Days after Thursday's snowstorm ended, scattered side streets across Washington remained as slick and hard as ice rinks yesterday. But officials say their overall snow-removal operations were significantly improved from the days when several inches of snow would overwhelm the city.
Major thoroughfares were noticeably clearer than in years past, and some residential streets -- plowed by new, smaller trucks -- were clear as well. D.C. Council member Sandy Allen (D), representing Ward 8 east of the Anacostia River, called the difference "astonishing."
"My main arteries were fabulous," Allen said. "I couldn't believe it."
Yet the problems on the smaller streets reminded other council members of the bad old days of snow removal under Mayor Marion Barry (D). Several said that streets in neighborhoods such as Georgetown, Colonial Village and Adams Morgan were still icy.
The storm, which brought six inches, marked the first test of a revamped system for clearing snow and ice from Washington's 1,110 miles of city roadways. City trucks, newer and more plentiful than in many past storms, began salting and plowing routes early Thursday. By 9 p.m. Friday, the city declared the streets mostly cleared and began deploying trucks only to trouble spots.
Department of Public Works Director Leslie Hotaling, who had been eager for a test of the city's bulked-up snow-removal operations, said the performance merited a grade of A-minus and showed that the city had left behind its reputation for a lousy response to winter storms.
"I think we rocked," said Hotaling, a 24-year veteran of the department who became its head in May 2001.
Council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large), whose Public Works and the Environment Committee oversees the department, was less impressed, saying the effort merited no better than "a good, solid B." Other council members were even tougher.
"Relatively speaking, it wasn't a debacle in any way. We did fine," said Schwartz, who ran unsuccessfully against Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) last month. She added, "It is dangerous out there on those side streets. . . . The executive can do better."
Hotaling acknowledged problems with residential streets and promised to review the department's handling of them. Most side streets get less sunlight and less traffic than major roadways, making it harder to clear them of snow and ice.
She called the expectations of some residents unrealistic, saying it's nearly impossible to clear hardened ice. "You're not going to get to bare pavement on residential streets. They don't get enough traffic."
Hotaling also lamented that an experiment with blue road salt was largely a failure. The colored salt, which has been used by highway crews in New York state, was supposed to be a visible indicator that city road crews were doing their job. The colored salt contains a deicing agent, magnesium chloride, that allows it to melt ice more effectively, particularly when temperatures fall far below freezing.
"The blue salt is my personal fantasy come true," Hotaling said the week before the storm hit. "When people wake up in the morning, they'll see blue, so they'll know that we've been there."
But the coloring proved too faint for most residents to see. Hotaling vowed to push for a new order of a darker color, perhaps a deeper blue.
The biggest problem overall was the ice, which resulted from incomplete snow removal plus unusually low temperatures that refroze roadways at night after daytime melting.
That's what made 30th Place NW a sheet of ice Friday afternoon, when a Metrobus slid into a resident's parked minivan.
"We have not seen a plow since the first snowflake fell," said the resident, Luke Albee, 43, a Senate staff member. "The Washington Capitals could hold a practice on 30th Place."
Three hours after the accident, city crews cleared the road of the ice, freeing the trapped Metrobus.
Suburban jurisdictions in Maryland and Virginia reported similar problems with icy roadways. But Washington's troubled past has made snow plowing -- or the historic lack of it -- a civic obsession.
Washington is not typically a snowy city, and anything more than a few inches can overwhelm its resources. In 1987, Barry was relaxing at the Super Bowl in Southern California as two storms dumped 20 inches of snow on Washington, shutting down the city and undermining the mayor's popularity.
The infamous 1996 storms brought 17 inches over several days. Barry was in town, but the response was hamstrung by the city's deep fiscal crisis. Some plows sat idle because of a lack of spare parts, and many contractors refused to work for a government that hadn't paid its bills from vendors in months.
The city budget for snow has stayed steady for years, at $3.2 million, but at the same time, major capital investments have revamped the city's fleet of trucks. None is dedicated to plowing alone, but the 179 that are available are outfitted with salt spreaders and plows.
Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) said the city showed improvement but should have kept its operations at full speed through the weekend, until all the side streets were clear.
"Most of the side streets in Georgetown weren't even touched," said Evans, who represents the neighborhood, with its narrow roads. "That's the District's age-old way of dealing with snow: Let it melt."