Interstate 95 reopened late Tuesday in Virginia after snow and ice brought traffic to a daylong standstill, but questions remained around why winter weather left drivers stranded overnight.
The Virginia Department of Transportation said early Wednesday that I-95 around Fredericksburg was open, though some icy conditions persisted. Crews had worked through Tuesday to free up a roughly 50-mile traffic jam that forced scores of drivers to wait in their cars for more than 24 hours in some cases for the roads to clear.
Gov. Ralph Northam blamed the backup on “an incredibly unusual event” after about a foot of snow blanketed the area around Fredericksburg. Transportation officials said the winter weather started with rain, which would have washed away any treatment on roadways to prevent icing.
But some motorist trapped in the backup vented frustration with officials’ response.
“They passed out water (this morning). What is water going to do?” Maurice Watson told WJLA-TV. “I ain’t ate in 24 hours, I ran out of gas, I called VDOT six times. No one came. This is an outrage. This is how you treat your taxpayers?”
Ronni Schorr told The Washington Post she didn’t see any plows until Tuesday morning after being trapped for 14 hours. “I’m not angry at the snow,” Schorr said. “I’m just upset at the way they handled it.”
Among those stuck was Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who was driving to Washington, D.C., from Richmond and said the journey took him 27 hours.
Speaking with reporters after arriving in Washington, Kaine said he saw crews working overnight to clear the roads but called the incident “probably a good infrastructure story. Generally, we’re just not as big investors and infrastructure as we should be.”
After it began to snow on roads that had not been pretreated, “that was entirely too much for us to keep up with,” Department of Transportation district engineer Marcie Parker told reporters. Trucks began to lose control, and it was snowing at a rate of 2 inches an hour, she said. “Consequently, with the amount of traffic that we had on the interstate, the trucks and the cars couldn’t make it up and down the hills because we had too much snow and ice out there.”
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Parker said the snow knocked out power to some traffic cameras, and because of the location of the logjam, express lanes weren’t much help to clear the backup.
Just after 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, the Virginia Department of Transportation tweeted that the freeway had been reopened and that no disabled vehicles remained on the road.
The National Weather Service on Wednesday, though, said patches of freezing rain could cause slick travel conditions. The state transportation department warned drivers on I-95 be cautious.
The number of vehicles caught in the backup was not clear, but photos and videos on social media showed hundreds lined up.
Overnight Monday into Tuesday, cold temperatures had drivers worried, and many turned off their cars for periods to conserve gas. Others walked around or passed out food.
Marvin Romero, who had been returning from South Florida with his children, said he spent 20 hours on the roadway.
“To me, I see it as a once-in-a-lifetime experience. How many people can actually say that they stepped on I-95, or they slept on I-95?” he said. “It’s hopefully a story that I can tell my grandkids one day.”
Contributing: Ledyard King, USA TODAY; The Associated Press