of the Board. We always communicate with the Board and serve them in the same capacity regardless of whether there are bloggers or not,” stated Peacor.

Although some have suspected he is, Brewer is not a member of Candland’s budget review committee that submitted a funding proposal for FY2014 to county staff.

Brewer is not alone in his quest to opine about local government. He has sources whom he refers to as “birdies” who sing to him, apparently, from inside the McCoart Government Center in Woodbridge. Many of them, Brewer said, are government employees that don’t like their jobs.

“My blog is the only place they may share their frustrations,” he said.

It’s not only Brewer who writes to get attention; so do those who comment on his work. Brewer’s readers only see only the “tame” comments on his blog because he filters out the really nasty stuff, and there is, according to Brewer, many nasty comments from Prince William County Government employees that he just chooses not to share.

While he doesn’t mind being a sounding board for those employees, Brewer said once the change that he feels is long overdue comes to the McCoart Building, he would be willing to hang up his hat. Until then, Brewer said he feeds the local government’s frenzy to respond to his posts, their paranoia about what he will say next, and the disdain that many county employees have for their employer.

“When they top obsessing and start correcting problems, I’ll go away,” said Brewer.

It’s a promise he offered to put in writing.

News
Alborn: Charitable Giving Shouldn’t be about Political Points

By AL ALBORN
Contributing Editor

I just packed for my flight home from Okinawa, Japan. I’ll be flying through Tokyo and because I have to switch from a Domestic Airport (Hanada) to an International Airport (Nareta), I’ll be spending the night there. As I make sure I haven’t forgotten anything, I am also thinking about the list of “to do’s” when I get home. At the top of that list will be to make some donations to a few of the worthy not for profits in our community (and a couple National and International Organizations). I’ve been luckier than most in life and like to share my modest success in life those who because of chance or circumstance weren’t quite so lucky.

I spend a lot of time thinking about my charitable giving. It’s a very personal decision. My choices reflect my beliefs and personal philosophy. I favor small groups lead by mostly volunteers because I recognize they are driven by a passion to help others. I also look carefully at the percentage of revenue a group devotes to programs versus overhead. Yes, I look at the IRS 990’s, and draw upon my personal experiences.

Prince William County also likes to give my money to not for profits. In theory, I don’t object when I am confident that the recipient is perhaps performing some core service quicker, faster, or cheaper than the government might deliver it. In practice, I lack confidence in Prince William County’s ability to pass out my money for me because the process has become too politicized.

I have reviewed the Prince William County process for determining community partners and consider it a reasonable framework. If the process were allowed to play out without political interference, I frankly wouldn’t object. When I see Supervisors use this process as one more political tool to reward constituents, grab publicity, and protect incumbency I shake my head.

For too long in Prince William County we have watched our tax dollars go to ruthless self promotion, incumbency protection, favored groups, private causes, pet projects and even personal amusements through the Discretionary Fund process. When we noticed, and complained, the Discretionary Fund process went away.

We have already seen Prince William Supervisors use their position to attempt to influence the outcome of which charitable organizations are funded with tax dollars as “community partners.” While that’s their right, a First Amendment right I encourage, I question the fingerprints on those we elect to influence just how our tax dollars are spent on not for profit groups.

The “take away” for me is that perhaps those we elected to sit behind the Dias either don’t trust the community partner evaluation program that they approved or that they don’t think their favorite group will qualify if fairly evaluated.

Pick one.

I’ll admit it, the Beatitudes Jesus shared during the Sermon on the Mount are my life’s compass. He didn’t say, “Look to Rome to feed the hungry”, he was talking to us. Those who would like to pass that obligation on to anonymous bureaucrats perhaps missed the point.

I do the bulk of my charitable giving around Christmas. I put a lot of thought into just which groups I support, and how much I will give to each group.

I am disappointed that perhaps the community partner program might become the next vehicle for our supervisors to use our money and determine how it is spent as one more ruthless publicity, self-promotion, and incumbency protection program.

The process of spending taxpayer money should be objective and driven by the math involved in collecting just enough money to support those things that only Government can do. Not for profits are a valuable tool in delivering Government core services quicker, faster, cheaper.

I remain suspicious of any elected official who attempts to undermine what should be an objective process by directing our tax dollars to their favorite people (and its always about “people”). The price of not being one of those favorite “people” is just unacceptable to me.

I’ll be home “tomorrow” (crossing thirteen time zones and arriving the same day I depart). I’ll be pulling out my checkbook next week to share my modest success with those who perhaps didn’t get the same breaks. I encourage you to do likewise.

Merry Christmas from Japan! It’s time to catch my flight home.

News
Alborn: Telework Better Than Widening Rural Purcell Rd.

By AL ALBORN
Contributing Editor

Memo to the Prince William County Planning Commission,

This evening, you will be discussing the fate of Purcell Road and the Purcell Road Widening Project. While I live in “the neighborhood”, and naturally don’t want to see this local treasure covered with asphalt, I would like to bring a larger issue to your attention.

In 2010, President Obama signed the Telework Enhancement act mandating that all Government Agencies implement and support a strategy allowing Government employees to work at home (thus taking them out of the Transportation system).

As we speak, Congressman Gerry Connolly is working on Telework 2.0, an expansion of Telework legislation broadening its application to Federal Contractors.

The Commonwealth of Virginia has several incentives to encourage businesses to implement telework as well as guidelines for State Agencies.

Virginia Delegates Rich Anderson, Barbara Comstock and David Ramadan hosted the first Northern Virginia Telework Summit to kick of legislative initiatives in this are during the upcoming legislative session.

Commonwealth Transportation Secretary Connaughton identified telework as Strategic in his Report to the Governor and the General Assembly of Virginia (Report DocumentNumber 192, 2011).

The Virginia Department of Transportation is considering Telework and alternative work schedules in its Virginia Transportation Modeling Program.

Prince William County’s latest Strategic Plan lists Telework and alternate work schedules as a strategy for dealing with future transportation requirements I am on the current Strategic Planning Team.

The Prince William Chamber of Commerce has established a Telework Task Force to address how we might help local businesses take their employees off the road. I am the Chairman of this Task Force.

Simply put, technology, diminishing budgets for road construction and maintenance, clogged roads, and frustrated commuters are changing the dynamics around transportation planning. We continue to plan for roads framed in yesterday’s assumption of an ever increasing demand to move cars around instead of recognizing larger forces that may actually reduce traditional transportation requirements in the future.

Perhaps you should “take a breath”, evaluate telework as a technology megatrend, and perhaps consider incorporating taking people off the road in the transportation planning process. Such an action could change everything regarding Northern Virginia’s transportation requirements in the future, and perhaps prevent unnecessarily destroying the rural charm that attracted so many of our residents to Prince William County.

Building more roads follows the old paradigm of moving people to the information they need to do their job. The new paradigm is about moving the information to the people wherever they may be to do their jobs.

This evening, you are going to discuss destroying one of the few remaining “country roads” that help maintain Prince William County’s rural charm and unique character.

While this particular discussion is about Purcell Road, I request that you consider framing this and future discussions over the fate of Prince William County’s few remaining rural byways in the context of what the future will probably look like: successful implementation of Federal mandates, state incentives, and employee desires as more people work from home, telework centers or wherever they please in the future.

I strongly suggest that you defer any discussion of covering what little green space is left in Prince William County, Virginia with asphalt until you request staff adequately evaluate the impact technology, current and future legislation, and the nature of the future workforce on our transportation requirements.

It would be ironic if in twenty or thirty years, your legacy will be to have approved and encouraged paving over Prince William County’s rural charm with asphalt that simply wasn’t needed because of a failure to consider trends in how people will work in the future.

Missing the telework mega trend could be an expensive mistake.

News
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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