All at Once, It's Winter
Region's First Snowfall Drops Between 1 and 4 Inches, and Sticks It to Many Drivers

By Michael Laris and Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 6, 2007

Washington area drivers can expect another difficult trek to work this morning. Freezing overnight temperatures were expected to leave some roads dangerously slick, a day after motorists suffered through an excruciating commute and a rude reintroduction to winter.

Snow continued to fall late last night in many areas, with accumulation varying from two inches in the District to six inches in Anne Arundel County. In Fairfax County, a vehicle slammed into two Virginia state troopers' cars as they stood at the scene of a previous accident, temporarily closing part of the inner loop of the Capital Beltway. And the iced-over Roosevelt Bridge between the District and Arlington was closed for about three hours.

Temperatures in the mid-20s are expected this morning, later rising to the mid-30s. Andy Woodcock, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said the glare from bright sun and moisture on windshields could add to commuters' woes.

"There's potential for a messy commute," he said.

Lora Rakowski, a Maryland State Highway Adminstration spokeswoman, said road crews would be treating roads throughout the night.

"Primary and secondary roads should be clear," she said. But "on side streets and secondary roads, motorists really [need] to stay vigilant."

Many school systems waited until early this morning to announce closures. Anne Arundel announced it would delay opening by two hours.

Earlier yesterday, slippery stretches and a potent mix of highly cautious and overly confident drivers left traffic lanes packed and shoulders dotted with spun-out cars and scraped-up guard rails across the region yesterday. Hundreds of accidents were reported during the morning rush, preventing highway crews from effectively treating roads.

Area transportation officials said they generally do not pre-treat road surfaces with salt and chemicals because wind and Washington's heavy traffic would scatter it. After the snow started to fall early in yesterday's rush hour instead of later in the morning, as some officials had expected, they said they were unable to quickly treat roads that had already become jammed. Traffic problems persisted during the evening commute as snow continued to fall over much of the region.

Dozens more accidents were reported last night, with many drivers ending up in ditches, mostly near overpasses.

In the District, authorities shut down the Roosevelt Bridge after it iced over about 8 p.m., and continued "a partial deployment" throughout the night, treating bridges, primary and secondary roads, said Karyn LeBlanc, a District Department of Transportation spokeswoman.

State troopers in Maryland and Virginia reported similar conditions on highway ramps, particularly the flyover lanes of the Springfield interchange. In Fairfax County, a tractor-trailer slid into a Jersey barrier on eastbound Interstate 66. Snowfall continued until after 9 p.m. across Southern Maryland, prompting officials to institute an emergency snow plan in Calvert County. In Montgomery County, firefighters responded to a pair of chimney fires after occupants overloaded a fireplace and stoves, officials said.

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.

That's because having some precipitation first helps keep the chemicals in place on heavily traveled roads, said Branco Vlacich, who heads maintenance for VDOT's Northern Virginia district. Otherwise the salt would blow away, or be carried away by tires, and the magnesium chloride, which allows the salt to work at lower temperatures, could evaporate, he said.

County officials in Maryland, which maintain local roads, said there was little or nothing they would have done differently. Road crews were generally out by the time the snow started to stick, they said.

Prince George's County had 150 snow-removal trucks on the roads at 6 o'clock. Anne Arundel County deployed trucks at 7 and dropped 100 tons of salt by noon. Montgomery County had trucks on the road within 45 minutes of the first flakes.

"We were prepared," said Tom Pogue, public works spokesman in Montgomery.

Prince George's County had pre-salted hills, bridges and other areas prone to ice, said public works spokeswoman Susan Hubbard, who reported no major problems on county-maintained roads.

District transportation officials said they had crews out at midnight Wednesday applying a brine solution and salt on city roads. which helped. "We're lucky. The city's a heat island. Our road temperatures are warmer than in the suburbs," said Emeka C. Moneme, director of the D.C. Department of Transportation.

Bad driving also contributed to yesterday's problems, officials said.

"We continually are seeing single vehicles running into guardrails. That's one thing and one thing alone: people driving too fast for the conditions," Buck said.

As of the late evening, several counties in Maryland reported some of the heaviest snowfall in the region. The National Weather Service estimated that more than six inches fell in Glen Burnie, and that about five inches fell in Frederick, Montgomery and Howard counties. In Virginia, the service reported four inches in Arlington and 3 1/2 in Vienna.

Some took advantage of their car-bound captivity.

Kathy Morford, 50, of Haymarket, who teaches third grade in Centreville, tried to make use of her time as she crawled along I-66 at about 6 m.p.h.

"I'm from Louisiana, so I called my family" to catch up, Morford said, adding that the trip, which took more than an hour, took just 20 minutes Tuesday. "Good thing I've got lots of minutes on my cellphone."

Staff writers Jonathan Mummolo, Tom Jackman, Chris L. Jenkins, Daniel deVise, Bill Brubaker, and Raymond McCaffrey and Clarence Williams contributed to this report.

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