Assessing a traffic nightmare

Published 10:16 pm Friday, September 21, 2012

Six days after traffic jams resulted across the Peninsula because of a decision by the Virginia Department of Transportation’s decision to close two out of three Hampton Roads-area James River crossings for the weekend so maintenance work could be done, transportation officials have finally concluded what everyone who spent hours in traffic last Saturday already knew: It was a boneheaded decision that was destined for failure on an epic scale.

People who were trying to cross into South Hampton Roads on Saturday found themselves in the midst of a nine-mile backup that inched along through the Monitor-Merrimac Bridge-Tunnel, where all traffic had been routed as work crews undertook a paving project in the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel and a deck replacement on the James River Bridge at the same time.

Many drivers traveling from the Peninsula to the northwest part of Suffolk or Isle of Wight via the MMBT detour then found themselves further confounded by work on the Godwin Bridge, which had caused one lane of the bridge across the Nansemond River to be closed, with traffic alternating throughout the night.

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Those who thought to avoid the backup by heading north to the Jamestown Ferry found themselves caught in yet another snarl, as the ferry system struggled to handle the extra traffic. Only by driving farther north and crossing the river in Hopewell or even Richmond were drivers able to avoid the snarl.

VDOT Chief Deputy Commissioner Charlie Kilpatrick, who oversees the department’s districts around the commonwealth, admitted Friday that the decision to close two out of the three Hampton Roads crossings simultaneously had been a huge mistake, and he said VDOT had instituted a new policy prohibiting the closure of more than one of the three crossings at once.

It’s hard to see how VDOT planners could have been so insensible to the traffic nightmare they would cause with their decision last week, no matter how well publicized it was. People have weddings and funerals and sporting events — and, well, life — that goes on, despite the work that VDOT has to complete in order to keep the commonwealth’s roads well maintained. Some of those things can be postponed; others must take place in the face of even the worst potential traffic considerations.

It’s good that VDOT has acknowledged its mistake and pledged not to let it happen again. But the after-the-fact acknowledgement does little to give people in Hampton Roads confidence that state officials — or the local ones who approved the Godwin Bridge work on the same day — are paying close attention to the intractable transportation problems of one of Virginia’s most economically important regions.

If last weekend’s massive failure results in better communication and decision making by those officials, then at least some purpose will have been served. If it does not, then the jobs of those who are making those decisions should be on the line.