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MBTA, other public agencies vow to improve snow removal this winter

Posted by Matt Rocheleau  October 18, 2011 05:18 PM

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(John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/2011)

Last winter's heavy snowfalls tested efforts to clear it.

The MBTA vowed today to improve snow removal at its 8,500 bus stops statewide, and other state and city agencies promised to communicate better with one another in order to clear roads and pedestrian paths as soon as possible.

At a Boston City Council hearing this morning, a T representative said the agency will deploy new equipment this winter, and around 75 existing employees who have not worked on snow removal in past years will be assigned to clean around bus stops.

Around 280 other T staffers who clear snow from train lines will also help clear bus stops after track cleanup work is completed, said assistant general manager for engineering and maintenance Michael Turcotte.

“It’s never been done before,” Boston’s Transportation Commissioner Thomas J. Tinlin said, praising the T’s snow-removal plans. “This is a huge step in the right direction.”

Once the flakes start to fall, the MBTA will focus first on clearing 1,122 stops, 659 of which are in Boston, along 15 key bus routes that account for 47 percent of the agency’s bus ridership, Turcotte said. Crews will then branch out to clean the rest of its stops across Massachusetts.

“Our goal is to clear them all,” Turcotte said, but, also noted that achieving that goal in a timely fashion in every instance is ambitious. “Do we think realistically we’re going to meet that goal of 8,500 bus stops across the Commonwealth, probably not.”

Last winter Boston was pummeled with 80.1 inches of snow – around double the yearly average. Until the middle of the last snow season, the MBTA did not send crews to clear snow that fell at and around its bus stops, Turcotte said. But after the first few storms last winter that each dropped significant amounts of snow, the T changed its approach, he said.

Around 350 bus stops were regularly cleared last year, a figure the T expects to significantly improve on this winter because of added resources and also since the agency will work to keep stops clear from the start of the snowy season, Turcotte said. Doing so will allow crews to avoid spending time digging through layers of snow and ice that had built up before the initiative began last season.

This year, the T will have six new skid-steer loaders to lift piles of snow along with six new pickup trucks fitted with plows and equipment to spread salt and sand, the engineering official said. The agency’s snow removal budget will be the same this year as it was last winter. The T spent $1.4-million to remove snow a year ago.

MBTA leadership began to focus on clearing bus stops last winter after a photo was mailed to the agency’s general manager at the time, Richard A. Davey, who is now the state's transportation secretary. The picture showed an elderly woman sitting on a snow bank in front of a shelter at a stop in Brockton along one of the T’s regional bus routes, according to Turcotte.

After Turcotte and Davey saw the photo, Turcotte said he and his boss became determined “to do everything in our power to clear as much bus stops as we can clear.”

“That [photo] is the cover of our snow plan, and that’s what we use,” he said. “We take it to every one of our snow meetings. This is why we do this. It’s the people that we’re supporting out there.”

Turcotte said that in between signs designating either end of each non-sheltered bus stop, the T will work to create a clear path allowing for riders to walk from the sidewalk to the street curb where buses pick up and drop off passengers.

At some T bus stops, shelters are in place. The MBTA owns 151 of the shelters and handles all snow removal at those sheltered stops, an agency spokesman said. Turcotte said that at those stops, the T will have its crews create 6-foot-wide paths on either side of, and in back of, the shelters.

Private companies own other bus stop shelters. Within Boston, the city contracts them out to JC Decaux; elsewhere the MBTA contracts the shelters out to Cemusa. The companies are required only to clear snow that lands inside the 12-foot-wide shelter, according to Turcotte. But, simply clearing snow inside the shelter, without creating a path to get there, “does none of us any good,” he said.

Officials are in talks with the companies to see whether a more efficient snow removal solution can be reached, according to Turcotte.

Other city, state agencies promise improvements

At the two-hour hearing at City Hall today, state and city officials from various agencies vowed to step-up communication with one another in order to create a more efficient and unified approach to cleaning paths throughout the winter for both cars and pedestrians.

Representatives there included members of the state’s transportation department, of which the MBTA is a part of, but maintains a separate legal existence from.

Boston’s public works commissioner Joanne Massaro said that department plans to improve its work to clear snow from some 22,000 sidewalk entrances and pedestrian ramps across the city’s 800 miles of roadway.

“Let me assure you, we will be ready,” she said, adding that officials from various city and state agencies have met already and will plan to meet again to continue to address snow removal problems raised last winter. “We don’t have a perfect operation, though this winter we hope to have a better one.”

A representative from the state’s parks and recreation department, which has jurisdiction over a number of parkways, said the agency is reviewing requests that plows traveling along certain roadways can angle the snow they push to the opposite side in order to keep from piling tall banks in front of sometimes already-cleared driveways and sidewalk entrances.

Officials from Boston’s inspectional services department further clarified that city property owners, whether they are private businesses, public entities or homeowners, are responsible for clearing a 42-inch-minimum wide path on pedestrian areas in front of their property within three daylight hours after snowfall has ended. Failure to follow those rules, along with illegally dumping, shoveling or plowing snow onto city property led to the issuing of more than 2,000 snow violations last winter.

City Councilor Matt O’Malley called the hearing in the wake of a relentless winter last year. Some areas, particularly pedestrian routes, were plagued by untouched or poorly-removed snow and ice – some of which was not adequately cleared due to a mix of confusion and, as the councilor put it before the meeting “a fair amount of finger pointing” among public agencies over which departments were responsible for cleaning certain areas.

Several residents testified during the council hearing, including one school parent who raised concerns over a pedestrian area in West Roxbury that appeared to be among the “gray areas” last winter in terms of who was responsible for clearing snow there.

On behalf of one of his District 6 constituents, O’Malley then asked the representatives from the various city and state agencies which department wanted to step up and claim the property as their agency’s responsibility. The representatives hesitated at first, then huddled. After a moment, the city’s transportation department commissioner told the small crowd in the fifth-floor council chambers that his department would keep the spot clear.

After today’s meeting, O’Malley said, “There was a particularly telling moment when we gathered the hearing to an end, I noticed folks from different state agencies and city agencies exchanging business cards and I thought to myself, ‘that’s a large part of what this hearing was for, is to open those lines of communication to figure things out.’”

The hearing was not adjourned, but recessed with plans to reconvene in the spring.

E-mail Matt Rocheleau at mjrochele@gmail.com.

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