Today's big challenge: Getting home from work

Getting to work in today's snowstorm will be a challenge.

Getting home may be nearly impossible.

With nearly 20 inches of snow possible and 30-m.p.h. winds expected, this storm will do what the winter's first two didn't: arrive in the middle of the workweek.

Commuters this morning face the prospect of driving on treacherous roads to get to snow-clogged parking lots. Or they can take a train, bus, or trolley that might not be operating when it's time to go home.

SEPTA might do as it did Saturday and shut down most of its system before the storm gets so bad that buses and trains can't move, SEPTA spokesman Richard Maloney said yesterday. But when, or even whether, the shutdown would happen remained undetermined.

That leaves hundreds of thousands of area commuters with one big question: What to do?

"We're going to keep the system running as much as we can," Maloney said. "We will make an hour-by-hour decision."

The city's Broad Street and Market-Frankford subway lines are expected to continue operating.

Even if SEPTA can get you to work, there's no guarantee the transit agency will get you home.

"That's the hard part," Maloney acknowledged.

With street parking off-limits on many major roads because of the snow emergency, the Philadelphia Parking Authority said drivers can park for $5 a day in all PPA parking garages in Center City until Friday morning.

Rina Cutler, deputy mayor for transportation and utilities, supported SEPTA's new policy of shutting down rather than operating until buses and trains get stuck in many locations.

"It's no good to try to keep operating in a blizzard," Cutler said yesterday. "People need to be conscious that there is going to be a very serious snow event, and I expect that at some point, the system will not be able to operate."

"One hour's notice is probably the best they can do."

Matthew Mitchell, of the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers, criticized the new policy and said SEPTA should try to keep the trains running.

"No one says this is going to be easy," Mitchell said. "But part of the reason we invest in this rail system is so that we can count on it when the roads are bad.

"They need to realize that thousands of people are relying on them, and it's now more important than ever" to keep trains running.

Maloney said SEPTA wanted to avoid a repeat of problems encountered in the December storm, when 166 SEPTA vehicles had to be towed and scores of passengers were stranded for hours on a powerless Route 100 Norristown High Speed train.

On Saturday, during the most recent storm, SEPTA shut down all bus, trolley, and Regional Rail service, but kept the Market-Frankford and Broad Street subways operating.

Only 44 vehicles needed towing as a result, Maloney said.

SEPTA plans to keep the subways running for this storm, too, Maloney said, and both subway lines will operate throughout the nighttime hours on a half-hourly basis.

On Regional Rail trains, the big concern is the air-cooled traction motors beneath the cars. If snow is blown or pushed into the motors, they can fail and stop the train.

SEPTA's paratransit service for the disabled and elderly will operate today only for customers with reservations for dialysis treatment.

Mary Jane Madonna, 50, who commutes to work at a Center City insurance company, said yesterday at Suburban Station, "Our biggest concern is if we come to work and SEPTA is going to shut down. If they're only going to give us an hour, that's not enough."

Her husband, Mike Madonna, a Center City lawyer and former fire chief of Plymouth Township, said Mayor Nutter should shut the city down to avoid confusion.

"Enter the city at your own peril," he said. "It's going to be chaos here for anyone foolish enough to come in."

Frank Brooks, 70, a contract manager for an insurance company, said he would deal with whatever happens today. If he gets stuck in the city, he said, he will "get a hotel room and stay the night."

Brooks, who rides SEPTA from Doylestown, said that taking the train was a "wonderful" way to commute, and that service-halting events like snowstorms happened only a couple of times a year.

In New Jersey, PATCO trains between South Jersey and Center City will continue to operate, PATCO general manager Robert Box said.

"We're here to serve the public, and we want to try to do that," Box said. "And if we shut down, it would be hard to start up again. The way we keep the tracks clear is by running trains."

PATCO trains may be running slower than usual, Box said, but "we'll have plenty of trains."

"Our goal is to keep the line open, preserve the equipment, and be ready for Thursday, when we expect everybody will be coming back to work."

NJ Transit, which halted bus and train service in South Jersey last weekend, said it planned to operate a regular weekday schedule today.

"Depending on the impact of the storm, it may be necessary for NJ Transit to modify service as conditions change," the agency said.

NJ Transit bus customers "may experience delays, detours, or service suspensions on their routes in the event of extreme winter weather conditions."

NJ Transit has canceled its paratransit Access Link service statewide for today.

Road crews were out in force in advance of the storm.

The Philadelphia Streets Department said it would have 480 trucks and plows out to keep roads passable, and it has 18,000 tons of road salt stockpiled.

"We are asking residents to be patient as we continue to fight against the last storm," Streets Commissioner Clarena Tolson said yesterday. "As the next one comes in, we don't know what to expect, but we'll be prepared for the worst."

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation said it was putting about 420 trucks out in the five-county area to salt and plow the highways.

PennDot district executive Lester C. Toaso said today's snowstorm "is different from last weekend's from the sense that wind gusts are expected to be stronger and driver visibility most likely will be worse than it was last Saturday. We expect to face blowing and drifting snow."

Toaso urged motorists not to drive unless absolutely necessary.

Transit Info

SEPTA's customer service number is 215-580-7800.

Its Web site is

NJ Transit's service information number is 973-275-5555. Its Web site is

Contact staff writer Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or

Inquirer staff writer Robert Moran contributed to this article.