By Ashley Halsey III
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.
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.
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.
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.
But the police department got word through news reports and improvised, using a Y2K emergency plan to deploy officers to 120 key intersections and clear out most traffic snarls within three hours.
In the aftermath, the District drew up a detailed evacuation plan that would turn major roads into one-way arteries out of town. But a Department of Homeland Security study after Hurricane Katrina found that the Washington region met just 13 percent of the requirements for responding to a major disaster.
To remedy that, the region received a $1.4 million federal grant to develop a large-scale evacuation plan. But coordinating all the jurisdictions across the region's 17 cities and counties spread over two states and a federal district was like herding cats, and the effort was scaled back to provide a general guide.
Creating a single chain of command proved impossible. The mayor of New York can order 8 million people to evacuate, but the guide's authors pointed out that no single individual could give the same command to 5 million people in the Washington region.
Some broad boulevards that the District designated as evacuation routes emptied into two-lane roads in Maryland. And during a typical evening rush hour, the guide's authors underscored, most of the designated evacuation routes operate at 120 percent of capacity or more.
Even before the large-scale plan fizzled, Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) had earmarked $1.6 million to create the regional transportation network that is emerging in Greenbelt.
It is not a command center - orders will come from officials elsewhere - but in times of emergency, and even as travelers try to navigate the everyday knots of congestion, it will provide real-time information for the entire region.
"We connect all the dots," Rosa Eberle said as she sat in front of several monitors before sunrise one morning this month. "We can sometimes see something before the [departments of transportation] know about it."
8:46 p.m.: The screen at Greenbelt flashes red on the three right lanes of the outer loop at Cabin John. Speed slows to zero. The backup grows to 3.6 miles. But the Mustang finally has been moved.
It figures that in a region with the nation's worst traffic headaches there is no shortage of information on what's going wrong at any given moment. Virginia, the District and Maryland have festooned the highways with traffic cameras, and they each have ultra-modern traffic centers to monitor them.
A commercial outfit - Inrix - is providing the best real-time data on traffic flow that has ever been available.
Across the region, police use radio networks to coordinate their response to emergencies. Metro puts out bulletins about rail and bus problems that might crowd alternative routes. The approach of ominous weather that could cause trouble for travelers shows up on radar from several sources.
All of those pieces and more now are being put together in Greenbelt at the Metropolitan Area Transportation Operations Coordination (MATOC) center, which comes under the umbrella of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG).
It is an operation in its fledgling months, perfecting its methods of digesting all the region's transportation information before later this year, when it will send out a comprehensive stream of data available to the traveling public.
A major water main break that closes the Beltway in Prince George's County will have a ripple effect through the region. A truck accident that involves hazardous materials will take longer to clear than one that spills a load of dry goods. A major problem on the Red Line may put more cars on the road.
"There has to be someone who has control of the ripple effect," said Ron Kirby, COG's transportation planning director. "That is what MATOC was created to manage."
1:45 a.m.: The fourth and final lane shows red on the Beltway at Cabin John. There are still 10 tractor-trailers stuck in the roadway. The whole outer loop will be shut down for the next 61 minutes.
In the year that will mark the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attack, Jan. 26 again proved that sending the federal workforce and virtually everyone else home early just doesn't work.
"The critical decision was to tell people whether or not to get on the roads," Kirby said. "If you don't get out by 3 p.m., don't go. And if you do get stuck, do not leave your vehicle in the travel lanes. There is no way a program like MATOC can unscramble a mess like that once it gets going."
A mid-morning conference call Jan. 26 was indecisive.
COG's Emergency Preparedness Council met Feb. 9 to review the debacle and discuss how to do better next time.
"Having real-time information about specific conditions is a part of that," said Phil Andrews, the council chairman and a member of the Montgomery County Council. "We need to skillfully manage the transportation system as it changes during an incident like this."
2:56 a.m.: Good news flashes into the center from the Beltway at Cabin John: The two left lanes of the outer loop have reopened.
A system called RITIS - the Regional Integrated Transportation Information System - is at the core of the information flowing into Greenbelt. Developed at the University of Maryland, it gathers data for federal, state and local governments.
"Imagine RITIS slightly filtered down being delivered to the public," said Thomas H. Jacobs, who directs the center for advanced transportation technology at the university. "We will offer a one-stop shop for the national capital region."
That's where many people turned while stuck in the Jan. 26 gridlock.
"People are going to use social media to reach out to us," said Merni Fitzgerald, director of public affairs in Fairfax County. "Some us were tweeting until midnight, telling people when the buses would arrive."
A dozen years ago, only transportation visionaries could imagine a day when drivers would have devices that provide real-time updates or step-by-step directions thanks to the GPS.
Now, it's not so hard to picture how a commercial company could use the data collected by MATOC.
Already, the companies that make GPS units and mobile devices are feeding data from Inrix and elsewhere to their customers. The ability to tap into MATOC data will provide them with a new level of detail.
"The key is keeping it updated in real time," Kirby said. "Is this incident going to be long gone by the time I make my trip? You need to be able to look in there, then go have a cup of coffee and come back and get an update."
3:34 a.m.: All four outer loop lanes at Cabin John now are open. The traffic backup is down to 1.8 miles; cars are moving at 20-30 mph.