I-95 in Va. reopens as motorists battle bailout traffic jam on Route 1

What Interstate 95 looked like on Tuesday morning with drivers trapped for hours. (Courtesy NBC Washington)

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Interstate 95 in Virginia fully reopened Tuesday night after more than a day of blockage, which caused havoc for thousands of commuters who were trapped on to the roadway for hours.

To clear the roads and evacuate motorists, northbound and southbound lanes of Interstate 95 from exit 152 (Dumfries Road) to exit 104 (Carmel Church) were closed to travel. Crews continued work to remove stopped trucks, treat the roads for icing and remove snow. Motorists were also encouraged to avoid the area, or use local routes to reach their destinations.

Initially, officials expected the closed section of I-95 to reopen by Wednesday morning’s rush hour with no traffic-related injuries or deaths reported as a result of the shutdown. Emergency crews were able to move all disabled vehicles off the interstate in order to reopen the roads by Tuesday evening. 

In a tweet, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said that despite I-95 reopening, drivers should stay off the roads as travel conditions remain hazardous through Stafford, Spotsylvania and Caroline counties.

With commuters looking for alternate routes out of I-95, traffic delays have also grown along Route 1 between Woodbridge and Fredericksburg, according to Dave Dildine in the WTOP Traffic Center.

The traffic center also reported all traffic stopped on both directions due to icy conditions on US-1 near Telegraph Road and Boswell’s Corner near Quantico. WTOP’s Rich Hunter reports that Stafford County Sheriff’s Office have contacted VDOT for assistance as salt trucks treat the road.


Preventing severe road conditions

In a phone call with reporters, Northam said that rain falling before Monday morning’s snowstorm would have washed away any chemicals or salt used to pretreat the roads.

“First we had rain, which meant that we couldn’t adequately pretreat the roads. Then we had slushy snow that fell a lot faster than our snow plows could move it,” Northam said. “And then, as night fell, the temperatures dropped below freezing. All those together created the perfect storm for what happened on I-95.”

In addition to the preliminary conditions, multiple tractor-trailers that jackknifed on the highway, further complicated cleanup efforts.

“When that happens, it’s going to create a mess … and it’s going to take time to clean up, whether it happens in a winter storm or on a sunny summer day,” Northam said.

In response to questions about why Virginia’s National Guard had not been called to support state responders, Northam said the Guard had received no requests from localities along I-95. He also said deploying the Guard wouldn’t have been an “immediate solution” to the crisis.

“Remember that our guard members have day jobs. In fact, as you all remember last Jan. 6, we sent the National Guard to help at the Capitol after the insurrection, but it was the next day before they were able to arrive.”

At present, Northam said the Virginia National Guard is on standby, but state and local police, in addition to other responders, “have the resources and crew that we need.”

Earlier in the day, Northam said that food and warming shelters were being established for drivers.

“We don’t need more people on the highways, we need to clear the highway,” the governor said. “So I would ask people to stay off our roads until we can get them clear.”


Why the highway closed

Also in the update, Virginia Department of Transportation Commissioner Steve Brich said that, even though traffic had been moving slowly overnight Monday, rapidly dropping temperatures had frozen snow that had already fallen. This led to the hazardous conditions and standstill that trapped motorists Tuesday morning.

Brich said it was around 3 a.m. on Tuesday that officials decided to shut down I-95. He said the hours between making that decision and actually closing the highway at 8 a.m. were needed to spread the word and to develop working detours for motorists.

“This included media notifications … throughout the state and our neighboring states,” Brich said. “This also allowed us to develop the final detour plan to be able to take people and motorists off the interstate and either redirect them in the southbound direction or northbound direction to ensure there were viable routes available to them that also facilitate lodging.”

Brich said emergency and cleanup crews are working to make sure motorists who were stranded get to where they need to and to reopen the highway.

“Right now we have 52 snowplows with spreaders on them, nine motor graders and 16 wreckers actively working from milepost 110 to 143, both in the northbound and southbound directions.”

According to Brich, all motorists have been evacuated from the closed section of I-95, but there are still 50-60 vehicles on the highway that have been abandoned.

Conditions for many motorists trapped on an around I-95 have been severe.

Hundreds of vehicles were at a standstill, some for almost 24 hours, shutting off their engines in frigid weather to conserve dwindling fuel, many with little to no food or water.



“We know that there were an enormous amount of vehicles that were stuck for many, many hours, which we find completely unacceptable,” said Marcy Parker, district engineer with the Virginia Department of Transportation, during a situational update earlier Tuesday.

Parker said the number one priority is to get all stuck motorists off the highway so “we’ll be able to send the plows and the motor graders off to cut out the ice and snow that has frozen to the roadway.”

She also said the biggest obstacle to operations are vehicles, including large tractor-trailers, that ran out of fuel while being stuck on the highway.

“They’re either stuck in the snow or in a ditch, so that requires a tow truck — lots of tow trucks — to get those vehicles out,” Parker said.

For those who remain stranded after being towed from the highway, Parker said state and local police are trying to assist by “providing them water, or fuel, or a blanket and letting them know where they can go. If they need shelter, all the localities either have, or are opening a shelter by the end of the day to help anybody who can’t continue onto their final destination.”

In addition to clearing and treating the interstate, Parker said clearing fallen trees and ice at highway exits and their surrounding is a major priority.

As of 8:30 Tuesday morning, Virginia State Police had responded to 1,015 traffic crashes related to the recent winter weather. That number doesn’t include incidents on 1-95 since the backup began, said Corinne Geller, Public Relations Manager for Virginia State Police.

Throughout Monday morning, VDOT guided vehicles stopped on the interstate to nearby interchanges, where they could access alternate routes. WTOP’s Neal Augenstein reported stranded drivers were getting off southbound I-95 at Exit 152 for Route 234/Dumfries Road, albeit slowly.

WTOP traffic reporter Dave Dildine called the crisis a worst-case scenario.

“Some people were seen abandoning their vehicles in snow-covered travel lanes, walking down I-95 to parts unknown,” Dildine said. “Some callers were sobbing and scared. Psychologically is it extremely distressing to be motionless on a highway for hours on end without knowing how much longer it will last.”


Earlier in the day

Earlier on Tuesday, Northam fended off criticism that the state’s response was sluggish and there was a lack of communication with the public and media.

Northam told WTOP early Tuesday that the state had all its resources on the I-95 closure.

WTOP's Neal Augenstein reports from southbound I-95 near Dumfries Road

 

Trapped commuters on I-95 ran out of gas with kids and pets in their car. Drivers were forced to spend the overnight on the highway with no bathrooms nearby and temperatures plunging into the low 20s.

“We need to take my dad to an essential surgery in Massachusetts by 7:30 a.m. tomorrow,” one driver wrote to WTOP. Another: “We left Gaithersburg at 4:50 a.m. to attend my father’s funeral in Hampton. Doesn’t look like we are going to make it.”

“We’ve been parked here for five hours south of Quantico,” said Claire Hughes, a commuter on I-95. “We have seen no tow trucks, no broken-down vehicles, no police trying to open lanes up. It’s just a standstill parking lot … it’s atrocious.”

NBC News correspondent Josh Lederman found himself in a traffic jam about half an hour south of the District on Monday afternoon. As of around daybreak on Tuesday, he still hadn’t budged. In a Twitter thread, Lederman said people were taking exercise breaks and walking their dogs between derelict vehicles.

Like thousands of others, Lederman — accompanied by his dog Jonas — spent the cold night on the interstate nervously eyeing the fuel gauge, going hours without seeing police or plows. Lederman melted snow for his dog to drink.

“I have some gum and about a third of a bottle of water. If things get really bad, I’ve got food for my dog, but I’m hoping it doesn’t come to that,” Lederman told WTOP by phone. “If you were in an emergency right now, there is absolutely no way anybody could get to you for something medical or otherwise. People who are here are just stuck.”

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., tweeted Tuesday that he, too, had become stranded on the highway headed for Washington: “I started my normal 2-hour drive to D.C. at 1 p.m. yesterday. Nineteen hours later, I’m still not near the Capitol.”

Virginia Rep. Abigail Spanberger said that there needs to be a thorough review of everything that transpired during the winter storm that caused some people to be stuck for more than 24 hours.

WTOP’s Colleen Kelleher, Joshua Barlow, Matt Small, Ivy Lyons, Jose Umana and Dick Uliano contributed to this report.

Alejandro Alvarez

Alejandro Alvarez joined WTOP as a digital reporter and editor in June 2018. He is a writer and photojournalist focusing on politics, political activism and national affairs, with recent multimedia contributions to Reuters, MSNBC and PBS.

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