News & Features » Miscellany

Part 2

The Longest Day

by

comment
Transportation has become a key issue in the Nov. 2 General Assembly elections, especially in the congested areas of Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. Even some Republicans have challenged Gov. Jim Gilmore's anti-tax approach to solving Virginia's transportation woes. Some Republicans have proposed funding $3.5 billion in transportation projects across the state; Democrats want to spend $710 million. The state's bipartisan Transportation Coordination Council this August said it would take $11 billion to unclog Northern Virginia's roads alone. But there's more to it than just roads. "We all need roads and bridges ... but that is not going to be the total answer," Woodruff of Ridefinders says. "Other areas of the country are strengthening their alternate-mode options and we need to do the same." Car pools and van pools are one way to ease congestion, as are trains and buses. Currently, the only direct mass-transit option Richmond-to-Washington commuters have is Amtrak, and at $48 to $60 for a two hour and 10 minute round-trip, few can afford either the money or the time. With construction at the Springfield "mixing bowl" interchange, one of the busiest on the East Coast where Interstates 95, 395 and 495 merge, Woodruff says the Northern Virginia commuter situation is "going to get much more dire." The $350 million project is expected to take up to eight years, and although there will be no lane closures during rush hour, the numerous cranes and piles of rubble already dotting the roadside are ominous signs of gridlock to come. With 370,000 cars passing through the interchange daily, there's bound to be trouble. One solution for Richmond-to-Washington commuters may be Virginia Railway Express, the Northern Virginia commuter train which now runs from Fredericksburg. Matt Benka, a spokesman for VRE, says that within a year, VRE could be running trains out of the Staples Mill Amtrak station in Richmond. Based on current statistics for daily Richmond-area commuters riding VRE and Amtrak into Washington, Benka says VRE expects to carry 250-300 Richmond passengers into Northern Virginia every day. A faster option would be the high-speed rail proposed for the Richmond-Washington corridor. Bevon, director of the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, says if all goes well, the system could be implemented by 2006. While the high-speed train is mostly designed for business travelers who have a meeting in Washington and day-trippers, it could also be a boon to long-distance commuters "We have a great debate going on in the state about growth control," Bevon says. "People who live in urbanized areas want to end sprawl because they say it is a bad thing because it causes people to drive more. But not everyone wants to live in the traditional situations that cities foster. There is a conflict between people who want a more villagelike place to live." Ostensibly, with high-speed rail, those people could live as far away from Washington as Richmond and still get to work in a stress-free 90 minutes. "I don't think people will move to Richmond from Northern Virginia to ride VRE, but I think there is a greater likelihood that people who switch jobs from Richmond to D.C. may more likely stay [in Richmond] if they had this train," says VRE's Benka, a former Richmonder who now lives in Northern Virginia. "The first day that we have service from Richmond, I'm moving back to Richmond." [image-1]Photo by Stephen SalpukasAfter the hour-and-a-half van ride from Richmond, Thomas Branch hops on the Metro at Union Station. "Since it's only four stops I don't even waste time sitting," he says.It's 7:33 a.m. and Thomas Branch is clocking 74 mph as he eases the van into the HOV lane at Dumfries. The van is silent and Branch tips his coffee mug to his lips from time to time in flagrant violation of Van Pool Rule No. 1: No drinking. "This is a dry van," Ford explains. "That means no drinks. We've been stranded for five hours before in an ice storm." But as the van pool captain, and its most frequent driver, nobody is going to begrudge Branch his shot of caffeinated sugar, especially when it helps them get to work faster. Branch began his job with the National Postal Mail Handlers Union in 1994. For the first three years he tried the half-commute. "I spent a lot of time over the phone calling back home," he remembers. "I would try to help with homework over the phone ... I would referee arguments between siblings over the phone ... and I was working longer hours because I had nothing to do." About two years ago he realized that if he didn't make a change, he would miss out on some of the most important years in his kids' lives, now 13 and 18. But he wasn't about to move his entire family to Northern Virginia. First of all, houses in Northern Virginia are too expensive. Plus, Branch's Chesterfield County home was built on land his grandmother gave him — he never wants to sell it. Add to that his church, which is in Richmond, and Chesterfield County's highly regarded public schools, and Branch could think of only one option: the daily commute. Surprisingly, Branch has found that his life is less stressful since he became a daily road warrior. "What the commute has allowed me to do is to slow down a little bit in a sense," he says. "There's nowhere you can go, you're sitting on the van. You have the choice of either talking, sleeping or reading." On days when he isn't driving, he usually reads the Bible. He hasn't really looked for a job in Richmond because he likes his job in Washington. He is responsible for negotiating and interpreting the labor agreements for about 65,000 postal employees nationwide. The rewards of his job, he says, make the commute worthwhile. Perhaps that's why he's able to remain so calm as traffic comes to a complete stop at 7:50 a.m. outside the Pentagon, the Capitol dome visible in the distance. The sudden change in motion seems to serve as an alarm for the sleepy van poolers, who begin to shake off their early-morning nap as soon as Branch applies the brakes — everyone but computer consultant Ray Burton, who snores obliviously, his head bobbing against his chest, his mouth wide open. The women open their purses and remove makeup bags. Compacts click open as lipstick is applied and foreheads are powdered. Sleep-mussed hair is trained into place. Twentysomething Kristie Lockhart expertly applies three layers of lipstick and mascara, transforming herself from a sleepy little girl into a working woman. As Branch maneuvers the van off the exit for 395 North and through a tunnel glowing with red brake lights, the air seems to tense with anticipation. Will we make it to work on time? At First Street, at 8:10 a.m., Branch pulls the van to the curb and John McDowell and Robert Floren of the Department of Labor jump out of the van almost before it comes to a stop. Everyone else puts on their coats, gathers their bags in their laps, and anxiously awaits their arrival at Union Station, where Branch unloads passengers at the front door before pulling the van into a parking space in the bus lot. As soon as he's out of the van, Branch picks up the purposeful pace of a seasoned city dweller as he heads through the garage into Union Station and down the escalator to the Metro. He waits on the train platform for less than 30 seconds before the train arrives at 8:27 a.m. "Since it's only four stops, I don't even waste time sitting," he says as the train begins to move and he grabs a pole for balance. At 8:35 p.m. Branch pushes through the turnstile at Farragut North station and in less than a minute, without having to step outside, he is on the elevator headed to his office where he settles in behind his desk at the National Postal Mail Handlers Union ready to take on whatever comes his way. It is 8:46 a.m. and he's early. Work technically starts at 9 a.m. [image-2]Photo by Stephen SalpukasAs the van approaches Washington, Kristie Lockhart awakes from a deep sleep to transform herself into a big-city working woman.Although state and local transportation officials know of no official report studying long-distance commuting, they say anecdotal evidence shows that it is a growing trend. Charlene "Gus" Robey, who manages rideshare, transportation demand management and marketing programs for the state Department of Rail and Public Transportation, believes that a rising number of long-distance commuters is "a part of the growth in traffic we see going north in the morning hours." According to Robey, the strong economy makes it necessary for employers in the Washington area to recruit employees from farther away. Because salaries are substantially higher in Northern Virginia, people are more willing to put up with a long commute to cash a larger paycheck. An increase in dual-income households means that it is often difficult for both halves of a professional couple to find good jobs in the same city, often forcing one to commute a long distance. Also, Virginia's HOV lanes, which were created in 1969, make the commute faster and easier for people who ride in car pools and van pools. Improved automobile technology with cars that routinely run 100,000 miles with little maintenance, and sophisticated interstate highway systems have also made long-distance commuting a feasible option. And people aren't just commuting from Richmond to Washington. Many travel from the Tidewater area into Richmond every day. Ridefinders' Woodruff says she knows of numerous people who commute from Virginia Beach to Washington every day, cutting through Richmond to hook up with car and van pools. "I live four miles from work and I can't imagine doing this," Woodruff says, "it's a whole different lifestyle. But these are real people and they make it work for them. They all have different stories to tell." [image-3]Photo by Stephen SalpukasOn some mornings the van pool resembles a moving 14-passenger bed, with commuters sacked out and bundled up in coats and blankets.It's 5:10 p.m. and van-pooler John McDowell is rocking back and forth on the heels of his white high-tops as he waits on the sidewalk at the traffic circle in front of Union Station. "Every minute counts," he says, bobbing back and forth. "Every minute counts. I get hyper when people are late." He's the first to arrive at the pickup point for the van pool and he's eager to get home. Has he ever considered moving to Northern Virginia? "No, I can't afford it," he says. "The house I would want would cost $300,000 for the same little house I got down in Prince George. It's too expensive to live up here." It turns out McDowell has nothing to worry about. Van Pool Rule No. 2: The van leaves Washington at 5:30 p.m. sharp. Ray Burton found out the hard way when he missed the van on his first day of van pooling in June 1998. "I was hoping they would wait being it was my first day, but I knew they were pretty strict," he says, explaining how the walk from his Crystal City office to the Metro turned out to be longer than he expected. "I got there about 5:40. I was late enough to miss the first train back to Richmond and couldn't leave until after 8 [p.m.]." The ride home is considerably more animated than the sleepy ride to work. Deborah Austin passes around a candy catalog for her 12-year-old daughter's school fund-raiser. The riders gossip, and laugh, their personalities shining through. "Every single van pool is a culture in itself," Woodruff says. And she's right. Branch's van pool is a moving microcosm, encompassing nearly every personality type. There's Burton, the loquacious one. Branch, the organizer. Ford, the mother hen. Bethena Smith, the sweetly gullible new rider and butt of many van-pool jokes. Kristie Lockhart, the silent rider. Keith Harper, the cool guy. Connie Hill, the funny one, who clears her throat to sing a seemingly endless song about the van pool to the tune of the "Camp Granada" song: Here's a song about a van pool
And its travels, back and forth to
That great center of our nation
when we get there we all go to Union Station. Every day we're on the highway
Starting Monday, straight through Friday
Yes, we travel, rain or sunny
Motivated by the need to make some money
Later, when Hill asks Harper just exactly what is in the huge bag he totes to work every day, mother hen Ford interrupts. "Be careful Keith — she's looking for material for her song!" The whole van howls as Harper, an FCC engineer, details the contents of his bag: a large box of cereal and milk for breakfast; 2 liters of water for his coffee and to drink; his lunch; "assorted fruits" for snacks on the way home. Harper laughs right along as detailed questions are asked about his cereal intake. According to Robey of VDRPT, who has studied commuters who use alternate transportation along with those who drive themselves, one thing has stuck out: "People who use alternate transportation are much less uptight than those who don't. Van-poolers and bus riders are more positive, more relaxed, and less intense, she says. "I sometimes wonder if the people who rideshare don't tend to be more social individuals." Even though Branch's roster is constantly changing — he currently has a waiting list of 12 people who want to ride the van — a special kind of camaraderie is forged between these riders. When a new rider like Smith joins the pool, the veteran riders can commiserate with her difficulty of adjusting to the new commuter lifestyle. And today, when the riders learn that she is nearing the end of her stint on the van because her expected transfer from the Pentagon uniform shop to the Fort Lee PX has finally come through, there is genuine excitement, and disappointment. "I'm going to miss you guys," Smith says sadly. "We'll miss you too," says Hill, suddenly serious as she pats Smith on the hand. Like all of the van's passengers, Hill would prefer to work in Richmond but her career does not allow it. The former head of the geology department at Virginia State University, Hill lost her job two years ago when the school got rid of the department. There aren't many job opportunities for people with doctorate degrees in urban environmental studies in Richmond, so Hill settled on a job with the Federal Highway Administration. "For most of us the preference is to be in Richmond," she says, "but unfortunately the job market does not allow it." So she rides the van, and makes the best of it. As the van pulls off I-95 at Parham Road, she entertains with her spot-on impression of Ethel Merman singing Motown. When the van heads down Brook Road toward Staples Mill, coats go back on and belongings are once again gathered in laps. Conversation comes to a halt as the van-poolers seem to mentally prepare for home life. At 7 p.m., one hour and 30 minutes after leaving Union Station, the van pulls into the commuter lot at Glenside Drive. McDowell leaps from the passenger seat and dashes from the van to his car, making every second count. The other passengers follow close behind. They have to get home, eat dinner, get to bed early, get up and start the process all over again. The van leaves the lot tomorrow at 6:30 a.m. Jump to Part 1, 2

Add a comment