quote of the week: snow removal priorities

“[Seattle's] snow and ice response plan is built around getting people to use public transportation.  Given our geography here, we would have to have 100 trucks [to cover the whole city], and at $150,000 to $200,000 a truck, that would be a foolish waste of money because they would sit most of the time. And they would sit for five years because it doesn’t snow that often. So we go with what we have.”

 – Seattle Director of Street Maintenance Steve Pratt

That's from a terrific (and funny) Atlantic article on snow removal, by Emily Badger.  (Seattle has only 30 snowplows in a city that passes some winters with no snow at all, and averages only 7 inches of snow per year.  It also has a traumatic memory of serious blizzards in 2008 and 2010, which I believe caused the coinage of the now-banal term snowpocalypse.)


11 Responses to quote of the week: snow removal priorities

  1. Alon Levy January 25, 2012 at 1:51 pm #

    Providence’s snow removal plan is to plow all the roadways, and leave the sidewalks to people who own property alongside them. As a result, the snow is not always removed from the sidewalks continuously, and when it is, it’s often difficult to find a convenient point to cross the street. My first pedestrian experience in the city – a downtown arterial road in winter – was much less pleasant than my experience in the summer away from downtown.

  2. EngineerScotty January 25, 2012 at 2:58 pm #

    In general, many cities–including progressive Portland–take that policy towards sidewalks. If the street has a pothole, sooner or later a city crew will come out to patch it (although due to budget issues, “later” has been the more likely option of late in Portland). If a sidewalk needs repair, the adjoining property owner generally has the legal responsibility to do so, at his/her own expense.
    And many concrete contractors LOVE to roam the city’s sidewalks, looking for damaged concrete to report to the city’s public works department. And naturally, when the adjacent property owner receives an order from the city to fix-it-or-our-unionized-city-work-crews-will-do-it-and-send-you-the-bill, said concrete contractor is frequently ready with a bid…
    It’s no wonder that many unincorporated parts of the metro area (there are quite a few urban neighborhoods which are not part of any city within greater Portland) staunchly resist incorporation and the improved urban infrastructure that comes with being in a city.
    The city should instead be in the business of charging neighbors to fill potholes on local streets, while fixing sidewalks from the general fund.

  3. Scott January 31, 2012 at 4:29 pm #

    @EngineerScotty: As a former resident and occasional neighbourhood association member in Woodstock in Portland, I lived through a portion of the Road-Paving Wars, in which people in my neighborhood demanded that the city not force any more of us to pave our unpaved streets going one direction (at our own expense, of course), since we already had perfectly good paved streets going the other, at the same time people in Brentwood Darlington just a couple blocks over were demanding that the city get off its behind and pave their freakin’ streets already (and pay for it through city funds) since they had almost no pavement at all outside the major through-roads. It made for interesting meetings with the poor city-guy whose job it was to encourage/enforce street paving. The underlying dynamic, of course, was that people in Brentwood Darlington don’t have as much money as people in Woodstock, who for that matter don’t have as much money as people a couple blocks the other way in Eastmoreland where all the streets are paved. A problem: If you require people to not just pave but then maintain their own streets, which wear out a lot faster and are much more expensive to build and repair than sidewalks, then some of those people are going to be driven into bankruptcy if not homelessness in the process. Further, they are going to hate your guts – and not, I would say, unreasonably.
    Well, that’s all as may be! My original comment was going to be to note (tongue firmly in cheek) that the Atlantic authors did not ask Los Angeles about its snow plows for some strange reason. I do seem to recall that my native-Angelena ex had never seen falling snow in her life until we married and she moved North. *heh*

  4. EngineerScotty February 1, 2012 at 12:08 pm #

    The equity question you bring up is interesting.
    Is it equitable that in multifamily housing (apartments, condos) as well as some gated communities, that much of the common infrastructure (thoroughfares and parking, utilities, etc) is maintained at the expense of the landlord or HOA (and thus indirectly by the residents therein), while the general fund often pays for maintenance on the streets, sewerage, and other infrastructure in traditional low-density developments (including lower-density grid development such as the SE Portland neighborhoods you mention)? A good argument can be made that key trunk lines, arterial streets, and such ought to be paid for out of the general fund, but that neighborhood streets and utilities ought to be paid for by the neighbors that live there, including maintenance.
    A big reason sprawl is so popular is that many who don’t live there help to pay for it. (And a big argument for public subsidy of sprawl is that it would be too expensive for the residents therein were they forced to pony up for their own pothole repairs).

  5. Scott February 2, 2012 at 1:03 pm #

    @EngineerScotty: I live in a condo now, and yes we do pay as a group for many common ammenities such as utilities and driveways/parking. But, of course, individual homeowners also pay for those themselves. As for people in a gated community, well if they choose to declare themselves a separate little world from the rest of us and limit who can enter and exit, then on their heads and pocket books be it. Otherwise, all of us live on streets that anyone can drive down, at least in principle, unlike the driveway at my condo from which we have banned trucks for example since they would (and have in the past) cracked the pavement and cost us a boatload of money.
    I am not unsympathetic to an anti-sprawl argument, but in the case of SE Portland we are generally talking about neighbourhoods laid down many decades ago, if not a century or more. My house there was built in 1912, and when I moved in every other house on the block was owned by a widow who had lived in it for at least 40 years. What are we going to do – retroactively punish people for planning decisions made in previous geologic eras? I appreciate also that you note the difference between major through streets and side streets, but I can see a major problem in drawing a line between the two categories. Is the SE 46th/45th route from Woodstock to Johnson Creek in the same category as Powell Blvd? Or not? How about 26th and 28th between Powell and Steele? Same or different? And Cesar Chavez (“39th”) and 41st between Steele and Woodstock – which is paid for by the city and which not, or are they the same? Does the person with a house on the corner of 49th and Martins whose street is a driveway and parking lot for the library branch and businesses fall in the same category as someone on a cul-de-sac a few blocks further south? How about those living across the street from the Safeway mini-mall on 44th, 46th and Ramona, as compared with those on Woodstock itself?
    Personally, I would just stick – at least in the city of Portland itself – with the concept that once the homeowner has paid to build the street (if they want a paved street at all!) the city will maintain it. Streets that get more use/wear – most of which is not due to or for the benefit of the owners and often much the opposite, perhaps setting industrial areas aside – will wear out faster and so should be fixed by the public, not the local house-owners. Those streets with less use, e.g. that cul-de-sac, will wear out slower and so cost the public less.

  6. Scott February 2, 2012 at 2:19 pm #

    (…okay, I’ll shut up after this! but somehow Downtown had previously slipped my mind as a topic…)
    I presume that if we were dividing things into categories, all of Downtown would be given public paid road repairs. Ah, but where would you draw the line? Would it depend on whether there was multi-family housing on a particular block, whether it was rental or condo, mixed or single use? And if it did make a difference, which way would that sway it? Would homeowners in Lents and Parkrose be paying for road repairs next to US Bankcorp’s Big Pink Monolith downtown because they had made the error of living in a “sprawl” zone?
    The more I think about the complexity of trying to decide, block by block, who would qualify and who not for publicly-paid roads, the more the thought occurs to me that I would want to be living in another city – if not another continent – for fear of the rage and political/social warfare that would result.

  7. EngineerScotty February 2, 2012 at 5:12 pm #

    Fair enough—then why ding homeowners for maintaining sidewalks?

  8. Greg in Osaka February 3, 2012 at 6:39 am #

    Engineer Scotty, I definitely agree that sidewalks should be publicly maintained.
    Scott, similarly I think you make a good point that most public funds will go towards the most widely used roads so continued public funding of all maintenance may be the simplest option.
    Alternatively a small portion of the cost (well under half I am thinking off the top of my head) of maintenance in residential streets could be charged to the houses in the particular street. This would defray the cost to the general taxpayers while avoiding overcharging (however one defines that) individuals.
    Or you could charge the costs (street-specific or general) to owners of registered vehicles through annual vehicle registration charges.

  9. Greg in Osaka February 3, 2012 at 6:49 am #

    Of course, the real culprit that Scott alluded to is the truck or other heavy transport. This is where the cost should be sheeted home for road repairs. This would have a substantial impact on the relative competitiveness of road and rail freight.
    I know in the past in Australia when the Federal government tried to implement weight- based road user charges it has led to civil insurrection with truck drivers blockading the nations highways and the capital, Canberra.

  10. EngineerScotty February 3, 2012 at 10:00 am #

    Oregon has a weight-mile tax for trucks, and has had one for years; but many feel the rate is too low.

  11. Bertmacklon October 9, 2012 at 4:58 pm #

    Weather can be the downfall to a contractors success!I’ve talked to concrete contractors in Edmonton about the snow, and it takes a very intuitive and skilled contractor to prevent destruction, and the need of a complete overhaul.