Thursday, December 30, 2010

Snowpocalypse? NO!

Cross-posted from

Where in America can there be a moderate rainfall and the weather report lists it as “partly sunny?”  Where in America can a foot of snow on the ground be categorized as a “trace?” That, my friends, describes the weather outlook for Syracuse, NY.

I lived in Syracuse for 32 years before moving back to my home state of New Jersey. The area is a wonderful place to bring up a family. It is a diverse community with ample cultural, sporting, and recreational attractions. It is a microcosm of America with traffic jams, nearby rural isolation, and the transformational challenges facing a city that was once dominated by manufacturing jobs. The people are wonderful, and regardless of political leanings or ethnic differences, they always rally around the Orangemen’s exploits. But the one thing that sucks in the Salt City is the weather. There’s a dearth of sun in the spring and fall, and a plethora of snow in the winter.  Average snowfall is north of nine feet per year.

Yet, the city has found a way to cope with the white stuff, and there are lessons to be learned for Governor Christie, Mayor Bloomberg, and New Jersey’s municipal officials who have not yet found the recipe for handling the snow. The city’s population is 140,000,  putting it about the same category as Paterson and Elizabeth.

As recently reported in the New York Times on a 70-inch snowfall this winter,

Through all of this snow, public schools in Syracuse closed for only two days, and the airport shut down for 15 minutes. Piles of cleared snow grew to two-story heights, but the roads were plowed and kept open.

So what is Syracuse’s secret? To find out, I spoke with Pete O’Connor, the city’s Commissioner of Public Works.

O’Connor’s career with the DPW spans eleven years, and he is just finishing up his first year as commissioner. Without hesitation, his first response to my question about Syracuse’s success in clearing the roads was the dedication and pride his crews take in a job that impacts every citizen of the city. There are about 100 people, drivers and mechanics, who work two shifts to keep the streets clear and the plows operating. Readers who have been to Syracuse know that there are some pretty steep hills and most of the major hospitals are located in those areas, so that’s the first priority for the DPW in a snowstorm. Next come the main routes through the city, followed by the residential areas. Drivers are always assigned to the same routes so that they get to know the idiosyncrasies of each block in the city. Their goal is to have every one of the 800 miles of streets cleared within 24 hours of the end of each snowfall. And that goal is almost always met.

O’Connor also gives credit to the city for not suspending alternate side of the street parking during blizzards. He emphasizes that citizens are generally cooperative and provide the room needed for his plows to get through. In major snowstorms, they plow out city lots and ask residents to move their cars to provide even more room for the plows.

And speaking of plows, the commissioner wondered how effective other cities are in simply slapping a plow assembly on the front of a sanitation truck. Syracuse has dedicated plow trucks with experienced snow removal drivers. That makes a big difference according to O’Connor. Now, maybe New Jersey’s snowfall doesn’t necessitate dedicated trucks, but keep in mind that most reputable climatologists predict that the global warming of our oceans will result in more severe snowstorms as the years go by. Municipal planners should not ignore this fact.

Another challenge that Syracuse faces is that the temperature rarely goes above freezing in the winter, so snow just stays around - it doesn’t melt until Spring. In the old days, excess snow from downtown used to be dumped in nearby Onondaga Lake, but this is now precluded by environmental regulations. Instead, the city has a seven-acre plot adjacent to the downtown area where snow is brought as necessary.

Of course, none of this is free. The city budgets $4.5 million for 150 inches of snowfall per season. Since the average snowfall runs around 111 inches, most years the Snow and Ice Bureau returns money to the city coffers for things like road repair. Yet, the city is prepared for the inevitable anomalous winter when even the hearty Syracusans are surprised. Overtime is carefully monitored across the Department year-round to build up an additional funding buffer if needed.

As we have seen in the recent blizzard in New York City, it costs more in the long run when budgets are slashed and experienced public servants are let go. Lives were lost in the Big Apple when ambulances were unable to get to their destinations and commerce came to a halt. Experienced supervisors were demoted, and staff cuts are undoubtedly part of the problem. With apologies to the Gipper, when done right, “government is not the problem, government is part of the solution.” Public servants like Pete O’Connor and his dedicated crews teach us this lesson every day.

No comments:

Post a Comment