Friday, March 24, 2023

Report criticizes Virginia’s response to icy I-95 gridlock

RICHMOND, Va. ( Associated Press) — Virginia state agencies collectively “lost situational awareness” and failed to keep up with the escalating gridlock during January’s snow storm that left hundreds of motorists stranded along Interstate 95, said a state-commissioned report released Friday.

While the 41 page report While it offered suggestions for improving future emergency responses, it did not blame any one individual or agency. It noted that first responders faced unusually heavy snowfall, busier-than-usual traffic and COVID-19-related staff shortages – all while dealing with a highway corridor that would be congested in the best of conditions. were notorious.

State officials, including leaders from the Virginia Department of Transportation, vowed to thoroughly review the report and its recommendations.

“The safety of the traveling public is and will always be a top priority of VDOT, and as we learn from each incident, this report highlights key areas to refine in our winter season operations,” said Highways of Virginia. Commissioner Stephen Brich said.

No one was killed or injured in the standoff near the nation’s capital. But the monster logjams caused outrage among motorists, some of them stranded overnight on Monday, January 3, on Tuesday, January 4, calling for help on social media.

The report included a detailed timeline. It was noted that plowing began as soon as the snow began to freeze, but earlier rains meant that the roads could not be excused.

The report said the traffic accidents started just before 4 am on Monday and continued to worsen for hours, with traffic disrupted in the afternoon due to heavy congestion. Then the snowfall intensified, with reports of the Fredericksburg area south of Washington falling three inches per hour, as the DC snowplow struggled to keep up.

Traffic queues remained constant and that by 3 a.m. that Tuesday, several groups of disabled cars and tractor-trailers were scattered on either side of the 40-mile (65-kilometer) stretch of I-95, the report said. Having said.

According to the report, with the alternate route being impassable, the problems escalated and “state agencies collectively lost situational awareness and could not verify the extent and locations of blockages.”

It said this was partly due to a number of technical challenges, including the failure of a traffic camera during an extensive power outage; Power shortage and ensuing generator issue at a Virginia State Police communications center; serious communication issues with passive cell towers; and system failure of the VDOT Real-time Traffic Information Service.

Social media posts also led to a flood of information, but responding agencies did not have plans to use those “non-traditional data sources” to build an operational picture, the report said. It states that “the information was not communicated to the agency leadership in real time.”

Meanwhile, some VDOT districts experienced field staff shortages due to COVID-19, and Virginia State Police had “extensive staffing issues” before the storm, according to reports.

The report said that due to recent holidays and cancellation of many flights, the inconvenience of passengers has increased. And “just-in-time” trucking was up from 2019, partly due to supply chain issues.

The report addressed frequently raised questions in the immediate aftermath of the snow storm, including why the then-Govt. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, did not activate the Virginia National Guard.

The report said state officials explored the possibility but noted, as Northam did at the time, that the Guard is not a “quick reaction force”.

The report states that the guard, even if it has been activated, has no effect on the “status already in progress”.

The report also addressed questions as to why more direct assistance was not provided to stranded motorists. It said state officials said the best strategy is to focus on clearing the highway.

In response to the report, Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin and members of his administration took critical aim at Northam and his office.

Youngkin said in a news release that the report showed that “the leadership of the previous administration had not prepared or communicated properly.”

In a letter to Youngkin, Transportation Secretary W. Shepard Miller III and Public Security Secretary Robert Mosier claimed that there was “almost no apparent involvement by the governor or his senior staff.”

The secretaries wrote that it appeared that neither Northam nor his staff considered the emergency declaration. Emails obtained after the gridlock by The Associated Press revealed that was not the case and it was considered whether one was suitable.

Northam’s name was mentioned only once in the report, which did not list anyone from his office in the interview. The report did not explain the interview selection.

The report was produced by CNA, a non-profit research and analysis organization that has done similar work for the US Navy and local, state, and federal government agencies. It said it drew from documents including status reports, real-time planning documents, news articles, social media, interviews and other sources.

The report also gave advice to the drivers.

“In addition, the public bears some responsibility for staying informed about road conditions and traffic during snow storms, and must implement an informed decision-making process before choosing roadways,” it said.


Associated Press writer Denise Lavoie contributed to this report.

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