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Slug-Lines.com - Slugging and Slug Lines Information For Washington DC
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Slug-Lines.com - Slugging and Slug Lines Information For Washington DC
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Each Weekday Morning They Converge...

Northern Virginia Journal staff writer
Sunday, 17 Aug 03

Each weekday morning they converge onto commuter and mall parking lots, some toting briefcases and backpacks, some in freshly pressed military uniforms and others wearing a shirt and tie. Occasionally turning up before dawn, thousands assemble in quiet, tidy single-file lines waiting for free rides to work from complete strangers who may be going their way. There is no supervisor or dispatcher corralling the commuters. No dollars and usually very few words are ever exchanged. They are the ``slugs." For nearly 30 years commuters have successfully bucked the traffic problems through this blend of hitchhiking and carpooling where solo drivers head to predetermined spots, pick-up a few ``slugs" and whisk onto the high-occupancy vehicle lanes, where commuting times are often cut by more than half during rush hours. You could say it's simply blind faith or you could even call them crazy. But they are getting to work and back home faster of most of us _ so maybe we should call them ingenious. ``When I first heard about it I was a little freaked out," said Erica Espinoza, 24, who has slugged from North Stafford County to Crystal City and back every day since May 2001. ``The idea of standing in some line and getting into a stranger's car and trust them enough to take me 50 miles and drop me off where I want to be seemed so far-fetched. ``I had a friend do it with me the first few times and quickly realized it was really nothing to worry about at all." David LeBlanc, who wrote a book about the phenomenon and runs the premier ``slugging" Web site, www.slug-lines.com, said the whole regional system with more than 30 ``lines" perpetuates and maintains itself. ``It's grass-roots people solving a problem," said LeBlanc, a U.S. Army lieutenant colonel who said he saves about $10 a day in public transportation costs by slugging from Woodbridge to the Pentagon. ``It's a well fine-tuned machine that moves thousands of people daily. And what's great is nobody is in charge and that's absolutely amazing. ``There is no government overhead, there's not some bureaucracy that runs it, controls it or directs it. It's just the will of the people." How it works Red Ta, 24, strolls across Old Keene Mill Road in Springfield into a church parking lot just a few hundred yards from Interstate 95. Behind him, a dozen or so other people assemble. A few minutes later, a older man in a baby blue Crown Victoria pulls up to the line and simply says,``L'Enfant Plaza?," and without saying a word Ta and a young woman hop in and are whisked away. Ta, who parked his sport utility vehicle across the street from the slug lot, will later that afternoon stand in another line not far from his building and be returned. All free of charge and an hour faster in each direction than if he drove himself. ``Parking costs about $15 a day at my building and I can't afford that," Ta said. ``I used public transportation before _ Virginia Railway Express, bus, the Metro _ but even that starts to get expensive. ``I pay for gas to and from my apartment to the parking lot, which is nothing because I only live a few minutes away. I figure I save almost $4,000 by slugging and it's so much faster than driving myself or public transportation." The efficiency of the system is what baffles most first-time users. A driver pulls up to the front of the slug line and tells the ``head slug" his or her destination. If that is the head slug's destination, he or she gets in the car. If not, the driver moves down the line until he finds someone heading his way. The process often takes just minutes, sometimes even seconds. In case the slug traffic is sluggish, most lines are located near other forms of public transportation, giving slugs the schedule flexibility a carpool might not allow. ``I hate carpools because it ties you to a certain time or certain place," LeBlanc said. ``If I have to work late I feel guilty or if I want to leave early I feel guilty. Slugging solves that problem and all those issues." Why here? Slugging originated in the late 1970s outside a Bob's Big Boy restaurant parking lot in Springfield when a carpool needed another passenger to access the state's then recently built HOV lanes, LeBlanc said. Soon commuters would head to the slug line in favor of the bus. Public bus drivers, apparently frustrated with the practice, referred to them as ``counterfeit commuters _ like fake coins," LeBlanc said. The slug name stuck. Although there has never been an official study of slugging, an estimated10,000 commuters in Northern Virginia go to and from work this way. LeBlanc said he estimates about 800,000 people use the system at least once a year. While commuters in other cities _ like Houston and Oakland, Calif., _ have some form of slugging, nothing comes close to the Washington, D.C. system along I-95. Two reasons for the success of the system along I-95 is the three-person requirement and having the HOV lanes separate from the normal lanes. That lack of separation is one of the main reasons why slug lines have failed in Maryland and along the Interstate 66 corridor, LeBlanc and Morris said. ``The HOV lanes are most successful when you have separated barriers because the enforcement is easier," Morris said. ``It's easier because you don't have the weaving in and out. ``I don't think the slug lines will ever work on I-66." LeBlanc said his Web site has tried to promote slug lines from Manassas, Fairfax and points west along I-66 but they have never really maintained themselves. But a Herndon line has had some recent success, which could be a huge break for commuters along the highway. ``If we can break into that area, it would be real significant," LeBlanc said. ``But without the barriers it's so easy to violate that HOV lane. ``People can pull over there for 100 yards or 2 miles and pull right back and police can't enforce it very well." Safety and manners Among the reasons many people are hesitant to slug is the question of safety. Getting into a car with a complete stranger does fly in the face of everything we were taught by our parents and teachers. Yet LeBlanc said his and other Web sites, along with continued positive word-of-mouth, are making the system more inviting. ``There wasn't any information out there," LeBlanc said. ``It was strictly word-of-mouth. It was like one these hush-hush type of things. No one in the governmental sector would tell you anything about it." LeBlanc said even he was hesitant at first. ``I thought it was crazy," LeBlanc said. ``I wasn't going to hop in the car with some stranger. The security issue always surfaces, but there isn't any record of any violent crimes _ nothing. Lisa Blanchard, 42, said her family thought she was indeed crazy when she told them about slugging. ``It was a real eye-opener for them," said Blanchard, a former school teacher who now commutes from Dumfries to Falls Church, dropping off slugs at the Pentagon along her way in order to access the HOV lanes. ``I always laugh because my mother was like `You're doing what? You're picking up strangers. I thought we taught you better than that.'" LeBlanc said that reaction is typical but quickly fades when slugging family members leave a little later in the morning and come home earlier at night. ``But it didn't take long when I moved here and went to the commuter lot parked the car and waited for the bus and waited and waited. I saw all these people lined up across the lot leaving boom, boom, boom into other people's cars. ``After you pay to get to work slower and even have to wait to pay, it all the sudden became a little more attractive," he said, ``and once you try it and break through that mental issue of getting into a car with someone you don't know, you realize it's nothing but a bunch of professional people trying to get to work and get home." Blanchard said she'll never stop picking up slugs. ``It's really saved my sanity as a driver," Blanchard said. ``I can't lose out on a lot of my life by spending hours and hours on crowded roads. This has been amazing for me." Blanchard said her commute, which would usually take more than an hour to nearly two hours on bad days, has been cut to 40 minutes per trip, even with dropping off the slugs at the Pentagon. Will Dossel, a 46-year-old U.S. Navy captain who drives slugs to the Pentagon from Woodbridge, said the Web site and word of mouth also keeps people's driving and behavior in check. ``There is a great deal of trust involved, but as time and experience have shown, the informal communication network that supports the system is excellent at spotlighting `problem' slugs and drivers," Dossel said. Dossel said he has come to recognize a few slugs over time, but as nothing more than a passing acquaintance. He said this is another reason the system is so successful, there is no pressure to make friends or communicate if you don't want to. ``I think that at the end of a long day, everyone is more content to sit back, rest and relax on the ride home," Dossel said. ``More often than not I'll find them nodding off shortly after we get in the HOV lanes." Dossel said he was impressed by the politeness of most slugs. ``Some aspects of chivalry are still alive as well," Dossel said. ``I've seen where men have passed up a ride if it meant leaving a female rider alone at the stop, especially late in the evening towards the end of the HOV time." Espinoza said she stopped worrying about slugging after her first few trips. ``A lot of it is based off common courtesy and the fact that you are scratching each other's back," Espinoza said. ``Common courtesy goes both ways and people tend to have the mindset if you do something for me I'll do something for you, and soon everyone's happy." Woodbridge resident Steve Wichowski, 32, said it's not the people who are occasionally frightening, but their driving. ``I had a guy and his wife pick me up in D.C. and when we got by the Pentagon he started checking voice mail on two different phones and was weaving all over the road and the median," Wichowski said. ``I was going crazy holding on for dear life making sure my seat belt was secure. I was glad when that ride was over." Hands off Early last September, Gov. Mark R. Warner was kicking off his campaign for the regional sales tax referendum when he, along with a throng of politicians, activists and media, decided to greet commuters at the Horner Road commuter lot in Woodbridge. The massive lot _ which now boasts nearly 2,200 spaces after a $3.2 million expansion project _ is considered the second largest slugging center next to the Pentagon. The lots usually efficient slug lines were thrown into confusion as Warner, closely followed by his entourage and opponents, tried to meet-and-greet with the slugs. ``I understand they have to get their point across, but this isn't the place," one woman said. ``I'm just trying to get to work." State and local transportation officials said the scene that fall morning is symbolic of why government intends to keep their hands off the highly successful slug system. ``It's a system that has worked wonderfully on the I-95 corridor for, if you can believe it, nearly 30 years," said Joan Morris, a Virginia Department of Transportation spokeswoman. ``And it's no thanks to any government agency and you can quote me on that." ``We cannot sanction it or promote slugging for liability reasons," Morris added. ``But it's not something we discourage." While VDOT cannot sanction the system, it is not ignoring it either. Park and Ride lots built over the last couple years are designed with the slugs in mind, giving them a place to line up, Morris said. VDOT has added more than 5,000 parking spaces in commuter lots along the I-95 corridor in the past four years; many, Morris said, are for slugs. Morris said HOV usage has shot up 48 percent in the past 3 years, and she said much of the credit goes to the slugs. LeBlanc said he would like to see government participate in some fashion in the slug lines. ``If we encourage people to take the bus and get out of their car then they might make the switch to slugging," LeBlanc said. ``I'm trying to convince them that we're not competing against them. It all kind of works together." LeBlanc finds the hesitancy of government to promote the system somewhat confusing. ``Slugging is exactly what they were hoping to achieve when they built the HOV lanes," LeBlanc said. ``What's strange is the state and federal governments draw a distinction between three people in a car where everybody might know each other's first name and three people in a car who don't know each other's first names. ``For some reason, it's `we can support carpooling but we can't support three people in a car who don't know each other very well.' It doesn't make any sense."

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