Area's Worst Bottlenecks Pinpointed

By Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 16, 2006

Drivers whose commutes take them through the most congested routes in the Washington area have plenty of idle time to think.

Joe Ockershausen ponders where to stop for dinner because he knows he will get home too late to ask his wife to prepare a meal. Ockershausen does his thinking when he is crawling along northbound Interstate 395 near the Pentagon trying to get from his job in Rosslyn to his home in La Plata.

When Jan Willis is snarled in the same bottleneck as she heads home from Arlington to Solomons Island, she dreams of retiring early so she can chuck the 55-mile commute.

Then there are people such as Karl Schulze of Silver Spring, who takes a preemptive approach by working late and running errands near his job in Reston so he can delay driving on the Capital Beltway between I-270 and Connecticut Avenue at the tail end of rush hour.

"I'll do anything that will allow me to spend time getting something useful done in Virginia before trying to get on the Beltway," Schulze said. "I try to avoid it as much as possible."

A report released yesterday confirmed what anyone who has driven in rush hour traffic knows intuitively: Commutes between Virginia and Maryland are among the worst in the region.

The study, done for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, concluded that two stretches of freeway tied for the dubious honor of most traffic-choked in the region. One is from 4 to 4:30 p.m. on the inner loop of the Beltway between I-270 and Connecticut Avenue; the other is from 5 to 6 p.m. on I-395 between Route 110 and the George Washington Memorial Parkway.

Each has a traffic density of 130 cars per mile in each lane, causing traffic to chug along at 5 to 10 mph.

Those ensnarled in it beg to differ. They say it goes even slower.

Ockershausen reported the conditions from the scene last night and said he wasn't moving. "It's gridlocked all the way across the bridge," he said, speaking on his cell phone. "I guess I'll listen to the radio. It's the only choice I have."

He awakes at 4 a.m. to come to work and often waits until after 7 p.m. to leave so he can miss the heaviest traffic. His 48-mile commute typically takes two hours or more, and he gets home so late, he usually heads straight to bed.

That portion of I-395 is the nexus of an automotive convergence in the evening because so many workers are leaving the Pentagon, the Naval Annex and offices in Crystal City at the same time, all merging into three lanes of traffic.

Angie Love can make the five-mile commute from Arlington to her home on Capitol Hill in only seven or eight minutes without traffic. Rush hour can make it take more than an hour.

"If I leave anytime between 4 and 6, I'm in an hour to an hour and a half of traffic," she said. "If there's any sort of accident, forget about it."

It has grown worse, she has come to realize.

"Four years ago, sitting in traffic for 45 minutes infuriated me," she said, wistfully harking back to those days.

Jennifer Jewett can get from her job in Gaithersburg to Silver Spring in 20 minutes -- or more than an hour. She has scores of alternative routes plotted out. But they can be just as bad.

"Everybody else knows those routes as well," said Jewett, an administrator for a food service company. "So I might as well stay on the Beltway. I moved here from Ohio, and it took me a full year to adjust to where I could tolerate it. You can't live in Washington if you can't deal with it."

Staff writer Steven Ginsberg contributed to this report.

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