Snow problem: Buffalo knows how to deal with winter
Locals remember the Blizzard of 85 as if it happened yesterday. That 85 storm and its sister, the Blizzard of 77 forever planted Buffalo, N.Y., in the nations mind as the Snow Capital of the United States.
The 85 storm 33 inches of snow joined by 60 mile-per-hour winds shut down the city. A driving ban, unheard of in Buffalo, was instituted. The mayor, a local legend named Jimmy Griffin who once tested the presidential waters, was nonplussed. Walk on down to the convenience store and get a six-pack, he advised residents. Then go home and watch TV.
Residents laughed. Shut down Buffalo? That was a new concept to most of them. Buffalo simply did not give in to snow. But Griffin was right. Numerous six- packs and a week later, Buffalonians emerged from the storm that would tar their city with the snow reputation of which they now appear to be fiercely proud.
Interestingly, Buffalo does not even own the New York snowfall record; that belongs to nearby Binghamton or Syracuse, which trade the record back and forth on a yearly basis. And the snow dumped on several Michigan cities every year makes Buffalos snow look like a dusting.
For its size, however (the city has more than 310,000 residents), Buffalo is the snow king. The citys snow- and ice-clearing ability dwarfs that of most cities its size, as well as many much smaller.
How, exactly, does Buffalo manage to keep going in weather that would daunt smaller and more financially sound cities? Planning and cooperation help, but mostly, the answer lies in the fact that snow is never seen as something to be feared or dreaded. Snow is, quite simply, a fact of life.
We dont have a choice here, says Don Paul, a meteorologist for the local CBS television affiliate. We have to handle it or our economy is affected.
Paul works closely with the citys snow-fighting contingent and has high praise for its efforts. During the first two weeks of January we had 6012 inches of snow, he says. It was the snowiest two-week period in Buffalo history, and our records go back to the 1800s. [Streets and Sanitation Commissioner] Paul Sullivan was out there plowing, and thats not his job. The city was closed for just one day. Detroit or New York City would have been paralyzed.
Planning is key Careful planning ensures that Buffalo stays open for business. With data from the National Weather Service (NWS), the Niagara International Transportation Technology Center (NITTEC) and meteorologists like Paul, Sullivan is rarely surprised by a storm. We generally have a pretty good idea whats coming, he says. When the data indicate a major storm, Sullivans crew springs into action. His department immediately switches to 12-hour shifts (7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.). Salt supplies are checked and re-checked, as is equipment.
The citys 50-vehicle snow-fighting fleet consists of single-axle salt spreaders with wing plows; double-axle spreaders with front plows; and smaller machines for side streets. If Sullivan needs more equipment, he can call Erie County Highway Commissioner Dave Comerford, whose own fleet keeps 900 miles of county roads clear.
Erie County is home to three cities, 25 towns and 16 villages, all of which have snow-plowing responsibilities. We have a Mutual Aid Agreement that works really well. Weve actually had people from other areas ask us for copies of the agreement, Comerford says. It goes both ways. We will plow some of their roads, they will plow some of ours, and well pick up some state roads. Or well loan them equipment. In January, we gave Buffalo 13 of our trucks.
Main roads get the first and the most consistent treatment. We plow the main roads every day if they need it, Sullivan says. We dont let them go at all. Side streets in residential areas are next on the priority list, and they produce the most headaches. Our city was made for the horse and buggy, Sullivan says. Weve got parking on both sides of the street, and, lots of times, snowplows just cant get through.
Sullivans department drew fire during the January storm for its inability to clear all the side streets. Television meteorologist Paul says the criticism was undeserved. It was physically impossible to get plows down some streets, but they kept trying, he says. Id say 75 to 80 percent of our problem is parking, Sullivan says. Any side street that was plowed was plowed because the residents abided by the parking regulations. (In fact, because of the problems created by street parking, some cities have simply stopped plowing side streets. Recently, Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer was blasted by residents for announcing just such a policy.)
Accurate information Of course, mobilizing Buffalos street-clearing forces would be an exercise in futility without accurate weather information. That is where meteorologists like Paul and organizations like NITTEC come in. Paul, who keeps in fairly close touch with Sullivan before major snowstorms, considers himself the commissioners second opinion. Hes already got the data from the NWS, Paul says. I assume hes calling me to make sure I agree with the service. It does flatter my ego that he has that much faith in me.
The NWS, in turn, uses data from NITTEC, an arm of the state Department of Transportation, in making its forecasts. That data includes everything from air temperature to pavement temperature gathered from NITTECs extensive Road Weather Information System (RWIS). Virtually all local agencies with any responsibility for snow and ice control use NITTECs data in determining when and where to dispatch crews for salting and snowplowing. In fact, after the state DOT, Erie County is the greatest user of the centers information, says NITTEC Traffic Operations Center Manager Dean Gustafson.
Weve got a very good working relationship with the county and the city, Gustafson says. I realize that, in a lot of areas, the state DOT and the local agencies dont always have the best relationship, but, here in western New York, weve always had great cooperation.
Currently, NITTECs RWIS encompasses only state highways and expressways. As soon as the state budget permits, the system will be expanded by 200 sites statewide. Many of the new sites will be on county and local roads. Twenty will be in western New York, and some, Gustafson says, will undoubtedly make it to Erie County. It will be up to our maintenance folks to determine where to place them, he says. But we will work with the county to find out any locations where a state highway intersects a county road.
Taking cooperation one step further, Gustafson, who also chairs western New Yorks incident management team, has invited local jurisdictions to a snow conference to discuss specific problems and solutions. Were going to try to get each municipality to identify its specific problems, he says. Were trying to get a barometer reading on where we are.
Dealing with tight budgets Merely having the considerable resources of the NYDOT available to it provides Buffalo with a big boost. The city has long been economically challenged, and local officials appreciate whatever help they can get in minimizing the cost of clearing the streets. We know the county and city are financially strapped, Gustafson says. Whatever resources they have, they have to manage them carefully. Thats where we can help. Its easier for the state. It has deeper coffers.
Over the years, budget constraints had plagued Buffalos streets department. Equipment was a problem what was not merely poorly maintained was actually broken. When Anthony Masiello was elected mayor in 1994, he audited city departments to discover what could be done better. Additionally, he brought in Sullivan, who began turning things around.
The departments budget still is tight, but available money is now better allocated. They do an incredible job given the budgetary constraints they operate with, Paul says. Sullivan modestly agrees. I know we do a good job, he says. But it would be a lot tougher if it werent for coordination and cooperation.
John Phillips has been a traffic reporter since 1975 and a Cincinnati Post columnist since 1990. His traffic job requires him to rise early to observe road conditions in the Cincinnati area.
Phillips also has accompanied snowplow drivers as they work to clear the highways before the morning rush hour. He has definite opinions about snow and ice removal, and he is not shy about expressing them. Im not known for being diplomatic, Phillips says. Linda Hearn, a transportation supervisor with the Warren Local Schools in Warren County, Ohio, is another early riser. She is on the job by 4 a.m., coordinating the transportation of students. Consequently, she is very concerned about passable roads, both for the students sake as well as her own. I have to use these roads to go all over the county, she says. I want them to be clear.
Phillips and Hearn no longer have to keep their opinions about road conditions to themselves. The two serve as observers for the Ohio Department of Transportations Snow and Ice Spotters Program.
As part of the program, which was instituted in 1998, county garage members call local residents like Phillips and Hearn, and survey them about how well the department has cleared the highways they use. The information is gathered, tracked and studied by the county crews, and each county is free to use it to improve performance over the course of the season. The program marks the first time ODOT has used public input to make departmental improvements.
Each snow and ice spotter in a particular area is called once a week. The questions identify the types of conditions that were present that week and ask spotters to rate the department in areas such as response time, thoroughness and communication with the public. The spotters also may offer additional praise or complaints.
The ODOT representative records all the spotters answers, which are then entered into a computer. Once the observations are entered into the database, they are instantly plotted on a graph, tracking an individual county garages progress over time.
The database, called the Snow and Ice Compiler, automatically forwards the information to the states transportation districts and to its central office. It can then be added to other information to help ODOT management set long-term policies. County managers and their staff members also have access to the database and can analyze their own performances.
I feel we are on the right track, says Cynthia Lee, an engineer clerk with ODOTs Highway Management division and a member of its Snow and Ice Performance Team. By finding out who our customers are and what they think, we have found the basis for making accurate comparisons, discovering our best practices and learning about the areas that need the most work. (Lee wrote the Snow and Ice Data Compiler and the instructions the counties use to input results.)
Seven spotters are chosen by the county garages to participate in the surveys. They learn the system and are expected to provide clear and objective opinions about ODOTs performance. It is a duty they take seriously, but one they seem to enjoy. I agreed to be part of this program because I like being involved in the community and in making it better, Phillips says. I think the garage knows I will be honest if there is a problem.
Im excited by [the program], says ODOT Director Jerry Wray. It is about asking our customers to tell us what we do right and what we need to improve. It is about thinking about the way we do things and ways to make ourselves better.
This article was written by Ronald Poole, public information specialist with the Office of Communications at the Ohio Department of Transportation.
In 1992, Mayor Stephen Goldsmith charged Indianapolis/Marion County departments with making business process changes that would save money and improve services. In the seven years since, the consolidated government has cut its annual operating expenses by $26 million (about 5 percent). Under the mayors program, the government has privatized more than 70 services and generated long-term savings estimated at about $250 million.
The Department of Public Works has done its part toward the effort, partly by redesigning and updating IMAGIS (Indianapolis Mapping and Geographic Infrastructure System). The GIS now helps the department monitor its 75 snow-fighting vehicles. In the past, tracking snowplows required drivers to report their positions to dispatchers who then plotted them on a wall map. The process was open to error because operators occasionally recorded the information incorrectly or forgot to update the map. With the Snow Fighter system, developed in conjunction with Englewood, Colo.-based Convergent Group, the drivers still report their positions to a dispatcher. However, instead of writing the information on a map, the operators enter the data into an IMS from Sacramento, Calif.-based Hansen Information Technologies, which can create or update a work order. Finally, data from the work orders is imported into ArcView from Redlands, Calif.-based ESRI.
Using the GIS, operators can search the snowplow routes spatially. They can select a point on the map, view the corresponding work order and note whether it has been cleared. Summaries on the system provide the percentage of uncleared roads and the roads scheduled for clearing, and they indicate how much salt has been used in a particular snow storm or during a particular season. The department plans to use the GIS to improve customer service by making information about its various plans and programs available to staff members who deal with the public. Additionally, it plans to use it to search for various types of inventory.
The GISs reporting function summarizes where money is spent and tracks future spending. As a final step, the public works department is making some of its data and applications available to the public over the Internet using ESRIs MapObjects software.
This article was written by Ted Rhinehart, public works director for Indianapolis.