Travel slow or not at all

buses, trains run late

BWI halts operations in early afternoon

December 20, 2009|By Larry Carson and Timothy B. Wheeler

Travelers slowed to a crawl - if they moved at all - on Saturday as Maryland's worst snowstorm in years made driving treacherous, grounded airline flights and disrupted bus and train service throughout the region.

Only a smattering of motorists ventured onto snowy highways, as plows and salt trucks toiled through the day to keep roads passable amid snowfall that intensified in the afternoon. State transportation officials said all major roads remained open, but they urged people to stay put for safety's sake.

A few flights made it out of Baltimore- Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport Saturday morning, but by 1:40 p.m. the facility closed, and more than 100 scheduled flights were canceled, officials said.

One Jamaica-bound flight spent more than six hours stuck on the runway and at the gate before it released about 100 disappointed passengers.

Ground transportation was only a little more reliable. Greyhound halted intercity bus service throughout the region, with cancellations extending into the Southeast and north to Boston.

Amtrak reported "no significant delays" between Washington and Boston, though some trains were running 30 to 60 minutes late and long-distance trains slipped two to three hours behind schedule.

Locally, transit service slogged on, with about one-third of Maryland Transit Administration buses running, sticking to main thoroughfares because snow made side streets impassable. Light rail trains were hit by major delays late in the day, a spokeswoman said, but the Metro subway was unaffected and was running normally.

Those hardy souls who felt compelled to go out found the going tough.

Even in a four-wheel-drive Honda Element, Marian Weaver said it took her and her boyfriend, Steve Nowell, an hour to get from Baltimore to Columbia at 35 mph, occasionally slowing to 15 mph in spots where the snow was deeper.

Weaver, 26, said they passed perhaps 25 stranded vehicles on the way to Columbia and back, and nearly got stuck themselves when they hit a 2-foot drift of plowed snow across one ramp.

"We hit one and, thank God, we just flew over it," she said. "The snow was coming so hard you really couldn't see more than 15 feet in front of you."

Beverley Swaim-Staley, Maryland's transportation secretary, said traffic Saturday was light, but she urged residents to stay off the highways unless absolutely necessary. She said 2,400 employees and 2,300 plows and salt trucks were working across the state to keep roads passable, but snow was falling so rapidly at one point that accumulations of an inch or two built up between passes by road crews.

Bridges, ramps and overpasses were especially treacherous, and Swaim-Staley warned of the threat of freezing and wind-blown drifts occurring overnight.

At BWI Marshall, very little was flying Saturday except snowflakes.

Inside, on the big observation deck, a clutch of stranded travelers waited.

Lauren Lutz, 19, a Johns Hopkins sophomore heading home to Dallas, kept her outward cheerfulness as friends and relatives called her cell phone. She had called for a cab at 3 a.m. and was picked up at 4:30 for a 6:30 a.m. flight that never took off.

It was bad at 4:30 a.m., she said, and the cabdriver, who charged her $70, didn't seem to have any experience driving in snow. "I was in fear for my life," she said.

A few feet away, Pfc. Darian Clark, 19, was stuck in midtrip between Fort Campbell, Ky., where his Army unit is based, and his family's home on Long Island, N.Y.

With two weeks off, he had left Nashville, Tenn., by air Friday night, arriving at BWI at 9 p.m. He had slept on a narrow red bench made to resemble a children's toy train.

"It's aggravation," he said, explaining that he forgot to bring the charger for his cell phone, which was out of power.

A paratrooper anticipating deployment to Afghanistan next year, Clark mused on his relationship with planes. "I've jumped out of 'em," he said. Now if only he could take off in one.

Andrew Vonberg, 25, a medical researcher, and his ballerina wife, Morgan, 26, sat comfortably at a small cocktail table, his laptop open as she received phone calls from friends and family.

They made it to the airport by light rail from Hunt Valley, the closest station to their Sparks apartment, but Andrew Vonberg said he was worried because the train kept slowing and the rails were covered in many places.

It turned out they might have outsmarted themselves.

Headed to visit their families in Louisville, Ky., until New Year's, the Vonbergs were originally scheduled to leave Sunday at 6 p.m. but decided to switch to a Saturday morning flight to beat the worst of the storm. It didn't work. They had two flights canceled Saturday and were waiting until 10 a.m. today for their next try. They planned to sleep in the observation deck, too.

"It's not too bad because we still have all of our bags and our toiletries," Morgan Vonberg said.

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