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D.C. area traffic, transit agencies brace for winter

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 Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 27, 2010; 4:53 PM

Last winter's colossal snowfalls temporarily overwhelmed transportation departments in the D.C. region and created thousands of cases of cabin fever among would-be commuters. The road generals have made some adjustments based on lessons learned. But forecasts for this winter suggest they won't be asked to re-fight the last war. Here are some highlights of the plans from the major agencies.

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VIRGINIA

The Virginia Department of Transportation is responsible for clearing subdivisions as well as main roads. Last winter, the department faced these two frequently asked questions: Where's our plow? What's your definition of "passable"?

The forecast: Illustrating some of the difficulties in preparing to clear 17,679 lane miles in Northern Virginia, VDOT maintenance administrator Branco Vlacich displayed the National Weather Service forecast he received for the upcoming season: "equal chances for above-, near-, or below-normal temperatures and precipitation." But Vlacich said further review with forecasters suggested that we should prepare for fewer big snows and more ice.

Trucks to subdivisions: Salt and sand trucks will be sent to subdivisions whenever the forecast calls for at least two inches of snow. Previously, trucks were deployed to subdivisions once two inches had fallen.

More trucks: VDOT has lined up 600 more contract trucks for this winter.

Updated subdivision maps: The department has updated its 650 maps for the subdivisions. Supervisors and plow drivers use these maps to complete the neighborhood assignments. The maps also show individual trouble spots.

"Passable": VDOT considers a neighborhood street passable when a path is drivable, with caution, for an average passenger vehicle. The street still may be snow-packed, uneven and rutted.

MARYLAND

"We get the message that we have to manage expectations for reality," said Valerie Burnette Edgar, director of communications for the Maryland State Highway Administration, which maintains about 17,000 miles of lanes on numbered routes statewide.

That's good. Last winter's reality was that no mid-Atlantic transportation agency had the equipment and personnel to handle a rapid series of major storms. Yet jurisdictions sometimes set overly optimistic goals for getting life back to normal.

Forecast: If we do get the wintry mixes that are more typical for the Washington region than serial blizzards, that will represent a different set of challenges: Less plowing, more treating.

Pre-treating: The goal for this winter is to pre-treat all interstates and U.S. Route 50 before a storm. Last winter's pilot project in which a salt brine/sugar beet molasses mixture was spread on some roads will expand to include the immediate D.C. area. The all-natural mix is environmentally friendlier, and stickier, than other solutions.

Pre-treatments are not done if a storm is likely to begin as rain. Even the sticky solutions wash away in rain before they can be effective.


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