Philadelphia to Philadelphia Streets Department: You Suck at Plowing

Streets Department begs to differ.

Photo | Matt Rourke, AP

The last time we checked, which was mid-2013, Philadelphia Streets Commissioner David Perri was earning a cool $140,000 per year, which is about $118,000 more than Philadelphia’s per capita income. And less than three weeks into this winter, it seems that a lot of Philadelphians would like a refund from the man in charge of getting their streets plowed.

Winter Storm Hercules blew through Philadelphia starting on Thursday morning. We knew it was coming, we had a pretty good idea of what to expect, and we got pretty much what we expected to get. So why were so many Philly streets so effed up for so long?

On Friday, one day after the snow had fallen, Market Street — Philadelphia’s main street of commerce — was still a mess, even though most Market Street sidewalks seemed to be pretty clear of snow and ice. If building owners could shape up their sidewalks expediently, why couldn’t the Streets Department do the same to the roads?

On Saturday night, with a nasty batch of freezing rain and newly icy roads destined to hit Philadelphia on Sunday morning, responsible, tax-paying citizens in Center City, South Philadelphia and West Philadelphia were getting fed up, heading to social media to gripe.

Philadelphia realtor John Featherman, a columnist for and former Philadelphia mayoral candidate, had this to say on Facebook:

…when I ran for mayor of Philadelphia in 2011, a primary campaign point of mine was that the City of Philadelphia had to do a better job with its management of snow/ice situations. Consistently one of the worst graded departments, the Streets Department delivers poor service and can’t get a basic job done. As I said then — and I say now — we must open up the duties of the Streets Department to public bidding. And, yes — we should privatize snow/ice cleanup. Our cleanup must be run professionally — like a business. Because the show must go on.

It’s a sentiment echoed by many. On Monday night, I decided to head to Facebook myself and ask whether people were satisfied with the way that the Streets Department handled the snow and ice this time around:

Mark Dobbins: In a word, no.

Lisa Spera: Not at all…and they still have not collected the trash….it has been sitting for five days.

(Oh, yeah, the Streets Department does trash, too.)

Michael Strauss: They never plowed Broad St…?? Thank goodness we’re not an airline… planes would be falling out of the sky… LOL.

Katie Loeb: Didn’t see a single truck yet. Only visibly plowed street was Columbus Blvd.

Mare McHenry: It was awful. I had to be out in the snow for work Friday. The only street that was plowed and salted was Waverly in between Juniper and 13th.

Amy Smith: I was really surprised that South Philly was as bad as it was even on Sat. night. With that much time it should have been much clearer.

And so forth and so on.

I only found one defender of the Streets Department, a resident who said that his street was better plowed than it had been in years. “A plow came down our street three days post storm,” he wrote. “That is progress.” Three days post storm is progress. And we only got eight inches, if that.

To its credit, the Streets Department performed quite well on Twitter over the weekend, taking and responding quickly (at least with words) to customer complaints, and other Twitter account voices would do well to take note.

But the Streets Department’s performance on the, you know, streets, was abysmal, and it’s clear that almost everybody thinks so.

So I thought it was a little bit strange that the Streets Department spokesperson I reached out to on Monday seemed surprised that I would be writing an article about the department’s perceived failure.

She told me that Commissioner Perri would probably reach out to me before my deadline. Instead, she sent me the following bullet points on Tuesday morning:

· At the height of the snow fighting effort we had 350 pieces of equipment on the street salting and plowing;

· On Friday morning all primary and secondary streets in the City were passable and remained open. As the clean-up operation proceeded, those streets were re-done to widen the usable travel lanes. Within 24 hours of the end of the storm, the travel lanes on 90 percent of all primaries and secondary streets were just wet;

· We began fighting this storm on the Tuesday before the storm by applying a brine solution to major streets including Roosevelt Boulevard;

· We dry-salted virtually every City street on Thursday prior to the start of the storm;

· We plowed and salted all 800 miles of the residential street network to make them passable. In many cases they were cleared down to blacktop;

· This storm was especially challenging because the weather forecasting was predicting only 4”-6” of snow. In fact, the official total was 9-in. with more snow in northern areas; there was blowing snow for hours after the storm ended and the temperatures immediately after the storm were the coldest that we have seen in 20 years. We prepare for storms based on forecasting from a variety of sources and none of them correctly predicted the storm. When we realized it was starting earlier and coming down harder than predicted, we changed direction and went into a different snow operation than was anticipated.

· City streets are challenging to clear for a number of reasons. Many, particularly east-west streets on narrow streets and in Center City, are in the shade for the majority of the day and are susceptible to blowing snow from the roofs of buildings. In addition, narrow residential streets with parking are difficult to maneuver in and keep clear. When people are clearing their cars of snow and shoveling themselves out, they have a tendency to throw that snow back on the street.

· We successfully cleared streets such that folks travelling to the Eagles playoff game and other events in the stadium district on Saturday were not impacted and we worked closely with SEPTA to keep the vast majority of surface routes citywide operational. By Friday evening only one route was still on detour and by Saturday afternoon there were no storm related detours on SEPTA City routes;

· We received many favorable comments from citizens who thanked us for the efforts. Some stated that it was the first time that they have seen their streets plowed.

· Over 10,000 tons of salt were used to treat City streets. That is significantly more salt that what was used to fight the 28.5-in blizzard that occurred on February 5, 2010.

· Philly’s 9-in storm total was higher than virtually every recording station in the entire State of New Jersey yet Philly remained open for business while New Jersey was closed in a state of emergency;

· Broad St. which is nearly 13 miles long was clear on Friday with the exception of an approximately 1 mile long stretch south of South St. That stretch was down to blacktop and flowing water by late Saturday morning. In consideration of the Mummer’s Parade we did not apply brine to south Broad St. which led to the slower clean-up in spots.

· The expectation for plowing of small residential streets in a major storm is 48 to 72 hrs. after the storm ends. If not for the ice storm on Sunday morning, 100 percent of the small residential network would have been completed with 60 hrs;

· For the first time in the Department’s history we made a concerted effort to prioritize the clearing of some popular bike routes;

· The majority of social media complaints received by the department involved early complaints about the small streets and icing associated with Sunday’s ice storm. We addressed nearly 100% of the complaints;

· Sunday’s ice storm briefly crippled roads in the tri-state area surrounding Philadelphia. Philadelphia, in comparison had problems on only a very small number of streets because we had continually treated the streets since Thursday morning;

· Each storm is different. Given the challenges of the City street network, the 9-in accumulation, the extremely low temperatures, and a significant ice storm that occurred on Sunday morning we believe that the outcome was reasonable. We can always do better and will continue to provide the best service we can to the residents of Philadelphia.

So, apparently, we can’t do much better.

[PHOTO: Matt Rourke, AP]

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  • DTurner

    Streets Department was a disgrace this weekend. I was out on Rt. 30 in Paoli and it was actually plowed, a vast improvement from MARKET STREET, which, it seems, was never plowed. I can understand that the department would not be able to plow every road at once, but I have not admit that I did not see a single truck this weekend.

    Having just spent the past few years in DC (including during “Snowpocalypse”), hardly a city of winter warriors, I was shocked to see the difference in response. I’m not dumping on Philly, I just want to know why such a response from the city is considered acceptable.

  • tonyb

    I’ve lived on the 2000 block of Kater Street for 31 years. Over 31 years our street was plowed twice. Once by the city and once the neighbors on the block contributed and hired a private contractor. After all theses years, doesn’t the city realize we have a multitude of small narrow streets in Philadelphia. Invest and purchase snow plows to accommodate the small narrow streets. It’s not brain surgery.

    • chirp chircp mister nutter sold small street vehicle fleet in 2008 chirp chirp

      chirpp chirp chirp the vultures are closing in on the rest of the equipment, they’ve gotten all-powerful phillymag to write propaganda chirrrrp

  • Jaleh Najafali

    I didn’t see one snow plow out and I certainly didn’t notice “90 percent of all primary and secondary street” clear 24 hours after the storm. Also, how is comparing Jersey’s inability to handle the snow an excuse for our own poor showing? How about they just try and do a better job instead of saying “Oh, at least it wasn’t as bad as Jersey.”

  • Jane Yavis

    If you want high salaries, arrogance and Horrible Snow Removal on MAIN Streets, try working in Blue Bell or Plymouth Township – A B S O L U T E L Y the W O R S T!!!!!

    Camden does a better job on their side streets.

  • Joe

    How can you be dissatisfied with something that didn’t happen.

  • Guest

    Wissahickon was a mess and very dangerous with all the hills. We never saw a plow. Luckily the freezing rain melted.

    • ed

      try driving around Andorra the streets were plowed but they left them untreated with salt or brime now they are a sheet of ice Ride around Mr Mayor Im sure your street is cleared

  • Last night I was standing on Fairmount waiting to cross the street when a streets truck rolled past and pelted me with salt from about the waist down. 1) if our salt trucks are throwing salt this high and that far away from the actual road, it might account for why the salting they are apparently doing does nothing 2) why on earth were they salting last night? There wasn’t an ounce of moisture on any of the roads and there was no precipitation forecasted for today, just bitter cold. Does the Streets Department even know how rock salt works?

  • Belgrade’sBest

    I live in fishtown, our streets were plowed once, early in the storm, then were not plowed untill sunday night, but a guy on a backhoe was doing the plowing. I happen to be outside, and he stopped to tell me that when he plows he leave about a 1/2 to 3/4 inch of snow/slush/water on the street behind him, and that it will freeze almost immediately. He then said he wouldnt park my car on the street cause of the potential for accidents. I asked him if the city was planning on following him with salt trucks since they knew about the issue and he laughed and laughed and laughed. Then told me to move my car, which i did. Ive lived in fishtown for years, and didnt expect them to plow us, they never really have. But i was amazed to see how bad Girard, Frankford, York, Armaingo, and Spring Garden were. I think my neighborhood got more attention then the main arteries. The streets dept here is the worst. What a joke.

  • ReefDoggity

    You can plow all you want, but unless the accompanying salt melts the snow there will still be a layer of white covering the street. And since temperatures were so frigid, salt was rendered pretty useless as it only reduces the freezing point of water so much. Last I checked the streets department did not come up with the laws of physics and thermodynamics. Typical Philly, complaining about stuff they don’t understand. Perhaps you should be more concerned about the public schools Phailing to stomp out ignorance.

    • crateish

      Funny. I was in Center City yesterday, and it was as if the streets had not been cleared in weeks. The Borough in Montgomery County I live in is able to keep the streets clear. We must have different laws of physics and thermodynamics.

  • sam

    The streets weren’t too bad. I saw a few stuck cars but didn’t have trouble getting around. My narrow side street was even plowed a few times. Since when is “check out what my facebook friends had to say” considered jornalism?

    • Will

      I thought the same thing, this feel like a story that was written in advance, then used the equivalent of a comments section for “validity.”

  • Will

    I’ve never lived anywhere that people didn’t complain about snow plowing. Philly (or at least the area of West Philly where I live) wasn’t too bad at all.

  • Dave R.

    I realize this is just the “blog,” but disappointing that Philly Magazine considers this a reasonable story, when it’s actually just an amateurish petty rant – even for their blog. I mean you get your information from Facebook and you cut/paste a what’s basically a press release that City emailed you? Anyway, I’m in South Philadelphia and after the plows went through, yes there was still snow on the ground, but I’ve never seen plows anywhere scrape the snow down to the pavement like someone’s sidewalk – doesn’t work that way. My family also had to drive uptown and then out to the burbs – and while slushy and messy relative to the interstates, it didn’t seem unusual to us at all for snow on the roads compared to anywhere in southeastern PA. By the way – bicyclists were even riding around over the weekend!

  • Laura

    East Falls / North Philly area was not plowed or salted at all. SEPTA did some of the roads that the buses run on.

  • Chris

    You use ‘effed up’ in your story? Classy. If the street dept would have read your story first they would have realized it was not worthy of a response. Especially such a thorough response as the one provided.

  • Amy

    I live near Arch St in Old City, and Arch St two-days post storm wasn’t plowed, it was CAKED. The snow had been flattened. The street was pure white (and grey from dirt). I don’t believe they salted it, either, because I salted my own walkway and it (you know) melted the snow, even the snow that fell on top. The only reason 3rd St had visible pavement is because the traffic had melted it… in patches. I’m a fairly new resident to Philly and love so much about it, but this is beyond the pale and beyond pathetic. That statement must be a flat-out lie, if Arch St in Old City was not salted nor plowed. There’s no excuse.

  • Frustrated

    I never had a problem driving my civic on snowy/hilly condition until I moved to Philly. Philly has the worst snow removal system. I lived in north jersey and I worked in the hilliest area of that state and they did a really good job at making sure the drivers are safe in conditions like this.

  • William gwalthney

    My street hasn’t been plowed since the first storm of this winter,,there’s a foot of snow and ice on the street ,,,the 200 block of ridgeway terr It hasn’t been plowed since this mayors been in office,,, apparently none of his voters or family live in the far n,e,

  • Mad Fitz