Focusing on snow job's big picture
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When snow begins to pile up on roads in Allegheny County, the job of clearing them falls to more than 100 governmental jurisdictions, including PennDOT, Allegheny County, the City of Pittsburgh and smaller boroughs and townships.
While considerable cooperation is built into that network, no one is in charge of the big picture. There has been no recent effort to determine whether having so many armies is the best way to wage war on winter.
The result: strikingly uneven service -- and wildly divergent impressions.
In this month's double-barreled storms, lightly traveled back streets in Bethel Park were plowed to the pavement while main arteries in Downtown Pittsburgh and Oakland remained choked with snow and ice. Perhaps as a result, county and some suburban leaders earned pats on the back, while Mayor Luke Ravenstahl got an icy blast of criticism.
A motorist traveling at the height of the Feb. 5 storm found roads plowed in North Fayette, treacherous for a three-quarters-of-a-mile stretch passing through neighboring Oakdale, then plowed again upon re-entering North Fayette.
Dan Cessna, district executive for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, said the ownership of roads, divided among the state, county and municipalities with little rhyme or reason, "doesn't make sense."
"In the five years I've been in the district, we've never taken a holistic view, a look at roads, who owns them and what is the best way to plow snow," he said. He said his department would be willing to participate in such an initiative.
Mr. Ravenstahl, too, wants a review of "how we can work better with other agencies." But he suggested that an initial step might be getting rid of one cooperative arrangement -- the one that has the city plowing state roads that pass through its boundaries.
"Does it make sense for us to get reimbursed from the state for us to maintain their roads?" said Mr. Ravenstahl. "I'm not so sure that it does."
While most transportation and government officials interviewed by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette saw room for improvement on last week's snow-removal efforts, they agreed it would be unwise to stay constantly prepared for storms of this month's size.
"The reality is, if you planned your structure for winter around storms of this magnitude, you would waste tax dollars," Mr. Cessna said.
PennDOT clears snow from more than 3,300 lane-miles of roads in Allegheny County, including interstate and U.S. highways and other heavily traveled arteries.
It has 91 agreements with municipalities that plow about 1,400 lane-miles of state-owned roads within their borders. PennDOT pays them about $1.8 million for doing so.
Mr. Cessna said most of the agreements are long-standing. All are voluntary and renewed on an annual basis. In many cases, municipal plows travel state roads while clearing local streets, so it makes economic sense for the municipality to do the plowing.
While he said he would like to see the cooperation expanded, "it needs to make fiscal sense for both the municipality and PennDOT. We don't want to overburden them to the point where they throw their hands up and say, 'We can't do it.' "
The system has its anomalies. For instance, state-owned Route 51 is plowed by municipal crews in Coraopolis, Crescent, McKees Rocks, Stowe and Pittsburgh, but by the state in Moon, Robinson and all towns south of Pittsburgh to the county line.
Route 60 is plowed by Pittsburgh and Crafton, but west of that it becomes PennDOT's responsibility.
Allegheny County's public works department clears county-owned bridges, including the Roberto Clemente, Andy Warhol and Rachel Carson bridges linking Downtown and the North Shore. The city is responsible for the streets on either side.
The city gets around $500,000 a year for maintaining state roads, Mr. Ravenstahl said, which is "relatively minor and insignificant in the grand scheme of our city budget. And is it better for us to simply have them take care of and maintain those roads, and us use our manpower to take care of the secondary and back roads?"
Initially, he thinks it might be better for a fiscally limited city to concentrate on what it owns.
County Public Works Director Joe Olczak, whose forces clear about 800 lane-miles of roads, said he doesn't believe the city and county could consolidate their snow removal.
"It might sound simple," he said, "but we actually have two completely different operations. At the county, we have bigger equipment because our roads are generally wider than most city roads."
There is cooperation, though, county officials said.
The county pays 29 municipalities about $271,000 to remove snow from 120 lane-miles of county-owned roads.
"Our guys keep their plow blades down in places like East Carnegie and the city does the same thing for us in the Green Tree area," Mr. Olczak said.
The county lent trucks to the city on Monday to help with its snow removal, county spokesman Kevin Evanto said.
Mr. Ravenstahl said that the county and state "came in and helped and were of assistance and we're grateful for that, but it just seemed as if there may have been more opportunities for collaboration.
"I know, for example, it was frustrating for me over the past couple of days that in some cases there were county trucks or PennDOT trucks or state trucks that were kind of just sitting there waiting for the next storm, while our folks were busting their tails trying to get it done."
The city has around 2,000 lane-miles of roads, and some 60 trucks to salt it, which Mr. Ravenstahl said is not enough for a large storm.
Guy Costa, the city's public works director for 10 years before stepping down in October, said cooperation agreements with the county and state always helped but diminished over time because of both governments' fiscal hardships.
"Before I got there, the county was responsible for Lincoln Place and New Homestead," city neighborhoods that sit between West Homestead and Baldwin Borough, he said. "It got to the point where the county had to make some cuts and couldn't do it anymore."
During the latter years of Mayor Tom Murphy's tenure, which coincided with the early part of County Executive Dan Onorato's administration, there was preliminary talk of merging their public works units, according to Mr. Costa.
"They've got line-striping trucks; we've got line-striping trucks," he said, adding that both jurisdictions also have print shops, sign shops and traffic control professionals.
"The problem with that would have been that non-city residents would question why they were subsidizing the city" by plowing its streets, he said.
The discussions took a back seat to the city's fiscal recovery efforts after it filed for distressed status in 2003.
Mr. Onorato has long been in favor of consolidating all city and county operations, said Mr. Evanto.
"We continue to be in favor of full consolidation of operations, including public works, if it is a department the city is willing to consolidate," he said.
Pittsburgh City Council President Darlene Harris said having "one public works department all across the county" might be more efficient but probably wouldn't improve city snow removal. Clearing steep, narrow, crowded city streets is different from working in the "planned developments, with off-street parking and garages" in the suburbs, she said.
Council Finance Chairman William Peduto said combining forces with the county might make less sense than linking with neighboring municipalities -- perhaps starting with the 35 municipal members of the Congress of Neighboring Communities, or CONNECT. That group started in 2008 with the aim of improving collaboration between all municipalities that touch the city, and the city itself.
"True regionalism is creating a systematic agreement, and I believe that the work of the CONNECT project, which looks to create opportunities for Pittsburgh and all of the contiguous municipalities, is the approach we should be seeking," he said.
Neighborly cooperation could improve, he suggested, noting that growing up in Scott, he always wondered why trucks from neighboring Carnegie lifted their plows as they traversed his street.
Mr. Cessna said PennDOT has 65 snow removal trucks and 17 rental trucks that are available when needed. During this month's storms, 12 additional trucks were brought in from District 1 in northwestern Pennsylvania, where it wasn't snowing. The extra vehicles were vital in keeping secondary roads clear, he said.
"It makes sense when you do have an extreme case to have resources you can reach out to," Mr. Cessna said.
PennDOT's snow-fighting ability has improved in recent years because of better weather forecasting and the use of salt brine to treat roads before the snow starts falling, he said.
"It used to be common practice that until the snow was sticking to the roads you didn't even call people out."
As a result, his department hears more accolades than complaints after storms, he said.
"There is always room for improvement in what we do," said the county's Mr. Olczak, "but in this case, I am very pleased with what our crews were able to do. Almost all the roads that we were responsible for were plowed and salted clear to the asphalt in most places by Saturday afternoon."
That hasn't been the case in Pittsburgh, where many neighborhoods remained buried for days and residents took out their anger on Mr. Ravenstahl.
The city ended up bringing in more than 20 private contractors on an emergency basis, at around $65 an hour each -- contributing to a total storm bill that he estimated at more than $1 million. The mayor said he may order staff to assemble a cadre of contractors that would be on standby for use in future storms.
Mr. Murphy, who faced major snowstorms within days of taking office in 1994, said that this time the city was slow to summon outside help from private contractors.
"It seems to me they got behind and never could catch up."
He suggested that the city consider a snow emergency plan that would limit parking to one side of the street, akin to restrictions that clear the way for street sweeping.
And it should have an organized way to contact elderly residents who might be stranded and need help during a major storm, Mr. Murphy said.
"There's always room to improve," said PennDOT's Mr. Cessna. "Certainly we're not here proclaiming that the way it's done now is the best way."