By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 16, 2008
John Van Vliet commutes from Harpers Ferry, W.Va., to Alexandria every day. And almost every day he stops at Dulles International Airport, not to catch a flight, but to buy a 99 cent cup of coffee at the sole gas station on airport property. He makes sure to get a receipt.
That receipt, according to Van Vliet, allows him to drive on the nearly traffic-free Dulles Access Road, avoiding the tolls and traffic of the parallel Dulles Toll Road. It shaves about 50 minutes off his morning commute.
"It's legal if you do business with the airport," Van Vliet said with a smile. "I have my receipt with me."
Van Vliet is taking advantage of a loophole that allows drivers on airport business to use the access road, which was designed to funnel airport passengers to the airport from the Capital Beltway. Since there is no official definition of "airport business," Van Vliet and hundreds of others drive their vehicles through the giant loophole every day.
In the traffic-clogged Washington area, every commuter is looking for an edge in the daily battle to get to work and home. The tips are passed across the dinner table and over cubicle walls. It could be a secret shortcut, using inflatable dolls to get around high-occupancy vehicle restrictions or stretching the definition of airport business.
"It's like commuter science," said Danielle Delgado, who uses the Dulles shortcut about three times a week. It saves her about 40 minutes in her commute from Purcellville to Old Town Alexandria. "You're thinking on the fly when you're hitting the gas," she said while stopping off at the airport one recent morning for a cup of coffee, a snack and a trip on the access road.
Because drivers on airport business are also allowed to use Interstate 66 during HOV-only hours, the loophole allows single drivers an easy ride into the District or out to the airport 35 miles away. During rush hours, only vehicles with two or more passengers are allowed to use I-66 inside the Beltway.
Although drivers have been using the airport loophole for years, airport police say the increasing number of long-distance commuters, the explosion of residential growth beyond the airport and worsening traffic on the Dulles Toll Road, which opened in 1984, have made the detour more attractive.
Police say they have even found Reston residents cutting through the airport, meaning the time savings is such that it makes sense to travel west to the airport to ride east on the access road.
The problem with what police call "backtrackers," a generic term that includes all commuters who cut through the airport, is likely to get worse when the Dulles Toll Road raises its rates to help pay for the planned Metrorail extension to the airport.
State Transportation Secretary Pierce R. Homer said backtracking is just one result of too many cars on too few roads. It is also a testament to the craftiness of drivers.
"The Washington area commuter is by far the most ingenious," Homer said. "They use loopholes, inflatable dolls . . . they get into cars with complete strangers and go west to go east. They do what they have to do to survive."
Commuters have a variety of ways of proving they have conducted airport business. Some drivers top off their tanks at the Exxon, others buy a newspaper at the convenience store or a muffin at the airport Marriott's gift shop. And always, they save their dated receipt as proof in case they are pulled over by police.
"They spend 26 cents and they ask for a receipt. I don't know why," said Tigi Zewdie, a cashier at the On the Run convenience store attached to the Exxon.
Another popular stratagem is to rent a post office box at the small airport post office in the back of an office building. The keys are guarded like a get-out-of-ticket-free card. Others commute daily with a FedEx box, police say, ready to tell officers that they were at the airport picking up a package.
On a typical day, by 7 a.m. the Exxon station on the airport grounds is rocking with business. All the pumps are in use and lines in the convenience store are often six or seven people deep. It is a strange scene, because the station is on a small road in an industrial part of the airport. And gas stations on airport grounds, near car rental return areas, are hardly known for cheap prices.
"The question is: Do you want to sit or keep moving?" said Jim Kennedy, who commutes from Leesburg to a sports club in Tysons Corner and stops at the airport for a cup of coffee to use the access road. "I can't be late."
Although airport officials do not seem overly concerned about backtrackers, airport police occasionally conduct stings in which they use borrowed rental cars to follow drivers through the airport. If drivers don't stop and continue onto the access road, they are stopped and ticketed. (So as not to scare people concerned about police impersonators, officers do not attempt to pull people over using the rental cars or minivans. The undercover officers radio the backtracker's plate and vehicle description to officers in marked police cruisers.) These operations usually nab about 70 to 90 violators a month. Tickets come with a $40 fine and three points on a driver's license. Ticket revenue goes to Fairfax or Loudoun county, not the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.
"If they are not stopping, they are not there on airport business," said airports authority Police Chief Stephen L. Holl.
Van Vliet said that several co-workers use the airport cut-through and will notify each other by text message or e-mail if there is an enforcement action underway. If so, he makes doubly sure to stop for his coffee.
Despite the extra airport traffic and added hassles brought on by the backtrackers, Holl said he doesn't believe a more formal definition of "airport business" is needed.
"That's up to a judge to define, and we're fine with that," he said.
But the extra cars on the nearly empty airport access road create headaches down the road. The Virginia State Police are charged with enforcing HOV rules on I-66 and say they routinely get the "airport business" excuse from HOV violators.
So troopers wind up having to play Solomon on the side of the highway, deciding whether to believe the FedEx box was picked up that morning or whether $5 in gasoline counts as airport business.
"We interrogate them," said state police 1st Sgt. James E. DeFord Sr.
There was one case in which a woman dropped her husband off at the airport at 5 a.m., then returned home to shower and change and then headed alone on I-66 hours later. When she was pulled over, she said she was on airport business. The trooper wrote her a ticket, but a judge dismissed the case because he had no legal definition of airport business, DeFord said.
State transportation officials say that defining what exactly is airport business is up to airport officials.
Joan Morris, spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Transportation, called the phenomenon "an unintentional loophole in the system. But that would be up to the airport to change."