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Ramsey to Find New Sites for 'Slug Lines'

By Jacqueline L. Salmon
and Cheryl W. Thompson

Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, July 23, 1998; Page D01

District Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey yesterday vowed to come up with new sites where Northern Virginia commuters can meet to form afternoon car pools without clogging the city's already congested southbound routes, but he quickly learned that it won't be easy.

Ramsey, under fire from Virginia lawmakers and commuters who say his officers repeatedly harass drivers who stop near 14th Street and Constitution Avenue NW and several other downtown spots to pick up car-poolers, yesterday offered a list of alternative pickup spots on supposedly less-congested streets.

But Ramsey quickly discarded the list after Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) said that putting car-pool stops at the new sites would only inconvenience car-poolers and create new traffic tie-ups on Pennsylvania Avenue NW and E Street NW and in the L'Enfant Plaza area.

Ramsey "needs to show that he can find [sites that are] more reasonable and convenient," said Moran, adding that Ramsey's plan would undermine an informal car-pooling system that moves an estimated 1,000 Northern Virginians into and out of the city each weekday.

Moran, a member of the House Appropriations subcommittee on the District, threatened to insert language into the city's budget bill that would formally recognize 14th Street as a pickup site unless Ramsey comes up with a solution -- and orders his officers to stop hindering car pools by ticketing or waving off drivers trying to pick up riders.

The existing pickup sites include 14th Street NW just south of Constitution; 19th Street NW between E and F streets; and Seventh and D streets SW, near L'Enfant Plaza.

"I think the burden of proof should be on him," Moran said, "because the current sites work perfectly well."

But Ramsey said his department has received complaints from other afternoon rush-hour motorists who say that car-pool drivers tie up traffic when they pull over to pick up passengers in no-parking and no-standing zones.

"Some of them stopped and would stand and wait for people to come out of buildings, and you get a tremendous traffic jam," Ramsey said. "All we're trying to do is get people in and out of the city as quickly as possible."

The chief, who discussed the problem with Moran yesterday, added that "we're looking for suitable [pickup] locations" that would not hinder southbound traffic. "We believe in car-pooling, but let's do it without restricting traffic." Moran, Ramsey said, is "concerned about it, and we're going to work together to find a solution."

Ramsey's conciliatory remarks came after a tense couple of days in which a years-long conflict resurfaced between D.C. police and suburban commuters who form impromptu car pools in a system that transportation analysts have praised as a national model.

It began Monday, when D.C. officers prevented southbound motorists from picking up riders along 14th Street just south of Constitution.

Moran said he received several calls from Springfield area constituents who complained that D.C. police frequently ticket or wave away drivers trying to pick up enough riders to head home in Shirley Highway's less-congested car-pool lanes. Cars using the lanes during the morning and evening rush hours must carry at least three people.

Under an informal car-pool system that has been in place in Northern Virginia for about two decades, commuters stand in what are known as "slug lines" to hitch rides from several points in the suburbs each morning. They return home by lining up to catch rides at several downtown locations, as well as at the Pentagon.

As Moran and several commuters interviewed yesterday proudly pointed out, it's a system that, without government regulation or funding, has become a significant mover of people on the Washington area's increasingly congested roadways.

Yesterday, some commuters in the 14th Street slug line turned thumbs-down on the idea of D.C. police designating new pickup sites, saying that the District is meddling unnecessarily with a system that has worked well for years.

"This is the beginning of the end of the slug line," said Scott Cook, 41, of Burke, who said he has been hitching rides from slug lines for two years. "Once they start to regulate and control it, it dies."

David A. Rutherford, a Republican member of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors who said he occasionally used slug lines during the 20 years he worked downtown at the Labor Department, said that "there is something about the idea of slugging that grates on bureaucracy. It works marvelously. . . . It's wonderful."

For his part, Moran acknowledged that he appears to be trying to micromanage the District's affairs.

"On the other hand," he said, "why did the police try to interfere with a system that's been working successfully for 20 years, and has carried 1,000 commuters successfully out of the city in an efficient way?"

Moran added that he thinks Ramsey, who has been the District's chief only a few months, is "trying to do the right thing," but that he should focus on trying to designate pickup sites close to the current ones.

Sam Snyder, 51, of Burke, who has been slugging to his job at the U.S. Customs Office for eight years, said he would reluctantly move to a pickup site farther from his office, "but if it meant the difference of the system surviving or going by the wayside, I would accept" it.

Veteran slug-liners say they've been down this road before. In 1987, the District proposed moving the 14th Street slug line and began issuing tickets to drivers who stopped there to pick up riders. Slug-liners say the ticketing has continued, off and on, since then.

"They've tried [to move the slug line] every year; it always comes back," said Steve Thatcher, 44, of Burke, who said he has been hitching rides for eight years. "Unless they enforce it for days at a time, it won't go away."

Staff writer Erica Beshears contributed to this report.

Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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