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When 'Snowzilla' Struck, Public Transit Stepped Up; Snow Belt Transportation Agencies Offer Best Practices

Senior Editor

Winter Storm Jonas, colloquially known as “Snowzilla,” slammed the northeastern U.S. Jan. 22-24 with snowfalls measured in feet rather than inches, accompanied by high winds. Public transit agencies (and the public) had several days’ warning before the storm struck, but its intensity was such that systems in some metropolitan areas—including New York City and Washington, DC—shut down completely before digging out and restoring service.

The storm officially dumped 22.4 inches of snow on Philadelphia, with some parts of the five-county Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) service region seeing snowfall totals well above two feet. As a result of forecast high winds, zero visibility and significant snow, SEPTA suspended service on all modes—with the exception of the Market-Frankford and Broad Street subway-elevated lines, its two busiest routes—beginning at 4 a.m. Jan. 23. SEPTA began resuming service on Jan. 24, with all modes operating by Jan. 27.

“Making the decision to suspend our service was not one that was taken lightly,” said SEPTA General Manager Jeffrey D. Knueppel. “But with the expected whiteout conditions, sustained high winds and snow accumulation, we knew we had to shut down the majority of our system for the safety of our network … . In the end, it was the snow, not the winds, that most affected our region. We wouldn’t have been able to safely and reliably transport passengers.”

Knueppel announced the plan in advance of the storm at a Jan. 22 media conference. He and Assistant General Manager of Operations Ron Hopkins remained in contact with city officials throughout the weekend.

Extra personnel staffed the SEPTA Customer Service Call Center and the social media team answered riders’ questions submitted to the agency’s Twitter feed. SEPTA Media Relations kept local news outlets informed with regular advisories, phone interviews and tweets of photos of crews at work in the field preparing for a return to service.

“We tweeted and posted photos online to allow our customers to see how our crews were working around the clock to get our service back, battling extreme conditions,” Knueppel said. “We also created a webpage to help commuters understand the enormity of snow plowing and removal at our stations and to watch our contractors’ efforts in not just clearing snow, but also removing it with front end loaders and trucks.”

SEPTA also purchased or leased new heavy equipment, such as vehicle managed snow blowers and throwers and a brining system, to help the agency better manage the elements.

Paul Comfort, administrator, ­Maryland Transit Administration (MTA), described how his agency restored full service on all its operations—local bus, light rail, subway, commuter bus, MARC commuter rail and paratransit—within 96 hours from the end of what he called “Maryland’s largest ever recorded snowstorm.”

He continued: “As soon as the blizzard started, we took action to protect the safety of our customers and employees by working with our regional partners at WMATA to suspend all transit service before the worst of the storm hit Baltimore. This proactive approach not only enhanced safety, but also allowed MTA to avoid vehicle damage and maintenance or repair costs that would have occurred from buses being stuck in the snow. It also allowed us to have a full complement of manpower and equipment in place to restore services more effectively and efficiently after the storm.”

While some cities, such as New York, received much more snow than anticipated, other areas received less. The Rhode Island ­Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) detoured several bus routes during and after the storm, but the issue was less about quantity of snowfall and more about poor driving conditions caused by untreated roads.

The fact that the storm struck most severely on a Saturday also meant fewer complications than would have occurred on a weekday, according to Barbara Polichetti, RIPTA director of public affairs.

“As always, in preparation for any storm, our emergency response begins 72 to 96 hours in preparation of the weather event,” said RIPTA Chief Executive Officer Raymond Studley. “We monitor weather forecasts continuously to determine what the potential impact will be on our system and we weigh the impacts in regard to the overall safety of our employees as well as the passengers we serve. Rhode Island was fortunate that the snow accumulations were not that severe.”

While Boston is known for frequent severe winter weather, Jonas had little effect on Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) operations. The agency is implementing an $83.7 million, five-year winter resiliency plan in the aftermath of serious snow conditions that affected service in 2015.

Last summer, Gov. Charlie Baker, Massachusetts DOT Secretary Stephanie Pollack and MBTA General Manager Frank DePaola announced the MBTA Winter Resiliency Plan for investments over the next five years in snow removal equipment, infrastructure upgrades and operations during harsh weather to improve service reliability. Baker also stressed the need for legislative action on An Act for a Reliable, Sustainable MBTA to secure long-term improvements at the agency, widely known as the T.

Its “Winter Happens” campaign communicated the resources available to customers in advance so they would have access to the most up-to-date service information available. Customers who visit the winter page on the MBTA website can find real-time information across a variety of platforms (allowing them to choose those they prefer) and specific information regarding individual bus and rail lines.

The T also developed a detailed protocol for responding to emergencies and conducted a Winter Preparedness Tabletop Exercise that brought together multiple departments to review contingencies for various types of emergencies. Both MBTA and Keolis, which operates the agency’s commuter rail service, have trained employees to use recently arrived snow removal equipment such as jet snow blowers, Swingmasters that can throw snow up to 45 feet in any direction and a third rail anti-icing system.

The Central New York Regional ­Transportation Authority (Centro) in Syracuse, NY, also regularly deals with severe winter weather, although ­“Snowzilla” bypassed the city. Steven J. Koegel, vice president of business ­development and corporate communications, described how the agency ­proceeds during snowstorms.

“The most important issues we face are ensuring a safe boarding and alighting location for each passenger and maneuvering buses down roads that become narrow due to large and wide snowdrifts,” Koegel said. He explained that Centro crews ensure passenger access to bus shelters by removing snow soon after each snowfall, with local residents and municipal crews assisting by clearing sidewalks. “We train drivers to take special efforts to make sure that they can get to each passenger waiting for a bus, even if snowdrifts are high and paths from sidewalks to the street are not clear,” he added

Centro maintains its Call-a-Bus paratransit service despite severe conditions, he said, but the number of cancellations increases during winter storms and the number of requests for door-to-door service also rises. “We work very hard to ensure those passengers get to their destinations,” Koegel said.

The agency uses news media, email and text alerts to notify customers when Centro begins operating on snow routes because hilly roads become too slick or side roads become congested with snow. These messages direct customers to Centro’s website and call center for additional information.

Koegel also described Centro’s preparations for threatened bad weather conditions. “We make sure extra bus operators are available to cover work in case some have difficulty getting to work and make sure more buses are readily accessible in case some become disabled on the road,” he said. “Generally, everyone is on alert knowing that bad weather is on the way and prepare themselves for the day.”

The Greater Dayton (OH) Regional Transit Authority (RTA) stays out in front of possible snow incidents with a detailed Winter Weather Preparation and Response Plan. Barring extremely poor conditions, RTA maintains operation on all scheduled routes and provides Project Mobility paratransit service.

“Most people don’t like to drive in poor weather conditions,” said RTA Chief Operations Officer Jim Napier. “We suggest boarding an RTA bus on those days. We’ll do our absolute best to make sure you get to where you’re going—safely, on time and in a climate-controlled bus.”

The agency’s winter weather plan, reviewed annually for any necessary changes, requires employees to step up in nearly every department to deal with the business of moving people throughout the Dayton region.

The RTA buildings and grounds crew and the line shop crew are responsible for snow removal and spreading the pre-treatment brine, de-icing salt or calcium at all transit centers. The dispatch center actively monitors reporting agencies, then assists them if possible during a winter weather emergency. The operations department has drivers on call, ready to report to work when and if needed.

Metro Transit in Minneapolis/St. Paul, another region that regularly deals with severe winter weather and cold temperatures, has created a comprehensive snow removal plan for its engineering and facilities staff along with contractors, municipalities, partners and business and property owners.

The agency has set the following priorities for dealing with snow and ice in its service area:

Bus and rail operations.
Before service can begin, garages, driveways, railyards and support facilities must be cleared so operators, mechanics, transit police, street supervisors and operational support staff can begin serving customers. Drive lanes at park-and-ride lots, transit centers, layovers and turnarounds are plowed and, if necessary, snow is removed from rail track beds.

Passenger movement. Metro Transit begins to clear snow and ice from customer areas at locations with the most activity: rail stations, transit centers and park-and-ride lots.

Customers with limited mobility. Once high-use facilities are ready to operate, Metro Transit tracks the boarding locations of customers paying fares with mobility Go-To Cards to make sure the most used locations are cleared.

Customer waiting shelters. The agency owns 700 shelters throughout the seven-county metro area. Metro Transit will clear snow and ice from the shelter and a six-foot area around it, along with a four-foot-wide walkway from the shelter to the bus stop.

Revisiting and grooming. At this point, Metro Transit returns to facilities to address cleanup work and new issues.

The Operating Practices Working Group for the APTA Standards Program is in the early stages of developing a standard for adverse weather operations.

A Greater Dayton RTA trolley pulls into a bay at Wright Stop Plaza, the main hub in Dayton, on a snowy day.

SEPTA crews clear city trolley tracks in Philadelphia during Winter Storm Jonas.

MTA Long Island Rail Road put its Harsco spreader/ditcher, also known as "Darth Vader," to work plowing the rails after "Snowzilla" caused the suspension of service. The vehicle is shown in the aftermath of Winter Storm Juno in 2015.

Photo: MTA Long Island Rail Road
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