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EDITORIAL: Interstate 95 winter storm debacle demands scrutiny

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Virginia officials defend response to snowy gridlock on I-95 (copy)

Motorists sit stranded on Interstate 95 near Fredericksburg, Va, on Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022. Hundreds of motorists were stranded all night in snow and freezing temperatures along a 50-mile stretch of Interstate 95 after a crash involving six tractor-trailers in Virginia, where authorities were struggling Tuesday to reach them. (WJLA via AP)

That traffic in the Fredericksburg area along Interstate 95 is bad is hardly news to the people who live here.

It’s also well-known to groups that study congestion issues nationally. A study by INRIX just four years ago, for example, listed the I–95 stretch from Exit 133A in Stafford to Fairfax County as the “most congested” in the country.

The complete stoppage of traffic late Monday, Jan. 3 into Tuesday, Jan. 4, however, was certainly extraordinary, even for this area. To say that the region was caught off guard, however, doesn’t pass the smell test.

That was Gov. Ralph Northam’s assessment during a press call on Tuesday afternoon. “We were prepared for the storm that was predicted, a few inches of snow,” he said. “But instead, Mother Nature sent more than a foot of snow to the Fredericksburg area.”

Let’s begin with the obvious. The governor said that “a few inches of snow” were predicted. One wonders where he’s getting his information from. A press release from the Virginia Department of Transportation on Sunday, Jan. 2, warned of a major snow event. “The current forecast indicates this will be a significant event that will impact travel throughout the state. Snowfall could reach rates of two inches per hour.”

Also on Sunday, the Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang, which depends on multiple forecasting models for their predictions, flagged our region for 5 to 9 inches of snow, with a possible maximum fall of 14 inches.

Failure to recognize the potential danger of this storm is one possible reason the Virginia National Guard wasn’t mobilized. The state’s coordinator of emergency management, Curtis Brown, said the Guard—which takes 12 to 24 hours to call up—wasn’t activated because the situation didn’t meet the state’s general rules for pre-emptive emergency declarations for winter storms.

We reached out to the Fredericksburg Division of VDOT asking what weather conditions were expected. That call has been referred to the central office for response, and as of now has not been answered.

Failing to understand the storm’s magnitude appears to be just the first of many missteps by our state leaders.

Motorists who were stranded for hours reported receiving very little official communication about what was happening or how long they could expect to be stuck. Travelers complained that calls to VDOT went unanswered, and that the 511 system provided little information beyond there being icy conditions.

When official communication finally did come, it was too little, too late. At 8:45 Tuesday morning—a full 24 hours from when state troopers first responded to a jackknifed tractor trailer on the interstate near Fredericksburg—the governor tweeted that “My team has been working throughout the night alongside @VSPPIO, @VaDOT, and @VDEM to respond to the situation on I–95.” That’s little consolation to families who had stayed overnight in freezing temperatures with no food or water.

Transurban, the company that owns the I–95 hot lanes, is also facing criticism. When asked by WJLA TV about why traffic wasn’t allowed on the lanes, it responded, reasonably, that the lanes were being used for snow plows and first responders. Adding southbound traffic would only complicate a bad situation.

Pushed to explain why traffic couldn’t be allowed to travel north on the lanes to get away from the situation, Transurban had no immediate response.

Rep. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia’s 7th District is among a growing list of local, regional and national leaders calling on the outgoing Northam administration and the incoming Youngkin administration to work together to do a deep dive into everything that went wrong.

It’s important that this not result in yet another report posted on government websites that leads to no significant change. While Monday’s snow event may have been fueled by a “perfect storm” that created a 48-mile stretch of stalled and stopped traffic that left even Virginia’s junior U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine stranded in excess of 20 hours, it wasn’t an event we couldn’t see coming.

Fortunately, there were no deaths or serious injuries to those stuck in the debacle that was the area’s response to the situation.

Next time—and on Interstate 95, there will be a next time—drivers and their passengers may not be so fortunate.

The (Fredericksburg) Free Lance-Star

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