The road to recovery hits some big snags

As the day dawns for those contemplating a commute into Baltimore, there's good news: It should be better than Tuesday's slow crawl. The bad news? Maybe not by much.

Commuters will continue to face issues of constricted roads where lanes remain impassable, though likely not as many as they did on the first day of full-fledged commuter traffic since the meteorological mugging began Feb. 5.

City Transportation Department spokeswoman Kathy Chopper said crews continue to chip away at the problem of clearing secondary roads, where travel has been hampered by two big snowstorms over the course of a week. Now that conditions have improved, the city planned to lift its Phase 2 emergency Tuesday night, allowing parking along snow emergency routes, she added.

But some problems might not abate quickly: garbage trucks stopping in the middle of the street because they can't use the curb lanes; potholes that are uncovered as snow is scraped away; and neighborhood streets where plows have been able only to tamp down the snow to make the roads passable, rather than driver-friendly.

And schools will reopen today, adding a fleet of big yellow buses to the traffic mix.

Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake said she understood residents' frustration but urged patience and understanding in the aftermath of the storms. "The city has never seen anything like this. It continues to be a difficult and inconvenient time."

Commuters who don't get an early start could face a repeat of what Tammie Monaco went through Tuesday on Interstate 83 and other roads. Monaco, who works for LifeBridge Health at Sinai Hospital, wrote that it took an hour and a half to make a trip that usually takes a half-hour.

"Coming down from Upperco in northern Baltimore County, I tried Falls Road, gave up on that and got on 83. Even 83 was terrible so I got off and got on Falls Road again. Falls was at a standstill so I did a U-turn and got back on 83. Geez! Did people who took last week off forget how to drive?!? Or did those few little flurries put people over the edge?!?"

Commuters driving from virtually every direction encountered long delays.

From the south, there were huge traffic jams on Interstate 95 and Russell Street. Interstate 95 was backed up to the Beltway, apparently because of a bottleneck at Conway Street, where the normal two right-turn lanes were squeezed to one - further narrowing a bottleneck at a spot where morning backups are common.

On the west side, bumper-to-bumper traffic greeted drivers from the Catonsville area as soon as they crossed the city line on Edmondson Avenue (U.S. 40). Only two of the three eastbound lanes were open, and in some spots that was narrowed to one because of snow-clearing operations.

It wasn't much better in the York Road corridor, where road and utility repairs rerouted traffic.

Cameron Barry of Rodgers Forge said he left his home at 8 a.m. to go downtown in time to teach his 9:30 a.m. class at the University of Baltimore - usually a 20-minute trip. By 9:15, he had to call in and cancel the class because he hadn't made it farther than Homeland Avenue.

Finally, after several other setbacks trying to get down Greenmount Avenue and Charles Street, he decided to call it quits.

Chopper said city transportation officials were delayed in digging out the remaining lanes of main arteries because they spent much of the weekend concentrating on schools for what they thought would be a return of students Tuesday. It was only late Monday that they learned they had a day's reprieve, she said.

Removing the remaining snow has become a time-consuming task - digging it out and hauling it away by dump truck, Chopper said. On many secondary streets, plowing just won't work.

"We just can't put a plow on them and put the blade down to the roadway and push that snow out. It's just too deep," she said.

Asked when all the snow might be gone from small neighborhood roads, she said: "Perhaps when spring comes and melts all the snow away."

Chopper said that as far as she knew, all of the city's streets had received at least one pass of a snowplow - after days in which many residents reported their streets hadn't been touched. "A lot of people are complaining because they're expecting to see blacktop," she said. "With this amount of snow, they're just not going to see that."

But City Council member Robert W. Curran said several streets in Northeast Baltimore's Hamilton Hills neighborhood, which he represents, were impassable Tuesday afternoon and appeared never to have been plowed.

Curran said the Transportation Department appeared to be "overwhelmed" by the snow-removal task. After he contacted Deputy Mayor Christopher Thomaskutty's office, he was told that private contractors would be sent to Hamilton Hills on Tuesday night. The councilman theorized that workers on the street level had provided "optimistic misinformation" to transportation and administration officials, leading them to have an overly rosy view of conditions.

Councilwoman Agnes Welch said some side streets, including several off Franklin Street, had not been plowed in her West Baltimore district.

With the continuing snow-removal problems, some Baltimoreans were speculating that their streets were low on the city's priority list for political reasons or because richer neighborhoods took precedence. Chopper said neither played a factor; the priority list was driven by the number of complaints from different addresses in a certain area. The city has been divided into snow-removal zones, with no preference given to any area, Rawlings-Blake said. "It's not a matter of one street being more important than any other. When people just focus on their street, they don't see the whole focus of what we have to do."

Residents should alert the city to problem areas by calling 311, she said.

During the storm, many resources were diverted to clearing paths for police, firefighters and medics responding to emergencies, she said, adding that all rescuers responded to all calls for service.

In some places, traffic was impeded as crews worked to fill large potholes that were uncovered once the snow was scraped away. Chopper said that even with snow removal continuing, the city had eight crews on pothole duty Tuesday.

Another factor: the difficulty garbage trucks were having in making collections. In many cases, the trucks couldn't use curb lanes and had to stop in the street to pick up garbage, said Department of Public Works spokeswoman Celeste Amato.

While commuters might have been stuck behind the garbage trucks, city residents being served had good reason to welcome the trucks after a week of missed collections.

"We're doing the best we can to get the trash. We don't want people having it for another week." Amato said. She added that trucks often were forced to use streets because alleys, which the city does not plow, were impassable for trucks. Don't expect the garbage truck delays to go away this week, Amato said.

While other travelers complained that the snow was impeding their movements around the city, there was at least one who insisted it was helping her get around - even if she was risking her neck.

Morgan Cady-Lee, a Maryland Institute College of Art student who lives most of the time off East University Parkway, said that despite two minor accidents when she slipped on the ice, she was still getting around by bicycle. The bike lanes might be covered in snow, she said, but drivers are going slower.

"As far as the cars and the traffic, I feel it's actually safer," said Cady-Lee, 18. "They're actually standing there while you're riding by them."

One reason she feels safe: She's from Manhattan, and compared with the drivers at home, motorists here are pussycats.

"It's because New York gets all the Jersey drivers," she said.

Routes to avoid
City road crews will concentrate today on these "gateways," digging up and hauling away snow - so commuters might want to choose other routes. (This is not a comprehensive list.):

•Northern Parkway

•U.S. 40 (east and west)

•North Avenue

•Charles Street

•St. Paul Street

•Liberty Heights Avenue

Source: Baltimore Department of Transportation