Friday, July 12, 2024

Snow piles up in Harvard Square. This week’s storms are set to put Cambridge’s accumulation at over 70 inches. (Photo: Eric Tsai)

With 60 inches of snow on the ground from four storms since Dec. 26 and another foot falling, city officials broke into the usual order of business at Monday’s meeting of the City Council to talk about where it’s all going.

The answer, unfortunately: Nowhere.

And that’s with $1.2 million already spent on dealing with the winter storms, when only $332,000 had been set aside for that purpose, said City Manager Robert W. Healy.

Much of that is in overtime pay for Public Works “crews working night and day, day and night” and sometimes having to start their regular jobs in the morning after working all night to clear snow.

Some 220 bus stops, several hundred major sidewalks and 18 major streets have been targeted and cleared, said Lisa Peterson, commissioner of Public Works.

“No expense is being withheld, nor is there any effort being withheld,” Healy said. “I have not required anyone to penny-pinch.”

But with so little open city-owned open space and environmental restrictions preventing the dumping of snow into the Charles River, clearing snow is getting difficult, he said. Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have opened some of their land to take piled-up snow, and there is some use of parking lots by Danehy Park, but “clearing” snow — since temperatures haven’t dipped low enough to melt significant amounts — is increasingly coming to look like just moving it around.

“We’re actually looking for undeveloped parcels,” Peterson said.

Few storage and removal options

The environmental restrictions against dumping result from the contamination that sets in when initially pristine snow is on the ground, picking up grit and snow, “for any length of time,” Healy said, which is why three Public Works employees in Lawrence were suspended Tuesday on charges of dumping plowed snow into the Merrimac River.

Cambridge has approached private owners of city parcels for permission to store snow, but they have demanded release from liability for pollution on their land, essentially trying to use the potential taint from snow as a way to dodge responsibility for contamination that already existed, Healy said.

The obvious open space, namely sports fields and playgrounds, also won’t work for snow storage, he said.

“If any of you have watched strip parking malls that pile snow up to the sky, you will still see that snow there in May,” Healy said. “So if we dump on soccer fields and ballfields, we will be canceling this year’s Little League season and this year’s spring soccer season, because the snow will still be on those fields.”

Homeowners’ compliance with city snow removal laws for sidewalks and driveways has improved, city officials said, but as the storms keep coming it gets harder to deal with. Citizens complained Monday of shoveling snow only to find city crews plowing it back onto their property, and of there being less and less space for car owners to park. “Space savers aren’t the real problem,” Cambridgeport resident Charlie Stead said, referring to city councillor Craig Kelley’s criticism of drivers who try to (illegally) reserve parking spaces by putting furniture in the street.

Driving and parking

Stead said he lives in a six-family home without a driveway, and the accumulation of snow, soon to be exacerbated by the completion of even more nearby housing without parking, turns the area’s streets into an increasingly desperate game of musical chairs.

“There’s gonna be wars down there,” he said. “Fights have broken out.”

“It is you guys who are at fault in this, not we,” Stead said. “You have not done the job of making sure that before you authorize additional housing, you make sure there is going to be provision for those drivers and vehicles to be placed someplace.”

Officials at least acknowledged what Stead said about the problems of plowing roads, which are getting narrower as snow gathers with no place to go. Healy said the city was coming “dangerously close” to one-side-only parking on some streets, such as Inman and Bigelow, where the problem is particularly bad. “We are just being inched by snowbank into very narrow streets,” Healy said. “We will never remove all the snowbanks on every street that we’d like to. It’s just not possible.”

There were also cautions offered about slowing down as drivers near intersections, since accumulated snow makes it harder to see cars coming from the left and right. Councillor Ken Reeves wondered if the city should alter its removal rules to focus on street corners to prevent the hazard.

An alternative is getting cars off the streets completely.

Peterson said the city was close to announcing a “an extremely low rate” for drivers who wanted to park their cars in the city’s First Street garage for the entire month of February.

Unfortunately, because of a combination of weather factors called El Nino and the North Atlantic Oscillation, it’s almost certain snow will keep coming throughout the month. And that will still have to dealt with as best the city and its residents can.

“For those of you who are old enough to recall, there is more snow on the ground right now than there was at the end of the blizzard of ’78 that everybody looks to as the  opus magnus of snow,” Healy said. “Well, if one remembers, the state was closed down for a week. The stores and businesses were closed. The city virtually was closed, and the streets and roadways were closed.”

“This is not winter in New England as we are used to it. This is extraordinary,” he said.

The council’s Traffic, Parking and Transportation Committee, led by Kelley, will be tackling snow questions at 5:30 p.m. Feb. 10 meeting at City Hall, 795 Massachusetts Ave., Central Square.