Even as thousands of snow-weary communities dug themselves out of this week’s epic 30-state storm and braced for more snow and sleet starting Friday, they faced another problem:
How will they deal with the stuff?
In the Midwest and the Northeast especially, cities and businesses are running out of room to plow the snow. Instead, they’re having to load it on trucks and haul it away. That’s not only time-consuming, it’s expensive and comes at a time when businesses, and especially local governments, are already under budgetary strain.
So they're looking for novel ways to handle the growing mounds of snow. For example:
•Chicago, hit with the third-largest snow storm in its history, supplemented its monster fleet of more than 500 plows with snow melters to deal with the 2-1/2 feet of snow that fell. The city joined New York City, whose 36 melters have been running nonstop since the snow began falling there.
•In anticipation of the latest storm, Boston last weekend reportedly hauled more than 37,000 tons of snow from streets and neighborhoods and put it into designated dumping areas. The city’s six so-called “snow farms” are nearly filled to capacity, so it has just opened a new one – its biggest yet – an entire acre in South Boston.
One local state senator has even called for a Boston “snow party,” dumping accumulated snow into Boston Harbor much like the famous tea that was heaved overboard more than two centuries ago.
Well, maybe that's too creative. Federal environmental laws prohibit dumping snow into waterways because of the accompanying salt, motor oil, and other pollutants. Authorities opened an investigation when a private contractor was caught on a surveillance camera overnight Sunday dumping 42 truckloads of snow into the Merrimack River in Lawrence, Mass.
The problem this winter isn’t just big snowfalls. It’s that there’s been little melt in-between them, which usually reduces the snow mounds.
With 60 inches of snow already on the ground, its usual total for the entire winter, Minneapolis blew through its 2010 snow budget by several hundred thousand dollars and has put a sizable dent into its 2011 budget. The excess spending is largely due to the extra expense of using front-loaders and dump trucks to remove the heavy accumulation of snow, says Mike Kennedy, director of transportation maintenance and repair for the Minneapolis Department of Public Works.
Even bigger snow-removal problems lie in the Northeast, where older cities with narrow streets have less open space to put the snow, says Mr. Kennedy, who is also a member of the American Public Works Association, based in Washington, D.C.
In Providence, R.I., which had more than 30 inches of snow last month alone, snow piles have reportedly narrowed some streets by four feet or more, forcing six bus routes to make detours to avoid clogged streets.
Business owners are also paying a pretty penny to haul away snow that has overwhelmed their parking areas.
“It’s a pretty ridiculous equation when you take something that falls from the sky and load up trucks with it and haul it somewhere,” says Ben Reng, director of account management for Integrated Building Maintenance, a Draper, Utah, company that provides snow-removal and other services to as many as 1,000 locations across the United States. “New York is a real challenge right now.”
Typically, private snow-removal contracts don’t include hauling away and dumping snow. It requires far larger equipment – front-end loaders and dump trucks – that cost much more to operate than a pickup truck with a plow. Instead, it’s an add-on to the contract, Mr. Reng says, and the cost per hour can be three times as much as just plowing the snow.
Prices can go even higher when large snowstorms hit because demand for the equipment skyrockets and land has to be leased for the dumped snow. But businesses will still pay for it, Reng adds. “As expensive as it is, it tends to be nowhere near as expensive as a lost customer.”
Equipment expenses tend to be less onerous for municipalities, at least those fortunate enough to have front-end loaders and dump trucks to handle the snow and empty city property where it can be dumped. But this winter, cities are running out of space.
For the first time in his two decades with the city of Minneapolis, Kennedy says his snow-dumping area is likely to fill up. He is scouting for another place.
Somerville, Mass., which ran out of space to put snow, found a real estate company that agreed to allow one of its vacant properties to be used as a snow farm. But “it’s getting trickier,” says Michael Meehan, the city’s director of communications. Somerville is already New England’s most densely populated city. “As time goes on, those open spaces – there’s fewer and fewer.”
– Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.