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City: More equipment, crews needed to avoid repeat of Feb. 4 storm response

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014, at 11:11 a.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, July 15, 2014, at 6:15 p.m.

City Council members, fed up with social media-fueled anger about snow removal efforts last week, posed a couple of questions Tuesday in response to complaints.

Mad about the inches of snowpacked ice on city streets? Mad enough to foot the bill for the 70 trucks and drivers needed to make sure it doesn’t happen again?

Council members and city staff fired back at snow removal critics, saying city crews were overwhelmed by the intensity of the Feb. 4 storm that left city streets snowpacked for five days. So the council is going to take a look at how much it would cost to get the equipment and manpower necessary to avoid a repeat.

The city doesn’t have enough snowplows, or the people to drive them, to handle a fast-falling nine-inch snowstorm followed by single-digit temperatures, city officials said.

“We didn’t have the ability to avoid the snowpack,” public works director Alan King said.

Those crews don’t “have the tools they need,” Mayor Carl Brewer said.

Complaints by drivers on social media included indictments of city staff and photos of contrasting road conditions with scatalogical references.

“We have some citizens who can be cruel and juvenile in the things they use on social media today,” Brewer said. “They have no idea these people live next to them and are doing the best they can.”

Several options were bandied about – the need for at least 70 more trucks and plows, and possibly up to 250 more – to handle heavy snowfall by reducing the amount of time required to plow the city.

Currently, city crews – 100 drivers splitting shifts to drive 50 plows – need about 24 hours to plow the 1,500 lane miles of emergency routes once, King said.

To cut that time to four to eight hours, King said he’d need from 100 to 250 plows. The city has 53 positions open that could be used for plow drivers, but 45 of those are being held open as part of budget cuts.

City Manager Robert Layton said the additional trucks would likely sit idle for most of the year, because the city’s existing fleet is adequate to handle normal non-snow public works business.

City officials also will review their internal operations and look for opportunities to contract with private snow removal crews.

Any options could carry potentially significant costs for taxpayers, enough that the option chosen might have to be included in the city’s 10-year capital improvements program.

The bottom line for taxpayers as presented Tuesday: You want cleaner streets guaranteed, regardless of heavy snowfall and single-digit temperatures? Get out your checkbooks.

Here’s how King described the “perfect snowstorm”:

“The amount and intensity of the snowfall, particularly over a few hours near the end, represented a significant challenge” versus the ability of city snow plows to remove it, he said.

It takes 24 hours with street crews running at maximum capacity to cover the city’s key snow routes, King said. That’s too long, given the rate of snowfall last week and the mercury’s subsequent plunge into single digits, he said.

So the cold turned the snow that fell in between those 24-hour plowing passes into an impenetrable layer of ice, packed down by cars trying to navigate the city.

The thickness of that layer, and the single-digit temperatures, “rendered our salt ineffective,” King said.

So city crews resorted to “liberal” sand application Thursday and Friday in an effort to improve traction on the ice.

“What that looks like is trucks out with plows up, and it looks like they’re doing nothing,” King said.

Temperatures rose enough over the weekend that city crews were able to apply salt and sand, breaking up the snowpack enough that it could be removed, he said.

Those things “made removing Monday’s 4-inch snowfall significantly easier,” King said.

Brewer was clear as the report concluded.

“Bring us the numbers for the 70 trucks, the other options, so we can decide how to go forward,” he told King.

Reach Bill Wilson at 316-268-6290 or bwilson@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @bwilsoneagle.

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