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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