Holiday Dread: Bottleneck Traffic On I-95

Specifically the northbound corridor just south of D.C.

Image: woodleywonderworks

Just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse! The months-long season that immediately precedes the Super Bowl — the season of fellowship and arguing about whether “Die Hard” is a holiday movie — is upon us. And so with this silly season comes, for many, the necessity to transport ourselves away from our residence to gather with family and friends, or the secondary rings of families and friends of loved ones.

Please refer to the traditional carol, “Over the River and Through the Wood.” This so-called song is actually a poem published in 1844 by the prolific writer and abolitionist Lydia Maria Child, and it was originally titled “The New-England Boy’s Song About Thanksgiving Day.” Not only is it incorrectly associated with Christmas, but this poem — traditionally sung in a full-throated whee-isn’t-all-this-fun — is laden with the crushing horror that is holiday travel. Of the four stanzas that were ganked for the song, there is mention of the blowing wind, stinging the nose and biting the toes. But check this rarely-recited sixth (of twelve) stanzas:

Over the river, and through the wood — 
No matter for winds that blow;
Or if we get
The sleigh upset,
Into a bank of snow.

That doesn’t sound like a very fun, hot-cocoa-at-the-end sleigh ride together with you; that sounds like shriek-frayed parents who literally cannot and will pull that sleigh over if you kids don’t shut the hell up for thirty seconds, so help me God. It’s the “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” of the nineteenth century, piling the kids into the then-current version of the Subaru Outback and trying to get them to your parents without losing your mind, where hopefully the tryptophan kicks in before they start filling their pie-holes with pie.

Holiday travel is bad and never good, and we all have our stories. But I am here to tell you that the I-95 corridor, just south of Washington D.C., is the absolute worst leg of holiday travel that exists anywhere and if I could punch it in the face or set it on fire and push it down a flight of stairs, no jury would convict me.

I live in New York; My family, Virginia. To see them, I drive. Only a madman would choose to shoot straight through D.C., which is nestled in the center of a belt Interstate. I-495 is a traffic circle, where the major intercity arteries (I-270 from Frederick, I-95 back and forth between Baltimore and Richmond, US-50 over to Annapolis, and I-66 to some cities I guess but mostly the Appalachian Mountains) dump incoming vehicles. From there, they zoom around like balls on a roulette wheel and then either filter into the burbs or the city itself or find the outgoing artery and zoom back out, like roulette balls that got a little giddy and flew off the roulette wheel like a rock from a sling. This is only how it goes in theory, of course, because in practice, nothing ever moves so footloose and fancy free during normal-people hours. When it’s not bumper-to-bumper, the traffic is more like beware-the-inevitable-sudden-brake-slam.

Sometimes, having made it relatively painlessly past Baltimore, I would choose to swing 495 to the east, which is technically shorter, but other times I’d swing west towards Bethesda, as the Woodrow Wilson Bridge was being slowly replaced for a couple years. But either way, I’d nose down and around D.C. and it wasn’t bad, and my hopes would elevate, and I’d hit this tremendous can of worms (a term of art for an enormous vehicular clusterfuck in my hometown back in the day) just a few ticks north of a constellation of shopping malls and plazas in Springfield. From there, this absolute spigot of traffic from just about everywhere merges together to continue down I-95 skirting the Chesapeake Bay, and I’d think for just a second: “We made it! This is the year that we made it!” And of course, it would not be the year that we made it, as the brake lights accumulated and traffic smash-cuts from “slowdown” to “parking lot” and the next ninety to a hundred and eighty minutes of my life stared me in the face.

Many people live and work in the greater D.C. area, and anecdotally, the workday drivetime traffic is monstrous and nothing to wish on anyone. If we’re gonna get all scientific about it and look at facts, or at least factoids as compiled by public interest groups and then disseminated via press release to tempt editors to repurpose such factoids to fill up local news column inches, the particular stretch of I-95 is not only not one of the worst traffic bottlenecks in America, it’s not even in the top three bottlenecks in the greater D.C. Metro Area. But these studies fail to take into account my anecdotes, which is why they are flawed.

And anyhow, this is not wretched salaryman grind that I’m talking about, this is holiday traffic, which takes the normal wretched salaryman grind, with all of the Representatives and Senators and their respective lobbyists and interns back to the usual schlep to/from office/bars PLUS ALSO every single person/family on the Eastern Seaboard that is either going up or down the coast. The malicious accident of geography just shoves all of this traffic, including my personal traffic, into this little tiny choke point that is only eighteen or twenty lanes wide.

Most confusing is that these roadways are actually parts of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Interstate Highway System. Isn’t it the job of Interstates not to bottleneck like this? Funny I should ask. This is not technically true. (Yet.) The D.D.E.I.H.S., even back before it was called the D.D.E.I.H.S., was indeed designed and intended for civilian use. (You might have heard otherwise. Myth.) Take it from lame-duck Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta: “The Interstate network has provided a vital link for connecting goods to markets here and around the world and bringing together people from our nation’s cities, towns and rural communities.” Nothing about bottlenecks at all.

And to be honest, while the D.D.E.I.H.S. is truly a marvel of engineering and purpose, the likes of which kind of make you weep, the DoT is not empowered to run the system all by itself. It paid to build them, provides unified design and engineering specifications, and has say over new interchanges. But upkeep? That’s the problem of the State in which the road is located. Increasing the number of lanes? State, not DoT. Tackling huge traffic nightmares like this I-95 corridor just south of D.C.? State, or in this case, the Commonwealth of Virginia.

(I am aware that not everyone has suffered/will suffer the life-threatening mortal insult that is the holiday rush hour bottleneck that is the I-95 corridor just south of D.C. Yes, I figured that out all by myself. Maybe instead of nitpicking you should consider yourself lucky to be suffering through a normal holiday travel nightmare, or even not traveling at all, like a sane person. Or you could go start your own holiday travel nightmare, how about that? Maybe build something instead of always tearing me down. You are unbelievable.)

Surely there is a solution to this, to the holiday traffic beartrap? Or I guess the rush-hour trouble too? Is there an “app for that,” he tweeted smirkily? There may be, but there is something even with even more Ayn Rand flavor: the Public–Private Public Road Privatization-Industrial Complex. In this case, the specific “public–private partnership” — the multinationals known as Fluor Corporation and the Transurban Group — took this stretch of Interstate, and renovated the HOV lanes into tolled HOV (or, HOT) lanes, such that vehicles with any amount of passengers can buy their ways in. The jury is still out on whether it worked (I recommend the aforelinked Citylab story even though it is long and blames no one), but thankfully it did not work before my annual helldrive so I don’t yet have to lie about how it never got better.

But where do the tolls go? The multinationals keep the tolls. They, and the other players in the P.P.P.R.P.I.C., pay a big chunk of money to the municipality in exchange for the right to operate (and set and take in tolls) a bit of public infrastructure for a long long time, in this case, 76 years. The public side provides the asset and the private side takes it away from the public, all for a one-time payment. Elected officials serve only for a couple years, and not 76, so this transaction is like the opposite of saving for your kid’s college. This is not an isolated phenomenon — see the Indiana Toll Road, Chicago’s parking meters, Skyway and — well, I guess charter schools are also part of this but they spend a lot of money on PR firms so not fair to include them here.

So yes, authorities are trying to unfuck this particular quicksand of broken dreams on I-95 just south of D.C., by calling in the angels of the free market. Traffic may or may not get better over time, but at least more multinationals will be making more money.

The state of empiricism being what it is today, explaining away this black hole parking lot of holiday travel as failure of the various governments to anticipate and react to the vehicular needs of a region and its passers-through is just too simple, too pat. It’s what they want me to think. Now, I admit that I am no expert in traffic and how it works, no matter how much I admired the Campbell Scott character in “Singles.” But I know what I know, and I have actually driven a car many times down this stretch of I-95. And if I were the Campbell Scott character in “Singles,” what I would tell you is that there is something going on here.

Being a not-expert, my first instinct is to blame this on ghosts. It is only natural to ask, “Which ghosts, and where?” And so my next first instinct is: Ancient Indian burial grounds! This is an old trope of horror movies of course, which are not only fiction but sometimes a little bit less than plausible. But a real big ancient Indian burial ground would theoretically hold enough ghosts to mess up so much traffic, and also the ghosts would be super pissed at us because we still call them Indians. Think I’m wrong? Ask the Cleveland We Lost Three World Series Elimination Games if they think I’m wrong.

Sadly, after much research, both Google and Wikipedia agreed that there is not much in the way of ancient Indian burial mounds directly underneath that stretch of I-95. I did find record of ancient Indian burial grounds a bit further to the west, out towards Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia. In fact, there’s one that was excavated by Thomas Jefferson, and another one a couple miles north, up on the banks of the Rapidan River. However, my understanding of how these things work, you have to build the actual thing, or the swimming pool of the thing, on top of the ancient Indian burial mound for it to work. So maybe I’m wrong.

Happily for me, I remembered something else about the region, so I don’t have to entertain any weird thoughts about being wrong. Both Google and Wikipedia agree that Northern Virginia is just lousy with Civil War battle sights. My theory is that this is because the capitals of the Union and the Confederacy kind of bookend this stretch of I-95, so when the sides were all like, “Let’s go fight these guys about who gets to write the history books!” they met in the middle. The middle, like, the I-95 corridor just south of D.C.! And, my gosh, the road goes right through Dumfries and also Fredericksburg! There are Civil War battlegrounds scattered around that part of Virginia like plastic bags stuck in the trees of a forest! Now, it has to be said that these hordes and hordes of Civil War ghosts may not be so mad about the name of the NFL team that plays in FedExField, but, since let’s say half of these ghosts lost the Civil War, they’re mad about that? I mean, that seems to be the case with a lot of non-ghost living people?

So clearly, it is the case that the ghosts of the Civil War dead, perhaps even the ghosts of the Confederacy, that bedevil the I-95 corridor south of D.C. so. I have unfriended any friends/family/fans that think otherwise. I will not let bloodlines/affection sway me from telling you what the case is. So as you disperse, taking into account the fevered advice of our news professionals, and are inevitably trapped the sad slow misery of cars not moving, be grateful that your municipality is not so freaking haunted by the ghosts of the Confederacy who are all still mad at Henry Ford or something. Be thankful and count this in your blessings, and remember that while avoiding talking about politics, this revelation and the weather are tremendous for filling in the silences — something to make the eventual holiday embrace of your loved ones all that more Hallmark.

Holiday Dread is The Awl’s series dedicated to the season of joy and other emotions. Previously:

Holiday Dread: Small Talk With White People