VDOT Says It Bungled Response to Ice Storm

By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 21, 2008

The Virginia Department of Transportation's response to an ice storm Feb. 12 that crippled the region was so mismanaged that anti-icing equipment sat unused, electronic warning signs remained dark and a motorist alert system was not updated for hours, according to a VDOT report released yesterday.

Because of the poor response, thousands of motorists drove toward the Springfield interchange as it rapidly iced over. Some were stranded for hours. Road conditions elsewhere in the region caused many people to miss making it to the polls to vote in the presidential primary. And state police had problems communicating with VDOT staff for help because of compatibility problems with equipment.

"We got overwhelmed," VDOT Commissioner David S. Ekern said yesterday in a telephone news conference. "We weren't prepared for the size and magnitude."

Ekern released a frank review of the agency's response to the storm, identifying errors, misjudgments and communication gaffes by VDOT workers.

"The events of February 12 were clearly unacceptable in terms of our performance," Ekern said at the news conference. "We'll learn from this, and we'll move forward."

The ice storm, which occurred at the beginning of the rush hour, closed one of the East Coast's largest highway interchanges, which was completed last year at a cost of $676 million. There were 331 traffic incidents, including 108 at the Springfield interchange between 3 p.m. and midnight, when the last ramp was reopened. About 50 injuries were reported in the region from accidents caused by the quarter-inch-thick coating of ice.

Ekern outlined a series of agency reforms and procedural changes, including developing a formal action plan for an ice storm -- VDOT does not have one -- and clarifying the chain of command. Of the more than 1,300 pieces of equipment available to the Northern Virginia VDOT district, only five are capable of anti-icing, and they are owned by contractors.

Ekern issued an apology the day after the storm, and he has scheduled a public meeting April 22 in Springfield to answer questions about the storm and the department's follow-up. He said the department will come up with an emergency response plan by April 15.

During and after the storm, VDOT officials said they were caught off-guard by weather reports that put the storm to the north and east of the Washington area. But the agency's review found that the National Weather Service had begun forecasting the possibility of freezing rain at 3 p.m. the day before.

Interstate 95 was mobilized at Level I, VDOT's lowest reaction posture. Four trucks loaded with a chemical mixture designed to prevent ice buildup were staged a quarter-mile from the Springfield interchange but were not deployed in time and ended up stuck in traffic.

Ekern said that the agency had mobilized 278 trucks near Loudoun County but that the storm changed direction about noon and headed toward Springfield.

The agency was also hampered by the lack of pavement-temperature sensors at the interchange. The closest sensor was in Rosslyn, nine miles away. VDOT will issue infrared thermometers to workers until sensors can be installed at the interchange.

By 3 p.m. that Tuesday, ice had started to accumulate on the interchange's 50 ramps and overpasses, and accidents began happening. According to the report, VDOT workers were soon overwhelmed.

Ekern said workers failed to turn on the dozens of electronic message signs that could have warned motorists to stay away from the interchange. Also, the 511 Virginia phone system and Web site, which are supposed to provide road conditions, were not updated until nearly two hours after the accidents started. More than 2,000 motorists called 511 between 4 p.m. and midnight.

The report says that once the accidents began, the roads and ramps at the interchange were closed to VDOT trucks and crews, slowing reaction times. Radio compatibility issues between VDOT and the Virginia State Police also hampered responses. One frustrated trooper drove to a VDOT facility to transmit his request for assistance.

"By the time the crashes started and the roadways jammed, we couldn't get on the same roads," Ekern said.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company