Randy White gets up before dawn every day to beat the car-pool requirements on Interstate Rte. 66. "Going to bed at 10 o'clock is really the pits," White said. But ridding himself of his daily car pool makes it all worthwhile, he said.
"There was always one kind of tension or another in the car pool," said White, a graphic designer who lives in Centreville in western Fairfax County.
For White and thousands of other Northern Virginia commuters, the so-called HOV-4 rules on the new 10-mile roadway have changed suburban life in scores of subtle ways.
Requirements that a car has to have four or more passsengers on I-66 inside the Capital Beltway during rush hours have prompted many Virginia commuters like White to juggle their work schedules so they can use the road during its unrestricted hours. Others, who ride to work in car pools, van pools and buses, are finding that the $275 million roadway eliminates miles of aggravation they experienced for years in stop-and-go traffic.
For both groups, the result is what traffic-weary commuters dream about--daily trips up to half an hour shorter than before the new stretch of highway opened last winter.
"We love it," says Wilbur E. Keil, an engineer who has cut 40 minutes off his daily round trip by car pool between Vienna and Crystal City. "Once we get on that thing, we go 55 miles an hour and we just zoom."
White grumbles because his new early morning commuting schedule gives him scarcely enough time to mow the lawn in the evening before it's time to go to bed.
Still, White is glad to be free from his old car-pool problems--like the mornings his fellow car poolers would keep him waiting while they finished getting dressed. One fellow would send his wife out on the lawn in her bathrobe to tell them to wait . . . and wait.
Getting everyone organized to go home was even worse, White said.
After only 5 months of operation, I-66 is already transporting about 10,800 persons inbound during the morning rush hour. A recent study found that it is carrying more people at peak times than could an unrestricted highway of similar size, and traffic planners are optimistic that rush-hour restrictions will allow it to carry an even greater number of people as commuters form new car pools.
A recent vehicle count by the state highway department also found that the highway is at its most clogged during the hours immediately before and after rush-hour, as lone motorists take to the highway.
State traffic officials say their studies on the impact of I-66 on Northern Virginia's traffic patterns and what changes it may cause in the way area residents work, shop and commute, will not be completed until later this year. Yet plenty of Northern Virginians can attest to what I-66 has brought to their lives.
Debra Day, a staff assistant at a Dupont Circle medical association has cut 20 minutes off her daily bus rides from Reston and Lloyd A. Thorpe, a Navy lieutenant commander from Manassas, has more time to see his 8-year-old son's soccer matches in the evenings because I-66 is bringing him home early.
Thorpe, who takes 15 people to work in his Ford van, used to spend two hours a day on the road between the K-Mart shopping center in Manassas and the Pentagon/Crystal City area. Nowadays, with the help of I-66, he has almost cut that time on the road in half.
Martin Suydam, a Navy executive from Fairfax, has lengthened his work day from 11 to 12 hours thanks to the new stretch of I-66. A lone motorist like White, Suydam leaves for the office 20 minutes earlier and heads home 20 minutes later than he formerly did in order to avoid the road's restricted hours, from 6:30 to 9 a.m. inbound, and 3:30 to 6:30 p.m. outbound.
The challenge, Suydam said, is to catch the highway at just the right moment. Ten minutes too late after the restrictions are lifted and the lone motorists find themselves in their own traffic jam.
"It's like the crest of a wave," said Suydam. "You have to catch it just right."