Wednesday's thunder-snowstorm reminded local commuters of the real-world consequences of living in an area with the worst traffic congestion in the nation. When Washington's entire regional highway system is paralyzed for less than a foot of snow, it exposes a serious vulnerability in the event that a major catastrophe requires an immediate evacuation of the nation's capital. Even President Obama's motorcade got caught in the wintry mix of sleet and snow, turning a 20-minute trip from Andrews Air Force Base to the White House into more than an hour. What made Wednesday evening's mess more disturbing was the fact that the first major snowfall since last year's double-digit Snowmageddon crippled the entire East Coast had not only been predicted for days, it measured less than a foot when the heavy flakes finally stopped falling. And a two-hour early dismissal of federal workers lightened the evening rush hour this time around. Nonetheless, a GPS overview of roads in Northern Virginia showed that most of them were in total gridlock, with traffic backed up for eight hours in some locations, creating one of the most hellish commutes local residents could remember. Tysons Corner's already congested roads were still at a complete standstill more than five hours after the snow started falling, and drivers reported being stuck on the George Washington Parkway for 12 hours, forcing more than a hundred to abandon their cars.
The situation was much the same in the District and Maryland, where the potent storm disabled 17 tractor-trailers north of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and forced the closure of the American Legion Bridge when four more trucks jackknifed. Former D.C. Transportation Director Gabe Klein told NewsTalk that "once traffic's snarled, game over," adding that "one [abandoned or disabled] car will clog an entire highway for miles." That's because local highways lack the capacity that would allow traffic to continue to flow under difficult conditions.
The same highways that routinely clog up during each weekday commute -- and failed so spectacularly on Wednesday evening -- double as Washington's "official evacuation routes." Ten years after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, they are totally inadequate to handle the ordinary crush of vehicular traffic they were never designed to bear. Yet officials at every level of government continue to ignore this reality, while they funnel 60 percent of available transportation funding to mass transit that carries a tiny portion of all trips made in the region. Snow happens, but gridlock is a decision. Until regional transportation officials commit themselves to a major expansion of the local road system, there will be more gridlock nightmares.