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Snowstorm failures: No single decision can be blamed

Saturday, January 29, 2011; 8:18 PM

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

So John Berry, head of the Office of Personnel Management, says he was worried about being a "laughingstock" if he released federal workers before the snow began to fall Wednesday afternoon? How worried was he about the safety of federal employees?

I think Mr. Berry needs to re-examine his priorities.

Nikki Ressler, Springfield

Berry took his turn as the human pincushion for many travelers caught in a commute that will live for years in their memories. In an e-mail Wednesday evening to The Federal Eye blog, Berry wrote: "We allowed two-hour early departure - and did so without a flake in sight. As late as 4 p.m. I was worried with nothing happening if the exact opposite was going to occur, i.e., a laughingstock story of over reaction."

It's never an easy call, he correctly noted, but Berry said he thought the region's biggest employer got the call "about right" in permitting thousands of federal workers to hit the road two hours early.

It's very clear that things didn't go "about right" for commuters. But this failure had many fathers.

When a winter storm arrives in Washington during the afternoon rush, the results are inevitable. In the afternoon, commuters are less flexible than they are in the morning, when they can wake up, see a storm, and go back to bed. In the afternoon, almost everyone who came in is going to try to reach home.

Once they're on the road, it doesn't take a lot of precipitation to mess them up. The drivers who inched their way up 16th Street NW in Wednesday's snow might have recalled the evening of Jan. 18, 2000, when it took little more than an extended period of flurries to turn that street into a thin but very effective sheet of ice.

On Feb. 12, 2008, a tenth of an inch of ice shut down the new Springfield interchange and stalled homeward bound travelers for hours.

In both cases, the forecast was a little off. On Wednesday, the forecast was spot on. A mix of rain and sleet turned to very heavy snow at 4 p.m., just in time to test the mediocre winter driving skills of thousands of Washington commuters.

The chain of failure started much earlier, when highway departments pronounced themselves ready for snow. In fact, they were ready. The storm teams are a lot smarter and a lot better prepared than they were in 2000 or 2008. They can deal with the snow. But they can't deal with us crowding the roads at the same time.

They need to make that really plain to commuters, and to the big employers and school administrators who make decisions about when to call in people and when to let them go. And they need to explain it the day before the storm, not the day after.

Managing congestion

The Wednesday morning commute, difficult as that was for many Metrorail riders aboard trains forced to share tracks, seems like an ice age ago. But it did offer some positive news in rush-hour management.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I was delayed Wednesday morning on the Red Line to Farragut North. But Metro had what seemed to be a new approach, which I think is a real improvement in handling these single-tracking situations.

Trains were going through three in a row in each direction. In the inbound direction, the first train went express from Van Ness to Farragut North, the second train apparently made some of the stops. The third train made all stops.

This allows them to get significantly more trains through in this situation, since the second and third trains in the group aren't held up waiting for the crowds to push out of the first train and back in. Also, once you're past the delay, the trains are more evenly spaced.

The operator of the train I was on made very clear announcements, and I didn't see anybody confused or missing their stop.

Ben Ross, Bethesda

Metro spokesman Steven Taubenkibel said that Ross, who is one of the leaders of the advocacy group called Action Committee for Transit, was pretty close in his description of what the Operations Control Center was doing with Metro's most heavily used line.

The controllers were sending three trains through in each direction, inbound and outbound. Some of them operated express, passing a stop or two, and some made the local stops at Cleveland Park, Woodley Park and Dupont Circle. "This approach allowed us to space out our trains more evenly throughout the system," Taubenkibel said.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer's name and home community. Write to Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. By e-mail: drgridlock@washpost.com. His blog: washingtonpost.com/drgridlock. On Twitter: drgridlock.

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