Tired of sitting in traffic on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge? Feel as though someone ought to pay you to deal with the endless delays, the frustration, the lost time at home and work?
Yeah? Well, builders of a new Wilson Bridge are tired of all those cars, too. So tired that for the past four months, they have been paying drivers who would cross through the construction zone to leave their cars at home and take transit or van pools to work.
The program, called Bridge Bucks, was launched in January to take as many as 1,000 cars -- 500 each from Virginia and Maryland -- off the highway as bridge construction accelerates. It also is intended to give frustrated drivers an option for getting out of the daily mess, which is expected to last for the next five years.
The program pays a driver as much as $50 a month to take a bus, train or van pool. To qualify, drivers do not have to cross the bridge; they need only to pass through the 7.5-mile construction zone that stretches from Route 210 in Maryland to Telegraph Road in Virginia. So a commuter who lives in Waldorf and works in Washington could qualify, as could someone who lives along Route 1 in Fairfax County and works in Alexandria.
So far, 1,579 people have applied, and 524 have been enrolled in the program -- 326 Marylanders, 187 Virginians and 11 D.C. residents -- said Michelle Holland, spokeswoman for the construction project. (Holland said the D.C. participants are included in Maryland's portion because they live closer to Maryland.) Holland said organizers of the program are sifting through 400 applications for other drivers who qualify.
She said it's taking some time because "it's hard to reach people." (They must all be sitting in traffic.)
"We're very pleased," Holland said. "We feel that the program is making a difference with the commuters who are faced with construction."
Athenae Belton sure thinks so. She used to carpool with a co-worker between Temple Hills and Old Town Alexandria, a trip that took about an hour and drove her nuts even though she didn't do the driving.
"I was feeling the road rage," Belton said. "Sitting in traffic is just terrible with all that construction going on."
So now, thanks to the $50 she gets from Bridge Bucks, Belton hops on the Metro in Suitland and gets off 30 minutes later at King Street. It still costs her about $90 a month, but that's not too bad, she said, and it sure beats being stuck in traffic. So does her co-worker miss her company? Nope. "She does the same thing now," Belton said.
Of course, some applicants have scam written all over them -- like the singer who said she worked all over the place but didn't provide a home or work address.
For the most part, organizers said, they're getting what they want out of the program. Holland said about 80 percent of applicants are solo commuters, just the kind of person they're trying to take off the road. The remaining 20 percent are mostly transit users who they don't mind paying to continue to stay out of the way.
The Wilson Bridge project budgeted $600,000 for a full year of the program, and if organizers decide it has been worth it, and if there's another few hundred thousand dollars lying around, it would be renewed, they said.
If that happens, the program could continue until 2008, when the $2.56 billion bridge project is scheduled to be finished. The new bridge will be twice as wide as the current six-lane structure, as will the lanes leading up to it on the Capital Beltway. Project managers have said it will be able to handle the 200,000 cars that make the crossing each day.
At that point, Belton and her Bridge Bucks buddies could very well be among them.