Post-mortem on snow cleanup should be regional

February 22, 2010|By Michael Dresser Getting there

There are all kinds of ways to look at a pair of snowstorms dumping about 40 inches of flakes on our heads in a single week.

Tragedy. Comedy. An excuse to miss work or school.

What might be most useful, however, is to look at it as a learning experience. Because something like this could happen again. And it might or might not wait another 100 years.

Bad as they were, the twin snowstorms of February 2010 were not a worst-case scenario. Imagine a massive ice storm bringing down power lines all over metropolitan Baltimore - a fate avoided this time around - followed by 30 inches of heavy snow blocking utility trucks from responding, then a deep freeze with temperatures near zero. It doesn't seem so implausible now, does it?

One thing most people can agree on is that the double snow events pushed the resources of state and local governments past their limits. Maryland state government isn't equipped to deal with Garrett County snow levels in all 24 jurisdictions. Baltimore isn't prepared to be Buffalo.

Many things were handled well. Public order was maintained - even in a city where snowstorms have led to rioting. Medical emergencies, for the most part, received a response. For the week of the storms, Maryland was a demonstrably safer place.

But many things went wrong. Neighborhoods that officials believed had been dug out were, in fact, untouched. Main commuter routes were cleared slowly, and often snow removal operations took away crucial lanes during peak travel periods. Transit systems promised more than they delivered. Agencies that should have worked together didn't coordinate or showed excessive concern for jurisdictional niceties.

Now is not the time to examine the failures. It's time for the folks who worked so hard to dig us out to get some sleep. It's time for the people in the last neighborhoods excavated to cool off. But come April it would be a good time to reflect on the lessons learned from this winter's woes.

In Washington, the metropolitan Council of Governments announced it will conduct an "after-action conference" this spring to evaluate snow-removal efforts in a regional context. It's a good idea that should be adopted by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, the council's counterpart here. Right now the BMC is planning a routine operations committee follow-up. Given the magnitude of the event, a more high-profile public gathering would be useful.

Such a regional conference ought to follow a "lessons-learned" session to be held by each of the jurisdictions and transportation agencies in metropolitan Baltimore. Howard County Executive Ken Ulman is already planning one. But after governments and agencies examine their own performance, it is critical that they share their failures and successes and look at how they worked together.

Case in point: For several days early last week, northbound traffic heading into Baltimore on Interstate 95 backed up all the way to the Beltway. The problem: a relatively small patch of snow was not removed from the roadway where Interstate 395 merges into Conway Street. Traffic that normally flows in two lanes was compressed into one and a bottleneck was created.

That happened at precisely the point where the Maryland Transportation Authority's road maintenance ends and the Baltimore Department of Transportation's begins. Somehow the agencies failed to coordinate.

One of the questions a regional conference should examine is that of public expectations. It became clear during and after the storms that many residents anticipated a return to normal far sooner than was possible. The region needs a clearer consensus of how bad a storm we should prepare for. It would make no sense for the state to prepare for 40 inches of snow and the city and counties to be ready for 20. Do we prepare for a Buffalo-style winter - at great expense - when another one might not come around for 50 years?

Even without massive new investments, there are certainly things that could be done better with existing resources. Contractors must be put to better use and their results more closely monitored. Common strategies should be adopted for travel corridors that cross jurisdictional lines. Parking policies should be clarified. Criteria for which streets get plowed in which priority should be debated and published to counter suspicions of favoritism.

The temptation with any such session would be to use it to wallow in recriminations and to fix blame for political gain. That would serve little purpose. The question is how we as a region, citizens and officials alike, can do better when the next Big One comes.

As it will. As it will.

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