How storm is likely to affect D.C. area’s roads


Remember snow like this? Many drivers don’t, and that’s likely to be a problem on Wednesday. (Jahi Chikwendiu – The Washington Post)

It’s been several years since the D.C. region faced a snowy forecast such as the Capital Weather Gang is putting out for Tuesday night and Wednesday, so let’s review what travelers should expect.

First, the predicted road conditions, as described by the gang: Snowfall will lead to low visibility and difficult travel conditions, especially west and northwest of the Beltway. Unless you are comfortable and experienced driving in the snow, you should wait to travel until Thursday.

The Tuesday evening commute should be okay. The Dulles Metrorail project announced that it was canceling night work, and so did Metrorail.

The morning and afternoon commutes on Wednesday are likely to be ghastly. Drivers, bikers, bus riders and walkers are likely to encounter a variety of conditions — not just as they travel across the region but even if they stay within a limited area. They may see rain, sleet and snow.

One of the most useful strategies that highway department have added in recent years involves laying down anti-icing treatments such as salt brine ahead of a storm’s arrival. But if a storm begins as rain, it limits the effectiveness of the treatment, because much of it will wash off the road surface before the snow starts.

Joan Morris, Northern Virginia spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Transportation, said Tuesday afternoon that VDOT was not planning to use salt brine treatments in advance of the storm in areas where it was likely to begin as rain.

Chuck Gischlar, a spokesman for the Maryland State Highway Administration, said state road crews were treating the roads in western Maryland, where heavy snow was expected, and in any area where the rain period might be short enough to allow the treatment to be effective in preventing ice from forming. (If you see white streaks along a roadway, that’s probably the brine treatment.)

This storm will be the first test of snow removal from the 495 Express Lanes along the Capital Beltway in Virginia. Drivers have been curious about how that will work. First, VDOT says it will treat all Beltway lanes equally and has the equipment to do so. Expect to see the usual plow trains moving in unison along the regular lanes and pushing snow to the right, onto the shoulder.

In the express lanes, drivers also will see plow trains, but they will be pushing snow to the shoulder on the left. On the right, is a median staked out with white bollards. For that, VDOT has specialized vehicles, called flusher trucks. They have nozzles pointed toward the right to spray anti-icing solution into the median. If it works right, that will keep the median free of snow while preserving the bollards.

Pierce Coffee, an executive with Transurban, operator of the express lanes, said the advice for driving in the new lanes is about the same as for any other sort of driving: Use caution and stay alert. Drivers might see special messages about conditions on the express lanes’ message boards, she said.

My own advice is to say off the roads Wednesday unless you absolutely have to be out there. Give the road crews a chance to plow without having to maneuver around your stuck vehicle. This is likely to be a heavy, wet snow, and at times, the wind will be gusting. You won’t be able to see very well. Keep your lights on so other drivers have a chance to see you.

There’s also the risk that the snow’s weight will bring down branches and power lines. Traffic signals may be out, in which case you should treat the intersection as an all-way stop. This is one of the most difficult rules for drivers in the D.C. area to follow. It doesn’t matter if your road is wider than the intersecting road. Doesn’t matter if you can’t see another vehicle or pedestrian nearby. Just stop.

Virginia

In Northern Virginia, VDOT does most of the cleanup work. The department’s crews are responsible for 17,679 lane miles in Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William and Arlington counties. Arlington handles its own secondary roads.

Some may recall the era when VDOT tackled the main roads before moving into the subdivisions. These days, it has separate programs for the highways and subdivisions, so the neighborhoods don’t wait till highway equipment is freed up. However, within each of those categories, the crews are likely to tackle the highest volume roadways first, so they have the greatest impact on travel. The general plan is to begin plowing once two inches of snow have fallen.

Virginia provides travel information through the 511 system. Dial that number from within the state, or go online to www.511virginia.org.

The District

The District focuses first on major roads, commuter corridors and Snow Emergency Routes. Streets that are narrow or steep, or have other special problems are designated for special attention.

You can track D.C. plows online at snowmap.dc.gov. If you feel your street isn’t getting the attention it deserves, phone the Mayor’s Call Center at 311, or use the online version at 311.dc.gov.

When the District declares a snow emergency, don’t park along the streets with signs that designate them as Snow Emergency Routes. That subjects drivers to towing and heavy fines.

Shovel your walkways, but don’t heave the snow into the street. When shoveling a driveway, leave the last five feet of snow at the curb till after the plow has made a pass. That will assist the plow truck and save you the annoyance of having to clear the area twice. Plow trucks almost always push snow to the right.

Be especially careful shoveling after this storm. First of all, we haven’t done it in a while. Also, this snow will be very heavy. Take small bites.

Maryland

The State Highway Administration is responsible for roads with numbers. The counties and municipalities take care of the rest. SHA noted Tuesday that it is going to have six heavy-duty tow trucks out across the Baltimore-Washington region to help any disabled tractor-trailers on the Interstates during the storm. That’s been a source of problems in winters past.

Like Virginia, Maryland uses the 511 information system for road travel. You can call 511 from within the state or look online at www.MD511.org.

The Capital Weather Gang and the Dr. Gridlock blog also will be updating conditions throughout the storm and its aftermath.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region.
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Robert Thomson | March 5, 2013