'Slugs' Fear HOT Lanes Will End Free Rides

"Slugs," who ride free with strangers to use HOV lanes, wait for rides at 14th Street NW. Slugs worry drivers will pay up instead of picking them up.
"Slugs," who ride free with strangers to use HOV lanes, wait for rides at 14th Street NW. Slugs worry drivers will pay up instead of picking them up. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
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By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 10, 2008

Commuters who carpool along the Interstate 95/395 corridor to the Pentagon or the District continue to raise concerns about the proposed HOT lanes that will replace the HOV lanes from Dumfries to the 14th Street bridge.

The carpoolers, also known as "slugs," accept free rides from strangers, allowing drivers to use HOV lanes that require a minimum of three passengers per vehicle during rush hours. The slugging system in Northern Virginia is considered to be among the most extensive and successful in the country.

Slugs fear that allowing toll-payers into the existing carpool lanes will tempt affluent drivers who now welcome passengers to drive solo instead. Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large), chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors and a frequent slugger, last week called for an independent study of how the HOT lanes would affect the impromptu carpooling system. He also complained that the private companies planning the toll lanes have not fully addressed the questions and concerns of slugs and HOV drivers.

Stewart said he is skeptical of the plans because they are taking a system that works and turning it over to private companies. He also raised safety concerns about operating three traffic lanes in the two-lane footprint.

Slugging is thought to date to the early 1970s, when commuters hoping to form carpools for the HOV lanes would gather at bus stops. Slug is the term for a fake coin in a bus farebox, and it is believed bus drivers characterized the waiting carpoolers that way because the commuters, although waiting at bus stops, were not bus riders.

State officials said they have no desire to discourage the practice.

"Why on earth would we be building 6,700 commuter [parking] spots in the corridor if we were not serious about HOV and transit?'' Virginia Transportation Secretary Pierce Homer asked. "Slugging and transit are the most efficient and environmentally friendly transportation alternatives out there."

The goal of the HOT lanes is to use variable pricing to keep the lanes free-flowing. There is no upper limit on toll rates. Drivers who don't want to pay can use the free, non-HOT lanes. The companies that plan to convert the two-lane HOV facility into a three-lane toll highway say they will still allow carpools of three or more to ride free. But hybrid cars with fewer than three passengers, which are now largely allowed in HOV lanes, will have to pay the tolls, which could top $1 a mile. The companies also say they will create additional entry and exit points and crack down on cheaters, who they say make up 20 percent of the current HOV traffic flow.

The project also includes $195 million for the state to increase transit along the I-95/395 corridor, said Young Ho Chang, project manager for the Virginia Department of Transportation.

Stewart said he was afraid that the toll lanes would harm sluggers by clogging up the lanes.

"We need some guarantees here, not promises," Stewart said.

Last month, Prince William supervisors passed a resolution demanding all correspondence between VDOT and the companies sponsoring the project, Transurban and Fluor Corp. The resolution also demanded that representatives appear before the board to answer questions by February.

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