Commuters' Vacations to End With a Screeching of Brakes

By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 4, 2007

In the best days of summer, Colin Reed makes it from his Columbia Heights home to Metro Center in about 20 minutes. Today, his drive will take roughly twice that.

Welcome back, Washington. Your traffic vacation is over, and your transportation experts are in metaphorical overdrive.

"It's like the chickens coming home to roost," said John B. Townsend II of AAA Mid-Atlantic.

No, wait. "It will be the sparrows of San Juan Capistrano coming home," he said.

Still, not quite.

"It will be the return of frayed nerves and the anger at our inability to solve the problem," Townsend said. "It is a hydra-headed monster!"

Or, as Reed called it yesterday, "system shock."

AAA estimates that commuter congestion drops 10 to 15 percent in August, when Congress and schools are out of session, many commuters are out of town and people take days off at home that shake up their rush-hour routines.

"The day after Labor Day is known by many as Terrible Tuesday," said Joan Morris, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Transportation. "By that time, all of the schools are back in, and the majority of people are back from their vacations. It just sort of hits all at once."

Students in Northern Virginia head back to class today, joining those in Maryland and the District, who have already returned. In Fairfax County, 1,570 buses will shuttle an estimated 110,000 students to and from school. Loudoun County school officials said 721 buses will be on the road, beginning the first of the more than 8 million miles they are expected to travel this school year. And thousands of parents will converge on schools in their cars.

Add that to the 1.73 million people who drive to work alone, population growth that has outpaced spending on roads and transit, and general post-vacation doldrums, and the region's traffic snarls will resume where they left off before the start of summer. According to census figures for last year, the Washington region's average commute was the second-longest in the United States, at more than 33 minutes each way.

With kids back in school, this might be a good time for some traffic-flow theory.

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