Amid the wailing and cursing that accompanies every serious snowfall in the city of St. Paul, Bryan Matson and his neighbors don’t worry about whether a snow emergency is declared. They simply fire up their snowblowers and clear the entire street — curb to curb — themselves.
OK, so Quirnia Street is not quite a block long and connects two busier thoroughfares. The point is that Matson and the others have found it easier to take matters into their own hands, rather than waiting a few days for the city plow crews to get to them.
“It’s not that they don’t do it,” he said. “We would just rather get it done. … Besides, I have a nice big snowblower.”
As another winter week and another snow emergency came to a close in St. Paul, thousands of city residents were once again taking to social media to ask such timeless questions as: “What’s it gonna take to get the city to call a snow emergency?” Or “Why haven’t they plowed my street yet?” Or “When are they going to tow all these cars?”
And, once again, city officials have been trying to explain St. Paul’s system of using 65 to 80 plows to clear snow from nearly 1,900 miles of city streets in, hopefully, a couple of days. Details like the city typically won’t call a snow emergency unless 3 inches or more of snow falls, or that residential streets don’t usually get plowed unless there is a snow emergency. On Tuesday, St. Paul issued more than 2,700 snow emergency parking tickets and towed almost 500 cars.
“We can’t tow everybody,” said Public Works spokeswoman Lisa Hiebert, who said the city adds dozens of “taggers” to issue tickets during snow emergencies. “That’s why we need everybody to move their cars.”
The snow emergency St. Paul declared Tuesday was the third in three weeks, after a relatively snow-free December and January. The city typically budgets for about four snow emergencies a year, which cost about $600,000 each. The reason the city waits for that much snow to accumulate, or for a couple of storms a day or two apart to run their course, is that back-to-back snow emergencies can confuse thousands of residents who park on the streets and make it all even messier, Hiebert said.
Such details frustrate folks who say the plows don’t come often enough or plow thoroughly enough.
“It’s absolutely horrible,” said North End resident Kenny Rowe, who moved to St. Paul from Mounds View 14 years ago and has been flummoxed by city plow rules ever since. “They know what they’re doing doesn’t work. So why don’t they try something different?”
How about plowing down the middle of a street to allow cars to pass? Rowe asked. (It would trap more parked cars behind plow ridges and snarl streets more, Hiebert said.) Or moving to odd- and even-side parking? (Hiebert and other officials say they’re willing to consider it.)
Hiebert said in a city of 305,000 people, more than half of them renters, on-street parking “is a reality and a necessity.” St. Paul snow emergencies last for 96 hours to allow plows to go back and clean up blocks where parked cars prevented them from going curb-to-curb.
“Snow is frustrating for everyone,” she said.
Well, not everyone. Matson is an electrician and former Navy Seabee who owns a Poulan 24-inch, two-stage snowblower left behind by his home’s previous owner. He enjoys clearing the street — and the sidewalks, and his neighbors’ sidewalks. And the nearby bus stop. What started as a way to clear snowplow mounds that blocked his driveway morphed into Matson and a few other neighbors each doing a section of their street.
“I just go out there and do it,” he said.