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The ins and outs of Twin Cities snow emergencies

I’d always imagined the “snow emergency” procedure to be something like a “red alert” from “Star Trek” or a submarine film. The truth is a lot less dramatic.

MinnPost file photo.

Sometimes I get sad about how our car-driven transportation system has changed the Minnesota winter. For many people, when significant snow falls their first thought is the car, scraping the windshield like Jerry Lundegaard, plowing the driveway like Sisyphus, and always wondering how long the commute will take this morning.

Even our language tips our hand. In Minneapolis and St. Paul we refer to a snowfall as a “snow emergency,” as if it’s some kind of disaster, like a tornado or an earthquake. But isn’t falling snow beautiful, something to be enjoyed? Must we treat it like a heart attack?

To get to the bottom of snowfall dramatization, I reached out to the Public Works departments of both core cities, and did some research into other approaches in other places. Here’s what I found out.

Step-by-step through an emergency declaration

I’d always imagined the “snow emergency” procedure to be something like a “red alert” from “Star Trek” or a submarine film. I figured that, somewhere deep inside City Hall, worried men are staring nervously at screens. At some point, as the flakes mount higher, the head bureaucrat wipes the sweat from her brow, gulps and presses a big, red “snow emergency button.” (Perhaps she uses a special key on a chain around her neck.) Suddenly klaxons sound, lights flash red, and scores of uniformed workers roust to fling themselves up hallways or down fire poles, racing for the plows.

The truth is a lot less dramatic.

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“We’ll typically monitor the weather, and look at a couple of different sources,” Joe Spah, the street maintenance manager for St. Paul Public Works, told me this week. “We’ll watch those, go through a composite of information, and take a look to see what the expectation is. And we make a determination and watch like everyone else.”

St. Paul subscribes to a few commercial weather services, in addition to the usual suspects like the National Weather Service, and together these models offer a semblance of predication for an impending storm.

“As we anticipate weather approaching, we’ll be out anti-icing with our brine trucks,” Spah calmly explained to me. “We’re evaluating conditions and doing any kind of prep to the equipment. As the precipitation develops, we’ll switch over to light application of rock salt if we need to. Or go straight to plowing if the accumulation precipitates fast enough.”

I never did get an exact answer about who, specifically, has the finger on the “snow emergency” button. Typically, if there are 3 inches or more of snowfall that starts building up, the director of public works sends a snow emergency recommendation to the mayor’s office, and someone there makes the decision.

(My suspicion is that both Minneapolis and St. Paul leaders eye each other warily during snowstorms, and key figures might even keep in touch. Nobody wants to be the one city to declare a premature emergency, but neither do you want to be seen sitting on your snowplow hands.)

Courtesy of the City of St. Paul
Saint Paul makes its brine (a preemptive salt solution) in house, and buys its road salt from Cargill.

The truth is, though, that from the city perspective, removing snow from the streets in the winter is a relatively steady job. St. Paul’s street maintenance department has 55 daytime and 17 nighttime staff, with a “handful” on the weekends. During an emergency many of them might do overtime, but most of the time they simply work steadily on keeping streets clear, regardless of the meteorological DEFCON.

As Spah explained it to me, there’s pre-snow de-icing (using a brine, more affordable than rock salt), the emergency period itself (either two or three days, depending on the city), followed by a long list of plowing priorities that eventually include key bus stops and street corners. During dry winters, staff works on potholes or larger patching activities (creepily called “skin paving”). Then there’s spring sweeping season, chip-sealing season, mill and overlay season, fall sweeping, and we’re back to the watchful winter: the four seasons of asphalt.

MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
During dry winters, staff works on potholes or larger patching activities.

The emergence of the snow emergency

The other hidden truth of the “snow emergency” is that it’s actually not about snow. It’s about parking. Suburbs, where street parking is as rare as a January bikini, don’t have terms for “snow emergency” because parking restrictions stay in place all winter long.

“Because cars have to park on the street, it’s more about solving a parking problem than it is about a plowing problem,” Mike Kennedy, Minneapolis’ director of transportation maintenance and repair, told me. “The plowing part of it is easy, but we need a set of orderly rules for people to move their cars out of the way.”

In fact, the term “snow emergency” is common mostly in the “snow belt” states, and then only in places that offer a balance between cold weather and middling snowfall. I found the term in use in cities in Minnesota, North Dakota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Nebraska, Massachusetts (Pittsfield), and (surprisingly to me) Washington, D.C.

In other places where snow is either more or less frequent, the term “emergency” never appears. Winnipeg, Manitoba, for example, which tackles its worst winters with remarkable Canadian pragmatism (i.e. they have no skyways), simply refers to “annual snow route parking bans.” Denver uses regular weekly parking restrictions, rather than specific snow-related rules. Seattle has rare “snow events” (that lead to major problems for unsuspecting drivers). Buffalo, New York, on the other hand, which gets twice the amount of snow as the Twin Cities because of the “lake effect” of Lake Erie, also keeps its parking restrictions in place all season long.

“Compared to other cities, Minneapolis [and St. Paul] are more aggressive about enforcing rules,” Kennedy told me. “Both have snow emergency parking plans. They’re a little bit different, but they accomplish the same thing. The main difference is the parking plan itself. Minneapolis has a three-phase plan.”

(St. Paul, on the other hand, splits its “emergency” period into only two phases: day plow routes and night plow routes, followed by an indefinite period of trying to plow side streets. Back in the early 2000s, Minneapolis explored adopting the simpler St. Paul system, but decided against it.)

“The snow emergency parking plan has changed in Minneapolis a couple of times,” Kennedy told me. “We had an old plan until the ’60s and ’70s based on North-South and East-West and parking and plowing rules, but that changed in 1982-3 after a few huge snow storms.”

The city switched to an “odd-even” system, which initially had included banning parking on one-side of the street all winter long. But after a few years, staff decided to use the single-side ban only in cases of extremely snowy winters.

“We still have it in on the books,” Kennedy told me, referring to the occasional wintertime one-side ban.

(The last was the winter of 2013-2014. That was also the winter where St. Paul wielded the single-side ban for the first time in its history.) 

Plowing politics

History is littered with mayors who failed to take plowing seriously, and a major snowfall, handled badly, can break a promising career. Like so much about our infrastructure, nobody notices until it’s broken. We take our roads for granted, until we can’t get around and tempers rise to boiling.

But by viewing snow only through our windshields, I fear we do ourselves a disservice. We forget the joy of snow that is such a strong childhood instinct. We often wind up distancing our bodies and souls from winter’s positive potential.

I suppose it’s naive, but I sometimes wish that we could be less moralistic about the weather. Winter isn’t bad, and summer isn’t good; rather, they make for beautiful contrast, and snow can be a tremendous joy if you don’t have to drive in it. The world slows down with the traffic, sound doesn’t travel as far, skylines fade as sightlines shrink, and the contrast of white on a tree branch or gable is the kind of thing that warms a painter’s heart.

In my head, next time I hear about a “snow emergency,” I’m simply going to think of it as a “snow emergence.” No sense in being overly dramatic.