Youngkin vetoes bill related to I-95 winter traffic disaster

Among 26 bills vetoed by Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin this week was one addressing the January traffic disaster on Interstate 95 that left hundreds of drivers stranded, some for more than 24 hours.

The bill was aimed at preventing a repeat of the icy gridlock on I-95 that was caused by an intense winter storm.

It would have prohibited truckers from using cruise control or compression-release engine breaks while driving in active snow, sleet or freezing rain.

Youngkin vetoed the bill, saying it would impose burdens on the trucking industry and interstate transportation without any demonstrable benefit.

“Semi-trailer trucks were immobilized by icy conditions, which prevented first responders from rescuing stranded motorists,” Youngkin wrote in his veto statement. “The provisions of this bill would not prevent a similar incident from occurring.”

Citing a state-commissioned report that investigated what went wrong during the incident, Youngkin noted that “neither cruise control nor compression release brakes were found to have contributed to the traffic crisis.”

The General Assembly will have a chance to potentially override Youngkin’s vetoes when it reconvenes for a one-day session on April 27. Doing so would take a 2/3 vote in both chambers.

In an interview with WTOP this week, Youngkin talked further about the state-commissioned report.

“The report clearly pointed out that there was a real failure in communication, particularly as the snowstorm really worsened,” Youngkin said. “As the storm worsened, the approach didn’t evolve.”

While the 41-page report offered suggestions for improving future emergency responses, it did not ascribe blame to any single person or agency.

It noted first responders faced unusually heavy snowfall, busier-than-normal traffic and COVID-19-related staffing shortages — all while dealing with a highway corridor notorious for congestion in the best of circumstances.

With alternate routes impassable, problems mounted and “state agencies collectively lost situational awareness and could not verify the extent and locations of the blockages,” according to the report.

“I’m deeply engaged in every aspect of the preparation going into these emergencies,” Youngkin said. “This is about over-preparing, over-communicating and executing.”

The report addressed questions frequently raised in the immediate aftermath of the snowstorm, including why then-Gov. Ralph Northam did not activate the Virginia National Guard.

It said that state officials explored the possibility, but noted that the Guard is not a “quick reaction force.”

The report also addressed questions raised about why more direct assistance to the stranded motorists was not provided. State officials who considered that concluded the best strategy was to stay focused on clearing the highway, it said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Nick Iannelli

Nick Iannelli can be heard covering developing and breaking news stories on WTOP.

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