Tom Sherwood's Notebook: 02/02/11

At-large D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson neatly summed up the region’s transportation response to last week’s fast-moving storm.

“We failed … ,” the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments vice chair told The Washington Post’s Tim Craig. Just as NBC Washington also reported, there appeared to be no regional cooperation or coordination in the panicky rush hour that developed last Wednesday afternoon.

Terry Bellamy, the interim D.C. transportation director, told us that all the traffic control aides, who normally would help keep major intersections clear, were pulled from the streets to drive snowplows. The city never declared a snow emergency that would have gotten people to move their cars off major roadways.

At a news conference in southeast Washington, Mayor Vincent Gray gathered his public safety people principally to congratulate the various departments on how well they each responded to the snow.

But it was only after withering questions from the media that officials acknowledged that the evacuation of Washington was a disaster that needed review.

City Administrator Allen Lew, still getting his hands around the day-to-day operation of the city, seemed clearly irritated by the traffic mess. But Lew said only that the city would re-evaluate what it had done and not done. Mayor Gray agreed.

When The Post’s Craig and others asked what would have happened had the evacuation been in response to a terrorist attack or something similar, the answer wasn’t consoling.

D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management Director Millicent West suggested a terror attack would have been different because officials wouldn’t have focused on the snow; all the resources would go toward the terror attack.

Yes, but what if the terror attack came during a snowstorm? The sad fact of the matter is this region had an opportunity to put into action all the talk about orderly evacuations. It didn’t.

Maybe the District and suburban leaders should stop doing evacuation tests during the July 4 fireworks on the Mall. That’s not a test. People are in a good mood, the crowds are orderly, and the traffic disperses with minimum backups.

Our local officials talk endlessly about evacuation plans, but when it came to putting something in place last week, there was nothing, or at best, too little, too late.

No doubt now there will be meetings and reports and new plans. Maybe the planners should start with some basics. An early release of government should spur traffic control. The National Park Service, with its control of parkways, could begin one-way operations sooner. Major thoroughfares could switch sooner to rush-hour lanes. D.C. police officers could be assigned to intersections.

On Thursday night, the day after the big storm, we stood and watched during rush hour as traffic snarled at Tenley Circle where Wisconsin and Nebraska avenues cross. The traffic signal for Wisconsin was flashing red furiously. The Nebraska lights were dark. No one was directing traffic. The four-way-stop drivers are supposed to observe was little more than a joke.

We showed the chaotic scene on News4 at 5 p.m., and literally minutes later there were two hard-working police officers directing traffic. Why did it take a newscast to get such elementary traffic control? Replicate that a thousand times and you see the problem the city and region face.

• Open at last.

The new Tenley library is open. We’re sure all the users will like the modern space, the technology and the more comfortable surroundings.

When a series of public meetings couldn’t yield agreement on how to develop the site with a library, housing and retail, only a library was built. The city said it has added extra foundation should there ever be agreement on what to build above the library.

And, on an aesthetic note, the Notebook is still deciding whether we like the exterior design, with all its vertical panels.

• GOP takes a stand.

The District’s energetic but tiny Republican Party takes a public stand on more issues than does its rival and much larger D.C. Democratic State Committee.

The Democrats tend to be inward looking, with endless leadership battles and posturing. Maybe the Notebook has missed it, but we don’t recall many policy statements coming from a unified Democratic leadership group.

Meanwhile, the local Republicans most recently have urged their national leaders in the new U.S. House majority to keep their hands off local District affairs.

In a recent letter, re-elected GOP Chair Bob Kabel urged the Republicans to reassess their plans to attempt to overturn the city’s same-sex marriage law.

"Congressional Republicans saw tremendous wins this past November because they stuck with fiscal issues that matter to many Americans. We are hopeful that the [House Republican Study Committee] will reconsider its decision and work with us on improving our city," stated Kabel.

Similar appeals have been made over control of city finances. Whether the local Republicans can affect public policy is not the issue. Party executive director Paul Craney has said it’s important for the small party to speak to the issues of the day.

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