Reacting as much to foul-tempered commuters as foul-weather forecasts, a fleet of salting trucks gave a command performance in the District early yesterday, clearing city streets of ice and snow and paving the way for a morning rush hour that was remarkably trouble free.
While most people slept Monday night and early Tuesday, 81 trucks flung an estimated 1,500 tons of salt over District roadways in preparation for a snowstorm that never materialized. By the start of yesterday's 7 a.m. rush hour, about one inch of snow had fallen at National Airport.
Nonetheless, armed with private forecasts that predicted up to 12 inches of snow overnight, city officials were braced for the worst, especially after the D.C. Department of Public Works was caught with its plows up last Friday morning, when a delay in salting icy roads prompted massive traffic jams that infuriated commuters.
This time, there were 29 salt-spreading trucks stationed along primary traffic arteries in the city as much as nine hours before the first flake hit the macadam.
"We were taking no chances," said Anne Hoey, head of the city's snow-fighting operations. "Certainly we were more conservative in looking at the data we had. After Friday's experience, I think we owed that to the public."
Though the Washington area was spared the brunt of the storm -- National Airport recorded a total of two inches of snow while Dulles and Baltimore-Washington International airports each got four inches -- areas to the northwest were struck much harder, according to the National Weather Service, with parts of Maryland's western panhandle buried under more than a foot of snow.
About 10 o'clock last night, salt-spreading trucks were concentrating their efforts on residential streets in the District. Despite falling temperatures that were expected to freeze standing water, making for slippery driving conditions, there was a bright outlook for the morning rush hour.
However, there is a precaution: School officials in Fairfax and Manassas said early this morning that schools would open two hours later as a result of icy road conditions that were still being reported in some areas of the surburbs, especially on residential streets.
Larry Wenzel, a forecaster for the National Weather Service, said temperatures in the area were expected to drop to about 20 degrees overnight and early this morning, with sporadic snow flurries continuing, but no significant accumulation was expected.
Officials at area airports said the snow caused minimal hardships. National Airport was closed for about 30 minutes around noon so trucks could plow slush that had accumulated during the morning, an official said.
Locally, officials said that despite reasonably good driving conditions, the morning rush hour was light, with about 30 percent fewer motorists than usual on the area's main roads.
Metro officials said that trains ran on a rush-hour schedule for about an extra hour in the morning to compensate for heavy ridership. Though some buses were running as much as 25 minutes behind schedule, most experienced only minor delays, a spokeswoman said.
Prince George's County police spokesman Robert Law said that traffic on the Beltway was moving close to normal yesterday morning, while Cathie Sterling, a Montgomery County police spokeswoman, said her department had not received "one weather-related phone call, including accidents," by yesterday afternoon.
Things were not as quiet for Maryland State Police posts in the two counties. Between 6 a.m. and 3 p.m. yesterday, state police officers responded to 16 weather-related accidents and 59 traffic complaints concerning stranded motorists.
Officials at Barcroft Elementary School in Arlington County, which opened two hours late, said about 25 percent of the school's 315 pupils were absent. Those who did show up complained that it was unfair they had to attend school while so many of their friends got a snow holiday.
"When I look outside at the snow it looks like a whole new world out there," said 8-year-old Herman Davis, who wanted to be outside making snowmen rather than sitting in class. "I feel cheated because other kids didn't go to school . . . .The snow looks so fun."