Winter’s costs so far top $5 million, causing city to rethink some rules
The city has spent more than $5 million on snow removal this winter, City Manager Richard C. Rossi estimates, and is far from done paying for it.
The brutal, unrelenting snow and cold is inspiring some new thinking about cars as well, with a possible expansion in the number of two-way streets being turned temporarily into one-way streets and a rethinking of whether some of those winter-born changes could be permanent. There was even a demonstration Friday of open-mindedness on considering whether people who dig out a parking space should be allowed to claim the spot as their own.
There has been some 90 inches of snow in a series of blizzards over the past weeks, with a little more due and a continuing chill preventing it from melting. There is enough snow that piles remain citywide despite unrelenting efforts by Public Works and outside contractors using more than 100 pieces of equipment to move it to “snow farms” such as the now internationally iconic pile known as the Alps of MIT.
“We have not even paid attention to budget because it’s just beyond any comprehension. In a really bad year in the past … that might be $1.5 million. My estimation now is we’re probably north of $5 million already and we still have a lot of work to do,” Rossi said Friday at a City Council meeting called off-schedule in desperation after forced cancellations caused the agenda to balloon. The meeting picks up at 5:30 p.m. Monday, its size and length bled off by this week’s three-hour session.
“I always wondered what it was like living in Antarctica or Alaska,” Rossi said. “I think we have a pretty good idea.”
Among other desperation measures the city has taken: Turning snow-narrowed two-way streets in East Cambridge into one-way streets through March.
Identifying five affected streets on Wednesday, city Department of Public Works Commissioner Owen O’Riordan and Monica Lamboy, interim director of the Traffic, Parking and Transportation Department, said other parts of the city could also get temporary one-ways. On Friday they signaled that streets in Cambridgeport and North Cambridge were being considered.
West Cambridge resident Mayor David Maher identified streets to be added to the list: Appleton Street, High Street, Holmes Street, Lexington Avenue, Royal Avenue and Park Avenue.
Maher also highlighted the “mess” of Huron Avenue in a Huron Village neighborhood already hard-hit by a sewer separation project, and Rossi affirmed that the avenue was the next targeted for widening through snow removal.
Paying for a new normal
Residents’ comments, an essay in The New York Times and officials’ words showed a common theme: that climate change could all this an annual event. “This is a historic amount of snow,” councillor Leland Cheung said. “It might be the new normal, even if it hasn’t been normal over the past few years.”
Last season brought a total 59 inches of snow and a total expense of $2.4 million to clear, and the winter of 2013 brought 63 inches but cost $2.2 million to clear, according to the city’s adopted budget. There were 1,214 pothole repair requests tracked via the city’s iReport system last year, up from 959 in 2013, and Rossi expected another surge in requests and expense this year.
That isn’t the crisis for Cambridge it might be for other communities. The city reported in September an undesignated fund balance – what many refer to as “free cash” – of a record $160.5 million, and Cheung said he’s seen firsthand that Cambridge is handling its snow crisis better than some in Eastern Massachusetts.
But it drove home to Maher the need for a planning process taking both modern traffic and weather into account, including the many streets where there’s “no way two cars can get by right now” and where a simple UPS delivery might cause a 20-car back-up.
“Here we are in 2015 operating a city and living in a city where the streets were laid out well in excess of 100 years ago. And we’re seeing today the effects,” Maher said. “We should probably be looking at more one-way streets.”
It made for a comprehensive list of topics for a debriefing to be held when the snow is finally gone, Rossi said.
The priority for street clearing has been to ensure emergency vehicles such as firetrucks and ambulances can get through, but the talk about residents’ use of cars raised further issues, including how long one can sit buried by snow without being dug out or around – councillors recalled a three-day rule on failing to move a car and noted that leaving solid, long-term lanes of snow-covered cars on most streets complicated not just potential rescue attempts in a medical crisis, but even such mundane things as picking up garbage and recycling.
“When you mention all the snowbound cars that have not moved since the end of January, you just wonder: How much do people really rely on their automobile?” Rossi said.
“Or are they so afraid of giving up their parking spaces?” Maher said.
Maybe so. Councillor Craig Kelley raised the recurring issue of people digging out a parking space and defending it against other drivers, including through the use of “space savers” such as chairs or orange cones. The law doesn’t allow it, but that hasn’t stopped people from doing it.
“If people are using space savers anyway and we can’t bring ourselves to or figure out a way to [prevent] that behavior – and it seems like very logical behavior in a lot of ways – we may want to rethink our attitude toward them,” Kelley said. “If we’re not going to keep it from happening … why not sell people space-saver permits for $100 a pop?”
“Not only have we monetized it, but think about that what people get upset about is that the rules say you can’t do it. If the rules get changed how you can do it, we’d be in the same space we are now in terms of access to parking – but we wouldn’t have the rules being undercut,” Kelley said.
Rossi called the idea “interesting” and said it would be looked at.
“Mr. Depasquale seemed to wake up over there when he heard about the revenue coming in to the city,” Maher said, referring to city finance chief Louis Depasquale.
This post was updated Feb. 24, 2015, to adjust the height of the bars in the bar graph showing spending on snow clearing between 2010-14.