The Washington region, struggling back to normal after a snowstorm-marred holiday, began thawing out and mopping up yesterday as residents endured more traffic bottlenecks, especially in the suburbs, but found the District's rush-hour thoroughfares passable.
A combination of freezing overnight temperatures, jackknifed tractor-trailers and abandoned vehicles caused the worst traffic problems yesterday, with massive tie-ups resulting on portions of the Capital Beltway and Shirley Highway, a major north-south commuter route in Northern Virginia.
Much of the congestion, authorities said, was related to the closing of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, which was shut about 11 p.m. Wednesday and did not reopen until noon yesterday. Countless vehicles were diverted onto side streets and secondary roads.
Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening said he would propose to Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer that Maryland and Virginia better coordinate clearing abandoned and stalled vehicles from the Wilson bridge in future snowstorms. The bridge, which spans the Potomac River at the southern corner of the District of Columbia, links the two states.
In Northern Virginia, the blocked bridge created traffic backups on I-95 as far south as Prince William County, while in Maryland yesterday morning, traffic going south on I-295 encountered such treacherous conditions that Maryland state police asked District police to close off the highway. Police were still towing abandoned cars from the Beltway late yesterday afternoon.
Elsewhere in the suburbs, warmer temperatatures made travel possible on most secondary roads, although authorities said that many subdivisions remained unplowed.
The weather outlook was even better for today. National Weather Service forecasters said temperatures that were expected to dip to 25 to 30 degrees last night would begin to warm up by rush hour this morning to a high in the low 60s.
While Maryland and Virginia officials planned improvements in their snow-fighting efforts, District officials were almost jubilant about the city's largely successful snow removal efforts on major streets, which they credited to aggressive towing and ticketing, public cooperation and a reduction in the number of snow emergency routes.
"I just can't tell you what it feels like to drive up Connecticut Avenue at 2:30 in the morning and see only two parked cars from Florida Avenue all the way to the District line," said Tara Hamilton, spokeswoman for the D.C. Department of Public Works.
Hamilton said the city towed 500 cars and ticketed 1,200 others between 8 p.m. Wednesday and noon yesterday, when the snow emergency restrictions were lifted.
Mayor Marion Barry, calling himself "the commanding general of this storm," said the entire city government had mobilized to handle the surprise snowfall and that the success of the city effort was "a good dry run" for winter.
Bob Marbourg, a traffic reporter for WTOP radio who spent much of yesterday broadcasting reports on area road conditions, said, "I don't think we can say it was a triumph of coordination over Mother Nature. I think we can say it was good practice for January."
Marianne Pastor, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Transportation, said snow removal efforts there were hamstrung by a shortage of tow trucks, and that she had already spoken to several state legislators about forming a pool of tow trucks that would serve just the state during snow emergencies.
Wednesday's surprise storm, which blanketed the area with six to 15 inches of snow just three days after an Indian summer weekend, left people regaling each other yesterday with both humorous and nightmarish tales of trying to cope with winter before they had a chance to buy their Thanksgiving turkeys.
Anxious parents reclaimed stranded schoolchildren, some of whom had been forced to spend the night in their classrooms. Frantic travelers waited for hours to get out of town, their plans delayed Wednesday when the snowstorm closed National Airport and froze Amtrak's train switches at Union Station. And commuters, normally a tough lot, went back to work -- except for those who didn't get home until yesterday morning.
"Some cars ran out of gas, some became disabled, some got stuck and some people just became frustrated and got out," Maryland State Police Lt. Edward Brown, said of those who had to contend with the storm. "Police couldn't get through, ambulances couldn't get through, tow vehicles couldn't get through, and that was the root of the problem."
Some motorists on I-295 spent Wednesday night in their cars, hopelessly engulfed in a huge traffic logjam that formed after authorities closed Wilson bridge. The bridge closing also stranded drivers on the Prince George's County portion of the Beltway, though these motorists were evacuated by police and put up for the night at an elementary school gymnasium in Oxon Hill.
Those who spent the night in their cars on I-295, which links the Maryland portion of the Beltway near the Wilson bridge with southeastern Washington and the downtown area, said they listened in vain on their car radios for reports of their plight, and felt as abandoned as the empty cars they could see along the highway.
Told of the situation yesterday, authorities in the District and Maryland expressed bewilderment about how the motorists were overlooked, and said they had not been aware that any were stuck in their cars.
Faced with the extraordinary road conditions, authorities in the various jurisdictions sought new ways to coordinate the snow removal and towing efforts. In one unusual development, Virginia state troopers crossed into Maryland to lend assistance to their counterparts across the Potomac.
Unlike January's twin snowstorms, which seemed to wreak the most havoc inside the city limits, Wednesday's freakish sneak attack snowfall lingered longest on suburban roads.
The Metrorail system, meanwhile, continued to run smoothly yesterday after having had its mettle tested by the storm. On Wednesday, it carried 270,000 riders, almost one-third more than the 205,000 trips recorded on Veterans Day last year. During yesterday's morning rush, Metro counted 156,000 riders, slightly above the 152,000 considered typical for this time of year.
But Metrobus service, which struggled with the snow and resulting traffic congestion Wednesday, had to stick to main arteries only for much of yesterday because of road conditions.
At Union Station, where frozen track switches and signal problems canceled or delayed service for about 5,000 passengers Wednesday, normal train schedules resumed yesterday.
Officials said Dulles and Baltimore-Washington International airports were able to keep operating during the storm. At National Airport, which reopened yesterday morning, about 200 would-be passengers who had camped overnight Wednesday were first in line trying to get flights out -- and getting nowhere fast.
"I've been crying all day," said one woman as she waited in the terminal with her black Labrador, Maggie. The two had sat for 2 1/2 hours Wednesday morning on a plane bound for Boston that never took off, and had been at the airport ever since. "I'm just tired," said the woman, 25, who declined to give her name. "I need some sleep."
Mark Austad, a 70-year-old former U.S. ambassador to Finland, and his wife Lola waited in quiet resignation. The Scottsdale, Ariz., residents said they had made a mock pact never to leave Arizona again.
"I stood in that line for an hour and a half," said Austad, pointing to a line that snaked from a reservation counter, up a ramp and down a hall. It turned out to be the wrong line, but he chalked it up to forces beyond his control in the wake of the storm.
"Mother Nature meets Father Time," he said.
Staff writers Lynne Duke, Sandra Evans, Marcia Slacum Greene, Nell Henderson, Anne Koch and Rene Sanchez contributed to this report.