Chicago-area snow storm snarls rush hour traffic

January 21, 2012

City Room and the Associated Press

(Flickr/Bob Vonderau)
A snow plow struggles to keep up with the falling snow late Friday afternoon.
(Flicker/Bob Vonderau)
A worker in the Loop uses as snow brush to clear sidewalks Friday afternoon.
(Flickr/Oscar Shen)
Motorists inch along the Dan Ryan Expressway in the Loop amidst Friday's snow storm.

Rush hour traffic ground to a halt throughout many parts of the Chicago metro area late Friday as a winter storm dumped as many as 9 inches of snow on the region.

Traffic inched along at more than twice the normal travel times in much of the central city, and travel times on the outbound Kennedy expressway topped 2 hours and 30 minutes at key points.

Chicago officials worked Friday to prevent a repeat of last year's "snowmageddon," when a blizzard left hundreds of drivers stranded along one of the city's main thoroughfares for up to 12 hours overnight.

With the city getting socked by its first major snowstorm of the winter and drifts forming, officials detoured buses off icy Lake Shore Drive, the iconic road running along Lake Michigan. Bus service was partially restored by the end of rush hour except for the southern portion of the road.

Last year's storm, which dumped more than 20 inches of snow, brought Chicago to a standstill and caused serious embarrassment to a city known for its ability to keep working in some of the most severe winter weather. Transit spokesman Brian Steele said icy ramps and drifting snow led to the decision to move buses away from the lakefront Friday and onto roads where there was less wind and slower traffic.

No significant problems had developed yet, he said, adding, "The decision was made solely as a precaution."

More than 700 flights were cancelled at Chicago's airports, the bulk of them at O'Hare International Airport, the Chicago Department of Aviation said.

Southwest Airlines canceled all 70 of its flights at Midway Airport. That's about 15 percent of all flights at Midway.

While the snow started in the morning, the worst of the storm hit just at rush hour. Eight inches of snow were expected by nightfall, and the National Weather Service issued a winter storm warning lasting until late Friday.

Chicago deployed its full fleet of 278 plows to push through the snow on main streets and Lake Shore Drive, but they had to inch along with commuters headed home in heavy traffic.

"The biggest challenge for us right now is congestion. We're caught in it just like everyone else," said Guy Tridgell, a spokesman with the Illinois Department of Transportation.

During last year's February blizzard, the city's third-worst storm on record, authorities had to remove 525 vehicles that got stuck on Lake Shore Drive, which was closed for 33 hours. City officials began work in November to create two turnaround points on the road to make it easier for cars to avoid getting stuck.

The National Weather Service reported snow falling at a rate of an inch per hour during the middle of the day, with accumulations ranging from 4 to 9 inches in various parts of the metro area. 

Snow tapered off by mid evening in most areas, though the winter storm warning remained in effect until midnight. Up to an inch of additional accumulation was expected.