Keep on plowing

February 15, 2007

In a first major test against winter's wrath, Baltimore-area snow crews didn't distinguish themselves. Even toward the end of yesterday morning's rush hour, some major arteries in the city, such as the Jones Falls Expressway, York Road and Russell Street, were barely passable - making for a grumpy start to the day.

Maybe we've all gotten a bit out of practice. The last significant snowstorm was last February, when 13 inches fell. Local transportation and public works departments had been preparing all winter, stocking up on salt and making sure that spreaders, plows and support vehicles were in good working order.

But the unusually mild weather had left the equipment pretty idle and lulled many of us into a false sense of early spring until the cold snap a couple of weeks ago. Then this week's storm hit, fully reminding us that it's February and despite the groundhog's failure to see his shadow, winter is still here. Although the storm had been predicted for days, its severity was unknown until it arrived. An uncertain combination of snow, sleet, freezing rain and ice kept area road crews guessing.

Officials insist that they tried to determine when it was most effective to send crews out. "It was `hurry up and wait,'" explained a spokesman for Baltimore's Department of Transportation on the storm's slow buildup. Some area crews have been on 12-hour shifts since Monday. But salt spread in the midst of Tuesday's wet fall soon disappeared. By early yesterday morning, when ice was predominant, many plows were forced to wait or else risk getting stuck or broken.

As a result, spreaders and plows in Howard County came out in full force to tackle major roads around 7 a.m. - a late start - just as workers were trying to navigate difficult roadways. In Baltimore, about 150 spreaders and trucks were out earlier, but even a smaller-than-usual number of motorists and pedestrians who had to make their way through a mess of slush and ice could barely tell the difference.

Officials sent plows to secondary streets and residential areas later yesterday, and were prepared to take another pass at major arteries to cope with overnight winds and refreezing. To be sure, you can't predict Mother Nature, and this was a tricky storm, but the initial cleanup effort left a lot of commuters cold.

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