Q&A With Bob Levey
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, March 4, 2003; Noon ET
"Levey Live" appears Tuesdays at noon ET. Your host is Washington Post columnist Bob Levey. This hour is your chance to talk directly to key Washington Post reporters and editors, local officials and people in the news.
Today, Bob's guest is Dan Tangherlini, leading the snow removal effort in D.C. and director of the D.C. Department of Transportation.
| Dan Tangherlini |
Mayor Anthony Williams appointed Tangherlini acting director of the new Department of Transportation in May 2002. The cherry blossom tranquility that May certainly did not foretell the winter snow storm to be the following February, where Tangherlini was challenged to keep D.C. residents safe on the highways, pseudo-obstacle courses with unyielding mounds of snow.
In the executive office of the mayor in 1999, Tangherlini was the leader of the short-term action team that developed high-visibility short-term initiatives for the new Williams Administration.
Before joining the District Government in summer of 1998, Tangherlini was a senior program analyst in the office of the Secretary of Transportation where he helped negotiate a landmark Amtrak labor settlement and worked on the development of innovative approaches to infrastructure finance
Tangherlini has a BA and MPP from the University of Chicago and an MBA from The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.
Tangherlini lives on Capitol Hill with his wife and two children where he is active in the Capitol Hill Restoration Society, the Stanton Park Neighborhood Association and St. Joseph’s of Capitol Hill and other community groups.
The transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Bob Levey: Good afternoon, Mr. Tangherlini, and welcome to "Levey Live." Just for you, we arranged clear weather today! But of course, I and the world are very curious about the recent snows.
Please give your department a grade in the Snow Removal Derby of 2003.
Dan Tangherlini: Thanks for inviting me to Levey Live - this should be fun.
Bob Levey: Please explain what a D.C. resident should do if he or she notices a pothole. Call whom? If it isn't filled within a reasonable time, call whom then?
Dan Tangherlini: Ahh, the question that will increasingly replace those about snow!
The best way to report a pothole is through the Mayor's Citywide Call Center - 727-1000. Tell us where it is - as precisely as you can (quadrant, street and hundred-block). We aim to get out there within 72 hours. Normally we beat that time frame. If it is still there in 72 hours, call back to 7272-1000, they have a whole program for following up on unfilled requests.
Metro Center: I know there were people complaining that snow wasn't removed in a timely manner, but I just want to complain about the people who failed to remove the snow off their vehicle(s) before driving. Overall, I think DC did a good job removing the snow considering that they could only really be effective at night when there are less cars on the road.
Dan Tangherlini: I appreciate the positive feedback - I'll get to some of the less positive ones next.
You do raise a good point about the safety issues associated with not clearing significant snow accumulations off a vehicle. At speed, this can get quite dangerous. Further, motorists should take a walk around their cars after a snow fall and ensure that none of their lights are obscured.
Washington D.C.: There is still a HUGE pile of snow from the big storm completely blocking the northbound right hand lane of Arizona Ave NW between Canal Rd and MacArthur Blvd. When I called the city to try and get it removed, I was told that the city was "done with cleaning up after that event". What's up with that? How can you be done if the job isn't finished?
Dan Tangherlini: Is it still there? We will go get it. We are not DONE with the snow until it is all gone.
We found a similar case on Mass. Ave. where we had actually cleared all the obstructions only to have an apartment building plow the snow in their parking lot right into the street!
Bob Levey: How hard is it to drive a snowplow? How much training does it demand? How much do plow drivers get paid? Are you looking to hire any slightly gray (OK, totally white-haired) part-timers?
Dan Tangherlini: It is harder than one thinks. And as the plow gets bigger, the amount of skill and training necessary increases. I'll admit to having succumbed to the siren song of temptation and actually drove a light plow (a heavy duty pick up with a salt spreader) late, late, late Tuesday night of the big storm - after receiving a lesson from our excellent head of street and bridge maintenance, Mr. Robert Marsili. Let's just say, I'll keep my day job.
Plow drivers earn different rates of pay depending on the type of plow, experience and other responsibilities. No one, though, is getting rich driving a plow.
Hmmm, maybe we should start a reserve plow corps?
Tenleytown: Mr. Tangherlini:
Whenever there was a heavy snowfall in the past, the joke on our 3 house block was that we were scheduled to have the snow removed by April 1. (Indeed, during the big storms 7 years ago, no plow ever ventured on our block.) We thought at first this would be the case this year - the Sunday plows literally pushed all the snow and ice from surrounding streets into the end of our block, effectively sealing everyone in, but by Monday the street was plowed out. I have lived in DC long enough to notice the vast improvement, and appreciate your leadership.
Dan Tangherlini: Is that you Mom?
Just kidding, I appreciate the compliment.
Glover Park, Washington, D.C.: 60 Hours? Could the mayor set the bar any lower?
And even then, my neighborhood streets were not plowed by even that ultra-low-expectation deadline.
Why is it that cities like Boston and New York, who got the same snow that we got were able to dig out in 12 hours but DC needed 5 times that time. We don't have five times fewer plows, or five times more roads (in fact, we've got half the street mileage of NYC).
Could it be that DC has five times the incompetence?
Dan Tangherlini: Never one to shy away...
Where do I start? The 60 hours was based on what the other Metropolitan Council of Government communities set as a standard for snow removal in the area - they actually chose 72 hours and DC thought that was too long. So we went for 60 hours.
That having been said, we are continually looking to improve our quality of services - and I think this storm does show a marked improvement in response as compared to the last big one. That storm shut the city down for four solid days.
But I grew up outside of Boston, spent several years in Chicago and I would tell you that they couldn't/can't make the snow magically disappear all that much better than we can. 16-17 inches of snow is a lot anywhere. However, they do have more plows, bigger snow budgets - and most importantly in this business - more practice. We've actually gotten better with each successive event.
I would be happy to stop practicing now, though.
Bob Levey: I've always wondered this... How does the guy who drives the snowplow get to work if no one else can get to work?
Dan Tangherlini: And if a tree falls in the woods....
But seriously, we usually are in the "office" before the first flake falls, pre-treating the roads and getting the equipment ready. However, during the big storm - when we were running successive 12-hour shifts - we actually sent 4-wheel drive trucks to pick up drivers and even provided cots and food for those who didn't want to deal with the trip.
Washington, D.C.: WHEN will you fill the potholes on North Capital Street? Drivers are swerving around them, creating additional danger, and the lack of street lighting at night (lights that are supposed to be on, but aren't) makes the problem even more hazardous.
Dan Tangherlini: The North Capitol Street section you are talking about (north of Michigan) is in an admittedly rough state. We have recently received approval from the Federal Highway Administration to repave it and we will be looking to go to contract this summer. When we do, we will replace the "series circuit" streetlight system on that stretch of road. These lighting systems are like the old Christmas light strings - when one goes out, they all do.
In the mean time we have 9 crews out everyday - and into the evenings - running both specific complaints and major arteries filling in the pot holes left by the big snows and substantial rain.
Cubeland, Washington, D.C.: I thought D.C. did a pretty good job clearing the streets. I didn't hear about too many accidents within the city and the buses were getting through on the main roads.
However, the sidewalks left a lot to be desired. Who is responsible for clearing sidewalks on major roads, like M St?
Dan Tangherlini: Sidewalks are the responsibility of the abutting property owner. We had manual crews out clearing major bridge crossings as well.
When snow gets this deep, though, you kind of run out of places to put it. M Street in Georgetown was an interesting example, we plowed and pushed snow up along the curb (and sidewalk), businesses shoveled and threw it out into the street...
Anyway, we later brought in back-hoes and dump trucks and undertook the expensive and time-consuming task of scooping it up and hauling it away.
Bob Levey: Your department picked up several tons of snow and literally carried it out of harm's way. You dumped it in an out-of-the way part of town. Why didn't you do that with more of the snow? The snow "mountains" all over town aren't going to melt until May (yes, I'll bet). Was this too expensive an option to be chosen for all flakes in all parts of town?
Dan Tangherlini: It is very costly and time-consuming, but we are actually still doing it even as we speak. We are focusing on local retail corridors, trying to reopen curb lane parking to ensure access to businesses.
16th Street Heights, Washington, D.C>: Can you explain a bit about the new bicycle initiatives and your efforts to increase non-automotive transit options in the city?
Dan Tangherlini: A non-snow question. Thanks.
The short answer is we are doing quite a bit to encourage and develop options to automotive-based commuting.
Longer response: We are working with Metro to expand mass transit options (light rail and circulator bus proposals) as well as ease access to the existing system (smart-card readers on busses and bus maps at Metro rail stations and bus shelters). We are increasing investment in bike planning, bike lanes and bike/pedestrian paths (we have completed the first leg of the Union Station to Silver Spring Metropolitan Branch Trail, we are currently constructing the second and negotiating to purchase the land for the third). We also have hired a pedestrian coordinator to focus on improving pedestrian safety and access.
Washington, D.C.: What was your own personal shovel experience recently?
Dan Tangherlini: Because I kept Vampire-like hours during the storm, I split shoveling with my next door neighbor. I shoveled my walk and his during the storm, and he followed up with a clean-up later on.
Shoveling several times during a big storm is a trick I picked up in the north country.
Washington, D.C., Capitol Hill: I live on Capitol Hill, near Stanton Park. Overall, I was pleased with snow removal efforts. I actually had occasion to talk to a couple of the snowplow guys, and to a man they were pleasant and professional. Given the amount of snow we got, I think DC did an admirable job on the streets (not so good on city property sidewalks, though).
Oddly, my only complaint has to do with Federal efforts. The Feds (presumably Architect of the Capitol) brought in huge equipment and cleared snow off of their private parking lots (especially at the Senate daycare on C Street NE), then dumped the snow into neighborhood street parking spaces. The huge piles of snow took up several street parking spaces. Since the piles were huge, they have yet to melt, so we're still being shorted several street spaces. I can see if the snow removal was temporary or for an emergency of some sort, but to clear private off-street Federal parking lots (which neighborhood residents are never allowed to park in) and then dump the snow into residential street spaces, that's just rude.
Dan Tangherlini: Hey neighbor.
I agree with the rudeness comment. Regrettably there was lots and lots of snow, and the inevitable question is where to put it? Too frequently people simply figured: "why not the street?"
I would suggest calling the AOC and complaining. I will too and maybe next time they will think twice.
Columbia Heights, Washington, D.C.: Hello Dan,
I think you did a great job -- my street was plowed repeatedly and was never truly impassable.
As an environmentalist and mass transit user, I do have one concern. Can less of the salt and chemicals be used on the roads next time around? The harsh salts and chemicals are highly toxic to the shade trees planted in treeboxes along the city's streets. Often, the tree box is the only place available for shoveling the dirty, contaminated snow. In addition, the salt contributes to wear and tear on the roads, sidewalks, vehicles and shoes. I think it would be better to plow more and actually remove the snow versus spraying toxins all over the place.
Dan Tangherlini: A very tough question. We would hate to short on the melting materials and have slippery, icy roads. However, during the big storm, we did ask plows to turn off the spreaders and simply plow back the snow until we got slower levels of accumulation.
The problem here is that we usually get small to intermediate levels of snow accumulation 0-6 inches. This makes icing much more likely and so we find ourselves putting salt and other melters out quite frequently.
There have been considerable strides in making the melting substances less environmentally damaging. It is an issue we are aware of and we are working to try to strike the right balance.
Bob Levey: You are responsible for the District's recycling program. How is it faring? Any comment on the story in today's Washington Times that the value of recycling is a "myth?"
Dan Tangherlini: This is a catch-all answer to some of your questions. There is some confusion about what the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) does and what the Department of Public Works (DPW) does - we were split last May.
DPW does trash removal, recycling, and parking enforcement (among other things). DDOT does street and bridge repairs and construction, trees, and traffic management (signs, signals, lighting) - and lots more too. We both do snow.
You can learn more about both agencies from the DC web site: www.washingtondc.gov
Silver Spring, Md.: Mr. Tangherlini: Could a driver hold the city responsible for damages resulting from hitting a pothole? These "road anomolies" are getting wider and deeper. So far this year, I've hit some of these things dead center at night when they're filled with water, they appear as black as the pavement) and they make an ungodly THUNK. What gives? I go around them when I can and when it's safe to do so, but I hear that slowing down and going through the pothole is just as bad.
Dan Tangherlini: This can be done by filing a claim with the DC Corporation Counsel's office. The information is available either through the dc web site (again) www.washingtondc.gov or the Mayor's Citywide Call Center 727-1000.
Bob Levey: From where I sit, the one huge change between the Presidents' Day snowstorm and all previous ones was..... you guys plowed more than once. And you spread chemicals more than once. How were you able to do this? More people? More equipment? Both?
Dan Tangherlini: Yes
Washington, D.C.: It seems as if snow removal focuses on roads and not pedestrians. This is not only in DC. Back in December, I remember it took weeks to clear snow and ice off of sidewalks so that pedestrians could travel safely. I am young and agile, but still fell several times because of the slippery ice coating the sidewalks. An older person might have broken a bone -- I was lucky to escape with only bad bruises. Why doesn't DC take greater care to clear the sidewalks for people who do not have cars?
Dan Tangherlini: We focus on the public space for which we are responsible. Abutting property owners need to clear their sidewalks.
However, we did have a crew working on sidewalks across bridges. It is something we are looking at doing more of in the future, though.
Bob Levey: Any comment about talk show host John McLaughlin, who claims he was dissed and dismissed by your operatives when he called (repeatedly) to demand that his car be dug out?
Dan Tangherlini: No comment, other than to say I think his one-sided tirade was unfair.
Bob Levey: Many thanks (and sunny skies) to Dan Tangherlini. Be sure to join us next Tuesday when our guest on "Levey Live" will be John D. Williams Jr., executive director of the National Scrabble Association. Our visit with Mr. Williams will begin at noon Eastern time on March 11.
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