With Metro still tackling safety and operational issues, and toll rates occasionally hitting $40 or more on the Interstate 66 express lanes inside the Capital Beltway, tolerable options for commuters in Northern Virginia seem hard to come by these days.
Kalai Kandasamy wants to offer an alternative.
The cybersecurity and information technology consultant developed a Sluglines app in 2016 that helps prospective riders and drivers coordinate trips, and he believes that establishing slug lines in the I-66 corridor could alleviate travel headaches for some workers.
“Slugging fills up those empty seats, and it’s good for the environment,” Kandasamy said. “It’s the most flexible and efficient transportation system…Riders get to go free on their ride, and the drivers get to go toll-free.”
Kandasamy describes slug lines as essentially a cross between carpooling and hitchhiking, where drivers pick up interested riders headed in the same direction in order to reach high-occupancy vehicle limits so they can use toll lanes without paying. In exchange, the riders get a free trip to their destination.
Unlike with ridesharing services like Uber or Lyft, slugging is governed wholly by participants rather than a company, and an I-66 Slug Lines flyer emphasizes that no money is exchanged between riders and drivers.
Slugging as a method of transportation took root in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area in 1975 with the creation of the HOV lanes on Interstate 395 after the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries’ oil embargo against the U.S. spurred efforts to reduce the country’s gasoline consumption, according to Sluglines.com.
Bob’s Slug Line located just west of Interstate 95 near Old Keene Mill Road and Bland Street in Springfield is allegedly the oldest line in the region, though a multi-use parking garage proposed by Fairfax County could disrupt slugging there during construction, according to FOX5.
Because of that history, slug lines have found consistent support from commuters in the 95 and 395 corridors, with about 10,000 slugging there over the past four decades, Kandasamy says.
According to Sluglines.com, there are seven morning slug lines in Fairfax County alone for commuters going into D.C. on I-95 or I-395.
Kandasamy, who has been slugging for more than 15 years, and other slug line users set up lines in Fairfax County for I-66 commuters when Metro launched its SafeTrack maintenance program in June 2016.
However, the practice did not catch on at the newly established lines in Vienna and Herndon like they did in the I-95 corridor, in part because I-66 is HOV-2 instead of HOV-3.
“If HOV-2 was HOV-3, [it] makes a big difference,” Kandasamy said. “It just provides a sense of security for the riders and drivers. When three strangers go together, they feel a bit more secure than one-on-one.”
The arrival of tolling on I-66 could change that trend, though.
Drivers who paid a toll with E-ZPass on I-66 in February saw an average $13.22 round trip, according to Virginia Department of Transportation data reported by WTOP, which said that 989 people, or 0.25 percent of toll payers, paid $40 or more for a single trip in February.
From the launch of the I-66 high-occupancy toll lanes on Dec. 4 through the end of March, the average round-trip toll was $12.01, according to WTOP.
The tolls may still be prohibitive to many drivers, though. An 8:30 a.m. trip on I-66 from Route 123 to downtown Washington on May 15, for example, cost an estimated $36.25, according to VDOT’s 66 express lanes toll calculator.
An I-66 Slug Lines Facebook page has almost 750 members. The group is designed to help users coordinate rides along I-66 to Rosslyn, the Pentagon, Crystal City, and D.C., according to its description.
I-66 Slug Lines’ Fairfax County morning pick-up locations currently include the Vienna Metro station, the Fairfax County Government Center, the Stringfellow Road Park and Ride in Centreville, and the Herndon-Monroe Park and Ride lot on Sunrise Valley Drive.
The Herndon-Monroe line in particular has gained momentum recently, since the garage has free parking, according to Kandasamy.
With construction work now underway to add 22.5 miles of new express lanes on I-66 outside of the Beltway, Fairfax County issued a news release on May 3 urging commuters to find travel alternatives to driving alone, including offered incentives for carpoolers and vanpoolers.
Kandasamy says that I-66 Slug Lines has been talking to Fairfax County and VDOT officials about establishing official, designated slug line pick-up locations so that riders and drivers will have a clearer idea of where to meet.
Currently, the Vienna Metro station, for instance, only has a small laminated sign at the kiss-and-ride lot on the south side of the station to indicate where riders can be picked up.
“We haven’t gotten any traction on that yet,” Kandasamy said.