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December Detour

At Tysons Corner, the nation's fifth-largest retail center combines with its 15th-largest office market. One result: profound traffic jams.
At Tysons Corner, the nation's fifth-largest retail center combines with its 15th-largest office market. One result: profound traffic jams. (Tracy A Woodward - Twp)
By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 18, 2006

For 11 months of the year, the K Street office of the Beers & Cutler accounting firm sits largely empty, except for the occasional client meeting or conference call. Employees prefer working at -- and parking free near -- the company's headquarters at Tysons Corner.

But come December, that pattern flips. As the roads around Tysons Corner's huge malls become clogged with the gift-packed SUVs of seasonal shoppers, driving in the bumper-to-bumper District seems like a comparative walk in the park. So the downtown office starts to fill up.

"It really comes in handy during the holidays," said Sam Bergman, Beers & Cutler's manager of marketing and business development, who commutes from Severna Park. "It's a good stopping point for me."

Any given rush hour in this busy corridor of Northern Virginia is a frustrating race against traffic lights and jam-packed intersections. But as Christmas approaches, the chaos enters another dimension. In Tysons Corner, where the nation's fifth-largest retail center collides with the 15th-largest office market, roads become a battleground: workers vs. shoppers.

With some creativity and a little help from sympathetic employers and local traffic-signal operators, nine-to-fivers in the area have strengthened their campaign against the shopping-induced traffic jams.

More than 110,000 people work in Tysons Corner -- about six times the number who live there. Four main roads connect 26 million square feet of office space to about 4 million square feet of retail stores. At the intersection of Chain Bridge Road and International Drive -- a key junction between the area's two shopping malls -- vehicle volume increased by 6 percent during the first week of December, according to the Virginia Department of Transportation. Based on sales at Tysons Corner Center, the number of shoppers increases by 20 percent during December.

Each year, starting two weeks before Thanksgiving, VDOT changes the timing of 45 traffic signals in Tysons Corner to ease congestion during evening rush hours and weekends.

But Nancy Zhang didn't notice an improvement as she sat in her car at the corner of Leesburg Pike and International Drive on a recent evening. After three signal rotations, she had moved only 20 feet. She hadn't even passed the building where she works.

"The sun was out when I left my office, and now it's dark," she told a reporter from her motionless car. She pointed toward the ramp heading to the Capital Beltway. A road sign told her she had another quarter-mile to go. "It will take another 20 minutes to get there, I guarantee it."

Several companies have taken measures to make the season more bearable. Brandywine Realty Trust, for example, hired an off-duty police officer to direct traffic outside its building on International Drive. Besides encouraging the use of its downtown office, Beers & Cutler urges its 270 employees to rearrange their schedules around peak traffic times.

Gail Mikesell, an administrative assistant at the firm, now comes in at 7:30 every morning and leaves at 4:30 p.m. -- just in time to dodge the heaviest traffic.

"I get here in 20 minutes," she said. "Otherwise, it would take me about an hour just to get to the [Dulles] toll road -- only three miles down the street."

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