To plow or not to plow – that’s the question constantly swirling in Mark Serbousek’s head.
As the longtime director of Spokane’s Streets Department, he’s tasked with weighing whether to spend days and many man hours plowing Spokane’s streets, asking people to move their cars and vacate downtown parking lots, or to keep the important roadways like bus routes and hills clear and hope snow on downtown streets and side streets melts away.
On Monday, though, the question was answered when about 3 inches of snow fell Sunday night and another 3 piled on top of it throughout the day. With Mayor David Condon by his side, Serbousek announced the city was in the midst of a “stage 2 snow event,” meaning all of Spokane would be plowed – the first time this season.
“Nobody was predicting to have 6 inches out of this storm,” he said. “In fact, the residentials (streets) are showing even more – that’s why we went to stage 2, when you have more than 6 inches on the ground.”
But many who have braved the treacherous roads in their cars or stepped over large mounds of snow crossing the street by foot might wonder what took so long.
“I’m kind of surprised it’s this bad actually,” said Sunshine Wetter, who grew up in Rockford, moved away and has since returned. “I’m thinking, ‘There must be a problem with the budget or something.’ ”
Ashley Joseph slid and slipped her way into a parking spot downtown. She’s from Yakima, which has also seen heavy snowstorms this season, but she said the streets there were pretty bare compared to Spokane.
“There’s a lot of snow on the ground, which is very surprising,” she said. “It’s not like that there.”
It all begs the question: How do other cities that see comparable amounts of snow handle similar snowfall?
In Coeur d’Alene, which is known in the area for taking pride in its snow removal policy, the entire city – residential streets included – is plowed when as little as 2 inches of snow is recorded. In Spokane, 6 inches of snow has to fall before downtown and residential streets are plowed.
“We like to be very aggressive,” said Tim Martin, Coeur d’Alene’s streets and engineering director. “Any time we go out of here on a citywide or arterial plow, we’re going to be downtown.”
Downtown Spokane isn’t plowed until a “stage 2” snow hits, partly because there’s an issue where to put the snow. City policy is to pile up berms in the middle of the street, but that can be confusing for drivers and a hindrance to pedestrians.
Unlike Spokane, which takes about 60 plowers roughly four days to clear snow, Martin said Coeur d’Alene’s 13 pieces of plowing equipment can finish a city-wide plow in about 30 hours.
Granted, Coeur d’Alene’s snow crews have a lot less street to cover. At about 550 lane miles, it pales in comparison to Spokane’s 2,100. And, Spokane has steep hills that require constant attention from crews.
“If we have a storm, we have to keep going back to the hills and fend those off,” Serbousek said. “We try not to have the hills close down from wrecks and such.”
But then again, other cities that record similar numbers to Spokane’s average yearly snowfall of 45 inches, and have roughly proportional lane miles to plow, appear to put more emphasis on snowplowing and removal – downtown and residential areas included.
In Green Bay, Wisconsin, for instance, city officials say the city’s 1,600 to 1,800 lane miles are plowed when just 2 inches of snow are recorded. Steve Grenier, Green Bay’s public works director, said the crews can clear the snow pretty quickly.
“If we don’t have these nasty winds and it’s not heavy wet snow, if it’s just a generic, light, dry 4-to-6 inch snowfall event, 10 hours is what I’m happy with,” he said.
Overland Park, Kansas, which receives about 17 to 18 inches of snowfall a year, has 44 snow removal vehicles that plow “thoroughfares and priorities,” including downtown streets, when an inch and a half of snow falls, said Jeff Hunt, a shift captain at Overland Park’s public works department.
But like Spokane, residential areas are given a lower priority.
“It just depends on what type of storm it is,” Hunt said.
Late Monday, #SpokaneStreets was trending in the area on Twitter.
@Real_J_Eddy, of Liberty Lake, tweeted “Someone come plow my driveway. Im watching the national championship #SpokaneStreets.” @kingylingy, of Spokane, tweeted “#spokanestreets is trending. probably isn’t a good thing.”
Serbousek, who has worked for Spokane Streets Department for more than two decades, said he often hears people comparing Spokane to other cities, but said there are just “too many variables” to make a proper comparison.
Despite this, he and Condon said they looked at other municipalities such as Madison, Wisconsin, and Boise to compare their snow removal policies.
“We are comparable with other cities from what we’ve found and talked to,” Serbousek said during a news conference Monday in City Hall.
Whatever the case, people like Wetter who are caught downtown trying to walk over large mounds of snow, or motorists stuck trying to leave a downtown parking spot, will have to wait until all of the roads are cleared in a few days.
“I don’t remember it ever being this bad,” Wetter said.