Death vs. Taxes During a Storm

Yesterday in Minnesota, 546 vehicles drove off the road and 461 vehicles crashed into something (often, another vehicle) due to storm conditions. In one of those incidents, a person died. In neighboring Wisconsin, there were over 400 crashes and two dead.

If this was a disease epidemic over the same time period, it would be way worse than the H1N1 flu or the cholera epidemic currently hitting Haiti. Yes, yes, I get that this is a temporary short term phenomenon, but if we put all the stormy weather end to end in time it would be an event of a week or two duration (depending on the year). Imagine an event that takes two weeks, kills 25 people in Minnesota, 50 in Wisconsin, a high proportion of those injured or killed being the Venerated First Responders, and damages or destroys 10 thousand vehicles, that could have been prevented with a different strategy.

And yes, there is the potential for a different strategy. While all this mayhem was in progress, I was speaking with a friend who drives a plow. The storm had been going for 12 hours, and he had not been called in yet, so I asked him why.

“They wait until the cops start complaining about accidents, then they call us in, and in a few hours we’ve got the streets cleaned.”

So, it would appear that the public works professionals are unaware that between 3 and 15 inches of snow cause hazardous driving conditions, and need to re-learn this every storm.

Well, to be honest, they do know know about the hazards of the storms. They are just using a strategy of dealing with the storm that saves money. That’s taxpayer’s money, and we wouldn’t want taxpayers to pay for something they don’t have to. Several thousand accidents and a dozen or two dead (over a season) is a low price to pay for an extra dollar a week or so in taxes to fund a snow clearing operation more like they have in New York or Massachusetts, where plows clear snow from beginning of the storm to the end (or at least, that’s how it was done when I lived there).

Here in Minnesota, a “good snow day” is one in which 36 hours of havoc is followed by 10 hours of towing cars away and plowing. That is the standard: You wait until the snow ends, or the cops start complaining that too many of their own were almost wiped out while helping a stranded motorist, then “snow emergency parking” rules go into effect, and you plow.


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Comments

  1. #1 gwen
    November 14, 2010

    What a stupid strategy. Stay safe. What a horrendous early season storm!

  2. #2 Jared
    November 14, 2010

    I would think this strategy costs more money if you take into account repair bills for equipment and vehicles as well as medical costs for personnel.

  3. #3 Benton Jackson
    November 14, 2010

    Jeeze, I knew it was FUBAR, but I didn’t think it was THAT bad. I thought they at least plowed the arteries and highways right away.

  4. #4 Greg Laden
    November 14, 2010

    Benton, the truth is more complicated than I had space or time for.

    The state plows state roads, the county plows county roads, and cities plow everything else. Towns and villages generally don’t have plows.

    The policy I cite here is the policy of Minneapolis, Saint Paul, and all the cities I know of in the first and second ring suburbs. In other words, this is the policy in Minnesota where most Minnesotans live, most miles of roads, most number of vehicles. The rule is “plow after the storm” for almost all roads, and when a storm lasts four days, bunt.

    A major artery may be a city road, a county road, or a state road, and there is not a policy that affects major arteries per se as opposed to secondary and side routes. But, very few state roads are not major arteries, therefore if the state plowed their roads from the beginning of the storm and throughout the storm, then it would be correct to say that “some major arteries are plowed at the outset of a storm.”

    That is not, however, the state’s policy. The state’s policy changes over time. If a storm is expected to drop 3 inches and last five hours, and it is cold, the state often waits until the storm is ‘over’ and hopes that on the major highways cars driving by blow off the snow (and that actually can work except for the deadly icy spots!) … and if it warms and chills we get uncontrolled ice, if the storm lasts twice as long, we get confusion. Every now and then the meteorologists will predict a very icy (warm shifting to cold) storm and the state will actually pre-treat roads.

    However, if there are more than about four major storms in a given year, the state runs out of money and you see them plowing later and later and less and less. Pawlenty has cut the budget several times, and last year, instead of hiring drivers for extra hours and paying them professional wages with overtime, he had other state employees trained to drive the trucks, so he could pay them less and avoid overtime charges. THe fact that a 60 ton snow plow is being drive down the highway at 50 miles per hour in a storm during rush hour by the same person who gives you shit behind the counter at the Motor Vehciles department is … well, controversial. (Though so far that strategy has not led to known problems, though I have no idea if anyone is really looking)

    Yesterday, we woke up to several inches and the first sign of any plow around here was mid afternon (state or otherwise, though the state may have plowed some other places). The street I live on was plowed because, well, the plow guy lives on it, but the main street leading to my street and the main street leading to my neighborhood to the nearest commercial node, other than the 200 foot bit that needed to be plowed to get to our street (where the plow guy lives) remains unplowed even to this moment, and the plowing is pretty much over.

    Oh wait, holy shit, the plow JUST came down the street, at this very moment, 36 hours after the first snow.

    Jared: Exactly, but the people who decide how and when to plow the roads do not pay the repair bills on the cars, the medical costs, or the funeral costs.

    One of the effects of single payer health care would be that government level decisions could actually take that into account.

  5. #5 DuWayne
    November 14, 2010

    Hmmm…Around here, the salt plows are out as soon as it is obvious we are going to get hit hard. Even before there is major accumulation, they are dumping salt and sand on the main roads and start plowing when the snow starts to pile up. Eventually they get the neighborhoods too, but of course the high traffic roads are the priority. In some neighborhoods, people who have their own plows will cut a path down the road. This was also the case when I lived in Lansing.

    In the U.P. I don’t think they really do that much plowing – it just doesn’t work real well. There are a lot of areas up there where you either have a snowmobile, a rover or you get stuck at home for a couple months (something that some people opt for, on purpose).

    All in all, MI does pretty well, all things considered. We don’t have shit for funding MDOT, but they tend to keep things relatively safe on the highways and most counties do well enough with their responsibilities. Even at just about the worst, they work their asses off to make things safe.

    Several years ago we had a nasty ice and wind storm that literally covered the country highways with fallen trees and ice. The county and the MDOT had cops and roadworkers out on snowmobiles and quads, looking out for injuries and to see where the worst of it was. There were only a few injuries in the county and IIRC, all but one of them was due to people trying to clear things up. The friend I lived with at the time and I managed to cut and haul what eventually worked out to be seven cords. When we talked to a deputy who came by on a quad, he told us to keep track of our time, because the county would pay us for it. The vast majority of the fallen trees were removed by residents.

    I just don’t get not taking care of things before they get dangerous. I mean it ultimately is a lot easier and likely cheaper, to deal with that shit before it gets out of hand. I can’t imagine the cost of people dying on the roads can outweigh the manhours spent preventing it.

  6. #6 Paul Hutch
    November 14, 2010

    Massachusetts, where plows clear snow from beginning of the storm to the end (or at least, that’s how it was done when I lived there).

    Yep, that’s still how we do it in Massachusetts.

  7. #7 Benton Jackson
    November 14, 2010

    Thanks Greg for that additional info.

  8. #8 Greg Laden
    November 14, 2010

    Paul, MA and MN also have vastly different parking rules and approaches to clean up after a storm. IIRC most communities in MA, for non emergency rout roads, simply clean up on every other Xday (or wahtever) and you’ve got to move both your car and the trash can you’ve left in the street to claim your parking spot or you are towed or booted. In MN, you can park anywhere any time (on a non emergency route) except the secret towing hours at which time they secretly tow your car to where the trolls live (in minneapolis … not sure where they put the Saint Paul cars).

    Also, we have alleys here . (Rare in Boston these days but there are some). Minneapolis city plows your alley. Saint Paul does not, but requires you to manage it (you can’t leave it unplowed). So, the alleys in St. Paul are typically plowed by a mosaic of private service providers.

  9. #9 D. C. Sessions
    November 14, 2010

    Greg, I do believe that folk are missing the moral of the story.

  10. #10 Mary
    November 14, 2010

    Wow, that is even worse than I thought…

    We only moved here to MN in 2008, from Chicago. I noticed right away when we were house hunting that

    1) Most streets here (Western suburb) have no sidewalks.

    2) Most streets here have no street lights.

    3) Most streets here don’t even have a curb.

    4) The city does not provide trash pick-up. Everyone has a different trash company and a different trash day.

    5) Instead of closing *lanes* for repair, they close entire highways.

    6) Since there is no city “grid” — most surface streets wind in loops and go nowhere — when they highway you need is closed there is often no other way to get somewhere without nearly doubling the travel time.

    8) Traffic is worse here than in Chicago despite the much smaller metro area, because of the lack of alternate routes and the closings.

    9) The on-ramps and off ramps around here seem like they were designed purely for comedy value, leading to subjectively more accidents — and closings and traffic.

    10) The light rail does not go to the western suburbs, and the only buses that go downtown from here run just a few times a day during rush hours — not at all on weekends.

    Okay. Well. It’s not the big city, I guess. They’re just not as organized about their people-moving here. It’s probably a system that evolved rather than being planned…

    But then winter came. And I thought “This state is notorious for its winters. If anyone knows how to deal with the snow, it’s got to be Minnesota…” But no!

    Some roads around us aren’t plowed for weeks after a storm, and are never salted. Last year we bought a new car (with all-wheel-drive) after our 2002 sedan slid backwards down the hill leading up to our house — and insisted on test driving the cars on the same hill. The right turning lane we use to turn from 55mph State Hwy 55 into our little residential neighborhood just disappears for the winter, never plowed, so you have to shed all your speed in the same lane where the traffic behind you is going full speed. And while the roads are still icy.

    And at first I thought “Well, maybe Minnesota drivers are just so good at snow-driving that it’s not an issue…” But no! Every morning in winter the traffic reports are full of accidents, injuries, and delays — again much worse than in the much larger Chicago metro, at least subjectively.

    And the potholes that appear the next spring? Well, the huge one on our street did get fixed… in October.

    It’s just insane. Nowhere else I’ve lived has such a careless attitude toward traffic engineering and street maintenance. Why aren’t people clamoring to pay more taxes for these services? If I could buy snow-free highways and well-lit streets without having to go through the government, I would love to spend my money on that… And meanwhile, many of the homes we looked at had associations that did local plowing, for hundreds of dollars per month in association fees… Why are Republicans willing to pay HOA fees but not taxes?

    (Sorry — I guess you hit a sore spot here…)

  11. #11 ER Doc
    November 14, 2010

    As a 20+ year Minnesota resident, (and Democratic partisan,) I would say that Minnesota used to know how to handle the snow well. More recently, specifically during the Pawlenty administration, the drive to avoid new state taxes has caused a severe deterioration in state and local services, including the plowing.

  12. #12 Greg Laden
    November 14, 2010

    Mary, what is this “sidewalk” thing you speak of?

    Part of the problem with sidewalks in Minnesota is that Minnesotans believe for some reason that the way you get a sidewalk in front of your house is to buy it. Even in the cities, the cost of installation is directly covered by the land owner. Therefore, Minnesotans hold it as a right (and reasonably so, I suppose) to not have one. Same with curbs. Probably lights to, but I’m not sure, never having been in the position to buy one.

    The trash pickup thing varies from city to city in Minnesota. We voted (in Coon Rapids) to have a single company contract with the city vs. we each pick our own. (We voted to each pick our own, apparently)

    Closing entire highways… and withoiut coordinating it, so all forms of surface access to entire region are accidently shut down at the same time because different agencies decide to work on the roads that day.

    Since there is no city “grid” — most surface streets wind in loops and go nowhere — when they highway you need is closed there is often no other way to get somewhere without nearly doubling the travel time.

    OK you’re from Chigago… in the East part of the East, there is no grid, but every junction of a subterranean rocky feature (of which there are many) and moving water is a node, because it was once a mill, then a village, then a town, then a part of a city. So you can go off-highway and get anywhere. There is a grid that does go places here, it depends on where you live exactly. The grid is broken up by lakes, and there are a lot of lakes, and by railroad tracks and so on. But in California, there are regions the size of average European cities that are connected to other regions only by highway. I think of Minnesota as transitional in that way.

    The on-ramps and off ramps around here seem like they were designed purely for comedy value, leading to subjectively more accidents — and closings and traffic.

    On ramp? Off ramp? Are you talking about popular vs. unpopular parking garages!?!??

    But yes, especailly, for instance, the east bound ramp from 35W to 694. It has a stop sign on it!

    For your #10: If you live in the Western Suburbs you have a nice car and you get to use the paid-for sane lane, so you don’t need no stinking busses!

    But then winter came. And I thought “This state is notorious for its winters. If anyone knows how to deal with the snow, it’s got to be Minnesota…” But no!

    Hahahaah!!!!

    Even Minnesotans do not understand that Minnesota does NOT in fact get much snow at all (compared to Chicago or Boston, for instance). So they think they are all ready for the snow, but if you get two or three blizzards in one year, forget it. They run out of sand or salt, the budget for removal dries up, there is no place to put the snow, etc.

    The right turning lane we use to turn from 55mph State Hwy 55 into our little residential neighborhood just disappears for the winter, never plowed, so you have to shed all your speed in the same lane where the traffic behind you is going full speed. And while the roads are still icy.

    Which actually makes you look just like a Minnesota driver, because a practice of Minnesota drivers is a) slow down to turning speed at least a half block before the turn and b) use the turn signal as part of the turning process, so you actually flip the signal on after the car is 1/4 pointed in the new direction in which you will be going.

    “Well, maybe Minnesota drivers are just so good at snow-driving that it’s not an issue…” But no! Every morning in winter the traffic reports are full of accidents, injuries, and delays — again much worse than in the much larger Chicago metro, at least subjectively.

    Conversation overheard at the grocery store last year during a storm:

    “Is your boyfriend coming”

    “No, this is the first snow”

    “So what?”

    “He crashes his pickup on the first snow every hear. His little tradition”

    And the potholes that appear the next spring? Well, the huge one on our street did get fixed… in October.

    Your’s got fixed?? Who did you pay off to get THAT done?

    Why aren’t people clamoring to pay more taxes for these services?

    Becauas they don’t know. Poll your neighbors. If they went to a larger city to spend any time at all, they were so traumatized by the event that they were not making the kind of cogent observations they would have to have been making to bring this knowledge back.

    I often feel like the guy from Invasion of the Body Snatchers….

    ER Doc: In terms of clearing state highways, I totally agree. But all the other stuff is cultural. (I moved here pre-Jesse, and lived in a city which was not plowed once … the entire fucking city … all winter .. for instance. I used to bring my own salt and at one particular intersession, I’d pull over 300 feet in advance, drag a bag of salt to the corner and throw it around, then walk back to my car and drive through, often passing people sitting there filling out forms becaue of the accident they just had. That was the corner of 65 and Mississippi, in case anyone remembers seeing the guy in the blue volvo with the salt bag…)

  13. #13 D. C. Sessions
    November 14, 2010

    You Minnesotans are some damned ungrateful folk. Don’t you realize that you’re being saved from the evils of socialism? You should pay more attention to Representative Bachmann. The government never does anything right, so your best bet is to turn over all of the streets and highways to a private corporation which will issue GPS trackers and bill you for using them.

    Once a private corporation [1] is running things, you will have much better roads — and lower taxes, too!

    [1] Majority owned by a consortium of Gulf State emirs.

  14. #14 Eric Lund
    November 14, 2010

    The way snow removal is done in the Twin Cities these days sounds a lot like how the Seattle area handles lowland snow events. Except that lowland snow is sufficiently rare that people in the Puget Sound area really don’t know how to deal with it, and don’t have enough equipment to handle it even if they did. The City of Seattle is rumored to own one snowplow, and it went entirely unused last winter (Seattle did not even get snow-that-doesn’t-stick, unlike the winter before where the snow stayed around for a couple of weeks).

    Here in New Hampshire, which is notorious for government cheaping out on a lot of things, snow removal is one of the few things they don’t cheap out on. State and municipal crews (counties play no role in the road system here) are out in force once the snow starts accumulating, and between storms they get rid of snow piles so that they will have somewhere to push the snow from the next storm. Most towns ban overnight street parking during the winter months for exactly this reason, and the few that don’t provide municipal lots for people to stash their cars during a declared snow emergency. The towns even plow the sidewalks, and not just the ones in front of town-owned buildings. Within a few hours after the snow ends, state roads and arterial streets are completely clear. Side roads might take a little longer, but not much.

  15. #15 Paul Murray
    November 14, 2010

    Taxes are the difference between having a country and not having one.

  16. #16 Mike Haubrich
    November 15, 2010

    not sure where they put the Saint Paul cars).

    The cars get towed to a lot DOWN BY THE RIVER.

    Seriously. It’s on Barge Channel Road.

  17. #17 Camille
    November 15, 2010

    Greg, I live in Woodbury. We may elect the nuttiest people ever to represent Minnesota (Michelle Bachmann), but the plows are running from the first snowflake to the last. I live on a cul-de-sac in an older and less wealthy part of town, and we got plowed 3 times in 24 hours.

  18. #18 Greg Laden
    November 15, 2010

    You guys in Woodbury know how to live.

    Hey, Michelle Fischbach is yours too.

  19. #19 Camille
    November 15, 2010

    Michelle Fischbach is not our problem – she left us for greener pastures. In fact, I think she is closer to you now. We have enough of our own (Tad Jude for district judge, and tea party types for state house and senate).

  20. #20 Greg Laden
    November 15, 2010

    Hey, we’re not the ones who didn’t smother her when she was a child…

    Yeah, she’s in a gerrymandered district that surrounds but does not include St. Cloud, but she’s pretty far west of us.