The Inner Scoop

D.C. region's worst rush hours of 2013

Posted on: Tuesday 12/31/2013 8:19am

WASHINGTON - Washington commuters expect congestion and delays. Crashes, roadwork and police activity are part of the game.

But put all three together at the height of rush hour and the gridlock ripples across the region. These horrific traffic jams can last for hours and scar drivers for life.

Accidents that wreak havoc in a road network involve overturned trucks, large fires, hazmat responses, spills and serious injuries. They often take hours to resolve and lengthy police investigations prolong their grip on traffic. As officials block a heavily traveled road, drivers quickly overwhelm nearby arteries as they scramble to find an alternate route.

Here are WTOP's five worst rush hours of 2013. Each featured major incidents and extreme, widespread delays that affected tens of thousands of motorists far and wide.

Tuesday, Jan. 8

Gridlock in Georgetown, Key Bridge Closes for Hours

All of the bridges that span the Potomac River near Washington are considered vital for the well-being of the traffic flow near the Nation's Capital. Even a minor, short-lived incident on a bridge can clog lanes on other river crossings.

In 2013, an early January afternoon commute turned into a struggle in Northwest Washington and Arlington, Va., when the Metropolitan Police Department closed the Key Bridge during an apparent suicide negotiation.

The bridge was closed to all traffic for more than three hours during the heart of the afternoon commute. It didn't take long for gridlock to build in Georgetown and Rosslyn. The extended duration of the negotiations and continued closure of the Key Bridge put tremendous strain on the other Potomac River crossings and the routes leading to them in Washington and Virginia. Unusual delays were reported on the Roosevelt Bridge, Memorial Bridge, 14th Street Bridge and Chain Bridge.

Woman struck by vehicle on Suitland Parkway dies

Posted on: Friday 12/27/2013 11:27am

WASHINGTON - A woman is dead after she was struck by a vehicle on the Suitland Parkway, which closed the Maryland roadway Friday morning.

A vehicle hit a woman as he was crossing the street on inbound Suitland Parkway near the intersection of Forestville Road at about 6 a.m. Officials have not yet released the name of the woman who died.

The driver stayed on the scene. Authorities say the driver had a green light at the time of the crash.

U.S. Park Police Capt. Steven Booker says the area is not safe for pedestrians.

"There's no cross walk so it's very unsafe for pedestrians to cross here; it's very hazardous," Booker says.

The crash closed all lanes of inbound Suitland Parkway at Forestville Road from Route 4/Pennsylvania Avenue. Officials reopened the lanes at about 10:45 a.m.

Officials are investigating the crash and are asking any witnesses to come forward.

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Editor's note: A previous version of this story said a man died in the crash. U.S. Park Police later corrected the report to say a woman died. We regret the error.

Weekend Wakeup: Travelers, shoppers and light Metro work

Posted on: Sunday 12/22/2013 6:20pm

WASHINGTON - Holiday delays have slowly crept up on unsuspecting commuters. Usually latent in the weeks following the Thanksgiving getaway, they tend to reemerge by mid-December.

Most road work put on hold

The roads carry more long distance travelers, shoppers and delivery trucks this time of year. The increase in commercial and discretionary travel leads to delays that are often less predictable.

Sitting in an unexpected delay is just one of the many stresses of the holiday season, so local highway departments have done what they can to minimize disruptions to traffic. During this busy travel weekend, most lane closures for long-term road projects have been suspended.

Work crews for the I-95 Express Lanes Project will block some lanes during the overnight hours along the 29-mile-long corridor, but will strive to have all lanes reopen by 7 a.m. each morning.

HOV open

The I-95/395 Express Lanes will be open to traffic this weekend. The lanes are expected to operate southbound until early Saturday afternoon. They are expected to serve northbound drivers by late Saturday afternoon and Sunday. This is subject to change.

Metro track work light-to-none

Metrorail customers can breathe a sigh of relief this weekend - most track work has been put on hold and nearly all trains will operate at regular intervals. Customers between Greenbelt and College Park can expect to ride a shuttle bus instead of the train on Saturday and Sunday. Riders using shuttle bus service should allow about 15 minutes of travel time.

Crash involving an overturned shopping cart

Expect the roads leading into shopping-center parking lots to be congested this weekend. Sometimes the "spill-back" out of the big retail complexes can affect the major roads nearby.

A queue of traffic that back-builds onto another road causes what highway engineers call an "arterial" delay -- hazardous for through-travelers because it often appears suddenly and at high speeds. The delay can cause friction against through traffic and slow the adjacent highway's traffic flow.

This phenomenon has been observed over the past week in Parole on Route 50 east at exit 23, Route 100 east at Arundel Mills Boulevard and in Frederick on Interstate 270 near exit 31 toward the Francis Scott Key Mall.

In Virginia, expect heavy traffic on Route 7 through Tysons Corner. At its worst, the delay toward Tysons Galleria on Route 7 can begin on the Beltway. Drivers on Interstate 95 near Potomac Mills will likely see some evidence of delays near the Opitz Boulevard and Dale Boulevard exits.

Terrible Redskins = Not-so-terrible traffic

On Sunday, the Redskins take on the Cowboys at FedEx Field at 1:00 p.m. Despite the team's record, Redskins fans will likely begin heading to Landover early Sunday morning, if nothing else, to enjoy the mild tailgating weather. Expect delays on the Beltway before and especially after the game on Sunday afternoon.

Spray-delays possible

Scattered rain showers could affect drivers during the latter half of the weekend, especially Sunday afternoon.

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Embassy bomb threat closes West End streets during rush

Posted on: Thursday 12/19/2013 6:59pm

WASHINGTON - A bomb threat at the Swedish Embassy has closed Rock Creek Parkway and other downtown streets, stalling traffic during the afternoon rush.

Someone left a message at the embassy switchboard Thursday afternoon claiming there was an explosive device in the building, at 2900 K St. NW.

Swedish Embassy officials say the building was cleared however bomb units remained on scene sweeping for explosives. The embassy building also houses apartments and offices and authorities planned to check each, one by one.

As of 6 p.m. D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier tells WTOP that officers have cleared the scene. However it was unclear what, if anything, was found or what triggered the threat.

WikiLeaks tweeted that the threat was tied to its founder Julian Assange, who is fighting extradition to Sweden.

An embassy spokeswoman said that members of the Swedish press in D.C. had inquired about the link to Assange but she could not confirm such a connection to WTOP.

The police activity shut down the Rock Creek Parkway north of the Kennedy Center along with K Street and 27th Street, causing delays in Georgetown and the West End. The Whitehurst Freeway was open but jammed outbound.

Rock Creek Parkway reopened before 7 p.m. however major delays were expected to continue.

WTOP's JJ Green contributed to this report. Follow @WTOPtraffic and @WTOP on Twitter.

Water main break causes problems on Connecticut Ave. (Video)

Posted on: Tuesday 12/17/2013 9:55am

WASHINGTON - One southbound right lane of Connecticut Avenue has reopened after a water main break closed the southbound lanes for much of Tuesday morning.

A 12-inch pipe burst on Connecticut Avenue between M and N streets in Northwest after midnight. The break caused both directions of Connecticut Avenue to close to traffic near Dupont Circle. By 5 a.m., the northbound lanes reopened.

One southbound lane between 18th Street, N and M streets reopened just before 10:30 a.m.

Authorities say it is unclear when water will be restored to the area.

Chief of External Affairs for DC Water John Lisle says as a result of the water main break, four commercial properties are without water -- two of which are commercial high-rise properties.

The initial time for repair was expected to be completed in eight to 10 hours, but it may take longer, Lisle says.

WTOP's Kristi King took this video at the scene early Tuesday:

Below is a map with the location of the incident:

View Larger Map

WTOP's Kristi King contributed to this report. Follow @kingWTOP and @WTOP on Twitter.

Tuesday's snow forecast sparks memories of 2011

Posted on: Monday 12/9/2013 5:29pm

In this WTOP file photo, cars try to navigate a messy rush hour commute in Arlington in January 2011. Congestion and a fast snow fall clogged Interstate 270 Sunday afternoon and a similarly heavy snowfall could cause havoc on the roads Tuesday morning. (WTOP File/Dave Dildine)

WASHINGTON - On Jan. 26, 2011, a moderate snowfall blindsided the Washington area.

The storm wasn't meteorologically unusual or noteworthy. The center deepened at a normal mid-winter rate. Spatially and temporally, it was concentrated and fleeting.

It produced about 5 to 10 inches of snow, no more than an average season's highest single-storm total. But its effects were crippling. The metro area's transportation network was brought to its knees.

Although the federal government was criticized for sending its employees home early during the height of the storm and despite Washington's perceived inept winter weather driving, the coup de grace for the disastrous afternoon commute was the timing and, more importantly, the rate of snowfall.

The storm moved rapidly through central Virginia into the Washington metro area during the early to middle afternoon hours. Heavy sleet quickly changed to snow. The snowfall rates exceeded 2 to 3 inches per hour.

Traffic slowed as highway volume increased and visibility lowered. Then there were accidents. Traffic slowed further. All the while, snow was quickly piling up. Snowfall rates approached 3 inches per hour. Long traffic backups became frozen in place as drivers were shrouded in a thick blanket snow. The plows were unable to clear the snow and the roads were clogged with stranded motorists and abandoned cars.

The storm was the culmination of many factors that paralyzed the region's road network. But the snowfall rate is what transformed the routes with a single bottleneck into one giant parking lot entombed in ice.

A recent example of this phenomenon (on a smaller scale) played out Sunday on Interstate 270.

The snow was heavier than expected northwest of Washington, particularly in Frederick and Washington counties in Maryland where more than 6 inches fell in a short period of time.

A few motorists spun-out at the onset of the snow. Some vehicles slid off the roadway. Passersby stopped to assist those in need of help.

A few minor crashes led to a dramatic slowing of traffic during a short period of very intense snowfall. The skip lines on I-270 disappeared and it wasn't long before two nearly 10-mile-long backups in both the north and south lanes were buried under several inches of snow. Some motorists were stuck for longer than two hours on what would otherwise be a 15-minute drive.

On Tuesday, a quick-hitting round of winter weather is expected to strike Washington during the heart of the morning rush hour. As in 2011, the National Weather Service has offered advance notice. Whether Washingtonians have learned from the mistakes made three winters ago will become apparent soon, perhaps by noon tomorrow.

Morning commuters should plan for the potential of a significant disruption to travel. Those who have the luxury of being flexible should consider revising their morning plans. Unnecessary travel should be postponed until the afternoon when the weather is expected to improve.

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Expert tips to navigate the worst winter road conditions

Posted on: Monday 12/9/2013 7:57am

A car hit a gaurd rail on a ramp from Cascades Parkway to Route 7 in Sterling Sunday afternoon. Holding too tight to the steering wheel is one common mistake drivers make when trying to navigate snowy and slick roads. (WTOP/Jim Battagliese)

WASHINGTON - Freezing rain can cause some of the worst driving conditions, according to a driving expert from Michelin, who has tips to help you drive and arrive safely during any hazardous mix of freezing rain, snow and ice.

"Freezing rain is just atrocious," says Carl Nadeau, chief instructor of the Michelin Winter Driving Academy.

To avoid sliding into that ditch or guard rail, Nadeau says to look where you want to go. He says people have an uncanny ability to fixate on, and hit, things like parked cars.

"If you are looking at it, you are going to aim for it," he says.

He also says drivers should sit up straight and keep a loose grip on the steering wheel so your car can give you feedback. Otherwise, that white-knuckle grip can actually contribute to you spinning out of control.

"When you hit the threshold, if you hold the steering wheel too tight, you're not going to feel the threshold, so by the time you are going to feel it, it's already too late," Nadeau says.

He also says not to peer over the hood to look for slick spots. Instead focus your eyes further ahead to see what you are approaching like snow-covered pavement or stopped cars.

More Tips for Driving in Snow and Ice

The best tip that can be given for bad weather conditions is not to drive if you don’t have to. If you absolutely have to drive, here are some tips from The Weather Channel on driving in snow and ice:

  • Make sure your car is prepared, and that you know how to handle road conditions.
  • It’s helpful to practice winter driving techniques in a snowy, open parking lot, so you’re familiar with how your car handles. Consult your owner’s manual for tips specific to your vehicle.

Driving safely on icy roads

  • Decrease your speed and leave yourself plenty of room to stop. You should allow at least three times more space than usual between you and the car in front of you. 
  • Brake gently to avoid skidding. If your wheels start to lock up, ease off the brake. 
  • Turn on your lights to increase your visibility to other motorists. 
  • Keep your lights and windshield clean. 
  • Use low gears to keep traction, especially on hills. 
  • Don’t use cruise control or overdrive on icy roads. 
  • Be especially careful on bridges, overpasses and infrequently traveled roads, which will freeze first. Even at temperatures above freezing, if the conditions are wet, you might encounter ice in shady areas or on exposed roadways like bridges. 
  • Don’t pass snow plows and sanding trucks. The drivers have limited visibility, and you’re likely to find the road in front of them worse than the road behind. 
  • Don’t assume your vehicle can handle all conditions. Even four-wheel and front-wheel drive vehicles can encounter trouble on winter roads.

If your rear wheels skid…

  • Take your foot off the accelerator. 
  • Steer in the direction you want the front wheels to go. If your rear wheels are sliding left, steer left. If they’re sliding right, steer right. 
  • If your rear wheels start sliding the other way as you recover, ease the steering wheel toward that side. You might have to steer left and right a few times to get your vehicle completely under control. 
  • If you have standard brakes, pump them gently. 
  • If you have anti-lock brakes (ABS), do not pump the brakes. Apply steady pressure to the brakes. You will feel the brakes pulse — this is normal.

If your front wheels skid…

  • Take your foot off the gas and shift to neutral, but don’t try to steer immediately. 
  • As the wheels skid sideways, they will slow the vehicle and traction will return. As it does, steer in the direction you want to go. Then put the transmission in “drive” or release the clutch, and accelerate gently.

If you get stuck…

  • Do not spin your wheels. This will only dig you in deeper. 
  • Turn your wheels from side to side a few times to push snow out of the way. 
  • Use a light touch on the gas, to ease your car out. 
  • Use a shovel to clear snow away from the wheels and the underside of the car. 
  • Pour sand, kitty litter, gravel or salt in the path of the wheels, to help get traction. 
  • Try rocking the vehicle. (Check your owner’s manual first — it can damage the transmission on some vehicles.) Shift from forward to reverse, and back again. Each time you’re in gear, give a light touch on the gas until the vehicle gets going.

Sources: National Safety Council, New York State Department of Motor Vehicles, Washington State Government Information & Services

Make sure your car has an emergency kit. Here's what AAA recommends you put in it:

  • Cellphone
  • Blankets/sleeping bags
  • Flashlight with extra batteries
  • First-aid kit
  • Drinking water
  • Extra clothes
  • Sand or cat litter for traction
  • Shovel
  • Scraper/brush
  • Jumper cables
  • Tool kit
  • Flares or orange triangles
  • Knife
  • Towels
  • High calorie, non-perishable food

WTOP's John Aaron and Paula Wolfson contributed to this report. Follow @WTOP on Twitter.

Weekend Wakeup: Weather is the weekend's main traffic concern

Posted on: Saturday 12/7/2013 8:57am

Driving in winter weather can be dangerous, and with a storm rolling in Sunday, drivers should take caution. (WTOP/Dave Dildine)

WASHINGTON -- The biggest hurdle for travelers this weekend will likely be winter weather. Snow, sleet and, a driver's worst nemesis, freezing rain, are forecast to begin early Sunday.

ABC7 Chief Meteorologist Doug Hill calls it the "dreaded wintry mix" for good reason. Sunday's storm will likely begin by pelting the roads across the region with a layer of snow and sleet. The precipitation is expected to then change to freezing rain, which may rime whatever ice has already accumulated.

The routes well north and west of the metro area will be especially icy. Interstate 81 and roads in northwestern Virginia and central Maryland will likely be treacherous for most of the day as the cold air will remain entrenched in the Shenandoah Valley.

Ice buildup on power lines will likely lead to some power outages and dark intersections in a few areas.

Travel is strongly discouraged during icy conditions. Annually, more accidents are blamed on freezing rain than snow.

Saturday looks like the better day to hit the roads. There will be plenty of holiday-themed events across the region including the Alexandria Holiday Boat Parade of Lights, National Harbor's Holiday Festival and the Manassas Christmas Parade at 10 a.m.

The Redskins have a home game this weekend at 1 p.m. Turnout at Sunday's match-up against the Chiefs is expected to be light due to the weather, amid other factors. Even so, look for heavier traffic on the Beltway and the routes through Largo and Landover before and after the game.

I-95 Express Lanes Extension project

Construction crews postponed work on the I-95 Express Lanes Extension Project on Thursday night and Friday due to rain. They may find a dry window to perform some work on Saturday before the next round of weather moves in. Road work zones on I-95 and across the region should remain sparse because of the forecast.


Track work will affect Metrorail customers. On the Blue Line, shuttle buses will replace trains between the Rosslyn and Pentagon stations. Tack on an extra 15 minutes of travel time for the bus trip between Rosslyn and Pentagon. Trains between Largo Town Center and Rosslyn will run every 20 minutes.

Trains on the Red Line will operate a 10 to 20 minute intervals throughout the weekend. Trains on the busier segment between Grosvenor and Silver Spring will run every 10 minutes between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m.

Orange Line trains will run every 20 minutes due to work at Minnesota Ave and Deanwood. All stations will remain open.

Green Line trains will operate every 15 minutes throughout the weekend.

Yellow Line trains will operate every 15 minutes throughout the weekend due to the schedule effects of rebuilding work on the Blue and Green lines.

Police offer driver safety tips ahead of wintry weather

Posted on: Saturday 12/7/2013 6:51am

Kathy Stewart and Max Smith,

WASHINGTON - With snow and later ice predicted to fall over the D.C. region Sunday, emergency responders urge drivers to review basic winter weather safety tips.

The Maryland State Highway Administration's Charlie Gischlar says drivers who have to head out in rough weather should be prepared with a full tank of gas, decent tires and plenty of patience.

Gischlar says that with two football games in the area Sunday - the Redskins at FedEx Field, in Landover, the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore - thousands of people will be on the I-95 corridor. "So if you're trying to head out to the game, keep an eye on the weather. If it does go bad, know before you go," Gischlar says, advising drivers to give themselves lots of extra time both Sunday and Monday.

"Even people with four-wheel drive, if you encounter ice, you're going to have no control of your vehicle; you're just going to skid in four-wheel drive," Gischlar warns.

If drivers see a snow plow or salt truck on the road, Gischlar says it is important to be patient and not try to pass them.

"The uncleared and untreated road is ahead of them, and the treated roadway is behind them, so there is no earthly reason why you should pass them. If you do pass them and you end up skidding out or becoming disabled, it disrupts everything, and they have to pull over and help you of course. But that also is letting all that weather pile up on the roadway ahead, so that's not really fair to other motorists and it's not safe either," Gischlar says.

Lt. Steve Hawkins, with the Virginia State Police in Fairfax, recommends putting that ice scraper in your car and any other safety supplies now - before Sunday's weather hits.

Items such as blankets, food and drinks can come in handy if your car becomes disabled. A bag of sand or salt can help give your tires the traction they need to get up a hill or just get out of the driveway.

If are out on the road in the bad weather, Hawkins says, "Drive at a safe speed, and that may not be the speed limit."

Most accidents happen within the first two hours after a storm begins, so make sure you buckle up. Put down the cell phone and pay attention to the road, and know who is in front of you and all around you. And give yourself plenty of time and space to safely stop, he says.

"If this weather hits like forecasters are saying, then we will be busy. But we will have resources and troopers out on the roadway to respond to all the incidents," Hawkins says.

But if you don't have to be on the road Sunday, then stay home so VDOT can clear the roads, he says.

If reason doesn't change your ways, there are always cheesy slogans to help remind drivers how to stay safe.

"We say 'Don't crowd the plow', and 'On ice and snow, take it slow'," Gischlar says. There's also the old, "Know before you go."

Stay with WTOP for the latest on road and weather conditions.

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Tree lighting downtown to slow commute Friday

Posted on: Friday 12/6/2013 3:45pm

Officers stand guard on the Ellipse Thursday ahead of the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony. The annual event will close several downtown roads during the Friday afternoon rush hour. (WTOP/Dave Dildine)

Watch a live stream of the National Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony beginning at 4:30 p.m.

WASHINGTON - Sudden gridlock is common near the White House when motorcades are afoot. This time, the congestion comes with some advanced notice.

The National Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony and concert on the Ellipse begins at 5 p.m. during the Friday afternoon rush hour. Organizers say it will take place rain or shine.

In years past, the closure of the streets of either side of the Ellipse -- 15th and 17th streets -- left many downtown commuters sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

WTOP veteran traffic reporter Bob Marbourg says it would probably payoff to plan on "going into work-around mode."

"If you know something is going to be there, you have the opportunity to rethink your route and go for the end-run around it," Marbourg says.

D.C. police tweeted out a list of street closures early Friday for advance planning:

Jim Battagliese, Director of Traffic and Weather at WTOP, offers this advice:

"If you're trying to get out of town, the best way to go is away from the White House. Whichever side of the White House you're on, head the opposite direction. If you're on the west side, exit to the west. If you're on the east side, exit to the east."

Heading south from K Street on either 19th Street or 9th Street will probably get you around the event. The problem with that route is that everyone else will think of that. The challenge will be to outthink the competition ahead of time. Forewarned is forearmed.

WMATA also says more than two dozen downtown Metro bus routes will be affected by the street closures. Metro officials are also expecting the downtown Metro stations, including Farragut North, to be extra crowded. Click here for a full list.

Stay with WTOP for all the latest on road and traffic conditions.

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