Commuters storm back - at a crawl

Area traffic a nightmare

mass transit abbreviated

11 area deaths blamed on storm

Warming, rain forecast raise threat of flooding

The Snowstorm Of 2003

February 20, 2003|By Johnathon E. Briggs, Stephen Kiehl and Tom Pelton | Johnathon E. Briggs, Stephen Kiehl and Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Marylanders returning to work for the first time since the Baltimore region's largest recorded snowstorm found themselves in a chaotic journey of water and ice yesterday, jamming roads still squeezed by snowbanks and packing buses, trains and planes that ran infrequently - if at all.

As droves of people across the state struggled to regain traction, the storm's lingering effects continue to pile up as high as the snow mounds left behind.

School officials say some students won't return to classes until next week. Fear of flooding is on the rise as warmer temperatures roll in. City trash collection is suspended.

The snow-related death toll rose to at least 11 yesterday after a 60-year-old Middle River man inhaled a fatal dose of carbon monoxide while warming up his snow-stuck car. And while no traffic fatalities have been reported, state officials say they are braced for more heavy highway congestion.

"I would expect a very rough rush hour today," said Valerie Burnette Edgar, a spokeswoman for the State Highway Administration. "The whole rest of the week is going to be difficult. Mother Nature is showing us who's boss."

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley said city crews are working to make this morning's commute less painful than yesterday's by hiring more plows.

But he cautioned that traffic wouldn't be back to normal until "next week some time."

"We are hiring private contractors to help us with the plowing, and we will be working through the night," O'Malley said. "But it's the largest snow in 132 years. I'm fighting myself with commuter traffic. There are literally mountains of snow blocking lanes of traffic in neighborhoods."

The surrounding counties aren't faring much better.

In Anne Arundel County, officials said residents who live on roads with compacted snow might have to wait for bulldozers with front-loaders to break up snow and ice and remove them. The county has contracted with a Buffalo, N.Y., firm for delivery of as many as 25 bulldozers with front-loaders.

But after days of being snowbound in a storm that dropped 28.2 inches across the Baltimore region, commuters emerged yesterday to navigate roads covered with water and cope with potentially hazardous conditions that made driving just as annoying as shoveling.

Potholes, bottlenecks

Drivers splished and splashed over asphalt dotted with storm-torn potholes. Some were forced to brake suddenly when two lanes - bottlenecked by car-high snow mounds - merged into one.

Tempers flared during the morning commute in Baltimore, as the city's slow snow removal failed to clear more than one lane on many secondary streets. Part of the problem stemmed from the fact that about half of the city's snowplows have broken down under the heavy workload.

Margaret Preston, a banker from Roland Park who idled her Chevy Suburban through the near-gridlock, said she would give city officials a "C" grade for their snow-removal efforts.

"I'm from Boston, and there we know how to handle snow. Baltimore doesn't know how to handle it," Preston said. "My streets have not been plowed. They've never been plowed, in any snowstorm, as a matter of fact."

Bus and train riders faced similar headaches.

The Maryland Transit Administration resumed service in bits and pieces yesterday, although not nearly fast enough for some commuters. By the afternoon, about half of the agency's bus lines were running along the main roads, the Light Rail was running on almost its entire 15-mile route, and the Metro was operating along half of its underground line.

Commuters whose cars were stuck on impassable side streets or who feared downtown congestion said the MTA lost an opportunity to distinguish itself as a reliable alternative to driving.

"It's now, when there's no street parking downtown and limited garage space, that we need rail service," said John Baker, 60, an Owings Mills resident who wanted to ride the Metro to an appointment at University of Maryland Medical Center. "When you have this kind of weather, it's a lot easier to go by rail."

But MTA Administrator Robert Smith defended his agency's performance yesterday, saying the safety of employees and riders had to be the first priority. He cited a list of causes - from road conditions to a 5-foot snowdrift at the subway tunnel entrance in Mondawmin - for the delays.

"A bus is only as mobile and flexible as the streets are accessible," Smith said. "Through Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning, we were doing what the rest of the state was doing - digging out."

The MTA had 129 buses on the roads yesterday, compared with about 550 on a typical weekday. Commuters reported waits of more than an hour for buses and instances in which buses skipped stops entirely because they were full.

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