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Posted at 8:20 AM ET, 01/27/2011

Driving in the storm's aftermath

By Ashley Halsey III
Mark Berman

The commute home Wednesday night that took hours instead of minutes, caused scores of collisions and left the region scattered with abandoned cars was a conspiracy of weather and timing that had hellish results.

The storm took no one by surprise, and even after days of pondering its shape and potential impact, by the time it arrived weather forecasters were accurately foreshadowing what would happen.

Road crews in both states and the District prepared for snow as they normally do, pretreating streets with salt and, in some cases, a calcium chloride mix, intended to melt the initial snow or ice.

But on Wednesday the worst of the storm was preceded by a heavy rain that washed away most of those chemical pre-treatments. Then, just as the mix of sleet and freezing rain started -- and before crews could intervene again -- the rush hour home began early.

Salt trucks that might have mitigated the effect of the fresh layer of ice were trapped in the same traffic jams that drivers were. And very quickly those trucks were stuck behind cars that were spinning their wheels on hills and buses with modern technology that caused them to shut down when they lose traction.

A District driver making her way from Petworth to work in Northern Virginia on Thursday morning reported that the main streets seemed slushy but passable and that side streets seemed in far better condition than they had been after the blizzards of 2009-2010.

She said Georgia Avenue was relatively clear and that Rock Creek Parkway was mostly clear and wet, but moving at about 20 miles per hour.

"When the storm hits right at rush hour this will always be a problem," said John B. Townsend II of the American Automobile Association.

Townsend was stuck in traffic for more than two hours last night as he made his way from downtown Washington out New York Avenue enroute to his home in Prince George's County.

"Everybody was taking it in stride, but if this was a test to prepare us for what's likely to come in February, we got an "F'," he said.

The business of plowing and driving in Northern Virginia was made more difficult this morning by dozens of vehicles that were abandoned on roadways at the height of the storm.

"It's been a big issue of plowing around those and then coming back to plow again once they've been removed," said VDOT spokesman Jennifer McCord.

On major highways, notably I-66 westbound, most of the cars, trucks and SUVs were abandoned on the shoulder, but some stuck out into traffic lanes just enough to pose a danger, she said.

As of 5:30 a.m., McCord said most Northern Virginia interstates were slushy but passable, though traffic was moving slowly. She said the HOV lanes were clear and opened to traffic at 4:30 a.m.

McCord said 2,200 trucks continued to work on snow packed primary roads and in subdivisions. In a change of policy that followed criticism after last year's blizzards, VDOT crews tackled those residential streets from the outset of the storm rather than waiting for a two-inch snow accumulation, as they had in previous years.

Arlington County's crew of 150 people working two 12-hour shifts using 45 plows have managed to clear the arterial streets and are working on collector streets now. The neighborhood streets will follow later this morning, said Myllisa Kennedy, a county spokeswoman.

The plows have had to dodge a few abandoned cars, but face more problems from low-hanging and downed power lines, she said. The county also has staff examining an estimated 50 calls they received regarding fallen trees and power lines, said Mary Curtius, another spokeswoman.

About 13,700 people were without power in the county, primarily north of Lee Highway.

"The city is pretty much open for business," John Lisle, spokesman for the District Department of Transportation said just before sunrise Thursday. "The downtown streets have been plowed. It's not curb to curb yet, but they are clear."

Lisle said 4.5 inches of snow had been recorded at the DDOT depot in Northeast.

"The two-hour federal delay will help," he said. "As soon as we get a lot of cars driving downtown that traffic will clear up the remaining slush."

Lisle said plows were at work on every route in residential neighborhoods.

"Most residential streets have a slushy coat and we're treating that with salt because there's not enough to plow," he said.

Lisle said his big worry was sidewalks, and he urged people to get out and shovel them.

"In terms of driving, you can get where you need to go," he said. "The problem is going to be on the sidewalks. The last thing we want is people getting hit because they have to walk in the street."

-- Christy Goodman contributed to this post

[This post has been updated]

By Ashley Halsey III  | January 27, 2011; 8:20 AM ET
Categories:  Commuting, Congestion, Driving  
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