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Snowy standstill

Mayor says state unprepared as storm gridlocks commuters

Email|Print| Text size + By Noah Bierman and Andrew Ryan
Globe Staff / December 14, 2007

Boston and its environs seized up at the first sight of snow yesterday, as an unfortunately timed and unusually intense storm sent thousands of commuters racing from their jobs, virtually in unison, only to endure a gridlock of epic frustration.

The storm did what no commuters could: It arrived exactly on time. Major arteries to the south, west, and north were clogged from just after noon until well after dark, with traffic spilling across city and suburban streets.

The mess caused Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino to say that state officials seemed unprepared. But state officials countered that they did the best they could, given the rush to the roads.

One driver, Lindsay Groff , said it took 45 minutes to traverse a single block in Boston's Back Bay. "I kept sitting behind the light," she said from her car. "It kept turning from red to green to red again."

Such stories were all too common in a day when 10 inches fell between 2 and 9 p.m., a record for the date in Boston.

Plows were unable to clear roads because by the time the snowfall had become heavy, main arteries were jammed. Rail platforms were overrun by commuters who had ditched their cars, and traffic on interstates slowed to side-street speed.

While dozens of vehicles spun out, no major accidents, deaths, or injuries were reported, in large part because people couldn't drive fast enough to get in serious crashes, city and State Police said.

"It's the turnpikes and expressways," Menino said at an afternoon press conference. "As one state official said to one of our commissioners, 'We didn't have the equipment to deal with this emergency.' "

Menino declined to specify which state official, and Massachusetts officials downplayed Menino's criticism, saying their entire fleet of almost 4,000 plows, salt and sand spreaders, and other vehicles was out clearing roads.

"We were fully prepared," said Commissioner Luisa Paiewonsky of the Massachusetts Highway Department. "People were leaving at the time the storm was peaking. The state sent people home. . . . It was a challenge for all of us."

City officials privately said last night that they were unhappy with both the state's plowing and sanding and the absence of State Police at several key designated city intersections.

State Police Lieutenant Barry O'Brien said officials became aware of the mayor's concerns shortly before 9 p.m. and dispatched additional troopers to the city. O'Brien said officers had been delayed getting into Boston because they were helping drivers in crashes elsewhere.

"They did their best," O'Brien said of the troopers. "If there's a crash in front of them, they have to deal with the crash."

Frank Tramontozzi, the Highway Department's chief engineer, defended the state's plowing efforts.

"It couldn't have been handled any differently," he said. "We were out there, 4,000 strong."

The city said it dispatched 400 police officers to direct traffic and had 350 pieces of equipment on the roads to sand and plow.

More than a dozen transportation officials holed up in a command center on the seventh floor of City Hall, monitoring traffic and altering traffic signals.

Thomas J. Tinlin, the city's transportation commissioner, said many motorists became stuck on state highways and sought escape routes, swamping city streets.

The bickering among officials was little comfort to hapless drivers who were bumper to bumper just about everywhere.

"People are letting their children go to the bathroom in the streets," said Meg Cohen, 46, who said she spent two hours idling in her Toyota Corolla in one spot on Huntington Avenue.

Unlike some other districts across Massachusetts, the Boston and Newton public schools did not dismiss classes early, and some afternoon buses were delayed for hours while children waited in classrooms.

Jeffrey Young, Newton's superintendent of schools, said he kept students in school because many of their parents work and they would have gone home to empty houses.

Most students were dismissed about 3 p.m., a school official said, and got home several hours later. Boston students attending Newton South High School waited at the school until 6 p.m. for their bus to arrive and take them home.

Young said he did not regret keeping the students, but added, "it would have been nice if the storm had started later."

Many schools decided yesterday to either close today or open late.

What made the storm so problematic was the speed of the snowfall and the timing, said Bob Thompson, chief meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Taunton.

About 10.1 inches of snow had fallen at Logan International Airport by 9:11 p.m., breaking the old record for the day of 7 inches in 1902.

Eleven inches fell in Palmer, 10 in Wrentham, and 10 in Kingston. Snowfall was heaviest between 3 and 7 p.m., Thompson said, with Southeastern Massachusetts, northern Connecticut, and northern Rhode Island hit hardest.

"What makes this storm consequential was the timing," he said. "That's what this storm will be remembered for."

Governor Deval Patrick sent state employees home before lunch and urged businesses to do the same. Menino asked department heads to send nonessential city employees home at 1 p.m.

The early dismissal unleashed a rush for mass transit that overwhelmed North and South stations, which delayed trains by 15 or 20 minutes.

"We had five trains' worth of people all trying to get on one train," said Daniel A. Grabauskas, general manager of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. He said more trains and buses were added to meet demand.

Marie Gomes, a broker who had been waiting for 25 minutes in South Station for the 4:40 p.m. to Stoughton, was frustrated by the relentless automated announcements saying trains were running on or close to schedule.

"I don't mind with the weather and all that," Gomes said. "But stop saying it's on time when it's not."

At Logan, Richard Walsh, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Port Authority, estimated that as many as 400 flights could be canceled by the time the weather cleared.

Louis Imundo, a labor mediator, sat in a Delta jet on the runway for eight hours waiting for the flight to take off.

"There were some very irate customers," Imundo said of the long stretch inside the plane.

"There were people in first class screaming," he said. "One woman was in tears. My patience was wearing very thin."

The plane never did take off. Passengers were allowed to get off the plane about 8 p.m., only to find that most hotels had been booked. Imundo, 65, said he would sleep at the terminal.

The T was squeezing-room only as elbows crammed against chests and commuters clutched one another's arms to keep from falling.

Judith Chernoff, 83, could not fit onto a Green Line trolley in Prudential station, leaving her waiting to get back home to Brookline.

"Come on. What's happening with the T here? I couldn't get on. I'm an old lady," Chernoff said. "It's just a little bit of snow."

Meg Woolhouse, John C. Drake, Matt Viser, and Nicole Wong of the Globe staff and Globe correspondents Matt Collette, Caitlin Castello, Daniel M. Peleschuk, Sarah Gantz, Jillian Jorgensen, and Marc Robins contributed to this report.

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