At Fairfax County's 'snow summit,' a blizzard of complaints

Plows slogged down a street in Reston as snow fell Feb. 10. Virginia officials said workers cleared 17,679 miles of roadways in Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties.
Plows slogged down a street in Reston as snow fell Feb. 10. Virginia officials said workers cleared 17,679 miles of roadways in Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties. (Jahi Chikwendiu/the Washington Post)
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By Derek Kravitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 17, 2010

It was called a "snow summit," a public forum for Fairfax County officials to critique Virginia's response to the February snowstorms, but what it boiled down to Tuesday was a political snowball fight.

Officials in the Washington area's most populous jurisdiction and representatives of the Virginia Department of Transportation talked -- and mostly complained -- for more than two hours about the response to back-to-back snowstorms between Feb. 5 and 11 that dumped more than 45 inches of snow in parts of Northern Virginia and paralyzed much of the region. The snowstorms -- dubbed Snowmageddon and Snowpacalypse -- closed schools and government offices, locked in residential neighborhoods, and grounded flights, Metrorail and personal vehicles.

Tuesday's hearing was the first of its kind in Fairfax County since January 1996; that meeting followed an East Coast blizzard that blanketed Washington with more than two feet of snow.

The biggest gripes, Fairfax officials said, were about snow and ice plowed from streets onto sidewalks, which left many school zones impassable; the inconsistent plowing of some side streets and secondary roads; and the use of private contractors, some of which, critics said, weren't held accountable for missed streets.

Supervisor Jeff C. McKay (D-Lee), the chairman of the board's transportation committee and a particularly vocal critic of the state's response, brought a zip drive with about 200 complaints and questions from his constituents. Supervisor John W. Foust (D-Dranesville) said some residents in his district didn't get plowed out for two weeks. "That suggests to me that we need to get some more resources," he said. Supervisor Linda Q. Smyth (D-Providence), referring to the state's mapping of its plowing effort, simply said, "There were gaps in the maps."

The politics of the forum could not be ignored. It was televised live on the county's public-access channel. A special hotline, where residents could leave a minute-long message voicing their complaints, was set up, along with an online poll (it showed that the No. 1 change Fairfax residents want is a law requiring snow to be shoveled from sidewalks within 48 hours of a storm). Elected officials and their staff members nearly outnumbered citizens seated in the Government Center's auditorium. And at least five state delegates and senators sat in the first few rows.

Transportation officials spent the better part of the hearing outlining the unprecedented nature of the record-setting snowstorms and the agency's successes.

"At VDOT, we take snow removal very, very seriously," said Branco Vlacich, the agency's assistant district administrator for maintenance. "It does take a while to clear three and four feet of snow off the roadways."

State officials said their employees and contractors worked to clear 17,679 miles of roadways in Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties, the equivalent of six trips across the continental United States. In February, about 20 million tons of snow was either pushed, moved or hauled from roads in Northern Virginia. More than 7,000 potholes have been filled in Fairfax County since March 1.

Morteza Salehi, the agency's Northern Virginia district administrator, said officials fielded 34,000 calls during the February storms; about 300 calls is average for a typical six-inch snowstorm, he said.

Vlacich said some exhausted employees worked 15- and 18-hour shifts, slept in their offices in sleeping bags and in their trucks, and ate, at best, one meal a day. In Fairfax, contractors and employees had to also deal with the unusual -- a house fire and a hostage situation, for example.

"Certainly we don't have all the answers, but we are certainly trying to improve," Vlacich said. He emphasized that the agency is looking at how it plows roads in subdivisions, its training and oversight of contractors, and how it tracks and monitors plowing efforts.

Among the changes offered by county officials: Fairfax schools will adopt a plan used in Loudoun County to remove snow from rooftops using manned rigs, and the county could create more warming centers during storms, as opposed to shelters.

County officials, noting the irony of holding a meeting about snow on a sunny day with temperatures around 60 degrees, said a formal report with recommendations will be issued by early April.

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