VDOT presents winter weather plan

November 12, 2013

Specialized equipment to power wash between the white posts on the 495 Express Lanes didn’t get much of a test in last winter’s light snow. (Robert Thomson/The Washington Post)

New vehicles, new chemicals, new cameras — they’re all part of Virginia’s aggressive plan for the snow and ice season. But the best way travelers can help, said Branco Vlacich, VDOT’s snow chief for Northern Virginia, is to adopt a passive strategy: During a storm, stay off the roads.

He explained the public’s role by posing a question during VDOT’s annual winter weather briefing Tuesday morning. In a snowstorm, he asked, what’s VDOT’s major problem:
a. Not enough equipment?
b. Not enough money?
c. Not enough people?
d. Other.

You’d think a government official would be torn among a, b and c. Vlacich said the answer is d. Or to put it another way, it’s “traffic.”

In a storm, “Stay off the road,” he said. “Telework.”

When local transportation agencies prepare the public for winter storms, they tend to adopt a “can do” spirit, noting their state of supreme readiness, their enormous tonnage of stockpiled salt, the number of plows they are read to roll out when a forecaster spots some potential trouble in a long-range model.

That’s all good. Some of the best steps that transportation agencies have taken in recent years include the treating of roadways and the deployment of equipment in advance of storms. But another advance has been their increased willingness to acknowledge that sometimes you can’t fight Mother Nature. Snowstorms that arrive just before or during the afternoon rush are the best examples. The plows get stuck in the same traffic that slows everyone else, leaving them virtually helpless during critical hours. The commute also can be confounded by a storm that delivers an unpredictable mix of rain, ice and snow.

The National Weather Service predicts we’ll have a normal winter, and the Snowmageddon of 2010 probably was a once-in-a-lifetime event. Yet each winter seems to offer some new challenge. VDOT didn’t get much practice during the mild winter of 2012-13 in clearing snow from the 495 Express Lanes, which present an unusual challenge, with their shoulder on the left and a 14-mile long string of white posts on the right. The department has a specialized truck, called a “flusher,” that can power wash ice and some snow from around the posts. It’s probably good for three or four inches of snow, Vlacich said, but didn’t get a serious test last winter.

This season’s additions to the VDOT fleet include a snow-melter truck to clear park and ride lots, a Web page, VDOTplows.org, to show the status of neighborhood plowing, a half dozen rear-mounted cameras to show the results of snowplowing and a road treatment supplement called Chemshield to prevent brine solutions from washing off streets when — as often happens — rain precedes the start of snow.

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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Katherine Shaver | November 12, 2013