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Why researcher says closing Interstate 95 earlier would have been double-edged sword

'It's just a miserable situation where there's no really good answers'
Wintere Weather Interstate Shutdown
Posted at 7:26 PM, Jan 05, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-06 12:03:08-05

RICHMOND, Va. – A transportation researcher says a “really a bad combination of events” led to the stranding of hundreds of drivers along a stretch of Interstate 95 in Virginia overnight Monday into Tuesday.

Andy Alden, a transportation researcher at Virginia Tech, pointed to the initial reports of multiple tractor-trailers jack-knifing on the busy interstate.

Alden said that cleanup for a single truck crash can take hours in ideal conditions.

“Especially if the tractor, or even the trailer, if it's gone off the road, to get it back on the roadway, get it upright," Alden explained. "That takes some really specialized equipment and there's actually not a lot of that equipment out there."

The disabled trucks triggered a chain reaction as other vehicles lost control and blocked lanes in both directions of the interstate.

Similar massive winter traffic jams have happened before, but mostly in western states. One exception dubbed Snowmageddon happened in Atlanta in 2014.

APTOPIX Winter Weather Interstate Shutdown
Drivers wait for the traffic to be cleared as cars and trucks are stranded on sections of Interstate 95 Tuesday Jan. 4, 2022, in Carmel Church, Va. Close to 48 miles of the Interstate was closed due to ice and snow. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) and Gov. Ralph Northam defended the response claiming they had enough gear and manpower, but could not get it to the right spots.

"It's just a miserable situation where there's no really good answers,” Alden said.

In fact, Alden said the landscape around I-95 prevented easy maneuvering near the highway since access points are limited by design with lane dividers and exterior interstate fences.

"There's so many things that limit access to these highways for unauthorized use that when you do have authorized use, like first responders and such, it also limits them," Alden said.

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In hindsight, Alden questions if more plows could have been sent quicker since VDOT was relying on physical snow removal with plows and salt.

Many people wondered why the interstate was not shutdown earlier Monday, but Alden said closing a stretch of one of the nation’s biggest interstate highways is a double-edged sword.

"That's a tough call because it has repercussions on both sides,” Alden explained. “There's some similar events that have occurred in other states like Pennsylvania, where the closing down on the highway had such an impact on the local roadways, it actually resulted in some fatalities that occur because emergency equipment were unable to get to people when there houses burned down and things like that."

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Additionally, Alden believes communication to drivers needs to improve.

"We in the transportation research sector are actually actively working on communication directly between vehicles and other vehicles and between vehicles and the infrastructure,” Alden said “This means you don't even have to actively go to your phone to find out what's going on, you had actually get an announcement in your car."

Alden said he has been stuck in similar situations and “felt a lot of sympathy for the people that were stuck.”

"How long they were stuck there, that was pretty exceptional,” Alden noted.

COMPLETE COVERAGE: Stranded on Interstate 95

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