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VDOT Could Save Millions If Snow Is a No-Show

The Virginia Department of Transportation budgeted $82 million for snow removal this winter, including $26 million for the streets it serves in Northern Virginia. Last year was the eighth warmest on record for the metropolitan area.
The Virginia Department of Transportation budgeted $82 million for snow removal this winter, including $26 million for the streets it serves in Northern Virginia. Last year was the eighth warmest on record for the metropolitan area. (2003 Photo By Joel Richardson -- The Washington Post)

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By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 11, 2007

Okay, now it is getting weird. The calendar says it's winter, but flowers have been blooming and until this week there were no hints of snowflakes, school closings or sightings of orange Virginia Department of Transportation trucks spreading salt and pushing snow.

The lack of snow could be good news for cash-strapped VDOT, which has budgeted $82 million for snow removal this winter, including $26 million for Northern Virginia. VDOT has 75,000 tons of salt and sand and 142,000 gallons of liquid calcium chloride as weapons against freezing, slick roadways.

"You're going to jinx it," VDOT spokeswoman Joan Morris said when asked what will happen if no snow falls.

In the past few years, there have been December snowstorms, Morris said, but the big business usually comes in February, with an occasional big blast in March. In other words, VDOT is keeping its salt dry and trucks gassed up.

"We know it will come," Morris said. "We've never had a winter without snow."

VDOT is responsible for plowing 57,000 miles of roads in Virginia, including 16,000 lane-miles in Northern Virginia, which includes Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties. (A mile of a four-lane highway equals four lane-miles.) It's not responsible for roads in Virginia's cities and towns and for neighborhood streets in Arlington, which are maintained locally.

Many interstates will be maintained by private companies, which starting in 2009 will take on most of that work as part of an effort to privatize some governmental services.

VDOT announced last month that it will close 87 maintenance facilities across the state. In Northern Virginia, most interstate maintenance is already outsourced. Maintenance yards in Prince William, Arlington and Fairfax counties will be closed. Morris said the closures would not affect snow removal efforts.

Last year was the eighth warmest on record in the Washington area, with an average temperature of 59.2 degrees at Reagan National Airport, said Calvin Meadows, meteorological technician with the National Weather Service. The warmest year was 1891, with an average of 60.3 degrees.

"It's definitely warmer than usual for this time of year," Meadows said. He said the National Weather Service is predicting higher-than-usual temperatures through March.

Last month was particularly dry, as well. December had 1.56 inches of precipitation, compared with 3.05 inches normally, according to the weather service.

Meadows said the change is a result of the El Niño effect, a disruption of the ocean-atmosphere system in the tropical area of the Pacific Ocean that affects weather and climate around the world, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

El Niño has kept a low-pressure system off the West Coast and a high-pressure system over the eastern United States that has prevented the usual colder air from reaching this area, Meadows said. In addition, the few fronts that have come this way have been weaker than usual.

Although the Washington area missed its chance for a white Christmas, there's still a prime snow period ahead.

The first appreciable snowstorm in the Washington area -- more than one-tenth of an inch of accumulation -- has come, on average, on Jan. 23, according to the National Weather Service.

"And around here, we don't get the coldest weather until February," Meadows said.

If the weather pattern continues, VDOT could have a rare surplus. In that case, Morris said, the snow removal money will go to other maintenance projects.

That is unlikely, she said. What is more likely is snow.

"It always comes," Morris said.


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