At a Thursday morning meeting of local CT officials, CT State Department of Transportation commissioner James Redeker may have foreshadowed the problems Wilton drivers experienced when Thursday evening’s snow storm hit right at the evening commute. Redeker told town leaders at the monthly Western CT Council of Government (WestCOG) meeting that DOT’s fleet of plows is not at full capacity.

“At a meeting today with Commissioner Redeker, he shared with all of us that the DOT is down about 530 employees, which meant we would see fewer plows–about a 15% decline in plows across the state,” Wilton’s first selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice told GOOD Morning Wilton.

Vanderslice was at the WestCOG meeting Thursday morning. GMW reached out to Vanderslice Thursday evening when residents began reporting dangerous driving conditions and unplowed roadways on state roads in Wilton, including Danbury Rd./Rte. 7, Westport and Ridgefield Rds./Rte. 33, New Canaan and Wolfpit Rds./Rte. 106, and more. Those roadways were noticeably less plowed and fraught with areas where many vehicles–especially those not equipped with all wheel drive or similar drivetrains–just couldn’t navigate the conditions safely.

In contrast, Wilton’s town-plowed roads were in better shape. Vanderslice said all 14 town-owned trucks were on the roads before 3 p.m. Thursday to begin dealing with the storm. The entire Wilton Department of Public Works crew reported for work at 7 a.m. and didn’t leave–they remained out on the roads well into the evening.

Vanderslice said the DOT commissioner explained to the WestCOG members why his fleet of snow plow trucks isn’t at full capacity–the agency is “down drivers and trucks.” Redeker said there are 15% fewer snow plow drivers than what CT-DOT should have, and there aren’t adequate numbers of mechanics to maintain the trucks.

“When he presented to us last year, he said they were down 400 people; this year he’s down 530 people,” Vanderslice said. “It’s a combination of not having funding to hire these people, and they’re leaving at a rate that he can’t keep up with.”

The last time that Redeker presented to WestCOG, he was facing the FY-2018 budget with sharp reductions to his agency; most of the state-funded transportation projects had been put on hold.

While the good news is that in this current-year’s budget, Redeker reported that they have “new revenue sources” so more funding will be made available to CT-DOT this year, but that may not curb the employee shortage problem.

Vanderslice said Redeker was there to present to the WestCOG officials on a number of topics, and he fielded questions from the various town leaders about train schedules, the condition of state bridges and roadways, tolls, and more. The size of the department’s snowplow fleet was one of the topics he covered.

“I don’t know how much of an impact it had on the state roads tonight, but when I left the office at 7:45 p.m., I found that the state roads were not as well plowed as the local roads and there was still a back up on Rte. 7,” Vanderslice said. “We’ll go back and find out what happened, why the state roads were such a mess. I’ll talk to the other first selectmen to see if their roads were as bad as the section of Rte. 7.”

In contrast, Wilton DPW crews and other town emergency operations were fully staffed and coverage was solid, according to Vanderslice, who explained that Wilton’s DPW only has one shift which works straight through any storm and stays out until the roads are clear.

“DPW drivers reported to work today at 7 a.m. and 15 hours later they are still here and doing a fantastic job as always. Police and fire personnel have also been outside throughout the storm, responding to minor accidents, helping to clear the roads and anything else that is needed to help get residents home safely. Every time we have a storm, I am eternally grateful for their commitment to this community,” she said.

Town snowplows are not permitted to clear the snow from state roads.

Vanderslice said weather conditions and timing of the storm also had an impact.

“Police Chief John Lynch said it was the worst situation he’s seen in 30 years, and really it was a result of a number of factors,” she said. He told her that with the storm hitting right at the evening commute, there were so many people on the road at the same time–despite warnings to leave early–and many of them weren’t prepared for what happened.

“Cars weren’t prepared, there were people without snow tires, and people who were uncomfortable driving,” she said, adding that the storm dumped snow very quickly, further complicating problems. Combined with the backups, volume and congestion, there may have actually been snowplows stuck in the traffic.

“It just made it really difficult for the plows to plow because there were so many cars on the road. They had cars that were stuck, and police were out pushing cars that were stuck. There were problems with some tractor trailers on Rte. 7 near Zion’s Hill, that even DPW came to help.” She also said that there were so many cars and drivers having trouble on Cannon Rd. that police had to close it temporarily just to try to get cars out.

By 10 p.m., Vanderslice said, things seemed to be clearing up. She also noted that Lynch told her there were no serious accidents, despite the evening’s situation.

As of Friday morning, Wilton Schools are operating on a two-hour delay to give road crews ample opportunity to further clear the roads, both here in town as well as in towns from where bus drivers and teachers  have to travel.

UPDATE, 6:30 a.m.–Wilton Police report “roads are slick and there are several areas of unoccupied vehicles left on or near the road due to yesterday’s weather. We are working on removing those vehicles from the road. Please drive slow and use caution if you must travel.”

photo:  Alison Jacobson