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Snow Removal Program
Testimony of Vanessa Dale Burns, Director
DC Department of Public Works
February 2, 2000




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FEBRUARY 2, 2000

Good evening, Chairman Schwartz, members of the Committee on Public Works and the Environment and members of the Council. Thank you for this opportunity to present the District government snow team's operational strategy to control snow and ice on the city's streets.

We have a great snow team that repeatedly stepped up to the plate during the past two weeks to work heroically making sure our streets are passable. I am buoyed by the contributions made, not just by Public Works but by the Housing Authority, the Water and Sewer Authority, the Emergency Management Agency and the Metropolitan Police Department.

We have worked hard to replace inter- and intra-agency rivalries with the concept of "One D.C. government and one DPW." This operation is about teamwork and making contributions to the overall success of the team.

They contributed by driving the trucks that salted and plowed the streets. They contributed by making sure the trucks worked well and stayed working. They contributed by entering the data into our enhanced snow computer program. They contributed by loading thousands of tons of salt into the trucks. They contributed by supervising contract plow operators. They contributed by controlling traffic at intersections and pacing traffic using our bridges.

I In all, everyone contributed beyond expectations, especially during the past two weeks when storm events followed each other on practically a daily basis. I applaud all those who worked so hard to accomplish so much.

Let me say: This is not 1996. Back then, the only thing in great supply was heart. Today, we have reliable equipment and sufficient supplies to support all those hard-working people.

We started preparing for this snow season when the temperature hovered in the 90s and we took a comprehensive look at what happens in the District in the winter.

First, we know the weather will be cold, that precipitation will fall and whether we have an event depends on how cold it gets. Second, we know when we have snow and ice events, we still must collect trash, and so plans have to be in place. Third, we know that potholes will appear after snow storms, so we decided to be proactive and have our inspectors locate them so they can be repaired more readily.

Our planning included an additional layer of preparation to be ready for Y2K, which, fortunately, became a non-story.

Nevertheless, the possibility of our systems being ineffective because of the date change caused us to take a good look at everything from how we pump gas to how we keep our records. The result was an operation run by smarter, more aware staff using upgraded technology.

We transformed our procurement process to shorten the time between ordering items such as rental trucks, salt, anti-icing solution, windshield wipers and tires and receiving them. Please keep in mind that we could not spend any money until the start of the fiscal year.

Altogether, we have had eight events. Three of the most severe events occurred within the last two weeks.

According to the National Weather Service, the District has received 14.5 inches of snow within the last two weeks. Our average annual snowfall is 17 inches.

While the frequency of events somewhat resembles 1996, our response demonstrates solid improvements in our operations.

In general, our response to individual storms is guided by the weather reports. We all remember the afternoon storm of January 11 when evening rush hour traffic was snarled for hours. The forecast, on which we based our response, was for flurries, ending quickly. But because of the timing, we were unable to recall our drivers, who were sitting in traffic on their way home. By mid-evening we did have 70 trucks treating the streets, which was up from the 24 trucks that were initially deployed as dictated by the forecast.

Another storm, of two to four inches, never arrived. For more than 24 hours, or two shifts, we had more than hundreds of people -- drivers, mechanics, data entry people and inspectors - ready to fight a snowstorm that evaporated before it hit the ground. Even after we knew there would be no snow, we continued to have 24 trucks on hand because icy patches might have formed because of the extreme cold.

Perhaps the most frequently asked question about our snow operation comes from Mayor Williams. The question: What is the standard for an individual storm response?

Following the 1996 snow season, the District and area jurisdictions adopted general standards for different types of storms. The standards identify how much time is reasonable for residents to expect salting and/or plowing to occur on their streets.

Last week, we had the "surprise" storm that dropped between eight and 12 inches of snow on city streets. According to these standards, we were to have major roads, our snow emergency routes, clear of snow and ice within 24 hours of the end of the storm. We met that standard.

Again, using these same standards, we were to have our residential streets (the city's small and medium streets that low traffic volume) passable (that means snow packed) within 48 hours, or two days after the storm ended. We met that standard.

This year we have had 18 women in the Welfare to Work program working with us to remove snow from around Metrobus stops. They are making a difference in our residents' lives. I am happy to say six of them have found permanent jobs.

One thing that storm taught us is that we are going in the right direction by doing a street-by-street survey of the city.

We have heard from residents who were absolutely right when they said they haven't seen any plowing or salting on their street in years. When trying to respond to the service request, the driver found the street was too narrow for our larger trucks, but because we had thought the street was an alley, it was not part of our residential route network. I would like to thank those residents for not giving up on us.

That brings me to Mayor Williams's commitment to further improvements in our snow readiness. We have seen the value of the light-plow trucks, which actually are 4x4 pick-up trucks equipped with salt spreaders and plows. With them, we have increased the number of hilly neighborhood streets that are treated from the beginning of a storm, just the way our snow emergency routes are.

Under Mayor Williams's proposal, we will look at the vehicle equipment purchases across the government to see what trucks can be made snow-ready. With additional equipment, we can treat the residential streets earlier in a storm than we are able to now.

We also are going to expand DPW's capacity by getting more of the smaller trucks that can carry a plow and spreader from contractors. As it stands now, we can send the contract plow operators to the major streets when we are in a plowing operation. Our 6- and 10-wheel dump trucks can start working the medium size residential streets, but this is not good enough.

We want to be able to reach the residential streets earlier in storms than we have this year, and having more contractors with this equipment will make that happen.

Last year we began making our trash trucks snow-ready so they can assist with plowing the streets, not alleys, in a real emergency. Fortunately, this year we have not needed to bring them in for plowing, but they are ready.

Another innovation this year is the expansion of our work in hilly residential neighborhoods. We now are dispatching 15 4x4 pickup trucks to these residential streets at the beginning of a storm. Previously, we had dispatched 10.

For us, our snow program is about more than the final condition of the streets. Concern for public safety is our starting and ending point. This year we purchased three digital message boards that are placed at the 16th Street, N.W. at the D.C. Line, the Michigan Avenue/Charles R. Drew Bridge and the Pennsylvania Avenue/John Phillip Sousa Bridge. The signs provide messages to drivers about conditions.

Another traffic issue is intersection management. Thanks to MPD, more than 100 intersections have had police officers present to control traffic. I am sure traffic is moving better because of this.

My hat is off to MPD for expanding their presence on the bridges. In past years, I'm told that motorists would speed across the bridges, regardless of the conditions. Now police officers are present, lights are flashing on their cruisers and I am convinced their presence has saved lives.

We haven't stopped planning our innovations. Right now, we are re-evaluating our snow emergency route system. In the future, using technology we want to factor in construction sites and their impact on the streets when making decisions about these routes.

Within five years, at 300 intersections we will have cameras. We also are investing in additional digital message boards for our intersections and pavement sensors. All this is part of the Intelligent Transportation System.

We are a world capital and we expect to receive a lot of attention about how we do things. Let me give you my pledge that we are 100 percent committed to continuing our improvements so that everyone agrees that we look like a world capital.

Now, if I may, I would like to present testimony specifically directed toward trash collection under snowy and icy conditions.

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