- The Washington Times - Friday, February 15, 2008

Hey, an engineer I am not, but even I understand that if you design highway ramps that you end up naming “flyovers,” you are setting yourself up for some hair-raising times.

Don’t know about you, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve almost been mowed down by an 18-wheeler and then wondered what whacked-out minds designed the pretzellike maze called the “Mixing Bowl” — that infamous interchange connecting Interstate 395 and the Capital Beltway.

Even the most experienced drivers try to avoid the obstacle course in Springfield on the sunniest of days.

The tallest “flyover” is 100 feet high. At the Mixing Bowl’s widest point, there are 41 miles of roadway, 30 ramps, 50 bridges and 24 lanes.

Now, imagine them as a sheet of ice. During rush hour. At night. During a primary election. Welcome to Tuesday.

You would think that since the Virginia Department of Transportation did such a serious disservice to the driving public with that dangerous design, the very least they could do is make sure that mind-boggling roadway is a safety priority when there is even the slightest hint of “a wintry weather mix.”

VDOT initially blamed their horrible performance during Tuesday’s evening rush-hour ice storm on an unreliable weather forecast, as if any Doppler radar forecast is ever reliable.

VDOT said Tuesday’s combination of ice, rush hour and the flyover design of the Mixing Bowl converged to form a perfect storm. More like a perfect nightmare that most of us who were stuck for hours on freezing Virginia roadways will forever remember as Tundra Tuesday.

When the former governor of the Old Dominion, James S. Gilmore III, finds himself in gridlock on a Mixing Bowl flyover so long that he misses a primary victory party, then someone has a lot of explaining to do. And a few heads should roll down those ridiculously high and curvaceous lanes.

When mothers, without food or water or facilities for their children, have to get out of their cars, and ask truckers to allow their children to go to the bathroom, then VDOT owes commuters and taxpayers more than an apology.

And when one critical thoroughfare must be shut down for hours because of a thin layer of ice and that closure creates a ripple effect across the region, then we have a bigger problem than gridlock that needs to be addressed.

At least twice this week, we were painfully reminded that if there is anything remotely resembling a regional emergency evacuation plan, it is not worth the paper it is printed on.

In the aftermath of Tundra Tuesday, a dump truck ran out of gas Wednesday on the Southwest Freeway, two dump trucks collided nearby, and disgruntled D.C. taxicab drivers participated in rolling blockades downtown, causing the morning rush hour on northbound I-395 to last until lunchtime.

It’s not just the Virginia transportation officials who continue to fail us: We can pass the blame around.

Marylanders are often at the mercy of poor transportation planning and lack of public transit options, too. How hard is it for area public works departments to get together and come up with a synchronized traffic plan for the busiest portions of rush hour?

While we’re passing out blame, we cannot forgive the faults of some distracted and selfish drivers, traveling at breakneck speeds, either.

In the case of yesterday’s traffic tie-up, for example, is it really that hard to make sure you have enough gas before you head out? If you can’t afford the amount you need to get from point A to point B, perhaps you could do the rest of us a favor and stay home or hitch a ride.

Given the uncertainty of commuting in the Washington region, which has the fourth worst commute in the nation, it behooves all of us to leave earlier, drive more slowly and yield the right of way so we all can get to our destinations in one piece.

Tuesday evening, I crept pass an overturned pickup near the Pentagon, and aside from worrying what happened to the driver, I couldn’t believe how many motorists sped up once they cleared the inconvenience.

And why is everybody honking, changing lanes and swearing, when none of us can get out of the way any faster than anybody else? I used to think New York drivers were the most discourteous, but I believe we now own that dubious distinction.

It is not just that transportation failures are a nuisance: Tuesday’s inconveniences couldn’t have come on a worse day and could have had an adverse impact on the outcome of the Potomac primaries had the local and national races been closer.

It took my daughter three hours to get from downtown D.C. to Alexandria, which made her miss casting a vote in the Potomac primary. She was not alone, and it is still not clear why Virginia election officials did not extend poll hours as their neighbors in Maryland did, given the wicked weather and the massive traffic backups.

Flyover? We need to demand some way to fly through the ever-increasing Mixing Bowl of traffic problems threatening the traveling public’s safety.

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