City officials plan to scrutinize Spokane snowplow policies after a tough winter that left streets an icy, rutted mess and led to scores of complaints about downtown snow removal.
For years, Spokane adopted a hesitant approach to plowing snow from the city’s core.
Crews first applied a coat of de-icer before storms hit and then waited for the snow to melt to avoid the costly practice of heaping snow into long, center-lane berms and then trucking it away.
Now, the City Council and members of the Public Works Division, following a winter that prompted multiple all-city plows, are preparing to re-evaluate that approach after criticism by business owners and residents.
During the next several months, elected officials and city staff are pledging to review plowing policies to develop a new response guide that could change how quickly certain streets are plowed and how much the city spends.
“If you don’t look at it from a resource or money standpoint, we can plow the entire city without leaving a single berm behind, if we have the right equipment and resources,” Scott Simmons, public works director, said at a meeting with the City Council this week. “We can do it in x-amount of time, we can do it in 24 hours, in fact. But is that the level of investment we want?”
The city’s goals, outlined in a resolution that will be voted on by City Council members later this month, are reducing the amount of time it takes plows to move through the city, improving snow removal downtown and near medical centers and schools, better communication with the public on parking during plows and identifying ways the city can enforce existing ordinances calling for clean sidewalks and driveways.
City Councilwoman Karen Stratton said residents have been clamoring for a response from the city following a particularly difficult winter that conjured memories of 2008’s record snowfall, when the city spent tens of thousands of dollars a day to remove massive berms downtown.
“I’ve been through a couple winters here, and I’ve never had the calls that I’ve had,” Stratton said. “They’re not mad because there’s snow, they’re mad because they don’t get plowed.”
For downtown residents and businesses, the problem is sometimes compounded by the city’s written policy, which doesn’t prioritize downtown plowing until after de-icing has proven ineffective, said Mark Richard, president of the Downtown Spokane Partnership.
“It’s fair to say that we’re not huge fans of this strategy to try and melt away our problems,” Richard said. “In general, what we would prefer is to plow from the curb out into the middle and remove the snow as much as possible.”
John Waite, who owns Auntie’s Bookstore and Merlyn’s Comics on Main Avenue, said the city’s policies work downtown when there’s a commitment to spend the money and truck snow out.
“I just really felt like we dropped the ball this year,” Waite said, though he noted that when the decision was made to truck out the berms, the snow was removed in less than six hours without a hassle.
Richard said it wasn’t unfair to expect an increased level of service in the downtown core, because more than 20,000 people work there and the businesses produce a significant amount of tax revenue to fund services like plowing.
“It’s not only reasonable, but paramount, that we protect those interests, and protect the commerce downtown,” Richard said.
Council members offered preliminary suggestions this week for how to address not only the downtown problems, but issues including snow pileup in residential neighborhoods and the potholes left behind by extreme weather.
City Councilwoman Lori Kinnear said the city should explore partnering with agencies such as Fairchild Air Force Base and Spokane International Airport to supplement their crews and equipment when conditions worsen.
“There is a reserve in the Streets Department for this sort of thing,” Kinnear said. “The question we need to ask is, do we need to invest in more equipment? Or do we need to partner with other agencies?”
That question would be more easily answered, and communicated to the public, if there was a clear statement of what such services would cost, City Councilman Breean Beggs said.
“The more people we have in the conversation, the smarter we’re going to be, and the greater the public will understand the choices we’re making,” Beggs said.
City Councilman Mike Fagan said this winter’s snowfall should allow Mayor David Condon to work with his colleagues to revise the two-stage snow removal plan carried over from Mary Verner’s administration.
“I’m not saying the mayor can’t do the job, but let’s get the council in there to help out,” Fagan said. “You know the saying, more hands make a lighter load.”
Fagan said the conversation should extend to how the city addresses the long-term problems, like cracking and potholes, caused by the extreme weather, including changing the makeup of road foundation material to include recycled glass, as was done in his neighborhood of Hillyard on Market Street.
Kinnear said the message from citizens has been loud and clear, and the council and administration’s work will reflect that in the coming weeks.
“It’s affirmation that we’re recognizing citizens are asking us to do a better job,” she said.
The resolution to change the city’s snow plan is scheduled for a first reading Monday, during which no public comment will be taken. The council would then vote on the proposal at its March 13 meeting at City Hall.
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