Be realistic about snow removal

Our view: We're in the middle of the snowiest winter Maryland has ever seen

don't expect roads to be cleared quickly

February 11, 2010

Even before the latest snow started to fall, people around the region were getting frustrated at the efforts of local governments to clear the streets -- from Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller grousing about slip-sliding down Duke of Gloucester Street in Annapolis to Baltimoreans complaining that even main drags like Harford Road were still socked in. With the new storm dumping as much as 20 more inches on the ground, the anger is only going to grow.

We need to put things in some context here. We are not equipped to handle two major snowfalls in a span of five days, nor should we be. To stockpile the kind of equipment necessary to handle such a thing would be an extraordinary waste of money, except in a once-in-a-lifetime event such as we're experiencing now. We are not Buffalo.

Baltimore City, in particular, tends to be the focus of snow removal ire, particularly in comparison with Baltimore County. There is undeniably truth to the notion that county roads tend to be clearer than those in the city. Tempting though it may be for frustrated residents to conclude that the county officials are somehow smarter when it comes to plowing the streets, there are lots of other factors involved -- more narrow streets in the city, more on-street parking, more help for Baltimore County from the state in clearing state roads.

And then there's the money. In December's storm, the city spent $957,000 clearing streets; Baltimore County spent $3.5 million. Is it any wonder that the county would clear streets faster?

We also need to acknowledge that the length and profundity of this round of snow has got to be exhausting the people who are plowing the streets and coordinating the efforts. It's not as if they're working 9 to 5 on this one. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't question at all whether our local governments are deploying their resources effectively. The trouble is that it's hard to see the big picture. As Baltimore Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake noted Tuesday, "The city's not clear until your street is clear."

A major source of the frustration for residents is not knowing when -- or if -- a plow is going to arrive. Is your street next on the list, or has it been forgotten? Information would go a long way toward lessening the frustration.

The city publishes a "snow page" on its Web site, baltimorecity.gov, with maps showing how many times plows have been through various neighborhoods and how long it has been since they've been there. That helps cut down on questions about whether places like Roland Park get better service than poor neighborhoods, but its utility is limited. Just because a plow has been in a neighborhood in the last hour doesn't mean every street there is clear.

The city's plows are tracked by GPS, and with appropriate software, it could likely provide much more detailed -- and real time -- information about where the plows are, where they've been and where they're going. Howard County has such a system (snow2.ho.co.md.us), updated every 15 minutes, showing which streets have been plowed, which have been salted and which remain untreated. Other area counties provide no such information at all.

There are other lessons to be learned from these storms. Mayor Rawlings-Blake issued a call Tuesday for private contractors with snow plowing equipment to contact the city. That's surely a good idea under, but it would be better if the city already had that information before the snow started falling. And both the city and suburban jurisdictions have made municipal parking garages available for free so people can get their cars off the streets, an important step to facilitate plowing. But that would be more effective if local governments enacted a targeted strategy to encourage residents of key streets to participate.

We may not see another storm like this anytime soon, but there's no reason we can't be better prepared if we do. In the meantime, we need to be realistic about what our local officials can do to handle the snowiest winter Maryland has ever seen.

Readers respond

My wife has lived in the city since 1999, ZIP Code 21212, and her street hasn't been plowed ... ever. Not once in 11 years. It certainly hasn't seen plows this year; however, we are on a "list," having finally learned that we can call in to request service. I've worked in city governments for 20 years and have never seen a city where taxpayers are charged so much for non-existent services. I am grateful to be a county employee and can only aspire to being a county resident someday.

George Sarris

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