The Washington Post
An avoidable traffic nightmare
Virginia officials must learn from their failure to prepare before the horrific I-95 shutdown.
THE PARALYSIS and peril that at least hundreds of snowbound motorists suffered Jan. 3 on Interstate 95 in Northern Virginia is a chronicle of a disaster foretold. Foretold, specifically, by meteorologists.
Materials obtained by The Post make it clear that Virginia transportation officials were warned, by the National Weather Service (NWS) as well as a private forecasting firm, that a major storm was on the way. The warnings were loud and clear and delivered in a timely way, sufficiently ahead of the storm’s arrival for government agencies to move.
The unavoidable conclusion is that authorities were slow to take action — slow, especially, to communicate — in a way that could have mitigated what turned into an epic event of misery on one of the East Coast’s most congested stretches of highway.
No doubt even a perfect response by state officials could not have prevented traffic accidents and delays that day. But a better response — a quicker, more noble and forceful one — would likely have avoided the specter of 50 miles and 12 to more than 24 hours of gridlock along I-95 south of D.C. Stuck overnight without adequate supplies of food, water and gasoline, drivers and passengers deserved better from the government agencies that manage the roadways and emergencies. It’s practically a miracle that no one died.
Unambiguous heads-ups from forecasters from the NWS to state and local transportation officials in Northern Virginia began on the morning of Jan. 2, nearly 24 hours before the storm hit. The warnings started with emails. That afternoon, the NWS followed up with an online briefing that included a worstcase scenario of up to 12 inches of snow — and very rapid accumulations — around Fredericksburg. Separately, a private forecasting firm called DTN, which specializes in consulting with public transportation agencies, briefed the Virginia Department of Transportation’s Fredericksburg district office at 10 that same morning.
Yet it was not until more than five hours later that the district office issued a news release about the danger of heavy snow.
Virginia transportation officials have pledged to undertake a multi-agency review of what went wrong. That review must be robust. A new state transportation secretary — W. Sheppard “Shep” Miller III, a member of the state’s transportation regulatory board — has been nominated by incoming governor Glenn Youngkin (R) and is likely to take office in the coming weeks. It will fall to him to manage what was one of VDOT’S worst meltdowns in memory and devise corrective measures.
Some of those measures might need legislation to accomplish, especially if they seek to limit tractor-trailers’ use of highways in major storms. Jackknifed tractor-trailers were apparently a significant contributing factor to the blockage on Jan. 3. A state senator, Democrat David W. Marsden of Fairfax, has proposed a bill that would limit such trucks to the righthand lane during snowstorms.
The real key is better, faster communication that would caution motorists — loudly, repeatedly — from using the highway when forecasts suggest dangerous conditions. VDOT’S failure to deter motorists with timely, clear and urgent warnings was a critical factor in creating the Jan. 3 mess. That cannot be allowed to happen again.