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Slugging king LeBlanc wields power in D.C.'s carpooling community

By Derek Kravitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 15, 2010; 7:38 PM

In the world of slugging - also known as casual carpooling or dynamic ride-sharing - Dave LeBlanc wields a lot of power.

The 51-year-old Woodbridge defense contractor runs D.C.'s only slugging Web site, a community forum dedicated to those who take, or offer, free rides for commuters traveling by car to and from Washington's outer suburbs to Crystal City, Rosslyn, the Pentagon and the District.

So when LeBlanc's 10-year-old Web site, slug-lines.com, this month announced a new Woodbridge-to-Alexandria slugging route in its quarterly newsletter, people noticed. Fliers were distributed. The details were broadcast on news outlets, including The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock blog. Drivers (less commonly known as "body snatchers" or "land sharks") were told to pick up their "slugs" between 6:45 and 8:30 a.m. starting Tuesday near the Virginia Railway Express station off Route 1 in Woodbridge.

Problem was, rail officials had no clue the location was about to become a new slugging stop. But LeBlanc, a retired Army colonel, had already set the Oct. 19 start date.

Mark Roeber, a VRE spokesman, said officials from the rail system, Prince William County and the Virginia Department of Transportation were "caught by surprise" and scrambled this week to discuss how to handle the new line.

"It just seems that they saw the spot near the pedestrian overpass and thought that'd be a great place to have a slug line," Roeber said. "But the last thing you want to do is start one of these up just to tear it up again and start construction in that area, which we are planning.

"Though we support slugging, it cannot take place at the Route 1 area. We don't think that's unreasonable."

Slugging is a Washington-area tradition dating back to the mid-1970s, when high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes were constructed on Interstates 95 and 395 to combat soaring gas prices. For decades, only one formal slugging location was used - in Springfield, next to Bob's Big Boy restaurant at Bland Street and Old Keene Mill Road. But as traffic worsened across Northern Virginia, so too did the number of slugging locations. Today, there are at least 18 slug routes in the Virginia suburbs, serving thousands of daily commuters.

Slug line systems have also cropped up in traffic-clogged sections of Dallas-Fort Worth and San Francisco. A July symposium in Arlington looked at ways to expand slugging in the D.C. area, and federal transportation officials are studying the phenomenon to see if pilot projects in other cities could help alleviate congestion. One of the study's first contacts: LeBlanc, the resident slug-ologist.

"It's a testament to what Dave has been able to do over the years," said Alex Lee, a VDOT community relations manager who handles outreach related to its megaprojects, large-scale transportation projects in Northern Virginia. "It's not just VRE. We at VDOT and other agencies are accommodating for slugging and how big it is has gotten."

LeBlanc, who authored the 1999 book "Slugging: The Commuting Alternative for Washington, D.C.," said slug lines typically have started on their own, without "much fanfare or publicity." Speaking from his basement office, LeBlanc said he started his Web site decade ago as a "one-man show."

"I can't say it's always well-coordinated. On this particular slug line, we didn't coordinate with Prince William County . . . They normally form on their own," LeBlanc said. "We have a slug line at the Lorton VRE station and that just sort of grew naturally. This one is sort of different, so I guess I should have coordinated more with VRE."

Up to 40,000 vehicles travel along the section of Route 1 near the Woodbridge rail station each day, according to transportation officials. It will take at least 30 days for VRE officials to formally introduce a resolution in Prince William to officially create the carpool area.

The slug-lines.com Web site has been updated to note the pickup station will be at the front of the VRE station, "not the pedestrian overpass as originally planned."

In response to ticketing by police of some slugging drivers this summer, the District Department of Transportation is also trying to find better slug line locations away from traffic-congested corridors. It assisted in the move of the 14th Street NW location to 15th Street NW between H Street and New York Avenue and is asking District residents for recommendations on where to move other 14th Street lines.

As for future slug routes, LeBlanc said he lets the thousands of sluggers who regularly e-mail him decide where new locations are needed.

"They choose. I'm just the messenger," he said.

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