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All at Once, It's Winter
For many commuters, the impact was not felt in twisted metal but in annoying disruptions of routines. Gary Moliken, a lawyer, left his Bethesda home at 7:10 a.m. and pulled into his office in Fairfax City about 9:30 a.m., a trip that usually takes him 35 minutes. Already late for court, with a colleague covering for him, he stashed his yellow lab, Sydney, in another lawyer's office instead of taking her to day care.
"The roads were fine. It was the people that were on the roads that were the problem," Moliken said, adding that he didn't see the remnants of any accidents on his route. "Everybody was being extremely overcautious, which slowed down everything."
Todd Anderson, 41, of Germantown gave up on his morning commute to Landover after it took more than an hour to go just five miles in snail-paced gridlock on Interstate 270.
"It normally takes [that long] to get to work," said Anderson, a project manager for a federal contracting firm. "I was listening to the traffic and I said, 'This is just stupid, that I've wasted an hour and 10 minutes of my time. It makes more sense to go home and be more productive.' "
The conditions deteriorated in many places as the day went on, officials said.
"It seems like one of these little fast and furious and nasty storms that get the roadway very cold, very quickly," said Virginia Department of Transportation spokeswoman Joan Morris, who put the storm's traffic impact at "maybe a 7 or an 8" out of 10 in terms of commuter misery.
Pavement sensors in Northern Virginia were picking up road temperatures of around 32 degrees, according to a report Morris received at 7:30 a.m. A 12:30 p.m. update said road temperatures were 29 degrees to 32 degrees. "Often the pavement is still warm enough. But the pavement is freezing," she said. "That's what's making it so nasty. We're right at freezing."
The timing of the initial snowfall was terrible for road crews, hitting at the outset of Washington's ever-earlier morning rush. The first flakes dropped in Leesburg about 5:30 a.m. and at Reagan National Airport at 6:23 a.m., according to the National Weather Service.
"It was, plop, here's the rush hour today and you have got to go out and salt the road with all the other cars on the road. It was a huge, huge, huge challenge. Then it kept going," said Dave Buck, a spokesman for the Maryland State Highway Administration.
National Weather Service forecasts initially called for a later start time for Wednesday morning's snow, which affected decision making in Maryland, Buck said. Although state officials had about 70 trucks in Prince George's and Montgomery getting prepared for salting runs at about 5 a.m., "most of our folks" were mobilized later, Buck said.
"Even if we had every truck in, our entire force, at 5 a.m., and the storm hits the I-270 and 495 area at 6:30, you would still have had the same situation, because we were still stuck in that traffic," Buck said. "Everybody says, 'Why aren't you out there?' The reality was, we were out there, but we were just sitting with you. We can't fly above."
Buck said drivers have misconceptions about what state road workers do when a storm is coming. Key among them is this: Highway officials in Maryland and Virginia generally don't pre-treat roads in the Washington area with salt or other chemicals to prevent sliding. They do so after the first precipitation falls.