PITTSFIELD — When a storm approached last Friday, Joad Bowman, a partner of three downtown establishments in Pittsfield, sent staff home early so they could race the snow.
On Tuesday, customers who stopped in at one of those businesses, LuLu’s Tiny Grocery, were still talking about last weekend’s frightful road conditions — evidence that a topic that’s now slated to come before the City Council remains on people’s minds.
Public Utilities Commissioner Ricardo Morales said Monday that road cleanup efforts were hampered, first, by the unexpected amount of snow that fell Friday and then by plunging temperatures that foiled the use of normal ice-melting techniques.
As a result, drivers in Pittsfield spent the weekend sliding around on ice-choked streets, leading the City Council president to receive more complaints than ever before about an issue in his two decades on the panel.
Two councilors said Monday that Morales will present a postmortem on last weekend’s experience to the City Council — and suggest steps the city might take to prevent a replay.
Pittsfield police reported 69 minor motor vehicle accidents between 4:15 p.m. Friday and 3:51 p.m. Sunday. Around the city Tuesday, people were still primed to talk about their weekend of white-knuckle driving.
Betty Baumert says she is used to traversing the city’s snow-slicked roads in her four-wheel drive Jeep. But by the end of the long holiday weekend, with frozen precipitation still clinging to some streets, Baumert’s nerves were shot.
“Three days of it, I couldn’t take it. It was really dangerous, it was,” said Baumert of road conditions in Pittsfield.
The worst of the bad driving came late Friday, when the storm swept into the region and created what Baumert described as white-out conditions that stymied her travel to Lenox for a holiday dinner. She said she watched a vehicle spin out in front of her. She managed to avoid a collision herself.
A traffic mishap on South Street stopped traffic for more than an hour, creating a scary situation for drivers, she said.
Road conditions appeared to abate for her when she reached the neighboring town, where she noticed the roads were salted. “When I got to Lenox I could put my guard down,” Baumert said.
The roads in Pittsfield were still slippery and frightening to navigate on Saturday, Christmas Eve. That day, Pittsfield police reported 36 accidents.
Baumert understands the storm was a bad one, but believes the city should have deployed more plows.
Morales says that snow fell so fast Friday that crews could not keep up, especially with roads full of rush hour commuters. He noted that unlike the state, the city does not pre-treat roads magnesium chloride, which lowers the melting point of water to prevent build-ups of ice. The falling snow became packed and turned into ice.
Though crews began distributing a blend of sand and rock salt, the snow had hardened to the point where it resisted removal by plows.
“Plowing doesn’t do anything,” Morales said Monday. “It’s hard-packed snow on ice on top of the road. There’s nothing you can do to scrape it up. What needs to be done is breaking it, and that breaks down with materials. With those chemicals the best way to employ it is pretreating before it forms.”
A traveler’s lament
“The Pittsfield roads were awful,” said city resident Pam Downing. She traveled out of town on Saturday. By the time she was coming home, many Pittsfield roads were still stippled with hardened snow and slicked with ice.
“It was still pretty bumpy,” she said, adding that it was like driving on a “washer board.”
Given the strength of the storm, Haley Salzarulo borrowed her boyfriend’s Ford Escape for the weekend, trusting its hefty frame over her own Subaru Impreza sedan.
SUV notwithstanding, Salzarulo said the driving conditions in Pittsfield were “very bad,” especially on some of the side streets on the west side of the city where she lives — and where her vehicle almost got stuck in the snow.
Several days have passed since the storm, but Salzarulo said Tuesday that many Pittsfield streets still hadn’t been completely cleared of snow.
“Even still today I noticed that it’s still pretty bad, especially on smaller streets,” said Salzarulo. “It’s surprising.”
These days, Bowman, the downtown business owner, said he finds he is “a little more forgiving” of city officials whose job it is to plan for and respond to situations like storms.
When asked what he thought of the city’s winter road maintenance, he cited the miles of roads that must be treated in Pittsfield, all with limited financial resources.
“I think they’re doing better than a lot of people give them credit for,” he said.