Sunday, March 16, 2014

A Case Against Publically-Funded Snow Plow, Treatment, and Removal Services

                So I live near Dulles Airport (IAD) which has received 33.2” so far this 2013-14 season[1] (above its average of 22”[2]) and I thought I’d take a moment to make a case for shutting down publically funded snow treatment, plowing, and removal.  A case against what?!  Isn’t snow plowing, treatment, and removal like a necessary civic service on par with stoplights and fixing potholes?  Do you also believe the moon landing was done on a Hollywood set, deny global warming is happening, and suppose the government is hiding a certain something in the Nevada desert? You would think so but you may be surprised to find the means may not necessarily justify the ends as much as you’d think.

Let’s take a deeper look at the issues…

Environment Concerns
                It’s no secret NaCl, or plain old road salt, has detrimental effects on the environment.  But did you know how detrimental it is?  And did you know about 17 million pounds of it is used in the United States just last year alone[3]?!  The transport of road salt into the environment has been proven to positively affect car wash businesses’ bottom line and negatively affect:

Physical Safety
                Intuitively you’d think snow plows and physical safety would go hand in hand right?  But have you considered some of the negative factors of safety that snow plowing fosters? 

Plow Trucks
                Have you ever driven behind a slow moving plow?  Can you see anything in front of you?  Can the driver coming from the other direction on the already narrow plow lanes see you behind the massive plow?  Yes I know they caution to stay very far behind, but scenarios invariably come together that force you in close proximity with a massive truck pushing tons of snow around.  Not a good combo a lot of the time.  Less snow-moving behemoths out there, especially during rush-hour times, the better I say.

Other Drivers
              Perhaps in the northern states and Canada the general public knows how to drive, but once the streets get plowed around here, people that have no business driving on still snowy or slick roads seem to start driving about.  I saw a Toyota Prius driving in the middle of the last snow storm!  If the roads weren’t plowed, or as much, people in front-wheeled cars with 17” tires wouldn’t be able to get out of their driveway…and that would be a good thing.

Other Cars
               In northern states and Canada, government mandates compel all citizens to drive around with winter tires during the winter months.  Makes sense because winter tires do a boatload more for your vehicle in hazardous conditions.  Well we don’t have those mandates down south in DC, so once again, once the roads get plowed, folks in their front-wheel drive CRV think, “The plow came by our street, let’s go to Starbucks!”.  Accidents ensue.

               The last snowstorm I came close to accidentally clipping a pedestrian.  It was dark and this person was walking right down the plow lane (because the sidewalks had snow on them).   If people want to walk that’s fine, but don’t do it almost in the middle of the road and get mad at me!  A plowed street somehow give pedestrians an entitlement mentality that all the sudden drivers should be totally ok with folks walking in the middle of the street – something only a crazy person would do on a normal day.  If the plows weren’t around people would walk, or trudge, on the sidewalks still…and they’d be safer for it. 
Yeah see that's not safe

                  Not much needs to be said here.  Snow plow trucks contribute in large part to the creation and degradation of potholes on the road – what with their massive shovel and tonnage.  Potholes can potentially ruin your car’s suspension or worse yet contribute to accidents.  Less 10,000lbs trucks pushing around 2,000lb metal/asphalt grinders, less potholes.

Community Appearance
                There are not too many things more unattractive then massive piles of brown snow lined up or streets caked in salt up and down your lovely neighborhood roads is there?  Am I right?  As they melt is gets worse too!  It takes 3 or 4 legit rainstorms to wash all that sand and grime away.  It’s not pretty when April flowers are blooming next to old snow piles in the parking lot that have been sitting there since January.
Right three lanes concrete?  Nope, just caked in salt and treatment residue.
                Well because economics, and more specifically financials, often have heavy influence on peoples’ perception of civil problems and solutions, I defer to the financial argument.  Northern Virginia’s snow removal budget alone is $63 million for Winter 2013-14, up $8 million cool bucks from last year[5].  And sometimes governments go over budget on these things during boom snowfall years, like this one (and sometimes they go under as they did in 2012-13).  I’m not advocating complete disintegration of publically funded snow removal (see below Solutions), but just imagine where that budget money could be re-apportioned to…higher pay for teachers, more skateboard parks, and my and your favorite, lower taxes!

Further, state and local governments have invested millions in inventory, storage, and equipment.  The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) has “has more than 4,000 pieces of equipment (state and contractor) available to clear a typical six‐inch storm” for northern Virginia alone[6].  Let’s say we divest just half of those assets…can you imagine the influx of cash?  Where should it go?  Well back to the citizens of course.  I’ll take a few extra bucks in my pocket in lieu of unplowed neighborhood streets (that will inevitably melt and clear naturally and in most cases a 4x4 vehicle driven properly has no problem traversing) any day.

                I don’t like making a case against something without offering an alternative solution if possible.  This case is no different.  As I mentioned above, I’m not advocating to complete abolishment of snow removal services, just smarter services. 

                Tell me again, why does every neighborhood, cul-de-sac, and sleepy backroad need to be plowed by state and local monies?  Of course emergency routes should be cleared, but non-emergency?  Let’s privatize this operation a little more folks.  Just as strip malls, churches, and other private entities contract out their snow removal services, let the public decide (apart from emergency routes) what they want to pay for.   VDOT is responsible for 17,737 lane miles in northern Virginia alone…I highly doubt the vast majority of those “lane miles” are critical routes.  If my neighborhood association was stuck with the $20,000+ bill for snow removal, I’m pretty sure most residents would say no thanks.

Emergency Vehicle Argument
                But how can emergency vehicles get around if the roads aren’t plowed?  Pssshhaaa.  Any municipality and local government worth its salt, no pun intended, will outfit its emergency vehicles already with the appropriate winter driving accessories.  They’ll be fine.
Snow chains baby
School Closure Argument
                The rock-solid retort to my case you say?  How can schools ever open if most of the roads aren’t plowed you say?  Well think about it…any time there is debate about whether schools close it’s always about student safety, not the buses.  They’re 10,000lbs and are surprisingly capable in wintry conditions (save ice…but no vehicle is).  The issue has always been primarily sidewalks…not roads when schools closures are of concern.  The main solution I have to this is to spend the money on getting the sidewalks cleared for kids, and pedestrians mind you, to walk to and from the bus stops.  Either force residents to shovel their sidewalks (already a mandate, but unenforced) or use the budget money to contract it out.
                The second response I have to this argument is more beyond the scope of this article, but basically the fear is if the roads, and/or sidewalks, aren’t cleared then schools will have to close a lot longer and kids will be in school till the middle of July if we did that.  Well wake-up call…many developed nations in the world already have year-round school schedules, and especially the countries that are ahead of us academically.  Year-round school would not only give us more than enough cushion for snow days, but it would most likely help out America’s intellectual capital[7].  Just sayin’.

Stay Home and Enjoy It
                I recently wrote an article about “Why I Like Weather…and Crippling Snowstorms”, and it emphasizes in part the point of why it’s ok to be stranded at home.
“Yes I know there are some negatives to snow days (i.e. kids miss school, hourly employees miss wages, etc.), but when you were a kid what days did you remember most growing up (I rest my case) and who here would argue making money is better in the long run than spending a snow day with family?”

Force Winter Tires
                Canada does it and people don’t seem to complain.  Why not force drivers in America to?  Shoot, all the money we’d save from diminished snow removal budgets could help folks pay for them.
“Between December 15 to March 15, the owner of a taxi or passenger vehicle registered in Qu├ębec may not put the vehicle into operation unless it is equipped with tires specifically designed for winter driving, in compliance with the standards prescribed by government regulation. The prohibition also applies to any person renting out passenger vehicles not equipped with that type of tires.”
It is important to remember that in terms of road safety, winter tires have proven their worth. They ensure that the vehicle has better stability when braking, make it possible to stop in a shorter distance and help the driver to stay on course around bends.[8]

Beet Juice
Yep, that same vegetable you pull out of the ground and sort of looks like a turnip…that one.  Did you know that beet juice (the juice behind as a result of the fermentation process that extracts the sugar crystals to produce table sugar), when mixed with salt brine,  not only creates a much more environmentally-friendly road treatment solution, it helps the salt bring work at lower temperatures to treat icy and snow packed surfaces.  Some more persuading facts about using beet juice[9]:

·         Beet juice has been proven to lessen the corrosive properties of the salt that we use to apply to the roads.
·         Beet juice cost are relative the same as calcium per gallon.
·         Beet juice and salt brine will work at temps approaching zero but with the addition of calcium we can theoretically achieve a little lower temperature before freezing occurs.
·         At 30 degrees, one pound of salt will melt 46.3 pounds of ice, but at 0 degrees, the same pound of salt will melt just 3.7 pounds of ice. 
·         Regular water-based salt brine works well until 25 degrees. 
·         Beet juice is added to the mix between 25 degrees and 5 degrees. 
·         Calcium chloride added to the mix between 5 degrees and -10 degrees.

*There are other alternatives to road salt as well like Calcium Magnesium Acetate (CMA) and Potassium Acetate (KA), but these are often more expensive solutions…for now.  

**Many entities are starting to use beet juice and other supplements to their road treatments in lieu of pure road salt.  Good for them!

Businesses will lose a ton of productivity if employees can’t drive to work though!  Really?  In this day and age, any business that doesn’t have a telework policy/infrastructure is probably already heading the way of the dodo bird.  What about retail, manufacturing, and other on-site industries…you can’t telework at those.  You’re right, and you discovered one of the holes in my case :)

Consider 4x4 & AWD
            If you’re not willing to spend that ~$500 or so to put winter tires on your Prius, maybe you’ll consider a winter-capable vehicle if you live in a region that commonly receives winter weather.  Four-wheel and all-wheel drive to guarantee safety, but they sure help, especially if used appropriately in adverse conditions.  A dearth of plowed roads would be less jarring for many if they had a capable vehicle in their garage I’m sure.
This Prius is doing just fine on an unplowed road with its winter tires!
Final Thoughts
                Let me say that I’m not necessarily passionate about this argument.  I’m not going to picket the Fairfax County government center or write my congressman.  I do think I make some legitimate points that civilians and legislatures may have overlooked.  At the very least, I’m sure there are tweaks that can be done to current snow removal policies.  I admit I am completely ignorant of many complex civil and political circumstances surrounding such a wide operation portion of government budgets such as snow plowing, treatment, and removal.  There are holes in my argument.  But I think there’s enough reason to warrant thinking about “Snow Removal Reform”.


[4] Ok this may be a more superficial reason, but I’ve lost two awesome cars to the vehicular cancer that is rust.  Sure rust is caused by general moisture as well…but road salt only expedites the oxidation and corrosion process.


  1. Never thought of it this way. However, I think you've hit a major issue. And that's the financials. Cutting down on VDOT as suggested ...doesn't that mean a whole lot of VDOT employees out of work? Not just the snow operation,but the guys at the salt-mills like on Hunter Mill, the guys who maintain and stock the mills, the guys who are paid by the Government to fix these behemoth's, and the operations that supply the trucks altogether or the specialized parts. Right now, the idea of cutting back Government ...well, as much as I am for it (it's far too big and over-reaching as-is in every area), it's definitely the way everything is headed. They aren't going to give up any "business" or "power"'s just that simple. Though, I really do like some of your points ...the best of which is the "slow down" aspect.

  2. Good point John. I didn't think about the loss of jobs that inevitably go with cutting-back civil services. That said, I'm not sure how many VDOT employs. According to the document I reference, VDOT mostly contracts out to private firms anyways for snow removal. (

    "Equipment: More than 4,000 contracted and 126 VDOT trucks and plows are now available for snow and ice removal in northern Virginia"

    And as you know, contracting can be expensive :) Are we needlessly throwing money to all these contractors that are plowing are neighborhoods? Though I do admit some people would get go out of work. Not trying to be heartless, but sometimes the greater good?

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