9/19/12: A frightening communication breakdown

This op-ed appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on the date shown.

THE FIRST I heard that two of the three routes from the Peninsula to South Hampton Roads would be closed was on Twitter, on Wednesday evening, barely 48 hours before the closing was to take place.

Although I make the trip almost every Sunday to visit my mother, it was a long-planned day trip to Northern Virginia that was on tap for Saturday. Either I cancel my plans or fight the traffic — plus the extra travel time to use the Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel — to get back home. I decided to go ahead with my trip.

That was a mistake.

I’m used to dealing with the unpredictability of traffic on Interstate 64. Sometimes, I can get to Hampton in 20 minutes. Other times, it’s an hour or more. Same on the trip home. The Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel is just one of the choke points on the route west. Further up the road, four lanes of traffic merge into two, and that spot is nearly always backed up.

Emerging from the tunnel — I sat for 10 minutes at its entrance waiting for VDOT to clear a disabled vehicle inside — I saw eastbound traffic being re-routed through the old Strawberry Banks Motel area. Already the backup stretched to LaSalle Avenue. Obviously, the drivers had missed the relatively small detour signs. They were being sent back westbound to the I-664 connector , near the Coliseum.

About an hour and a half outside Hampton Roads on my return trip, a friend, who had attended the same Northern Virginia event as I and who had left about an hour ahead of me, called to warn me of the traffic backup. By the time I got to Hampton, I-64 was a parking lot.

I fared better than a lot of folks. Although I grew up on the Peninsula, much has changed. Fortunately, I was traveling with my sister, who still lives there. She was able to direct me to an entrance to I-664 that didn’t require me to sit for long. But while I was, I decided to check Twitter.

Seems a lot of folks didn’t get the message that the eastbound tunnel and the James River Bridge were going to be closed at the same time.

One tweet, from a friend in Suffolk, spoke of heading to the JRB to get home from his excursion to the commissary at Langley, since the traffic to the MMMBT was backed up. He didn’t know that it, too, was closed.

I checked on my friend who had called earlier. She was now about three miles behind me in the traffic.

Finally getting through the MMMBT, I headed toward the Downtown Tunnel, only to be delayed again, this time by the opening of the Berkley Bridge.

The mess that was created by the closure of two of the three crossings only exacerbated the traffic problems we experience daily in Hampton Roads.

There is no direct route from my side of town to the MMMBT, so using it adds 30 to 45 minutes to a trip on a good day. Our tunnels are mostly two-lane affairs, with numerous lanes leading into them, causing regular slowdowns.

But it wasn’t the traffic Saturday that bothered me the most. What really bothered me was the breakdown in communication.

As our consumption of media has become increasingly fragmented, 48 hours was not enough time to get the message out. And that scares me.