Waiting for winter to show some mercy? Keep waiting

  • Article by: BILL MCAULIFFE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 26, 2014 - 2:55 PM

Icy highways and rutted streets continue to confound motorists.

The return of frigid temperatures — and potential blizzard conditions Wednesday across parts of Minnesota — mean there’s no relief in sight for drivers struggling with ice-patched freeways, rutted, bone-jarring neighborhood streets and dangerous commutes.

Troopers dealt with another 99 crashes in the metro area on Monday and Tuesday, after handling nearly 1,200 crashes statewide and another 2,568 vehicles that went off the road over the weekend. Though interstate highways are vastly improved compared with how they looked right after last week’s snowstorm, patches of ice are still catching drivers off-guard and many city streets remain nearly impassable.

Public works officials said Tuesday their only natural ally for now is the increasingly bright late-winter sun, which combined with salt, sand and plows is helping them slowly dislodge the stubborn ice.

But for the next few days, some drivers could be forgiven for feeling that things are getting worse, rather than better.

First, heavy winds and bitter cold are forecast to combine across central and southern Minnesota to lead to whiteout conditions for much of Wednesday.

Meanwhile, drivers in Minneapolis and St. Paul are facing strict enforcement of existing winter parking regulations, and potentially new restrictions if city officials decide snow-rutted streets are becoming too tricky for emergency vehicles to navigate.

Minneapolis street maintenance supervisor Mike Kennedy said the city is going to be stepping up its enforcement of the single-side parking rules invoked over the weekend to cope with streets dramatically narrowed by snow.

On residential streets, parking is allowed on the odd-numbered side only. Violators can be ticketed and towed.

That restriction could remain in place as late as April 1, if necessary, which Kennedy said would likely be a first.

“Who knows? The way things are going, we may be able to test that April 1 date this year,” he said.

Ban on table in St. Paul

The St. Paul Public Works Department hasn’t made a decision yet whether to impose new parking restrictions because of the sad street conditions but probably will by the end of the week.

Spokeswoman Kari Spreeman said the Fire Department is surveying all streets to determine if a citywide street parking ban is necessary.

“It’s not something we want to do,” Spreeman said. “That would be a last resort.”

The city also could decide to restrict parking to one side of certain streets, she added.

“It really comes down to the fact that we’ve had so much snow and no melting at all,” Spreeman said. “It’s to the point where there’s nowhere to put the snow. When they put the snow on the boulevard, it rolls back down and makes the streets more narrow each time a snow event happens.

“That’s why we’re looking at the possibility of doing the parking ban to free up some space on the streets,” she said.

Her assessment is backed up by the National Weather Service, which said Tuesday night that so far this has been the fifth-snowiest February on record in the metro, with 17½ inches to date.

Total snowfall this winter in the Twin Cities stands at 57.2 inches, slightly more than what’s normal for an entire season. “Normal” is based on the winters from 1981-2010. And it’s far more than the 47-inch long-term average, covering the last 129 winters.

The cold also will stick around. Lows Wednesday through Saturday nights are predicted to remain below zero, with highs only in the single digits Thursday through Saturday.

Body blows, mail woes

Body shops have been kept busy since last week, due to all the cars that haven’t been able to avoid ice or each other since the heavy snow.

At Heppner’s Auto Body in St. Paul, workers drew up 19 repair estimates Monday — an unusually heavy load, said estimator Jon Martens.

Most of the jobs involved typical collision damage — front-end wrinkles, torn-off bumpers, dented fenders, smashed headlights and hoods.

But some were the result of damage from ice flying off the roofs of semitrailers and into windshields, he said.

Meantime, the Postal Service’s unofficial maxim that “neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night” stops the mail is being put to the test.

Postal Service spokesman Pete Nowacki acknowledged that some mail isn’t getting delivered because snowbanks have covered mailboxes or left them unreachable.

He asked that customers with street- or roadside mailboxes clear a 12-foot-long access for mail carriers.

“Nobody likes this situation,” he said. “We tell [carriers] to use their own judgment. We also tell them, ‘Don’t go crawling up snowbanks to put mail in boxes. It just isn’t safe.’ ”

Counting on the sun

Road officials said that the time of year has complicated their approach to dealing with the deep snow and ice.

In Eagan, transportation operations engineer Tim Plath said that because there’s so little room for snow on roadsides — the banks are higher than the plow blades — huge volumes are falling into the only remaining open spaces.

“From the residents’ standpoint, they’re getting a lot more snow in their driveways, but we’re not doing anything different with our plowing,” Plath said.

Even though Wednesday’s predicted high in the Twin Cities is 17, pavement temperatures could reach the mid-20s in exposed areas, he said. But Plath said his department is continuing to attack busy thoroughfares with treated salt and sand.

“The saving grace in all this is that late-February, early-March sun,” he said. “If this were December, it would be ugly.”

Minnesota Department of Transportation spokesman Kent Barnard agreed that nature will be the sure, if slow, solution for the state’s icy roads.

“I promise you, by July, the roads will be in great shape,” he joked.

 

Staff Writer Pat Pheifer contributed to this report.

Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646

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