Progressive Voice: Proposals for Improving Snow Removal

Alan Howze headshotProgressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations or

By: Alan Howze

Last night, the County government and Arlington Public Schools held a joint community forum on how to improve snow removal. No doubt, there was a wide range of suggestions, and with global warming contributing to more frequent mega-snows it is good to see that County leadership recognizes that its approach to snow removal needs to adapt.

How well did the County respond to the blizzard? Let’s look at the numbers:

376      Lane miles maintained by Arlington (excludes VDOT and federal)

4          Days to complete first pass of all Arlington roads

254      # of vehicles – county and contractor – involved in the cleanup

That amounts to 81 feet of roadway cleared per vehicle per hour.

In the spirit of yesterday’s forum, I offer suggestions for how the County and APS can get the community up and running more quickly.

1 – Use data. Many cities and state transportation departments have implemented GPS systems that track vehicles – including snow plows. Real-time information is made available to emergency managers and residents. County government and APS should implement a unified GPS system for their respective fleets – and work with contractors to improve data collection.

Better data, made publicly available, would speed snow removal and lower costs, and the benefits would extend beyond the snow season, providing year-round information to improve county services. The benefits of better data for snow clearing include:

  1. Real-time snow clearing information for residents, emergency managers, and fire / EMS
  1. Information to improve operations – for example, it would allow for analysis of driver behavior, time spent plowing, filling up with salt, refueling, shift switches, towing out other trucks and more
  1. Data upon which to make route adjustments – during the storm cleanup and for future planning
  1. More efficient application of de-icing material with less duplication of street coverage
  1. Faster clearing by allowing plows to be deployed where needed – with less duplication

2 – Set targets. The County uses a four-phase approach to snow removal – but a process is not a goal. What is missing are explicit service level targets. How about 24 hours to clear roads and reopen schools in snows of 8 inches or less – and 48 hours for larger storms? Or a target to clear 120 feet of roadway per vehicle work hour.

With a clear target, County and APS staff can engineer an approach to hit the mark. Clear expectations would also improve accountability by setting benchmarks for measuring performance.

To budget for infrequent but significant snowfall, money could be set aside in a “rainy day” fund that rolls-over from year-to-year. In years without snow the account accrues and then is drawn down when big storms hit.

3 – Integrate County and APS efforts. As with the County, APS should have clear targets for how quickly after storms it will clear its properties, and then work with the County to develop a joint approach to re-open schools quickly.

Arlington students missed an entire week after the storm. A number of APS schools didn’t see a plow until late Tuesday, a full three (sunny) days after the storm had stopped. And on many streets, County crews dumped giant snow piles onto already cleared sidewalks – forcing pedestrians, including children, to walk in the streets to reach bus stops, metro or schools – and further delaying school reopening.

The community facility study conducted last year identified a number of opportunities for County/APS cooperation, and snow removal is another area where joint efforts could benefit the entire community.

There was much that Arlington did well in the storm. The County made a real effort to provide better information to residents – albeit with mixed results. Staff and contractors worked incredibly hard and should be commended for their effort.

By working smarter – using data, setting explicit targets and coordinating County and APS efforts – our community can recover from the next storm faster, with less disruption, and for lower cost.

Alan Howze lives in the Overlee Knolls neighborhood and has been active in Arlington civic life, including a prior bid for County Board. He is the father of three Tuckahoe Elementary Turtles and a management consultant by day.

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