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I-95 nearly clear following hours of congestion that left hundreds stranded

aerial view of traffic
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)

Hundreds of people were still stranded in their cars on Interstate 95 for hours today, after spending the night stuck in a 40-mile pile-up of traffic near Fredericksburg.

Officials from the Virginia Department of Transportation, Department of Emergency Management and Virginia State Police were questioned on a press call Tuesday morning. One common question: why didn’t officials decide to close I-95 sooner than 8 a.m. Tuesday, nearly 24 hours after the pileup began?

Officials did not explain why they waited to make that call but promised it would be part of a forthcoming full review.

Kelly Hannon, communications manager for the Virginia Department of Transportation’s Fredericksburg District, said they normally clear major incidents quicker, citing the “intensity of the snow” as the chief factor this time.

Hannon said the department’s review will seek to prevent a similar situation in the future.

Snow removal was complicated by the preceding heavy rainfall. Marcie Parker, VDOT’s Fredericksburg district engineer, said it prevented them from pretreating the interstate.

“If we pretreat… the rain then just washes it away. So we're really just wasting product and wasting money and interrupting the traffic flow to pretreat,” Parker said. “This storm came in as rain and then it turned to sleet and then snow.”

Parker said the rate of snowfall was “entirely too much” for VDOT to keep up with.

“We had a very severe event yesterday where snowfall rates were heavier than we have seen for longer amounts of time…I think ever, in my career, as we were receiving snowfall at a rate of two-plus inches per hour for four to five hours,” Parker said.

Officials say a domino effect of crashes – including jack-knifed tractor-trailers – also contributed to the backup on Interstate 95.  

“One of the challenges is we would get vehicles unstuck. And then they would get so far down the road and then either two more vehicles become stuck or they [initial vehicles] would become stuck again,” said Corinne Gellar, communications director with Virginia State Police.

Kevin Gregg, chief of operations and maintenance for the Virginia Department of Transportation, said during a follow-up press briefing Tuesday afternoon that VDOT didn’t decide to close I-95 earlier because some cars were still moving – although very slowly – until midnight Monday.

“So as long as we can keep some traffic moving, we wanted to keep that option open,” Gregg said during the briefing. “We just couldn't get the ploughs in there after midnight to get some of that traffic cleared out.”

After sitting for a few hours on I-95 Monday evening, Claire Gastañaga, former executive director of the ACLU of Virginia, decided to take an exit near Dale City while traveling from New Jersey to Richmond. She found a hotel room, but says many others weren’t so lucky. 

“There are people up here who spent the night in their cars lined up at gas stations because the gas stations were running out of gas,” Gastañaga said. “And people wanted to be first in line this morning when they reopened.”

Gastañaga says many people at the hotel where she stayed in Potomac Mills were there not because of problems on the interstate, but because of power outages caused by the storm.

“A significant number of people were there, seeking shelter in a heated place because their homes were without power,” Gastañaga said.

State officials were unable to provide an estimate of how many people and cars were initially – and still are - stranded as of 11:30 a.m. Tuesday. They said they anticipated the highway to be cleared sometime Tuesday, in time for Wednesday morning rush-hour traffic. 

State officials also say local agencies in Prince William, Stafford, Spotsylvania, the City of Fredericksburg, and Caroline County have been assisting with ramp closures and are working to help those in need of water, fuel or shelter. 

“All the localities either have or are opening a shelter by the end of the day to help anybody who can't continue on to their final destination,” Parker said.

Gellar said Virginia State Police have received no reports of deaths or injuries as a result of the pile-up.

Among those affected are Sen. Tim Kaine, who took to Twitter to let constituents know he was part of the pileup. Kaine said he was “frustrated, but not in serious trouble,” and wanted to share VDOT’s helpline: 1-800-FOR-ROAD.

Editors note: This story has been updated to reflect additional information received during an additional press briefing late Tuesday afternoon. 

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Megan Pauly covers education and health care issues in the greater Richmond region.
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