Richmond Times-Dispatch: Spanberger wants Youngkin to fix flaws that led to I-95 snow gridlock before his term

RICHMOND TIMES-DISPATCH, MICHAEL MARTZ

Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, knows that Gov. Glenn Youngkin hadn’t taken office when an unexpectedly powerful snowstorm crippled a heavily traveled stretch of Interstate 95 in early January, 12 days before his inauguration.

But Spanberger made clear on Monday that it’s up to Youngkin now to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

The two-term Democratic congresswoman asked the Republican governor what steps his administration is taking to carry out the recommendations of a new after-action report.

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The report faults the state — under Youngkin’s Democratic predecessor, Gov. Ralph Northam — for failing to prepare for the storm that swept into Virginia on Jan. 3, leaving thousands of motorists stranded overnight in sub-freezing conditions.

“It is vital that we never again see a repeat of the circumstances that clogged a critical transportation artery, left Virginians — young and old — stranded without food and medication in their vehicles for more than 24 hours, and demonstrated a vulnerability to our commonwealth’s and nation’s security,” Spanberger said in a letter to Youngkin. “Preventing a repeat of these horrible circumstances requires intense oversight by your administration.”

Spanberger said she is “deeply concerned” over the findings of a new audit by the Office of the State Inspector General that said the state had failed to heed lessons from a similar snowstorm that blocked traffic on Interstate 81 near Bristol in Southwest Virginia in December 2018.

“While neither of these interstate shutdowns occurred during your administration, it now falls to your administration to ensure that the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM), and other associated agencies implement the recommendations of previous after-action reports once and for all,” she wrote.

Macaulay Porter, a spokesperson for Youngkin, said in a statement: “The Northam administration failed to adequately prepare and plan for the I-95 snow debacle. Governor Youngkin and the administration successfully weathered three snow-related events, mitigated risks, and ensured appropriate resources were available for our response teams and they performed well.

“The Governor appreciates the OSIG’s performance audit of the January 3-4, 2022 Northam Administration snow incident. Under the Governor’s leadership, snow events following his inauguration were managed to the standard of preparing for worst case scenarios as opposed to under preparing for snow emergency events.”

The January snowstorm came less than a week after the Virginia Supreme Court approved a new political map that moved the heart of the 7th Congressional District from the Richmond suburbs to Northern Virginia and the Fredericksburg area. The new district almost completely encompasses the 52-mile stretch of I-95 crippled by the storm — from Caroline County, through Fredericksburg and its suburbs, to Prince William County.

Spanberger’s home in western Henrico County is not part of the new 7th, but she reacted quickly to the storm, which closed roads in other parts of her current district and stymied commuters on I-95 between Richmond and Washington in both directions.

The day after the state reopened the highway, she wrote a letter to Northam and Youngkin, then governor-elect, urging them to “conduct a full-scale, multi-agency after action report detailing the events, decisions, factors, and challenges leading up to and following the storm, with a full accounting of what went wrong and what went right, and recommendations for process improvement.”

The inspector general’s audit is the second after-action report issued on the incident. The first report, issued in late March, was conducted by the Center for Critical Incident Analysis at the CNA’s Institute for Public Research, based in Arlington County, on behalf of the state agencies — VDOT, VDEM and the Virginia State Police.

The CNA report, like the later audit by the state inspector general, concluded that the state had planned effectively for the storm it expected, but not the one it got — with temperatures dropping quickly and turning rain-slicked pavement to ice, and snow that fell faster and accumulated more quickly than forecast.

Both reports also faulted the state agencies for “lack of situational awareness” that would have enabled them to respond more quickly to the fast-deteriorating situation on the interstate and ineffective messaging to the public about the emergency conditions developing on the highway.

“Now that this emergency has passed, the winter storm should be viewed as an opportunity to learn and improve,” the CNA report concluded.

The state inspector general took what Spanberger described in her letter to Youngkin as “a very critical view of the commonwealth’s level of preparedness were we to face similar circumstances in the coming winter months, and our state agencies’ history of not implementing fulsome process improvements after serious events” such as the I-81 shutdown in 2018.

Spanberger asked the governor what steps he is taking to ensure that VDOT implements all recommendations of both the new report on the I-95 shutdown and the earlier incident on I-81 — and why the state didn’t carry out the recommendations of the after-action report on the 2018 incident.

“What accountability processes or procedures will be put in place at VDOT to ensure that all future lessons are implemented in a timely fashion?” she asked the governor.

The congresswoman also noted that the audit had faulted VDEM for not developing an emergency plan specifically for snowfall and asked what steps the emergency management agency is taking to better prepare the state for the coming winter.

Finally, Spanberger asked what steps the state has taken “to address the communications failures” identified in the report, and thanked Youngkin “for your attention to this serious matter.”

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