Usually, there’s a winter weather event that becomes a fixation for us the following season. Might be a blizzard. Might be a lesser storm that arrived exactly at the wrong time, or just a light coating of ice that brought the D.C. region’s highways to a halt.
So remember last winter? No? Neither does anyone else.
There was no weather event worth remembering. We had very little snow and very high temperatures.
“We basically had a non-winter,” said Christopher Strong, the National Weather Service’s warning coordination meteorologist for the Baltimore-Washington area.
This year, he said, we’re more likely to have something like a normal winter. That would mean more snow and cooler temperatures, but probably nothing like the “clobber winter” of 2009-10 when blizzard covered over blizzard. That leaves a lot of possibilities in between.
“One of the interesting things about this area is that we get just about anything,” Strong said.
Perhaps a little too-interesting for people like Bronco Vlacich, the regional maintenance administrator for the Virginia Department of Transportation. He is among the weather watchers who get guidance from Strong and then figure out how, when and where to deploy small armies of snow-fighting forces.
“In winter, I’m not afraid of the snow and ice,” he said. “I’m afraid of the traffic.”
That means you. Here’s what you should know to avoid being part of the problem.
While last winter offered few tests, Vlacich already was preparing for the opening of the 495 Express Lanes in the middle of the Capital Beltway. So when VDOT briefed reporters and local officials on seasonal weather preparations last month, I asked him how those four lanes would be cleared while preserving the white bollards that line their outer boundaries.
“It's a challenge,” Vlacich said.
All Beltway lanes will be treated equally, he said, a reassuring statement perhaps for those drivers who already regard the new toll lanes as “Lexus Lanes.” In a snowfall, a line of plows will spread out across all six lanes on each Beltway loop. The plows in the regular lanes will be pushing snow to the right. Those in the express lanes will push it to the left, where the shoulders are.
A specialized truck, known as a flusher, will target the narrow median where the bollards are. The truck has nozzles in the front that will give the median a power washing with a brine solution, blasting out any ice and snow before it becomes a problem.
Vlacich said cars in the nearby lanes will not get power washed in the process because the trucks will be part of the plow convoy. Drivers won’t have a chance to come abreast of the truck spraying the brine.
While drivers may be unfamiliar with this type of tanker truck, drivers across the D.C. region would recognize the type of truck that spreads brine from nozzles at the back before a storm hits.
In recent years, highway departments have put more emphasis on attacking a storm before it strikes. The Maryland State Highway Administration activates more than a dozen brine-making facilities, then deploys its anti-icing trucks more than a day ahead of the bad weather. The solution spreads across the pavement and prevents the ice and snow from forming a bond with it, so the clearing operations are more efficient.
Meanwhile, the departments are using cameras, sensors and now mobile weather stations to check what’s going on with the asphalt and concrete across wide areas, where conditions can vary even from one road segment to the next.
In a region where anything can happen, it often does, and sometimes all at once. While it’s snowing in one zone, rain may be falling in another, with sleet at various points in between.
That’s not only difficult for forecasters, but also for the highway departments trying to get the right equipment to the right spots. It also vexes the government personnel offices and the school systems that have to make calls about whether to post cancellations or bring people in.
On Jan. 26, 2011, the region got a reminder that the worst time for a storm to strike is at the beginning of the afternoon rush, on a day when the federal government brought its employees to work.
“If people come to work in the morning, they’re going to want to go home,” Vlacich said. An early release doesn’t help, he added. “That just cuts into our time” to treat roads and start plowing.
Since that long night of stalled traffic, governments and school systems have been more cautious about bringing people in when the forecasters are awaiting a storm.
The federal government — particularly the Office of Personnel Management — is the big dog when it comes to regulating the commute on storm days. So OPM continues to refine its opening and closing messages, base on lessons learned.
A recent change comes off the experience with closings for Hurricane Sandy. OPM found that its old announcement, “Federal offices are closed to the public,” was confusing some employees and some other agencies that take their lead from the federal status. In a similar scenario now, we would see: “Federal offices are closed. Emergency and telework-ready employees must follow their agency’s policies.”
The weather services, highway departments and government agencies have their roles in preventing winter storms from becoming catastrophes, and so do you. These are some tips collected from the region’s transportation agencies.
●When the District declares a snow emergency, don’t park along the streets with signs that designate them as snow emergency routes. That disrupts the snow-clearing operations and subjects drivers to towing and heavy fines.
●Stay off the roads when you know a storm is arriving. You will be safer, and if congestion is reduced, the snow-fighting equipment will have a chance to treat and clear the roads.
●If the forecast calls for rain to precede the snow, the highway departments won’t be able to treat the roads with brine. It just washes away in the rain. Those conditions should make drivers extra alert for an early build up of ice and snow on the pavement.
●Think through your route before starting. If you’ve lived in a neighborhood for a while, you know the traditional trouble spots.
●Don’t bring trouble with you. Clear snow from the headlights and from the roof.
●Don’t crowd the plow. Slow down and stay well back of snow-fighting equipment.
●And even if there’s none around, slow down anyway, since pavement conditions can change within a short time and a short distance.
●By all means, 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.