The second-guessing over snow removal isn’t confined to Spokane, although officials here said last week they are making changes to their plowing protocol for future storms.
City Hall will now make wider use of road graders when needed and will start plowing hilly residential streets earlier during major winter storms.
Miscues during the last series of storms led to a paralyzing meltdown in residential access on Dec. 2.
Spokane’s experience may pale in comparison to traffic problems in the Seattle area last month – problems that have also resulted in changes in how winter storms are managed there.
The Nov. 22 snowfall triggered a rush of Western Washington commuters hurrying to get home at midafternoon.
Thousands of drivers ended up caught for hours in paralyzed traffic, the worst spot occurring on a southbound stretch of Interstate 5 near Tukwila, south of Seattle.
A semitruck jackknifed along an elevated curve near the Duwamish Waterway, backing up traffic throughout the evening. Motorists were trapped for up to six hours.
When the accident was finally cleared, drivers were unable to get traction and started colliding with one another.
The freeway was so jammed that sanding trucks were unable to reach the icy scene, said Steve Pierce, spokesman for the state Department of Transportation.
“It was literally a skating rink,” he said.
Other road segments were nearly as bad.
The Washington State Patrol had 1,044 accident calls in all of Western Washington in the 24 hours after the storm hit and logged nearly 1,000 disabled vehicles.
As a result, DOT and the State Patrol have come up with changes to prevent the winter snarls that occur in that region every few years.
Two joint response teams, each made up of a State Patrol car and a snowplow, will be deployed to high-priority collisions involving buses, semitrucks and other large vehicles in King County.
Small sanding trucks will also be deployed since they might be able to squeeze through traffic stuck along sections of freeway with limited shoulder space. The DOT said last week it is purchasing small trucks for conversion to mini-sanders.
If those methods prove effective, they may be deployed in other parts of the state, the DOT said.
At the same time, troopers will start writing more citations to truckers who fail to chain up when conditions require it, according to WSP Chief John Batiste.
“Our troopers will be writing citations for all chain-up violations they spot, even if there hasn’t yet been a collision,” he said in a news statement.
In Spokane, rethinking of the city’s plowing effort has been quick.
Residential streets in hilly areas of the city will be among those to get plowed when the city goes into a stage 1 snow emergency.
They will be added to the stage 1 list of priority streets – arterials, bus routes, downtown, neighborhood business districts and the medical campus areas on the lower South Hill.
A wider residential plowing will occur when the city moves to a stage 2 emergency.
“This will improve conditions on the hills even when there isn’t enough snow for a full stage 2 snow emergency and will provide a jump start on residential plowing if a stage 2 is needed,” said city spokeswoman Marlene Feist.
A stage 1 emergency is declared when 2 inches of snow are on the ground and 4 more are anticipated during a storm; stage 2 is triggered by 6 inches of snow on the ground with more anticipated.
In addition, graders will be sent into residential streets in a stage 2 emergency if truck plows cannot scrape the accumulated snow down to 2 inches or less.
It was a buildup of snow and ice that led to paralyzing conditions on residential streets on Dec. 2 even though the streets had been plowed with trucks once during the record-setting 25.9 inches of snowfall in November. An overnight thaw turned the hard-packed snow to mush, allowing vehicle wheels to sink into it.
The city also has increased capacity of a computer serving as the site for the city’s snowplow map and added greater detail to the map. The map was inundated with 213,000 hits that caused the computer to melt down – just like the snow.
Caught in a car pool caper
Elsewhere on the West Side, a driver was caught in a high-occupancy vehicle lane with a life-size doll in the passenger seat late last month.
The WSP reported that the driver was stopped on the northbound state Highway 167 ramp to northbound Interstate 405 in the vicinity of Renton. The trooper noticed the “passenger” had unblinking eyes. The trooper made the stop and found a stuffed Diego doll from the children’s show “Go, Diego, Go!”
Shopping and slow going
Traffic backups at NorthTown Mall will lead to deployment of traffic flaggers at times through the holiday season, city officials said. Delays are possible during heavy shopping periods.