The I-95 Snowmageddon: Advice for Glenn Youngkin
Thousands of travelers were stranded on a busy I-95 in northern Virginia by a snowstorm, some for 27 hours. Transportation is but one state agency that needs auditing as the new Governor takes office
Fortunately, no one appears to have died. But it was still a disaster and potentially life-threatening for those stranded in vehicles without provisions after a freakish snowstorm that shut down a key section of I-95 in northern Virginia for upwards of 27 hours.
The storm dumped close to a foot of snow in the Washington, DC suburbs. Initial predictions had it close to 3 or 4 inches. Less snow and more rain fell about 90 miles south towards Richmond. At times, the storm dumped close to 3 inches per hour. That’s a lot. It brought back memories of my near-disastrous travel in northern California last week.
Yes, I know, people from northern climates are shedding no tears for Northern Virginia, which typically panics at the hint of snow. Radio talker Hugh Hewitt, a northeast Ohio native who currently broadcasts from sunny southern California, smugly asserted, “Do you know what we call this in Ohio? March.” Hugh, a former acting director of the federal Office of Personnel Management, used to make calls about closing government offices for inclement weather.
Virginia officials apologized for the delay, which they blamed on the weather (early rains prevented the effective use of pre-treatments), and outgoing Gov. Ralph Northam (D-VA) blamed drivers. You can’t make this up. Meanwhile, many of us were reminded about systemic corruption at the Virginia Department of Transportation going back to the Terry McAuliffe and early Northam Administrations.
Charlie Spiering @charliespieringRalph Northam blames the drivers for getting on I-95, no apologies for obvious government failure. “We gave warnings, and people need to pay attention to these warnings, and the less people that are on the highways when these storms hit, the better.” https://t.co/3vUfTsPCKV
At least Northam didn’t promise that the stranded “would be kept comfortable.” And be resuscitated “if that’s what the mother and the family wanted, and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother.”
Apparently missing in action, again: US Transportation Pete Buttigieg.
Virginia’s incoming GOP House Speaker Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) recommended calling out the National Guard early Tuesday. Under the control of the US Marines and the Department of Defense, Marine Base Quantico was nearby. It is unclear what help they might have been, other than delivering water and other supplies to stranded travelers. Regardless, no effort was made to mobilize them. From a Democratic State Delegate whose family was also stuck in the storm, courtesy of the Virginia Mercury:
State Del. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, her husband, their two boys and the family dog were stranded overnight while returning from a holiday trip to New York. In an interview, Aird said her group was stuck in Stafford County for more than 15 hours, making it through the night with pretzels and Nutri-Grain bars picked up from a gas station. At times, she said, they turned off the car to try to conserve gas, unsure when they’d be able to refuel or buy more food.
“How is it something like this could happen in present day?,” she said.
Aird said she’s not buying the claim the state did all it possibly could.
“You knew that we were there but there was no information provided,” she said. “I think that more deliberate care and concern could have been shown. If you have the option of sending the National Guard to come in with blankets and these sorts of things, why not do it when people needed it most?”
Officials from VDOT, the Virginia State Police and the Virginia Department of Emergency Management said both the intensity of the storm and the hazardous conditions it created complicated the state’s response.
The storm was indeed a great equalizer, affecting both families and at least one U.S. Senator and former Vice Presidential candidate, Tim Kaine (D-VA). Kaine did not appear to take any responsibility, per Northam’s admonition, for contributing to the pile-up (maybe he was just a passenger). No words from any Republican officials caught in the melee.
It is somewhat surprising, but maybe not, that the worst traffic stretch in America was so unprepared for this. I-95 is the major north-south thoroughfare that connects southern Florida to northern Maine, traversing especially busy, often high-toll stretches from New York City through New Jersey and Maryland to Fredricksburg, VA. Talk about supply chains. About half of America’s population lives within an hour’s drive of I-95. Maybe more.
I often joke that to realize the danger you constantly face on I-95, stop in at any rest stop along the way and take a good look around you. You’re sharing the road with these people. And they’re probably looking at me the same way.
I-95 traffic is so bad that engineers have instituted expensive solutions, including building a new drawbridge named for President Woodrow Wilson over the Potomac River connecting Maryland and Virginia. Now, there’s a “peak period pricing” scheme known as “express lanes.” Another new bridge was completed near a bustling stretch near Fredricksburg, Virginia. Some stretches can cost upwards of $30 for a one-way toll during hectic times. They’re one-way lanes, meaning that you can only use them outbound from Washington during the afternoon and evening hours or inbound on mornings. Weekends are confusing. You get a discount if you meet the “high occupancy vehicle” threshold (usually HOV 3 along I-95) and have a “flex” EZ-pass. And if you’re caught violating it, You’ll pay north of a Benjamin or more.
They don’t help much when you’re stuck behind road-blocking, weather-related tractor-trailer accidents. This brings us back to Snowmaggedon 2022 and some takeaways for Virginia’s Governor-elect, Republic Glenn Youngkin, who is sworn in to his new job on January 15th, along with Lt. Gov. Winsome Sears and Attorney General Jason Miyares.
Hopefully, they’ll plan to arrive a few days early to avoid the traffic. Meanwhile, I have a recommendation based on personal experience.
First, Youngkin, who is not yet in office, has already discovered that he will be stupidly blamed, even by people who should know better. Like the Northam Administration’s response to the storm on I-95.
Youngkin inherits several messes as he takes office, starting with the state’s education system. Mask mandates, closed schools, and of course, dubious curricula made reforming schools a top campaign issue.
He inherits a badly broken unemployment insurance system, a partisan major public utility, Dominion Energy, a possibly corrupt state parole board, and now, a highway system with a dubious track record.
He needs to order serious outside audits of these agencies, if not others, to make sure he knows the issues and problems he’s inheriting. No surprises.
One of my favorite memories was being politely confronted in June 1995 by then-freshman US Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) outside the Senate chamber the day after I was sworn in as Secretary of the Senate. He gave me two “orders” (not just advice). Santorum served on the Senate Rules Committee as a congressional reformer, which oversaw all Senate operations - including mine.
First, he directed me to cut my budget and expenses by 15 percent. Second, he directed me to ask for a General Accountability Office (GAO, an investigative arm of Congress) to make sure I wasn’t inheriting anything untoward as I began my service. Coming off the infamous House Bank Scandal, which involved the office of the House Sergeant at Arms, his concern was understandable.
I reduced my budget accordingly, but six months later, I also invited Sen. Santorum to be briefed on the GAO audit. Thankfully, there were no issues. We both were relieved and grateful, but it was a worthwhile exercise.
And there may be no issues with such audits of at least these four agencies, but the record suggests otherwise. Youngkin has an aggressive and impressive “Day One Gameplan” that includes sensible tax reductions, innovative school and mental health spending, and other reforms. His early nominations and appointments are off to a terrific start. But that’s just a start.
But Snowmaggeddon 2022 reminds us that there’s a lot to discover under the rocks he’s inheriting. He may want to have a few exterminators handy.