EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

December 19, 2013

Highway crews get bad reviews after storm

Long commutes, poor road conditions lead to lots of complaints

By John Toole

---- — A sidewalk plow driver damaged Cheryl Atkinson’s fence and that’s not all.

“He destroyed my Christmas decorations. I’m not a happy camper,” Atkinson said. “The fence is hanging. It’s, like, bent.”

The Derry resident isn’t the only Granite Stater upset with plow drivers after the storm Tuesday left them sputtering about lousy road conditions and crawling commutes.

Derry roads generated more than a few complaints. But people didn’t spare the state Department of Transportation after the commute Tuesday evening had drivers struggling to find the lanes on Interstate 93 and stuck in 5 mph traffic.

“I saw a salt truck out and he got off at Exit 4 and his plow was up and there were two spinouts, both around the Windham-Derry area,” Shaun Dorrington posted on Facebook. “New Hampshire troopers were helping drivers. It was a mess and that was around 4 p.m.”

Usual travel times doubled and then some.

“It took my daughter almost two hours to travel from Concord Hospital to Derry,” Debby McGrath said on Facebook. “She said it was her worst trip ever.”

Things didn’t improve overnight in some places.

Ryan Frerichs said his 7 a.m. commute yesterday from Derry to Salem got better only as he went south on Route 28.

“Derry was the worst part,” Frerichs said. “There was a lot of snow on the road.”

Colleen Sherlock said on Facebook she was appalled by conditions of sidewalks going to Grinnell Elementary School in Derry.

“Most of the sidewalks were not even cleared yet, forcing us to walk in the road,” Sherlock said.

Derry public works director Mike Fowler acknowledged crews had more work to do around schools.

“Some areas around schools weren’t done,” Fowler said about noontime yesterday. “They’re catching up with those.”

The storm Tuesday delivered only about half a foot, compared to the 10 inches Saturday, but provided a whole different set of challenges.

“Every storm is different,” Fowler said.

The weekend storm came when people didn’t have to commute to work and could stay home.

“There weren’t as many cars out,” Fowler said.

Then crews had a whole day to get roads and sidewalks ready for the work week.

People could see the difference.

“They definitely did a better job with the weekend storm,” Beth Doherty said on Facebook.

The storm Tuesday struck just as people started heading home for the day and left crews about 16 hours to deal with snowy roads.

“The key factor in this situation is the timing,” Fowler said.

Salem public works director Rick Russell agreed.

“The timing of the storm was not the best,” Russell said.

Weather conditions and traffic combined for a slow commute, DOT spokesman William Boynton said.

“Bad timing with schools letting out and businesses letting employees go home early,” he said.

Despite the travel hassle there were no major accidents on Interstate 93 south of Manchester, he said.

Russell sent Salem crews out in the middle of the commute, when usually he might let commuters do their thing.

“We did make a conscious decision to plow starting at 5 o’clock during the commute,” Russell said.

Cold limited the effectiveness of salt Tuesday, with temperatures staying around 15 degrees, Fowler said.

Boynton agreed.

“Snow was accompanied by colder temperatures, 14 to 16 degrees, making salt less effective,” he said.

The cleanup also is continuing, even though the storm is over.

Fowler said sidewalk plows continued their rounds during the day yesterday.

The priority in any storm are the roads, making sure they are safe for travel, he said.

It doesn’t make sense to start with sidewalks when snow is still being pushed back from the roads, he said.

The cleanup isn’t over in Derry. Crews will be working the streets again today.

“We’ll likely be out dealing with intersections,” Fowler said.

Salem’s crews were clearing sidewalks yesterday, Russell said.

DOT kept crews working.

“Conditions were very good for the morning commute with travel lanes mostly clear, salt being more effective with rising temperatures and sunshine,” Boynton said.

Complaints like Atkinson’s come with every storm.

Lori Trickel of Derry said she lost a mailbox in the weekend storm.

“I went out and yelled at him,” Trickel said.

“Deal with it, lady,” came the plow driver’s response, she said.

“He could have at least said he was sorry,” Trickel said.

People can call the public works department in those cases, but Fowler said the town’s policy is not to replace items damaged within eight feet of the pavement.

The town will provide a replacement when it is deemed warranted, but he said those instances are rare.

Fowler stressed drivers aren’t doing it deliberately.

“They’re not out there to target mailboxes,” he said.

State law holds public works departments harmless for such damages in the right of way, Russell said.

But Salem’s policy is to help property owners.

“We do repair mailboxes,” Russell said. “We do it as public relations.”

The storm will have financial consequences.

Boynton said DOT hasn’t yet calculated costs from the most recent storms.

“This past weekend’s storm along with this past day’s event will be costly,” Boynton said. “An eight-hour storm statewide costs (DOT) about $600,000 and crews were out about 24 hours in an overtime period.”

DOT spends about $40 million a year on winter road maintenance, he said.

“As of last Thursday, we were one quarter of the way through winter and had expended 16 percent of the budget at $6.7 million,” Boynton said. “That figure has certainly gone up quite a bit since then.”