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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Getting There: Mayor satisfied with Spokane’s snowplow response, though director acknowledges issues downtown

Spokane City plows clear 14th Avenue on the South Hill in November 2022. Following record-breaking snowfall on Jan. 17, Mayor Lisa Brown says of the city’s slowplowing that “we want to just continue to do better, but I don’t think it was a poor response.”  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Spokane’s snowplow system recently faced its first test under the new administration, and Mayor Lisa Brown is satisfied with the city’s performance after record-breaking snowfall on Jan. 17.

“I think they actually did a good job,” particularly given the city’s budget restraints, Brown said in a Friday interview. “Obviously we want to just continue to do better, but I don’t think it was a poor response.”

Brown added that she has not yet been part of discussions to improve plowing going forward.

Starting slowly around midnight on Jan. 17, nearly a half-foot of snow fell on Spokane before the storm moved on in the late afternoon. The snowfall was nearly double the 71-year-old daily record set on Jan. 17, 1953, when about 3.4 inches fell on the city.

Plowing began nearly immediately with 24-hour maintenance of arterials, hills and other priority routes, transitioning the morning of Jan. 18 to a three-daylong full-city plow meant to reach every inch of the city’s 2,200 lane miles – the length of its roads multiplied by the number of lanes, which each generally have to be plowed.

“Within three days, everything got plowed,” Brown said. “I’m not buying that it’s a worse response than other cities or in other times.”

Public Works Director Marlene Feist, who oversees the city streets department, has certainly heard those comparisons, whether to the plow response in very dense East Coast metropolises or mid-sized cities with significantly heavier snow throughout the season. She doesn’t argue that some may plow quicker; she argues they’re unfair comparisons.

“Boston has magnitudes more population but about the same number of lane miles – with the concentrated population, they were able to afford a faster response,” she said. “It’s more compact with, like, 10 times the number of streets’ employees on that full-city plow.”

Feist has also heard Spokane compared unfavorably to Buffalo or Minneapolis, where the snowfall is consistently higher than Spokane – though, notably, there are local complaints and challenges in those cities as well.

Higher snow levels throughout the season conversely mean higher staffing levels can be maintained without as much risk of the workload fluctuating wildly, Feist said. Spokane’s full-city plow earlier this month was the only one so far this season.

“During the rest of the winter, those employees are out filling potholes, laying deicer, and doing whatever they need to do,” she added.

Spokane pulls in water and wastewater crews as well as street department employees to man all of its equipment during full-city plows.

“But if we had three times as many people, there isn’t enough work throughout the winter,” Feist said. “It’s a balancing act to have enough people to respond appropriately when it snows but not have too many when it’s not snowing.”

Complaints about the city’s snowplow response aren’t new and were a primary reason for the ouster of former Street Director Mark Serbousek in 2017 under the Mayor David Condon administration. If anything, the city’s plow operations have improved markedly in the past seven years, argued Feist, who has led the public works division since 2021 but has worked in various capacities for the city for more than two decades.

The city has since implemented multiple loading zones for materials crews to maintain the streets during snowstorms, like deicer or gravel. There are far more plow gates now than in prior years, which allows snow to be pushed off the street without blocking driveways, which Feist called the “most beloved change” during her time with the city, though it can slightly slow the progress of plows.

“Normally we can get through these with a full-city plow in three days,” she said. “That’s relatively new to the last seven years, full-city plows used to take four or five days.”

There were some problems and challenges particular to this year, Feist acknowledged.

Subzero temperatures preceding the snow were hard on both staff and equipment. Turnover meant fewer experienced plow drivers. Crews had to repeatedly plow arterials during rounds of snowfall on Jan. 17, while daytime traffic downtown meant that plows weren’t able to operate fully in the area until the following night. People driving over the relatively soft and dry snow berms in middle lanes downtown created more clean-up work for the adjacent lanes, Feist added.

More snowfall later in the week once again routed crews to arterials, also delaying work in residential areas.

“We think we could have done better downtown, and maybe should have had people sooner downtown,” Feist said. “Was this the perfect plow? No. We’ve done plows that were probably more efficient.”

“We’re going to learn from that and want to do the next one better, and it’s still possible we could see another one this season,” she added.

Improving primarily entails implementing lessons learned from this month, not new major equipment purchases, Feist noted.