Greg Bury remembers how a heavy snowfall followed by a quick freeze last December left many St. Paul streets hard-packed and rutted for the rest of the winter. Based on his commute from Highland Park to Minnetonka in the wake of last week’s storm, he fears that history is about to repeat itself.
“Driving through both cities, it was clear to me that the roads in St. Paul were worse than in Minneapolis,” Bury said Thursday, “and I heard that from other people who have business in both cities — it wasn’t just my perspective.”
However, no less an authority than Mike Kennedy, Minneapolis’ street maintenance director, said the perception — at least in St. Paul — that Minneapolis does a better job with winter street clearing ignores the fact that both cities struggle with the same obstacles every time snow flies and temperatures plunge: hundreds of miles of streets lined with parked cars.
“Someone called me and said the streets in St. Paul are better. And then I’ve heard that we’re better,” Kennedy said. “I think the two urban cities are more similar than dissimilar.”
Thursday’s temperatures finally nudged into the teens from below zero, giving commuters like Bury hope that sand and chemicals would begin dissolving the washboard ridges of ice glazing major roads and residential streets alike. Even so, Kennedy said, “I don’t see us hitting bare pavement anytime soon.”
High temps through the weekend were expected to remain in the teens and then hover near 30 degrees early next week with little chance of snow, just before another expected plunge into the deep freeze — giving the cities a week in which to chip away at the remains of the last storm before the next one arrives.
‘Solving a parking problem’
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman acknowledged the city dropped the ball in last week’s storm, when brine used to pre-treat the streets was washed away by rain and the city failed to follow with another treatment. After an internal review, he directed the doubling of salt usage, accelerated the purchase of additional trucks and booted the public works manager in charge of snow removal.
While Kennedy said that Minneapolis got its share of calls and complaints after the storm, St. Paul registered about 150 complaints about snow removal on the city website and the mayor’s office was the target of calls and tweets.
Coleman — who advised Minneapolis Mayor-elect Betsy Hodges after her election to make sure snow plowing gets done right — understood.
“The weather circumstances were so difficult that there was nothing we could have done to make sure the streets were in great shape,” the mayor said. “But you still have to make sure you bring your A game to the fight, and I don’t think we did.”
It’s a complicated fight for the two cities, where residential density, aging and often narrow streets, urban topography and the relative lack of off-street parking conspire to make snow removal much tougher than in the suburbs.
Suburban crews “can plow all their streets at once, while we have to do the arterials and then residential,” Kennedy said. “We’re not getting there as quickly …
“And for us it’s more about solving a parking problem, so we can plow.”
Minneapolis and St. Paul each year declare only a handful of snow emergencies, each costing in the range of $500,000 and requiring residents to move their cars. St. Paul completes its snow emergency plowing in a 24-hour period, while Minneapolis uses a 36-hour schedule.
But crews also respond to up to 25 additional snow events each winter, working around cars and other obstacles.
Kennedy said the goal for both cities is to get primary streets plowed down to bare pavement, and residential streets plowed to a snowpack condition since traffic has already packed those streets by the time they arrive.
Both cities use thousands of tons of salt each winter, along with sand and a specially-treated salt that is effective at lower temperatures. Coleman’s announcement that St. Paul will increase its salt applications from 400 pounds per lane mile to as much as 800 pounds alarmed Connie Fortin, a consultant who has worked with the city and other local jurisdictions to reduce the use of road salt as an environmental hazard.
St. Paul, she said, has made all the right moves — buying salt spreader controls, increasing use of a safer solution of rock salt treated with magnesium chloride, training drivers to apply salt in a targeted way. “We’ve got to encourage them not to go back to the old way where you just dump it on,” she said.
Coleman said that he shared her concerns, but that they must also be weighed against other factors.
“We have to balance environmental interests with public safety and the ability to get around town,” he said.