Snow paralysis has cost D.C. area too much

By Robert McCartney
Sunday, February 14, 2010; C01

The Washington region has long had a split personality over its chronic incapacity to cope with snow. We gripe and whine when icy patches still block the street and the Metro station remains closed days after the sky clears. Once things return to normal, though, we find the shortcoming amusing and chuckle about our inefficiency.

We can do better. A rough economic calculation suggests we can afford it. It shows that the benefit of a quicker cleanup and return to work would outweigh the extra cost.

To start, we could commit to restore full Metro service and thoroughly clear all bus routes within 24 hours of a storm's end. We should do a complete job clearing the rest of the roads within another day, or two at most for a monster snowfall like last weekend's.

It isn't just about the dollars and cents. We ought to take greater pride in our civic performance, given that we're the nation's capital and one of the wealthiest and most influential metropolitan areas in the world. A "world class" region doesn't let weather routinely paralyze it.

I want to stress that I have nothing but admiration and sympathy for the snowplow drivers, Metro operators, electrical linemen and others who have labored under severe conditions during these historic storms. They worked for days in a row, often on 12-hour shifts.

But I do ask the politicians and agency officials who supervise those hardworking folks to set a higher standard and give their staffs enough support, equipment and organization to deliver better results.

Wouldn't it cost too much? Not according to estimates available from government and private analysts. Bottom line: The cost of clearing snow in the region is measured in the tens of millions of dollars per year. The loss of economic activity that results from snow shutdowns runs in the hundreds of millions of dollars per day.

For instance, the state budget to clear snow in Northern Virginia each winter is $27 million. With this year's record snowfall, the cost so far is $67 million.

By contrast, the Office of Personnel Management estimates that shutting just the federal government for one day costs $100 million. Snow shut it for four days this past week.

Admittedly, the OPM figure might be high. Stephen S. Fuller, the economist with the most experience studying the Washington region, pronounced it "fictitious." He said that a lot of the government work gets squeezed in later and that the break might actually improve productivity overall when people return to work refreshed.

But Fuller, who is director of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University, acknowledges that more resources for snow removal could be cost-effective. He calculates the region's total output on a single work day in February at $1.225 billion. Even if a snow shutdown led to a permanent loss of just a tenth of that, he noted, it could be worth the price to clean up faster.

"If you could get it all back by plowing the roads, you could plow a lot of roads for $122 million," Fuller said.

Here's an example of what's possible. The Virginia Department of Transportation budgets $3 million to clear a six-inch snowfall in Northern Virginia within 48 hours. To cut the time in half would cost an additional $3 million to $5 million, according to an initial DOT estimate.

There are two obstacles -- at least -- to carrying out such a plan. It would involve raising taxes or fees, and so it surely would meet political resistance.

Also, there's a risk that we'd all look stupid and wasteful if we budgeted a lot of extra money to deal with snow only to have a string of warm winters.

Still, the underlying numbers show that it's in our interest to improve over the long run. We can start by making some changes that offer the biggest immediate return. Fuller and others agree that the place to begin is returning Metro and other mass transit to full service more quickly.

Metro "is the lifeblood not only for professional service workers but other service workers -- security guards, hospital personnel," said James C. Dinegar, president and chief executive of the Greater Washington Board of Trade. He said it was "inexcusable" that the aboveground stations on Metro, which serve nearly half the total track, were closed for five out of six days Saturday through Thursday.

"Whatever investments are needed should be made for Metro to be prepared for severe weather," Dinegar said.

That could mean buying Metro more "prime movers," the large, diesel-powered vehicles that shove snow off the electrified third rail. They cost $1.2 million apiece and have numerous other uses year-round. The effort also should include doing a faster job of fully clearing roads used by buses. Many mass-transit corridors were only partly open late Tuesday, three full days after the first storm hit.

One area where the cost apparently outweighs the benefit is moving power lines underground so trees don't knock them down. A Pepco analysis in 2004 found that it would cost $4 billion to move power lines underground in the District alone

If some people are stuck losing their power in storms, then the least we can do is try harder to get them to work. We'll all profit in the end by overcoming our reputation as snow amateurs.

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