Cabin fever has set in, the groceries and cat litter are running low and you might even want to take a coronavirus test. The only obstacle is those six blocks of icy slope between home and the grip of bare, freshly plowed pavement.
It may be of little comfort for those trapped on a narrow, icy road, but Seattle’s snow response network avoids those back streets for the same reason many of us do: fear of a spinout.
“It’s just impossible to operate a plow safely,” said Ethan Bergerson, spokesperson for the Seattle Department of Transportation.
It’s no secret that Seattle’s streets are narrower than those in many cities. Seattle also lacks the towing rules that some cities stringently enforce to keep snowplow routes free of obstacles.
“There’s a lot of streets we can’t plow without risking damage, or burying cars,” Bergerson said.
Combine that with the city’s tendency to favor transit over cars, and the outcome is that residential roads are often cleared last, if at all.
Still, SDOT said Monday night it reached 90% clearance of the routes it promised — some 1,200 lane miles citywide — but on Tuesday the city’s 35 snow-response trucks remained on the main streets.
Not surprisingly, many residents are venting on social media. “I can say the PNW is particularly bad at snow removal. It’s just wild to me a flurry can shut everything down,” tweeted a New England transplant. Another resident posted, “Seattle can’t even plow the (expletive) roads and yet they expect us to be able to shovel, regardless of physical ability. It’s nonsense.”
Seattle has a tortured history with winter and roads. Voters denied Mayor Greg Nickels reelection in 2009 after a snowstorm was met with a disjointed and delayed city response; the manager of Seattle’s snowplow fleet had no experience directing a major snow response.
Among other ills, SDOT relied on sand that didn’t melt the icy clumps. Since then, the city has mainly converted to salt, set more money aside for snow removal and publicized a priority route network.
Since at least 2016, residents have been able to track road crews and the plan for clearing Seattle streets. The city of Seattle’s Winter Weather Response Map shows where the city promises to clear all lanes as well as the routes that are to have at least one lane clear in each direction as bare-and-wet pavement within 12 hours of a lull in the snow.
A second tool, the city’s Storm Response Map, relies on GPS devices in the snowplows to accurately show where they have been. It’s color-coded; dark blue shows routes that have been plowed in the past hour, light blue in the past three hours.
Besides prioritizing bus routes, traffic mainlines, major employers and hospitals, Bergerson said SDOT plows corridors to warming shelters, vaccine clinics and dialysis centers.
Sidewalk teams have shoveled freeway overpass walkways, he said. Thin walking paths were already cleared by Monday along the new John Lewis Bridge at Northgate Station.
King County Metro announced it will remain on the Emergency Snow Network, which shrinks service to 60 core routes primarily where cities have cleared a path.
Homeowners and businesses are required to clear sidewalks, but most don’t.
Former City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen called the snow buildup “treacherous” outside Pioneer Square Station. Gordon Padelford, executive director of Seattle Neighborhood Greenways, said near his Central District home, “even the major apartment buildings haven’t cleared more than a dozen feet by their doorway.”
As with the state’s shorthanded road team, fatigue becomes an issue as city workers drive 12 hours on, 12 hours off. SDOT workers will have to pace themselves for an unusually prolonged freeze.
“We are preparing our crews for weeks of ongoing work if necessary,” Bergerson said.
Bergerson says crews need to continue spreading salt on the core streets, in anticipation of more snow, which will conceal the ice sheets beneath. Additional snow is expected Wednesday night into Thursday evening, with chilly temperatures sticking around for a few days.
Snowplow drivers looped through a few extra streets Tuesday, including making multiple runs through South Park and a winding nontransit hill above Alki Beach. On south Queen Anne Hill, they cleared West Olympic Place to help service providers from Hopelink reach public-housing apartments, Bergerson said.
Unlike Seattle, where most major roads are cleared, suburban cities with fewer resources are less predictable.
State Department of Transportation crews have worked overtime to clear I-5 as well as I-405 along the Eastside and I-90. But state Highway 104, between Edmonds and Shoreline, remains iced over at interchanges near Aurora Village/Highway 99 and near Edmonds City Park Park, en route to the ferry terminal, state cameras show.
Highway 104 is mapped as an Edmonds “anti-ice route.” But the two white interchanges are state territory, the city says.
Edmonds has three dump trucks, equipped with plow blades, available citywide, said Chuck Hiatt, city street lead. “Everybody’s focus is doing their main arterial,” he said.
State transportation officials didn’t have an immediate explanation about Edmonds, but say all available crews are working across the region.
Drivers have also complained about Highway 99 through Lynnwood, where that road is mostly packed brown and white snow. Motorist Andy Stevens said when he visited downtown Lynnwood on Monday, nearly all lanes of 196th Street Southwest, the city’s other main boulevard, were iced over. “There were multiple spinouts. It was supposed to be five lanes out there, but everybody was shuffling.”
Lynnwood officials say they have only six plows, and one was out of service until Tuesday, and a sander wasn’t operating. Often, cars packed the snow down to ice before the city could plow, they said.
“The continual below freezing temperatures make road clearing challenging,” the public works division said by e-mail. Sometimes the plow blade isn’t completely lowered, due to uneven pavement, or avoiding lane markers, which if broken might cause debris hazards.
“Most have worked several 12-hour shifts. I’m quite proud of their talent to do this work, as it is incredibly difficult and dangerous,” said Jared Bond, Lynnwood’s public works operations manager.
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