Man-made snow emergency


The weather outside is frightful again, and Minnesota governments large and small are struggling with diminished resources to clear streets and highways of snow as quickly as possible. Most are managing pretty well, often by shortchanging other vital services.

The state’s biggest snowplow operator is the Minnesota Department of Transportation. It has 800 plow trucks, 1,482 drivers, 300 backup drivers and emergency help from MnDOT office workers to handle 10,000 miles of state highways.

In a winter full of major snowstorms, the agency can overshoot its typical annual plowing outlays of about $60 million, cutting other services to balance the budget.

“Snow plowing is the No. 1 priority in our overall maintenance budget,” said MnDOT spokesman Kevin Gutknecht. “We can adjust later if necessary. Other maintenance services, such as less temporary labor, reduced patching, etc., subsequently may be impacted.”

Like many states, Minnesota also is seeking efficiency from new technology and a two-week training program for plow operators. MnDOT has two 26-foot tow plows that can clear two lanes of Twin Cities freeways at once. A Missouri Department of Transportation employee designed these contraptions using his knowledge of farm equipment. Who says the public sector can’t innovate?

Other state DOTs are using solar-powered webcams to monitor road conditions in remote areas, saving long trips with plows that might not be necessary. Utah says it has already saved $200,000 that way this winter. Some are using environmentally friendly ice-melting compounds made from potatoes and beets. MnDOT and many other states have automatic de-icing systems on bridges and chronically slippery stretches of road.

Most Minnesota cities and counties don’t have as much budget flexibility as the state. A hiring and wage freeze, for example, has left St. Cloud four plow operators short of its staffing just two years ago. So it has drafted four workers from the public utilities and sanitation departments, leaving other basic needs unmet.

“The philosophy in operations is that streets are a priority and reducing plowing is a poor choice,” said Gerald Kaeter, the city’s assistant director of operations. “The actual service cuts are then shifted to refuse/recycle routes and the public utilities.” In a domino effect, he added, the city reassigned all its forestry staff to sanitation and utilities. “This will delay eventual tree trimming,” Kaeter said.

Blaine has stopped clearing many of the 64 miles of sidewalks its ordinance requires the city to maintain. “With our budget, we might have to say that we’ll plow only Monday through Friday,” Mayor Tom Ryan told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “And if we have to cut any more, we might have to say forget sidewalks and trails in certain areas.” He asked residents to pitch in by digging fire hydrants out of the snowbanks.

Skimping on snow removal is no way to move Minnesota forward. But some cities may be running out of better options as they cut their budgets in the face of state aid cuts.