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Turning Out to Ride on a Snowstorm

Road Chiefs Try To Clear Problems But Stay in Budget

By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 23, 2005; Page C01

Near the peak of yesterday's storm, a fleet of 11 snowplows rumbled onto the Capital Beltway near the Springfield interchange and spread out across its four lanes.

With military precision, they passed the accumulating snow from one plow to the next, blades angled to the right, so the deepest piles ended up on the right shoulder. It looked like a football team slowly lateraling the ball from player to player.


A snowplow clears Interstate 70 at Braddock Mountain in Frederick County. Supervisors said workers encountered few serious problems and kept roads passable. (Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)

_____Springfield Interchange_____
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Suddenly, a black SUV burst out of the procession of cars trailing behind and cut between two of the trucks. "Did you see that?" asked James Courtney, a Virginia Department of Transportation superintendent following the fleet. "We keep telling people to stay back and give the trucks plenty of room to work. They just don't listen."

It was one moment of frustration in a productive day for the legions of VDOT employees and contractors who fought yesterday's snowstorm. With no major incidents, they salted, sanded and plowed many of the 15,000 miles of interstates and other major Northern Virginia roads.

"For the first big snowfall of the year, it went pretty well," said Courtney, who oversees the trucks that treat the Beltway. "The biggest challenge is coordinating it so it all runs smoothly."

That coordinating began Friday morning when weather forecasters called VDOT and said they were predicting a storm. Working within their $24 million yearly budget to fight snow in Northern Virginia, VDOT tried to marshal just the right number of trucks. "We have a finite budget, so we look at the forecast and try to predict," said spokesman Ryan Hall. "We don't want to overdo it."

As Friday ended, workers arrived at VDOT's Beltway area headquarters, in the Franconia section of Fairfax County. They tested equipment, did mechanical preparation and installed the plows and salt and sand spreaders on the trucks. By early morning, 700 trucks, many filled with four to five tons of salt or sand, were ready. Each driver had an assigned area. After completing their route, the drivers come back to a VDOT office, and their information is entered into a computer database.

"We try to use technology, so when people in a subdivision call and say their road hasn't been plowed, we can check the computer," Hall said. "Many times it has been." He added: "The expectations are very high. But people can't expect subdivisions to be as clean as the interstates and major roads. The subdivisions will be passable."

Sometimes, people take out their frustrations on the plow drivers. Two years ago, someone threw a wrench that hit a truck driver in the head. Once, a plow driver was assaulted by a resident angered that his subdivision hadn't been plowed.

Lucas Cruz, a 17-year VDOT transportation operator, said some motorists flick their middle finger at him, especially 18-wheeler truckers. "Some people just don't respect the trucks," he said. "We feel like we're serving the public." Courtney said some drivers are frustrated "because we're out there slowing them down or because they have to sit in traffic." But he added that many residents are grateful and that some have even come to headquarters to thank drivers.

Cruz got little visible reaction from motorists during his run early in yesterday's storm. Dressed in four layers -- a yellow VDOT vest over brown insulated coveralls over a blue sweater with a hood over a green sweat shirt -- he headed out at the helm of a salt truck at 11:13 a.m.

There were only light flurries at that point. But the storm started picking up 15 minutes later as Cruz got off the Beltway near Tysons Corner. He flicked a switch on his instrument panel. A green light came on. And the tube-shaped spreader attached to the back of his truck started dispensing a thin layer of salt.

"I know it's coming, and I'm ready for it," Cruz said.


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