February 19, 2019

Seattle Should Buy More Snowplows

Seattle needs to invest in more snowplows.

We have just gotten though a snowy period that severely affected Seattle for days, resulting in closed businesses, shuttered schools, severely reduced bus service, weeks of no garbage/recycling service for many, and an inability to travel in many of the residential neighborhoods.  The University of Washington Seattle campus, with over 50, 000 students, staff and faculty, was totally or partially closed for seven days.

This blog examines the costs of snow/ice events for Seattle and suggests that the purchase of snowplows would be an extraordinarily good investment that could rapidly open up the city, save lives, lessen injuries, and save businesses millions of dollars per day.

Meteorological Background

Sea-Tac Airport typically gets about 7-8 inches a year, usually in 2-3 minor events, with major snow winters (20 inches or more) roughly once a decade (see figure below).    This year was a big one, with the last major "snow apocalypse"  in 2008 (the one with two weeks of ice and snow that closed down the city and ended the career of Mayor Nickels).  The higher hills of north Seattle usually get even more than Sea Tac.

Image courtesy of Justin Shaw, Seattle Weather Blog

Mastering the Technology of Dealing with Snow

The December 2008 disaster not only led to the removal of Mayor Nickels, but resulted in major improvements in how Seattle dealt with snow.   Mayor McGinn hired a snow savvy head of SDOT (Peter Hahn), secured more plows (with steel edges), started using salt and aggressive pre-treatment, and developed a coherent plan of action, triaging the key arterials.  He also worked with my group at the UW to secure better weather forecasts, added road temperature sensors, and supported the Seattle/UW SnowWatch site.

Seattle mastered the key elements of dealing with our snow, including pre-treatment with deicers, immediate removal of snow to prevent the inevitable ice-layer formation, and post-treatment with salt.  Even the Salt Institute applauded their measures (see below)

The impacts of this snow-wise approach were highly positive, preventing the build up of ice and snow on the main arterials and downtown during subsequent snow events.  Mayor Durkan has wisely kept the McGinn snow approach in place, and many key arterials were in decent shape during our February Snowmageddon, or whatever you like to call it.  Mayor Durkan will escape Nickel's fate.

But Seattle Needs to Do More, Much More

But there IS a problem:  most of the city remained snow bound, with many of the hilly neighborhoods inaccessible by normal vehicles.   The essential fact is that the city simply does not have enough equipment to clear more than a small proportion of the streets.   Seattle has only 36 plows, which is only enough to clear central downtown and a handful of arterials,

Seattle has done considerable planning for snow removal and has a strategic plan for dealing with snow, including pretreatment, plowing, and prioritizing roadways. As shown in their map below, priority is given to "gold" roads (downtown, Aurora, Lake City Way, etc.) that are given total treatment and when they have time they hit the Emerald routes, doing one lane in each direction.

The trouble is that they don't get to the Emerald routes for hours, if at all, something shown by their road plowing status map during the end of the last snow event.  Most of NE Seattle and Magnolia had no plowing at all.

Now I am not blaming any of the SDOT personnel doing snow removal.  They were clearly working as hard as they could with the equipment they have.   It's just that they didn't have enough equipment.

The Modest Cost of Fixing the Problem

Several years ago, Steve Pratt, the SDOT road maintenance chief under Mayor McGinn, estimated it would take 100 snowplows to really open up the city during snow events.  So we would need 64 more snow plows than we have today (36).   Just to supply some perspective, Portland, amuch smaller cit,y has 56 plows, Sea-Tac airport has 25 snow plows.

How much would  64 snowplows cost?    There is no need to buy ultra-expensive large truck/plow combinations (which can run $150,000)   We could do as many cities do and purchase snow plows that can be attached to pickup trucks and other smaller vehicles, which the city should have plenty of.  Furthermore, the smaller units will be able to move up into our side streets better.

I spent an hour shopping for a high quality snowplow blade with all the bells and whistles.  You can secure a low-end one for about $2000 and a very high quality unit for $5000-7000.  Maybe the ProPlus with LED lights (see below).   It even comes with a coffee holder for the driver.

OK, this is Seattle, so let's go for the primo $7000 unit and add $3000 for installation and training.
Bottom line: $10,000 a unit.  A total cost of $640,000 to be ready.   And let's throw in $200,000 for gasoline, overtime pay, maintenance, and costs I haven't thought about for each year it is used.  That is $ 840,000 for the first year.  And $200,000 for subsequent years.

As noted in the next section, this is a HUGE bargain for what it does for the city.

How Much Does a Snowstorm Cost the City?

The costs of a "snow day" is enormous.  Businesses close, theaters cancel shows, restaurants are empty or close, school can't educate students, and much, much more. I would argue that the costs are EASILY tens of millions of dollars per day for Seattle alone.

Consider this argument.  Seattle has a population of 725,000.   Let's assume 500,000 of these folks are working or going to school.  For a major snow day, let's assume 200,000 folks are not able to go to school or work.  Let us further assume that the value of the work or education that was missed that day was worth $100.    Then the cost of the snow day would be  20 million dollars.

Now I suspect this is a huge underestimate.  I bet on the worst snow days, half the city wasn't working or going to school.  $100 a day of work value seems cheap.  And what about all the injuries, damage, and deaths on the roadways due to snow?   I bet the real costs are closer to 50 million dollars a day (if any of you can give me a better number, please HELP!).

Assuming we had 5 snow days this month, the costs would be 100 million to 250 million due to the snow.

The snow plows would cost $840,000. 

Am I crazy or does buying snowplows seems a really, really good deal for the city?  The cost of protection is less than 1% of the cost of the loss.   

There is all kinds of glib talk that the city should not buy snowplows because heavy snow is relatively rare.  But the analysis above suggest that the clear logic is to buy snowplows.

Can you imagine how popular Mayor Durkan would be if she got the additional plows and the city was nearly snow free during the next snow event?   She would be Mayor for LIFE!

And there WILL be another snow event.  Perhaps as early as this Saturday.


If the city does not have enough pickup trucks, yes, they would have buy them.  But it would still make financial sense.   $50K per truck for 20 trucks is another million.  And the trucks could be used for other purposes throughout the year.

Since snowfall is generally not uniform through the area, perhaps it would make sense to do this regionally (say for King County).

Where would the snow go?  It would be plowed to the side of the streets...and yes, folks would have to dig out their cars.   But keep in mind that our snow events are generally modest, not like the big snowfalls back east, and so the snow berms would not be that high.


  1. I agree. And at a minimum, if the city does not need to use the equipment during an event, it is ready to loan to nearby suburbs, for a fee of course. That way we can leverage and help the region as well.

  2. I love your blog Cliff. I agree on the plows, at least 100. But , seriously, I hope you are dead wrong about this Saturday. On the canal a lot of us are still digging out!!!!

  3. Let's not do that. The last thing we need is a mayor bought by Amazon for life!

  4. I agree. And had already suggested something similar to Toby Nixon (on the Kirkland City Council) several days ago. When I was a teenager in Colville, north of Spokane, my father had a pickup with a plow blade. We lived 8 miles out of town. When it snowed, he plowed our driveway, our road, our neighbors' driveways, and sometimes all the way to town. And then he plowed our business parking lot, and sometimes others' lots. He taught my brothers to plow, too, and sent them to do the same. He wasn't the only one. Trucks with plow blades is *normal* where snow is normal.

    I did see a couple of lawn-care or yard service trucks with blades out and about after the snow. So I know there are a few. I also saw a church being plowed with a Bobcat, and somebody using a John Deere tractor with a scoop bucket plowing a hilly road in Kirkland.

    What if the cities partnered with private individuals to acquire plow blades for those who already have the vehicles to do the work, and who have an incentive to do a bit of plowing? My cul-de-sac STILL has snow in it. Yet there are three full-sized pickups in my cul-de-sac. And no plow blades.

    We really have to think outside the box. Even quad ATVs can have plow blades. But I think most people just expect "government" to do it for us....and it can't. As evidenced by our recent experience. A partnership would be wonderful for that.

  5. The brain trust at the City of Seattle is quoting $26,000,000 to buy more snowplows. This article shows that the true cost would be less than 4% of their inflated estimate. Will anyone in the City step up and make the right decision? Probably not. They are too busy figuring out how to spend 100's of millions on the streetcar to nowhere.

  6. Keep up the great blog posts Cliff!! Thank you, just a comment/suggestion about plowing-deicing roads around here.

    Most county, city or municipal agencies in the area have interlocal agreements (shared services) in some form or another (if they don't address snow-ice, they should). So one agency not being affected can be called to help out an agency who does need it. When we get the widespread snows like the past two weeks,these agreements won't work,as all are working at max capacity already clearing their own roads. When we get our convergence zone snows. Say the cities in North King County/South Snohomish County get 6+" of snow and cities in South King get nothing, those cities buried could ask for plowing/deicing help as needed. Because next time, it might be South King that gets buried and the neighbors to the North get the call to help them. (this to be the most common way heavier snow typically falls around here -again this Year is the 10 year exception). Counties and cities can even use those agreements to join forces to buy in bulk from one vendor to save money for all in the agreement. Maybe someone from those respective DOT administration offices can get together and get that process moving forward in time for the next 10 year storm that will hit us in 3years. If finding exisisting trucks to mount plows to is a problem, use city garbage trucks with plows attached like the east coast does.

  7. As a UPS driver that drives North Queen Anne, stop being pretentious as citizens. Ice your sidewalks. No it won't happen if you wait for me to deliver your ice melt after it snows.
    For all of those snowed in, they did not barely make an effort to free themselves.
    Don't blame the city when you just curl back under the covers and complain.

    1. Lolol. I’ve looked at this from all angles with mathematical equations on the board, they can’t salt their walks BEFORE you deliver the salt.

  8. Why not hire independent contractors.

  9. Things were nice for pedestrians - until roads were well plowed. This created snow hills that had to be crossed over to cross streets. Plowed streets without sidewalks were even worse, having a big mound of snow where pedestrians usually walk. The dry streets also encouraged faster driving, further exacerbating the pedestrian situation.
    The city response enabled bus service. Able bodies people could catch a bus or train to work during the storm (Though many people worked from home.) Those with mobility challenges were pretty much out of luck for the duration of storms as sidewalks became ice sheets and rode plowing made pedestrian travel even worse.

  10. The road and school closures have a lot more to do with the grades of some local roads and the marginal temperatures that lead to melting and refreezing. Put me in the "no" column on this this, especially on the corporate mayor for life piece of it.

  11. Cliff, great post as always....

    Dori Monson had a telephonic guest on yesterday, an 18 year old from Idaho who was in town for other business, but with a plow on his 3/4 ton truck.

    A note posted onto Facebook offering plow services for $750 to a grand per hour. Had more calls from commercial businesses than he could handle.

    Made $35,000 in the week of snow in Seattle. One snow event.

    I agree that more 'mini' plows should be set up by Seattle and other jurisdictions.

    But, for the entrepreneur, this is an exceptional opportunity to set up for and do that work themselves. $35,000 for a week's work? With the potential of still working places like Enumclaw, North Bend and others?

    I am looking into getting a plow to attach to my truck.

  12. I doubt that the city has the heavy duty pick-ups needed.

  13. This makes far too much sense Cliff.
    Seattle will instead find some obscure studies and crow on about the never ending emergency of climate change and why we need to completely upend the first world just to address a snow event. These debates will go on for years while nothing gets done. This is the Seattle way. All feeling and emotion and zero reason and action.

  14. Why would we do that? Seattlelites are a bunch of victims and would rather hand wring for 2 weeks while they are buried in their apodments.

  15. Not just Seattle. The counties and WA state. I live in far NE Pierce and had 3 feet (not an exaggeration, a measurement) of snow in our cul-de-sac for FOUR days before begging the county to get to us finally worked. If someone would've had a medical emergency, tough. No vehicle other than a plow can get out or in over 3 feet -- the intrepid neighbor who tried, in his jacked-up, monster-tire truck, got stuck in 10 feet and three of us spent an hour shoveling so he could simply back himself back into his driveway. Attachment-type plows, which were *everywhere* when I lived in Ohio (not to mention that everyone with a driving lawnmower had their own), could be attached to all kinds of our existing publicly owned vehicles. Then it's just a matter of having the driver-power, and there are plenty of under-employed people who'd jump at the chance to earn extra winter money. It's idiotic that we deal with this.

  16. While I am sure that increasing snow removal ability with flexible adaptations like add-on snow blades could have some merit, you seem to be assuming there is an available fleet of 64 heavy-duty 4WD trucks that can be easily adapted and maintained. In order for this to be successful, you need a decent-sized truck (e.g., Ford F350 or F450) with a heavy duty transmission to withstand continuous operation. These trucks are going to cost $40K to $80K each, depending on configuration. You need to ensure such multi-purpose vehicles primarily meet other city needs during the 99+% of the time when there is no snow to remove.

    While it is a proposal worthy of examination, it is also a very superficial first pass and fails to consider a very large list of potential costs. So, overall, I would not consider this anything more than a back of the envelope cost analysis.

    If this was so cheap to do, you ought to be able to contract out this service form a private business for similar costs. I have a feeling that would be very hard to do. Maybe you could pay Uber and cab companies to mount mini-plows on their Prius models.

  17. Perhaps UW and Seattle could import what they use on the roads in Pullman and the rest of the Palouse: crushed rock! I'm talking 1/4, to 1/2 inch chunks of basalt (which they have an abundance of over there)! You get GREAT traction on the steep hills, but it's like driving in a gravel parking lot once the snow melts!

    Another thought, maybe blame should be directed at whomever designed Seattle's streets in the first place. I mean some of our streets are insanely steep and narrow!

  18. Excellent blog Cliff. How do you feel about that other part of the situation, where do you put the snow that is being plowed.

    In a deep snow the plows will pile it up pretty quickly, so yes, you can get it out of the streets (critical), but where does it go after that and what is the cost of that?

    So while Seattle has it easier than some other cities in that we usually get some warmer weather fairly soon after a snow event, but the higher piles will take longer to go away and what are the impacts and cost of that?

  19. Not even sure if this is possible, but identifying critical sections of side (non-arterial) streets for plowing would go a long way to dealing with, which in this case was an almost 10 day closure of our neighborhood.

  20. Angela has a great idea. I lived in Boulder, Colorado for many years and they hired independent contractors, guys with plows on their trucks, to plow all the side streets. My neighbor was one such contractor. He was given a specific area to plow, usually our neighborhood, in the event of a large storm that carried heavy snow. He had spent about $2000 for the plow and after a couple of snow events it was paid for. We also had laws on the books that all businesses and private residences had to shovel their sidewalks with 24 hours of a snow event. If you didn't, you got a ticket. As a result, business was as usual even with a foot of snow on the ground.

  21. The concept of Seattle spending large amounts of money for trucks and/or snow plow attachments seems a bit crazy to me. Major snow events are rare, but trucks, equipment, drivers, etc. cost money every day after you buy them. I can already see the lots filled with rusting equipment.

    If these kinds of snows happened every winter, or there was some research that said they were going to be frequent in the future, then sure. Seattle could prepare like Minneapolis or Chicago or whatever. But as an ex-Midwesterner, I also know that a two foot snowfall is going to down those cities as well, if for no other reason than that those plows will quickly run out of places to put snow.

    Besides, people who really want to get out will find a way. I live in an area that got 30+" from that last storm, and about half my neighborhood worked with each other to get dug out, using everything from lawn tractors to ATV's to pickups with plows to shoveling brigades. People with suitable 4wd vehicles arranged to to buy groceries for multiple neighbors who couldn't get out. You help me and I'll help you. Mutual aid.

    The other half of the neighborhood sat in their houses and waited for it to melt or for some commercial plowing operation to come get them. Some are still waiting. That's on them. We had mail delivery and package delivery services doing their thing long before a lot of people bothered to pick up a shovel or talk to a neighbor about sharing a piece of gear or sharing their efforts.

    City/county services should plow the major roads, but getting from your garage to one of those roads is a neighborhood problem. Work with your neighbors and combine this with your neighborhood earthquake preparation effort (you do participate in one of those, right?) given that you may find some common shared equipment and organization will come in handy for both events.

  22. What about the cost of labor? Those trucks don't drive themselves (yet).

  23. Given the $840,000 estimate, that is less than $1.25 per resident, which seems a bargain. In Illinois, where I grew up, yard maintenance companies kept their crews employed plowing and shoveling. The suggestion from one reader is spot on. We live on a hill and were stuck for several days. But we had prepared (contributing to grocery store runs), weren’t due any deliveries, didn’t fret that mail trucks couldn’t navigate our hill, and didn’t worry about shoveling our drive, We read a lot, and like Professor Mass discovered the generosity and concern of neighbors. Wasn’t bad, all in all. The memory of 2008 is still fresh - we were stuck for 2 weeks. So we prepared.

  24. I live in the City of Surrey and they have done this. I have seen a lot of small trucks (Ford F450) type with plows and small sand spreaders in the back. They have 10 brine units, 5 graders, 22 - 1 TON trucks and 24 dump trucks.


  25. A better solution is just to require every vehicle carry chains during winter months. There was not a single time I couldn't drive a fwd car around with good tires the last couple weeks. Just a bunch of unprepared and helpless people. Never needed them but you could throw some chains on your fwd car and go anywhere you wanted.

    1. Doesn’t that promote excess pavement erosion if everybody is chained up

  26. Um... couple logistical problems with this "easy fix". Plows need trucks to push them, and no the city does NOT just have a bunch of extra trucks sitting around waiting for a once every three or four year snow event. Where would they be parked again? And where would they be launched from? And who would maintain them before, during and after the event? Maintenance was MAXED during this last event.

    Also, staffing. Trained people need to drive these trucks. We were maxed out last week. Not to mention drivers having trouble getting to the work site.

    Also, where do they stay? Plow drivers work 12 hour shifts, and it was a logistical nightmare housing all of them during the snow event. Local hotels were helpful, but the approved list was small and inadequate.

    Winning a war is never as simple as "more guns". Logisitics are way more comlicated than this blog implies.

    I'm shocked and disappointed by the naivete displayed herein, frankly. A scientist should know better. A meteorlogist should understand that multi-dimensional dynamics are inherent in any complex system.

  27. The late Charlie Chong made the same suggestion when he was on the city council and like you, he had ads to demonstrate costs. Evidently, Greg Nickles wasn't impressed.

    I think the city elect will have more resources for snow removal after they end homelessness.

  28. This plan won't work. In fact it'd probably backfire and cause more harm than good. Small snowplows can't push much snow and pushing snow requires momentum-a running start. You can't get that on neighborhood streets. You can't plow streets with cars parked all over them. You need a place to pile the snow which we don't have. Plowed areas need sanding and/or salting meaning we need just as many sanding trucks as plows. Most worriesome-people will get into all kinds of accidents. The medical costs will outweigh the savings. The streets will be tangled up with accidents, blocking more streets than the snow does. Emergency vehicles will be blocked. This plan is a prime example of failing to take the law of unintended consequences into account. A better plan: a few more real snow plows and sanders and encourage people to get AWD cars.

  29. I think part of the problem with Seattle and other Puget Sound communities not having many snow plows (thinking Bellevue in particular) or are loath to use them stems in part because of the ceramic dots many use for lane markers. For the other state highways, you got the plastic rumble stripes with the raised pavement reflectors that the plow blades would shear off.

  30. New York puts plows on front of garbage trucks and they run their routes.

  31. Here in Bremerton the big problem was sidewalks. Schools stayed closed Thursday and Friday largely because there was no safe place for children to walk. I know there are 'laws' saying homeowners, businesses, and others should shovel them off. They don't and they can't. Even the city did not shovel walks obviously theirs. We 'rescued' one homeless man who had fallen into a plowed snowbank covering the sidewalk. I suspect that the city may be responsible if they throw all the street snow on a sidewalk. It is comparatively easy to shovel a sidewalk if it isn't also covered with street snow. Although even there police are not likely to ticket some frail old man or woman who didn't shovel their walk.

    Those plowed snowbanks are a big problem, because they tend to cover the sidewalks, as that one did. Or if streets were plowed could temporary sidewalks to set up? Heavy duty snow blowers cost $1500-3000.

  32. Res costs of the pickups: The city likely has hundreds of pickups. 64 of them could be larger and heavier duty models. Those 64 would be of use for all sorts of things year around.

    It is great the guy from out of state made $36K, but no one can afford to keep a truck and plow only using it once every ten years.

  33. There's no question that the economic opportunity costs are massive, but public budgets don't always take pure cost/benefit into account. Spending on snowplows would come at the cost of something else, unless there is a specific snowplow levy added by the voters. What should we cut? Pothole repair? Pavement maintenance?

    Now, your assumptions on snowplow costs are way lowball - did you think about storage costs? I bet that the City's maintenance facilities are already full of equipment, so lets acquire half a block in in each corner of the city to store this stuff, you can't keep it out in Duvall if you need to get to it during an event... So $20M or so? What about replacement rates and maintenance charges? You will have to save up to replace those snowplows when they need to be replaced someday, and account for the extra wear on the trucks. Oh, and while we are at it we might as well have sander boxes in the trucks since we are already paying overtime to have someone drive around with a plow. You underestimated training costs too, and mechanic time for installation and removal, and we haven't even gotten to the fact that the ranks of qualified job candidates with CDLs are dwindling by the day since young people aren't exactly lining up to do this work, and the construction boom is soaking up any who are qualified. I bet that Cities would need to increase pay to have enough staff to even run that many plows. And let's not forget fuel costs!

    Plus, some of those plows will need to be full on 5 or 10 yard dump trucks to get the efficiencies needed when sanding. Any new dump trucks will cost a few bucks. Materials supply chains are a challenge too, so probably need some improvements in storage facilities for sand/salt across the region. Finally, what about street sweeping up all the sand after the event - we have to save the salmon!

    Even after all of that, it is almost surely a greater benefit to the economy and community safety to keep the City open for business rather than shut down for a week. But the cost will be a whole lot more than $860k per year.

  34. I should have added that given this is a once every 20 year event and given that the useful life of a typical truck in a fleet is probably not much more than 5 years, Seattle will be buying trucks that probably have a 1 in 4 to 1 in 2 chance of ever being used for this purpose.

    And for Seattle hills, the typical F450 is probably not adequate, so you are probably looking at dual rear-wheel trucks, which is another hit to the budget.

    As one of the other commenters said, there is very little real attention in this proposal to all costs as well as the challenges of operationalizing it for a once in 10 to 20 year insurance policy.

  35. Great argument, except for the fact that you totally made up the lost revenue due to snow days, thereby invalidating your argument since we have no idea of the actual cost of lost revenue due to snow days. Not to mention that some businesses do really, really well during snow days - Chololatti had some of their best days ever with lines out the door every day. Regardless of the numbers, the snow bus route and plowing were completely unfair to NE Seattle, and that should be remedied in the future. And we should require people to shovel their sidewalks since they were totally impassible for anyone elderly or with mobility impairment, so those folks weren’t able to access buses or get to a plowed street to take a cab or ride share.

    1. I work in a 6 clinic medical practice. Let’s see, We canceled 3 days, do the math. As a matter of fact all of whatcom county was disabled. Restaurants included. I know I made tons of calls trying to take out the kids for dinner. Yes I’m lazy and don’t cook.

  36. Does it make sense? Of course. Will Seattle ever do it? Of course not. Why? Because the "progressives" who run the city are too smug, too stupid, and far too arrogant to listen to anyone who actually knows what they are doing. The competition scares them too much.

  37. Same conclusion for Bellevue. Over the 2 weeks of the storms the only appearance of a plow on our steep residential street was after most of the snow had already melted and traffic was flowing freely. We went 2 weeks without mail delivery. Our Mayor should go the way of Mr. Nickels.

  38. In Kitsap County, where in Seabeck we had 2 feet, the small businesses came to the rescue and made a lot of money. The County did what it could, but would not touch the private roads or rural driveways. It took several days for the side roads to be done by the County ... so the small businesses came out and did the job making these small business some needed "winter revenue". I suspect that Seattle did a lot of the same.

  39. I think some onus should be put on individuals too, however. Winter tires are a good idea due to the countless mornings with subfreezing temperatures. Chains and chain alternatives are available at reasonable prices and are easier to use than ever.

  40. We don't have to wait until the snow is 6" deep to begin plowing. This is why I suggest that private citizens - perhaps in cooperation with city governments - plow their own neighborhoods. They know where cars park, know the streets, know where a pile of snow would be less of an interference. They don't have to get the streets down to bare, but removing depth would help.

    If I'd had an ATV with a plow blade, I'd have zipped back and forth every inch or so, if possible, through my neighborhood.

    The point, as I will make again, is to think outside the box. Passenger-size pickup trucks with a plow blade do NOT require a CDL, any more than an ATV, a John Deere garden tractor, or a Bobcat do. CDL is weight based. Special weeks-long training is NOT required.

    Sanding and salting are a separate issue. Relatively flat streets don't generally require them unless people are being stupid and not driving for conditions. Which obviously happens, but has nothing to do with sand or salt. Hills do require sand and/or salt.

    I think it's doable. I think SOME of it is doable. The mistake, IMO, is to throw up one's hands and say, if we can't do ALL of this, we can't do ANY of it!

  41. I used to live in NY/NJ and many businesses had snow cleared by private contractors. Generally construction contractors with a pretty nice snowplow often on a heavy duty pick-up. Does libiabilty/insurance prevent this crowd sourcing of snow clearing on local streets...(anyone from sdot/local give know)

  42. I lived in Wilderness Rim in the 1980's and we got a lot of snow. The plow came through our neighborhood regularly, and yes it often plowed snow onto or beside my cars or driveway and we had to dig our way out - but the roads were always passable and I got to work more often than people in Seattle and Bellevue (where I worked). Plows save lives and money.

  43. I grew up here in Seattle, and watching this city over time has shown that logic, facts, and reason have no place here. We are more interested in how people feel than actually fixing issues. Did anyone else notice the local news article that the city invested in snowplow equipment and managed to plow the major core route BIKE lanes?!?!? They city touted this as some sort of accomplishment, when in reality any snow probably reduces bike ridership by nearly 100%. Maybe they should listen a little more to the professor. I was ashamed and embarrassed. Meanwhile, the bathrooms at your local parks likely have not been serviced/maintained in years. Thanks Seattle!

  44. Slight tangent from the current plow discussion, but perhaps a topic for a future blog: how rare is a period this long where we've failed to reach the historical high temperature? Looks like the last day SeaTac exceeded the average high was February 1st. So counting today we're at 19 days below average. This seems like a pretty long stretch, but I'm interested in the data.

  45. Other cities in the state that deal with snow on a regular basis use city plows for major routes and roads. Then, individual citizens, businesses or neighborhoods factor in snow removal and plowing into the cost of living and hire their own contractors to keep their own driveways, parking lots and small roads clear. My folks have this arrangement, and it is essentially part of the HOA. Individual home owners and businesses are responsible for keeping the sidewalks clear.

    Bonus- when you hire your own contractor to clear the roads, it happens consistently and quickly. Because everyone does this, it's not a matter of paying a tax to wait for your road to eventually/maybe be cleared. The individual contractors own their own trucks and equipment and are licensed, plus those trucks are used for other jobs for the contractor during the rest of the year.

    I spent a reasonable amount of time shoveling the sidewalks outside our business last week so that our clients could reach us safely. It worked well, but unfortunately not all of the other businesses and citizens in the neighborhood did that. It's sort of incredible how many able bodied people with the day off work complained and waited around for "them" (ie anyone other then themselves) to fix a snow or slush problem. If snow happens once every 20 years for 3 days to this degree, it's not reasonable to spend city money to buy, store and maintain all this equipment plus hire and train extra workers. If it happened yearly or every other year- sure!

  46. If you thought the roads situation was bad, how's about those sidewalks? Clearly most home and business owners fall in to two categories: 1) Don't care enough to clear their sidewalks, or 2) Don't own snow shovels and/or pushers to clear their sidewalks. (Some also have legitimate physical challenges). Regarding 2), pretty much every store in the State ran out of shovels and deicer salt--might have something to do with it! However, sidewalks adjoining public properties didn't get cleared either, so it's not just irresponsible/unprepared home and business owners. In fact, most sidewalks in SnoCo just emerged from slushmageddon a couple days ago! Cities should really have some motorized snow plows for walkways, even if it's just an attachment to the equipment they use for landscaping. And I hate to say it, but they should fine home and business owners who don't clear sidewalks, or at least put out warnings. One possibility for those who don't have the means to clear their sidewalks might be to set up an "Uber of snow removal". Might also work for addressing unplowed neighborhood streets and condos/apartments that don't have advance formal arrangements?

  47. I grew up right outside of Syracuse, NY, so I know snow! One thing that my town did to help keep streets clear was to implement a parking system during the winter. Cars could only park on one side of the street every other day, i.e., even days on the north side, odd days on the south side. That allowed the entire street to get plowed.

    I realize that many of Seattle's popular residential neighborhoods have cars parked bumper to bumper on BOTH sides of the street on a regular basis, and in some places like Columbia City, this results in one single wide lane to begin with. Plowing these streets would be very difficult under these conditions. I don't see a real solution for it either. It would definitely require residents to pitch in and shovel around cars, etc. to help keep a clear path. And as others have noted, many did not or could not clear their sidewalks. And, we won't even bother talking about the streets without sidewalks; it's pretty hard to shovel dirt/grass/gravel.

    If snow events are going to become a more common occurrence in Seattle, we are all going to have to rethink how we approach winter.

  48. Sounds like a good idea bearing in mind that the pickups will not be able to spread sand/salt which increases the risk of ice forming on the plowed area. Since this type of event seems to occur in five year intervals it makes sense to keeps costs down. Unless, that is, the lazy jet stream hypothesis is correct?

  49. "Portland, amuch smaller cit,y has 56 plows"? This comparison is as lazy as the typing. Any Seattleite who has visited Portland will be struck that Seattle is much more compact. 60 seconds on Wikipedia shows Portland with a land area of 133 sq mi and Seattle with 84 sq mi, giving a ratio of plows per square mile of... 2.375 in Portland and 2.333 in Seattle.

  50. I think the city should explore partnerships with the garbage companies. Buy the plows, train their drivers they could help clear our streets. When buying these plows, do 5 to 10 a year. After 10 years you could have an additional 50 to 100 plows

  51. There was a big yarn event in Tacoma this past weekend, with people from all around the country/world. I spent a long time chatting with a lady from Vermont, who said her town of 1200 people has 36 snow plows, not counting all the privately owned ones folks put on their trucks. She also shared how Bernie Sanders got his political start - he ran for mayor of Burlington and won by literally a handful of votes. He set up efficient snow removal and ensured trash removal would continue in all weather. Next year he won in a landslide and took off from there. That should be a lesson to all politicians!

  52. Global warming should solve the problem soon enough, That is unless we actually have global cooling.

  53. All well and good but with the city's love of speed bumps I would think it would be difficult if not impossible to plow a street full of speed bumps. I'm particularly thinking of 3rd Ave NW that is supposed to be an arterial and could benefit by being plowed. There are plenty of other examples as well.

  54. I was somewhat surprised by Cliff's ideas to deal with our 8-10 year snow events in Seattle. It may just be that we live in an overconsumption society: if we don't buy something we can't solve any problems anymore. Who knows what a properly conducted study about adding more heavy equipment would reveal? The point is that we don't need to do that. A few days of work, school and business inactivity is not going to be our demise. It may actually be good for us. Buy food in advance, establish a communication network with your immediate neighbors and let the city take care of the most important roads and emergencies. We don't need to go crazy over all this and think that the credit card will be the answer to our difficulties. Work along with nature and not against it.

  55. chill....

    stay home...

    make sure emergency services have vehicles which can deal with the snow and ice to get to the frail and elderly and sick who need help....

    spend the money you want to spend on plows on emergency shelters for the homeless....

    spend the money you want to spend on plows making up the wages lost by low income workers who cant get to work...

    accept the limitations imposed by nature...

  56. Oh Twinkle... I know you mean well and I get what you are saying.

    Having said that, I remember fully 2008 where we had three major snows up in Snohomish County over a 2+ week period. The last 10 or so days being the last of the Christmas shopping days. People weren't mobile. At one time I had 5 fire trucks slid off the road. People couldn't get out of their neighborhoods.

    And all of those neat little kiosks in the mall? Most only get into the black over the holiday buying period. There were many 2008 vendors who weren't present in 2009. And it wasn't just those vendors... They were the canaries...

    I wouldn't be too quick to poo poo the impact of commercial inactivity. This series probably won't have as big an effect. But one would be unwise to assume that to be the case always.

    I certainly wouldn't attempt to recreate the Vermont scenario. 1 plow for what, 60 residents? At that rate, how many thousands of plows would that bring to Seattle? For relatively minor and shortlived events.

    I am a big advocate for shopping early, restocking the pantry, having staples resupplied, gas in the vehicles. And staying home. Not that I can't get around, but a little forethought assures me that I don't need to. I am with you there.

    And... really, this isn't going to get solved here. It just isn't. Inconvenience through the Puget Sound every 10 or 11 years? We are assured that people won't be any smarter when the next storied event happens. Nor will people be any smarter up on the pass for the whole winter season forcing closures of 90 at Exit 47 and Exit 90. The 'anti stud' crowd will continue to holler about the damage to the roads (although I have heard exactly one car in Western Washington with studs this year. And those were plastic) People will demand, stomp, shout, and shake their fists at the rest of us too stupid to see the brilliance of their ideas which work in places not here. (You know, in McMurdo Sound, we used to... )

    And after a couple of weeks, we will see a patch of sun and then spring comes and we are so dazzled at the tulips and daffodils that we just kind of forget about what just happened. And lose interest. And lose the immediacy of the need to 'fix' it.

    So... ultimately, the future is foreshadowed by the past. Though with the new element of the Sound Transit (weather proof) LINK being down multiple times to boot.

    Enjoy... and in a decade when the next one hits, I'll be right here with you..

  57. Great topic, Cliff! Leadership and expertise are needed to sort out our snow issues.

    The questions are who is tasked with providing it and will they follow through?

    Perhaps a combination of government, private and volunteer groups can tackle specific parts of the problem each year. Also, their strategy needs to be adaptable to adjust to snow events ranging from small to large.

    Let's identify the experts and connect them with specific people who can and will carry out their advice.

  58. Twinkle is the most logical poster here. Better be sure it's broke before trying to fix it.

  59. "And I hate to say it, but they should fine home and business owners who don't clear sidewalks, or at least put out warnings."

    They don't enforce this law for the same reason that they don't enforce the pet license law against people who keep indoor cats. First, half the people they fined would contest the infraction, clogging the municipal court for months. Second, particularly angry respondents would bring a lawyer and challenge the dubious constitutionality of the original ordinance -- possibly causing it to be overturned.

    Policymakers prefer the status quo, where the unenforceable law remains on the books to encourage good citizenship. Trying to compel citizens to perform hard physical labor with tools they may not own is asking for trouble.

  60. In Bellingham, I was amazed to see exactly what Cliff is describing on our residential street - a city pick up truck with a plow on front came through at least once a day for four days straight. I don't think I've ever seen that before, and it made a tremendous difference in how quickly our street was free of ice. I'm from upstate NY so I always get a chuckle out of our snowageddons, and I have to admit I kind of like the spontaneous week-long holiday these types of storms produce, but yes, it was great to be able to get moving faster than in the past.

    One thing to add: the cost of novice teenagers driving on icy, snowy streets, especially the many streets with hills. Dangerous car accidents just waiting to happen.

  61. Maybe the individual cities can buy some kind of insurance to cover lost revenues in the event of a snowfall. It might be much cheaper than purchasing equipment and cover some of these losses. In any case given the litigious nature of humans the city and/or private contractors would have to be well covered. I can almost hear the Dory Monson outrage when a few plows scrape or slide into parked cars scratching or damaging them.

  62. Outfit your garbage trucks. Train your crews in the appropriate methods of pre/present/post application of salt and/or sodium chloride. This is not rocket science, and it doesn't cost anywhere near what some commenters apparently believe. This is analysis via paralysis. An ounce of prevention, and all that jazz.

  63. Two issues I want to comment on:

    1) All those people saying we should slow down and sniff the icicles?
    Any of y'all have any memory of living paycheck to paycheck? Are you assuming restaurant and retail workers will get paid for their involuntary days off?

    2) This particular post. I gather there are places in western Washington that get meaningful snow every year. I don't see anything wrong with King County trying to get some of the money for dealing with that snow, as long as that pencils out.
    But if we're talking about doing something because of Seattle snow, we're putting the cart before the horse. I grew up in the Midwest, where "cold Canadian air mass" is standard lingo. Seattle is normally protected from cold Canadian air masses. For weeks now, we've had one parked overhead. What happened to our protections? During an El Ni~no year yet? Is this a once-a-decade fluke as it has been, or a harbinger of changing patterns? We need to at least begin trying to answer questions like that before making changes on the basis of Seattle-specific concerns.

  64. Professor Mass - your analysis of the cost of snow doesn't take into account that many people value snow days. For children a snow day or a snow week is a very rare treat, and for most workers a day off isn't valueless.

    In fact, for professionals that are salaried, there's no economic hit at all. In effect, this is a bonus. Like you, Mr. Mass.

  65. the rest of the world seems to get it.... wonder when the US, Seattle will....

    ""You've got polar bears rampaging in Russia trying to get fed, and what are [the authorities] doing? They're killing them off. It sounds like an extremist thing to say, but what do people think is going to happen to human beings when there's not enough food? Who's going to be killing who? We're f**ked, is the shorthand way we say it."


    "there's not enough time left..."


    since climate disruption has gone exponentional/non linear, into runaway mode, we should consider whether seattle is going to get serious and plan and prepare for what's coming faster than expected, worse than expected...

  66. I can't agree that anyone should be required to clear "their" sidewalks, for several reasons: Some are too feeble (it's widely known that the unfit sometimes keel over from a heart attack if snow shoveling is the hardest thing they ever do). Some are snowbirds and are gone all winter (smart idea). Some are late sleepers (there are towns where you have to shovel by 9 AM). But I say this: If you own the sidewalks then they are YOURS and you don't have to keep them open or even permit their use. Alternatively, the City owns them (which makes more sense) and the City is responsible for the maintenance. If they are open a few hours late well, too bad.

    Here in Seattle where snow is uncommon I think none of this is all that important: We can all survive a little inconvenience. If this were Fargo, ND or Minneapolis or Buffalo NY, it would be more important to be snow-ready.

  67. A potentially interesting situation in Whatcom County tomorrow.

    Environment Canada has issued a snowfall warning for up to 10cm (3") of snow in the lower mainland on Friday morning, which includes Vancouver and the towns along the border.

    The US National weather service has no mention of snow for Whatcom County tomorrow.

    Either the border will be the scene of precise weather delineation or one of the weather forecasting services will be incorrect...

  68. I lived in Northern Virginia for several years. The approach there was to use county (think city - Arlington is a county...) and VDOT rigs for the big roads, and use independent contractors for the smaller and residential streets.

    My neighborhood never went more than a day without getting at least one full lane cleared - it helped that one of the independent contractors lived in the area. His route to and from his assigned section included clearing all of our through streets. He drove a 3/4 ton with a plow much as you describe above, and it worked.

    I don't understand why Seattle (and Portland, for that matter) don't do the same.

  69. We came up with a simple solution after the 1991 storm shut down everything because folks abandoned their cars without even pulling them over, on the floating bridge and downtown, blocking fire engines and buses that could have run.

    We checked with the city and waste disposal companies. Plows could be attached to a he garbage trucks which have a lot of traction and power. Each truck crew knows it’s routes and roads better than anyone else in the city.

    They would determine what they could drive and clear, day by day. They would be happy for the time and overtime and could expand their routes into more and more side roads and often empty cans after the first days.

    Locations for the plows to be stored are abundant.

    The snows disaster should have cost Nichols. And any other mayors.

    The other day I asked a SPS K-5 teacher walking what was her school’s child release to go home policy, where washer copy, who was the primary trainer. She had never heard of such a policy.

    A keep them at school versus release them for EQs, blizzards, windstorms was one of the top 10 recommendations by the Seattle 2000 Committee. I wrote it along with the EQ structural upgrades that cost $250 M over 20 years. (10 years at $25 M was budget busting . So I had gotten agreement that 20 years could be handled at $12.5 M/year.

    The facilitators were adamant that it was unfair for one person or one committee of the 20 committees to have two proposals to be part of the five final recommendations.

    You can guess which one the administrators, unions, contractors, and bankers favored. So the great lost 423 students from K-12, some having been sent to walk by themselves to 143rd Ave NE.

    And then two years later the great windstorm’s 105 + mph killed five adults down town. And blew out the windows of Baylee Gatzert K-5 on E Yesler St between 12 Ave E and 14th Ave E. Lightning struck 12 trees on the first blocks up the hill. The power lines were down, live wires at 14th and Yesler. So K-5 Brownies and Campfire girls laid planks across the wires, water rushing below, and held the hands of the younger kids. And then my three boys got to joyously roll up the hill to 18th and Yesler and stay at a kind prostitutes place with dozens of kids until parents got home from work or school.

    Meanwhile at Washington Middle School over 200 students excitedly held onto the top rail of the cyclone fence as the wind blew them up flying horizontally and as about two dozen teachers watched the joyful kids as lightning struck well more than a dozen times right by! A miracle it didn’t strike that fence and French Fry the children.

    Point: A weather group should perhaps put together a proposal that every school should have a policy as to when not to release and when to and every teacher should have a copy in their desk.

    During the 1991 snowstorm Leschi Elementary K-5 principal desperately tried to keep the students in the school house when the blizzard hit st 2:15. And every darn idiot teacher shepherded their students around him telling them to run to their buses. And the drivers had come in and told them they would be left if they were not on their bus immediately. All the kids were dressed for a mild day because that was the morning and the forecast.

    No written policy and so principals were ignored. Snow, wind, and will likely be the same when the Big EQ hits and the bridges go down. “Run home kids!”

    Please support a disaster release policy in every teache’s and administrator’s and clerk’s desk, to be initialed and tested each year.

  70. Cliff,
    Did you consider the operational costs for tripling the amount of plows in the Seattle fleet? I would guess that the number or drivers needed to run the current 36 plows is around 100 people. That doesn't even touch on the other support staff (mechanics, loader operators, etc). there is a cost to everything. If Seattleites want this level of service, then by all means feel free to tax yourself for that service. On the other hand, if Seattle does go and purchase all that equipment and additional staffing and another snow and ice event like this doesn't roll around again for 30 years, people will be complaining about the waste of government spending...

  71. Kevin said...

    "A potentially interesting situation in Whatcom County tomorrow.

    Environment Canada has issued a snowfall warning for up to 10cm (3") of snow in the lower mainland on Friday morning, which includes Vancouver and the towns along the border.

    The US National weather service has no mention of snow for Whatcom County tomorrow.

    Either the border will be the scene of precise weather delineation or one of the weather forecasting services will be incorrect..."

    The answer is incorrect. A bit of slush for Vancouver, but currently it is way too warm in BC and Whatcom County for snow.


Please make sure your comments are civil. Name calling and personal attacks are not appropriate.

Rain without Clouds, the Upcoming Cooling, and Strong Leeside Winds: All in My New Podcast

The radar image this morning at 5:30 AM showed rain...some heavy... offshore. As shown in the satellite image at the same time, much of that...