It's 4:15 p.m., and time's a-wastin.' Already the Girl Scouts from Vienna are 15 minutes behind schedule after hitting traffic near Centreville, and trip organizer Nancy Chila is annoyed because she didn't think of putting one of the scouts with another driver so they could have taken the carpool lane. So there goes another 15 minutes.
The group is trying to get to Massanutten in time to snowboard on this Friday, and a glance at the miles of glowing brake lights in front of them on Interstate 66 doesn't reassure. "This is terrible," Chila laments at the rest stop near Manassas where she is meeting other chaperones.
Interstate 66 near Manassas is packed with commuters and weekenders on a Friday afternoon.
(Stephanie K. Kuykendal For The Washington Post)
Video: Washington Post reporter Steven Ginsberg discusses nightmare traffic in the D.C. region and the demise of the local weekend escape.
The girls, who are sitting quietly in the back of the van, watching DVDs and listening to music, have granola bars, chips and juice by their sides. Stopping for dinner is out of the question. The drivers will subsist on Girl Scout cookies.
As it has for so many other Washingtonians, the weekend trip turned into a trek as the scouts found themselves trapped on their way out of town. In a region with the third-worst traffic in the nation, the weekend getaway has gotten away.
The quaint notion of leaving town after work on Friday and getting somewhere with the time and energy to do something, spending two full days on activities and returning Sunday night has virtually disappeared. Traffic has added at least an hour, and often much more, to trips that used to take two to three, added time that is enough to defeat the whole point of a quick, close vacation.
One of the draws of the Washington area always has been its glut of nearby attractions. Within 100 or so miles sit Shenandoah National Park, ski resorts, several beaches, the Chesapeake Bay, Civil War battlefields and a host of other sites.
But unless people take time off from work, getaways now go something like this: Friday night is filled with just trying to get there. By the time people do, they're usually spent, hungry or both and often wonder why they've traveled all this way to pay to sleep in someone else's bed. Saturday is the day when everything must happen -- seeing sights, going out on the town, having a nice dinner, relaxing -- because people either leave early Sunday or spend much of the day fretting about the traffic that often awaits them as they return.
Traffic counts from roads across the region show that many more people drive on Fridays. Nearly 15,000 more cars travel away from the District on Interstate 270 on Fridays than on Tuesdays, according to the Maryland State Highway Administration. That is true in February and July alike.
And there are many more people traveling on Fridays now than in the 1990s: 10,000 more cars were on I-270 on Fridays in 2002, the most recent year available, than in 1998. The numbers were higher on Interstate 95 north in Maryland, where more than 21,000 additional cars traveled on Fridays in the winter of 2002 than in the winter of 1998.
In Virginia, westbound Friday traffic on I-66 last month included 6,000 more cars than did Fridays in February 1998.
Highway lanes are designed to move 2,000 cars an hour, so those figures represent a significant increase in traffic and add at least an hour to drives, said Lon Anderson, spokesman for Mid-Atlantic AAA. "Rush hour starts at 3 o'clock Friday and doesn't let up till 7 or 7:30," he said. "That's the monster we have to work around . . . and it can make weekend getaways not very much fun to get to."
Getting back is no easy matter, either. Many of those same roads back up Sunday evenings when everyone is trying to return. Chila said her scouts and parents skipped the snow Sunday because they feared traffic if they left too late. They had barely made it to Harrisonburg in time to hit the slopes Friday, after what they expected would be a two-hour trip lasted three, she said.
Gary Burns used to head to Charlottesville all the time to visit friends and see football games at his alma mater, the University of Virginia. He'd leave his Capitol Hill job around 5 p.m., hit some traffic and get there around 8 p.m. "That was just in time for things to start happening," he said.
But it started taking longer and longer, even if he took off from work as early as 3 p.m., so his trips became fewer and fewer. After he got married and had a son, Burns said, he gave it up altogether. "I won't even entertain it," he said. "All we're doing is going down there to sleep in a different bed. Instead, we go on Saturday."