A lack of resolve — not resources — keeps us snowbound

It seemed like a simple enough proposition: Would political leaders in the Washington region be willing to commit to doing whatever was necessary to keep schools, governments and businesses open during a vanilla-variety snowstorm of eight inches or less?

After all, that’s the way it works in many parts of the country where they receive much more snow than we do. Here in Washington, we have access to the same technology and know-how that they do. And given that our average incomes are among the highest in the country, we ought to have both the incentive and the means not to let a bit of snow stop us in our tracks. Even if you assume that we lose only 10 percent of the normal daily output when government and businesses close, that works out to $150 million per day.

Steven Pearlstein is a business and economics columnist who writes about local, national and international topics. View Archive

Yet when I put that proposition to dozens of local elected officials last week, not one was willing to commit. Most, in fact, said it would be an unwise and impossible standard to meet.

Instead, I got lengthy explanations about how every snowstorm is different, how much traffic congestion we have at rush hour, how much conditions can vary from one end of the region to the other, how dangerous it is for school buses out on those “slick” rural roads, how many teenagers now drive to school — as if it’s any different in Chicago, Buffalo and Boston.

Oh, yes, there’s also a lot of concern about how dangerous it would be for children to walk on unshoveled sidewalks and stand at unshoveled bus stops. Those same children have no trouble putting on their boots to go sledding once school has been canceled, as it was 10 times or more this past winter in most local jurisdictions.

When you ask what it would take to keep things running during a snowstorm of eight inches or less, school officials refer you to public works officials, local officials refer you to state officials, and everyone suggests that you call the regional planning council, which explains it has no power and no money, unlike the federal government, which has both but claims to be at the mercy of local government. When it comes to keeping the capital of the free world open for business, it seems that nobody is responsible.

In fact, numerous officials complained that I’m thinking about this backward. The point of the exercise, they suggested, isn’t for snowplows to make it possible for people to drive to work and school — it’s for people to refrain from driving to work and school so that snowplows can get on with it.

“Leadership within the region has learned that it is better to close for the day or call for a late opening rather than have employees (and students) stranded for hours in snow and ice as they compete with each other and snow removal equipment to get to work or home,” wrote Sharon Bulova, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.

There were echoes of John F. Kennedy in the response from Montgomery County’s top official to the question of what level of service his constituents should expect.

“I do not ask, ‘How much will this cost?’ when we have a weather emergency,” wrote Ike Leggett, the county executive. “I ask only that we do our best to respond to the challenges so that we can get the situation back to normal as soon as possible.”

One person who was willing to give serious consideration to my proposition was Branco Vlacich, who as district maintenance engineer for the Virginia Department of Transportation is responsible for clearing nearly all of the roads and highways in Northern Virginia.

In recent years, VDOT has stepped up its snow removal game. Four years ago, Vlacich says, his department would have deployed 1,200 trucks to fight an eight-inch storm, and it would have taken up to five days to finish the job. This year, he threw about 4,000 trucks at such a storm, completing the job in 36 hours.

That’s a big improvement, but schools still had to close in late January when nine inches fell at Dulles International Airport. So I asked Vlacich how many trucks he would need to clear Northern Virginia roads of an eight-inch storm within eight hours. He estimated 10,000. And at that level of service, he calculated, the tab for clearing snow in the region this year would have been $450 million, or nearly triple the $175 million he spent.

Vlacich seems like a good guy who really knows his business, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say I doubt it needs to cost that much. There are 17,000 “lane miles” to be cleared in Vlacich’s district, which works out to less than two miles per truck. And $450 million would translate into an annual cost per lane mile that is nearly 10 times what they spend for snow removal in Minnesota, New York and Maine, where they get more snow in an average year than we did in this extraordinary one.

Indeed, comparing the region’s snow removal spending to that in the snow states, one could conclude that it’s not the resources we’re lacking to take an eight-inch storm in stride — it’s a lack of will.

The truth is that since the “Snowmageddon” of 2009-10, when commuters were trapped in traffic for hours, local and state governments have committed more resources and are doing a much better job of treating roads and clearing snow.

Also, many more of us now have front-wheel and all-wheel-drive cars that make it easier to drive safely on snowy roads.

And thanks to technology, a sizable segment of our workforce can now work from home, alleviating road congestion.

So why, given all of these advances, do local officials routinely close things down because of a few inches of snow?

And why, now that we have multiple gadgets that allow us to communicate with one another instantaneously, are officials so eager to announce cancellations before the first flake has hit the ground?

The blame starts with ratings-obsessed TV stations that have replaced what used to be weathermen with Storm Teams whose mission is to start banging the drum about the next storm a week in advance, so that when it finally arrives they and we have so much invested in the storm that it would be a disappointment just to shovel out and head to work.

And then there are those conference calls organized by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments that are meant to communicate the latest information on weather and traffic conditions and anticipated cancellations. The natural tendency of hundreds of officials who participate in these calls is not to seem out of step with what everyone else in the region is doing and saying. What that means, several participants told me, is that a group-think often develops, with every cancellation making another more likely. Eventually, even the federal government feels the pressure to throw in the towel, as it did five times last winter, including for storms of two and five inches.

And because local officials have made a goal of bringing predictability and consistency to their decision-making, after schools and governments close once because of five inches of snow or a 10-degree cold snap, there is pressure to make the same decision the next time — and a lot of push-back from government workers and overprotective parents when they don’t.

It used to be that most large businesses followed the lead of the federal government in deciding whether to open or close on snowy days. No longer, reports the Greater Washington Board of Trade. “There’s a real issue here about lost productivity,” said James Dinegar, the group’s president. “Since ‘Snowmageddon,’ we’ve overcorrected.”

Todd Watkins, the transportation director for Montgomery County Public Schools, has noticed a steady lowering of the bar during his 18 years on the job. “We’re now closing for things that we never used to,” he said. And the reason, he says, is a change in the attitude of a public that is less tolerant of venturing out in snow.

“There are some of us that think we can operate safely in levels of snow that we now close for,” Watkins said. “You put on chains, you drive more slowly and you get through it.”

As for school buses on those icy rural roads, consider this question: Would parents and students be more inconvenienced by having to form car pools to get the kids to a pickup point on a major road on those days, or by having the entire school system shut down for the day?

The truth is that if you set the expectation that things will remain open during a middling snowstorm, people can and will figure out all sorts of creative ways to safely get to where they need to go. All that is really required is for local political leaders to put that challenge to their constituents, their employees and themselves.

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