The politics of snow

Published 10:21 am Saturday, February 13, 2010

In a part of the country where they get so little practice, this columnist will resist the urge to criticize those responsible for removing snow and ice from roadways.

I read with interest and some amusement this week that the mayors of Washington, D.C., and Baltimore are catching much political grief — and may be in trouble come re-election time — because of city workers’ slow pace in digging out from under the massive snow that has blanketed the mid-Atlantic region over the past two weeks. The cumulative snow count at this writing is 3 feet in Baltimore and nearly as much in D.C., with more possible next week.

Perhaps I’d feel differently if I lived there, but I think I’d be willing to cut a little slack for public servants in the wake of a once-in-a-century type winter storm.

I must be in the minority. Incongruently, snow is quite the, well, hot issue.

“People are very emotional about snow,” said former Washington Mayor Marion Berry, who, in his ninth political life as a D.C. city councilman, should know a little something about what pushes voters’ buttons.

Here at home, the 7 inches to 9 inches of snow that fell on Western Tidewater two weeks ago was a once-in-a-decade event — just infrequent enough to make heavy investment in snow-removal equipment (which isn’t cheap) a questionable use of local tax dollars and infrequent enough to justify, in my mind, road crews’ sluggish response.

Still, many of our readers, in phone calls and e-mails, sounded off on their displeasure with Franklin Public Works and, to a lesser extent, the Virginia Department of Transportation in the days following the Jan. 30 storm. It is their right as taxpayers.

Though the adequacy of the response may be a subject of legitimate disagreement, all citizens should reasonably expect from Franklin Public Works management and regional VDOT leaders a public postmortem on the winter storm and cleanup.

What worked? What didn’t?

Was the equipment — what little of it is owned in these parts — functional?

Which roads got priority? Which were deemed nonessential?

Make public the list of roads and parking lots, how long after the storm each was cleared, and the order in which they were cleared. More important, ask the citizens for feedback on that priority list.

Legitimate questions have been posed. Should Fairview Drive and North High Street — the two ways citizens access Southampton Memorial Hospital — get priority over other roads? Should streets get priority over city-owned parking lots? We’re told by the city that the latter involve different crews and different machinery. Should crews be cross-trained and equipment modified to handle both?

What is a reasonable amount of time, given the limitations with machinery and manpower, to clear a city the size of Franklin?

Hash all of that out in the weeks and months ahead, draft a strategic plan for the next winter storm response, and make all citizens aware of it.

Short of buying a bunch of expensive equipment that will rarely be used, governments can ensure a better response next time around and perhaps buy more understanding from an impatient citizenry.