One Year After Jan. 26, 2011, Snow Event, Transportation Coordination and Preparedness Protocols Have Been Strengthened

Mar 5, 2012

A year after the late-afternoon snowfall of January 26, 2011, brought traffic on the region's roadways to a standstill during the evening commute and left thousands of homes and businesses without power, the Transportation Planning Board is supporting ongoing regional actions that have already strengthened coordination and preparedness protocols for such disruptive events.

A number of actions were recommended as part of an eight-month-long review by the Steering Committee on Incident Management and Response (IMR), a group formed by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments in the weeks following the January 26 storm.

The IMR committee was charged with reviewing the region's response to the storm and making recommendations that would enable transportation and other agencies to coordinate more effectively just before and during disruptive weather events, and to coordinate better during and just after other unexpected events like earthquakes or terrorist attacks.

The committee's main transportation-related recommendation was that the Metropolitan Area Transportation Operations Coordination (MATOC) program, which is dedicated to monitoring traffic and weather conditions on the region's roadways and coordinating responses to major incidents, expand its hours of operation to 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Currently, MATOC operates 16 hours a day, five days a week, with the ability to "ramp up" to temporary 24/7 operations on an as-needed basis, which it did during the January 26 storm.

The MATOC Steering Committee, which oversees MATOC operations, has said that supporting permanent 24/7 operations is one of several options still under consideration.

One possibility for enhancing MATOC's role is to empower the Regional Incident Coordination (RIC) program, also recommended as part of the IMR report, to request off-hours activation of MATOC on an on-call basis. A key role of RIC is to monitor and communicate important information on a 24/7 basis to relevant government agencies that are responsible for responding to disasters and other major incidents, including disruptive weather events.

In addition to expanded hours of operation, the IMR committee also recommended that MATOC play a bigger role in providing up-to-date information on developing traffic and weather conditions to those making decisions about such things as the release of schools and personnel just before or during major weather events.

The MATOC Severe Weather Mobilization Coordination Effort, conducted at the direction of the MATOC Steering Committee, has convened key snow response managers from the major transportation agencies in the region to discuss what MATOC staff can do to help the agencies coordinate their response to major weather events and to communicate with other officials and the public about developing weather conditions.

The effort has led to the development of consistent terminology to describe roadway and transit conditions throughout the region, protocols for sharing weather information from different agency-specific sources and detection systems, testing of coordinated messaging systems, and better ways to advise the overall regional winter storm decision-making process.

The other main transportation-related recommendation identified in the IMR report was to determine how many of the region's traffic signals currently have back-up power sources and to ensure that all major traffic signals have back-up systems in place.

A survey by TPB staff of 20 agencies and jurisdictions in the region found that, of more than 5,400 traffic signals surveyed, approximately 20% are currently equipped with some sort of power back-up system.

A majority of the signals with power back-ups are battery-based systems that engage immediately following a power outage but have limited duration. The remaining signals are capable of being powered by mobile generators that must be brought to the site but that can operate for longer periods of time.

The share of traffic signals with power back-up systems in place varies significantly across agencies and jurisdictions, with many reporting no or very few signals with back-up power, a few with between one-quarter and two-thirds of signals with such systems, and two--Prince George's County and the City of Bowie--reporting that 100% of the signals they maintain are equipped with back-up power systems.

The TPB's Traffic Signals Subcommittee has reported that agencies responsible for traffic signals have long been aware of the importance of back-up power, and have been installing systems as budgets have allowed. But, they said, the ongoing maintenance responsibilities and costs for back-up systems has been of concern given limited operations budgets.

The Subcommittee has recommended reviewing the traffic emergency management plans from the various jurisdictions in the region to identify the critical intersections at which operating traffic signals would most be needed during widespread power outages.

The TPB's response to the IMR recommendations is ongoing, as the MATOC Steering Committee is still discussing and considering changes to MATOC staffing and operating hours, as the MATOC Snow Mobilization Coordination Effort continues to facilitate discussions among the region's key snow response managers, and as the Traffic Signals Subcommittee moves forward in identifying priority signals in need of back-up power.

But already, the changes that have been made and the plans that have been put in place as a result of the January 26, 2011, snow storm will improve the region's ability to respond to future extreme weather disruptions, as well as other unexpected events like earthquakes and terrorist attacks.

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