D.C.-area motorists lose their ‘gunslinger’

For 21 years, Lon Anderson has considered himself a “gunslinger” against traffic jams, a “gladiator” against drunken driving and the “staunch defender” of nearly 4 million beleaguered motorists.

As director of public and governmental relations for AAA Mid-Atlantic, Anderson has been the Washington region’s most visible and influential motorist advocate, verbally flogging area governments to crack down on unsafe drivers, fix dangerous roads and ease some of the worst gridlock in the nation. His weapon: catchy, go-for-the-throat sound bites that the media — and lawmakers — simply can’t ignore.

He’s accused “money-grubbing” District officials of turning one particularly profitable speed camera into “an old-fashioned, money-making, motorist rip-off speed trap right out of ‘The Dukes of Hazzard.’ ” Public officials in “Rip Van Maryland,” he says, have snoozed while Virginia has added express toll lanes to the Capital Beltway and built the Silver Line Metrorail extension.

His table-smacking interjections of “Outrageous!” have drawn gavel-pounding from legislative committee chairmen and earned him the nickname “the reverend.” Friends describe him as passionate — and laughingly agree with one veteran transportation journalist’s description of Anderson years ago as “the Billy Graham of the roadgangers.”

“He’s been a real mainstay in the region and one of the main voices for better transportation,” said former Montgomery county executive Doug Duncan (D). “A lot of people complain about it, but very few people advocate for solutions. He’s been that voice for a long, long time.”

Anderson, 66, is set to retire from AAA at the end of this month, but not before he lets a few more zingers fly at the government agencies he blames for the Washington area’s teeth-gnashing traffic.

“You don’t get to have the worst congestion in the United States without decades of bad decisions,” he said recently at AAA Mid-Atlantic’s offices in downtown D.C. “If they make a bad decision, I’m going to pounce on it and throw a punch.”

Yes, cycling has surged in the District, and suburbs are seeing millennials and empty-nester baby boomers gravitate to more walkable, transit-oriented communities so they can drive less — or not own a car at all.

But 72 percent of Washington-area residents still commute by car, and another 12 percent who use carpools or buses also rely on the roads. While many people think of AAA as a roadside assistance service, it also is one of the most influential advocacy groups in transportation politics. Anderson reminds politicians that his group represents 3.7 million motorists in the District, Maryland, Virginia, Delaware and parts of New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

“On the power index, he was at the higher end,” said Jim Dinegar, president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade. “He represented a very powerful group, and he gave voice to it. . . . If, by God, Lon opposed your legislation, he’d come at you with everything AAA had — and that was quite a bit. And if he supported you, he’d throw the full weight of the organization behind you.”

Anderson has his detractors, mostly among transit and cycling advocates who clashed with him over street space for bike lanes and his calls for another Potomac River crossing beyond the chronically congested American Legion Bridge.

Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition For Smarter Growth, said Anderson is “very good with a quip” but “out of date” on transportation policy. Schwartz said the “outer Beltway” bridge Anderson wants would suck up billions of dollars needed for mass transit and lead to more sprawl development and, in turn, more traffic.

“Almost more than anyone else,” Schwartz said, “he’s never met a highway he didn’t like.”

Moreover, Schwartz said, Anderson has had an “inherent conflict of interest” because AAA relies on dues-paying motorists.

“That means he’ll support policies that result in more people driving more,” Schwartz said. “That could color your comments on transportation policy.”

But others say they have seen Anderson, along with AAA Mid-Atlantic, evolve from no-holds-barred road advocates to supporters of a more balanced approach that includes the need for better transit and pedestrian and bike safety. AAA Mid-Atlantic supported construction of the Silver Line and has embraced plans for a light-rail Purple Line in Maryland.

“I think there was an evolution in his thinking,” said David Snyder, vice mayor of Falls Church and a longtime member of the region’s Transportation Planning Board. “The reality is you can’t simply put down more asphalt.”

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), another longtime transportation board member, said Anderson and his group became “less strident” over the years.

“I think they realized that if you want to drive your car,” Mendelson said, “the whole system has to work.”

The way Anderson sees it: More people riding mass transit means fewer clogging the roads for those who have to drive. In turn, more free-flowing roads provide better transit service for bus passengers. He notes that he’s an avid walker — he works to get in his 10,000 steps daily — and that AAA Mid-Atlantic recently extended its roadside assistance program to bicyclists.

“But will walking and cycling replace the need for roads to offer mobility to cars and buses?” Anderson said. “No. . . . And transit can’t replace the need for automobiles.”

Anderson has had much of his influence as a vocal critic. One of his biggest beefs: His belief that the District government has declared “war on motorists” by placing some speed cameras to make money for the city rather than improve safety. The number of parking tickets the city writes also gets him riled up.

“People come to Washington to see the cherry blossoms,” he said in a booming voice, “but they have a better chance of seeing pink [citations] under their windshield wiper.”

He is unapologetic about seeking media coverage to promote his group’s agenda. He said he knows from his early years as a journalist — he was a reporter for the Frederick News-Post and once owned a weekly newspaper in Damascus — what reporters are looking for: accurate, quick information and frank quotes.

He made himself so available to reporters that his wife, Claudia Tidwell, said she is most excited at the prospect of soon dining out without her husband leaving the table for a restaurant parking lot interview.

“This is a town where everyone wants to be in the media and be quoted,” Anderson said. “If you want to rise above the chatter, you’ve got to be good.”

His biggest disappointment: leaving the job without persuading Virginia lawmakers to make driving without a seat belt a primary offense. Under current law, police can only cite motorists for failure to wear a seat belt if they stop them for another violation first.

Among his proudest accomplishments: persuading Maryland lawmakers to strengthen the state’s vehicular homicide law and leading a successful campaign in the 1990s for safety barriers on the George Washington Parkway after a string of fatal head-on collisions.

Addressing his team of 16 AAA employees at his recent retirement party, Anderson grew teary and barely choked out, “We’ve saved a lot of lives.”

Anderson said he and his wife will move soon from Silver Spring to West Virginia, where they plan to spend more time hiking in the mountains than stewing in traffic. He might even try his hand at blogging.

“I think,” he said, “I still have a few things to say.”

Robert Thomson contributed to this report.

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