Please pass the (road) salt

A Seattle transplant sums up the region's snowstorm-response failings.
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A Seattle Department of Transportation snowplow.

A Seattle transplant sums up the region's snowstorm-response failings.

Seattle's Freaksnow '08 is turning into an object lesson. It's not just that we've got a bunch of people who are, arguably, less hardy — and may I add, more polite — than the average Midwestern driver. And it's not just that we don't have the kind of snow response team that Chicago or the Twin Cities takes as a fact of budgetary life. It's that we've got practically nothing. No reasonable way to deal with the situation, outside of shutting down schools, businesses, and the bus system, and waiting for the snow and ice to melt. University of Washington meteorologist Cliff Mass has complained about this on his own blog, touching off a flurry of reader comments. Mass rightly points out our city's failings, which have led to costly shut-downs and delays, and he makes a valid point later on (see "Snowplow Musings," under the graphs) about the relative low cost of a few plows in light of money lost to, for example, shutting down UW for two whole days.

It's easy for transplants to complain about Seattle's ridiculously dramatic but nonetheless inadequate response to less than a foot of snow. It feeds into our understandable frustrations anyway with a culture that, for all its cosmopolitanism, can seem geographically (and psychologically) isolated. Yes, it's hard to make an argument for even a $500,000 expenditure for snowplow blades in the current economic climate, but by the looks of things, we can afford a few blades.

In all my driving years, I've never seen anything as mindboggling as this week's roads. The plow comes through my street, as it's a minor arterial, but there's still snow and ice on the road when it's gone. Three days post-snowfall, and it's a colossal mess out there. Besides the snowplow issue, what's missing is an ingredient that every Midwesterner has by the ready for days like today: salt. I couldn't figure it out, as by now, if this were St. Louis, for example, every business would have salted its parking lots, and you'd see asphalt. Then I remembered reading about an experiment to devise an eco-friendly alternative to road salt in Eastern Washington using molasses and cheese, and it hit me: The enviros are purposefully refusing to use the tried-and-true de-icer.

I was right. In the effort to protect Puget Sound, we've got no salt, rubber-covered snowblades, and some curious method of shaving down, but not removing, the snow and ice. Where's the logic, in this instance? I would be surprised, if, on balance, this few days' absence of salt makes enough of a difference in the health of a waterway that is polluted continually with stormwater to justify the havoc wreaked on roads. In a city that gets snow like this once every 12 years and doesn't have the snowplow contingent to deal with it, the green mandate should be lifted, at least until they get that cheese-molasses concoction to work!

Besides, as has been reported by the Times, sand as an alternative to salt causes its own environmental problems.

A few sources have come in with comments and suggestions. One tells me the blades have rubber only on the bottom, which, in addition to supposedly saving the streets from damage, also saves on the need to maintain metal blades. But protecting streets by using rubber plow blades is silly given all the snow tires and chains digging into the asphalt. Another source suggests one good way to get more plows: Put the blades on garbage trucks, which otherwise sit idle during snowstorms, though we pay the companies just the same. Garbage trucks are powerful, heavy in the rear wheels, and as Mass explained, blades don't cost a lot. Another idea: The city and counties could coordinate on plowing, de-icing some main routes, just to get buses running again.

Sadly, it seems that just about every Puget Sound agency was caught without good plans this time. Sound Transit, I'm told, didn't shovel its station platforms for Sounder until Tuesday. Time to review the snowstorm response system.

UPDATE: There's a new Facebook group whose sole mission is to convince Seattle to "buy some SALT, and CLEAR THE STREETS!" Yes, I've joined.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this post appeared on Lisa Albers' blog.


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