With a snowstorm targeting Maryland, BWI's largest airline canceled most of its evening flights, BGE reported a sharp increase in power outages and Gov. Martin O'Malley urged motorists to stay off the roads unless it is absolutely necessary to travel.
"It's going to be very treacherous out there tonight," O'Malley said at a late afternoon media briefing at the State Highway Administration's operations center in Hanover.
Visibility on roadways south of Baltimore was poor as the wind picked up and snowflakes swirled. Portions of major highways such as I-83 and the Baltimore Beltway were closed or effectively so as traffic was at a standstill. Police tape and flares block the entrances to northbound I-83 at Fallsway and Charles Street near Penn Station. In a tweet, Baltimore City Police said the highway was closed from President Street to the Baltimore County line.
A dispatcher with Baltimore County said that at about 9:30 p.m., they were faced with more than 150 calls for service, many of them people stuck inside their cars, but no reports of plows disabled in traffic. He said the congestion was county-wide, but that traffic was especially heavy around 695 outer loop, near Liberty Road. As of 9:30 p.m., he said no series injuries were reported.
A state police dispatcher said that Interstate 695 was not closed, but that tow trucks are having trouble removing disabled, abandoned vehicles. She said salt trucks then can't get through the "bumper to bumper" traffic on the beltway in Baltimore County. Many people have abandoned their disabled vehicles, she said.
Mall owner General Growth Properties announced that as of 7 p.m., its six shopping centers in the region were closed, including the Mall in Columbia, Towson Town Center and Harborplace & The Gallery.
BGE spokesman Rob Gould said the utility has seen a spike in the number of power outages. "We've climbed perhaps 10,000 in the past 15 minutes," he said at 7:30 p.m. Baltimore City has the most customers affected, but there are problems throughout the region.
The storm that began with an unexpected and troublesome couple of inches before this morning's rush hour was expected to leave another 6 to 10 inches behind before it ends overnight. The heaviest snow should fall between 4 p.m. and midnight, said Nikole Listemaa, a senior forecaster in the National Weather Service's Sterling, Va., office.
Meteorologists expanded Winter Storm Warnings to include all of Maryland from Garrett County to the Upper Eastern Shore, and as far south as Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties. The accumulation predictions bounced around from early warnings of 5-10 inches that dropped as low as 3 inches then returned to the higher 6-10 inches around 7 p.m.
Marylanders may hear claps of thunder this evening as the snow resumes, temperatures drop and accumulation rates climb to several inches an hour.
O'Malley said the snow is expected to fall fast and to be very heavy, raising the prospect of downed power lines.
The governor said road authorities had not been able to pre-treat the roads because of the heavy rain that preceded the snow. "This is a serious traffic hazard and challenge," he said.
O'Malley said no decision had yet been made about whether state workers will be required to report to work Thursday; that will be decided early in the morning.
The briefing took place in the same room where the governor met with reporters almost a year ago, when the state was hit by two snowstorms of historic proportions within a week of each other.
O'Malley said state officials were using some of the lessons learned last February, when traffic was brought to a standstill on Interstate 95 after a tractor-trailer jack-knifed along the highway in Howard County. He said the highway administration has pre-positioned heavy tow trucks along that stretch of I-95, as well as along the Baltimore and Capital beltways and in the Frederick area, to respond to such an event.
O'Malley said he had no concerns that Marylanders would become complacent about this storm after several near-misses earlier this winter.
"I think people in our area kind of watch for snow like hawks," he said. "People are going to take this seriously."
At the same briefing state highway administrator Neil J. Pedersen issued a plea to drivers: "Never, ever try to pass a snow plow." He urged drivers to keep their distance, warning that interfering with the plows is dangerous to their operators as well as motorists.
Pedersen said the SHA has 1,600 workers and 1,400 pieces of equipment of the highways to spread salt and clear the snow. "We will be working the snow as hard as we can," he said.
Motorists trying to get home sat in cars — some for hours — as heavy snow fell Wednesday evening.
Pikesville resident Michael Schwartzberg was driving home from his office in Towson and had not arrived more than two and a half hours into his commute.
He said he had driven to work before, during and after twin blizzards struck the Baltimore area in February but that this time, the weather was far worse.
"Tonight's commute is 20 times more treacherous than last year," said Schwartzberg, who said a FedEx tractor-trailer jackknifed in front of him on 695 West near Greenspring Avenue. A van also did a 360 in the same area but neither vehicle hit anything.
At 8 p.m., he said he had been sitting on the exit ramp for Reisterstown Road from the Beltway outer loop for more than an hour and a half and had seen only one plow on his side of Interstate 695. A convoy of 15 to 20 had been through the inner loop but still had not appeared for motorists on the other side.
"For a storm we knew was coming, I'm not sure why it's so difficult to traverse the roads this evening," he said.
Darryll Mobley, deputy secretary of transportation, said MARC and commuter bus riders should check the Maryland Transit Administration website and email alerts for information about service Thursday morning. He said the MTA plans to run "snow trains" through the night to keep the light rail and Metro tracks clear.
According to the website of Southwest Airlines, the largest carrier at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, a majority of its evening flights were canceled. Mobley urged travelers with plane reservations to check with their airlines before heading to the airport.
Pedersen said the state's spending on snow removal this winter is so far well behind the $124 million it cost the previous year. He said snow removal had cost the state $35 million this season — largely because crews had deployed for storms that didn't end up bringing significant snowfall to the state.
This afternoon, the Maryland Transit Administration announced that it was putting its snow plan into effect, drawing on lessons learned during last February's twin snowstorms.
The MTA said local buses will run on their regular routes as long as possible but could shift to snow emergency routes if conditions deteriorate; as of about 6:10 p.m. 17 MTA bus lines had been diverted from parts of their routes. The MTA said it will run regular "snow trains" on the Metro and light-rail lines in an effort to keep them free of snow. It said its crews would be sent out to keep ice and snow from building up on the lines that power the trains.
The agency warned that if weather conditions become especially severe, it might have to cancel some services, but it said it will give riders as much notice as possible.
Jeffrey Halverson, a professor at the Joint Center for Earth Systems Technology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said the unexpected accumulations this morning could be blamed on cold air in the region that just refused to get out of the way.
"There was a wedge of cold air … that became entrenched east of the Blue Ridge overnight, and this kept the morning precipitation falling as a frozen mixture," he said in an e-mail. "'The Wedge' is notoriously hard to predict. The warm air push from the south was not strong enough to scour out this dense air mass."
A number of collisions in the Baltimore area slowed morning traffic in several locations. At least three minor crashes were reported on Interstate 95 in Howard County, including one involving a tractor-trailer and another vehicle in the southbound lanes south of Route 175, according to Maryland State Police.
The highway agency did not pre-treat the roads late Tuesday and early Wednesday because "all the forecasts were saying this was going to start as a rain event," said SHA spokeswoman Kim Frum. "That would have been a huge waste of resources."
However, crews were mobilized between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m., anticipating a need to address conditions on bridges, which freeze first, she said. As a result, they were able to quickly clean up primary roads, according to Frum.
"By 4:30 a.m., most of the main lines were just wet," she said. By late morning, there was "some isolated coverage" of some roads but most were clear of snow, according to Frum.
Brandon Heyer, a Glen Burnie resident making his morning commute into Annapolis Junction, said most of the roads he encountered were not in terrible condition.
"Yet [state Route] 100 westbound was a mess at 8 a.m.," he wrote in an e-mail. "I ended up taking the back roads in the area and they were safer [and quicker] with how people were driving on 100."
Kelby Brick, 39, said even the main roads in Catonsville were slick and snowy when he left his home about 8 a.m. for his commute to Washington.
"There was quite a bit of snow out and once I got out of there, it was fine," Brick said. "As I got about halfway to D.C., the roads were a lot better."
Traveling from Baltimore to Perry Hall this morning, Heather Traxler said the Beltway was clear and traffic was proceeding at about 50 miles per hour. Exiting onto White Marsh Boulevard, Traxler said she encountered some slush and only one lane was passable. Belair Road was snow-covered, with one lane passable, she said.
All of the public school systems in the Baltimore metro area were closed due to the weather, as well as Baltimore County courts. Many colleges and universities had delayed openings.
In Annapolis, Mayor Joshua J. Cohen said a morning water main break forced water to be shut off at the Arundel Center, Anne Arundel County's government headquarters, the Goldstein Treasury Building and surrounding locations. Traffic was closed on Calvert Street between Northwest Street and West Street, and public works officials estimated that the repair could take eight hours to complete.
BWI spokesman Jonathan Dean said the airport's snow removal team had been working since Tuesday night to clear the runways, as well as roads leading to the airport. "They have been working as needed to treat and clear the airfield. [The team] will remain on hand at the airport throughout the event."
Port Discovery in Baltimore got a chance to test its "snow day" discount, just instituted last week. The children's museum opened at 11 a.m. instead of 9:30 a.m. but only charged $8 for admission, compared to the usual $12.95 for anyone older than 2 years old.
"We thought this would be an extra incentive to come out" when schools close but roads are passable, said Michelle Winner, Port Discovery's vice president of marketing.
Meghan Bunting had already planned a family trip to Port Discovery to celebrate her daughter Maddy's 5th birthday, and the discount was a pleasant surprise. She had called to make sure it was open but the message didn't mention the offer.
"It was great," the Sykesville resident said. The $19 the family saved will help pay for convenient parking, she said.
Pikesville resident Jamie Rubin also brought her 8-year-old son Noah and 4-year-old daughter Aviva to Port Discovery. They took advantage of half-price admission for members of the Maryland Zoo, instead of the snow day offer.
She initially canceled her plans when schools were closed, thinking Port Discovery would be crowded. But Rubin saw a tweet about the discount and figured the incentive meant turnouts were low.
"I know in Baltimore snow loves to keep people away," she said.
Betty Stone of Colorado was watching her grandsons Elijah, Leo and Henry while their parents celebrated their 10th anniversary. Wednesday's snow closures followed two days of teacher conferences, she said.
"We live in the city so they really needed to run off some energy," she said, as the children climbed through Kidworks, an indoor playground.
Chrystal Puryear, meanwhile, was grateful that classes were not canceled for Burrville Elementary in Northeast Washington.
"We have very few snow days," said Puryear, a preschool teacher who was chaperoning 60 preschool and pre-kindergarten students on their field trip.
"We were just glad it was still open so we could come today," she said.
Baltimore Sun reporters Yeganeh June Torbati and Michael Dresser contributed to this article.