Massive traffic jams, express lanes clogged with snow and immobilized vehicles and a gauntlet of gaping potholes along major bridges and thoroughfares greeted Washington-area commuters returning to work yesterday from a cold, icy weekend.
Inbound traffic from Maryland and Virginia suburbs backed up for nearly three miles in places at the height of the morning rush hour, with some motorists reporting delays of up to an hour.
Part of the problem was caused by stalled vehicles and snow buildup along the sides of inbound highways that effectively closed some lanes to traffic, D.C. officials said.
A principal contributor to the clogged commuterways was a monumental traffic jam in the near-downtown area created when motorists who normally drive through town on sidestreets were forced by accumulated snow and ice onto major arterials, including Connecticut, New York and Georgia avenues and 13th, 14th and 16th streets.
The traffic snarls were made worse by illegally parked, snow-entombed cars in curbside lanes, and motorists frequently were forced to swerve or slow down to avoid hitting large potholes in the middle of the street.
Yesterday was the first time in nearly two weeks that the 14th Street bridge express lanes were open during rush hour. It was closed Jan. 13 following the crash of an Air Florida jetliner into the Potomac River that killed 78 persons.
D.C. and Metro officials mobilized about 80 salt trucks and plows yesterday afternoon after the U.S. Weather Service forecast another 1 to 2 inches of snow. A total of 14.9 inches of snow already has fallen this month and the temperature has dipped below zero, placing a tremendous strain on the city's crews and just about exhausting the $1.2 million budgeted this year for snow removal.
"We'll just have to spend what is necessary to keep traffic moving and ask for a budget supplement," Thomas Downs, director of the Department of Transportation, said yesterday.
Downs said the city might have to spend twice as much as budgeted for snow removal, depending on the severity of weather during February.
"It has been one snow storm after another," he said. "You just get to a point where you're getting a handle on the streets and another snow comes."
The transportation department received 100 to 200 calls per hour yesterday morning from residents complaining about impassable side streets.
The city rushed 10 crews to patch the worst of the potholes on the John Philip Sousa Bridge on Pennsylvania Avenue SE, New York Avenue east of Bladensburg Road, the southbound 14th Street bridge, East Capitol Street, Kenilworth Avenue and the Whitehurst Freeway. One pothole on the Sousa bridge extended through the deck and had to be covered by a metal plate.
"We haven't had any potholes that have eaten cars yet, nor has there been reports of major damage to cars," said Downs. "But that's a problem that will get worse."
Stanley Ather, a city street maintenance engineer, said the problems posed by potholes were worse than usual--and would get a lot worse when the weather improves and the ice melts.
The city yesterday used about 30 tons of asphalt to temporarily patch the potholes, or about 50 percent more than usual for an average winter day.
"It's starting to be a bad time for potholes," Ather said. "If the temperature gets warmer at the end of the week, it will get worse."