Federal workers off, traffic isn’t

Thousands of furloughed federal workers are free to sleep in again this week, but the perpetual nightmare of congested traffic continues to haunt the Washington region.

Traffic on the main roads in and around the District has dropped by 5 percent or less during the morning rush hour, according to traffic analysts. It’s held steady or bumped up slightly at midday, with the only real decline — between 10 and 30 percent — coming during the evening trip home.

“These numbers show that a few furloughed workers are still driving; they are just driving at different times of the day when it’s less crowded,” said Jamie Holter, an analyst at the traffic monitoring firm Inrix. “We’ve certainly seen some speedier commutes, but anyone who was counting on wide-open highways everywhere all day long has been disappointed.”

Holter reviewed daily data from the first week of the partial government shutdown and found a decrease in long-distance commuting to the District, but much of the same traffic buzz inside and around the Capital Beltway.

Ron Kirby, transportation director at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, said people who expected that the shutdown would reduce trafficto the casual pace of a Saturday morning should take a closer look at the regional workforce.

“There’s just a whole lot of people working in this region who are not federal employees. They’re still out there,” he said. “And federal workers are disproportionately higher users of transit. A much smaller percentage of them drive than the region as a whole.”

Encouraged by a federal subsidy of $245 a month that makes taking mass transit virtually free, 32 percent of the region’s federal workers opt to use it. Only 13 percent of private-sector employees use mass transit.

Federal workers also are more prone to car pool, because their hours tend to conform. Kirby’s data show that 10 percent of federal workers drive in together, compared with 6 percent of the region’s private workforce.

“Another thing that happens [in a shutdown] is that car pools tend to break up when one or more members are not going to work,” Kirby said. “So the remaining members go back to driving alone, but they can’t take the HOV lanes, so the main lanes become more congested.”

Holter said that there has been little change in traffic volume on District streets, though it’s lighter on K Street, home to many of Washington’s most influential lobbyists.

“Drivers are zipping along K Street at 20 to 22 miles per hour, which means there’s not a lot of congestion to weigh the traffic down,” Holter said. “This tells us there’s not a lot of activity at those think tanks and lobbying firms.”

Elsewhere in the District, he found that New York Avenue was just a bit less congested than before the shutdown, and 14th Street was slightly less congested during the peak commutes, but just as busy during lunch time.

In Virginia, the inner loop of the Beltway moved a bit faster during the morning rush and significantly faster between 3 and 7 p.m. The peak evening commute is down from 33 minutes to 23 minutes. The outer loop shows little change.

The biggest change came on the 10 miles of Interstate 395 between the Beltway and downtown Washington. The peak 8 a.m. commute was reduced from an average of 35 to 40 minutes to about 15 minutes.

From Centreville to the District on Interstate 66 there was significant time savings during the peak morning and evening commutes — about 15 minutes in the evening and 18 minutes in the morning.

There was little change on Interstate 295 between the Beltway and Interstate 695, except in the afternoon northbound commute, where 11 minutes was shaved off the pre-shutdown average.

There was some change on Interstate 95 between the Beltway and Maryland Route 100, with eight minutes saved during the evening commute. The morning commute showed little change.

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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