Instead of driving her car for an hour to Washington, D.C., for work, Lake Ridge resident Tammy Bish catches rides with fellow commuters who carpool to drive the high-occupancy toll lanes for free.
“Slugging” benefits the driver and passengers because the driver can ride the HOT lane without paying a toll and passengers get a free ride.
After she finds a driver at a commuter parking lot in Prince William County, Bish makes it to work within about 30 minutes. Then, she lines up in D.C. in the afternoon to get a ride back home.
“Some days the line is very smooth and very fast,” Bish said. “Some days I have to wait 15 to 20 minutes, depending on what day it is. There’s no two days that are the same.”
Slugging makes sense for many drivers in Prince William County: carpools can be tricky, bus routes can shift, and trains don’t always run on time. But the decades-old option to get between home and work is facing growing pains in 2018. New routes for HOV lanes means new interest from hundreds of Prince William commuters, along with new challenges from D.C. transportation officials opening their eyes to the afternoon slug lines.
Bish has been “slugging” to work for more than 30 years, including two years when she drove other commuters.
In earlier days, Bish said the “slugging” community would stay in touch via a daily email blast. Now, some commuters can stay in touch via Facebook groups or a smartphone app called Slug-Lines, with a list of morning and afternoon slug pick up locations to travel on I-95 or I-66, a forum and a lost-and-found section.
FAST ROUTE, SLOW PROGRESS
Flexibility is slugging’s strength, but it’s also a challenge when commuters face issues.
While trying to pick up commuters, drivers in D.C. have been threatened with traffic tickets if they don’t move their vehicle, said Kalai Kandasamy, curator for the “Sluglines” app and the website, sluglines.com.
“They are trying to move the traffic along,” he said. Kandasamy is also on the Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission Board of Commissioners.
Drivers waiting for slugs don’t have signs either on their vehicle or on the sidewalk to let others know they’re waiting for “slug” passengers. Instead many use their flashers to indicate they are waiting.
On June 19, “slug” commuters and officials from the District Department of Transportation had a meeting with plans to meet again soon to discuss issues with commuter pick-up spots and traffic enforcement, Kandasamy said.
Kandasamy said reaching out on the behalf of slugs with multiple agencies can require a lot of time.
“The catch is there is no one leader for slugging,” he said. “It’s a community of people helping each other; that’s probably the reason why we are not able to move forward.”
Signs at slug pick-up locations could help, Kandasamy said. In Stafford County, signs that say “DC - Washington” were added last year to help with organization at the large commuter lots.
Dale City resident Marcher Castell, who has slugged for 20 years, said she hopes there is more education for Metropolitan Police about slugging.
Castell at times has waited for slugs with her vehicle’s flashers on and has been asked to move her vehicle in D.C. even though Lyft or Uber cars are not told to move along, Castell said.
“If traffic control was better educated about slugging system and locations — because it keeps traffic moving — I think that would be helpful,” Castell said. “... They need to know we are all doing this together.”
Castell said slugging seems “unsanctioned” because it’s not regulated.
“If I pick up three people, that’s three fewer frustrated drivers in D.C.,” Castell said. “So taking them in saves me a parking spot.”
Castell said “slugging” is even more flexible than trying to meet up every day with the same people to carpool.
“I have the fluidity to come in and out of the city without being restricted to someone else’s schedule or whether the bus is full,” Castell said.
HISTORY IN MOTION
Slugging has been around since 1973 when High-Occupancy Vehicle lanes opened on the I-95/I-395 corridor. Until 1989, those HOV lanes were opened to vehicles with at least four occupants, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s website. Since 1989, vehicles are required to have at least three occupants to ride the HOV lanes.
Since 2014, lanes on I-95 allow all cars to pay a toll to travel the Express Lanes if they don’t have at least three riders. The lanes on I-395 are being updated to allow for toll customers and toll lanes heading in both directions are under construction outside of the Beltway on I-66.
The expense of paying the tolls isn’t the only deterrent for sluggers. Riders save on cost of gas and wear and tear on their car, said Woodbridge resident Darren Foster, who has been slugging for 15 years. He rode as a “slug” passenger for the first 10 years, and he has been picking up slug riders for the last five years.
There’s also the benefit of not having to drive the longer commute in the regular lanes.
“It saves me at least 30 to 45 minutes every morning and every afternoon,” Foster said. “I leave at 4:30 p.m. It’s the difference of getting home at 5 p.m. or 5:30 p.m. or [if I drive] the main line at 5:30 p.m. or 6 p.m.”
In Prince William, there are 11 slug pick-up locations. Most of the slug lines are geared toward drivers on I-95, but I-66 commuters are adding slug sites, too, after the new toll lanes opened on I-66 inside the Beltway.
“Slugging is fairly new to 66 corridor commuters,” Kandasamy said. “With the volume, they will see the efficiency of slugging and understand the difference between slugging and ride hailing.”
More than 800 users express interest in I-66 slugging locations, Kandasamy said. In general, the Slug-Lines app has 3,400 users, he said, adding the app isn’t necessary for users to slug, although it can help.
The toll lanes have changed things for drivers. The old HOV lanes would provide an easy route for any drivers outside of commuting hours, but now I-95 and I-495 Express Lanes are always charging tolls for cars not travelling HOV.
“So, if I went in late, I could still get in the HOV lane, but now with the tolls it’s paid all the time,” Foster said. “Even if you’re late, you have to pay the tolls or get in the main line.”
Those changes are coming soon to I-395 as the HOV lanes add the toll option.
And even more changes are around the corner that will likely bring slug lines to even more communities. The I-95 Express Lanes will be extended south to U.S. 17 in a few years, with the capability to eventually head over the Rappahannock River.
As the miles of Express Lanes increase, slugging will increase, too, Kandasamy said, adding slugging is spreading due to a cultural shift once commuters see it can be convenient and faster than public transportation.
“With them building the Express Lanes, it’s working very well,” he said. “You’re increasing the capacity for HOV [lanes] and the drivers are incentivized by seeing the high tolls to pick up riders. And riders are incentivized because they reach their destination faster and for free.”