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Revolt of the Slugs

Last night at Forest Park High School in Woodbridge, Dennis Morrison had to fend off a slug attack. There were about a hundred of them, and it was a near thing. For a while, he was surrounded. And he couldn't give them what they wanted.

What had drawn them to the school was a common enough sort of government presentation about an upcoming transportation project: Virginia's plan to ease congestion along the Interstate 95/395 corridor south of Washington. The session was supposed to begin with an open house in which people entered a large room and wandered from display to display asking questions about particular aspects of the project. Then they would gather in an auditorium where state officials would provide an overview of the work.


Click on picture for a biography of
Dennis Morrison. (VDOT photo)

And it did go like that -- for the first few minutes.

Then Corey Stewart, the chairman of the Prince Williams Board of Supervisors and an opponent of the project, stood in the middle of the room to warn people they would not be allowed to ask more questions during the formal presentation.

Many of the people he was speaking to had come in angry: This project, to build three express toll lanes in the center of the interstate, threatens a way of life that these commuters have developed. They are the key element in a rare success story in congestion relief. They took a government incentive -- the creation of High Occupancy Vehicle Lanes -- and turned it into a system called slugging. Each morning, they gather at pre-arranged places in the far suburbs and pile into cars so they can meet the three-persons-per-vehicle standard to use those HOV lanes. They do the same in the evening for the commute back home.

Stewart's statement focused all attention on Morrison, the district administrator for the Virginia Department of Transportation and the man who had the lead in presenting the state's case for fixing the thing they say isn't broken.

"Slugging will die!" one man shouted. "You'll destroy it!" another followed.

At that moment, Morrison, who is retiring next month after 31 years with VDOT, might have prefered the odds faced by Col. George Custer. But Morrison did an excellent job of crowd control. He said he wanted to make his scheduled presentation, which he did, but promised to come back out afterward and answer more questions, which he did.

You can read more details about the aptly named HOT lanes project (it stands for High Occupancy or Toll) by using this link to a VDOT Web site. Here's another link to a Web site created by the private partners in the project.

There's a lot more to this story, and we'll be discussing it here on the blog, and I plan to make it part of my Dr. Gridlock column on page 2 of Sunday's Metro section, but here's one thing that's very important:

The state's promise is that slugs will still be able to use these new express lanes for free, rather than paying a toll that will vary depending on bad the congestion is. That should be fine. But Morrison and his colleagues couldn't tell the sluggers how this would work. How could the state and its private partner set up an electronic monitoring system that would distinguish among the three classes of HOT lane users: solo drivers paying the toll, carpoolers riding for free, and cheaters?

This project, which will have a huge impact on transportation in the Washington suburbs, is moving forward quickly. The state and its partners need to come up with some answers about how they're going to protect these commuters.

What you can do:

There are two more meetings in this series. For both, doors open at 7 p.m. with presentations scheduled for 7:30 p.m. and again at 8:30 p.m.

Tonight: Wingate Inn, Mary Washington Pavilion East, 20 Sanford Drive, Fredericksburg
Monday: Spotsylvania County School Administrative Services, 8020 River Stone Drive, Spotsylvania

You can also send comments through Aug. 10 to:

Public Affairs
Virginia Department of Transportation
1401 E. Broad St., Richmond, VA 23219
Or via e-mail to

or to

Public Information Office
Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation
1313 E. Main St., Suite 300, Richmond, VA 23219
Or via e-mail to

By Robert Thomson  |  July 26, 2007; 7:35 AM ET
Categories:  Transportation Politics  
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95/395 commuters pick up slugs to save time in traffic.

Paying the toll would save even more time since you wouldn't have to stop for slugs.

What's an average Washingtonian with too much money and too little time going to do? Not stop and pick up slugs, that's for sure. The slugs will be lucky if people even stop to wave as they speed on by.

Posted by: Bob | July 26, 2007 9:18 AM | Report abuse

not only will it be interesting to find out how they will distinguish between toll payers, slugs and cheaters, but I'll also be curious to see how all of this will happen (taking tolls, counting passengers) without creating a bottleneck. I'll also be curious to see if it turns out the goal is to raise revenue, not to ease congestion...

Posted by: jj | July 26, 2007 9:31 AM | Report abuse

Well, I went to the meeting at Edison and I really wasn't too impressed. In theory, this is supposed to curb congestion. Had they opened the floor for discussion, I would've asked the county officials who were present at the meeting why did they not bother to put as many resources into affordable housing and putting jobs closer to people as they do in the roads. Specifically, I think it would be more effective if the county either provided a tax break or similar incentive to companies that allow telecommuting at least 2 days per week per employee, or if they gave a tax break or similar incentive to people like me who use pub. trans. to get to and from work, and does only light driving on the weekend.
However, since I'm so over living in this area, I hope to be living somewhere else by the time this project really gets underway, because this area seems to favor and encourage laziness and complacency over dedicated changes and solutions in terms of transportation and growth.

Posted by: YourStrawberry23 | July 26, 2007 10:13 AM | Report abuse

Can slugs make Carbon Footprints if they don't have feet?

I wonder if they will have a propensity to buy small or large cars when they have to buy their own now?

Stand up for your rights as a SLUG! sounds like something from the next disney pixar movie.

Sorry to see that someone is going to have to actually pay for their own transportation like everyone else.

Posted by: PK | July 26, 2007 1:47 PM | Report abuse

Can slugs make Carbon Footprints if they don't have feet?

I wonder if they will have a propensity to buy small or large cars when they have to buy their own now?

Stand up for your rights as a SLUG! sounds like something from the next disney pixar movie.

Sorry to see that someone is going to have to actually pay for their own transportation like everyone else.

Posted by: PK | July 26, 2007 1:47 PM | Report abuse

The slugs, as I understand it, started as bus riders. Drivers stopped at bus stops and picked someone up. So isn't the slug system just pilfering transit riders? Won't these people go back to bus and rail? Is this really the end of the world?

Posted by: VC | July 26, 2007 4:04 PM | Report abuse

So, even at 2 AM on a Saturday morning it's going to cost money to use the re-appropriated HOV lanes? This isn't an improvement, it's theft.

Posted by: JFC | July 26, 2007 6:07 PM | Report abuse

To JFC - thank you, my point exactly.

Posted by: jj | July 26, 2007 11:09 PM | Report abuse

Why will HOT lanes affect the slugging situation? The cost of using the HOT lanes will be such that for most commuters HOV will still be the way to go. If someone pays the toll, they either (really)need to get somewhere in a hurry, or they have more money than sense. Just one more opinion. I don't think HOT will adversely affect the slugs.

Posted by: JD | July 27, 2007 8:41 AM | Report abuse

I've driven on some HOT lanes in Denver on I-25 north of downtown. While I'm not sure how they'd catch cheaters, the way they toll solo riders is having them use a separate barrier-separated line when they drive through the overhead EZ-PASS-like gantries that hold the toll equipment. The lane that solo riders are in have the equipment, but the lane that the HOV riders use do not have the equipment. seemed pretty easy to cheat. I drove it on a weekend when tolls weren't enforced, so I didn't see the methods how to catch cheaters.

Posted by: Chris | July 27, 2007 9:02 AM | Report abuse

The main purpose of the HOV system is to cut air pollution and get the SOV (single occipancy vehicle) reduced. Allowing drivers to pay to drive the HOV by themselves and abandon their express buses, VRE or sluging defeats the purpose. It is also a indirect form of discrimination in as the well to do get to wave to the average income and poor income drivers as they speed by. To a lawyer, doctor or other overpaid professionals, this would be a bargin.Once again the average taxpayer will take it on the chin. Don't fix what is not broken.

Posted by: Bulldog | July 27, 2007 9:54 AM | Report abuse

Bulldog-why does the taxpayer take it on the chin? HOT will increase revenue to the state, and reduce the tax burden that it would otherwise impose. People can choose to pay rather than being forced to pay taxes.

As for slugs, there will still be a slug line because some people will find it better to pick up a couple slugs than to pay the toll. Sure, probably not as many, because now the alternative to picking up slugs costs $8 (or whatever) instead of $275 (or whatever the misuse of the HOV lane costs). But there will still be plenty of people who decide that it's worth the $8 to go a few blocks out of their way.

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