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As life returns to normal, snow-clogged roads lead to chaos

A lane is missing on Route 28, in Rockville, at about 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016. (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)

WASHINGTON — It was predicted that the area’s highways would be a mess as people tried to resume normal activity in the wake of last weekend’s snowstorm, and the traffic conditions Wednesday bear that out.

WTOP’s Mary DePompa calls the situation “hell,” with lanes disappearing under mountains of plowed and unplowed snow. “It’s a war zone.”

Jim Battagliese, WTOP’s director of traffic and weather operations, said Tuesday that Wednesday’s rush hour could last until noon, and shortly after 11 a.m. Wednesday, he noted that that the rush wasn’t over yet.

“It’s been terrible,” he says. “There are some people who have been going back to work, and the roads just can’t handle this amount of volume.”

The road crews, he says, “are making a valiant effort,” but they’re fighting “just too much snow for this region.”

Battagliese estimates that the area’s highways are at about half their usual capacity, and while the volume of cars out there is “down significantly” from a normal rush hour, it’s well more than half. “You’re seeing traffic delays just about everywhere.”

He doesn’t see a much brighter picture for Thursday. “We can have a normal rush hour hopefully by Friday, definitely by Monday.”

Even the governor of Virginia wasn’t immune: Gov. Terry McAuliffe conducted the first 25 minutes of his monthly hour-long “Ask the Governor” segment on WTOP over the phone as he was stuck in traffic.

WEDNESDAY MORNING’S COMMUTE got off to a rough start in the predawn hours as a mass of accidents, all involving tractor-trailer trucks, led to delays on some major thoroughfares.

Just after midnight on Wednesday, a tractor-trailer got stuck in a snowbank on the Outer Loop of the Beltway before the Dulles Toll Road, and his trailer cracked. It took 12 hours to clear the road.

“There’s still a lot of snow; there are still a lot of dicey situations,” DePompa says. “… It’s just a ripple effect, all the way through.”

There were three other accidents involving tractor-trailers in the early hours, which were cleared before 7.

Owing to the problems on 270, HOV restrictions were lifted through the morning rush hour at about 6:20 a.m.

Several of the experts from the WTOP Traffic Center saw it all coming.

“There is virtually no road or highway where all travel lanes are available,” Bob Marbourg said Tuesday. “You cannot have a real rush hour when you have lanes that don’t exist.”

Battagliese said on Tuesday that while many larger roads are down to bare pavement, that’s giving drivers “a false sense of security.”

People are driving “at highway speeds on the highway, and all of a sudden, they lose the lane they’re in because of a mountain of snow, and they just roll right over.”

Marbourg said that while workers have done a great job of clearing more local roads, there’s more to be done. “It’s a matter of negligence if you leave snow on the streets,” he said of local agencies. “They have to clean until all lanes are visible.”

Toward that end, the National Park Service announced on Wednesday that Rock Creek Parkway would be closed in both directions between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. to facilitate ongoing snow removal.

Battagliese on Wednesday recounts getting angry phone calls from motorists who are mystified by the delays, and says they should come as no surprise: “We got a historic snowstorm just a few days ago.”

WTOP’s Reada Kessler shook her head while reporting a call from an angry driver who threatened to report a snow-clearing road crew to the State of Maryland for themselves causing delays.

ON WEDNESDAY, BOB RAGER, of the Maryland State Highway Administration, told WTOP that conditions so far are no different from Marbourg’s and Battagliese’s descriptions.

“We’re still out there clearing. There’s still snow on lanes,” he says.

“You could be cruising along on the highway, and then before you know it you’re on slick pavement …

“We want people to pay attention to the fact that it’s still not done yet.”

Lanes are disappearing abruptly under mountains of snow, especially on ramps and in merge areas, Rager says heavy equipment is out at work. “We are still looking at a couple more days of doing this.”

Roads may look good, but “people have to expect that you’re not going to be able to just [get] out there and merge and step on the gas pedal and do 60 or 70 miles an hour. … This is a lot of snow by anyone’s measure, and it takes a lot of time to get rid of it.”

JENNIFER McCORD, of the Virginia Department of Transportation, said that her crews were also expecting a rough return to work for many people in the area.

“We are expecting … a pretty slow commute,” she told WTOP Wednesday morning. “There are a lot of people going back to work, and certainly the potential for crashes.” She also advises to watch for re-freezing, and the abrupt disappearance of lanes.

“There are definitely some remnants of the blizzard out there,” McCord said. “Use caution; slow down this morning. … We’re still going to have crews out throughout the week widening the lanes [and] pushing the snow back.”

On Tuesday, McCord had said that 40 percent of the roads in Northern Virginia’s subdivisions hadn’t been cleared. On Wednesday, she said that in the last 24 hours, crews had taken heavy equipment off the primary and secondary roads and into the subdivisions “to try to get a pass for everyone overnight.” She allowed as how “that lane will not be perfect, of course.”

If you still haven’t gotten a pass from a snowplow, she says, call the hotline at 1-800-367-ROAD.

IN THE DISTRICT, Mayor Muriel Bowser asked residents and business owners on Tuesday to shovel their walks and to help the city out by clearing fire hydrants and sewer drains — “you know where they are” — to clear paths from bus stops to the street.

Bowser said more equipment was coming to the city, including a second snow melter. D.C. public schools were set to re-open Wednesday, though absences would be excused.

The snow emergency in the District ends at 6:30 p.m.

RESIDENTS ACROSS THE AREA continue to report streets that haven’t been plowed. The numbers to call:

D.C.

Report problems online. See live road conditions.

MARYLAND

County Roads Departments across Maryland: Phone numbers for each county 

Maryland State Highway Administration: Report highway emergencies: 1-800-543-2515

Anne Arundel County: Submit a report online.

Charles County: 301-932-3450 or 1-888-460-SNOW

Frederick County, Maryland: 301-600-1564

City of Frederick: Submit a report online

Prince George’s County: 311 or submit online 

Montgomery County: mc311.com or call 311

VIRGINIA

Virginia Department of Transportation:  800-367-7623 or email novainfo@vdot.virginia.gov. Seewhere the plows are.

Alexandria: Submit a report online.

Arlington County: Submit a report online or call 703-228-6485

Fairfax County: Report snow issues to Chair Sharon Bulova’s office at 703-324-2321 orchairman@fairfaxcounty.gov.

Follow @WTOPTraffic on Twitter. Listen to traffic every 10 minutes on the 8s on 103.5 FM. Sign up for WTOP Alerts.

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