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Grading D.C. area transportation, after a monster snowstorm

Snow covers trains at the Greenbelt yard. Twice in the past week, Metro pulled trains from aboveground sections of rail lines.
Snow covers trains at the Greenbelt yard. Twice in the past week, Metro pulled trains from aboveground sections of rail lines. (Wmata)

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By Robert Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 14, 2010

Your children and your children's children may not see a winter that so tested our transportation network. Were we unprepared? Yes, in a sense. None of the road or transit agencies is designed to function adequately in storms that leave more than three feet of snow, and neither are we. Here's a look at some of the challenges that the agencies and the public faced and how they performed:

Roads

State and local transportation departments have snow-clearing plans that have been developed from years of experience. They had nothing to match this experience.

Managing expectations. Would-be travelers needed to know that they were about to experience a natural disaster that would strain the resources of transportation agencies, so they could plan for the consequences. The agencies had mixed results in communicating this. On Thursday, as the region was digging out from the second super-size storm, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) hit that note in responding to a question on National Public Radio about whether the state had enough plows.

"We don't have enough snowplows for this," he said. "No state in the mid-Atlantic would have enough snowplows for this. We prepare for snow events that are in the normal range of 7 to 9 inches, not 49 inches or 59 inches." Imagine if he and other leaders had conveyed that same message Feb. 5, before the first of the two storms struck.

Managers of the cleanup were blunt in telling people to stay put and give their crews room to work. But in some cases, agencies raised expectations by stating time goals for reaching local streets that they could not meet, despite heroic efforts. Many people were confused about which department was responsible for which set of roads. And the principle, shared by all agencies, of attacking main roads before plowing side streets, created resentments.

Timeline of trouble. The first snowfall, on Feb. 5-6, was so heavy that main roads could not be plowed clear nor could sufficient attention be devoted to neighborhood streets before the snow hardened on roadways. Warmer temperatures that expedited the cleanup in December did not materialize.

By Tuesday, highway crews were pressing to clear space for the new snow that would fall late Tuesday and most of the day Wednesday. The crews assigned to neighborhoods struggled to complete the goal of at least one pass through every side street before they confronted the next storm. Wednesday was the worst day for cleanup efforts, because many road crews couldn't see what they were doing in the whiteout and had to stop temporarily. Wednesday night and early Thursday, drifting snow compounded their problems, although Thursday's sunshine eventually proved helpful.

Variable conditions. Some travelers asked why the neighborhood streets were in better shape than the highways. Others asked whether crews would ever reach neighborhood streets. Especially vexing to those looking out at snow-covered roads was that the next street over had bare pavement.

Insufficient equipment. When Chief Brody finally saw the great white shark in "Jaws," he quickly sized up the logistics for Capt. Quint: "You're gonna need a bigger boat." After the great white storm hit on Feb. 5-6, our road crews also needed to upgrade their resources.

On Monday, Maryland State Highway Administrator Neil J. Pedersen said snow remaining on the highways needed to be loosened with magnesium chloride, a more expensive treatment than salt brine but one that worked at lower temperatures. Meanwhile, snow that had been pushed to the sides of roads had hardened and could not be plowed. Front-end loaders, dump trucks and other equipment would be needed.

Other departments faced similar problems. The Virginia Department of Transportation brought up more than 200 pieces of heavy equipment from points south.

Neighborhood streets also had reached a state where plowing was difficult or impossible. Bobcats -- little front-end loaders -- were sent in to push or haul out snow.


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