FREDERICKSBURG, Va. (WRIC) — Hundreds of motorists were stranded in a major, 40-mile traffic jam on Interstate 95 Tuesday in a backup that started on Monday during the region’s first snowstorm of the year. Vehicles were mostly cleared from the interstate around Fredericksburg, Spotsylvania and Stafford by Tuesday evening following a day of questions and reactions from drivers and the surrounding communities.
I-95 was open to new cars until Tuesday at around 5:45 a.m., despite crashes and delays being reported throughout the day on Monday. It has been confirmed with some interstate drivers that they had been completely stuck since as early as 3 p.m. on Monday. Meaning that more than 12 hours went by where more drivers could enter the already jammed section of interstate.
Despite the interstate closing early Tuesday morning, there were still cars stranded there as of Tuesday afternoon.
Virginia State Police said there were several hundred disabled and abandoned vehicles along the I-95 corridor. While some of those cars may have been abandoned, many were not. The Virginia Department of Transportation said that many people stuck in the standstill remained with their vehicles as temperatures dipped below freezing overnight.
During a press briefing on Tuesday, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said state troopers had been walking along the shutdown sections of I-95 providing people with water, blankets, food and medicine as needed.
8News contacted Governor Northam for an interview about this emergency event and our requests have been repeatedly ignored or denied.
As of Tuesday afternoon, there have been no injuries or fatalities reported as a result of the traffic incidences or people’s freezing overnight stay on the interstate.
What caused this backup?
Monday’s winter storm started off with rain which then turned to snow. Because of the morning rainfall, VDOT said crews were unable to treat the roads ahead of the winter storm.
When the snow did fall, the Fredericksburg area especially saw high quantities of snow in a short period of time. According to Northam, the state had prepared for a few inches of snow but the Fredericksburg area got over a foot of snowfall.
VDOT Commissioner Stephen Brich said that the segment of I-95 from mile marker 104 to mile marker 153 received 8 to 11 inches of snow that fell quickly.
Northam called the storm one of the largest storms seen in Central Virginia in some time and VDOT has called the storm “unprecedented.”
However, Virginia Department of Emergency Management State Coordinator Curtis Brown explained during the press conference what factors would qualify winter weather as a storm of record but did not go as far as to say that this incident belonged in that category.
During the winter weather, there were numerous incidents including tractor-trailers jackknifing and blocking multiple lanes of traffic. 8News previously reported tractor-trailer crashes happening as early as 12:45 p.m. on Monday. During the briefing, it was announced that the first crash on the impacted stretch of road happened around 8 a.m. on Monday. Even for the first crash, state police said it took around 20 minutes for responders to reach the scene.
As the day went on and temperatures dropped, ice developed on the roads, adding to the storm’s impact on travel.
According to VDOT, traffic-blocking incidents had occurred throughout the day but there was still some traffic flow and crashes being recovered. VDOT said that after midnight cars came to a complete standstill.
What was the state response?
The stressful and fear-inducing scenes of people stranded in their cars, bundled up to keep their families warm, left many, including state lawmakers, asking where the National Guard was during this emergency event. During the press briefing on Tuesday, state leaders explained that response from the National Guard could take an entire day. Instead, Virginia opted to utilize state troopers as the first responders.
The governor said state police were able to provide an immediate response with the resources and manpower needed to address the issue.
Northam said that none of the localities impacted by the day-long traffic shutdown requested help from the National Guard.
VDOT said they had crews ready Sunday night to respond to issues on Virginia’s roads. The agency prioritized interstates over other roads. There were efforts to plow I-95 on Monday.
According to the state, the interstate traffic was not fully at a stop until around midnight after being backed up for several hours. After midnight, VDOT was no longer able to get any plows onto I-95.
The approximately 40-mile long stretch of I-95 was officially closed at 5:45 a.m. but the process to close the interstate took hours and not all entrances were shut off immediately.
Instead of closing the entrances earlier, while traffic was still moving in some places, VDOT said they urged drivers to avoid the roads. A Twitter post from VDOT at 8:27 p.m. Monday said, “FYI: Please continue to avoid travel on I-95 in the Fredericksburg area.” In that social media message, VDOT linked to another Tweet from their Fredericksburg Division posted at 8:25 p.m. that read, “Travel remains stopped on I-95 northbound and southbound lanes in the Fredericksburg area due to disabled vehicles and downed trees. Motorists should avoid the area until further notice due to significant congestion and to assist crews with clearance.”
The decision was made on Tuesday morning to clear interstate express lanes and use them for emergency aid.
Once traffic started to clear from the interstate on Tuesday, Virginia State Police said the process was slow. In many areas three lanes of cars were condensing to exit in one lane, causing bottlenecks.
When were cars fully cleared?
At 5:15 p.m. on Tuesday, the Virginia Department of Transportation’s Fredericksburg Division announced that there was no longer anyone stuck on I-95. All that remained were 20 abandoned vehicles.
The VDOT said they would be clearing all of the snow and ice from the stretch of the interstate before reopening it to traffic.