City on a Hill: No more snow days for D.C.

September 9, 2010

Anyone who was in D.C. last February has memories of a carefree week filled with snowball fights, hot chocolate and an unexpected break from class. But that week, which you may fondly remember as “snowpocalypse,” also brought with it impassable roads, transportation failures, and the closure of the local and federal governments. While winter may seem far away, it’s worth considering the cost of catastrophic snowstorms on the D.C. metropolitan area, because it is only a matter of time before bad weather returns.

According to John Berry, Director of the Office of Personnel Management, approximately $100 million dollars are lost each day the D.C.-based federal government is closed. Fortunately, since about 30 percent of federal workers telecommuted during last year’s major storm, which shut down the federal government for four and a half days, only about $71 million dollars were lost per day.  However, many critically important public servants were not able to work through private Internet connections because of national security concerns, and telecommuting could not and cannot truly replace the collaborative environment of an office for days at a time.

D.C. should invest in snow removal equipment or seek out federal assistance to pay for the machines that would allow the city to function at a basic level when storms like last year’s hit.  It’s not uncommon to hear those who hail from Minneapolis, Boston, or Chicago joke that D.C. residents are just wimps when snow is on the ground. But right now, D.C. genuinely lacks the ability to clear its streets with its small, decrepit fleet of snow plows.

Emails leaked from the District Department of Transportation last February indicated that over 60 of the District’s plows, approximately 25 percent of the fleet, were not functional for much of the February storms due to lack of replacement parts.

Storms like the blizzards that paralyzed D.C. in February 2010 and December 2009 don’t hit the city often, but that doesn’t necessarily make investing in snow equipment a financial mistake. When he informally explored the topic earlier this year, We Love D.C. blogger Samer Farha found that keeping Metro tracks clear involved equipment that is actually very cost-effective. Using the cost of the Chicago Transit Authority fleet of snow-capable subway trains as a measuring guide, Farha estimated that the cost of equiping the D.C. Metro with a similar train system would cost around $10 million. That’s a good deal less than the $100 million the federal government loses in each day it is closed.

Not only is the investment in snow removal equipment financially sensible, it’s also politically smart for those in charge.  In the aftermath of the last February’s storm, the Clarus research group found that 64 percent of D.C. residents thought Fenty did “only a fair” or a “poor” job handling the response.  This was also the same month that Fenty’s disapproval finally surpassed his approval rating among D.C. residents. With Fenty currently projected to lose the upcoming mayoral primary to challenger Vincent Gray, it’s hard not to see Fenty’s lackluster response to the storm as a crucial political mistake.

With the advent of global warming and the increased unpredictability of weather patterns, we should consider this past winter a warning about the future. This incidence of freak weather could be just the tip of the iceberg. D.C. must take a look at its miserable track record of snow response and invest in newer, better equipment. If the city can’t do that on its own, its leaders should seek federal help to keep the government running during major storms.  Otherwise we may be back to those Blackboard chat-room classes in the not- so-distant future.

Want to chat with Eric in the not-so-distant future? Email him at


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Tom Bridge

If you’d like to read Samer’s full column on snow removal costs and the potential of adopting a Chicago-style plow on Metro, you can read the full column here: