Looking Ahead to Winter

After a year of blizzards, earthquakes, and hurricanes, it’s almost painful to focus on other weather-related challenges; but early preparation is always helpful, so New Rochelle is looking ahead now to the snow season.

As you probably recall, last winter was very tough on our city and on our region as a whole. I think most residents recognize that when you have record-breaking snowfall, even the best municipal operation will encounter problems — but last winter, there was certainly room for improvement.

The City’s new Commissioner of Public Works, Alex Tergis, spent a great deal of time examining our field operations and procedures, with an eye to making positive changes. Here’s what we can and will do in the short-term:

  • Guide and Track Operations — DPW is generating new route maps with priorities, responsibilities, and challenging locations more clearly defined. These route maps will also contain checklists to facilitate a seamless transition between shifts and help supervisors better monitor operations.
  • Consolidate Information — The City will establish a single phone number to which snow comments, complaints, and requests can be directed. This will help minimize the redundancy and occasional confusion that result when information is received and relayed by multiple parties.
  • Provide Better Training & Instruction — New drivers have acquired an understanding of the importance of plowing closer to the curb line and of regulating salt usage more efficiently, instructions that will be reiterated by supervisors.

These relatively simple steps should make a difference, but I want to be very candid in acknowledging that there are other serious challenges that can only be solved in the medium or long term. What are these challenges?

First, inadequate equipment. We currently press sanitation trucks into double-duty as snow plows, but these vehicles are not really designed for such a purpose and cannot be equipped with salt spreaders. Further, much of our fleet is aging and prone to breaking down. Our snow operations would clearly benefit from the purchase of new vehicles and plows.

Second, strained manpower. Like every other major City department, DPW has been reduced by attrition in recent years, with personnel levels cut as a necessary response to fiscal and economic conditions. During prolonged snow emergencies, our manpower is spread exceptionally thin, and our ability to put a full complement of services into the field often compromised.

Well, you can guess why these problems will be difficult to address in the short-term: a big price tag at a time when all cities are scraping for pennies. For now, our intent — and our responsibility — is to do the very best we can with the resources available. Plus offer fervent prayers for an easier winter!

Forty-six Days Until Spring

Well, here we go again. I can’t recall a winter season quite as difficult as this one. It’s not just the volume of snowfall, but also the frequency. One storm after another, with little time to catch our breath in between — and little opportunity to clear away accumulated snow before more is laid down. Road conditions today are as bad as I have seen — ice sheets, slicked with rain.

As the season drags on, the challenges for the City multiply. Our equipment experiences more wear and tear and breaks down more frequently. Salt supplies in the entire region are running low, and salt shipments ordered weeks ago have yet to be delivered. Roads are becoming progressively narrower. Sanitation schedules have to be adjusted on the fly. And we haven’t even tabulated the overtime costs yet, but they will be high. The frustrating reality is that New Rochelle’s operations — and those of just about every other city — are stretched to the limit. And we often have to ask for patience on the part of residents whose patience is, quite understandably, near an end.

Still, we continue to pursue opportunities for improvement. For example, to help supplement our in-house resources, the City is retaining private contractors, who will be especially helpful on smaller roads and cul de sacs, which are generally the last to be addressed by City crews. We are also attempting to coordinate more closely with the School District to clear areas around school buildings, still a work in progress.

Not much information in this post that you couldn’t glean from looking out your window. But I would feel strange commenting on anything else at the moment, given the degree to which the weather is consuming our attention.

Forty-six days until spring … but who’s counting?

Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow

As I write, the New York area is shoveling out from the second major snow storm of a still-young winter season. My personal reaction to big snow storms, I suppose like everyone else’s, has changed with life’s stages. During childhood, I waited eagerly for WVOX to pronounce those magical words “New Rochelle Schools are closed today,” thus liberating me and friends for a day of sledding and fort-construction. As an adult, I grumbled about shovelling duties, slush-encrusted shoes and travel delays. Now parenthood brings me partially about, allowing me to revisit earlier delights through my kids.

But nothing has done more to alter my perception of snow than my present job. As mayors from John Lindsay to Michael Bloomberg have discovered, fairly or not, snow removal operations make or break perceptions of municipal competence. So when a blizzard is in the forecast, my thoughts turn to the decidedly unsentimental subjects of plows, brine solution, sanitation schedules, and emergency bulletins.

Here, then, is my assessment of New Rochelle’s performance in the last two storms.

The Good

  • Crews: Our Public Works team is exceptionally hard-working. Most people do not appreciate how difficult it is to operate a plow in the wee hours of the night under blizzard conditions, and to continue doing so for extended stretches. Yes, it’s their job, but that shouldn’t diminish our regard for their efforts.
  • Overall Road Conditions: Roads were passable within a reasonable time frame, with main roads, naturally, cleared first and others taking somewhat longer. That’s not to say that there weren’t oversights and omissions, but these were generally corrected shortly after being reported. For most residents, based on comments I have received, the inconvenience of the storm fell into a tolerable range. (Let me know if you think otherwise.)
  • Communication: The City’s automated phoning service has proven quite useful in emergencies. While such automated calls can be annoying if overused, there really is no substitute for disseminating time-sensitive information clearly and widely. We used these calls to report changes in our garbage schedule, offer safety suggestions, set expectations about timing and otherwise keep our community “in the loop” on what was going on. Communication in the other direction was also good. When calls or emails requesting service were directed to my office, to the City Manager or to DPW, they were, in every instance of which I am aware, acknowledged and acted upon.

The Not-So-Good

  • Vehicles: Our DPW fleet is aging and prone to breakdowns. The need for on-the-fly repairs during a storm takes vehicles out of service and may result in slower or spottier service on the routes affected. Also, the City presses its sanitation trucks into double-duty, by affixing plows to them during storms. From one perspective, that is an efficient use of resources. But sanitation trucks cannot be equipped with salt spreaders, so instead of plowing and salting simultaneously, we have to send in the salt a little later, which is a less effective means of clearing snow and ice down to the blacktop. There’s no mystery about how these problems can be solved: M-O-N-E-Y (see my prior budget posts for more on this subject.) Bottom line: optimizing our fleet for snow removal has to be a City objective, but we are unlikely to accomplish it under current fiscal constraints.
  • Other Equipment: Our salt supply is exposed to the elements. As a result, some of it washes away entirely and some of it congeals into large chunks which clog our salt spreaders. To address this, the City is going to re-assess the costs and benefits of a salt shed. On a related note, our operation would benefit from a satellite at which salt and materials could be stored, thereby reducing travel time to and from the City Yard.
  • On-street Parking: Nothing impedes good plowing more than a parked car. I do not say this in an accusatory tone. The nature of our city and its housing stock is such that many residents have no other realistic parking options, so it’s just just a fact of life in New Rochelle. When cars are stationed on narrow roads, the challenge is even greater. The City has the authority to issue tickets and even to tow cars from snow emergency routes, but we use this authority sparingly (maybe too sparingly).
  • Shovel the Other Way, Please: Unlike the above, the following is offered in an accusatory tone. Most people, when shoveling their driveways and sidewalks or when digging out their cars, will have the good sense to toss the shoveled snow back on to their properties or to sites where the snow won’t be in the way. Other people however, toss it right back into the road. It only takes a few such guilty parties to undo a decent plowing job. Be sure to wag an accusing finger at neighbors whom you see engaged in this practice.

I could drill down to a deeper level of detail, but that is probably enough for now. Bottom line: I think New Rochelle has handled the season’s storms fairly well, given the physical configuration of the city and given our serious manpower and equipment limitations. The City’s brand-new DPW Commissioner, Alex Tergis, has been excellent in his role. With his guidance, there have already been operational improvements between the first and second storms, and Alex will be making additional recommendations, some short-term, some long-term, in the months ahead.

Well, childhood being far in the rearview mirror, icy weather is now mainly a headache. But there are still moments when you can’t help but be awed. My son Jeremy and I, for whatever reason, were both sleepless Tuesday night into Wednesday morning and found ourselves assembling Legos at 4:00 am. The storm was spending the last of its energy and tapering into a gentle fall. And there it was — a snow-scape untouched yet by any hand, tracing the line of every branch, softly illuminating the night, and with its eerie hush, compelling silence from man and dog. All the world’s flaws subdued and forgotten in a dreamland of crystal … for a little while.