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Washington snowstorms split region into winners and losers

After two recent snowstorms closed the federal government and schools across the region, people began digging out. The season's snow tally in D.C. reached 55.6 inches Wednesday -- more than the last record of 54.4 inches, set in 1898-99.

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By Robert McCartney
Thursday, February 11, 2010

Gleeful children vs. crazed parents. Shovel salesmen vs. stranded travelers. The epic snowstorms of the past week have divided our region into winners and losers. Here's a score card:

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Winner: Weather forecasters. They warned us days in advance about what was coming, and with impressive precision. The first onslaught began Friday and ended Saturday at the hours they predicted, and snow accumulations were heavier to the west as they foresaw.

In the second assault on Tuesday and Wednesday, the forecasters had it right in saying the snowfall would be lighter but the winds would be stronger. Their accuracy might have saved lives this week, particularly on Wednesday, when so many people stayed inside.

Improved computer models and satellite data have made a difference. It's time to permanently retire the old jokes about the unreliability of weathermen.

Loser: Politicians. Given that they had so much notice, and that the first storm was conveniently timed at the start of a weekend, our elected leaders did a pretty lame job overall of clearing the streets and getting the area ready to resume business before the second storm hit.

I don't mind that everything was shut down Saturday and Sunday, but a lot of residential streets hadn't seen a plow by Tuesday afternoon, three days after the first storm ended. Some major arteries -- K Street in the District and Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda -- were only partially usable.

Our political leaders like to boast that we're a "world-class" metropolitan area. When it comes to snow, we don't perform like one.

We could resign ourselves to the idea that it'd cost too much to do better. But look at the price we're paying now. The four-day shutdown of the federal government will cost $400 million in lost productivity, the Office of Personnel Management estimated. That would buy or rent a lot of trucks and snowplows, and pay wages of people to operate them.

Loser: Virginia and Maryland transportation departments. As politicians looked to shift blame, they seized on state agencies in Richmond and Annapolis -- and with some reason. Montgomery County legislators accused the state of being slow to clear principal streets, for which it's responsible. The county seemed to be quicker to get to side streets.

Fairfax County Supervisor Jeff C. McKay (D-Lee), chairman of the transportation committee, said the state Department of Transportation was late bringing specialized heavy equipment from Richmond and Hampton Roads to Northern Virginia.

Winner: High school seniors. They got up to 5 1/2 days off from school, and they'll never have to make it up. Other students might get extra school days tacked onto the year, but seniors' graduation dates aren't pushed back.

Loser: Metro. The storm highlighted yet another of the transit system's challenges: It doesn't run trains outdoors when there's more than eight inches of snow.


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