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

By Ashley Halsey III
Saturday, February 13, 2010; A01

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.

"Outlandish. Dreadful. Horrendous. Terrible," said John B. Townsend II, AAA's spokesman, quoting from complaints received by his organization. "Those are some of the choice and cleaner adjectives. . . . It was a commute from hell, and that was before the Red Line derailed."

The decision to reopen federal and many local government offices came as some D.C. and suburban residents still waited to be plowed out from the nearly foot of snow that fell Wednesday and, in some cases, from the total of three feet that has fallen in the past week.

The mayhem that ensued caused some to question the call for federal workers to return for less than a full day, after four snow days off and on the eve of a three-day weekend.

"I think it was a bad decision to go into work," said Clark Bouwman of Chevy Chase, who got stuck on a southbound train after the derailment. "What were we thinking?"

The man who made the decision, John Berry, director of the federal Office of Personnel Management, said it was based on his belief that federal workers could "operate safely."

"Convenience does not factor into this decision," Berry said. "I knew this would be an ugly commute. But there are many ugly commutes in this region, on rainy days and for other reasons."

Although most major highways and arteries in the District had been plowed, the herculean challenge of trucking away tons of accumulated snow from all of them was not complete. Mountains of plowed snow still blocked enough lanes to choke traffic to a standstill.

The misery in the morning was compounded by a series of issues that appeared unrelated to the snow.

About 9:30 a.m. on the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge, a barrier that normally keeps inbound traffic on Interstate 66 flowing swiftly had not been moved, causing a two-hour backup. The underground Metro Red Line derailment about 10:15 a.m. clogged key downtown streets just as federal offices opened. Then about noon, a fatal accident on Interstate 95 in Virginia, in which a driver rammed into a disabled vehicle on the shoulder, caused a massive backup near Newington.

The Metro Red Line derailment apparently happened when a train leaving Farragut North about 10:15 a.m. somehow switched on to a side track, triggering an automatic derailment device intended to keep it from going any farther.

Hundreds of people were trapped underground for more than an hour. Three were reported injured, and one was taken to a hospital. The National Transportation Safety Board sent investigators to determine the cause.

Although the accident was in a tunnel below ground, the arrival of scores of responding emergency vehicles shut down streets in the core of the city.

The station is just yards from the office at 18th and K streets where Karyn Ablin works.

"After spending over an hour driving up I-395, Washington Boulevard and into the District, facing post-10 a.m. parking lot traffic and snow and broken-down cars blocking travel lanes, I got to my workplace . . . [and found] that the roads were blocked so that I couldn't get into my parking garage," Ablin wrote in an e-mail.

She said she turned around and went home.

"Workplaces should have been closed today to allow the roads a chance to return to a semblance of normality," she said.

There is a chance that more snow could fall on the region Monday, but it should be no more than six inches, according to Dan Stillman, a meteorologist with The Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang.

Karyn LeBlanc, spokeswoman for the D.C. Department of Transportation, said the storm had caused another type of highway hazard: potholes.

"Potholes are going to be a problem," she said. "Right now, all we can do is patch them over."

As evening fell, commuters fled the District as though they were escaping some natural disaster, turning the homebound trip into bumper-to-bumper madness.

Kim Frum, a spokeswoman for the Maryland State Highway Administration, said traffic was slow on major Maryland highways around Washington but seemed to be moving.

While the morning commute was staggered by the federal government's two-hour delay, "everybody now is going home at the regular time," she said. "It looks like a pretty regular rush hour."

But motorists mired in downtown traffic surely would have disagreed.

"Downtown is like the ninth circle [of hell] right now," wrote one person. "Glad I dont drive."

Another cautioned: "Dupont Circle traffic nightmare. Don't even think about driving or riding anywhere near there right now."

From Georgetown came: "Circulator Bus is not circulating. Georgetown is completely gridlocked."

"Dear Mayor Fenty," wrote another, "have you been outside tonight?"

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