Virginia commuters found the rush-hour drive into Washington surprisingly easy yesterday morning, despite the partial closing of the 14th Street bridge and continued icy conditions. Forecasters said last night that the great freeze of January may well be over--for now, at least--with temperatures likely to climb into the 30s today.
Transportation officials, who had been braced for the worst, said yesterday that they were surprised at the ease with which commuters were able to get to work even though the express lanes on the 14th Street bridge, the busiest traffic artery into the city, are closed for salvage operations following last week's airliner crash.
Instead, the rush-hour commute, particularly from Virginia, actually was easier than normal, according to area transportation officials. "I came down the Shirley Highway I-395 during rush hour and I couldn't believe it; it was like a Saturday," said Bill McGuirk, traffic engineer for the D.C. Department of Transportation. The evening rush hour went smoothly as well, officials said.
Virginia motorists, some of them alarmed at last Friday's morning rush hour from Virginia that lasted nearly until noon, seemed to follow the advice recommended by transportation chiefs for Monday's venture into the city.
They left earlier than normal--rush hour started at 6 a.m. instead of 7, according to the U.S. Park Police--and they packed Metro buses and subways. Ridership was up substantially on public transportation, according to Metro officials, and traffic coming into the city was down by 30 percent to 40 percent, according to the D.C. Department of Transportation. Traffic was heavier than normal on both the Woodrow Wilson and Cabin John bridges, suggesting that many motorists tried to go around the affected area.
As a result, the 14th Street bridge provided easy access to the city. One motorist traveling up Shirley Highway from the Beltway between 8 and 8:30 a.m. made it to the bridge in nine minutes with no traffic congestion. Traffic in regular northbound lanes of the highway actually moved faster than the car pools and buses in the express lanes because traffic in the regular lanes could use the 14th Street bridge while the express traffic, as required by the temporary transportation plan, was funneled into the city over Memorial Bridge.
At the Pentagon Metro station, long lines snaked across the loading platforms during rush hour. "The streets are empty this morning," said Andrew Heyman, a clothing store employe from Alexandria waiting to board the subway. "Everyone decided to take Metro, so now we have a logjam here and the roads are a piece of cake."
Most Northern Virginia bus routes were terminated at the Pentagon, rather than continuing into the city, but passengers generally were tolerant of having to make an extra transfer onto shuttle buses. Most said they expected the procedure to add another 15 minutes to their commute.
"Given what happened, I don't think anyone should mind," said Vicki Smith, an Agriculture Department employe waiting for transportation at the Pentagon. She was referring to last Wednesday's airliner crash, which claimed 78 lives.
Yesterday was the first full weekday of operation on the Metrorail subway since last Wednesday's fatal subway crash that closed down the Blue and Orange lines between the McPherson Square and Federal Center SW stations. Metro officials reported that things went smoothly, and rail cars that recently had been out of service would be added to the lines today.
The American Automobile Association, meanwhile, reported their switchboards flooded by motorists complaining that the cold had killed their engines. During an eight-hour period beginning at 5 yesterday morning, AAA received 1,700 complaints, mostly from people stuck at home, according to a company spokesman. That has been about the steady rate since extremely cold weather moved into the Washington area 10 days ago, he said.
The National Weather Service said that the extreme cold snap is over, for now, but forecasters warned that the next 30 days, on average, should be colder than usual. Normally, high temperatures reach 44 degrees at this time of year.
The overnight low, Sunday to Monday, was 4 degrees just before midnight, and thermometers registered only 7 degrees at 7 a.m. yesterday morning. The latest Arctic cold front that had gripped the area since Saturday moved out to sea yesterday, and by 6 p.m. the temperature was 25 degrees.
Overnight lows last night were expected to be about 20 degrees, with temperatures rising into the 30s during the day. The weather service forecast last night a less than 50 percent chance that some light snow or freezing rain would fall today.
About 150 homes in the Saddlebrook subdivision of Great Falls were without electricity for much of 24 hours because of the demand for service in the cold. Vepco said that power had been restored to all but 30 homes by 5 p.m. yesterday. The cold caused breaks in city water mains in the 700 block of Fairmont Street NW, at Minnesota Avenue and Ames Street NE, and at First and N streets NW, but D. C. Department of Environmental Services director William Johnson said a few breaks in small lines are normal for this time of year.