The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Weather wusses? Not quite.

People walk through Truxton Circle during a light snowstorm in Washington on Dec. 8, 2013. – <br/> (Nathaniel Grann / The Washington Post)

Every time potential snowfall is in the region’s forecast, two main groups emerge. Those who panic, flock to the grocery store and clear out the shelves of milk, bread and toilet paper; and those who mock the former group. It comes in multiple forms. Often, it’s a transplant saying that wherever they came from snow was in abundance all the time, and their people knew how to handle it. That is often followed up by some form of an insult to the region’s ability to handle even slightly inclement conditions. Which then cues the derision of local governments, often bemoaned as “weather wusses.”

The reality is that snow, even a little, is a big deal around these parts for very good reasons.

For one, it doesn’t happen often. In the District for example, it doesn’t make sense to invest in Midwest-level snow removal equipment when the white stuff only comes a couple times a year. It might be nice to have double the number of plows for the rare times they’re needed, but it doesn’t make sense to have those sitting in a garage for four out of every five years.

But, the most obvious problem is traffic. Most national rankings put the D.C.-area as No. 2 as worst in the nation behind New York. Also, with so many jurisdictions having to work together on comprehensive solutions, what you come up with is a very difficult mix that motivates people and requires governments to take extreme precaution well before any snow hits the ground or ice starts to form. Clearly, the goal is better safe than sorry, rather than looking good in the face of a few purportedly grizzled weatherfolk.

“The challenge for me is really not snow removal. It’s dealing with the traffic. If the trucks aren’t staged in the neighborhoods, they’re going to be stuck in traffic and will not make it to the neighborhoods,” Branco Vlacich, VDOT’s district maintenance administrator for Northern Virginia said Tuesday. “It’s not only trucks that can’t get to you, but the police can’t get to you, ambulances can’t get to you, when you have gridlock, basically. … When people make that accusation they really don’t have an understanding of the challenge.”

Something that a couple residents, who travel across all three jurisdictions for work, aren’t necessarily buying. Tim Sheetz, who lives in Mount Rainier, Md., and commutes to his account executive job in Fairfax, Va., during the week, thinks the dangers might be overblown. “I don’t understand why people complain so much about the commute, when you know, I travel every day, regardless of weather and hour and a half, and if I have to work I have to go to work. Snow’s not going to stop me,” Sheetz, 39, who’s originally from New England but has been here for three years said Tuesday. “Yeah, it takes time, but I’m not going to complain about it.”

Andrew Kristobek grew up in Kensington, Md., but is well familiar with the winter travel across the area after years of visiting his grandparents in Alexandria.  As he sees it, the snow panic of a few creates a much larger problem for everyone else.

“There’s a few things that the city does well when it comes to mass transportation, and I think one of that is being always prepared. When I mean, an ice storm or a snow storm [hits], whatever, even if it’s not that bad, they’re out there sanding the roads, and stuff like that. I never feel like I’m in a treacherous situation commuting,” Kristobek, 26, who lives in Silver Spring, but whose job is based in Sterling, Va., and takes him all over the DMV.

“The people who do this who have been doing this their whole careers are not the problem. It’s the few that don’t know where they’re going, who throw their hazards on, on the Beltway and the ripple effect of one person going 40 on the Beltway can be felt for miles,” he said.

On an official level, the teamwork is there. The states’ transportation departments regularly communicate with each other and snow days are no different. The Metropolitan Area Transportation Operations Coordination (MATOC) is a collective designed for exactly that. They say their mission is “is to provide situational awareness of transportation operations in the National Capital Region.” But that doesn’t always mean things will be perfect.

And to deal with the various counties and cities dealing with snow in different, even if coordinated ways, some drivers have come up with complex systems just to ensure the least stress. “[My commute] definitely has a difference [with] snow. The other week when the snow event that wasn’t happened, Virginia was totally fine, in control of all the roads up in North Arlington, I cross through the Palisades into Maryland and all hell broke loose,” Tara McCook, 32, said. “I thought I was going to crash the car on several occasions, because they just hadn’t gotten around to bringing out the treatment yet. So, that is definitely a factor.”

McCook, a lawyer who lives near the Pentagon but drives through the District’s Palisades neighborhood on the way to work in Bethesda, baffled herself when talking about all the work she does to ensure a smooth ride in bad weather. “Actually, describing this out, it sounds kind of insane all the triangulation you have to go through. It’s been a long trial and error process,” she said.

So, if you’re lucky enough to have a gig that allows you to take leave when the first flake falls, consider yourself lucky. While you get a day off, there was probably a delivery person or a server that might have had to trek across a web of unpredictable roads to allow you to enjoy it with a cold beer or hot soup. And while it might be ridiculous (although fun) to see NBC4’s Pat Collins breaking out his signature measuring stick every time there’s even a sniff of powder on the ground, the rest of the concern is legit.

On top of the obvious logistical machinations, sometimes, even the slightest miscommunication can paralyze the region.

“Because we live in an unbelievably great place and there’s so many things to do, the balance of our transportation network is very delicate,” David Buck of the Maryland State Highway Administration said Tuesday, before overnight snow was expected in the area.

“Whether it’s rain, or whether it’s an incident and a crash, or whether it’s snow, that balance can be upset very easily, and not just for one jurisdiction,” he said.