The Drive: How to get around during the polar plunge

  • Updated: January 4, 2014 - 7:30 PM

As the latest arctic blast brings the coldest temperatures seen in the Twin Cities in nearly two decades, AAA is bracing for an onslaught of calls from stranded motorists, and transit agencies are calling in extra staff to drive buses and trains and to fix the ones that break down.

Temperatures as cold as those at the North Pole can easily zap car batteries or freeze gas lines, said Gail Weinholzer of AAA Minnesota. And windchills reaching the minus-30- to minus-70-degree range can bring on a case of frostbite in a matter of minutes for walkers and bicyclists and those waiting at rail platforms and bus stops.

In the bone-chilling, teeth-chattering cold, the No. 1 rule for getting around regardless of mode is to bundle up, said Dr. Bjorn Peterson of Regions Hospital’s Emergency Medicine Residency in St. Paul.

“It’s function over fashion, definitely,” Peterson said. “Dress in layers, wear a scarf and a hat, and mittens to keep fingers, toes and the hands warm. Frostbite is a real possibility.”

To minimize time in the elements, Metro Transit recommends that riders use its automated trip service, NexTrip, to determine the best time to head to the bus or rail stop. The service provides real-time information on arrival and departure times for buses and trains. It’s available online and by phone at 612-373-3333. The service also provides information for Plymouth Metrolink, Maple Grove Transit and SouthWest Transit routes.

Metro Transit spokesman John Siqveland encouraged riders to take advantage of the heaters and shelters available at busy park-and-ride lots, rail platforms and transit centers. He also urged riders to wear snow boots or footwear that have a good grip because rail platforms and floors on trains and buses can become slippery.

Metro Transit will have its full complement of buses on the streets Monday and extra drivers and buses at the ready. Extra operators for light-rail and Northstar trains also will be on standby and ready to roll should disruption occur.

Motorists might be able to avoid a call to AAA if they have a strong battery, keep the gas tank full to avoid gas-line freeze and use antifreeze that works at very low temperatures. Those are the top three reasons for calls, Weinholzer said.

But that won’t prevent everything, so Weinholzer said she expects phones lines to be jammed this week, with the highest call volumes Sunday night through Tuesday. To prepare, AAA Minnesota has enlisted the help of staff in call centers in southern states to answer phones and dispatch help. Still, wait times could be longer than normal, Weinholzer said.

“When it comes to dangerous cold, we prioritize depending on the situation of the member,” she said. “If you are at home in a warm house and somebody is off the road, you might wait a smidge longer. We prioritize based on health and safety.”

If there is an upside to the cold, Weinholzer said that weather like this does get people to renew their AAA memberships and that it brings in a few new members. If you’ve lapsed, you can get reinstated.

A final tip: If you plan to let your car warm up, be sure you comply with city code regarding idling. And above all, be sure the doors are locked. Last month, Minneapolis police responded to 62 stolen vehicles in a two-week period. In one precinct, 11 of those were idling cars with no driver inside.

Follow news about traffic and commuting at The Drive on startribune.com. Got traffic or transportation questions, or story ideas? E-mail drive@startribune.com, tweet @stribdrive or call Tim Harlow at 612-673-7768.

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