Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels acknowledged problems with the city's response to snowstorms this week. But he said he would give the overall city response a "B." He also noted that the city will re-examine its decision not to use salt to combat roadway ice.

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Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels gives the city a “B” for its reaction to a series of snowstorms in the past two weeks.

The mayor also said at a news conference Wednesday that he would take a second look at Seattle’s policy barring the use of salt to combat icy streets.

“Three storms in a row, back to back to back, strained our people, strained our resources,” he said.

Seattle stopped using salt on its roads in the mid-1990s because of its environmental effect on Puget Sound, Nickels said. The city now relies primarily on sanding and rubber-bladed snowplows.

That practice left streets caked with ice, making them passable if you drove an all-wheel or four-wheel-drive vehicle, or chained up.

The slippery streets, however, hamstrung Metro’s ability to meet a surge in ridership. Routes were canceled, stranding riders with few options. Metro buses that didn’t spin out, get stuck or jackknife were packed during peak hours, making for miserable commutes.

Seattle police, with a fleet of rear-wheel-drive cars, also struggled with steep streets.

The South Lake Union streetcar also was shut down. And downtown retailers were left reeling as shoppers stayed home.

Crews overwhelmed

Nickels, wearing loafers on a slush-covered sidewalk during his news conference, said city crews made a great effort, working around the clock. In the end, he said, the snowstorms were overwhelming.

It’s not realistic to think that “… Mother Nature is not going to challenge us,” Nickels said.

He defended the city’s policy to use sand — 8,800 tons so far — instead of salt, which is used extensively by the state Department of Transportation and other cities.

But even using sand carries issues, scientists say, and can damage the environment by washing into waterways and smothering important insect habitat. City crews will attempt to sweep up as much of the sand as possible, Nickels said. He said the city’s no-salt policy was adopted when Puget Sound chinook salmon were added to the endangered-species list, and experts warned salt runoff from roads could harm the fish.

“We believe there are important environmental reasons for that,” Nickels said. “It’s not political correctness.”

The city has salt but hasn’t used it in more than a decade, he said.

Safety comes first

He acknowledged the storm’s impact on local businesses during the all-important sprint to Christmas, and he said he knows many people felt the city’s response was slow and inadequate. Still, he urged people to be patient about driving before roads are clear and to remember that safety has to come first.

“We’ve been frustrated, and I think a lot of people have been frustrated by how quickly we’ve been able to get to those streets,” he said. But the city has limited equipment. “The snow in Seattle is just always going to be an inconvenience. We’re not Buffalo or Cleveland.”

Seattle has 26 snowplows and one grader, and the city has hired a private contractor to operate a couple of additional graders, he said.

After the snow melts — likely this weekend — the city will evaluate its response to the severe weather and reconsider its policies. “Are we using the right kind of methods? Are we using the right equipment?” Nickels asked.

“We always learn from these events,” he said. “I think there’s room for improvement.”

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com