This month's storms have eroded the snow removal budgets of the Washington area's state and local governments and have exhausted road maintenance crews who have endured 20-hour days, truck breakdowns and irate citizens.
Although storms in past years have dumped larger amounts of snow throughout the area, transportation officials say there is nothing in recent memory to compare to the rapid succession of storms and freezing temperatures that have drained both the money and manpower of most jurisdictions. The frequent storms have taxed old equipment and made it almost impossible for snow crews to keep up with the near-daily accumulations.
With two months remaining in the snow season, the Virginia Department of Highways and Transportation has spent $18.7 million of its $19.1 million budget for snow removal. The District of Columbia already has exhausted the $1.3 million it allocated. Montgomery County exceeded its budget of $531,000 earlier this week and is considering asking its County Council for extra money. Prince George's County of-ficials say they already have spent the$365,000 they budgeted, plus an additional $135,000 in general revenue funds, simply to keep up with the snow and ice.
"We're broke," said John Mayo, a maintenance engineer with the Virginia Highway Department. "We were ahead of the game in December and this thing the last few weeks has really socked it to us."
Transportation officials in all area jurisdictions say road maintenance and street repairs will suffer as they siphon money from those budgets to pay for the increased snow-removal costs. In some areas, such as Alexandria and the District, officials say they will begin reducing plowing operations in order to save money.
Most jurisdictions plan their snow removal budgets on an average winter's accumulation. But this year has been far from average, with 15.5 inches of snow fallen so far. In contrast, only 6.9 inches of snow had fallen in the Washington area by this time last year.
Although the financial strains are causing governments the biggest headaches, the bad weather has caused public hostility to the government snow removal crews. Snowplow and grader operators have negotiated streets clogged by stalled cars left at rakish angles, but complain that the hours and conditions are easier to deal with than some of the public's attitudes.
"I've been called everything but 'nice,' " said Sara Wagner, who handles complaints from the Prince George's Department of Public Works and Transportation, which is responsible for clearing 1,365 miles of road.
"The bad part is the public worrying you to death, saying you pushed snow in our driveway," said Ronnie Denton, a truck driver for Prince George's County.
Snow-removal trucks from the county have been pelted with snowballs, rocks and obscenities from citizens angry when the snowplows cover up driveways and cars they recently dug out. Police escorts were arranged for snowplows in the northern end of the county after one crew was threatened by a man wielding a shotgun.
A Virginia Department of Highways and Transportation engineer was ambushed by a group of teen-agers who shattered his windshield with rocks and snowballs when he tried to check out a complaint of unshoveled roads in a Fairfax County subdivision.
"We sent a plow out anyway," said Heiberman's boss, John Chiles. "But when they started pelting that, too, we pulled it out and took our time coming back."
David Fields, 48, a snowplow operator for the District, echoed similar sentiments, saying that residents don't always appreciate clear streets, especially if it means their cars are buried and their driveways blocked again in the process.
"It's defense out there all the time. You get a lot of hassles," Fields said. "Some of those people come out and want to break your neck."
The eight snowfalls this month have kept the snow crews continually busy. "By the time you get to the back streets and the subdivisions, the next storm starts," said Vaughan Barkdoll, director of Public Works and Transportation for Prince George's County. "People are tired . . . . It's tough to work 16 hours and then have it start all over again."
Throughout the Washington area, street crews and their supervisors have worked shifts averaging 16 to 18 hours. Some personnel have been required to work as long as 40 continuous hours in order to battle the storms.
"When we go into extended periods our men don't go home, period," said Robert Mangum, chief of the division of operations of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation. The county workers have been sleeping at equipment depots and are prohibited from taking time off between Nov. 15 and March 15.
The heavy ice on area roads is causing particular problems. "I'd rather have two feet of snow" than the current icy conditions, said Earl Ditamore, a snowplow driver from Fairfax County.
While officials in many jurisdictions struggle to find more money to keep plowing schedules constant and their equipment running, most are looking to improved weather conditions to provide them with the most needed relief.
"I'd like to see about 45 degrees and a nice rain for a while," remarked Barkdoll, of Prince George's County.
And Charles W. Elgin Sr., the mayor of Poolesville, said that weather forecasting has been so erratic that he has decided to consult the Hagerstown Almanac, a local variation of the Farmer's Almanac, for advice. "It's forecasting a blizzard for March 6 and snow through the first week of April."
That prospect no longer fazes a winter-weary Elgin. "We'll just put our feet up, relax and enjoy it."