Audit: Va. failed on earlier advice before I-95 gridlock

FILE - Drivers wait for the traffic to be cleared as cars and trucks are stranded on sections of Interstate 95 on Jan. 4, 2022, in Carmel Church, Va. The state government failed to carry out numerous lessons from a 2018 snowstorm that caused highway gridlock, as exhibited by a similar event along Interstate 95 in January that left hundreds of motorists stranded, according to a report from Virginia's Office of the Inspector General on Friday, Aug. 12, 2022. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
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RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia government failed to carry out numerous lessons from a 2018 snowstorm that caused highway gridlock, as exhibited by a similar event along Interstate 95 in January that left hundreds of motorists stranded, a state watchdog office concluded.

The Office of the Inspector General report, released Friday, was critical of how the state transportation, police and emergency management agencies performed during the severe snowstorm that began Jan. 3, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported.

Logjams along a 40-mile (65-kilometer) stretch of I-95 in both directions not far from the nation’s capital led to outrage among motorists, some of whom were stuck in their vehicles overnight and pleaded on social media for help.

In April, a state-commissioned report created by a nonprofit group didn’t place blame on any single person or agency. But it found state agencies collectively “lost situational awareness” and failed to keep up with growing gridlock through a confluence of heavy snowfall, abnormally high traffic and staffing shortages related to COVID-19. Up to 11 inches (28 cm) of snow fell in the area.

Friday’s performance audit mentioned many of the same issues, but the I-95 mess could have been avoided if state officials had taken preventive measures recommended by Virginia DOT after a snowstorm in late 2018 blocked traffic on Interstate 81, in far southwest Virginia. Those recommendations included making plans for storms more severe than are forecast and communicating those dangers effectively to citizens.

“They’ve got to prepare for when things go awry and they don’t get what they expect,” said Ben Sutphin, the audit manager for the I-95 investigation.

The state’s communication to the public about the severity of the road hazards was ineffective or misleading, the report said. Drivers also underestimated dangers because of mild weather during the New Year’s weekend before the storm. The report specifically cited a message to stranded motorists that “state & locals coming ASAP with supplies & to move you.”

A lack of backup electrical power for state Department of Transportation road cameras also made it hard to monitor highway conditions, the report said.

The inspector general didn’t fault then-Gov. Ralph Northam for failing to declare a state of emergency before the storm “because the forecasted event ... did not rise to the level to issue an emergency declaration.” Northam, a Democrat, was in the waning days of his administration, with Republican Glenn Youngkin taking office less than two weeks later.

U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who was himself caught in the gridlock, said Friday that he hopes the report’s recommendations will be followed. “We should always be applying lessons learned to improve safety for Virginians."