Emergency Transportation Operations

Highway Evacuations in Selected Metropolitan Areas: Assessment of Impediments

National Capital Region
(District of Columbia, Maryland & Northern Virginia)

#4-Most Congested
#9-Population (5,358,000)
INRIX® National Traffic Scorecard 2009

map of the National Capital Region (District of Columbia, Maryland and Northern Virginia)

Various definitions exist for the area referred to as the National Capital Region (NCR). For this report, FHWA selected the characterization established by the DHS's NCRC, as defined by Congress pursuant to the National Capital Planning Act of 1952, 40 USC 71. The Act defines the NCR as the District of Columbia; Montgomery and Prince George's Counties in the State of Maryland; Arlington, Fairfax, Loudon, and Prince William counties in the Commonwealth of Virginia; and all cities existing in Maryland or Virginia within the geographic area bounded by the outer boundaries of the combined area of these counties.

District of Columbia plus 11 local jurisdictions in the State of Maryland and the Commonwealth of Virginia. (See map)

The Plan

The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG) is a regional organization of Washington-area, local governments comprising 21 local governments surrounding the Nation's Capital, plus area members of the Maryland and Virginia legislatures, the U.S. Senate, and the U.S. House of Representatives. The MWCOG provides a focus for action and develops regional responses to such issues as the environment, affordable housing, economic development, health and family concerns, human services, population growth, public safety, and transportation. The MWCOG serves the region by coordinating evacuation and other disaster planning.

Regional Map of the surrounding the Nation's capital: Montgomery County, District of Columbia, Prince George's County, Arlington county, Loudoun County, Alexandria, Fairfax County, and Prince William County

District of Columbia: The District of Columbia's (DC) EMA produced the 2009 District of Columbia Evacuation Plan, DC's most current evacuation plan. The District of Columbia Department of Transportation (DDOT) updates the Emergency Transportation Annex (ETA) in this Plan. The most recent ETA update occurred in late 2008 through early 2009. Each year, the District's DHS, which manages District ESF responsibilities, spearheads the annual review and plan update. Since the District hosts many special events, it must review the evacuation plan on an ongoing basis. For example, DDOT evaluates the plan through their implementation of events such as the 2009 Presidential Inauguration or the 4th of July live regional test of the plan that looks at evacuation routes, traffic signalization, congested intersections with a review of and where to send resources including staff and portable dynamic message signs; how to set up evacuation routes; and how to communicate across jurisdictions. Each year, DDOT tests the plan and focuses on a different corridor to find weak spots and looks for ways to address those weaknesses. In addition, DDOT uses other regularly scheduled special events such as the home baseball games to test the required external and internal coordination to ensure that these communication flows are in place. Officials continually update the plans based on lessons learned from recent events (e.g., 2010 snow incidents). The next plan update, including the transportation annex, is expected to occur in the summer or fall 2010. Though the base plan will not change significantly with the emergency routes expected to stay the same, DDOT will reexamine secondary routes and expects to increase the use of technology into the plan.

The District EMA's evacuation plan integrates the DDOT annex into the overall plan. More importantly, plans developed by other jurisdictions within the NCR also incorporate DDOT's plan. When first developed and throughout the updating process, DDOT coordinated with its regional partners, including other DOTs, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority [WMATA], and the Metropolitan Police Department. Any time DDOT revises its plan, DDOT uses the MWCOG ESF-1 (Transportation) meetings to vet the plan, as most of those representatives on the MWCOG mirror the agencies DDOT invited in the initial discussions of the plan. The DDOT believed it very important to include all of these stakeholders during the development of the plan since evacuation routes lead into Virginia and Maryland via District bridges, tunnels, and roads. As such, DDOT needs the support of those jurisdictions to ensure a transparent evacuation.

Moreover, an evacuation could likely involve a pedestrian walk-out operation. In this case, numerous other key agencies, including the Capitol Police and the National Park Service, must know where pedestrians would congregate and where they would go in Virginia, and to a lesser degree, Maryland. The District requires a pedestrian walk-out because many of the people who work in the District during the day do not live within the District.

The DDOT seeks to move those evacuating out of the city to the receiving jurisdiction safely. To ensure that the motorists have choices, the District plan directs evacuees going to Maryland out toward the Beltway and beyond, but not as far as I-270. For those who evacuate to Virginia, the District plan directs them to the Alexandria or Arlington, Virginia, side of the bridges that begin in Washington, DC. The District attempts to create a very transparent plan so that the adjoining jurisdictions will not change routes as a way to limit confusion for those who are driving out. This approach is based on what has been learned from the twice-daily commutes which moves a major portion of the region's population among the two States and the District.

Communication among agencies continues to improve. Through the past decade, DDOT has participated in more coordination with agencies and individuals talking about their specific needs. What hadn't been made clear prior to these discussions was the concerns and needs that are specific to Washington, DC, as the seat of the Federal Government. As a result of these conversations, DDOT now has a far more realistic understanding and perspective of what is needed to move both Congress and the President should an evacuation occur. The DDOT has come to understand how to coordinate the evacuation of these principals without affecting the rest of the city. In the past couple of years, DDOT has asked to have that process explained to them so that evacuation won't have an adverse effect on the evacuation of District citizens.

Washington, DC, currently benefits from a Homeland Security Grant to address evacuation planning as a part of catastrophic planning. The DHS/FEMA RCPGP provides catastrophic events planning grants to the 10 highest risk Urban Areas and surrounding regions, including: Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston, New York, San Francisco, Washington, DC, Boston, Honolulu, Norfolk, and Seattle.

Maryland: Maryland currently is engaged in an effort to finish the Maryland portion of the NCR evacuation plan. The MDSHA staff expects to complete this section no later than the fall 2010. Modifications will involve a different approach to how Maryland has prepared plans. Changes include adjusting the plan by considering employment sites that can be considered soft targets such as National Institutes of Health, the National Naval (Bethesda) Medical Center, as well as other large campuses and how to evacuate these sites. As these sites are large employers and some involve large patient populations, the plan will incorporate another level of complexity. For example, one site has 17,000 employees and another has 4,500. Further complicating the development of the evacuation plan is that two of these key sites are essentially across the street from each other, which could result in a bottleneck in the evacuation's initial phase.

As part of how best to deal with large campuses, the plan currently under development will also incorporate pedestrian movement, vehicles, and on-campus traffic control points. Other new components that will be added include the use of transit assets as well as the use of pick-up points — if Metro is running — to allow transit users to walk from Metro rail to pick-up points where they can board vehicles that will take them to reception centers.

Maryland coordinates its portion of the NCR plan with Virginia and the District. As part of the regional effort, the three jurisdictions are attempting to consolidate critical information into one database. To discuss common transportation concerns, MDOT, DDOT, and VDOT meet regularly.

Currently, the only two active evacuation plans include the Maryland DOT evacuation plan and the Virginia EMA evacuation plan. Maryland agreed that it was important that these two plans are coordinated and will work to do so in the future. Though the person interviewed from Maryland is a member of the NCR Emergency Managers Working Group, he was not aware that the Maryland plan is part of the NCR's EMA plan. Maryland did note that the initial NCR plan lacks information on how best to address Traffic Control Points.

Maryland reviews, evaluates and updates their plan as budgets allowed. The accuracy of the plan depends on regular review by local agencies in order to update it based on changes in local roads. As a result, the State works with local agencies to ensure those updates, such as when a traffic control point changes. Maryland uses a regional GIS database to facilitate changes to the plan. Unfortunately, no such database exists that would allow Maryland, Virginia and the District to update the plan in one place or in a consistent way.

The Maryland portion of the NCR regional plan goes beyond Maryland's border to US-301 into Virginia; across the Bay Bridge to Delaware; and west to I-270 to wherever motorists choose to go. The plan also looks at traffic volumes and traffic patterns to understand how best to keep traffic on the Capital Beltway moving. An important aspect of the plan is that it is designed to restrict motorists from portions of the Beltway which may force people to go west on I-270 and then force them to go through Frederick or go further west in a very large loop before allowing them to go home. Another portion of the plan is to deny access onto the Beltway to those motorists exiting Washington, DC, on the Indian Head highway.

Virginia: Though no studies exist to verify this, Virginia estimates that should an evacuation occur, 70 percent of the traffic will not use the Interstates. Even if the exact percentage is unknown, what is known is that all usable routes will serve as evacuation routes. Interstates in the Virginia plan are the essential routes and every other route can be considered as a potential route.

The State emergency manager provided the most recent Northern Virginia Evacuation Plan developed by the State EMA. The Virginia DOT has the lead to develop the transportation component of the VEMA Emergency Operations plan and, as such, works with VEMA to develop that portion also known as ESF-1 or transportation annex of VEMA's State Evacuation Plan for Northern Virginia. The VDOT works closely with VEMA to determine the evacuation routes for the Interstate and the arterials. The VEMA as the lead State agency updates the State plan every 4 years with the next update expected in January 2013. In addition, VDOT is developing its transportation operations plan, which differs from the State's evacuation plan, and expects that operations plan to be revised before the 2013 VEMA plan update is released. One updated component of the VDOT operations plan is transportation models. The VDOT will provide the updated section to VEMA once completed. The distinction between the two plans is that VEMA's transportation plan is written at a strategic level, and the VDOT plan is more operational in its focus. The DHS funding that VEMA received enabled VDOT to do more comprehensive planning work for signal work for the arterials and the Interstate, as well as where to locate the more critical locations for the evacuations.

The VDOT's more detailed operational plan is constantly being updated as lessons learned are incorporated into the plan. As part of its constant review, the VDOT plan is revised based on the current level of equipment they have and, based on the funds VDOT has available, the technology they can purchase. As part of a mutual agreement, VEMA, as part of the team, reviews the VDOT proposal to the evacuation plan to make sure all of the agencies agree with the plan. In addition to coordinating with VEMA, VDOT also coordinates their plan with localities.

The VEMA's State Evacuation Plan for Northern Virginia only addresses the NCR. Though the governor has approved the evacuation routes in the Northern Virginia plan to go as far west to I-66 and as far as Richmond to the south, if at all possible, VDOT would rather not evacuate people any further than a 30-mile range or to the boundary of the NCR. The VDOT portion of the plan has as its prime focus to evacuate people out of the District. As such, VDOT works with their regional partners and with FEMA on how to manage a no-notice event out of the District into Maryland and Virginia.

With the understanding that an event in one part of the State will force them to move people away from the incident, VDOT has as part of its Tidewater plan to evacuate those residents into the NCR should a hurricane hit the southern part of the State. Should people need to be evacuated, it is the intent of the State that whenever possible to keep their citizens in the State.

Top Highway Impediments

Top Highway Impediments

  • Regional GIS Database
  • Traffic Signal Coordination on Arterials
  • Limited Roadway Capacity
  • Institutional Coordination
  • Communication Interoperability & Protocols
  • VIP Movements & Security

District, Maryland, and Virginia respondents identified the most significant impediments along NHS routes that may impact effective large-scale, mass evacuations from the NCR, as follows:

  1. Regional GIS Database - The region would benefit from a database that consolidates all critical infrastructure and operational ability.
  2. Traffic Signal Coordination on Arterials - Maryland and Virginia identified the coordination of traffic signals on arterial corridors as a critical deficiency.
  3. Limited Roadway Capacity - The roadway network capacity in Northern Virginia would be exceeded in a mass evacuation. Limited capacity on bridges from Virginia to Maryland would also impede evacuations. Maryland also reports that choke points exist on return roads that may make the reentry after the event difficult. Bottlenecks exist on I-270 where the road narrows from six lanes to four lanes in some stretches.
  4. Institutional Coordination - Northern Virginia could benefit from closer coordination among VDOT, law enforcement and local jurisdictions since VDOT must work with them to restrict traffic movement.
  5. Communication Interoperability and Protocols - Although VDOT does have interoperability capabilities, the agency does not yet have the ability to communicate among the multiple agencies needed to conduct a successful evacuation. The VDOT noted that they need protocols on how best to communicate among agencies including first responders.
  6. VIP Movements and Security - The movement of key government officials, including the President of the United States—during an incident would create severe gridlock as security details impede the travel of other evacuees. To address these concerns, DDOT and its Federal partners recently worked through various scenarios that would involve the evacuation and movement of the President and how to implement different evacuation plans. Based on this exercise, DDOT recognizes that different streets within the District have different levels of importance. As the President moves on a daily basis, DDOT gains insight from a traffic-management perspective about how VIP movements will affect an evacuation.

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