- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 1, 2006

Richard Olsen was caught in the cross hairs as he tried to get to work at the National Arboretum yesterday morning.

“It was as bad as it gets,” the research geneticist said. “I left for work at 8:28; I got to my desk at 10:20. It should have been 15 minutes.”

The arboretum is located along New York Avenue, where a carjacked truck being chased by Prince George’s County police crashed into several cars, forcing the closure of westbound Route 50 for more than three hours.

Almost an hour later, only a couple of miles away, Kenilworth Avenue and Interstate 295 were closed after a tractor-trailer burst into flames on northbound I-295 near Eastern Avenue, forcing the closure of Kenilworth Avenue and I-295.

Since his car wasn’t moving, he decided it was safe to use his phone. “I called all the family I have been ignoring for the last six months,” he joked.

Traffic yesterday morning backed up for hours on commuter routes entering the District from Prince George’s and Montgomery counties following the two crashes, forcing thousands of employees to arrive at work late and costing local businesses lost work time as well as sales.

Delays and lost productivity due to crashes in the third-most-congested area in the U.S. are all too common for area commuters.

“Clearly every day commuters and businesses suffer from the delays that we experience,” said Bob Grow, director of government relations at the Greater Washington Board of Trade.

“This is a recurring problem. We just don’t have the capacity to handle the traffic,” he added.

A typical District-area commuter spends an additional 69 hours a year stuck in a car, and burns 42 extra gallons of gas, due to traffic tie-ups, according to estimates from the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M; University. Almost half that extra time is related to crashes, vehicle breakdowns and bad weather.

“There’s no question that gridlock costs each of us thousands of dollars a year,” said Lon Anderson, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic.

Nationwide, traffic delays due to vehicle crashes cost roughly $25.6 billion a year in lost wages and productivity, according to a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimate from 2000, the most recent data available.

“It’s a real business cost,” Mr. Grow said.

Creela Sullivan-Smith intended to run downtown during her lunch break to the D.C. courthouse and immediately return to work.

“What would have normally taken about 25 minutes turned into over two hours,” said Ms. Sullivan-Smith, who works at Lanham publishing company Bernan Associates. “It’s like a parking lot.”

“Between the traffic, the heat and the price of gas, it’s amazing we don’t just start walking to work,” said Michael Brown, originally from Los Angeles and now a Greenbelt resident. “This is reminiscent of L.A. traffic, except there it’s five lanes and not three.”

Some area restaurants felt a pinch — whether a temporary drop in lunch business or staff shortages — because of the traffic congestion.

Lunch sales were down about 15 percent to 20 percent at the District Chophouse, said General Manager David Greenberg.

“Lunch was slower,” Mr. Greenberg said. “People who normally get to work at 9 a.m. didn’t get into work until 10:30 or 11 a.m. Some didn’t even take lunch breaks because of it.”

At Old Ebbitt Grill, about 50 percent of the staff was running late yesterday morning because of the traffic, but lunch business was normal, said General Manager David Moran.

“You could tell the whole city was running late today, but by lunch we were back on track,” he said.

Mauro Gomez of Hyattsville, manager of Hogs on the Hill barbecue restaurant on Bladensburg Road close to the accidents, also lost customers. “They only have 20-minute breaks, and with 30 minutes of traffic, they can’t come in,” Mr. Gomez said. “The accident made a big difference.”

On a day when public transportation seemed attractive for many drivers, buses were caught in the same traffic as the cars.

“The buses are taking too long,” Northeast resident Tima Washington said while waiting with other frustrated commuters.

Still, many workers who do not live or work on the eastern side of the District didn’t even know about the accidents yesterday afternoon.

Others took the long, hot commute in stride.

Stuck in traffic on his way to work at a Courtyard Marriott downtown, Mr. Brown was not worried about being late since he was in traffic with everyone else. “What is my boss going to do? I am the only bartender there. He just has to wait.”

Jen Haberkorn contributed to this report.

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