- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 14, 2008

Virginia transportation officials yesterday blamed inaccurate weather forecasts for their failure to deploy salt trucks before freezing rain glazed local roads and brought traffic to a standstill well into the night.

“We prepared for a forecast for rain, but we got freezing rain,” said Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) spokeswoman Jennifer McCord. “We were preparing for warmer temperatures, but things didn’t warm up like our forecast said.”

Ice on newly opened flyover ramps at the Mixing Bowl — where Interstate 495 meets Interstate 95 in Virginia — caused traffic jams beyond midnight as state police scrambled to clean up accidents and close icy roads until they could be treated.

“Ramps were the key problems,” Virginia State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said. “They were just sheets of ice.”

AAA mid-Atlantic spokesman Lon Anderson said he was surprised by the problem at the Mixing Bowl because Virginia transportation officials years earlier said they had specific plans to treat the flyover ramps, which freeze sooner than main roads.

“When you have these flyovers that are as high as some skyscrapers, you know they’re prone to freezing,” Mr. Anderson said. “They told us that they would do everything possible to make sure that the flyovers were safe.”

The flyover ramps, which were completed last summer, were built to safely separate local and long-distance travelers and reduce lane changes.

Joan Morris, VDOT spokeswoman, said 12 salt trucks and four brine solution tankers are dedicated to the flyovers, which are typically treated before main roads.

She said VDOT strategically placed salt trucks near the interstates last night.

Representatives for James S. Gilmore III said the former governor was stuck for more than seven hours on an off-ramp on Interstate 95 near the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. The traffic delays caused Mr. Gilmore to miss a victory party for Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, who won the state’s presidential primary.

“Him and about 40 other cars were stuck there from about 3:30 p.m. until almost 11 p.m. when VDOT finally showed up to rescue them and salt the off-ramp,” said Ana M. Gamonal, spokeswoman for Mr. Gilmore. “This new off-ramp is almost 2 miles long and goes up and loops around. And with the ice storm, cars could not make there way up and were skidding backwards … forcing everyone to wait it out.”

There were also reports that some voters were stuck in traffic and were not able to vote in the primary before the polls closed at 7 p.m.

Gordon Hickey, a spokesman for Gov. Tim Kaine said that neither the governor nor the State Board of Elections had the power to extend polling hours. In Maryland, elections officials obtained a court order to keep polls open for 90 minutes to accommodate voters delayed by the weather.

Mr. Hickey said a Virginia judge could have probably done the same thing, “but it is unknown territory.”

Brian Greening, 31, of Oakton, said it took him an hour and 45 minutes to get from his job in Reston to the District Tuesday evening.

“It was a little frustrating,” Mr. Greening said. “I heard saw the ice and heard it on the window at my office. I knew it was going to be bad.”

Mr. Greening said he expected delays but did not expect the trip to be more than twice as long as usual.

Meanwhile the D.C. Department of Transportation (DDOT), which historically has struggled to clear streets in a timely manner during winter storms, kept traffic moving Tuesday with no major accidents or traffic delays.

Transportation department spokeswoman Karyn LeBlanc said trucks started salting streets at 9 a.m. Tuesday and continued all night.

“If there’s a chance of any ice or snow, we have our crews out there,” she said. “We’re never really sure if we’re going to get rain or ice, and when we do get ice we get hit pretty hard.”

Miss LeBlanc said the city only reported a handful of fender benders. She said Metropolitan Police were forced to close the 12th Street Tunnel for about 90 minutes to clear an accident.

DDOT also warned pedestrians of icy sidewalks, which caused a number falls throughout the evening. One such fall involved Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who broke his shoulder after slipping on an icy step outside his home in the District.

By yesterday evening, local power companies had restored electricity to all but a few thousand customers who lost service when frozen lines snapped or icy tree limbs took them down.

Pepco reported about 1,000 outages, mostly in Montgomery County. Baltimore Gas and Electric had fewer than 30 outages between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

Dominion Power reported about 3,000 outages in Northern Virginia — down significantly from the peak of 100,360 outages reported.

“Crews began work right away,” Dominion spokeswoman Le-Ha Anderson said. “We’re bracing for more outages.”

An ice storm last Valentine’s Day caused more than 180,000 outages in the area as power companies scrambled for days to restore service. Ten days later, gale-force winds knocked down trees weakened by that storm and disrupted service to about 60,000 customers.

n Arlo Wagner and Seth McLaughlin contributed to this report.

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