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OPINION: VDOT lessons learned?

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Sunday, Dec. 9: Stuck on Interstate 81

Traffic was at a standstill on Interstate 81 in Bristol, Virginia, due to the snow and multiple wrecks between Abingdon and Bristol.

Winston Churchill was not talking about snowbound traffic on Virginia’s interstate highways when he said, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” but the saying definitely applies.

Each time forecasts call for another round of potentially wintry weather across the state, the ill-timed travels of those stuck for more than 24 hours on I-95 between Richmond and D.C. once again come to mind. Stung by criticism for his lack of action to save the stranded travelers, Gov. Ralph Northam and his successor Gov. Glenn Youngkin now declare a state of emergency if an ice cube falls on the floor.

The entire I-95 mess could have been avoided if the state had learned lessons from a similar situation that happened here in December 2018. Icy roads caused an 18-hour, 20-mile backup on I-81 North that began in Abingdon and stretched past the Tennessee state line after tractor-trailers and cars lost control and crashed on the icy interstate around Exit 19.

It was Northam’s administration that reviewed the response to the situation that day. Apparently any lessons learned from the backup that happened here melted as quickly as the snow once spring arrived.

Bristol, Virginia, officials took an active role in attempting to solve the crisis that day. The city used ATVs to direct some traffic off the interstate to Highway 11 and actually requested that the Virginia National Guard come help the situation. The National Guard said they couldn’t get to the area in time to help alleviate the backup.

“The Virginia National Guard is now focused on analyzing the lessons learned and looking at what we need to do in the future to make sure our capabilities are clearly conveyed,” Virginia National Guard Public Affairs Officer A.A. “Cotton” Puryear told Herald Courier Reporter Robert Sorrell following the crisis.

State officials also held a meeting in Abingdon after the backup to discuss what went wrong and to make sure a similar situation never happened again, just as many meetings are currently being held to make sure a U.S. senator is never stranded on the I-95 again for 27 hours with only an orange provided by the kindness of strangers.

“Preventing another situation where travelers are stuck in the cold out on our roads is exceptionally important to us,” Virginia Department of Transportation Chief Engineer Garrett Moore said in the days following the Bristol backup. Moore left VDOT for a position in the private sector in Arlington in February of 2020. “During and after this event, we quickly recognized the need to fully evaluate what could have prevented or mitigated it.”

The report said emergency personnel would be trained to focus on the entire situation instead of the point of the crisis, saying the emergency response did not grow in scale as quickly as the backup did.

They also said the threshold for “do not travel” advisories would be reviewed. At the time the wrecks that started the backup began, drivers were urged to use caution and postpone unnecessary travel.

Yet, just three years later, we are learning the same painful lessons again.

One thing that sticks out in the Bristol backup report is the realization that well-being checks should have been performed on the drivers who were stuck. The report said state agencies should have been alerted and well-being checks performed for future backups that last longer than two hours. If that recommendation had been followed during the I-95 backup, drivers would have likely felt much better about their situation, and the state could have identified any motorists needing immediate assistance.

Hopefully, the national exposure of having one of the nation’s main transportation arteries clogged for more than a day will spur Virginia officials to remember lessons learned during the I-95 backup that were quickly forgotten after the similar situation on the interstate here.

They may even get a chance to try out what they have learned somewhere in the state this weekend, or next.

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