You either had to be out of your mind or a political candidate to voluntarily drive the gas-to-brake shuffle that was the morning commute on Interstate 95 yesterday.
Earnest W. Porta Jr. was the latter.
The Democratic candidate for Virginia's 51st House District led a contest to see what form of commuting provided the quickest route between a Woodbridge neighborhood and Washington, giving him a chance to connect with voters and talk about how to ease traffic congestion, a top issue in Northern Virginia.
The contest started at 6:47 a.m. in a Woodbridge subdivision. Five of Porta's supporters took different routes to the finish line at 14th and L streets NW, about 27 miles away.
One commuter picked up carpoolers, known as "slugs," to take the high occupancy vehicle lanes; another parked at a commuter lot and joined the slug line to form a carpool; someone drove to a bus stop; someone took Virginia Railway Express to Metro; and another drove to the Springfield Metro station and took the subway.
Porta drew the short straw: He was stuck with -- and later in -- the regular highway lanes.
The commute started the same for everyone: a backup on Old Bridge Road.
Porta had a solution for this. He proposed a bus rapid transit, or BRT, network that would run in dedicated lanes on secondary streets. Porta said that would take cars off roads and provide people with a sure thing.
He also said the state could pay for this sort of fix if it didn't sink all its money into mega-projects with mega-price tags like the extension of Metro to Dulles International Airport. The estimated cost of the first half of that project is $1.8 billion.
"I prefer BRT in Prince William County than all those dollars going to that Metrorail extension," Porta said as his car crawled forward.
Porta's transportation solutions also included providing localities with stricter land use measures, such as the ability to delay developments until roads and other public facilities are in place. He also said he opposes opening I-95 HOV lanes to solo drivers willing to pay a toll. He said that plan would spell the end of slugging.
Porta is battling Del. Michelle B. McQuigg (R) in their northeastern Prince William district. McQuigg supports BRT, though she said it won't work on secondary roads such as Old Bridge without taking homes, businesses and trees. McQuigg said she is "90 percent there" on supporting a proposal to dedicate a quarter of a penny of the 5 cent sales tax to transportation projects. But she has not taken a position on the I-95 proposal to create high occupancy toll lanes.
From the looks of it at 7:03 a.m., Porta had a better chance of winning his race against McQuigg than the race to Washington.
It took him 16 minutes to travel 4.2 miles from the starting line to the interstate ramp. "That's not too bad, actually," he said. But then it took him seven more minutes to curl around the ramp and onto the highway, where he found his spot amid three lanes of stalled traffic.
About the same time, the racer who would catch a bus was driving around the commuter lot in search of a parking spot, and the carpoolers were waiting in line, one to pick up slugs and the other to get picked up by a driver.
At 7:14 a.m., the driver heading to Springfield to catch Metro passed Porta on I-95, one of many leapfrogs along the way. (Lesson: Lane hopping doesn't work; they're all slow.)
North of Lorton, an odd and amazing thing happened: Porta was able to drive the speed limit! After a few minutes, he was back to a crawl. By Arlington, the carpool lanes were also jammed. "Look at the HOV lanes, and see how they're backed up," Porta said. "A BRT lane would make a lot of sense to me."
At 7:55 a.m., one hour and eight minutes after his departure from Woodbridge, the Washington Monument appeared. Every lane of traffic came to a virtual standstill, and the morning sun pierced the front window.
"This is where Keith will catch up to us and beat us," Porta said of the person who drove to Metro.
Fifteen minutes later, Porta crossed into the District. Seven minutes after that, as Porta sat at a red light across the street from the finish line, the VRE rider sprinted in front of him. (Cheater.)
One hour and forty-one minutes after leaving Woodbridge and at the same time as the Metro rider, Porta walked into the office that marked the official end of the race. There, he found everyone else munching on muffins.
The VRE rider had just come in, the bus rider had been there for 17 minutes -- he would have won if he had found a parking spot quicker in Prince William -- and the slugs were rested and relaxed, having arrived one minute apart a half-hour earlier.
By carpooling, they were able to take the HOV lanes, which moved fairly rapidly until Arlington.
"When I look at these times, clearly the slug system is a great system," Porta said. "It reinforces to me why we need to be careful about [high occupancy toll] lanes."
Porta seemed weary after his drive, which he described as a "relatively slow-moving parking lot."
He might be interested to know that a drive along the same route three hours later took an easy 36 minutes.