Vienna Officials: December’s Woes Led to Better Procedures in Storms

Oakton residents Eunsong Lim, 7, Hyechan Lim, 5, and Ricky Chong, 7, sit proudly atop their snow fort at Blake Lane Park in Oakton on Feb. 8, 2010. A storm on Feb. 5 and 6 dropped more than 2 feet of snow across Northern Virginia, snarling traffic and closing governmental offices and schools. (Photo by Brian Trompeter)

If a big winter storm – or two, or three – hits the region in coming months, Arlington residents will be able to leave their cars safe and sound in county-owned garages for the duration.

It’s all part of an effort to keep residential streets as free of vehicles as possible so snow-plow operators can do their job.

County officials say they will, under certain circumstances, make four garages available without charge during and immediately after big storms: I-66 at Washington-Lee High School, Barcroft, Central Library and Arlington Mill Community Center.

“That’s a great start, and maybe at one point some commercial folks will wish to participate,” said County Board member Libby Garvey, who began pressing for innovative ways to reduce vehicles on roads during storms during her board chairmanship in 2016.

Efforts by the county government to entice private-property owners to open their own garages to the public during storms have thus far proved unsuccessful, in many cases due to liability issues.

Opening the four county garages to neighborhood vehicles likely would be at the discretion of County Manager Mark Schwartz. Because of last year’s relatively benign winter season, the option was not needed.

“We were very lucky last winter,” Schwartz said of the limited number of snowstorms during the winter of 2017-18.

But luck, as those who lived through the winter of 2009-10 can attest, is a fleeting thing.

Since the Washington region’s official snow-measuring spot was moved to National Airport in 1941, the average annual snowfall recorded has been about 15 inches. But that’s deceiving: The local area is more likely to see any number of years with far less snow, followed by a year of one or more major snowfalls. (The winter seasons with the highest snowfalls measured at the airport were 2009-10 at 56.1 inches and 1995-96 at 46 inches.)

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration does not predict snowfall totals, but does suggest the Mid-Atlantic region will see near-normal temperatures and above-normal precipitation, which could be a recipe for a more robust final snowfall figure. Most local media outlets that offer predictions also are suggesting a snowier-than-usual season.

While Garvey has found success in convincing staff to move forward with the shelter-in-garages proposal, she has had less in another effort – bringing back enforcement of snow-emergency routes, where vehicle owners are required to remove their vehicles during a storm or have them removed by the county government.

The goal is the same as the garage effort, to keep roadways clear of unnecessary vehicles so plow operators can work expeditiously. But Schwartz said resurrecting snow-emergency routes has not risen to the top of the to-do list.

“It’s a big lift with the community, and we have fewer police resources,” he said. “Right now, this is not on the agenda.”

Many roads across Arlington remain marked with snow-emergency-route signage, but restrictions have not been enforced for decades.

During a Nov. 27 briefing to County Board members, Department of Environmental Services deputy director of operations Mike Collins said the county government is responsible for clearing 1,059  lane-miles of road across Arlington during inclement weather, with the remainder the responsibility of the Virginia Department of Transportation.

This coming season, Arlington officials aim to focus more effort on the use of brine solutions to combat slick roads, as it is cheaper and, in some cases, less environmentally intrusive than traditional rock salt.

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