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Anger, like the snow, lingers

Travelers can't shake off their snow trauma. About four of every five comments I received during our regular online chat Monday had to do with the continuing struggle to clean up the streets, sidewalks and trails, as well as what could be done better the next time we have a heavy snow.

Meanwhile, I'll never be able to publish all the Dr. Gridlock letters I received about what happened, and what should have happened. This letter from Thursday will illustrate some of the frustrations that lingered even as the snow began to melt.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:
I don't object to not being plowed early in the storm. I don't live on a main road and expect to be snowed in a few days most winters. I was impressed with the timeliness which the Virginia Department of Transportation got to our road. I was impressed that the first time I called them to let them know a patch still needed treatment, they sent a plow within two hours.

Unfortunately, every time after that I was told my road was "complete." It didn't matter to them that four cars went off the road and at least three more got stuck in a 24-hour period. All they would do was to put a request in the system.

So, I became a one-woman vigilante, calling repeatedly -- waiting to be told we when the request was "completed" and demanding they come back again since the plow hadn't finished the job. I also went out with my snow shovel to try to help clear the road, in addition to helping neighbors get back on the road whenever I noticed a problem. Finally, a private citizen spotted me and my shovel and put the plow down on his pick-up truck. That's how we got our road to its current state.

There should be a supervisor who takes calls from citizens repeatedly calling in about dangerous conditions that the plow drivers have marked off as "complete." In such circumstances, they could easily drive out to the "complete" roads and see if the complaints are valid. It shouldn't be too dangerous, since their own employees have called the street in as safe.

Had VDOT told me that they were working on our street and just hadn't gotten to us yet, I would have waited. To tell me that a 0.2-mile sheet of ice and slush that was sending cars off the road no longer needed treatment should be criminal.
-- Lori Flanagan
Broad Run

The D.C. region's transportation departments were overwhelmed by the back-to-back storms. Their efforts to clear the streets were heroic. My main gripe is that they should have prepared themselves and the rest of us for the difficulties we'd have in getting around for the rest of the month. Expectations on everybody's part were unrealistic, given the scope of the natural disaster we suffered.

I don't expect the departments to hire the staff and equipment to clear three feet of snow in a couple of days. But let's look at the current snow-fighting plan to understand what we went through. We're looking at VDOT not to single out that agency, but because our letter writer is from Virginia.

VDOT is responsible for 17,679 miles of lanes in Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William and Arlington counties. About half of those miles are highway, and half are local or neighborhood streets. (Arlington maintains its own secondary roads).

Crews begin plowing in neighborhoods when two or more inches of snow has fallen. First, says VDOT, the crews go after the main roads in the neighborhoods and plow them repeatedly. Once the storm has stopped and those roads are clear, crews work to make residential streets and cul de sacs passable.

Many readers have asked for a definition of "passable." This is VDOT's definition: A neighborhood street is considered passable when a path is drivable, with caution, for an average passenger vehicle. The road will not be cleared curb-to-curb or to bare pavement, and may remain snow-packed, uneven and rutted (especially following any refreeze). Chemicals are not used in subdivisions, but crews will sand hills, curves and intersections as needed to provide traction.

For most storms, one snowplow pass is made on each neighborhood street. VDOT says one pass should leave a path about eight-feet to 10-feet wide. But in bigger storms, like ours this month, making a road passable requires more. Perhaps it's more passes with the plow, but it could also mean bringing in other equipment, including front-end loaders to push aside those deep, heavy, crusty piles of snow.

The neighborhood streets in VDOT's Northern Virginia territory are organized into about 650 "snow maps." Once drivers complete a minimum of one pass on the roads on a map, they report back that the route is complete.

Each plow driver is assigned at least three snow maps. The driver usually will not move on to the second map until one pass is made through all the streets on the first, unless there's an emergency or some other special circumstance.

VDOT judges subdivisions complete by reviewing progress reports from the plowers about their maps. But the department says it also checks on the volume of calls from the neighborhood and what it hears from its own staffers assigned to patrol the streets on those snow maps.

Most people could live with that in a typical snowfall. VDOT figures that in a six-inch snowstorm, it can have all the residential streets passable -- remember the definition above -- within 48 hours of the storm's end.

Of course, there was nothing typical about the three feet of February snow. VDOT estimates that it made the majority of its neighborhoods passable in five days, but that it took a few more days to follow up on requests and complaints.

And VDOT says the volume of calls throughout the snowfall and its aftermath was overwhelming. At one point, the department asked people to stop calling the main service number -- 703-383-VDOT -- and concentrate on e-mailing complaints to There also was an alternative phone number to try. That was 800-367-ROAD.

How does that description match up with your experience? Do you see flaws in the battle plan you'd like to see VDOT address?

By Robert Thomson  |  February 23, 2010; 9:00 AM ET
Categories:  Weather  | Tags: Dr. Gridlock, snowstorm  
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Next: Today's read: Feds take on Metro


I think overall, the state's reliance on VDOT to handle every road is unwise. The fact that they let local roads sit for at least 24-48 hours before making a first pass results in packed snow and abandonded vehicles. Let VDOT focus on main highways and roads, and turn the covereage of local roads over to local municipalities. Another point, that's been made elsewhere, is that Virginia's annual budget for snow removal is approximately $27 million. The Washington Post reports that every day the federal government is closed, it costs taxpayers $100 million. During this storm, the government was closed 3.5 days which cost $350 million. Wouldn't it be cheaper and more efficient for the federal government to make $100 million available to Maryland and Northern Virginia to allow them to get to the roads and place chemicals on all streets?

Posted by: justanotherguy | February 23, 2010 9:12 AM | Report abuse

From Dr. Gridlock: justanotherguy, those are fair questions that I hope will be discussed more during the governmental reviews of what happened.

A quick take: Maryland operates somewhat differently. Road departments in Montgomery and Prince George's counties have responsibilities for clearing many of the local streets. This month, I saw little variance in the level and type of complaints coming from the different jurisdictions across the region about the condition of the roads. In other words, there was no obvious evidence on the ground -- or on the pavement -- that Marylanders were more satisfied with road conditions that Virginians.

Money issue: I'm not sure it would be cheaper for the feds to do that. It's not a question of looking at the forecast, seeing a big storm is coming, and saying to the local departments, "Here's $100 million. Get ready."

The feds would have to give us the money every year, so that staffing and equipment levels could be raised to be ready for such storms. Would the feds want to do that every year so the Washington region always is prepared to deal with the worst winter of the century?

Posted by: Dr_Gridlock | February 23, 2010 10:12 AM | Report abuse

I live in Fairfax County and my neighborhood has a split plowing system. VDOT is responsible for some of the main roads in the area. The homeowners' association is responsible for most of the roads on which the houses are located. In the case of my street, that means VDOT plows the street that leads in and out to Van Dorn Street and the HOA plows the street on which I live (it connects to the one VDOT plows). Both entities did a good job during the recent snowstorms; after the first storm on Friday night/Saturday, the roads were cleared well enough by Sunday morning that I was able to drive downtown for the Capitals v. Pittsburgh game.

I talked to my parents, who live just east of Fairfax City. Their homeowners' association does not do any plowing; the streets are VDOT's responsibility. They didn't see a plow for several days, and when one finally came it managed to get stuck in a snow drift down the end of the block.

I know there are lots of people who complain about the concept of homeowners' associations, and I know that when an HOA gets taken over by the wrong people it can cause problems. In the case of these snowstorms, though, I thought the system we have was a very good one because our roads got cleared promptly. Of course the residential streets were still narrower than usual (one lane, in the case of my block), but that's life when you get 40 inches of snow in five days. I wonder if making plow responsibility a standard part of the proffers that go with zoning for new residential developments might be one way to help reach the goal the first commenter suggested. It accomplishes four things: (1) Frees up VDOT plows for the arterial streets. (2) Gets plows into the neighborhoods sooner. (3) Creates a system where the people who live on a particular street chip in (via HOA dues) to plow it, while people who do not live in that area (and do not pay HOA dues) do not. (4) Allows for a level of plowing that does not cut into the VDOT budget for snow removal, while also reducing VDOT's concern about private contractors plowing roads in the VDOT system (which raises liability issues).

Posted by: 1995hoo | February 23, 2010 10:23 AM | Report abuse

In the small town I grew up in (Massachusetts), the town would put out a call to local workers every summer. Those with pickup trucks and plows were able to go to town hall, show proof of insurance, and be put on a list. These were folks who were typically "out of work" during heavy snows - landscapers, carpenters, etc. When a sorm hit, they would hit the roads and be paid for their time. No strom - no pay. Therefore, the money would only need to be available for this extra workforce. If there were no significant storms that needed these reserves, the money could be rolled into the following year (or spent on other road projects - a few pothole crews might be nice right now).

Posted by: justanotherguy | February 23, 2010 10:24 AM | Report abuse

It was a lot of snow and it took a few days to get our street to a point where I could drive our minivan on it. My experience in southern Montgomery County was that the county did a reasonable job in our neighborhood. We don't have garages or driveways on my street but the county came back last week during the day and during the evening with Bobcats to clear the remaining snow between the parked cars all the way to the curb.

The state, on the other hand, quit too soon. The state has the responsibility for the "numbered" roads like East-West Highway (410), Connecticut Avenue (185) and New Hampshire Avenue (650). It seems like the state plows worked hard to get a lane or two opened right after the snow, then parked the plows. Ten (10!) days after the snow stopped we still had traffic backing up onto the Beltway because the right lane of Georgia Avenue north of the beltway had not been plowed (between the beltway and Wheaton).

Posted by: KS100H | February 23, 2010 12:10 PM | Report abuse

City wimps. Harassing bureaucrats with your phone does not make you a vigilante.

Or maybe it does. Lets deploy your cell phone to Afghanistan and let you win that one for us.

Posted by: member5 | February 23, 2010 12:19 PM | Report abuse

I had the same experience as KS100H in PG County. Most local roads were cleared in a reasonable time, while the state roads were not.

This created an absurd situation where the side streets were passable but the "snow emergency routes" were not. (!)

Posted by: stuckman | February 23, 2010 12:52 PM | Report abuse

I'll just echo KS100H and stuckman on Maryland's state plowing. Montgomery got my neighborhood's streets passable almost immediately and down to pavement quickly (well before the governor told us to expect it). But it was definitely safer to drive on neighborhood streets and take back routes than to use University Blvd (193) for far too long. Probably still safer, as that road was in such poor condition before the storms that the potholes are now numerous and large.

Posted by: arc410 | February 23, 2010 5:48 PM | Report abuse

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