Portland off the road, stuck in a snow drift… Who’s in charge?

by Steve, December 26th, 2008

Stuck in a driftIt’s a well known fact around Portland that an inch of snow can shut the town down. So what happens when we get a series of storms over two weeks dropping over a foot of snow and ice? Bedlam.

A lack of equipment, which is usually only needed once a year or less, is compounded by a lack of strategic planning and tactical expertise. While in other major cities efficient snow removal is a political issue that makes or breaks politicians and high-level bureaucrats, in Portland we have the Marion Barry approach. His infamous snow removal system? The sun.

In Portland, we depend more on the jet stream to swing back north, bringing us warm, wet Pacific storms like the one currently looming, threatening flooding as it melts off several inches of snow and ice.

But while we wait for the flood to clear the snow and ice, the city has been shut down to various degrees for two weeks.

So, who’s in charge?

There’s TriMet, running public transit across three counties and several cities, at the mercy of the various state, county and city transportation agencies for snow removal. They kept the blue line light rail running, but shut down the yellow and red lines for various periods during the storm. All bus lines had significant delays, and many routes were canceled completely for days. Their Web site at least had reasonably up-to-date information, as did electronic reader boards at transit stations.

Metro picks up the trash, but their Web site offers no information on delays of trash pickup (already interrupted by the Christmas holiday). Are the trucks running today? Our cans are in the snow bank by the curb, waiting.

The storm caught Portland during during the final weeks in office for mayor Tom Potter. You can’t expect much from a lame duck mayor, but where’s Sam Adams, incoming mayor and, notably, current commissioner of transportation?

You might expect a reassuring message to the citizen’s of Portland in the midst of the worst winter storm in decades. Instead, we hear Adams paraphrased on our hysterical (in both senses of the word) TV news that there are no snow chains available in Portland. With the sight of snow flakes striking abject fear into the hearts of Portlanders, that’s not the kind of message you want to send as a leader.

(Here’s a funny parody of our local television “storm team” coverage).

The exceeding rarity of this much snow on the ground may excuse a certain amount of chaos, but there are many things Portland could do better, even with its limited budget and its small, aging fleet of 50 snow plows. Sure, it costs money to be prepared for the occasional winter storms we get around here, but what’s the economic cost of shutting down the city for two weeks?

Mainly we’re lacking leadership and communication. What’s the plan, who’s going to implement it, and what are we going to do if it doesn’t work out? If this were any other city, the 2008 Christmas Storm would be considered Sam Adam’s first test of leadership… and he would be getting failing marks.

What’s going to happen if we have a real crisis, like a major earthquake? Will we have leadership, or is it every fool for himself in Portland? The way things have gone over the last two weeks, I sure hope, for the sake of us all, that the Adams administration isn’t presented with that kind of leadership challenge.

8 Responses to “Portland off the road, stuck in a snow drift… Who’s in charge?”

  1. Comment from Karol:

    With all proper restraint, I’m frustrated with the way this snow insanity stopped this town in it’s tracks. I’m here in Portland instead of warm with my family because I couldn’t get a cab, a MAX or anything to take me to the airport in a timely fashion to make a plane that was actually leaving on time. The city was debilitated. I know that our town isn’t usally ready for this, but WOW. They knew it was coming. Can I charge them for pain and suffering for a depressing Christmas?

  2. Comment from RJG:

    As a new resident to the area and coming from the midwest where we actually do get significant snowfall, I am extremely disappointed to the lack of snow removal in this city and the fact that things are shut down for well over a week. It is frustrating that we leave it to Mother Nature to dig us out. I understand that this area rarely gets weather such as this, but when it does, shouldn’t it be necessary to be able to deal with it? I work in healthcare and am required to fulfill my hours rain or shine. The lack of snow removal and the lack of public transportation makes it nearly impossible to do this. Add the holiday to the mix and it doesn’t get any better:-(

  3. Comment from Max:

    This is a very good example of the incompetent leadership we’ll get from “Tax ’em Sam” Adams. In his city commissioner role, Adams was in charge of the Portland Transportation bureau, who has the job of clearing snow from the streets.

    Now when “Tax ’em Sam” Adams becomes mayor, he won’t be any better.

    I think Adams is a snooty elitist who has no regard for the poor or the middle class.

  4. Comment from Steve:

    Max, if we had a real tax base in this city and state, we might be able to buy some more snow removal equipment and hire and train staff to use it.

    Like we say in hockey, you have to spend money to win (but spending money will never guarantee a win).

    Adams is correct to point out that we’ve slashed our budget for street maintenance, and our snow plow fleet is small and aging. This is the major factor in our inability to keep the city working in a snow event.

    Even though I think we could do better with what we’ve got, we really do need to spend more money for winter storm preparation if we want to keep people moving when it snows in Portland.

  5. Comment from Pete:

    “what’s the economic cost of shutting down the city for two weeks?”

    the snow stopped “this town in its tracks”

    Was it really that bad? I worked every day (except Christmas and weekends) throughout the storm. Most everyone I know worked most of the days they were scheduled to. I shopped at local groceries, one of which was packed on the 21st and 23rd, another of which was jammed on the 26th. On Monday the 22nd I had to get my 9-year-old son across town to his mother’s. We walked most of the way there. I walked all the way home. Were we heroic? No. But we were resourceful. And it really wasn’t that bad. (In fact, the walk on the 22nd was delightful: What great fun watching the sledders on NE 39th Avenue at Wistaria!)

    As poorly as governmental agencies might have performed during the storms, I’d say some Portlanders performed even worse.

  6. Comment from Steve:

    You’re right, Pete, stores were open for business in my neighborhood, and we had no trouble taking TriMet and walking to get groceries.

    My biggest complaint was the almost total lack of communication from civic leaders. Portlanders get a real siege mentality, which is understandable once you’ve lived through a few mismanaged (or unmanaged) winter storm events here, and we could have used some reassuring words.

    As for economic losses, many, many people were unable to get to work, or had their workplaces shut down for lack of safe transportation. We’ll never really know what that amounts to in terms of lost wages, but I’m sure we’ll be hearing from merchants about their lack of sales in the critical week and a half before Christmas.

  7. Comment from M. Edward (Ed) Borasky:

    I guess I’m only partially qualified to speak here. I work in Downtown Portland, but I live on the West Side, in fact on the slope of a hill that is impassibly slippery in the snow and ice. Fortunately, I can do much of my job remotely via broadband, and electrical outages are extremely rare here in any weather. The power was out only for about an hour the morning of the 24th. And finally, I usually take vacation this time of year anyhow, which was the case for much of the two weeks.

    But really what we are talking about, in any case, is priorities for scarce public funds. So let me ask:

    1. Would you vote for a bond issue, paid for by a tax increase, to fund snow removal? If not, where would you cut the budget to pay for snow removal?

    2. Would putting salt on streets and highways be acceptable to the environmentalists?

    3. Do you have a two-week stockpile of food, medicines, water, batteries and other necessities?

    4. Are you willing to volunteer to help out in an emergency, or are you going to sit around until it’s over and then complain about a lack of leadership, communication and planning?

    In short, like most people in most circumstances, we did the best we could with what we had. Yes, I think we will be tested again, given that we are in a seismically active area and people seem to ignore flood plains when they build. So … what’s *your* plan?

  8. Comment from Steve:

    Great questions, Ed. Before I answer them, let me reiterate that what I found lacking was communication and leadership.

    1. Yes, I would support a bond measure to pay for equipment, training and operations. Every time a small winter event shuts down Portland, our leaders say, well, this never happens. But it keeps happening, and it hurts regular people who miss work and small businesses who lose revenue.

    2. I would not put salt down.

    3. Yep.

    4. Yep.

    Sure, many people did fine. We had no problems in my household. But many, many people missed work, lost business, or were unnecessarily house-bound, placing their health and well-being at risk.

    And again, even if we did nothing different as a city (though my sources working for the city confirm that there was a significant leadership vacuum), our civic leaders should have kept us informed of tactical and strategic decisions that affected our city’s ability to function.