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Heavy burden won’t be lifted soon

Region isn’t taking massive snow accumulation lightly

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By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / January 28, 2011

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A snow-weary region awoke yesterday to the month’s third major storm, with snowfall in Boston challenging the record for January and potentially rivaling the all-time mark for one winter. Though the snow tapered off during the morning, the 9.9 inches measured at Logan and the foot or more that hit parts of the state continued to torment motorists, pedestrians, and public works crews.

Even after the plows went through, massive snowbanks and piles from a multitude of storms and a scarcity of warm days encroached on city streets and obscured sight lines for those on foot and in cars. On the commuter rail system, the MBTA experienced its most difficult morning in a trying week, with just 20 percent of trains on time, while customers who tried to check service alerts on the T’s website found an error message, overloaded by traffic.

The storm knocked out power for thousands, and hospitals saw several snow-related emergencies. Brigham and Women’s reported multiple slip-and-fall injuries, as well as a heart attack from shoveling and a man who lost several fingers trying to clear a snowblower.

In Boston, officials asked residents not to be fooled by the sun and to continue respecting a snow emergency that remained in place until the evening. Police ticketed and towed those who had parked on restricted streets so major routes could be plowed to the curb or as close to the curb as possible, given all the snow.

Through yesterday, the weather station at Logan International Airport had recorded 38.3 inches of snow for the month — more than triple the average for the first 27 days of January — and 60.3 inches total for the season. Boston had 35.7 inches of snow for the winter of 2009-10, the National Weather Service said.

“We have to move it somewhere, and when cars are parked during a snow emergency on those main arteries we have to move them,’’ said Public Works Commissioner Joanne Massaro of Boston, as a “strategic strike team’’ from the DPW, Boston police, and Boston Transportation Department prepared to canvass the city with bullhorns, wreckers, and plow-and-salt trucks.

The goal was to prevent gridlock and push snow into existing piles. This weekend, crews will return with front-end loaders and dumptrucks to attack those piles and haul snow to six “snow farms,’’ vast municipally owned lots scattered about the city.

Other communities are not as fortunate.

In Somerville, New England’s most densely populated city, some snowbanks are so tall that they deflect the plume of snow cleared by plow trucks and send it sliding back down to the street, said Michael Meehan, a city spokesman. Between storms, crews have been trying to clear snow piles and dump them on basketball courts, while the real estate trust planning a 50-acre redevelopment at Assembly Square has offered the city private land for use as a snow farm.

The latest snowfall prompted meteorologists and public officials to speak of the winter of 1995-96, which brought a record 107.6 inches at Logan, where local climate marks are tallied. With four days remaining, January 2011 has already made its mark as Boston’s third-snowiest January — less than 5 inches off the record 43.1 of January 2005 — and the sixth snowiest month ever, just behind March 1993.

“We’re up with some very high-class snow months at this point,’’ said William Babcock, a National Weather Service meteorologist, adding that a dusting this weekend could add to the month’s tally, while the next significant storm on the horizon should not reach Boston until next week, after February begins. That could boost a season total that is already well over the 41.8-inch norm for a full Boston winter and keep 2010-11 nipping at the heels of the 1995-96 season record.

Virtually all of the snow this winter has fallen since Christmas, and only that first storm was followed by warm days.

“We haven’t had melt since then,’’ said Transportation Commissioner Thomas J. Tinlin, calling the snow piled at Boston street corners the most daunting since 1995-96. He urged caution for travelers, asking drivers to limit cellphone use, watch for pedestrians emerging from snowbanks, and beware of the glare. “Be slow, be smart, and be safe,’’ he said.

Major highways have been more easily cleared than city roads because of ample storage space in the median and shoulder. And improvements in technology — including sensors to gauge pavement temperature and determine how much salt to spread and bigger and better plow trucks — have made the job more efficient, said Luisa Paiewonsky, the state’s highway administrator.

But it still requires ample material and a taxing amount of overtime labor; the governor’s supplemental budget includes another $25 million for highway snow removal, atop the previous $58 million, Paiewonsky said.

“We’re operating a little bit more efficiently because of the technology and all the know-how we’ve gained since ’95-’96, but it doesn’t make it any easier for [plow drivers] who are going for 10 or 12 hours at a stretch,’’ she said.

Meanwhile, fatigued residents spent hours clearing the latest snowfall: a foot in Salem, 13.5 inches in Franklin, and 13.9 in Milford — from driveways, sidewalks, and vehicles.

“I hope there is an end to it,’’ said Paul Richards, 47, attempting to dig out his and his wife’s car parked in front of their Dorchester home, and thinking of the Blizzard of ’78. “I’ve shoveled out my car three times, and every time I do the plow comes down and covers me again. I can’t say I’ve seen anything like this recently. . . . We were overdue, and now we’re getting it.’’

The storm also exacerbated the recent struggles of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. Subzero temperatures at the start of the week plagued trains, trolleys, and track equipment and left thousands stranded on platforms.

Snow yesterday knocked air hoses loose, hampered switches, and otherwise caused all but 49 of 240 scheduled commuter rail trains to be delayed in the morning. Thirty-eight were canceled, and 17 were delayed at least an hour.

The rapid transit lines fared better than they had earlier in the week, with one Orange Line train disabled and one Green Line trolley derailed in the morning, down from a high of 23 Monday, T spokesman Joe Pesaturo said. But several bus routes had to be rerouted from snowy streets or were otherwise delayed by sluggish traffic, while riders of all forms of the T who tried to use the website to check for service alerts found an error message most of the morning.

The 16,000 different visitors to the site between 6:30 and 7:30 a.m., triple the normal traffic, overpowered the site.

“The general manager was just as frustrated as customers were,’’ demanding an “action plan’’ from the IT department, Pesaturo said.

In a bright spot for the MBTA, the thoughtfulness of a bus driver on the 215 route, from Quincy Center to Ashmont, was noted by a Twitter user and touted by the blog Universal Hub.

Edward Banh, 61, saw that snowbanks were overpowering sidewalks and blotting out bus stops, so he pulled the bus alongside every trudging pedestrian and waived their fares to make up for the lost time.

“I look at my passengers like family,’’ said Banh, who has worked for the T for 22 of the 30 years since he left Vietnam and who was slightly embarrassed by the attention. “I’m just doing my job.’’

Brian R. Ballou of the Globe staff and correspondents Debbie Kotz, Jenna Duncan, and Neal J. Riley contributed to this report. Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.