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

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.

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.

Emergency management: Last snow season, stuck vehicles - particularly trucks - compounded already-severe problems with clearing main roads. The goal this winter is to coordinate rapid responses to crashes and strandings that could make bad traffic jams much worse. The anti-congestion program could include temporary detours before traffic delays become extreme.

THE DISTRICT

The District Department of Transportation and the Department of Public Works treat and plow about 2,295 lane miles, bridges, overpasses and ramps. The District doesn't plow alleys. While the city has a more concentrated mix of main roads and side streets to deal with, it shared in the criticisms focused on other jurisdictions about slow and erratic clearing.

Forecast: A new mayor, Vincent C. Gray, will become the face of this winter's snow-fighting efforts, but the city already is trying to apply lessons learned last winter. They include finding ways to mount a more aggressive, more flexible response to storms, no matter what form they take. Like VDOT, the District wants plow drivers to be familiar with its streets. Early this month, the departments dispatched more than 250 pieces of equipment in a simulated snow emergency to reacquaint crews with the routes.

Equipment and management: The departments say they have new contingency plans for handling big accumulations and will emphasize ward-based management and field reporting to sharpen the response. They have a new contract to rent up to 50 additional snowplows. Last winter, all the jurisdictions confronted a shortage of equipment for clearing massive accumulations. Once the snow starts, it's difficult to import more equipment in time to help.

The District also has expanded the variety of equipment it can employ to cope with different situations, including the anti-icing treatment of neighborhood streets.

METRO

Besides trying to keep the trains and buses running as long as possible, Metro clears the areas around station entrances but not around bus stops. Metrorail drew public criticism during the heaviest snows when it shut aboveground service and restricted underground operations.

Forecast: Metro's basic winter plan remains the same. Metrorail will operate a close-to-normal schedule in up to six inches of snow. When the snow gets to eight inches and starts to cover the third rail, the transit authority may suspend aboveground service. Metrobus will first reduce service depending on local route conditions, then if overall conditions deteriorate it will limit service to snow emergency routes. In a severe storm, it will halt all service. MetroAccess managers will curtail trips as road conditions deteriorate.

Maintaining service: Maintaining service on the exposed Yellow Line bridge over the Potomac River will be a priority. Engineers have modified ice scrapers on rail equipment to help keep tracks clear. Metrobus has told local jurisdictions which snow emergency routes need to be plowed to serve the maximum number of communities. Metro is leasing four Bobcats and equipping six additional trucks with plows to clear bus garages. The transit authority also will buy up to 70 new snow blowers to speed removal from platforms and station entrances.

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