Snowstorms rough on city's equipment

The twin winter storms this month not only clogged roads and shut down businesses, they caused unprecedented breakdowns of the equipment used to clear the snow.

The deep, heavy snow decimated transmissions, mangled blades and snapped windshield wipers, causing nearly 1,500 maintenance issues for the city's 240 plows over a 10-day period, city officials said.

"With snow that deep, you can't see what's underneath it," said Charles G. Krysiak, the head of fleet management for the city's General Services Department. "You could put a brand-new plow out, but if they hit a manhole cover or a curb, they're coming right back in."

The heavy snow was particularly brutal on snowplow transmissions. Nearly one in 10 plow trucks needed to have transmissions replaced, Krysiak said. He characterized most of the other problems as relatively minor - such as clogged salt spreaders, punctured tires and burned-out headlights.

Krysiak said the plows usually were fixed quickly - by the end of the storm, nearly 98 percent of the requested repairs had been completed. And only five of the city's plows were out of commission for the duration of the snow, he said.

The breakdowns slowed snow-clearing efforts, but "did not hinder our operational responsibilities," said Adrienne Barnes, a spokeswoman for the city Transportation Department.

The repairs could cost the city as much as $2 million, a fraction of the city's total snow bill. The tally for the two February storms is estimated at $15 million, said Bob Maloney, director of the city's Office of Emergency Management, although agencies are still tabulating the costs.

The city hopes to recoup as much as 75 percent of those charges from the federal government. But unlike many surrounding counties, Baltimore has been denied federal disaster aid for the first storm of the season, which dumped nearly 2 feet of snow in late December and cost the city about $3.1 million. The city is appealing the decision.

While Harford, Howard, Baltimore County and five other counties received federal funds for the December snow, the snow totals from the city were not deemed sufficient to merit disaster funding, Maloney said.

Maloney said Baltimore's application, sent by the state emergency management office, had included only one snowfall measurement. In its appeal, the city is submitting measurements from a range of neighborhoods that received more snow, he said.

"If there's a reimbursement to be given, I think there ought to be a shot at it," said Maloney, adding that the federal disaster aid was given only to jurisdictions with record-breaking snow totals.

"It just didn't make sense to me that the criteria would be a record-breaking storm," he said. "Mother Nature doesn't always break her own records."

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said he has enlisted the support of Rep. Elijah E. Cummings to help the city obtain the funds.

"I can't see why the surrounding counties would get funding for the storm and we would be denied," Young said.

U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin has launched "a complete review of every aspect of the storm's impact on Baltimore City," said spokeswoman Susan Sullam. "The goal is to make sure that the city gets everything it's entitled to for the December storm."

Surrounding counties say they did not have as many problems with their snow-removal equipment as the city apparently did.

Baltimore County officials attribute that to having one of the newest public works fleets in the state. In the past seven years, the county has replaced 300 vehicles and pieces of equipment at a cost of $11.5 million. At the beginning of the first February storm, 97 percent of the county fleet was operating on area streets, and at the end of the second storm, more than 90 percent was still working.

"I guess you could say that is the good news out of the storm," said Donald Mohler, the county's spokesman.

Breakdowns with Harford County's plows were minimal, said Robert B. Thomas, that county's spokesman. Equipment was repaired and back on the roads within hours, he said.

"At the height of the cleanup, we had 145 of our own plows with 167 personnel working along with more than 30 private contractors," Thomas said.

Carroll County officials credited their fleet management team with keeping the equipment running. One county plow and one contractor plow were involved in minor accidents during the first storm, but both were on the roads within a few hours, said county spokeswoman Vivian Laxton.

Jim Irvin, Howard County's public works director, said it had one front-end loader that cracked an engine block, possibly from the stress of prolonged use, but no general equipment failures beyond routine.

In Anne Arundel, the county's snow-removal equipment "suffered the kind of wear and tear you might expect for such an extreme [weather] event," county spokesman Dave Abrams said. Seven of the county's 72 dump trucks are undergoing maintenance for problems caused by their recent work, including broken wheels, radiator damage and damage to the lifting mechanism of a plow.

In Baltimore, mechanics worked around the clock to get the plows back on the street, said Krysiak, the fleet management chief.

More than half of the Transportation Department's trucks are more than eight years old, which is considered "fully depreciated" or ready to be replaced, by national fleet management standards, he said. The older trucks have more maintenance issues and are harder to repair because replacement parts are scarce, he said.

"We could plow snow with a 15-year-old transmission, but when you've got 28 inches of snow, that transmission abruptly comes to the end of its life cycle," Krysiak said. Although plow drivers were coached on driving in the deep snow, "the snow was so heavy that no amount of training could have made a difference," he said.

Baltimore Sun reporters Mary Gail Hare, Larry Carson and Jonathan Pitts contributed to this article.

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