State transportation officials urged drivers to be cautious on the evening commute after two to three inches of snow brought gridlock to area roadways Tuesday morning.
"As we approach the evening commute, patient driving will be equally as important as driving to the conditions on the road," State Highway Administrator Melinda B. Peters said in a statement. "This morning’s efforts to clear the snow primarily were impacted by the volume of traffic. Crews can also be delayed by crashes resulting from vehicles driving too fast for conditions."
Frigid temperatures and heavy snow that began falling just as the morning rush hour began Tuesday left most area roads in gridlock, angering commuters and causing widespread accidents, including one that critically injured a teen heading to school in Anne Arundel County.
Cold air and pavement meant more snow accumulated than expected, and with commuters filling the roadways, it was difficult for crews to keep up, transportation officials said.
“The problem this morning was that many of our operators were faced with a lot of traffic with the timing of the storm just right there at the morning rush hour,” said Charlie Gischlar, a State Highway Administration spokesman.
Major arteries into Baltimore, such as the Jones Falls Expressway and Route 295, were covered in slush and jammed with traffic. Cars, buses and other vehicles became stuck on streets with relatively low-grade inclines, such as on the bridge carrying Russell Street into the city near the Horseshoe Casino and on the ramp carrying Route 295 onto northbound Interstate 95.
Snow tapered off by early afternoon, with two to three inches of snow across the region. But travel hazards were expected to remain.
Kellie Boulware, another SHA spokeswoman, said about 3:15 p.m. that roads in the state looked pretty clear, primarily showing wet pavement instead of white slush, but warned of possible clear ice making roads slippery and said crews are continuing to work.
"They are concentrating on pushing back some shoulders in some areas and on doing some additional salting, which should really help as the temperatures drop," she said.
Tuesday morning, temperatures were a few degrees colder than expected both on the ground and about 5,000 feet in the air, a key snow-making zone in the atmosphere, said Rich Foot, founder of meteorology website Foot's Forecast. Even those slight changes can mean an extra half inch or inch of snow in such systems of dry, powdery snow known as Alberta clippers.
"That’s the danger of underestimating a clipper," Foot said.
Temperatures were still hovering around the lower 20s midday Tuesday at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.
The State Highway Administration urged drivers to use slower speeds on roadways.
"Rush hour will be challenging so we strongly encourage motorists to delay their commute and allow trucks the time to effectively maneuver and treat the roads," SHA Administrator Melinda B. Peters said in a release. "While accumulations will be low, driving in any amount of snow requires more attention to how we drive on roads."
Commuters were nonetheless frustrated with the treacherous conditions.
"Today was probably the worst I’ve ever seen it," said Robin Eshkenazi, 27, of the nightmare commute she and co-worker Sarah Bernhardt, 32, experienced on their way to work at a downtown law firm. "There were cars that were stuck going up little hills on the highway, completely abandoned cars. It was crazy."
Eshkenazi left her house in Reisterstown at 6:30 a.m. to pick up Bernhardt in Owings Mills, but never made it to work. She was back home five hours later after giving up on a trip that normally takes 30 or 40 minutes.
The Jones Falls Expressway, a major problem area and a roadway owned by Baltimore within the city limits but plowed and treated by SHA, was pre-treated but was difficult to plow, Gischlar said. Because large portions of it are elevated, it also freezes faster than other roads, and multiple vehicle spin-outs on Tuesday morning contributed to the massive delays.
He said plow drivers were making judgment calls on whether to plow on JFX on Tuesday morning, because usually plowing doesn’t occur with less than an inch of accumulation and heavy traffic on the roadway had ground much of the snow into a slush.
"We were looking at the JFX this morning on the cameras here [in the SHA operations center] and there was a little bit of a slushy build up, but that’s the kind you treat with salt," Gischlar said.
The traffic was "all about the timing of this storm," he said.
About 10:15 a.m., a Maryland Transportation Authority snow plow flipped on its side on the outer loop of Interstate 695 just north of Quarantine Road, dumping salt, according to 1st Sgt. Jonathan Green, a MdTA Police spokesman.
The driver was taken to University of Maryland Shock Trauma as a precaution but did not appear to have significant injuries, Green said. No other vehicles were involved in the accident, which was cleared from the road about 12:40 p.m. The cause of the accident remains under investigation.
Green said he wasn't sure if the dump truck was only dropping salt or was also plowing snow at the time, when the highway’s travel lanes were relatively clear. "It wouldn't be unusual for them to be tackling the shoulders at that point, but I don't know for certain," he said.
In Anne Arundel County, where a band of the heaviest snow was falling, drivers were angered both by the poor road conditions and the decision to open schools on time.
"I think it was just a really dangerous decision," said Eddie Taylor, who said he saw two cars spin out on his mile-long drive to drop his children at school and daycare in Linthicum. "I would not be surprised if kids or teachers got hurt on their way in."
Anne Arundel police said they responded to more than 140 accidents, including a crash involving two 17-year-olds that sent both to Maryland Shock Trauma. A girl was critically injured when the Ford Explorer she was riding in struck a tree in Pasadena. The boy driving the vehicle has non-life-threatening injuries, police said.
A 15-year-old girl was struck by a vehicle after slipping and falling on Baltimore-Annapolis Boulevard. She was taken to a hospital as a precaution, police said.
Anne Arundel County school spokesman Bob Mosier defended the system’s decision to open. At the time the school system made the call, none of the other districts had delayed or closed their school systems, he said. Schools in Baltimore, Prince George’s, Howard and Carroll counties later declared closings.
By 5:45 a.m., there was precipitation but not a lot of accumulation, and reports said the snow would stay north and west of the county, Mosier said.
“After that decision was made, after those buses are in motion, things changed a little bit. Not a little bit, they changed,” Mosier said.
Shortly after 11 a.m., Anne Arundel announced that all after-school activities would be canceled, but that schools would dismiss on their normal schedules.
Early snowfall totals included 2.8 inches in Severna Park, 2 inches in Millersville, Eldersburg and Oella, and 1.7 inches in Columbia. At Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, 2.3 inches fell, more than four times as much as had been measured there so far this winter.
State highway crews pre-treated pavement Monday with a salt solution to delay snow from covering roads, but with cold temperatures, crews were nonetheless battling accumulation on roadways amid the morning rush.
After the clipper blows through, temperatures are forecast to plunge. They could dip into the single digits in the suburbs Wednesday night into Thursday, and remain below freezing at least until Friday, if not into the weekend.
Dr. Jacquelyn Duval-Harvey, the city's interim health commissioner, declared the winter's first "Code Blue" days this week. The designation means the city will open up 60 additional beds at a 24-hour shelter at 620 Fallsway and that officials will search out homeless people and urge them to seek shelter.
Seven people have died in Maryland this winter of cold weather-related illnesses, such as hypothermia, according to state health officials. Fifteen such deaths were reported in the state last winter.
The burst of cold is reminiscent of last January's "polar vortex," a column of Arctic air that moved southward and brought most of the country its coldest weather in decades. A year ago Wednesday marked Baltimore's coldest day in nearly two decades, with a low of 3 degrees and a high of 16 degrees.
It won't be quite as cold this time around, with highs in the upper 20s, though 20- to 30-mph winds are expected to make it feel like the teens or single digits.
"I don't think we're going to get quite to that level," Kines said. "But this is a cold air mass coming in. If you're outside on Wednesday, you're going to say it's cold."
Baltimore Sun Media Group reporters Kevin Rector and E.B. Furgurson III contributed to this report.