Last week's snowstorm provided many Northern Virginians with a taste of how state budget cuts will affect their lives.
In an effort to make the most of its dollars at a time when state revenue is off sharply, the Virginia Department of Transportation delayed sending out some snow removal equipment last Thursday, officials said.
On that day, the season's first snowstorm piled several inches of snow on area roadways and left some motorists stranded.
Maryland officials also are delaying the dispatch of snowplows. The District has not changed its policy from last year, despite a money crunch.
In Virginia, the reduction in "standby time" before a forecast snowfall begins, which the Transportation Department usually uses for last-minute equipment checks, appears to have caused crews to lose their jump on the storm, according to interviews with private snow removal contractors and state officials. The equipment finally hit the roads well after the snow started falling.
"It caused us not to move our trucks like we wanted to," said Andy Bailey, the department's resident engineer for Northern Virginia. Usually, he said, "we call our drivers in and get the whole complement of equipment ready a couple of hours in advance, including plows and chemical spreaders."
The state agency's Northern Virginia office has been allocated $5.5 million this year to clear snow from 10,329 miles of roads in Fairfax, Arlington, Loudoun and Prince William counties. That is about $2 million less than the amount spent last year, state officials said.
Last week's storm took a $400,000-plus bite out of that budget.
Maryland's State Highway Administration also is trying to stretch its dollars by holding its "standby time" to a minimum, according to District 3 spokesman Dolly Allen.
Plows "will be on standby waiting for a storm to happen, but not as long," Allen said.
Montgomery County's only concession to the budget squeeze has been to eliminate one private contractor that had been plowing residential areas and instead have the county perform the task.
The District, which has budgeted $2.4 million for snow removal this year, the city of Alexandria and Prince George's County have not changed any policies on snow removal and their snow removal budgets for this year are equal to recent years.
"This is an area dear to a lot of people's hearts," said William Keim, who heads snow removal for Montgomery County's Department of Transportation. "I do not think it is going to be reduced significantly."
But in Fairfax County, Bailey said his office will have a difficult time achieving its goal of having all roads passable within 24 hours of the end of a snowstorm.
"Subdivisions will take 48 instead of 24 hours to clear," Bailey said. "Right now, the cutback will affect us in timeliness."
He informed local officials in a recent letter to expect a slower state response to snow on secondary roads and in subdivisions, and he said the clearing of snow will depend more than in the past on the weather immediately after a storm.
L.C. Meyers, of Meyers Trucking in Fairfax, which spreads salt and sand and plows snow for the state, said the reduced standby time will cause delays in clearing roads.
"Ordinarily we come in two or three hours ahead of time to put the equipment on" the trucks, Meyers said, adding that last week his trucks were still being readied as the snow fell. "When the snow first starts to stick, we'd be on the road . . . ready to go."
Bailey said the major culprit hampering snow removal on busy Northern Virginia highways, including Interstate 66, was the fact that the storm started in the middle of the evening rush hour.
"There are too many cars that are not equipped for snow driving," Bailey said. "We were pretty happy once rush hour ended."