Been there, plowed that

Snow crews prepare for yet another wintry onslaught

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By Andrew Ryan
Globe Staff / February 1, 2011

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Earth movers carved through rock-hard icy banks and trucks scattered salt on roads across the region last night as crews scrambled to make room for snow from a two-day storm expected to blanket some areas of the state with accumulations of up to 21 inches.

For the second time this month, Logan International Airport received permission from the state Department of Environmental Protection to blow snow into Boston Harbor because there is no place left to put it on the airfield. In Boston, 18 front-end loaders and 10 backhoes worked like enormous chisels excavating city streets and unplugging intersections that have already been buried this winter in more than 60 inches of snow.

The groan and scrape of the construction equipment dug out 37,000 tons of snow over the last few days in the city, filling 2,661 dump trucks with icy gray crust.

But officials acknowledge that no matter how much snow they cart off the narrow roads of this Colonial-era city, it will not be enough for what meteorologists say is coming: a punishing two-day storm that threatens to turn towering snow hills into arctic mountains, choking streets and side walks.

“This is relentless; it just doesn’t stop coming,’’ Mayor Thomas M. Menino said yesterday after meeting for 90 minutes with his snow team. “The crews have been out there 24 hours a day for the last five weeks. There hasn’t been a break. The streets are getting narrower.’’

The first flakes are expected today before dawn in Western Massachusetts and will arrive in Boston about 5 a.m. A snow emergency and parking ban will take effect in the city today at 9 a.m. Forecasters predict that 4 to 8 inches will accumulate by afternoon, creating the potential for a dreadful commute.

“It’s going to be kind of a powdery snow,’’ said Joe Dellicarpini, a meteorologist from the National Weather Service in Taunton. “It’s good for cleanup, but you don’t have anywhere to put it.’’

A lull this evening will give crews a chance to start that process, but the window will be brief. Foul weather is expected to kick up again early tomorrow, but the exact forecast remains in flux. Northern Massachusetts will face a significant belt of snow, while the southern tier of the state is likely to experience rain, sleet, and a quarter-inch of ice.

The exact line separating rain from snow was difficult to pinpoint. If the temperature swings a few degrees up or down, Boston could get rain or another deep blanket of snow.

“It’s going to be a long-duration storm,’’ Dellicarpini said. “There’s going to be a good amount of cleanup to do.’’

Boston has already cleaned up 60.3 inches of snow this winter, including 38.3 in January alone, according to data from the National Weather Service for Logan International Airport. The average for most winters is just 41.8 inches, while the all-time record stands at 102.8 inches, in 1995-1996.

The state has almost burned through its entire $59 million budget for clearing roads of snow and ice, said House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, according to State House News Service. Boston faces the same predicament, having already spent $14 million of the $16 million the city budgeted for snow removal, according to Dot Joyce, the spokeswoman for Menino. In an interview last month, the mayor spoke about his philosophy about plowing and salting streets.

“In a snowstorm, you don’t watch the bottom line,’’ Menino said. “Some people in this new era of politics want to watch the bottom line. You have to make sure that the streets are passable, public safety vehicles get through, and we are here to take calls.’’

At Logan, airport officials sought environmental authorization to blow snow into the harbor because the Federal Aviation Administration strictly limits the size of snow banks along runways.

“We did get permission, but more as a sort of a belt-and-suspenders approach,’’ said Matthew Brelis, a spokesman for Massport, which runs the airport. “If this storm gives us 15 inches of snow, there is already so much snow on the airfield, because there hasn’t been a thaw.’’

January was particularly harsh, even for New England: snow dumped upon snow without warm thaws between storms. Another significant blast could narrow already constricted roads by another 1 1/2 feet, Menino said yesterday. That would make some streets impassable.

Some drivers have compounded the problem by abandoning cars without bothering to pull close to curbs. Others have ignored the law that prohibits parking within 20 feet of an intersection, preventing plows from clearing paths for buses and emergency vehicles.

Regardless of the complications, the city has its arsenal ready. Five hundred pieces of snow-removal equipment were poised last night to hit the streets and nearly 25,000 tons of salt waited at depots across the city. Officials reminded residents to take public transportation, drive slowly, and use common sense.

“We’ll get through this one as we have the others,’’ said Thomas J. Tinlin, the city’s transportation commissioner. “Hopefully, we’ll be complaining about a heat wave soon.’’

Martin Finucane of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Andrew Ryan can be reached at