Traffic planners aim to get Tysons workers out of their cars

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 10, 2009

Roads are awash in backhoes and orange cones. Exit ramps are closed one day, relocated the next. Service roads are all but wiped out.

On a good day, Tysons Corner -- home to hundreds of defense contractors, management consulting companies and information technology firms -- is a traffic nightmare. Throw in subway and road construction and crowds streaming to the region's hottest shopping area, and the daily commute starts to look like "Mission: Impossible."

With the work forecast to last three years, what to do?

Take the workers out of Tysons, or at least take them out of their cars.

The experts figure that keeping traffic moving during construction requires throwing money at the problem: $34 million to coax many of the area's workers to do their jobs from home or leave their cars in the garage. Planners from Fairfax County and a Virginia mobility program are knocking on the doors of Tysons businesses, offering to pay for vanpools for up to six months, match bus and subway subsidies and fund software and equipment that will help employees tele-work.

For those who must drive, the 9-to-5 day is becoming history, replaced by flexible hours that start at 5:30 a.m. The planners are helping match people in carpools, and a new express bus from Woodbridge is equipped with high-speed Internet service to lure commuters. A new free Tysons Connector shuttle loops around the malls and banks and restaurants at midday. And, starting next year, carpoolers will get points they can redeem at stores in Tysons, where 120,000 people work but only 17,000 live.

It's a dress rehearsal for the walkable city planners hope Tysons will become when four Metrorail stations open and developers get the go-ahead to build densely packed condo towers to help people live closer to their jobs.

"People are going to start feeling some real pain," said Chris Arabia, manager of mobility programs for the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, which is offering businesses with at least 250 workers $50,000 to start or expand tele-work programs and smaller ones up to $30,000. The money comes from a $94 million pot set aside to ease traffic congestion while the Dulles rail extension, high-occupancy toll lanes and three other road mega-projects are built in Northern Virginia. "We can't make it go away, but we can hopefully help," Arabia said.

Employee options expand

Many workers are buying the concept, as radical as it is for a place where most workers park for free and what sidewalks exist end as abruptly as they start.

"It's peace of mind," said Lisa Keefer, who makes an 87-mile drive from her home in Mercersburg, Pa., four days a week to her job as an executive assistant. The other day, she manages spreadsheets, proofreads reports and manages her boss's daily calendar from home. When she must come into LMI's offices on Corporate Ridge in McLean, she's in by 6:30 a.m. and gone by 3 p.m. Fifteen minutes later, and road construction slows everyone down. "People look at the work crews and the backup starts," she said.

As workers began grading for the subway in May, about 50 editors, designers and contractors on Booz Allen Hamilton's visual communications team reviewed their options. The senior manager came up with a plan: A minimum of two editors would need to show up at headquarters on Greensboro Drive every day, allowing the rest of the team to work from home on staggered days. So, Ingrida Kalnins created a home office off the living room of her apartment near the Arlington County border and began editing from a laptop two days a week.

"Being editors, all of our work is done through e-mail and phone anyway," she said. And she gets more work done. "When you have an office mate, the phone rings. People stop by. At home, it's dead quiet."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company