Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

D.C. is deploying 750 people to handle snow in this year's winter

December 19, 2011 - 12:15 PM
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(Photo: Jay Westcott)

Snow, as we all know, can be a commuting nightmare. Luckily D.C. seems relatively prepared, at least according to talk in the Wilson Building this morning, with hundreds ready for any disastrous fall that may happen.

Last week I relayed the plans that the District and WMATA have released so far about the winter's coming snowfalls. Today the D.C. Council's Committee on the Environment, Public Works and Transportation met to discuss these plans. Bill Howland, director of the D.C. Department of Public Works, mentioned several numbers that should give a sense of how the District will handle snow this year.

So how is our government preparing?

About 750 people across the different government departments are prepared to deal with winter weather, Howland told Ward 3 Council Mary Cheh, who chairs the committee. These hundreds of people will take to the plows, ensure traffic cameras are working, monitor the emergency routes, and help facilitate communications, and make sure any number of transportation dimensions are smoothly running. There will be 294 pieces of equipment to deal with any snow that piles up.

Both Cheh and Howland name-dropped Snowmageddon, however, and Cheh was ready with questions about the state of the equipment and what we should expect and not expect from D.C. government as snow arrives in the coming weeks or months. Snow may be gorgeous but it can also be a freezing mess. Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser lightheartedly noted that she's come to "to hate snow, actually." One problem discussed was the age of our snow vehicles.

"A lot of the DDOT/DPW trucks are at the end of their useful life," said Howland when talking about replacements on the way.

Cheh agreed and alluded to a recent tour of the snow preparation vehicles and plans. How did she assess the state of certain vehicles she saw? In her matter-of-fact way, Cheh said they looked "pretty bad." She said she saw many of these vehicles are outdoors and asked if there may be any changes in the future to help lengthen the vehicles' lives. No such changes are planned, the director answered. Are we losing money due to these aging vehicles kept out outdoors. "Potentially," Howland said.

Another issue for the government's snow-clearing operations will be alleys, where many people park their vehicles and empty their trash.

"It's the responsibility of the homeowners to clear the alleys?" Cheh asked the DPW director.

"Yes," he answered, "we just don't have the resources to clear the alleys." He added that the structure of alleys poses an obstacle for many government vehicles.

Yet as Cheh pointed out, trash cans often occupy alleys, and when alleys are full of snow, the government can't collect trash. Howland noted that the government has had to stall trash collection in some places for as long as a week in 2010. The two officials continued to talk through the many complications that snow-collection entails, from all the different agencies and companies like Pepco involved to a store-owner's and citizen's responsibility to clear snow to what a snow emergency means and doesn't mean to the very real problem of drivers blocking the box in winter weather. A snow emergency, the director clarified, is "not a declaration of a state of emergency." Snowstorms can lead to hundreds of downed trees and downed power lines.

Snow madness may be on the way, in any case, despite the government's preparation. I've rarely encountered a winter season where there weren't a few headaches and a few cries of angst from people buried under the white flakes. But planning is good, as evidenced in this dialogue as well as the website full of information that the District has launched and I mentioned last week, and planning may be the best preparation any District resident can take at this moment.

"Throughout the winter, everyone needs to check the weather at least once a week," Howland remarked.

The man, at the least, seemed well versed in the different levels of snowfall and where the storms tend to come from. More snow, for instance, falls in Northeast D.C. than Southeast. He also alluded, when talking of the different snow emergency routes and plans, to something called "the penguin chart." Take that as any assurance or horror that you will.

"Penguin chart?" Cheh asked in amused disbelief when the phrase was first uttered.

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