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.