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New Greenbelt operations center will help manage traffic and transit throughout D.C. region

Taran L. Hutchinson looks at a monitor with information on disabled vehicles on the outer loop of 495 at the American Legion Bridge during the snowstorm of Jan. 26th.
Taran L. Hutchinson looks at a monitor with information on disabled vehicles on the outer loop of 495 at the American Legion Bridge during the snowstorm of Jan. 26th. (For The Washington Post)

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 16, 2011; 10:30 PM

By the time the orange state van arrived at 7:55 p.m. to flash its joyless message of traffic problems ahead, absolutely no one needed to be told: 12 tractor-trailers and 16 cars were stuck, people were running out of gas, and the backup was three miles long and growing.

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That was on the Capital Beltway near Cabin John Parkway, but it could have been almost anywhere within 50 miles of Washington on Jan. 26, when a rare mix of rain, ice and traffic conspired to create a mess so spectacular that grandchildren yet to be born will grow up to the stories.

In the finger-pointing that began the next morning, more than a few people asked whether anybody had thought about how a region that couldn't handle an ice storm would respond if terrorism required that the city be evacuated.

The answer is yes.

The mayhem of Iceageddon popped up minute by minute as it happened on an array of screens in a third-floor corner office in Greenbelt. The accidents, the lurch of traffic when it moved at all and just about every nuance as the scenes unfolded - except for the expletives - flowed into the office that in a few months will become a hub for transportation information in the Washington region.

Like many things born to serve one primary purpose - the post-9/11 desire for an evacuation system - this state-of-the-art center also will provide something else. A Web site, Twitter and Facebook will deliver the data to people in real time. Once the information is harnessed by commercial interests, it will be fed into GPS units or mobile devices to guide people on their daily travels across the region.

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8:13 p.m.: The monitor in the Greenbelt office indicates that overhead signs on the Beltway are flashing "Icy Conditions Possible. Use Caution." This is not news to drivers who have been sliding - and sometimes crunching fender-on-fender - to a halt at Cabin John. A Mustang is blocking one lane.

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There had been plenty of warnings that advance plans should be made, but when terrorism struck home on Sept. 11, 2001, the Washington region had none.

The fear that more hijacked planes were on the way or that the New York and Pentagon attacks were the first in a terrorist barrage was palpable on the streets of Washington.

With the dark plume of smoke still rising from the Pentagon, at 10:30 a.m., 260,000 federal workers - 180,000 of them in the city - were told to go home. No one thought to tell the D.C. police department, but that might not have mattered, because it had no plan to convert streets to one-way to ease evacuation.


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