If you have gone to a blog or opened a newspaper over the past few weeks, it’s been hard to avoid articles like this calling for huge amounts of money to be spent on snow plows and salt so the next time we have a massive snow storm we won’t be snowbound for a week or more at a time. My advice for Sims, Nickels et al is: Don’t listen to these people! At least not yet! This kind of snowpacolypse happens once every fifteen or twenty years. It’s not worth the investment, especially not an rushed, reactionary spending spree. If the city or county runs out and does that, in ten years those same people will be slamming the city or county for wasting money on snow plows that never get used. Sure the response could have been better, but these people are over-reacting when they say we need some massive overhaul.

25 Replies to “Don’t Do Anything (Yet)”

  1. I agree with the fact that we dont’ need massive amounts of new equipment, but the infastructure reaction was abysmal, and some money would be well spent for proper disaster planning–transit, I’m looking at you. The reaction by the city was confused and not communicated well to the taxpayer.

  2. Sure, the reaction sucked. But read this:

    To which, I pose this: Should the city not invest in retrofitting buildings or heavy rescue equipment because a big quake might not rattle us for years?

    These guys are comparing the “big one” earthquake to a week of not being able to drive because of the snow. Text book over-reaction!

  3. I strongly agree with Andrew. Metro needs a policy adjustment, and perhaps Seattle does as well (shoveling a few sets of stairs on each hill would be nice), but the big problem people have hit is that they can’t drive their 2wd cars for a week. That’s not an emergency – that’s our future.

  4. Was it just a week of not being able to drive in the snow? I think it was more than that. People not working impacts the economy. As does people not shopping. How about people that couldn’t get to places like a hospital (of which I know many that couldn’t during the storm)? I suppose if those charter buses had actually gone over the rail and onto I-5 it would have just been no big deal, right? Unless you want to argue that incident wasn’t a result of icy streets.

    The only over-reaction is claiming that a major city that can’t clear its roads in an efficient manner is no big deal.

    There’s no reason for Seattle to go crazy and buy 500 snow plows like Chicago, but to reason that the city should do nothing in order to improve their response and methods of dealing with a major winter storm in simply wrong, in my opinion. Purchasing and using some salt it not an over-reaction, its a proven method of removing ice off roads, as opposed to just sitting around and waiting until it all melts.

    Any city that thinks “hard packing” (SDOT’s words, not mine) snow and ice onto its streets is an effective policy definitely needs a major overhaul in its thought process.

    1. Let’s walk through this.

      People not working: I suppose for this to be reversed, you’d need fully plowed streets – complete with enough snowplows and drivers to plow every single street in Seattle in a day. I think we just beat Chicago. Then you’d also have to rebuild all of our streets to new standards that can accommodate a full steel-blade snowplow. Streets can no longer be mounded to remove rain, we will have to inset all of our manholes, and we’ll have to change out our reflector system for inset reflectors.

      Getting to the hospital: See above. Or we make sure we have a few 4wd ambulances to get to snow-covered streets. Doctors made it to work fine in 4wd vehicles.

      Charter buses driving down ice-covered hills: That was smart. It’s probably the city’s fault.

      Purchasing salt: Not a terrible idea. But I think people assume salt will make streets as clear as I-5. I-5 was clear because of salt, frequent plowing, and the fact that there’s a car a second driving over the street. Without constant plowing using steel edges all the way to the surface (see above), we won’t have clear, ice-free streets.

      I think you have to step back and think about how people expect to get around versus how they should get around in this situation. Using good bus policies (instead of driving articulated buses up hills) would have provided everyone a reasonable amount of mobility – enough to get to work. Providing a clear path for 2wd vehicles to go wherever they want is an unreasonable request.

      1. “Getting to the hospital: See above. Or we make sure we have a few 4wd ambulances to get to snow-covered streets. Doctors made it to work fine in 4wd vehicles.”

        First of all, hospitals could work for a while without many doctors around. It’s the nurses, janitors, housekeepers, radiology techs, cooks and other various and sundry folks who are needed in large numbers and who are more likely to rely on public transit than a physician is–and without those folks a hospital just don’t run.

      2. Well sure, but we don’t need every street plowed to make the buses run. Please click on the link on my first comment for a plan to get fast, reliable service (though with a bit more walking) next time.

  5. I agree with the article. How can we only have that few snowplows and not use salt? Why not rent the extraneous snow plows to WSDOT when not in use? When we expect to get a big dump, they get recalled. Every other city in the region I drove to had infinitely better roads than Seattle. I live on a so-called Primary Route and it was pretty bad even on Xmas eve. Saw a bus getting towed that day on that road. There were still very dodgy side streets in the NE part of the city two days after Xmas. Even if you can discount this reaction with regards to the “big one”, there’s nothing that happened that increased my confidence in their abilities to handle a disaster…any disaster.

    And on a more anecdotal note, when my 65 year old dad has to walk up and down QA hill for 3 days to get to work because not one freakin’ bus goes by, that pisses me off. Upper QA Ave didn’t even see a snowplow until Xmas eve. I don’t care how much you communicate that, it’s not acceptable. He doesn’t have the option to work from home or just not go in except by using a vacation day (which he shouldn’t have to do). God help the city if he had had a heart attack or broken something on one of those climbs or descents.

    And really, the article isn’t about Metro, it’s about Mayor Nickels and the City of Seattle. The bulk of the problems experienced by Metro could have been mitigated by proper action by the city.

    1. There’s a difference between setting policy (the mayor) and implementing it (SDOT). Of course it’s simple to say salt will solve our woes and damn that mayor for not doing it, but where would we have gotten the salt? Where would we store it? You can’t keep salt for too long so you’d have to keep a running supply, which means using up surplus or selling it based on climate projections. This year, we also saw a shortage nationwide which means purchasing it last-second would have been useless because road salt is shipped from the midwest, generally and since on the physical supply chain (train lines), there are several cities that experienced concurrent winter storms, we would probably have lost our supply anyhow.

      Personally, I think it would have been very effective to simply remove rubber guards from snowplows and suspend all business requirements up to fair practice laws on private plowing firms to allow additional hands on the street. That would have cleared the roads. Go back and fix the reflectors during the road maintenance season, which is set to be the largest in years.

      The other problem, and this is a big one, is that most citizens failed absolutely and miserably to keep up their sidewalks, both in their businesses and homes. That’s the one monumental problem. I think there would have been less an ordeal if the city had started fining folks for not doing their duty. The people don’t want to hear how bad they failed and how many potential injuries they could have caused. I also think any damages that occured on unshoveled sidewalk should be assessed to a large sum.

      If it were me setting policy, I’d allow folks to turn in anonymous photos of unshoveled sidewalks to the city for fine purposes. That would get things fixed in a jiffy. Set the fine to something like $1,500 with a fixed due date.

    2. I’m not saying the reaction was good or some improvements aren’t needed. But just because we had a ton of snow a couple of weeks ago, doesn’t mean we need to blow loads of cash on snow plows today.

  6. Nice to see such intelligent discourse here — a great relief after posts on other sites that have gone berserk.

    It’s pretty clear that planning needs to come first: a post mortem (what happened, what did we do right, what did we do wrong), ideas for what needs to change, and a realistic look at whether the money is possibly there to do it.

    Metro has faced huge shortfalls due to the oil spike this last year, and will likely see declining ridership due to the drop in prices at the pump coupled with the loss of thousands of jobs held by regular riders. SDOT can’t have any spare dollars, either.

    Honestly, one thing that Metro should have done is to put employees out on the road in chained 4WD to every major intersection served and put up signs about service changes. Posting on the Web site doesn’t help people who don’t use the Web or don’t know to check it.

    Global warming = really global climate change, which has already resulted in more extremes and freak weather in the last several years. We’re likely to see more snow like this in future years, even if on alternate years the Cascades are frighteningly dry.

  7. Agree, the last thing we need to do is spend a ton of money for a rare event that has few long term consequences. This is not the same thing as an earthquake for example. There were clearly many problems with apportionment of resources and failures to use the transit service. Probably, they should set up some people to study how the city got screwed, and come up with plans for respective agencies to manage the next storm in light of what we have learned about their abilities to handle snow. Like no articulated busses, quick loading web pages to show snow service changes, etc. And they can put it in a glass case like a fire extinguisher and write “break in event of snowpocalypse.”

  8. How about at least taking the rubber off the plow blades? I would be curious to contrast the cost of acquirement and storage of plow-blades and salt versus suspension of collection and transfer station fees as well as increased Metro maintenance.

    Not to mention the goodwill of the people

    1. Salt gets expensive, year over year, especially since you end up having to use it since it kinda “goes bad” in a way within a couple of years. You also have to build facilities to store, accept and distribute it. Then you’d also have to create additional centers through municipalities in the area. It’s a huge tangle of money that gets worse every year, especially now that there are shortages over the past couple of years.

      The rubber on the plow blades should have been fixed fast, especially since SDOT talked long and hard about how much work they’re going to do on the streets, thus negating to a large extent the argument of ruining streets. “YEAH, WE’RE GOING TO REPAIR THE HELL OUT OF YOUR STREETS! RAWRGH!”

  9. A point about the rubber blades. I don’t know if anyone else has noticed this, but Seattle streets have terrible construction flaws. Throughout the city there are manholes that stick up past the pavement or are buried below. This generally annoys me because it’s not a tough thing to get right. But specifically with regard to surface-scraping steel snowplow blades: what would happen if a blade hit one of those? Would it tear the manhole out of the street or flip over the snowplow? It seems a lot like a garbage truck running into a brick wall – one of the two will be alright, but the results won’t be pretty.

      1. From a New York Times article:

        //Mr. Regula likes hard rubber or composite plastic blades on his plows because they do less damage to streets. “It acts like a squeegee on the road,” he said. Mr. Timpone prefers traditional steel. “It gives us much more ability to cut ice,” he said.

        But Sandalo Simonetti, the highway superintendent of North Hempstead, L.I., cares less about the material than about the distance the blade is mounted above the road surface. Manhole covers can ruin a blade or pitch a driver through the windshield, he said.//

  10. One of the things you learn about institutions (or should learn) is that all of that emergency stuff is no good if you don’t drill and rotate your stock. Then of course you need to train new employees for the drills and keep everything updated.

    It’s like keeping a second car to get to work when your first car isn’t available. The second one has to be insured, licensed, and driven regularly to keep the battery and fuel fresh. How much is all of this costing you?

    Frankly, I don’t think the state will be very interested in leasing excess snowplows from the city that they have to give back to the city whenever it snows.

    If the people want to spend more money on all of this, sure. But maybe a well-designed and maintained rail transit system would give more bang for the buck. A switch heater you’re not using should be cheaper than a snowplow you’re not using. Maybe there should be at all times more non-articulated buses than we have right now.

    In any case, calling for widespread changes when we haven’t really seen any reliable summation of what happened seems a little premature.

    And for heavens sakes- lost productivity? Who are we kidding? Nobody in their right mind plans for high productivity in the third and fourth week of December. Oh sure, retailers and the Post Office. But even the retailers are more and more on line, and the Post Office always fills huge warehouses with junk mail in December. But the schools close down, the doctors and lawyers go on vacation, and half of everyone else is visiting relatives somewhere.

    I’ve been trying to figure why this was never a big deal in the past, and the only thing I can come up with is that maybe people expected there would be some bad weather in winter. Maybe part of being happy is just not being crabby.

  11. I loved the last couple of weeks because once in awhile we need to remember that mother nature is ultimately in control. It’s good to be forced to slow down sometimes. And it’s ridiculous to budget for an every 30-year snow-removal event in the current economic climate. This was the best snow we’ve had in decades, and I’m awfully glad my kids got to slide in it. (My sincere condolences to the mall retailers who couldn’t afford this to happen).

    Despite my disgust for the curmudgeons and cranks complaining that the city didn’t engineer its way through adversity, I do think there are some lessons to be drawn here.

    One is that Seattle puts too little priority into keeping the streets operable for transit (and even less for pedestrians). That’s true too much of the time, but was manifestly true during the snow days. The city sometimes forgets that they have the biggest role in making transit work – my guess is that they’d rather blame our transit problems on the suburban majority that runs the county. When the snow starts falling, we start to see where the real priorities are. The city needs to understand that they are the transit provider (since they operate the transit right-of-way), and make a real effort to clear the key bus streets.

    The other is the importance of transit information. This was the first time that Metro had a website with snow advisories – kudos! But those advisories weren’t always correct. And worse, it seemed that Metro felt that putting information on the website is an excuse not to provide the more traditional types of customer information. When they canceled my route this week, was I expected to know to look at the website to find that out? Why would I do that when the streets have been clear all weekend? Why didn’t they put a sign at my bus stop when they are paying bus drivers not to drive my route? I don’t like being left at the curb by someone I’m relying on for a ride. If it was a friend that treated me that way, eventually I’d find a new friend that would at least call before leaving me high and dry.

    The revelation for Metro ought to be the importance of providing real-time, accurate information. There should be staff in the control center devoted to informing the customer, and a small team of IT people making Metro’s information more available on the smart phones almost everyone will be using to figure out what’s happening by the time the next snow emergency comes along. The takeaway should be a recommitment to the customer, especially when operations are difficult.

  12. i’d have to agree with that, in general.

    i was actually thinking the city should be in the business of declaring a ‘city holiday’ when the weather got too hectic. There’s no point to everyone struggling out of bed, trying to see if transit is working, possibly being injured or killed trying to get to work — all for what will be a 10% productive day at best.

    Just shut it down.

  13. I fully agree and am happy to see a reasonable, leavel-headed response. One week out of 12 years is a pretty good run and for that I think the response was well ballanced with the other 623 weeks between major snow storms. I hated being stuck at home, but it was an adventure and I don’t blame the city for my cabin fever.

  14. The City proved it lacked the skill and planning to keep itself up and running through a storm. God forbid we have another major natural disaster because we will be S.O.L! Matt the Engineer referenced a NYT article interviewing public works officials from Westchester and NYC. Both said there’s an art to plowing which takes many storms to master. Seattle DOT did a freshman-level job, and they could have done much better:

    1) sand and salt when the first flakes hit the ground
    2) get the plows on the trucks and start plowing early
    3) send drivers out to eastern Washington or the mountain passes once or twice a winter for some practice
    4) plow to the sides, not the center
    5) deploy loaders and dump trucks to actually remove snow from key intersections
    6) coordinate with Metro more closely
    7) put into effect a snow emergency route designation and tow parked cars if needed

    Questions for Seattle DOT:

    1) Do we really have a stockpile of left-over salt from when we still used it? The Times reported that we did.
    2) How long did it take to “dress the fleet” with plows, and when was the decision made?
    3) Did you really run all 30 trucks 24 hours a day throughout the storm?
    4) Could we contract with our refuse haulers or local excavation contractors for additional plows? No one knows the streets better than the guys picking up the trash.
    5) How hard would it be to keep the SLUT up and running under icy conditions? Should switch heaters be installed?

    1. Could this be any sillier? Anyone who grew up around here will remember sitting in school and watching it snow and hoping it wouldn’t melt before you got out for the afternoon. Most of the snow events in this region aren’t worth the attention of a guy with a broom, let alone a fleet of snowplows.

      I think we better hope that killer bees invade us from Texas, or something else to take our mind off the snow, before we all suffer snow insanity and go blind from attending too many City Council meetings to demand more salt.

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