Cities have different ‘game plans’ for snow emergencies

A Wichita city snowplow works its way north on Meridian Tuesday morning near 37th Street. About 9 inches of snow blanketed the area Tuesday. (Feb. 4, 2014)
A Wichita city snowplow works its way north on Meridian Tuesday morning near 37th Street. About 9 inches of snow blanketed the area Tuesday. (Feb. 4, 2014) The Wichita Eagle

After a major storm dumped 9 inches of snow, main highways in the Wichita area were clear the next day, while the city’s snow emergency routes remained snowpacked and icy for five days.

The Kansas Department of Transportation’s highways are the gold standard for snow removal in Wichita these days, a dubious honor that makes the state’s snowplow czar chuckle.

“Ah, there are a thousand paths that will lead all of us to spring,” said Peter Carttar, KDOT’s assistant maintenance chief. “There are a lot of techniques for removing snow. Sometimes they work. Sometimes they don’t.

“And you understand that Mother Nature, when she decides to dump on us, is going to dump faster than we can plow it.”

Wichitans voiced complaints about the city’s work clearing a little more than 13 inches of snow off streets over the past 10 days, work that left most streets coated with ice for five days after the first 9-inch snowfall on Feb. 4.

The Eagle checked with seven cities in the region, and KDOT officials, to see how they handle snow emergencies. The answer is simple: As best they can, with the understanding that they’re going to be right sometimes and wrong sometimes.

Every city handles snow differently. Some clear residential streets. Some clear the intersections of residential streets. And others, like Wichita, leave residents to fend for themselves in navigating all but major thoroughfares.

‘Read and react’

Tulsa is the most like Wichita. It has a little more than 1,200 miles of arterial streets and another 3,000 miles of residential streets. But it budgets less than half of Wichita’s $560,000 this year – $250,000 – and handles snow emergencies with more equipment and staff: 63 plows, several 4x4s with snowplows and three motor graders operated by 170 drivers and support staff. It doesn’t clear residential streets either.

Even in the land of salt – Hutchinson – there were problems with the Feb. 4 storm.

“I know we don’t make everybody happy,” said Reg Jones, Hutchinson’s longtime public works director. “When you have an opportunity to explain it to residents, they’re not happy, but at least they know there’s a reason.”

Jones’ story is exactly what Carttar means when he says a snow removal plan is like a football game plan – for a game you know you will lose.

It’s a “read and react” game plan: Read what Mother Nature is dumping, and change your reactions accordingly.

“Being flexible and trying various things really is a requirement,” Carttar said. “You have to adjust on the fly as a storm progresses.”

The amount spent on snow removal and expectations of city officials vary among cities. Despite budgeting more than a half-million dollars in Wichita – the amount an average year requires – the city will pirate money from other budget funds if a snowy winter runs through the original budget. The city has 50 plows and 100 drivers to clean 1,500 lane miles of emergency routes.

Many others – including the state – don’t even budget for snow. KDOT spends an average of $14.9 million of tax money per year and employs 590 trucks and 1,100 operators to clean 9,500 highway miles. Since highways have anywhere from two to six lanes, that came to 25,000 lane miles cleared. Over the past five years, the state has spent as little as $6.9 million and as much as $20 million per year, reports KDOT spokesman Steve Swartz.

KDOT spent $3 million over three days to clear the state’s major highways after the Feb. 4 storm.

Interestingly, Springfield, Mo., devotes almost the same amount of resources to snow as Wichita, with less than half of the emergency lane miles to cover at 675.

Jonathan Gano, a public works official in Springfield, said the city budgets $400,000 annually – “We are way over that this year,” he said – to operate 34 plows, four blade-equipped pickup trucks and two road graders.

Hutchinson spends about $60,000 yearly on snow removal, which is about 2 to 2.5 percent of its total budget, Jones said. The city has eight plows and can add up to two graders to cover the 80 street miles it handles during a snowstorm.

Topeka normally uses 31 drivers to handle its 24 plows, but the manpower and equipment was increased to 40 people and 30 plows for this storm. And still they worked around the clock to clear the streets, city spokeswoman Suzie Gilbert said.

It takes the plows 48 hours to make one complete trip around the 700 lane miles, she said.

Olathe stuck with its policy during the Feb. 4 storm and cleared residential streets.

The city has 1,257 lane miles, including 550 lane miles that are major arterial and collector streets. Olathe has a fleet of 57 plows – including 32 pickups – and takes about 24 hours to make one pass through all of the lane miles.

The main streets get first priority, said city spokeswoman Jamie Shockley, so emergency vehicles can get through.

“But we had made at least one pass on most residential streets by early morning” Feb. 5, she said. “We didn’t really have a lot of issues with the storm. A lot of our residents stayed off the streets, so that helped.”

Salina uses 12 plows to take care of 275 street miles, including residential.

“There are three things you can do with residential streets – do nothing, push the snow to the center or push it to the curb,” said Mike Fraser, Salina’s public works director.

Salina pushes it to the curbs, which means a plow ridge along parked cars and driveways.

Plowing time

In Wichita, city officials said the main issue with the recent storm was plowing time. It takes the city’s 50 trucks at least 24 hours to make one pass around the snow emergency routes, and the snow simply fell faster last week – as fast as 2 inches an hour at its peak – than city plows could make their circuits. Drivers turned the fresh snow into an impenetrable layer of snowpack before the plows could return.

There’s no set time among the others for a clean sweep of city streets.

Like Wichita, it takes about 24 hours per route in Tulsa, Allen said. However, the city has the option of opening only one lane on arterials to speed the plowing circuit, she said – a process that generally takes six to eight hours.

It normally takes eight to 10 hours to plow all 275 miles in Salina one time, Salina public works director Mike Fraser said, but unusually bad conditions and the need to use several new drivers during the Feb. 4 storm stretched that to about 12 hours.

In Manhattan, a crew of 18 people handling 15 plows takes 48 hours for one sweep of all city streets – 425 lane miles including residential streets.

In Springfield, it takes a larger crew eight hours to cover the 675 lane miles that are roughly a third of all city streets, Gano said.

The only residential streets Hutchinson crews plow are around schools, so that leaves about 200 miles of residential streets that aren’t plowed. That’s the source of many of the complaints.

“But if you plow residential streets,” Jones said, “you put a plow ridge next to cars and driveways. A lot of times we get more complaints from that.”

Hutchinson generally starts plowing when snow accumulation reaches 3 inches. The city also sometimes mixes wet calcium chloride with the salt to help reduce the temperature necessary to melt the snow.

Unlike Wichita, Hutchinson and Salina don’t mix sand with salt because of the cleanup required after the storm.

Residential streets

Wichita doesn’t plow residential streets, Mayor Carl Brewer said: Never has, never will.

There’s a clear economic reason for that: About 70 percent of the city’s streets – some 3,300 lane miles – are residential.

Even in an average year, plowing every street would drive the city’s annual snow removal budget from a half-million dollars to almost $2 million – a budget increase that likely wouldn’t be approved by a council under heavy pressure from conservative anti-tax groups to cut spending.

In response to public criticism, Brewer said the city could buy 70 additional trucks and hire more staff. The cost, the city said, would exceed $10 million.

Wichita’s not the only city that does not plow residential streets. Tulsa doesn’t plow them either. Officials estimate that the four storms Tulsa has weathered this winter would have set taxpayers back $3.2 million to plow residential streets, Allen said – $800,000 per storm.

Topeka got a record number of snow-related complaints from the Feb. 4 storm that dumped 13 inches on the state’s capital.

But much of that was probably driven by a new mobile app that allows residents to submit their complaints and even include a picture of the problem, city spokeswoman Gilbert said.

This was the first major storm in which Topekans have had a chance to use the app since it was released in November.

The state’s capital has 1,600 lane miles but regularly plows 700 of those, Gilbert said. Residential streets are only plowed when the city manager demands it, she added.

And Jim Colson demanded it for the Feb. 4 storm.

“People really expect their residential streets to be plowed,” she said. “We don’t do it often. We usually don’t need to because we treat intersections of residential streets.”

Springfield doesn’t plow residential streets either, Gano said – unless snow depths reach 8 to 10 inches and threaten the ability of emergency crews to get to calls.

Carttar appreciates all the praise that Wichitans have directed at his state snowplow drivers.

But he wants them to understand the state’s job plowing roads is easier than the city’s.

“Without parked cars, without a tightly gridded city, it allows you an opportunity to get in and treat the roads,” he said. “Just the geometry of getting into a metro area, not only the obstacle course, but it’s a real art plowing a cul-de-sac. It’s not the sort of thing that’s easily taught.

“And when the temperatures go way south after a storm, it’s just tremendously harder for everyone.”

Brewer said his mind remains open on the snow removal subject: If Wichitans want a guarantee that the streets are going to be immediately clean after every storm, let the city know and be prepared to pay for equipment and people who will be little-used.

“It’ll cost us year-round,” the mayor said, “and there will be years we’ll never use the equipment. Or the people.”

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