Why do Arlington and Alexandria wait?

As you lie awake in bed at night, scrolling through the list of which schools, workplaces and governments in this most weather-centric season are closing, have you ever wondered why Arlington County and Alexandria are such laggards?

While almost all governments declared themselves closed to business Wednesday night, well ahead of the snowstorm that is currently being enjoyed by children and cross-country skiers, the two inside-the-Beltway suburbs waited until 5 a.m. or so on Thursday to surrender to the snow.

“I always start with the premise that we’re going to be open,” said Alexandria city manager Rashad Young, a native of Dayton, Ohio. He’s only been in Alexandria for a little more than two years, but he’s noticed the dramatic difference between snowfall, ice and rain between the far western suburbs and the city, which is almost entirely east of I-95. “They might get 8 to 10 inches in western Fairfax or Montgomery County, but we only get 2 or 3 inches,” Young said.

Alexandria, like neighbor Arlington County, typically waits until after the 3 a.m. Council of Governments conference call to decide whether to close or open government offices. During that call, WMATA reports on the status of its mass transit operations, a representative of the federal government announces its decisions, and other governments, even those which previously announced closings, chime in. Immediately afterward, Young said, local street crews who have been out all night report on conditions in the 14-square-mile burg.

Thursday was the first day since Snowmaggedon in 2010 that Alexandria has officially closed; in other weather emergencies, it’s set up a liberal leave policy, opened late or closed early. The city’s help line, 703-746-HELP, is open for snow-related questions. As of midday, no crises have been reported. The 45 to 50 pieces of road equipment expect to finish clearing primary routes, then move on to secondary streets. If the snow does not start up again later Thursday, crews who are working 12-hour shifts will move on to residential streets.

The more populous Arlington County also delays its decision making until after the COG conference call and after its crews report in, a spokeswoman said.  By midday Thursday, all the primary and secondary roads were cleared of snow, and crews were moving on to residential streets. Calls to the emergency call center were below average, and no one had reported trees or lines down, or power outages.

“By 4:30 a.m…. we are in a much better position to make critical decisions that will affect openings and closings throughout the Arlington County Government after emergency information is gathered,” said John Crawford, spokesman for Arlington’s Office of Emergency Management.  Employees are notified in those wee hours, presumably when most are just rising, and residents are encouraged to keep an eye on the county’s Web site — or media updates, such as those written by The Washington Post.

Patricia Sullivan seeks out news about Alexandria and Arlington County for the Washington Post.
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