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All travel still difficult in D.C. area

E-W Hwy.jpg
Rush hour never ended on main roads like East-West Highway in Montgomery. (Thomson)

Airports | Amtrak | Buses | Capital Weather Gang | D.C. snow emergency | Plowing plans | Rails | Snow removal | Live traffic

We are in the midst of a natural disaster, and no part of the D.C. area's transportation system is functioning very well. Residents say many neighborhood streets haven't been cleared. Drivers are crawling along main roads, which is good, because if they got up any speed, it would be dangerous. Bus riders often don't have a stop at which to wait. Train riders are complaining about long waits on crowded platforms.

Roads
On neighborhood streets that have not been made passable, the snow has hardened, making it difficult for plows to gain the upper hand. Different equipment is needed. Some residential areas will see small front-end loaders working to break up snow piles.

Main roads are much more crowded today. It's as though the morning rush never ended. The condition of these roads is somewhat better than on Monday, but more people came out of their neighborhoods to reach work or do errands in the brief window before the next storm later today.

A driver breaking free of traffic is tempted to step on the gas. Resist that temptation. Some road obstacle is in your immediate future. These are the key problems I encountered:
Lanes disappear. On East-West Highway and Brookville Road in Montgomery County, there is no eastbound lane. As drivers come down the hill and enter a curve, the lane vanishes into the snow and their only move is into oncoming traffic.

There's no place to put the snow. At points where the roads narrow or bend, there's likely to be frozen slush in the roadway and piles of hardened snow on the sides of the road. Medians are piled high with snow that occasionally spills into the left lane and creates bumps and slippery spots.

Visibility is limited. Interchanges and intersections are particular problems. At many intersections, the snow piles are so big, they could hide a basketball team. At these points, drivers will not see pedestrians stepping out into the roadways. Be particularly careful making a right turn.

Pedestrians in roads. What else can they do? People are walking out of neighborhoods to get supplies. In many cases, the sidewalks are under more than a foot of snow, even along main roads.

Bus stops
They don't exist. At least, not in the normal sense. Stops identified only by poles and bus shields are surrounded by hardened snow in many areas. A prospective passenger would have to stand in the travel lane or stand atop the snow pile and hope for the best.

Shelters don't shelter. Benches inside shelters are partly buried in snow. But who would want to wait inside the shelter, anyway? The bus, if it comes, is going to stop out in a travel lane, yards away across a snow bank. At some stops, though, people have cut a hole in the wall, allowing one passenger at a time to move between the travel lane and the shelter.

It will get worse. Metro said more than 300 buses were operating on 98 routes as of 11 a.m. but that is likely to change later today as road conditions deteriorate. The snowfall won't help the condition of the stops and shelters, either.

Trains
Why so few trains? That's one of the two most frequently asked questions I'm hearing about Metrorail service, which has been restored to all but five Blue Line stations. Metro spokesman Steven Taubenkibel told me it was a question of supply and demand. As of 11 a.m., he said, Metrorail had carried 83,333 passengers. About 45 trains were operating, serving platforms every 20 minutes.

With the federal government closed, he said, it was not necessary to mount a regular rush-hour service. Also, he said, Metro was playing it safe as it resumed above-ground operations. Because snow and ice continue to be problems, the speed limit for the trains today is 35 mph.

Why so long to restore service? That's the other FAQ. It took less time to restore above-ground service after the December storm, riders say.

Taubenkibel said that clearing the snow and ice took longer because there was a lot more of it this time. And it was constantly refreezing. Plus, the snowdrifts would form three- to six-foot mounds. In fact, along the Blue Line from Stadium-Armory to Largo, the drifts has been as high as eight feet.

Remember, the Metro policy is to stop above-ground operations when the snow levels along the tracks reach eight inches, the point at which trains often begin to lose power. It's a little more difficult to predict when we'll reach that point in this storm, since we already have so much snow on the ground.

By Robert Thomson  |  February 9, 2010; 1:50 PM ET
 | Tags: Dr. Gridlock, Metrorail, snowstorm, tips for travelers, washington snow  
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Comments

Bottom line: stay home.

Posted by: WashingtonDame | February 9, 2010 1:59 PM | Report abuse

From Dr. Gridlock: Dame, that's absolutely right. But I know that many people just had to break out today and buy some supplies -- at least, those that remained on the shelves.

We always kid about the stampede for toilet paper before a one-inch snowfall in DC, but I think people were right to take the weekend storm seriously and stock up.

I think a lot of the traffic clogging the roads at midday is people going for goods.

Posted by: Robert Thomson | February 9, 2010 2:20 PM | Report abuse

Supply and demand works both ways... I chose not to take the Metro today (no demand) because as of the time I went to bed last night (midnight), they were claiming there would be no service to my office (no supply). Self-fulfilling prophecy...

Posted by: EtoilePB | February 9, 2010 2:21 PM | Report abuse

Why did metro wait until 11 am to announce that so many more bus routes would be operating today? I decided to use my leave and stayed home because I thought my route wasn't running, and now I find out that it was. How annoying.

Posted by: esmith22015 | February 9, 2010 3:05 PM | Report abuse

The J2 was only running westbound this morning. Metrobus left me standing out in the cold for two hours, all the while Nextbus showed bused were en route. I walked to Montgomery Mall and found 20 people Metro had abandoned. I hopped aboard a J2 preparing to depart without passengers and said I wouldn't get off until a supervisor arrived. I gave that up after 20 minutes for a RideOn to Grovesnor. Metro failed before the snow fell. Sad.

Posted by: anarcho-liberal-tarian | February 9, 2010 3:22 PM | Report abuse

I had a doctor's appointment this morning over on Duke Street just east of Landmark. Didn't really have any trouble getting there, but the traffic was very heavy. I think that has to be expected if you look at it from the point of view that the traffic lights are timed based on there being a certain number of lanes of traffic (three thru lanes, in the case of Duke Street in that area). Since on most roads the full number of lanes are not available--two lanes at best on the part of Duke Street I mentioned--that means it's bound to take longer to get through the lights. It can't be helped. It's like what happens if you plug the drain in your sink and leave only a small opening, or if you use too much toilet paper and then it struggles to flush. Unfortunately, a lot of drivers seem not to understand the problem and were very impatient, flooring it as soon as possible, trying to race around people on the packed snow (never a good idea--what if you have to slam on the brakes and you skid?), etc. The road conditions weren't too bad in my opinion, but the sheer number of cars on the road made the traffic horrendous. (I must say that VDOT's plowing in Fairfax County was far better than the City of Alexandria's plowing efforts. As you probably know, independent cities, and Arlington and Henrico Counties, are not plowed by VDOT with the exception of Interstate Highways.)

After the doctor appointment I decided to stop by the Harris Teeter down the block. Got into the car park and quickly gave up and went home. There was at least one collision IN the car park, no spaces, too much traffic, etc. I have ample chicken in the freezer, so I guess if the forecast holds I will be utterly sick of chicken by the end of the week!

One last thing I haven't heard mentioned much on the radio or TV: In these conditions, it's more important than ever to use your turn signals, especially when the turn lanes are buried under piles of snow. Signal well in advance if you need to turn and the turn lane is covered, because that way other drivers should know they'll have to slow down (I emphasize "should" because we all know how people around here zone out at the wheel). This is no time to make people guess at what you're going to do.

Posted by: 1995hoo | February 9, 2010 3:25 PM | Report abuse

Thank you to the kind Metro bus drivers who picked up myself and another passenger at the corner a few feet from the bus stop and the the one who did the same on the way back as the piles of snow at the stops are too high to climb up and then jump onto the bus. This morning I had tried to walk to the Safeway but could not unless I wanted to walk on Lee Highway as sidewalks were not shoveled and piles of snow blocked the corners.

Posted by: NovaCath1 | February 9, 2010 3:47 PM | Report abuse


Supply and demand works both ways... I chose not to take the Metro today (no demand) because as of the time I went to bed last night (midnight), they were claiming there would be no service to my office (no supply). Self-fulfilling prophecy...

Posted by: EtoilePB | February 9, 2010 2:21 PM | Report abuse

Yeah, this. I worked from home today because as of midnight last night, trains were going to be operating only every 30 minutes at reduced speeds. Since I have to transfer at Rosslyn, I was looking at the possibility of a 2 hr commute each way, plus the uncertainty of how/when/whether Metro would reduce service when the next round of snow started to fall.

Oh, and Arlington Transit (my normal way of commuting) also completely failed to communicate anything about their bus service today until well into the morning. I mean, I kind of guessed there wouldn't be full service but it's nice to have the official statement you can forward to the boss!!

Posted by: lilybelle2 | February 9, 2010 4:33 PM | Report abuse

When is all the global warming going to kick in? After all this cold and snow, I for one will gladly welcome the change to warmer weather.
For those advocates of "climate change", how's this little demonstration of mother nature working out for you?

Posted by: SeniorVet | February 9, 2010 5:11 PM | Report abuse

Seriously, what's with the snide "how's that global warming working out for you?" comments on almost every comment board? Do you people have a brain the size of an ant or something? WEATHER and CLIMATE are two very different cycles. Anyone who thinks this single season is proof positive of this theory or that related to climate is a fool. Just like economies and empires are cyclical and not defined by any short term period or dissuaded by any man-made efforts, so too, are the weather and climate (HAARP being a notable exception); all are poorly understood by most pea-brained, shortsighted bipedals on this planet.

Posted by: CyanSquirrel | February 9, 2010 7:30 PM | Report abuse

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