Editorial: Northampton’s snow removal worth a second, patient look

Monday, March 03, 2014
As sure as snow flies in New England, griping about how it gets cleaned off roads and sidewalks is a pastime of winter — especially one as tough as this.

Everyone wants their street plowed sooner — without blocking driveways — and those troublesome snowbanks which impede vision at intersections need to be taken down quickly, too. And, of course, the mountains of snow lining the center of Main Street in downtown Northampton soon wear out their welcome. Letter writers on this page in recent days have expressed these opinions and more about snow removal in Northampton.

Joseph Blumenthal, the owner of Downtown Sounds on Pleasant Street, is a vocal critic of how long it takes for the Department of Public Works to remove the snow plowed to the middle of Main Street after big storms, such as the one Feb. 13. He has voiced complaints year after year, citing concerns about public safety and diminished commerce and expressing frustration over what he believes is the lack of response from municipal officials.

James Dostal, the former City Council president who is now retired and spending the winter in Florida, responded with a letter placing the blame on budget cuts that eliminated dozens of DPW positions. For example, the streets division, which had a staff of 41 some 35 years ago, now has 13, said Dostal, who was an employee of the DPW for 42 years and later served on its board for 13 more.

In fact, snow removal is complex. It must balance available resources with public safety. In Northampton, the policy is to sand streets when snow starts falling until it accumulates to about 3 inches, which triggers plowing. The city’s obligation then is to keep roads passable by continuing to plow as long as it snows. Once a storm ends, plow crews are sent home to sleep before the cleanup begins. That is a major operation that stretches on for days before all the major routes, side streets and municipal parking lots are cleared.

Besides having a limited workforce, DPW officials cite equipment breakdowns and the weather as factors that may slow the process. For example, the city has a new wide-winged plow on order, but it did not arrive in time for use this winter. And while it took 11 days to remove the snow mountains on Main Street after the Feb. 13 storm, on at least three of those days additional snow or freezing rain fell, requiring immediate response by the DPW.

Still, it makes sense to review the city’s resources and its snow removal practices to see where improvements might be made. Now is a good time to start, while deliberations continue on the city’s budget for next year. We suggest:

∎ Considering whether hiring more private contractors to plow makes sense as a way to add resources while not obligating the city to take on additional employees. Perhaps putting more private contractors on the roads during a storm would allow quicker relief for DPW crews, who could get rested and start cleanup operations sooner.

∎ Making certain the city’s capital expenses plan takes into account a reasonable lifespan for the heavy equipment used by the Department of Public Works, some of which dates back to the 1970s. The capital plan should recognize the need to replace the equipment before it wears out, rather than putting up with the headaches — and repair expenses — resulting from breakdowns.

∎ Convening a community forum this spring to give residents and merchants an opportunity to air concerns and to hear responses from public works leaders and other city officials.

That would continue efforts already by the city to inform the public. The Department of Public Works has winter storm information available online at ma-northampton.civicplus.com/306/Winter-Storms. And Mayor David J. Narkewicz devoted his “Mayor’s Report,” videotaped in February and available on YouTube, to snow fighting in Northampton, featuring interviews with Department of Public Works Director Edward Huntley and streets division superintendent Richard Parasiliti.

Finally, we urge patience. This is New England, snow is a predictable part of the winter landscape and at times we must accept its inconveniences.