Crush of federal employees, snow-filled lanes create monster backups

By Ashley Halsey III
Saturday, February 13, 2010

Washington's attempt to return to work Friday was nearly as brutal as the historic snowstorms that shut down the region.

Traffic backed up for hours on some roads in the morning and perhaps as long on the way home, even though many people chose to stay away from work for one more day. Highways plowed down to the pavement proved to be a lane or two short to handle the flow at both ends of the day, even with a morning rush hour extended by the federal government's decision to open two hours late.

At 7:30 p.m., every intersection for dozens of blocks fanning out from the downtown core was gridlocked, a viral paralysis that eased for no vehicle. A D.C. ambulance sat for more than 10 minutes at Rhode Island Avenue and 15th Street NW, siren blaring and lights flashing. But there was simply nowhere for motorists to go to make way for it to pass.

On traditional commuter routes, including 15th and 16th streets NW, as well as on neighborhood streets, it took more than 20 minutes to go a single block. On 16th Street, a D.C. plow truck worsened the problem by double-parking for at least 40 minutes, blocking one of only two open lanes on the snow-clogged street.

Motorist Katherine Lewis sat for an hour in the 1700 block of S Street NW about 6 p.m. Ahead of her, she said by phone, a Metrobus was stuck in the snow, and a police car blocked her access to the southbound lanes of 18th Street NW. She and a dozen other motorists headed in the same direction were going nowhere.

Other motorists reported that R and S streets NW were blocked with police tape, for unknown reasons. One commuter reported moving only six blocks in 20 minutes.

"We can't get out," Lewis said. "Send help."

Cabdriver Gabe Gebremedhin, stuck on 15th Street, said he had never seen traffic as bad. "This is horrible," he said. "And it's throughout the city." He said he had been sitting in traffic so long that he was running out of gas. "I drove a cab for 18 years," he said. "This is the worst."

Metrorail had expanded service to aboveground stations after days of limited service, but the intervals between trains were longer than usual because of speed restrictions, and passengers reported packed cars.

A derailment on the Red Line then tangled morning service, and the evening on the Orange Line was no better. At the Farragut West Station on Friday night, a train's doors jammed open and an operator yelled at passengers to close it manually. Then came the order to unload the train. Riders filed out and filled the platform.

Traffic cameras trained on Interstate 95 south in Springfield on Friday evening showed lanes jammed with headlights of motorists stopped in their tracks. The Capital Beltway east of the American Legion Bridge was an almost unbroken line of headlights and taillights, motorists seeking refuge in opposite directions.

AAA counted Friday as one of the worst commutes in the region's history.

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