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Can there be 'enough plows?'

Airports | Amtrak | Buses | Capital Weather Gang | D.C. snow emergency | Plowing plans | Rails | Snow removal | Live traffic

A snow plow is stuck in the media of Route 123 in McLean. Cliff Owen/ Associated Press

My good colleagues Robert Thomson and Robert McCartney make very worthy points about the snow removal efforts this week in Virginia, Maryland and the District. Quite a number of readers also have weighed in on the subject by e-mail in the past 10 days, a great many of them frustrated because the plows had not yet reached their street. It was particularly frustrating to them when they heard from nearby friends whose streets had been visited by the plows.

I've written back to quite a few of them, asking what they felt was a reasonable time frame in which a plow should reach them after a big storm. Their answers generally fell in the 24- to 48-hour range.

I'm not a columnist, a highway engineer or a snowplow operator, and I make no judgment as to whether those are reasonable expectations.

I know, however, from reporting I did in December, that if it was the public will to have all streets maintained as passable during a big storm, it probably could be done. All it takes is substantially more money than taxpayers have been willing to provide for snow removal.

I wrote about a town in Michigan, Petoskey, that holds the record in that snowy state for the highest snowfall in a week in state history. Their plows kept the roads open throughout it.

The story went on to say that Petoskey spends $11,055 per mile per year on snow removal. The District spends $5,636 per mile per year on snow. Northern Virginia spends $1,623 per mile per year. Maryland spends $1,529 per mile per year just on the state highways (the counties have snow budgets too).

Petoskey knows it will snow heavily there every year. There have been some winters in Washington in the past decade when it hardly snowed at all.

In an interview on NPR radio, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley couldn't stifle his laughter when asked whether the state had enough plows.

"We don't have enough snowplows for this," he said. "No state in the mid-Atlantic would have enough snowplows for this. We prepare for snow events that are in the normal range of 7 to 9 inches, not 49 inches or 59 inches. It's hard to explain the magnitude of this storm unless you see it."

-- Ashley Halsey III

By Ashley Halsey  |  February 11, 2010; 11:17 AM ET
Categories:  Weather  | Tags: winter weather  
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Our crews have asked us to publicly thank the many, many residents who have helped dig out County trucks when they got stuck, rushed to feed them homebaked cookies, let them use their bathrooms and generally kept them going through this extraordinary week. Our community has really pulled together to get through this. -- Mary Curtius, Arl County Govt.

Posted by: mcurtius | February 11, 2010 12:23 PM | Report abuse

These are all good points. This is a once-in-a-generation event. People need to realize that it is not a typical snow storm. If this happened all the time we would have those giant snow melting machines like the Canadians use to handle this volume. But since we don't finding places to pile it up is getting difficult.

Posted by: fedssocr | February 11, 2010 1:00 PM | Report abuse

Does anyone think that any politician who suggested back in late October and early November that this was going to be a tough winter, and that taxes needed to be increased to pay to prepare would have been (re)elected? I am just grateful that roads have been cleared and that I never lost power. All hail the dedicated crews from PEPCO and VDOT and all the others who have worked their way through this with little sleep and much dedication.

Posted by: groover0227 | February 11, 2010 1:11 PM | Report abuse

Ms. Curtius,

I was just driving through the Crystal City/Pentagon City area and there plenty of snow trucks and Bobcats removing snow from spots with meters. No doubt they are spots that generate revenue for Arlington.

Too bad some of those same trucks and Bobcats can't head up Washington Blvd to S Wise St and many of the residential streets in this area that are, as of yet, unplowed.

Posted by: p3mikey | February 11, 2010 1:30 PM | Report abuse

I can appreciate that the region does not have enough plows because they continue to not anticipate a heavy snowfall. What I can NOT appreciate is our public officials (particularly Jack Johnson, Pr. George's County) repeatedly stating that 95% of the county's streets have been plowed. The actual number is closer to 60%; and most of those are residents who are serviced by private contractors, not the county. My neighborhood (Largo/Kettering) has NEVER seen a county plow, even from the Dec. snowfall. If it not for our own ingenuity, we would have been trapped in our homes since last Saturday.

Posted by: alorra9115 | February 11, 2010 1:51 PM | Report abuse

Once in a generation event? Its happened 3 times in the last winter, and twice in the last week!

Posted by: thetan | February 11, 2010 1:57 PM | Report abuse

Usually my street gets plowed a week after snow fall, when it has been cleared out. However in the Dec. 19 storm a man died on my street and both police, fire, and ambulance were unable to get onto our street. The body had to be carried over 1/4 a mile to get help. Now the plows have been coming at least once a day, probably because they are prioritizing the most dangerous streets.

Posted by: josh703 | February 11, 2010 2:08 PM | Report abuse

Good point, thetan. We had 20+" in 1996, 24+" in 2003, now 2009-2010. While not yearly events, they certainly aren't "once a generation" events, either.

Posted by: ceebee2 | February 11, 2010 2:24 PM | Report abuse

Even in snowy Anchorage Alaska, the standard for plowing subdivisions is 72 hours. We have lots of plows and snow removal equipment.

Posted by: muckamuck | February 11, 2010 2:35 PM | Report abuse

For those who recently moved to DC, I'm sure this looks like a once in a generation event. I'm 33 years old, and in the "generation" I've been alive, we've seen this sort of snow at least in 1979, 1983, 1996, 2003, etc. Simply put, local governments make a calculated bet that snow won't occur within the region, and budget accordingly. This year they lost.

Posted by: jcooke1 | February 11, 2010 2:37 PM | Report abuse

I appreciate the enormity of the task in front of VDOT. However, we have not seen a plow in more than a week. Our street is not a cul de sac nor a dead end. VDOT tells me that 90% of the roads have had a once over, but I think they are being disingenuous. For three days they've been telling me our street is now on the Emergency Operations log. Some emergency.

Posted by: Buried | February 11, 2010 2:37 PM | Report abuse

I'm surprised at those costs per mile by jurisdiction. Maryland and DC seem to be in line with each other (once you add the local roads into Maryland's state snow costs), but Virginia falls far short. Virginia and DC's numbers as reported are comperable to each other, since they include all roads, local, arterial, and interstate. No wonder Virginia residents are suffering without plows...they only budget 1/4 of what DC budgets!

Posted by: thetan | February 11, 2010 3:06 PM | Report abuse

Plenty of plows, poor logistics. The costs per mile are not even comparable because there are some economies of scale of tending a large, metropolitan area.

Posted by: Wallenstein | February 11, 2010 3:16 PM | Report abuse

So what is the story with metro? Will it be back to normal in time for tomorrow's rush hour? If not the Feds might have to close for a 5th day. Not sure why this isn't being followed more closely by the good Dr.

Posted by: Axel2 | February 11, 2010 3:35 PM | Report abuse

None of the snow is really happening. It's all a mirage induced by the miasma of greenhouse gases surrounding us. We are all going end up with our gooses cooked from the heat of global warming. Mr. Nobel Prize winner himself Al Gore has said it; it must be true.

Posted by: txpenguin | February 11, 2010 3:43 PM | Report abuse

I want to know how much the citizens in Petoskey pay for snow removal in taxes? If government budgets were rational; the amount of taxes allocated to snow removal would remain at the 20 year removal level. But, the money does not stay where it is allocated; so when the 20 year blizzards come, there is not enough money. I am a native, as is my mother, and was my grandmother. My mother was born in 1919; she has seen them all. This year, the snow removal was terrible. Our governments are responsible/obligated to be ready to handle the worst. They failed.

Posted by: linda_521 | February 11, 2010 4:18 PM | Report abuse

Michigan native here who vacations near Petoskey each year - just keep in mind that Petoskey is a SMALL town with only a couple of main streets. Keeping Petoskey's roads plowed is hardly the equivalent of keeping the DC/VA/MD metro area plowed....more like if you just had to keep Georgetown plowed. (Slight exaggeration, but only slight.)

Posted by: snowdendantan | February 11, 2010 4:25 PM | Report abuse

Ashley: In view of the decision to open the government last Friday when the area roads and Metro were not prepared to handle the traffic, what about your examining how OPM's John Berry gets to work? Does he get driven in a GOV for security reasons? Does he drive his own car or SUV and have a reserved parking space? How far does he commute? Seems like if he is making decisions that affect so many people, we should understand his point of view.

Posted by: Vestniek | February 13, 2010 3:45 AM | Report abuse

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