By Eric M. Weiss and Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, February 14, 2008
The region's newest, largest and most expensive highway interchange failed dramatically Tuesday night, as many of the Springfield interchange's 50 ramps and sky-high overpasses were shut down by a tenth of an inch of ice.
The failure was one of a series of major traffic problems that ice caused across the region, resulting in commuters, schoolchildren and others being stranded in vehicles for hours. Chain-reaction pileups occurred on Route 210 in Maryland and on the Interstate 395 HOV lanes in Virginia.
Roads remained dangerous and slow in many parts of the region yesterday.
Morning commuters in Frederick and Carroll counties faced frozen conditions that led to numerous accidents. A tractor-trailer carrying formaldehyde crashed on ice-slicked roads in Frederick, blocking Route 15 at Fish Hatchery Road for six hours. The federal government, most area school systems and many businesses opened late in recognition of the challenging commute. Some schools were closed; others closed early because of power outages. The evening commute was expected to remain challenging.
About 160,000 customers were without power yesterday, with utilities promising to restore power to most by this morning. Pepco had as many as 30,000 outages early yesterday morning, but by early afternoon that number was down to about 2,900, spokesman Bob Dobkin said.
Most of the remaining outages were in Montgomery County, which had the heaviest ice accumulation and most of the outages, with the heaviest impact in Potomac, Chevy Chase, Kensington, Silver Spring and Olney, Dobkin said.
More than 100,000 Dominion Virginia customers were affected by the storm, with outages across Northern Virginia, spokeswoman Le-Ha Anderson said.
Among those who spent hours trapped in their cars Tuesday was former Virginia governor James S. Gilmore III, who was stuck on a Capital Beltway exit ramp for 7 1/2 hours. Gilmore had planned to attend an event at American University before heading to Alexandria for a victory party for Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (Ariz.).
"At 7 p.m., I put my foot on the surface of the ramp, and it was like a toboggan track," said Gilmore, who was governor when the Springfield interchange and Woodrow Wilson Bridge projects were begun.
Carol Anne Clark Kelly, a producer at National Public Radio, picked up sons Jack, 7, and Bobby, 11, at Holy Trinity grade school in Georgetown at 4:20 p.m. and headed toward her polling place in the Alexandria section of Fairfax County.
At 6:45 p.m., still stuck a half-mile from her polling place at Pinecrest Golf Course, Kelly and her boys ditched the car in a residential neighborhood and began running through the mud beside Braddock Road. She was wearing black leather heels.
"I got there at 3 minutes before 7, ran down the hall, showed my ID and caught my breath. We voted at 6:59," she said.
Even walking was dangerous. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates fractured his arm Tuesday night when he slipped on ice coating the walkway to his home in the District. Gates, 64, fell hard on his shoulder and sought medical attention early yesterday.
Hospitals across the region reported seeing dozens of patients injured in falls Tuesday and yesterday.
"I went outside and took one step outside our door and took a sliding fall," said Paula Faria, a spokeswoman for Washington Hospital Center.
"What we saw primarily [were] injuries to the arms and wrists," Faria said. "People try to brace their falls so they don't get hit in the head."
And although Maryland and District officials took credit for doing a better job than Virginia in clearing roads, drivers said there was enough blame to go around.
But perhaps the biggest failure was at the $676 million Springfield interchange, known as the Mixing Bowl. It is one of the largest interchanges on the East Coast and was finished with much fanfare in July. The interchange, which sorts more than 430,000 vehicles a day, was supposed to be designed to take into account mid-Atlantic weather and ice-and-snow buildup. Some of its flyover ramps are a mile long and 100 feet high.
The project tripled in price since its inception, and designers decided not to install anti-icing devices that automatically spray de-icer on high bridges. Virginia Department of Transportation officials instead opted to dedicate a half-dozen trucks to keep the sprawling maze of ramps and bridges clear of ice and snow.
"At the time, there was a question on whether we could justify the system for an occasional ice event," Joan Morris, a VDOT spokeswoman, said yesterday.
"In light of yesterday, when people had to sit on ramps for seven or eight hours, I think we've got to revisit that," she said. "All it takes is one event, and I think that one event was yesterday.''
VDOT officials also acknowledged that far fewer than normal salt and de-icing trucks were dedicated to the interchange Tuesday.
Instead of the 12 salt trucks and four tankers that continually spray all of the intersection's 50 ramps and bridges during normal winter storm preparation, Morris said five salt trucks and one tanker were sent to the interchange.
And, according to VDOT's timeline, it is unclear whether those trucks were able to fully cover the interchange before the ice came and threw the region into gridlock.
Morris said the decision was made by a committee of VDOT officials who relied on weather forecasts that called for rain, not ice, for the Washington region.
"This was a perfect storm with the type of freezing that took place, the time of day it hit and the lack of advanced notice that would have allowed a better response," VDOT Commissioner David S. Ekern said in a statement. "We take our emergency response mission very seriously, and we understand that our crews must keep the region's highways flowing during all weather conditions."
Other states, including New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts, use a type of asphalt that releases anti-icing properties on some bridges and overpasses. Others use an automatic system that sprays de-icer from units on the side of the road, which doesn't require trucks to get through.
Wisconsin uses the de-icer spray system that Virginia rejected. Dave Veith, director of the Bureau of Highway Operation for the state, said the system is relatively inexpensive. He estimated that it would cost about $500,000 to install the system on the Springfield interchange's largest flyover.
Morris said it wasn't just money that torpedoed the de-icer plan. She said project engineers said the pipes and other infrastructure needed for the system would not be worth the cost.
Gilmore, who was known as a fiscal conservative while governor from 1997 to 2002, said the state has to look at better dealing with ice storms.
"Clearly, it's going to happen again,'' he said.
Washington Post staff writers Mark Berman, Dan Morse, Lena Sun, Bill Turque, Annie Gowen, Robert Thomson, Bill Brubaker, Valerie Strauss, Julie Tate and Josh White contributed to this report.