D.C. Mayor Fenty faces big test on snow-removal efforts

By Tim Craig and Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, February 16, 2010; B01

D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) will face one of the biggest tests of his mayoral term Tuesday morning when potentially hundreds of thousands of motorists descend on the District to try to reclaim a sense of normalcy after a historic dumping of snow.

After hundreds of plow crews spent the weekend scraping, scooping and hauling away snow, Fenty said Monday that the city has made significant progress in freeing snow-clogged streets

"We are down to pavement on virtually every residential street," Fenty said.

But with city schools and the District and federal governments expected to open, questions remain about whether Fenty's snow-removal efforts can live up to expectations.

On Friday, when officials last sought to claim victory over the storm by reopening the federal government, massive traffic tie-ups turned the city turned into a miserable mess.

The traffic jams -- caused by thoroughfares that had been substantially narrowed by snowbanks -- were so bad that AAA Mid-Atlantic declared District motorists had just sat through the worst gridlock since the Sept. 11 terrorist attack.

Over the weekend, city crews stepped up efforts to plow major routes, including Connecticut Avenue, curb to curb. Fenty said he hopes the efforts, which will continue into midweek, reduce the congestion.

"We are spending a lot of time and energy and resources to try to go curb to curb," said Fenty, who conceded that crews wouldn't be able to reach all major streets by rush hour Tuesday morning.

The challenge couldn't be more critical for Fenty, who is up for reelection this year and has staked his reputation on making local government work better for District residents.

Fenty received high marks for the District's response to the Dec. 19 snowstorm, which dropped about 20 inches on the city, but over the past week both national media outlets and some D.C. Council members have questioned Fenty's ability to oversee the District's snow removal.

"This was an act of God, and we have to remember that, but unfortunately politicians are judged by this," said John B. Townsend II, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. "For many politicians, the inability to remove snow becomes a political Waterloo, and it creates a crisis in confidence and causes people to become very, very angry."

But there were signs Monday that some residents are giving Fenty some credit for navigating the city through back-to-back snowstorms, which dropped about three feet in five days.

"We all should remember that this was a record snowfall, far out of the ordinary compared to past winters," Rick Toye, a lifelong District resident, posted on the Shepherd Park e-mail discussion list Monday. "The personnel at DPW and the city overall . . . have done an outstanding job with the snow removal."

Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), chairman of the committee that oversees the streets department, said Fenty has "struck a balance" between the needs of residents versus those of commuters.

If Fenty ordered more resources to free up additional commuter lanes on major thoroughfares, Graham noted, it would have taken longer for the residential streets to be plowed.

"There are limited resources here whatever way you cut it, but I have to say bravo for the work he has done in the neighborhoods," said Graham, adding "the amount of energy (Fenty) has put into the task is nothing short of astounding."

But others say Fenty, who so far does not have a high-profile opponent in the September Democratic primary, has had several missteps in overseeing the city's response to the storm.

During last weekend's storm, Fenty may have set unrealistic expectations that street crews could clear many streets by last Monday. Even though many streets were still impassable, Fenty kept the city government open last Monday and Tuesday, creating a rift with city employees.

And some Council members wonder why Fenty appeared reluctant to ask the federal government for help removing the snow following the second storm Wednesday.

Graham said when he asked Fenty about requesting resources from President Obama, the mayor replied, "What would they have provided us?"

"I said, 'They could have provided soldiers from Fort Meyer,' " Graham recalled. "If it had been a riot, they would have."

Emily Durso, president of the Hotel Association of Washington, D.C., said some of her members have been complaining about the city's snow-removal efforts.

"I had a handful of members who were shocked that pretty main arterials, three days later, had not been touched," Durso said. "I kept saying, 'Really, you haven't seen a plow?' and they said, 'Nope,' and they just couldn't believe it."

Late last week, after the second storm, the city contracted additional heavy equipment to clear neighborhood streets and began breaking up and hauling away the snow mounds on major thoroughfares.

But Steven J. Stepniak, who oversees the streets department in snowy Buffalo, N.Y., said District officials should have called up the heavy equipment before the first storm began.

"Having the right size of equipment and getting contractors early is key," said Stepniak, commissioner of Buffalo's Public Works, Parks and Streets Department.

But Stepniak, who lives in a city that averages 93 inches of snow each year, said even Buffalo would struggle to clean up from the consecutive blizzards that hit the District last week.

"It is very hard for any municipality of any size to handle back-to-back snowstorms of that caliber," Stepniak said.

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