Fenty€s Efforts at Snow Removal Critiqued

James Wright | 3/10/2010, 12:29 p.m.

D.C. Council member Jim Graham praised the work of city employees during the recent blizzards but said that snow removal must be improved.

Council members, District Residents Weigh-in on Winter Blizzards

While the efforts of District of Columbia employees who worked to clear the streets during the recent snow storms are to be commended, there should be measures put in place to ensure that the mistakes that occurred do not happen again. That was the consensus of D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), his colleagues on the Council and District residents during a hearing on the snow removal debacle, Fri., Feb. 26 at the John A. Wilson Building in Northwest.

Three powerful snow storms, hit the Washington area on Dec. 19-20, Feb. 5-6 and Feb. 9-10. In total, the three storms set a record by dumping approximately 61 inches of snow on the city.

Graham, chairman of the Committee on Public Works and Transportation, said that the city was surprised by the unprecedented precipitation.

"We exceeded the record and we have more than a month of winter to go," Graham, 64, said.

"I want to commend District workers for [their] faithfulness and determination. I want to commend Mayor [Adrian] Fenty for his amazing stamina during that time. Whatever did not happen was not for want or effort."

Nonetheless, Graham said that there were areas that could have been improved.

"We are holding this hearing to find out what worked, what did not work, what we can do better and what do we do financially to pay for the snow removal," he said.

"We need to make sure that our sidewalks are safe. Many of our residents were frustrated by the clearing of the roadways."

Graham said that there needed to be a balance between cleaning the roadways and residential streets.

Bill Howland, director of the District Department of Public Works, agreed that the city was simply not ready for the magnitude of the blizzards.

"In an average year, we get about 15 inches of snow," Howland, 55, said.

"This time, in a two-week period, [in February] we had four feet of snow fall on the city. I praise the efforts of our workers because D.C. was the leader of the region in terms of snow removal efficiency,€ he said.

"I understand people's frustrations but I think we did an exceptional job."

Howland said that the city had a fleet of 94 heavy trucks and 82 light trucks designated to clean up the snow and they were dispersed throughout the District. He said that 2,000 truckloads of snow have been dumped at RFK Stadium in Northeast and at D.C. Village in Southeast.

Gabe Klein, the director of the District Department of Transportation, agreed that the city needs a contingency plan in case a similar situation occurs. District law requires that lanes on major streets be cleared 36-to-48 hours after the snow ends. On residential streets, since they tend to be more secluded, the clearing time is 60-96 hours.

Klein said that District workers performed to the standards during the December blizzard but experienced problems during the second and third storms because they were so close together.

Graham wanted to know whether the snow removal effort was based on selectivity.

"We would like to know how different parts of the city were treated," he said.

"I heard this a lot 'If only I lived in fill in the blank, I would get better service.'"

Klein said that there was no selective process used and that "we treat every area of the city the same."

"One has to look at the terrain," he said.

"The terrain is different in Palisades as opposed to Columbia Heights and they are different from Hillcrest Heights so we have to treat them differently. They are treated with the same amount of effort," Klein said.

Howland pointed out that the snow fell heavier on some parts of the city than others.

There was also the matter of whether Fenty should have sought a presidential declaration of emergency. D.C. Council member Harry Thomas (D-Ward 5) said that might have helped some residents.

"I had people in my ward whose homes were caved in," he said.

"There should have been a declaration of a disaster because low interest loans could be available to my constituents. It is an example of where we could have been treated like a state."

Graham had expressed the need for a presidential declaration for the purpose of getting federal troops to help clean the streets. However, Klein said that a presidential declaration would not have given "any additional access that we already did not have."

During the hearing, a letter from Fenty to President Obama dated Feb. 12 was read by Graham. The mayor asked the president for assistance on snow removal.

While the testimonies of Howland and Klein satisfied members of the Council, the general public still had concerns.

€The plan that the city has is limited,€ Cherlye Adams, a pedestrian safety advocate, said. Adams is a part of a growing number of Washingtonians who want the city to be more walker-friendly.

€When the present snow plan was put into place, it had automobiles in mind,€ she said.

€We need small tractors to clear the sidewalks and we need the next plan to have pedestrians in mind,€ she said.

Graham agreed with Adams.

Albrette €GiGi€ Ransom, an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner for Ward 5, said that there was too much confusion regarding the Fenty administration€s handling of the snow.

€During a snow emergency, some things remained the same and some have changed, especially [considering] the advances in technology,€ Ransom said.

€Questions remain -- what aspects of services should be included in a snow emergency and when should a snow emergency end, when the streets are finally cleared or should it be expanded to include all sidewalks cleared and all trash collected?€

Ransom noted the confusion regarding the opening and closing of schools on Feb. 8 and the strategy for trash collection and snow removal in the alleys.

D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) said that while he was impressed with the efforts of city workers during the blizzard periods and with what Howland and Klein had to say, he said that a functioning government should be able to solve its crises in an efficient manner.

"Like many states and cities we are facing the fact that we may have to raise taxes or get other sources of revenue because we have a major shortfall. But, we still need an effective government and you have to pay for that. It costs money to run an effective government,€ Wells said.

"An ineffective government is not an option."