Snowed under by gripes

rpulley@lsjournal.comJanuary 15, 2014 

Lee’s Summit employees on Feb. 22, 2013 loaded snow into dumpsters downtown between Douglas and East Main Street to clear street parking and not bury sidewalks. A snow storm Feb. 21 left a 10-inch frosting of snow on the city.

FILE PHOTO

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    telephone number for the snow desk, where the street department takes calls 24 hours a day during snow removal. Once the city has plowed streets, the phone is answered during regular hours 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

After residents shoveled piles of complaints on Lee’s Summit’s for its snow plowing, the City Council decided last week to work on improving that program.

The council at its Jan. 9 meeting heard a report on the city’s snow fighting from Deputy Director of Public Works Bob Hartnett, who reviewed results following several storms in December and January.

Before that, Richard Hunt, a resident, during public comments criticized snow removal, echoing phone calls, emails and Facebook comments that overall griped about the city’s efforts. He said that before moving to Lee’s Summit he lived in the Pittsburg, Penn. area. After 30 years living in the north, he said he knew what snow removal should be like and Lee’s Summit wasn’t doing it right.

“Lee’s Summit becomes a trap for commuters in the area and for residents of the area,” Hunt said. “We’re doing a piss-poor job of cleaning up the streets. The job’s just not being done, folks, it’s just not being done.”

In council discussion, Council member Dave Mosby said the Public Works Department followed the snow plan approved by the council. The city had many employees working long hours to clear streets, he said.

“Few things a city does affect every single household, everybody’s seeing this and feeling this, there’s a lot of passion out there,” Mosby said. “The issue is not the execution, it’s the plan.”

The city’s plan for snow removal is posted on the Public Works page at www.cityofls.net, click on Snow and Ice Removal.

Mosby noted cities take varied approaches to snowstorms, some designate emergency snow routes, ignoring the rest of streets, while some plow residential streets first. He asked that the council have the Public Works Committee reevaluate Lee’s Summit’s plan and materials the city uses for treating roads, and the council agreed.

Hartnett said that as of Jan. 9, the city had spent $323,935 of its snow budget of $611,395, following five storms.

Councilman Bob Johnson said he thinks it’s time the city increases its budget for snow removal, perhaps contracting with private companies for additional help.

Hartnett said hiring contractors to help on streets could be an expensive step, at about $110 an hour. Johnson noted that the $110 would also be cover contractors’ cost of equipment, so the city wouldn’t be buying additional trucks.

Harnett said the city buys rock salt (sodium chloride) and applies it at rates recommended by industry standards, to balance melting snow and then environmental damage it can cause. It increased the amount of salt to try to compensate for the cold.

There are alternatives, such as calcium chloride, which are more effective in extreme cold, but also significantly more expensive.

Hartnett said city policy had set goals for treating and clearing streets, once a snowstorm has stopped, ranging from 24 to 48 hours and depending on the depth of snow and wind conditions.

After a Level 2 storm of less than 1 inch of snow or ice the goal is for city crews to have plowed every street within 24 hours.

The city first plows primary streets. Hartnett said sometimes trucks had to re-plow those streets several times before it could turn to residential streets.

The city’s crews this year have met those time goals, but Hartnett agreed that the city didn’t clear snow down to the pavement on many streets. He said weather conditions make that difficult.

Wind was blowing snow back onto already plowed streets, and snow driven on by vehicles became icepack-frozen on roads, sticking to pavement as plows skittered over the top.

After trucks plow streets with a 1- to 2-inch snow, if wind blows snow back onto roads, it appears as though they haven’t been touched, Hartnett said, while in a 3- or 4-inch snow its more apparent snowplows have made a pass.

He said that with ice below snow, sometimes it’s a better strategy to leave some snow on top to provide traction for vehicles.

Extreme snow compounded the problems.

When it’s 30 degrees, one pound of salt can melt 46 pounds of ice, but cold rapidly decreases it’s effectiveness. At minus 6 degrees, one pound of salt melts only three pounds of ice, Hartnett said, quoting statistics from the Salt Institute.

Hartnett said the city follows industry guidelines for applying amounts of salt, because those are the best practices for effectiveness and protecting the environment.

Hartnett said he did take some time to drive to Raytown and south Blue Springs during the most recent storm to see how street crews fared in those cities. He agreed some of those streets looked better.

Hartnett said it is hard to compare between communities, because of local differences in precipitation, temperature and cloud cover that influence conditions facing snow crews. A Lee’s Summit employee who lives in Overland Park took video of a street in that city that was no better than Lee’s Summit.

Council member Brian Whitley said he had driven around Kansas City after the recent storm and some of those streets were no better.

Whitley asked that city administration gather some additional information, such as a comparing Lee’s Summit’s budget for snow removal with surrounding cities (taking into account how many miles of streets in each city) and materials they use to treat streets to melt snow and ice.

He also asked if Lee’s Summit sees a spike in traffic accidents during snow events, compared to other communities.

Lee’s Summit Police Major Scott Lyons said the city didn’t see an increase in accidents during the storms because many residents stayed home, so there was less traffic.

Whitley and Councilman Allan Gray said they’d like the city to offer some kind of online service which shows residents what streets have been plowed, or can predict how soon to expect trucks in their neighborhoods.

Hartnett said the city’s information technology department is looking into the idea.

Public Works used its personnel, plus volunteers from other city departments, working in shifts to keep 30 snowplows running 24-hours a day during the recent storms.

“We occasionally miss a street,” Hartnett said. “It’s certainly our goal to hit every street in town.”

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