By Kevin Rector, Pamela Wood and Joe Burris
The Baltimore Sun
8:41 AM EST, January 11, 2014
Wildly fluctuating temperatures are taking a toll on Baltimore's roads — and travelers.
As the Baltimore region thaws out with a balmy weekend, roads, pipes and other infrastructure weakened by this week's below-freezing temperatures are expected to be damaged further by the swift rise in temperatures to the lower 60s Saturday. Add to that a flood watch across Central Maryland, as heavy rains are forecast.
That comes after freezing rain and hard-to-see sheets of ice delivered a one-two winter punch in Maryland on Friday, disrupting the morning commute for hundreds of motorists and forcing some school officials to apologize for dragging students into the mix.
"It's that constant freeze-thaw cycle, and it's exasperating in the Mid-Atlantic, especially here in Maryland, where we see those extremes," said David Buck, a State Highway Administration spokesman.
The recent weather has been particularly unkind to the state's roadways, as water slips into cracks in asphalt, freezes and expands, Buck said. Crews have been busy working between spurts of extreme conditions to plug potholes and other cracks with temporary "cold patches," which the highway administration hopes will hold until permanent fixes can be made in the spring.
"You can keep filling the cavity, but one day it's going to require a root canal," Buck said.
Baltimore City's transportation department has been no less busy.
From Dec. 1 through Thursday, the department fielded 415 calls for service on potholes and 1,548 calls for service for icy road conditions in the city, said Adrienne Barnes, a spokeswoman. That's almost twice the number of pothole calls logged during the same period last year and nearly four times the calls for icy conditions.
"We normally don't see this kind of activity until late February," Barnes said.
The city encourages residents to report road problems, but it plans to delay conducting permanent repairs until the spring. "We're not finished with the winter yet," Barnes said.
As Friday's morning commute got underway, hundreds of motorists began calling local police and emergency crews for assistance after sliding off roadways or getting into fender-benders.
Dicey driving conditions were reported in Essex, Dundalk and Westminster. Howard County police fielded 38 calls between midnight and Friday afternoon, said Sherry Llewellyn, a police spokeswoman.
But Anne Arundel may have been the hardest hit. Emergency crews there responded to more than 70 accidents and 50 injuries on local roadways — which Division Chief Keith Swindle, a county Fire Department spokesman, said was a 10-fold increase over an average day's calls.
One accident in Arundel, in which a vehicle crashed into a utility pole, closed U.S. 50 in both directions near Sandy Point State Park for about an hour as crews worked to repair the line. Another Annapolis-area accident left a Jeep perched on its rear wheels, its front end halfway up a telephone pole.
The conditions in Arundel came as a surprise to county schools officials, who made the decision about 4:45 a.m. to start classes on time, believing the freezing rain and ice would hit north of the county. Schools in Baltimore City and Baltimore, Carroll, Howard and Harford counties all opened with a two-hour delay.
The Arundel school system later announced that students who missed school would be given excused absences, but that didn't stop hundreds of parents from posting complaints on the system's Facebook page about the decision to open on time.
"Every county around us was having a delay. Anne Arundel should have erred on the side of caution and done the same thing," said Laurel resident Julie Hummer, who has five children in the school system.
"Our middle-schoolers got on the bus, and about a minute later, my husband heard on the radio that there was a crash down the road," said Hummer, who is PTA president of Brock Bridge Elementary School. "Our immediate thought was, 'Was that a bus?' "
"We absolutely regret the way it ended up this morning," said Bob Mosier, a spokesman for the system. "The timing could not have been worse."
Mosier said early departures of school buses in the county prevented officials from reversing their decision after realizing road conditions had rapidly deteriorated.
He said interim Superintendent Mamie Perkins has directed staff to consider building more flexibility into the transportation network to make it possible to change decisions on school delays or closings later in the morning.
Unseasonably warm weather is forecast into early next week, with highs around 50 degrees Sunday and in the mid-50s Monday and Tuesday.
As the weekend warms up, public works crews throughout the region expect to be busy as the aftermath of Baltimore's recent single-digit temperatures continues to unfold.
At the height of the big freeze this week, the city Department of Public Works had 600 pending requests for service from residents reporting no water service, said Kurt Kocher, a department spokesman. Many of those problems were resolved when pipes thawed, but others required fixes to pipes that had burst.
The high volume of calls continued Friday, Kocher said, and he expected the rise in temperature Saturday to bring more issues to light, as old pipes that shifted in the extreme cold react to the softening ground.
"It's a situation where you're essentially giving a little jolt to the ground with these freezing temperatures, the cold's penetrating, the ground is shifting, solidifying, moving," he said. "As the thaw happens, you get the next sort of spurt because the ground is once again loosening up, thawing out, the rigidity is gone and the pipes shift back or shift a little bit more."
Baltimore Sun reporter Scott Dance contributed to this article.
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