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In the preamble of this morning’s Loose Lips Daily, LL addressed today’s Examiner editorial calling for DDOT director Gabe Klein and DPW director Bill Howland to be fired and their snow-removal responsibilities be hired out to private contractors. LL, without explanation, deemed this suggestion “harebrained.”

That earned LL an e-mail from reader Greg Piper of Arlington:

You’ve got some nerve calling the Examiner editorial’s privatization idea for snow removal “harebrained” in the absence of any competent removal efforts by the DC government. How could it possibly hurt to
ask companies that actually have a good track record of prompt removal to make bids? Why not ask DC residents what they think?

I live in Arlington, by the way, and I’m just as unenthused about our government’s efforts. Walking on Lee Highway, George Mason Drive and Washington Blvd last night, I saw plow after plow go down those major arterials, some with their plows down, clearing roads that were already clear and ignoring streets that really needed a plow. My own street, just off Washington, has yet to be plowed – I trekked two miles to Ballston today to catch the Metro. Get over your pro-government agenda and consider what would actually help residents.

So why “harebrained”?

LL’s essentially dispute with the Examiner and Piper is over whether local governments have been competent or not given the circumstances. The District is equipped to handle to the approximately 18 inches of snow we get in an average winter; in fact, D.C. hasn’t so much as canceled a day of school in years before this week. So when DDOT and DPW have to clear twice our annual snow total in the space of five days, LL is going to cut them some slack. If there’s evidence of mass incompetence or inefficiency here, LL has yet to see it.

Here’s what DDOT says it should be judged by: “For storms of 18″ or more, the District’s timeliness standard for snow removal is to clear major corridors and roadways within 36 hours and get a pass on residential streets within 60 hours.” Not good enough? That gets to the essential problem: plowing capacity, how many trucks, plows, and crews the city can fund to have on the streets after a snowstorm. Our local government, over lo so many years, has come to the conclusion that paying to maintain a fleet capable of swiftly clearing 35 inches of snow year in and year out would be a folly given the other problems this city faces.

Mass privatization might be a good way to deal with incompetence or inefficiency, it’s not clear how it would improve capacity. The District in fact already has a privatization scheme of sorts to deal with the capacity problem. Yesterday, Howland explained that the snow response is purely government-run——meaning city-owned plows on city-owned trucks manned by city-paid crews—only in snowfalls of 6 inches or less. When snow gets deeper, the city has an arrangement in place with Capital Paving, which sends 40 trucks into the streets. And when things get “really bad,” he said, another 60 to 90 contract plows can be called in, mostly from smaller construction companies. Going much beyond that would still require pumping more taxpayer dollars on a year-by-year basis into snowplowing—-without government support, how many trucking or construction companies in the region would invest in snowplowing rigs that might get called into action perhaps once every 10 years or more?

What’s clear is that a snowfall like this needs a magic solution that no one has come up with yet—-something that can work when needed but doesn’t unduly burden municipal budgets in the years it’s not needed.

There’s been some thinking along these lines in recent days.

WaPo columnist Steven Pearlstein suggests that residents and businesses figure out how much they’d be willing to pay regularly in order to prevent a major snow disruptions like this one. Voila—-“snow insurance,” paid to the government to fund snow-removal capacity. This “pro-government” solution, of course, would not do much for Piper.

Atlantic blogger Megan McArdle offered another suggestion: Why can’t cities with high snow capacity rent out their capacity to cities like D.C., which have little need to invest? LL can think of one reason: No northern mayor in their right mind would send off their plow fleet in winter with the chance that a storm might bury his or her own city—-and electoral chances.

And then there’s flamethrowers. Any other bright ideas out there?

Photo by Flickr user woodleywonderworks, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license