Ice plagues D.C. region as it digs itself out from latest snowstorm

Washington was in motion again Tuesday, one day after an icy snowstorm shut down the region, but many drivers inched along many minimally plowed neighborhood streets and pedestrians did the slip and slide on miles of sidewalks untouched by shovels.

Mother Nature may play out the hand she dealt Monday, trumping snow and ice with warmer weather that’s forecast to arrive Wednesday and continue through the weekend. A major melting should start by Friday, with high temperatures near or above 50 expected for five consecutive days, according to forecasts.

A combination of factors made snow removal challenging in the aftermath of the storm and into Tuesday. Roads normally treated before the first snowfall were left bare Monday because the rain that fell first would have washed the treatment away. The freezing rain that fell next left a crust of ice once the plows cleared the snow. Overnight and into the morning, frigid weather — with temperatures in the single digits most places — inhibited salt’s ability to chew through that ice.

“With the temperatures being so cold, and especially last night, we had a refreeze,” said Carol Terry, a spokeswoman with Prince George’s County Department of Public Works and Transportation. “Some of those areas refroze. So it takes a little more plowing than usual. After it gets so cold, the salt doesn’t even work. We are hoping that it warms up.”

She said that the county’s major roads were in good shape but that residential roads still needed plowing.

With the government closed, D.C. residents explored the snow Monday, some hoping it will be the last storm of the season. (Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)

Late Tuesday afternoon in the neighborhoods around Catholic University in the District, plow operations had shifted into the “mop up stage” as veteran driver Michael Miller steered his 40,000-pound truck onto the roads. His target was the narrow residential streets. He and other drivers were hoping to clear leftover snow and treat the roads, cleared but still slick,with salt before it refroze overnight, causing even more problems.

It was Miller’s second 12-hour shift. On Monday, he started clearing major roads — Michigan Avenue, North Capitol near and around the university and streets at nearby Washington Hospital Center — at noon, when snowfall and roads were at their worst. Still, Miller, who’s been doing the job for almost three decades, said he’d seen worse. Way worse.

“The main thing is the temperature,” he said. “It got dicey [Monday] evening, when everything that was treated froze up.”

Joan Morris of the Virginia Department of Transportation said that patches of snow and ice remained on the shoulders and turn lanes of some major roadways on Tuesday.

“Typically, we could knock that out in one day,” she said, but when temperatures fell below 20 degrees, salt no longer worked as well to melt ice.

VDOT, which is responsible for all roads and neighborhood streets in Northern Virginia, hoped to clear a path through every subdivision road by the end of the day Tuesday. Curb-to-curb plowing in those neighborhoods, Morris said, would “take them forever.”

Sharon Bulova (D), chairwoman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, who has been critical of VDOT’s snow removal in the past, said: “This winter, they’ve done a much better job than they’ve ever done before. In the past, there was a lot that we’ve criticized them for. This time, there was nothing to complain about. VDOT has improved their performance in clearing the roads of snow just incredibly.”

Bulova also said that federal and local governments in the region have taken steps to improve the situation by communicating closures the night before and allowing more government employees to work from home, keeping more cars off the road. Federal agencies, in particular, learned an important lesson after a massive traffic jam last year when the government released all of its workers early, at the same time, and drivers spent several hours trying to get home, she said.

The gusty wind that came in with the snow and ice also hindered cleanup operations, officials said.

“Strong winds kept blowing snow back onto roads, requiring crews to repeatedly clear main and emergency routes before plowing neighborhoods,” said Montgomery County spokeswoman Esther Bowring.

This was the 25th storm in Montgomery this winter, which has had a total of 50 inches of ice and snow so far, Bowring said.

“There is that hard, crusty layer that is impossible to remove with just one plow,” she said. “We have been able to get into all the neighborhoods, but we realize that a lot of the neighborhood streets are very packed. So now the crews are going back out and trying to do more to try to make them more passable.”

Loudoun County officials issued an alert Tuesday warning drivers that the roads were still dangerous “because the snow’s consistency is more like ice than powder” and because low temperatures will keep refreezing the surface for several days.

Icy or unshoveled sidewalks posed a particular problem in many places.

“There is no sensible way of clearing snow from sidewalks,” said Akshay Birla, 26, a Columbia Heights resident. “D.C. is such a heavy commuter city, in terms of public transit and walking, as opposed to driving, that it makes sense to have some sort of strategy to make sure that people can get to work.”

Even walking a block from his home to the Giant grocery store on Park Road on Monday was impossible, he said.

Cheryl Cort, the policy director with the Coalition for Smarter Growth, said the region as a whole should look at creating a more comprehensive policy for clearing ice and snow from sidewalks and pedestrian crossings.

“We put a lot of resources into clearing roads, but it is left up to individuals to clear sidewalks and intersections to cross. There needs to be more attention to prioritizing pedestrian routes. It’s got to be more than asking property owners to clear the sidewalks.”

Manassas residents face some of the region’s strictest sidewalk-shoveling policies, while just across the city border in Prince William County, there is no law mandating that residents shovel their walks at all.

Manassas residents have 12 hours to shovel their sidewalks once the snow stops — during the day. (For snow that stops overnight, homeowners have until 5 p.m. the next day.) Now that the 12-hour period is over for this storm, city officials are busy leaving notices at homes with snowy walks. There is no fine for failure to comply with the rules, but if residents fail to shovel after receiving a written warning, the city will do it for them — at a cost, Street Maintenance Manager Russ Graham said.

Graham recalled one homeowner’s association that received a bill for almost $1,000 when the city cleared all its sidewalks several years ago. He said that the city has not had to bill an individual homeowner in recent years, though. A warning is usually enough.

Prince George’s officials said they were receiving complaints about icy sidewalks. Inspectors were out Tuesday to warn property owners to clear sidewalks by 3 p.m. Wednesday, said Gary Cunningham, deputy director of the county’s department of permitting, inspections and enforcement.

Lori Aratani, Patrica Sullivan, Susan Svrluga, Julie Zauzmer, Tom Jackman and Dana Hedgpeth contributed to this report.

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
Luz Lazo writes about transportation and development. She has recently written about the challenges of bus commuting, Metro’s dark stations, and the impact of sequestration on air travel.
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