More than 3 feet of snow fell in Minnesota's Twin Cities last week and the windchill factor hovered at 90 below zero. But within 24 hours, traffic was rolling, and city crews had declared the battle over--and won.
The Washington area, meanwhile, has had about 1 foot of snow in the past two weeks and city officials here have also declared the battle over--but not necessarily won.
"We've done everything that is humanly possible on snow removal over the last 2 1/2 weeks," said Thomas Downs, director of the D.C. Department of Transportation. "It's just been a terrible run of bad weather for the metropolitan area."
Despite Washington's relative success in keeping major and secondary streets plowed, salted and sanded in the face of seven winter storms, conditions on side streets range from relatively good to seemingly hopeless. "You probably can find every conceivable condition on the streets somewhere in the District," Downs said yesterday.
D.C. officials said they have all but given up trying to clear many of the side streets that are still clogged by icy mounds and cars buried in snow drifts.
Additional plowing, they said, would do little to clear away the hard-packed ice and snow and could further annoy residents by blocking their driveways. Instead, the city is just spreading more sand on side streets and is hoping that rising temperatures will melt the ice. About seven days of weather with temperatures above freezing would be required to do that.
Many of the side streets have been plowed three times this month, officials said, but some of the streets were too narrow or hilly or cluttered with cars to send in plows.
Residents from Anacostia to Cleveland Park have voiced displeasure with the conditions of their streets. The city reported receiving an average of 30 to 40 complaints an hour and sometimes as many as 80.
Georgetown residents have been particularly incensed about icy streets that make driving a risky venture at best. Some residents reportedly have overturned trash barrels in search of cardboard or material to place under their auto tires to get a little traction.
"It's just a mess, it looks bad and it's dangerous," said George Parr, a public relations executive who lives near 28th and P streets NW. "There are mounds of snow in the street, sometimes up to 2 feet, that are covered with an icy sheet."
Finlay Lewis, Washington bureau chief of the Minneapolis Tribune and a veteran of Minnesota winters, complained that the hilly street outside his Northwest Washington home has gone unplowed this month.
"Somebody reported a sighting of a snow plow at the top of the street," said Lewis, who lives at 2727 Chesapeake Street NW. "But at the bottom of the street, where I live, whatever snow that has fallen is still there."
Washington, an area of usually mild winters, is far different from Minneapolis and St. Paul, which are located on the front line of Arctic air attacks and maintain standing armies of workers and plows to fight long, cold, snowy winters.
The Twin Cities have elevated snow removal to an art, which contains many lessons for less seasoned snow fighters like those along the Potomac. An examination of successful snow battles in Minnesota seems to suggest that the best way to avoid a dilemma like that now facing Washington drivers and pedestrians is never to allow things to get this bad.
The Twin Cities, for example, follow a carefully defined snow-emergency plan during storms that enables crews to plow and salt streets quickly and with a minimum of obstructions.
Almost all main arteries are marked year round with profuse and vaguely disturbing "Snow Emergency Route" signs. Any time more than 3 or 4 inches of snow accumulates, both cities immediately declare three-day snow emergencies. Emergency routes are plowed the first day.
Under a rather complex formula understood by everyone, north-south secondary streets are plowed the next day if that day of the month is odd numbered, and east-west streets if that day is even numbered.
One is expected to find out what is going on and to comply. People who leave their cars on streets that are scheduled for plowing--the ignominious vehicles are scornfully dubbed "snowbirds"--are issued $25 tickets. Snowbirds that remain unmoved are towed away.
Washington also designates emergency snow routes along major roads and secondary streets, but officials say they have been reluctant to ticket and tow cars--primarily because of a shortage of off-street parking and concern about riling irritated residents even more.
Minneapolis, with a population half the size of Washington, allocates more than $2 million annually for moving snow--about twice the amount budgeted by the D.C. City Council.
Minneapolis has more than 120 pieces of heavy-duty snow removal equipment, a full-time staff of 67 workers and another 120 drivers on call.
Washington has more. It owns 150 plows, and contracts with private firms to provide an additional 160 pieces of equipment during severe weather.
If the snow were not enough to plague Washington motorists, there are also the potholes and buckling streets caused by water and freezing temperatures.
Yesterday, for instance, a large section of the west-bound lane of the Southeast Freeway near South Capitol Street buckled when water got between the bridge deck and the asphalt surface. Workers will attempt to repair the road starting today.
Moreover, pothole repairs this year may far exceed the $1 million budgeted for that purpose. A spokesman for the American Automobile Association's Potomac Division said that Washington was headed for "a bumper crop" of potholes because of shoddy and hasty workmanship by city crews in temporarily patching streets.
"When this thaw finally comes, we're really going to have some dillies," said Glenn T. Lashley, AAA's public affairs director, who contended that city crews neither properly clean out and prepare potholes before patching nor seal the temporary patches after they are applied.
Stanley Ather, the city's street maintenance engineer, said yesterday that Lashley "may be partially right." He said, "It's difficult to patch potholes in adverse weather. . . We expect some of them to come apart. We'll try when the weather gets better to go in with permanent patches."