Traffic Cure Worsens the Pain
Fleets Expand to Beat Jams but Cause Some of Their Own

By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 6, 2008

So much traffic clogs Washington area roads that Cox Communications has to use 20 percent more trucks here to serve the same number of customers as in other regions. Metro has to add an average of 10 buses a year, at $521,980 a pop, just to maintain rush-hour schedules that have slipped because of congestion.

Virginia-based Guernsey Office Products decided to build a $5 million warehouse in Maryland because it was becoming impossible to cross the Potomac River during the workday and meet delivery deadlines.

Owner David Guernsey likens the facility to a $5 million Potomac toll bridge.

"A route that could do 50 deliveries a day all of a sudden was doing 40 deliveries," Guernsey said. "We were in danger of not keeping promises to customers. That's a place you don't go in a business."

It's the price of doing business in one of the most traffic-choked regions in the country, but it makes matters worse. The additional vehicles on the road add to congestion and fuel a cycle that further stresses the region's overtaxed roadways, resulting in even more delays and pollution.

Washingtonians have the dubious honor of having the second-worst commutes in the country, in terms of time spent on the road, after New York, according to data recently released by the Census Bureau. And although the area doesn't have many traditional smokestack industries, it generates an outsize amount of pollution from vehicles.

The region exceeds federal standards for ozone and other air pollutants, especially in "hot spots" of congestion where buses and trucks emit pollution, said Ronald F. Kirby, transportation director for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

"This is the perfect illustration of the cost of congestion," Kirby said. "And those costs are passed on to customers and taxpayers."

Fairfax County public schools, with 1,200 buses driving 18 million miles a year, has one of the largest bus fleets in the nation. The school system adds 20 to 30 buses a year, even during times of flat enrollment, because congestion has added to travel times. Routes that used to take 30 minutes now take 50, said Dean Tisdadt, chief operating officer for the school system.

So bus runs are scheduled earlier and earlier to avoid the commuter rush. That means high school students are being dropped off as early as 6:45 a.m. for classes that start at 7:20 a.m., Tisdadt said, which angers parents and makes for sleepy students.

"The same experience we have as individuals with traffic is the same we have when planning buses," Tisdadt said.

Montgomery County schools face the same challenge. Transportation coordinator John Matthews said some students traveling across the county or to special schools are on buses for as long as two hours a day.

"Every time I sit through three light cycles on my way to work, I think, 'How in the world do our buses ever get to where they are going?' " he said. "But it becomes a way of life. You try to do the best you can."

Cox Cable uses 30 more trucks in the Washington area than in similar-size markets elsewhere in the country, according to the company, which has 250 technicians on area roads every day.

But some argue that adding more vehicles to the roadways to combat congestion is precisely the wrong move.

Metro Board Chairman Christopher Zimmerman said the key to clearing the roads for commerce is encouraging people driving alone in cars to take buses or trains.

"The answer is decent public transit," said Zimmerman (D), who also is a member of the Arlington County Board.

Some businesses have gone to great lengths to deal with traffic gridlock without adding to the problem.

Giant Food, with 200 supermarkets in the region, is experimenting with combining perishable and nonperishable groceries in a single refrigerated truck rather than using two trucks.

Giant also crunches Global Positioning System data from its trucks to better design delivery routes and schedules to avoid congestion.

A truck and driver stuck in traffic costs $65 per hour, according to spokesman Barry Scher.

Guernsey Office Supply was in danger of no longer being able to keep its promise of next-day delivery to its Maryland and District customers. So the company built a $5 million cross-dock facility in Beltsville, where, in the middle of the night, tractor-trailers arrive from Chantilly with all of the Maryland and District orders to be delivered the next day.

Maryland-based ABF Freight came to the same conclusion. The Baltimore company built a facility in Manassas to avoid Potomac crossings.

UPS uses a computerized route system that avoids left turns and is constantly reconfiguring its routes, said Dan McMackin, a UPS spokesman. Each left turn uses two minutes.

Roland Howard Jr., a UPS driver for 20 years, said he has seen the traffic explode around him over the years. He used to zip down Interstate 95 to begin his route in downtown Silver Spring. Now he wends his brown truck along Route 29 and other local roads.

Cox Communications found that just adding trucks wasn't enough. So the company also allows technicians to start their day from home instead of going into the office first. Paperwork is done in trucks with laptop computers. To stagger service, in part to avoid traffic, the company will expand flexible work options, including compressed workdays, alternate hours, flexible scheduling and telecommuting, according to Gwen Sparks, a Cox spokeswoman.

Others use the time-tested method of just setting the alarm clock earlier and earlier in an attempt to beat the rush.

John Leary, of M. Slavin & Sons Fish, said the company also works around traffic, ensuring that orders are filled and delivered as early as possible.

"We work around the congestion," he said. "Traffic is horrible here.''

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