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In January 1979, a severe winter storm blasted Chicago. The city government failed to clear the roads of snow, which virtually shut down the metropolis for a week. The snow closed O’Hare International Airport for a record 42 hours. Drifts, many of them 12 feet high, blocked more than 1,400 of the city’s streets. An estimated 300 million tons of snow closed schools for at least a week, immobilized the city’s elevated rail system for days, impeded firemen from responding to burning buildings and forced hospitals to import 1,000 pints of blood from Los Angeles.
Many believe Chicago’s failure to clear the roads of snow had a major affect on the fall of then-Mayor Michael Bilandic’s in the mayoral election held shortly after the storm. Bilandic’s opponent, Jane Byrne, seized on the city’s stumble as the race was coming to end, airing commercials with lines like “listen, only the good Lord can stop the snow and its not the fact that it snowed that’s the problem here, but it was just the sort of competence in dealing with it and a certain dishonesty that came with that.”
Byrne won the mayoral race, in large part due to the city’s inability to provide a core government service.
People expect clear roads during wintertime – and they want the roads cleared in a timely fashion. If government fails to meet expectations, it does not go unnoticed. In the winter of 2008-2009, Chicago cut overtime services, leaving side roads iced over for days. Chicagoans were not happy. For the 2009-2010 winter season, Mayor Richard Daley outlined plans to avoid previous mistakes and has committed to keeping the roads safe and clear. Chicago’s Street and Sanitation Department’s 2009 personnel budget for snow removal is $6 million.
Illinois state government officials promised winter road services would not be affected by the state’s tight budget situation, stating that “snow and ice removal isn’t a service that will be affected” and that the state is “prepared for any wicked weather Mother Nature throws our way.”
A 2009 Freedom of Information Act request made by the Illinois Policy Institute found that the State of Illinois spent $52,184,919.52 on salt and abrasives for road use. The Department of Transportation was responsible for almost the entire total, spending $52,161,595.91.
Budgeting for snow removal sits near the top of the priority list for local governments around Illinois; Sangamon County Highway Engineer Tim Zahrn noted, “That’s the first thing we budget for; that’s our primary responsibility.” Officials in the state capital city of Springfield say they “will deploy whatever resources are needed on a storm-by-storm basis.”
Annually, local and state road agencies across the country spend more than $2.3 billion on snow and ice operations and millions of dollars to repair damaged infrastructure caused by snow and ice.
Residents of Illinois demand clear and safe roads. State and local agencies must budget and prepare for the winter season, and then perform up to certain standards when the snow comes. Otherwise, we risk losing money, time and lives.
Economic Impact of Snow Response
Effectively clearing and deicing major intersections and side streets can reduce accidents by almost 90 percent, and the cost of a full season of snow fighting equals less than the cost of a single day of economic activity lost to winter storms. Millions of dollars are lost or saved depending on the response to snow on the roads.1
Not only does efficient snow removal and deicing have economic implications, efficient roadway maintenance saves thousands of lives and allows ambulances, police, fire engines and other lifesavers to do their job by allowing them get to where they need to go. Schools, factories, businesses, and people going about everyday activities rely on clear and safe roads.
In short, both human lives and hard-earned money depend on clear, safe roads.
According to a Standard & Poor’s Data Resources Incorporated study, which covered Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin, if impassable roads completely paralyzed this region, $518 million a day in tax revenue would be lost, as would $600 million in lost retail sales, and $1.4 billion in unearned wages.
Research shows winter maintenance can pay for itself in less than a half hour after use. The University of Marquette’s Center for Highway and Traffic Engineering showed that “applying salt and plowing two-lane roads pays for itself within 25 minutes.”
Clearing the roads of snow has important implications. Studies have shown clear connection between safety and costs depending on whether roads are clear and passable. As shown in the report, the Marquette University reviewed before and after accident rates for two-lane highways and freeway, plowing and salting makes an incredible difference in avoiding accidents, lost time and lost money.
Losses can quickly multiply with each snowstorm. In order to stay on top of snowstorms without losing precious time and money, snow removal and deicing roads must be as efficient and cost-effective as possible.
Performance Standards: Safety and Cost
It’s no secret snow causes car accidents. According to the Federal Highway Administration, every year the following occurs:
- 24 percent of weather-related vehicle crashes occur on snowy, slushy or icy pavement.
- 15 percent of weather-related vehicle crashes happen during snowfall or sleet.
- Over 1,300 people are killed and more than 116,800 people are injured in vehicle crashes on snowy, slushy or icy pavement.
Budgeting for road clearing during winter season is a top priority and major budget item for state and local government. Preparation is key for combating winter storms, and once the storm arrives, local and state governments need to hold themselves accountable by implementing snow removal performance standards. In order to measure snow removal standards, state and local governments can set up a metric system to gauge good or poor performance. The following criteria should be measured:
- How well was snow removal and salting maintained during the snowstorm?
- How many accidents occurred because of weather conditions?
- How was travel time affected because of the snow?
- At which point were main and side roads clear after the snowstorm stopped?
Cities surrounding Chicago, for example, have performance goals for plowing and salting within a certain amount of time:
- The City of Naperville begins an all-out plowing effort when two inches of snow accumulate and are still falling, clearing all streets within 14 hours after the snow stops falling, admitting “heavier snows often take longer to clear.”
- The City of Wheaton commits to salting streets once snow or icing conditions begin, starts plowing after 2 inches of accumulation and reapplies salt after plowing.
- The City of Joliet’s website says they “mobilize crews when there is a measurable accumulation of snowfall or if the winter mix is causing a hazardous driving situation such as freezing rain,” and a goal of cleaning all streets within 12 hours after the snow stops.
Chicago’s Department of Streets and Sanitation’s website does not provide specific performance standards regarding how quickly roads should be cleared. It states, rather, that city “snow crews make every effort to remove snow and ice from streets as quickly as possible during the winter months.” It does provide some details about its method of attack, making “arterial streets safe first for travel during or after a snowfall,” and then dispatching the city’s trucks to “secondary, residential streets for salting and plowing operations,” continuing this work “until all city streets have been treated.” Chicago should meet the same or better standards by having main roads clear within 4 hours and having all roads clear within 12 hours after the snow stops.
Governments should consider privatizing snow and ice services as a way of cutting costs while maintaining service levels. The Village of Glenview, for example, realized substantial cost-savings by partnering with the private sector to provide snow plowing services to its community: “By working with the private sector to supplement staff, the Village will realize a five-year savings of more than $1 million. While the Village initially faced some challenges with finding the right service provider, it now has an excellent vendor in place. The caliber of service has improved, as has the Department’s ability to plan appropriately.”
Significant amounts of tax dollars go into funding snow removal and deicing, and taxpayers deserve efficient and cost-effective performance from their government. Snow affects the safety of people and can bring about high costs, personally and economically, if not managed well with efficient road clearing.
Access to clear roads is critical for Illinois families and businesses. A significant amount of money goes into winter road maintenance, and government has the responsibility to see that it is spent in the most efficient and quality-driven manner possible.
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