Police and highway officials have some advice for those driving to Redskins Stadium in Landover for the Washington Redskins' preseason opener tonight: Learn to live with the traffic.
Traffic delays have been a concern and source of complaints from fans since the stadium opened in September 1997. Authorities say they have improved conditions, but they say that there is no sure cure for traffic at NFL games, which draw more fans than nearly any other major sports event in the country.
"There has to be a certain amount of delay [fans] should accept," said David Buck, spokesman for the Maryland State Highway Administration. "This isn't a concert for 25,000. This is a major event for 75,000."
Last year, it took an average of 55 to 60 minutes to clear the stadium's 22,000 parking spaces at the end of games, down from about 75 minutes the year before, according to Buck.
But the Redskins had a losing season last year, finishing 6-10, resulting in many fans leaving early and lessening traffic jams at the end of games. Experts said one of their best allies against traffic is a less-than-successful Redskins team.
Lt. Ed Burke, commander of special events for the Prince George's County Police Department, said most NFL stadiums take more than an hour to empty their parking lot at the end of a game, known as "dump time."
Today's 8 p.m. kickoff poses special problems beyond those for Sunday games because it overlaps with the usual weekday rush hour. But officials expect beach traffic heading east on U.S. Route 50 to dissipate before fans begin arriving at the stadium between 5 and 6 p.m.
Preseason games also tend to include a larger proportion of patrons who don't attend regular season games. These patrons may be less familiar with the traffic routes than season ticket-holders, causing more traffic problems.
Because preseason games don't count in the standings, about 20,000 no-shows is standard, according to Redskins officials.
This year more signs have been added to help drivers to their destination, and three roving state emergency response units will fix flat tires or tow a vehicle out of the way to minimize traffic jams.
Two seasons of experience have taught the traffic authorities how to be more adept at spotting snarls and rerouting traffic from their command post in Redskins Stadium, which is hooked up to live cameras at key roads and intersections.
Metro buses will shuttle fans between the Addison Road, Cheverly and Landover Metro stations to the stadium starting two hours prior to the game and one hour after the game. A round trip costs $2.
"You're going to see there is a much more managed effect," said Daniel M. Snyder, the team's new owner. Snyder said there are enough roads and enough traffic spaces, but his staff is trying to "make sure the individuals out there are really prepped a little bit heavier."
Snyder said he hopes a Metro station will be built less than one mile from the stadium, while in the short term he hopes to open some nearby roads that are currently closed to general stadium traffic. But a new Metro stop would cost $430 million, according to Metro officials, and the earliest it could be operational, assuming funds became available, would be fall 2004.
As an incentive for people to arrive early and stagger the traffic flow, the Redskins this year will open a tailgate area outside the stadium 3 1/2 hours before the game, beginning tonight. Located between gates F and G, the area eventually will include tables, umbrellas, food and beverages, appearances by Redskins alumni and cheerleaders, as well as other entertainment.
Parking lots open four hours prior to the game, and the luxury suites and club seats open three hours before kickoff. General admission seats open two hours before game time.
To spread out the flow of traffic exiting the stadium, the Redskins also are planning to institute a "Fifth Quarter." Fans can stay and watch the first half of a 4 p.m. NFL game on the big stadium screens.
Police are counting on drivers knowing the stadium traffic conditions from the last two seasons and developing their own routes, finding shortcuts, discovering the best parking spaces and the best time to leave for the game or after it.
"A lot of people figured out they have to leave early, and a lot figured out they need to read those signs overhead to determine which is the best route to use," said Steven Kuciemba, general manager of SmarTraveler, a local traffic information service. "If you show up between 11:30 and 12:30 [for a 1 p.m. game], you are going to sit in traffic."
Season ticket-holder P.G. Gottfried leaves his District residence more than two hours prior to kickoff to avoid traffic.
"I've learned how to get there by staying off the Beltway," said Gottfried, who refused to divulge his secret route. "I still wait a little bit once I get to the stadium. Leaving is a nightmare."
Club seat holder Frank Reed said traffic "from time to time is unavoidable, especially when leaving. By and large it moves okay."