I-95 traffic snarl sparks questions on impacts to highway system

Scenes of cars stranded on Interstate 95 outside Washington, D.C., stretching for nearly a full day, raised questions Tuesday about how situations like this can happen and how to prevent future severe impacts on highway travel from winter storms.

The winter storm caused over 800 disabled vehicles along 50 miles of the major highway route, including tractor-trailers blocking lanes, hundreds of crashes and thousands of calls for service for cars along the route.

Some cars were moving on the northbound side of the highway after 11 hours of people being stuck, NBC News reporter Josh Lederman, who was stuck on the interstate with his dog, reported. Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine (D), who was stuck on the road for 27 hours, finally arrived at the Capitol on Monday late afternoon, where he said he sustained himself on an orange and a Dr. Pepper.

The winter storm dropped 6.9 inches of snow at Washington-Reagan National Airport, a rare amount of snowfall for the D.C. region. The major backlog of cars and the dangerous situation with people stranded in freezing conditions on the highway raised questions over how such a situation could occur when the forecast predicted significant snowfall in the region.

“They have to figure out what happened. Was it a weather forecasting issue? Was it inadequate pre-treatment of the roads?” Kaine told reporters when asked what should happen to avoid this from happening again, noting that it would have been difficult to pre-treat roads since it had rained in the region the day before.

“It was incredibly icy last night,” he added. “It was really, really icy last night.”

The Transportation Department (DOT) shared on Twitter that they’ve been in contact with Virginia’s Transportation Department (VADOT) about the situation and what unmet needs the state has. In the event there is long-term damage to the interstate after the situation is cleaned up, DOT could also provide emergency funding.

“.@USDOTFHWA is in communication with @VADOT and has asked about their unmet needs, estimated time for reopening, and what their plans are for assisting motorists. FHWA will continue to monitor, ready to assist VADOT as they work to resolve this situation,” DOT said on Tuesday.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) was criticized on Tuesday over the response time from the state government and for not calling in the Virginia National Guard to assist drivers.

“We’re doing everything we can to get to them. We have the resources in place to clear this up,” Northam told WTOP News, noting that the Guard is available but hasn’t been called.

Officials closed I-95 in both directions from Manassas to Bowling Green, Va., to work to remove trucks, snow and ice, VDOT said in an update on Tuesday.

“I would compare this to something like Hurricane Katrina. Once that happened, there was lots of emergency planning put into place to help a community like New Orleans,” said Marcia Hale, former president of Building America’s Future, a national infrastructure coalition, and former director of intergovernmental affairs for President Clinton

“And there are a lot of things that may be put into place because this is the most important road in the country, this is the lifeline to the country,” she added.

While noting how unprecedented the situation was, Hale also raised questions over why the National Guard wasn’t at the scene at dawn on Tuesday morning.

The blockage on I-95 comes less than two months after Congress passed the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the Biden administration’s implementation of its $1.2 trillion cost. 

“I promise you, there will be attention paid to this. and there is discretionary funding in the infrastructure bill that the secretary and the department can use for important projects,” Hale said. “I would assume that this will be front and center of discussion. In that, why did it take so long? Better planning in an emergency like this will be the subject of hearings to see what is possible.” 

The legislation reauthorized surface transportation programs for five years and invested $110 billion in additional funding to repair roads and bridges and for other projects.

The administration touts that the law is the single largest investment in repairing bridges since the interstate highway system was constructed and it invests in a program to reduce traffic fatalities.

The state of Virginia will receive about $7.7 billion over five years in federal highway formula funding for highways and bridges, according to DOT.

“I think there is a message there and that’s one of the reasons I was so proud to support the infrastructure bill,” Kaine told NPR on Tuesday when asked about the infrastructure implications of the I-95 blockage. 

“As a nation, we haven’t invested in infrastructure in a major way. … This corridor is going to be a corridor that’s getting significant investment through the infrastructure bill. And it needs to; I-95 is like, kind of, the spine that runs up the East Coast of the United States,” he added.

Decisions about allocating funds for infrastructure improvements will be essential for future situations similar to the I-95 traffic nightmare, argued H. Oliver Gao, professor at Cornell University’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering. 

“How can we make sure we use this money in the correct way, in a long-term systematic way so that we really solve these problems?” he said.

Mark Abkowitz, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Vanderbilt University, said agencies need to broaden their thinking about resilience of infrastructure.

“We can expect more frequent and severe extreme weather events associated with climate change, in the form of winter storms, floods, wildfires, etc. Transportation agencies need to expand their thinking into how to be resilient to these types of future scenarios,” he said. 

Abkowitz added that the infrastructure law is a good first step “to move in that direction.”

Tags bipartisan infrastructure bill I-95 Tim Kaine traffic jam Winter weather

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