About 40 East Side residents, joined by representatives from Brown, Moses Brown, Wheeler and Lincoln, participated in a mid-April public forum with city officials led by Tony Simon, the mayor’s chief of staff, to consider lessons learned from the problems of this past winter. Mayor Elorza spoke briefly to kick off the meeting and fielded a variety of questions.
With slides of potholes, poorly plowed streets and mountainous snow banks rotating on the screen behind them, Simon, new DPW head Russell Knight and senior engineer William Bombard solicited feedback from the audience, pledging that this year’s lessons learned will indeed produce improved road conditions come next winter.
One area of particular concern to the East Side private institutions was the lack of coordination between the City and the schools. Despite a long established tradition of developing a common position on school closings, several times this winter they had planned to stay open only to discover the City had already announced a parking ban, which forced them to close. Said Suzanne Fogarty, the new head of Lincoln School, “I came from New York and I must say five full days of closings has been an adjustment.”
Other issues involved the City’s need to do more effective curb to curb plowing (“the severity and frequency of the storms just put a strain on our ability to handle it and then everything just froze up.”); the clogged streets (“next year we’re considering odd and even day street parking and clearing spaces for overnight parkers to go,”); and better use of independent vendors (“we need to make sure they get familiar with the areas they plow, plus our inspectors need to do a better job of identifying missed streets.”). But in terms of the big picture, there was a consensus that the City needs to purchase more equipment, a fact which has been reflected in Mayor Elorza’s recently proposed budget for 2016. Among the machinery we probably won’t see are the giant snowmelters that reduce the need for carting snow mounds away. Reason? Too expensive.
Even traditional methods of snow removal were not for the financially faint-hearted. Al Dahlberg, Director of State and Community Relations for Brown, pointed out that Brown has 230 buildings to take care of. “Usually our annual snow removal budget is around $275,000. This year it was $625,000.” And as for the city? Tony Simon reports that they spent over $400,000 just moving the snow to the North Burial Ground. The Thayer Street District Management Authority had to pony up about $20,000 just to take care of their street alone.
The question was raised about dumping snow into the river like they do in Boston. Here Simon was adamant that the current administration sees this as a last ditch effort at best. “We feel we have enough space in the city, mostly in the North Burial Ground area, to relocate the snow rather than jeopardize our city’s ecosystem,” Simon explained.
Councilman Sam Zurier sat on the panel and offered some suggestions from the City Council. One was that while the City had a hotline for residents, it wasn’t updated or, in some cases, even functioning in the evenings or over a weekend. The point was duly noted by the panelists.
While there was some frustration voiced over potholes, the Mayor in his remarks maintained that the number of claims to the city was actually down by 32% this year. He did reassure the audience that on recently repaved streets that have developed holes, the contractor will be fixing them at its own expense. Olney Street was mentioned as one example. The city was thanked for repaving the first hundred feet of the Henderson Bridge, which has now become passable again.
The meeting provided a useful opportunity for venting and to their credit the team of city officials didn’t duck the questions. To the credit of the audience, there was a constructive civility to their comments as well. But in reality, dealing with the winter of 2016 will depend on three factors: the city’s ability to implement its new policies, the budget realities of a hard-pressed city and finally the willingness of Mother Nature to cut us a little slack.