Interstate 95 traffic jam: Virginia authorities say rain before snow prevented pretreatment with ice melt

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Miles of Virginia’s stretch of Interstate 95, a major East Coast artery that’s often a traffic nightmare in good weather, froze in place for nearly a full day after a blistering snowstorm swept through the region Monday.

Snowfall and downed trees prompted massive delays, trapping an unknown number of vehicles for hours in the northern part of the state, according to authorities, who blamed the sequence of rain before snow for preventing them from pretreating the interstate with ice melt. 

“We were not able to treat our roadways before, and this is due to the rain. The rain would have washed all of our chemicals and salt off the roads and provided no additional protection,” said Stephen Birch, the state’s commissioner of highways, during an afternoon news briefing.

Vehicles are stuck in gridlock in the morning on the Interstate Highway I-95 near Stafford, Virginia, U.S., January 4, 2022 in this still image obtained from a social media video. Susan Phalen/via REUTERS

Still, despite the traffic nightmare, state police said they’d received no reports of deaths, injuries or major accidents on the affected stretch of the I-95 as of 4:45 p.m. ET Tuesday.

Vehicles are seen on an icy stretch of Interstate 95 closed as a storm blankets the U.S. region in snow, near Fredericksburg, Virginia, U.S. January 3, 2022. Picture taken January 3, 2022. Virginia Department of Transportation/Handout via REUTERS

In a 3 p.m. conference call with reporters, Gov. Ralph Northam said state troopers and other first responders had been making their way down the highway, handing out food and blankets and other assistance.

He said several dozen vehicles remained stuck — but they were empty.

“There are probably around 50 or 60 vehicles still out there, And at this point, every vehicle has been checked,” he said. “The ones that are out there have been abandoned.”

Two hours later, transportation officials said the number of stranded vehicles had dropped to “less than 20” and that plows would soon clear the rest of the snow and ice.

Trouble began Monday, when the “unprecedented” storm swept through. For most of Tuesday, Virginia’s Department of Transportation said it was detouring drivers off the I-95 between Caroline and Prince William Counties in the northern part of the state. Authorities closed it down for nearly 50 exits between 152 and 104.

Northam urged drivers to avoid the highway, and local authorities urged people to avoid unnecessary travel to alleviate traffic on alternate routes. 

Some people reported that they were trapped for hours upon hours, including Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, who tweeted that it took him 27 hours to travel the 110 miles between Richmond and Washington.

One stranded motorist told Fox News’ John Roberts that trapped travelers were freely using the embankment along the side of the road to relieve themselves.

Photos and videos shared across social media illustrate the chaos travelers had to deal with. Many showed snow still on the roads. Some had cars stuck on shoulders — or even in the middle lanes. 

Tricia Kinder set out from her home in Midlothian, Virginia, on Monday afternoon for Baltimore, where she had a Tuesday morning doctor’s appointment at Johns Hopkins.

Even the backroads in Fredericksburg were backed up by snow and downed trees.
(Tricia Kinder)

“It was almost 70 degrees the day before,” she told Fox News Digital. “So I thought, well truly whatever accumulations we’re going to get, what’s the likelihood that it’s going to stick?”

But even though she left a day early with her husband, she said the foul weather forced her to turn back. They made it on the interstate to around exit 104, then tried side roads through Fredericksburg but turned back after sunset.

Interstate 95 saw "unprecedented" traffic after a snowstorm smashed its way through Northern Virginia Monday.
(Tricia Kinder)

She said she saw barely any plows between Ashland and Fredericksburg on both the I-95 and back roads. 

“It looked like a warzone going through some of those areas,” Kinder said. “It’s a major interstate, there’s really no reason why VDOT shouldn’t have been out.”

Parts of Northern Virginia saw up to 10 inches, according to the National Weather Service.

After Kinder turned around, she said she and her husband unwittingly drove down a portion of the interstate that authorities had closed but saw no signage or warnings. They encountered no traffic there, but on the other side she said she saw tractor-trailers and other vehicles stuck for miles on end.

“I’m really disappointed in the Virginia Department of Transportation for letting down some of their more vulnerable road users last night,” a long-haul trucker, Matthew Marchand, told Fox News Digital. “I took the time to check on other drivers in both cars and trucks last night, because my primary responsibility is to keep myself safe, but keeping others safe is definitely No. 2. Moving freight comes well after that.”

Marchand chronicled his experience on Twitter. He said he encountered a Tesla driver who was worried about running out of power in the below-freezing temperatures Monday night. He gave him an emergency blanket. Trapped children in another car built a snowman on the side of the highway.

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In a separate tweet, he wrote that the long delay in clearing the interstate “is nothing short of incompetence.”

Other drivers criticized the state’s preparedness and blasted Richmond’s budgeting for snow removal.

Transportation authorities did not immediately respond to questions about how much this week’s I-95 cleanup would cost compared to that of a typical winter. 

Fox News’ Maria Lencki contributed to this report.

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