The snow had finally stopped. For more than a day, a fleet of 678 plows and diggers had churned across Boston chasing the February blizzard, like Sisyphus pushing the boulder uphill.
But then, all at once, almost all the plows went silent.
Many of the drivers had already been behind the wheel for too long, threading broad blades down Boston’s narrow, hilly streets. And the slip and slide of cars was about to complicate the task, because the governor had just lifted the state’s first travel ban in a generation.
So as Bostonians began digging out from 2 feet of snow that Saturday night, city officials delivered an order: Get off the road, they told the plows, and take a five-hour break.
An analysis of GPS data from the city’s snow plows — almost 300,000 pings that recorded the location and movement of each truck during the storm — illustrates the herculean campaign undertaken to cope with the fifth-largest snowfall in Boston history. Colonial-era lanes become overwhelmed when snowfall hits the 18-inch mark, meaning the snow can no longer be pushed by plows and must be slowly dug out by backhoes.
Like any paralyzing snowfall, this storm — and the response to it — generated intense scrutiny. Some side streets, especially narrow ways and dead ends, would be lost for days, impassable and buried under 25 inches of snow, prompting an apology from Mayor Thomas M. Menino. But the administration also defended its response to the storm, saying major roads remained clear and public safety was never imperiled.
The city threw every piece of snow removal equipment it could muster at the storm, which would ultimately cost Boston more than $14 million.
Impassable streets did cause problems. A fire engine heading to a blaze in Dorchester got mired in the snow, forcing firefighters to drag a hose more than a block to douse the flames. In Charlestown, paramedics had to use a sled to evacuate a 91-year-old who had surgery scheduled at Massachusetts General Hospital.
The global positioning data also showed:
■ One plow driver working for a city contractor was toiling on Massachusetts Avenue and crossed the Charles River into Cambridge, clearing several streets in the wrong city. The driver got lost and will not be paid for any of his work, city officials said.
■ Plows spent most of their time scraping the city’s major streets, which were largely cleared down to the pavement.
■ There was no discernible pattern as to which side streets were cleared— and which weren’t. In some neighborhoods, hills or narrow roads posed an impediment. In others, equipment broke down, and the snow piled up too fast for standard plows to push it.
The global positioning devices — Kyocera DuraMax cellphones handed to all plow drivers — are imprecise. The signal can be off by a few blocks and only transmits location every one to two minutes, making it hard to follow the exact path of every plow. It was impossible, for example, to accurately determine the number of streets left unplowed for days after the storm.
For years, Boston has used outside contractors to do most of its plowing. The city’s public works department has 78 plows and salt spreaders, which is only enough for a dusting. Most of the muscle — in the case of the February blizzard, more than 90 percent of the equipment — comes from 10 private companies that bid for three-year contracts. The plowing in that storm cost the city roughly $8.3 million, of which $7.8 million will be paid to contractors. The city spent $6 million more removing massive snow berms from curbs and corners.
Private plow drivers report to one of Boston’s 10 public works yards, where they are handed a printed map and one of the Kyocera cellphones. The printed maps delineate plow drivers’ turf — a few dozen city blocks they are supposed to patrol like a beat cop. Other teams prowl the city’s major roads, plowing thoroughfares such as Dorchester and Blue Hill avenues end to end. Public Works sends out inspectors to make sure the job is getting done.
For the blizzard, the city asked contractors for everything they had. After a season without snow, some companies had sold off equipment, city officials said, but contractors still provided an army of plows. By the Friday when the blizzard arrived, the city had more gear on the road than when a major storm struck right after Christmas in 2010.
The Globe found that the plow-driver break that began at 5 p.m. on the Saturday of the blizzard had a significant and perhaps unavoidable impact. In two hours, complaints from residents spiked. Wind gusting up to 35 miles an hour pushed drifts back onto roads. As residents dug out cars, they shoveled snow onto pavement that had been cleared. And the temperature plunged to 15 degrees, freezing snow solid.Continued...