OK. That's not a fair question because it is so easy to criticize public service regardless of how good or bad it may be.
So... thank you road crews for all the hard work you have done this winter. Thank you!
That said, when it comes to snow and its prompt removal from our public roads, I believe the "city" has much room for improvement.
I started thinking about this after a pretty good Enquirer article recently pointed out that only 45 of Cincinnati's 60 snow plow trucks were functional when needed this winter. Such a 25 percent out-of-action rate is not acceptable. So I'd say the first opportunity for improvement is obvious: Fix the trucks. Have existing assets ready to work. I wonder if the media exposure is helping that chore get done? Is there money budgeted and a timetable established to fix the trucks?
Once the trucks are fixed, will that be good enough? Well, I say no, it won't.
The cost of patchwork government
I put "city" in parentheses because talking about snow removal in a metro area of 2 MILLION people must not, cannot be limited to catching Cincinnati's engineering department with its tool belt down. You know how much of the population in our region are affected by what the city of Cincinnati does or does not do about snow? 15 percent. That's it. The entire city of Cincinnati is a paltry 15 percent of this metro area. The disappointment of the Enquirer's nice job in reporting the broken-down snow plow story is that it didn't connect that story to the vast rest of us. So I have no way of telling if the city's break down rate is typical or not. I'm guessing not.
The snow plow story continues to illustrate the Enquirer's increasingly unbalanced, increasingly city-centric focus of recent years. But it would be hard for any paper to do a proper job covering the snow removal issue here. The crazy patchwork quilt of jurisdictions in our 15-county, 20-city Tristate area screams out for consolidation and regionalization of local governments. The snow removal issue is just one in a long list of inefficient, wasteful and inequitable services made worse by our disunity. On the other hand, it really didn't take very long to dig up some snow removal info about a few other local jurisdictions to get a better sense of where the city's service stands.
The great urban center doesn't look too good.
Others outpace the city by miles
Cincinnati has 2,986 lane miles of roadway to clear when it snows and has 60 trucks to do the job -- at least when they are all working. That's nearly 50 lane miles per truck. That turns out to be quite a lot of miles per truck.
Hamilton County uses 55 trucks to clear about 1,800 lane miles. That's roughly 33 miles per truck.
Clermont County says it has 18 trucks to cover 400 miles of roadway. That's about 22 miles for every truck. Or maybe that means 800 lane miles, which would be 44 miles per truck. The county's website isn't very clear about the lane miles thing. Either way, they're doing better than Cincinnati.
The city of Blue Ash has about 160 lane miles of roads to clear. It doesn't publicize how many snow plows it has, but it makes a promise that Cincinnati does not: "For a typical snowfall of less than four inches, all streets within the City should be plowed within 24 hours after snow ceases to fall."
Meanwhile, the Ohio Department of Transportation has 1,536 snow plow trucks to serve about 49,000 lane miles of state highways. That comes to about one truck for every 32 lane miles.
Then there's Columbia Township, where I live. The tiny township only has about 20 "lane miles" of streets to clear and two plow trucks to do the job -- which amounts to one truck for every 10 lane miles -- a very luxurious ratio. Thanks to this capacity, Columbia Township does a terrific job of clearing its streets. ALL of our streets, including the cul-de-sacs off the side streets, are salted and plowed just about immediately. We have no primary vs secondary priority levels.
The presence of excellence so close to the city's borders exposes the mediocrity of Cincinnati's service. We live just a block or two outside the city borders, and we see the city's lack of plowing capabilities every time it snows. One access route into our neighborhood depends on a side street called Fairhurst Ave. For half a block, the street is part of Cincinnati. For the other half, it is part of the township. When it snows, the city follows its policy and rarely gets around to clearning that side street. Most times, much later, the sun does the job. This season, during the long snowy stretch of weather, packed snow stayed on the Cincinnati part of Fairhurst for days and days while the township side was bone dry.
What's a reasonable expectation?
So why can a tiny township get the job done, but the big city cannot?
It probably would be unreasonable to expect Cincinnati to match Columbia Township's standard, at least in the short term. Doing so would require adding about 240 trucks to the city's fleet. Hard to imagine the city quadrupling its snow plow fleet.
But I do think citizens have every right to expect the city to at least meet ODOT's standard. Attaining 33 lane miles per truck would require Cincinnati to run roughly 94 snow plow trucks -- an addition of 34 new trucks. That's roughly a 50 percent increase in the city's snow plow capacity.
That would be a pretty major expansion. And to me, this is the strongest evidence that Cincinnati's existing snow removal plan just isn't good enough.
So how expensive would it be to catch up to ODOT?
Based on some very preliminary web hunting, a new or recently used municipal-scale snow plow truck appears to cost $60,000 and up. So to avoid excess optimism, let's say Cincinnati's trucks would really cost $75,000 each. The total outlay for acquiring 34 trucks would be $2.5 million.
That sounds like a lot of money, but it would be way less than the $60 million capital outlay the city is kicking in for streetcar infrastructure. Let's say my truck cost guessimate is way off, and each truck costs $150,000. $5 million is still way less than the city's share of the streetcar.
Of course the city also would need to hire drivers for those snow plows, right? Job creation is often seen as a good thing, but yes, this also would be a public cost. According to another quick-n-dirty net search, dump truck drivers get paid about $15 an hour. Driving a dump truck with a snow plow blade attached is a more complicated job, so let's bump that pay to $20 an hour.
At that rate, each driver would be paid about $42,000 a year. Add 25 percent for benefits and that's $52,000 a year. That figure times 34 equals $1.7 million or so, using round numbers.
This would be about half what the city is contemplating spending every year to operate the streetcar. An added perk of hiring those year-round drivers for a seasonal job? They could be available to amp up sorely needed street repairs during the rest of the year.
As usual, it's about political will
Now these are just my back-of-the-envelope guesses, but a significant upgrade in the city's snow removal service appears to be affordable. Finding the money is mostly an effort of political will. And I bet a sharper business mind than mine could cook up about a dozen ways to deploy 34 more snow plow trucks while spending a lot less than the costs I'm citing. Part-time contracting comes to mind.
So yes, the city CAN do a better job. So why are we settling?
One way or another, the city should have more than 60 trucks ready to plow snow next winter. We shall see what happens.