District needs a major snow plan, transportation chief says

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 27, 2010; B01

The District has a plan for a snowfall of 18 inches or more: Major roads should be cleared to bare pavement within 36 hours and residential streets within 60 hours.

The problem is there's no plan for much, much more, such as the amount dumped on the region during the back-to-back storms earlier this month, said Gabe Klein, director of the District Department of Transportation.

"What we need is a different plan," he said. "A contingency plan. A major storm plan."

Klein acknowledged the weak spot at a D.C. Council committee hearing Friday on the city's recent snow removal efforts. Residents who testified complained of inconsistent street plowing, untouched alleys and sidewalks, and random trash collection.

The snowstorms proved a test for all the region's leaders. But Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) appeared to face much of the criticism, having set high expectations with his longtime focus on constituent services and the city's praised handling of a 20-inch snowstorm in December.

The Fenty administration initially stumbled during this month's first storm with an announcement that schools would remain open, a decision that was quickly reversed. It continues to be criticized for the menacing, Blob-like mounds of snow that remain on street corners, in alleys and between parked cars. A few residents brought photographs as proof.

Their complaints were backed by council members who questioned Klein and William O. Howland Jr., director of the Department of Public Works, about why some streets were plowed and others weren't.

"This is about these pockets that weren't dealt with," council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) said. "In some cases, it was bizarre."

Klein said the record snow was too much for the city's equipment. The city has a supply of plows that were too large to squeeze through streets crammed by snow and ill-parked vehicles, he said. "There were, unfortunately, instances of plows hitting cars," Klein said.

City officials, led by Klein and Howland, realized that the District needed smaller heavy equipment. The city owns fewer than 10 small heavy-duty plows, Klein said, and contracted 56 more to help with snow removal.

In the future, the city might want to prohibit cars from parking on both sides of a residential street, Klein said, adding that it would have to weigh limiting parking against snow removal. When the city currently declares a snow emergency, vehicles are prohibited from parking on main roads, forcing them onto residential streets.

As for the alleys, Klein warned that plowing those back streets alone would have tripled the cost of removal.

Kathy Henderson, a former Ward 5 advisory neighborhood commissioner, praised the city's overall performance but said there should have been a plan for staffing during the storm. Henderson said she hated to wake up a driver asleep in his plow to tell him to get to a certain missed block "after your catnap."

She said residents who have been certified or trained to operate such equipment, including her, should be identified for emergencies. "I'd be willing to plow some streets," she said.

Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), chairman of the Committee on Public Works and Transportation, said sidewalks that were to be maintained by property owners must be addressed. He pointed to Freedom Plaza, the open-air park across from the John A. Wilson Building and overseen by the National Park Service. The sidewalks and park were not cleared until well after the last storm. "Totally ignored," he said.

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