When Northern Virginia gets snow this winter, the Virginia Department of Transportation says it's ready to meet it head-on, with a $55 million budget and new resources, including technology that allows for more efficient plowing and an increased road-salt supply.
At a briefing about the department's winter preparedness plans Wednesday in Fairfax, Branco Vlacich, VDOT’s Northern Virginia maintenance engineer, said 4,000 trucks would be available to plow snow and keep roads clear this winter — 1,000 more trucks than VDOT had during the harsh winter of 2010.
About 2,200 of the 4,000 trucks will be equipped with Automatic Vehicle Locator (AVL) technology, enabling officials to locate plow trucks are and deploy them to the nearest emergency areas. About 97 percent of the trucks have been contracted by VDOT.
After the extreme snowfalls of the 2009-2010 winter and last year’s extremely mild winter, Chris Strong, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said Virginia commuters should be prepared for something in-between — “near-average” snowfall this coming winter.
That doesn't mean snowfalls of years past aren't in mind: The agency says it's preparing for all kinds of scenarios. A new facility near the Beltway and Van Dorn Street in Alexandria will store up to 22,000 tons of salt — a hot commodity the Commonwealth almost ran out of during the 2010 storm, Vlacich said.
During a snow storm on the afternoon of Jan. 26, 2011, traffic came to an absolute standstill on many major thoroughfares and commuters went as far as abandoning their cars on the roads.
Vlacich, who noted traffic as one of the department's largest challenges this year, said VDOT would be working closely with the federal government to try to avoid a repeat of the mess, and urged residents to stay off of the roads in the event of snow, encouraging them to telework if need be. If the roads are clogged with traffic during a snowstorm, the trucks become useless, he said.
When possible, trucks will be pre-deployed to priority locations in order avoid traffic, he said.
“My great fear is the traffic,” Vlacich said. “I have a visions of 4,000 trucks sitting still.”
The I-495 Express Lanes, which opened Nov. 17, will be one VDOT’s top priorities in the event of snow. Seven trucks will flush brine — a solution of salt and water — to clear snow that accumulates in the lanes down the drains on the Beltway.
Ice will be another challenge, Strong said, likening the impact of an ice storm this winter to that of June’s devastating derecho.
VDOT will also be using a new mobile weather station, allowing officials to determine on-road conditions and ensure roads are properly treated with anti-icing chemicals.
Residents will also be able to check plowing progress in their neighborhoods through a new online tool. After more than 2 inches of snowfall, people can look to see whether plowing has begun, been completed or has yet to start in their area. Virginia residents can access the snow plowing tool here.
“We’re all in this together,” Vlacich said. “When the roads are clear, we all win.”