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Spokane hires contractors, rents plows to clear roads

City of Spokane employee Jim Biggar clears the roadway of snow near the corner of Everett and Bemis on Wednesday. 
 (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
City of Spokane employee Jim Biggar clears the roadway of snow near the corner of Everett and Bemis on Wednesday. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane city officials are bringing on extra hands and more equipment to clear snow-clogged streets, but not in time to get students back in school this week.

Spokane Public Schools are closed again today, the fourth day in a row, because buses serving more than 5,000 students cannot maneuver on the slick and mushy streets. Students already were scheduled to be off Friday.

About half the city’s residential streets were still unplowed Wednesday, three days after a major winter storm dumped about a foot of snow across the region.

City officials decided to rent additional snow-removal equipment and hire contractors to speed the pace of plowing. The extra crews were expected to be on the road this morning.

“We’re putting everything we’ve got or can find at this,” Spokane Public Works Director Dave Mandyke said.

Spokane County officials also are considering using contractors, but none had been hired as of Wednesday.

Principals at the 35 elementary schools in the Spokane district reported that streets and sidewalks around the schools remained clogged Wednesday, Superintendent Nancy Stowell said.

Students have Friday off for semester break.

“Our next challenge will be to figure out when we will make these days up,” Stowell said.

The district, she said, hopes the state will provide an emergency waiver for the four days. Without a waiver, students likely will make up those days in June, cutting summer vacation short. It has been more than a decade since schools in Spokane were closed a week because of weather.

City and county crews reported significant progress Wednesday, but many residential areas remained inaccessible to most cars. The Spokane Police Department asked drivers to use tire chains on residential streets – advice endorsed by Spokane Streets Director Mark Serbousek.

“Anything to keep them from getting stuck,” he said.

Officials warned that conditions could get worse with more storms on the way.

Road conditions already were worse in southern Spokane County, which experienced high winds and drifting snow Wednesday, county spokeswoman Martha Lou Wheatley-Billeter said. Some roads won’t reopen for several days, she said.

“If you leave your residence you may not be able to return, so make arrangements for alternative accommodations,” Wheatley-Billeter said in a press release.

Spokane plowing crews have focused their efforts on the northwest, west and southern parts of the city because those areas appear to have been hit the hardest, Mandyke said.

Central Valley school officials said they would wait until this morning to decide whether classes would be canceled another day. The National Weather Service forecast several inches of new snow today.

Spokane buses 5,000 of its 28,000 students, but most routes are within residential neighborhoods. The district also has many special-education students who are dropped off at their doorsteps. That makes it difficult for city crews to clear the district’s routes as a priority, officials said.

“Our buses go just criss-cross all over the city,” said Verna Landy, spokeswoman for First Student, the company that provides transportation for the district.

In Spokane Valley, school officials said roads were mostly clear but clogged sidewalks forced students into the streets as they waited for buses, said Melanie Rose, Central Valley School District spokeswoman.

“We heard from many people yesterday who were concerned about student safety,” Rose said.

Spokane Public Schools administrators added that heavy snow accumulating on school rooftops is a growing concern.

There was frustration in some parts of the city and county as some went into their fourth day of being unable to use their cars.

Bob Strader, who lives in northwest Spokane south of Francis, said he and several neighbors in their 80s were among those without the means to leave. Strader, who has lived in Spokane since 1953, said the city should move quicker.

“We’ve been snowbound in here since Sunday afternoon,” he said.

Others are cutting officials some slack, noting the severity of the weather.

Patrick Moore, chairman of the Southgate Neighborhood Council, said he thinks the city has done a decent job of keeping citizens informed.

“It is what it is,” Moore said. “There’s only so many of them.”

Hiring contractors to supplement its staff and equipment is a first for the city in its snow removal operations, Mandyke said.

Spokane is renting four graders that it will operate with city employees and has hired contractors to run two other graders until streets are cleared, Serbousek said. The additions mean the city has 15 graders in use, plus about 40 other vehicles, including plows and de-icer trucks.

Most all of the graders will remain on residential streets even when more snow arrives. A few might work on arterials that have become bumpy with ice.

Joe Cavanaugh, president of the union that represents street crews, said he’s OK with the use of contractors because the city also made efforts to rent equipment city workers will operate.

When Cavanaugh started at the city in 1979, Spokane could clear all streets after a storm within 3 ½ days, he said. Now the city estimates it takes four or five days.

Cavanaugh said cuts made in city streets staffing over the past 25 years could have slowed the response.

“It has to have an impact,” he said.

Administrators said they believe the city’s response likely is similar to its response in past major snowfalls.

“We’re better utilizing the staff that we have,” Mandyke said.

One significant change over the past couple of decades is that the city relies more on plows than on graders. Officials say that may have benefited the city in its early response because plows can move much faster. But graders are more effective with hard-packed or wet and heavy snow and are in short supply now.

Attempts made to reach Mayor Mary Verner, who was in Olympia on Wednesday, were unsuccessful. Earlier this week, Verner went on a ridealong with a snowplow driver.

She said unless major snowfalls become more common, she wouldn’t support adding crews on a permanent basis.

“It just isn’t going to be possible unless the taxpayers are willing to add dozens more staff,” Verner said.