Let's continue the post mortem on the colossal gridlock from last week's freak one-foot snowstorm and see what officials are doing about it. In case you were out of town on Nov. 11, snow fell all day. It was a surprise storm that weather forecasters missed. Traffic on major suburban roads was at a standstill all afternoon and into the night. Cars ran out of gas and overheated. Thousands of people abandoned their vehicles. Trucks became stuck on snowy roads. Tow trucks couldn't remove the disabled and abandoned vehicles fast enough, so snowplows had trouble getting through too. The Woodrow Wilson Bridge was closed for more than 12 hours. Hundreds of school children in Fairfax and Prince George's Counties were stuck at schools long after closing hours because their buses couldn't get through. Many commuters were stuck on I-295 northbound all night. A 61-year-old Springfield man unable to get off I-95 northbound in Fairfax County died in his car of a heart attack.
Here is what some officials are discussing in the aftermath.The Woodrow Wilson Bridge
This was the primary bottleneck in the area. It was closed for an astonishingly long time because of the number of trucks and cars disabled on the bridge and the Beltway approaches, particularly the first big hill on the Maryland side. Although this bridge does not carry the most traffic of the Potomac bridges, it seems to cause the most trouble in snow. "That's because it's a drawbridge," said Virginia highway spokeswoman Marianne Pastor. "Plows can't clear it: salt and sand goes right through the holes in the grating, which is icy." Further, four Beltway lanes narrow to three on the bridge, which is a problem even in good weather.
Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening now has talked with Maryland Governor William Donald Schaefer to explore whether the Wilson bridge can be widened, and Maryland officials will continue that discussion with Virginia officials next month, according to Glendening's chief aide, John Davey.
It would also help to reduce the amount of traffic on the bridge by building an outer Beltway that would divert I-95 traffic around the metropolitan area, Pastor said. That proposal is under study. Virginia officials this week repainted the lane lines to provide a smoother approach onto the bridge.
The bridge is raised from time to time to let boats through. This causes enormous traffic problems. How many interstate highways pass over drawbridges? Has anyone considered replacing it with a higher span, or placing more stringent restrictions on boat traffic? Tow Trucks
The lack of tow trucks was a problem in Maryland and Virignia. The state contracts with private firms for this business, but found last Wednesday that many operators had taken the holiday off. Those that could be pressed into service too often went willy-nilly to disabled vehicles rather than where they were most needed. "We'd get a few tow trucks going to the Wilson Bridge, but what we needed was a fleet of them," said Pastor. "There's got to be a better way to get tow trucks where they are needed."
Several Fairfax state legislators, including delegates Bob Cunningham, Gladys B. Keating, and Bob Harris and state Sen. Richard L. Saslaw are exploring the possibility of having the state pay a retainer to have a fleet of tow trucks on call and under the command of state police, Pastor said. Prince George's Davey said county and Maryland state officials will discuss how to obtain a similar fleet paid for with state and county funds.
Cars stalled on the shoulders of major roads were also a major headache. "When people use the shoulders they are blocking the lifelines -- for plows, ambulances and tow trucks," Pastor said. Virginia state police cars have rubber bumpers to push aside disabled cars, but aren't allowed to use them unless a person is in the car. State Del. Leslie Byrne (D-Fairfax) is looking at ways to give police more latitude, Pastor said. These and other matters are to be discussed at a forthcoming post mortem meeting between the top Northern Virignia and suburban Maryland traffic and state police officials.
The major problems were in Fairfax and Prince George's counties because many other systems were closed for the holiday and because the storm was most intense up the Potomac River corridor. These two systems opened on time, then quickly moved to close early. But students had to stay well beyond the normal closing time because buses couldn't get through.
Glendening said he didn't know about the school problems until 9:30 p.m. and would have used other county personnel to help out if he had known. School spokesman Brian Porter said all sorts of county officials were informed about stranded students through the afternoon and evening. School spokeswoman Bonnie Jenkins said this week that Superintendent John Murphy and Glendening have had discussions about strengthening communications.
Fairfax school officials said they would do things the same way. "We were operating with one inch of snow, a warm ground surface and no forecast of more snow," school spokeswoman Delores Bohen said. "By 9 a.m. it was clear that it was going to get worse." By then it was too late. The last students stuck at county schools left at 11 p.m. Hundreds of angry and concerned parents beseiged county officials. That was the first time central school phone numbers have been given out over radio and TV, Bohen said, and the county now knows how useful that was and is prepared to do it again.
A number of letters to Dr. Gridlock are about weather forecasting. We'll look at that next week.
Dr. Gridlock appears in this section each Friday to explore what makes it difficult to get around on roads, from misleading signs to parking problems to chronic bottlenecks. We'll try to find out why bad situations exist and what is being done about them. You can suggest problems by writing to GRIDLOCK, c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Please include your full name, address and day and evening phone numbers.