Washington Shut Down by Snow, Again

The capital of the free world should not be forced to close for snow: D.C. desperately seeking "flinty Chicago toughness."

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By Julia Piscitelli, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Monday is a "snow day" for the federal government in the Washington, D.C., area. The closing is a result of Saturday's blizzard that dumped a record 24 inches of snow in many parts of the area. I live here, and the U.S. Office of Personnel Management made the right decision. But it is a decision that should not be necessary. It is Monday, the snowfall was Friday night and Saturday—a weekend—and 36 hours after the snow stopped falling, 300,000 federal employees still can't get to work.

The District of Columbia and the neighboring municipalities in Virginia and Maryland are simply not prepared to handle snow, from a predicted dusting to an actual storm. Frankly, they do not handle rain well here either, but that's a different story. In my 13 years living here, I have seen the region crippled by only a few inches of snow. Why? Because the municipalities do not have nearly enough equipment to clear and salt the streets.

President Obama's hometown of Chicago is a good contrast. Between the City of Chicago, the Illinois Department of Transportation, and suburban municipality resources, well over 1,000 snow removal vehicles can be mobilized on the streets of Chicagoland. The District of Columbia manages snow better than most of the neighboring municipalities in Maryland and Virginia simply because of the city's size. It can afford to purchase a large fleet of vehicles. But the smaller, neighboring municipalities in Maryland and Virginia are where most federal employees live (more than anywhere in the country). And those municipalities are woefully unequipped to handle snow or ice. If those streets are not cleared, hundreds of thousands of federal employees can not get off their own block to get into work. Even if they get off their block, Metro closed down all but one above-ground station on Saturday because there is not adequate snow removal equipment for the above-ground tracks. As of Sunday night, all but two of the above-ground stations remained closed. Granted, the Washington, D.C., area receives a fraction of the snowfall that cities like Chicago, New York, or Boston do in any given year, and one can make the argument that our climate doesn't warrant keeping and maintaining a large fleet of snow removal equipment, but none of those cities are the capital of the free world.

The last closure of the federal government was January 28th of this year when the area was crippled by freezing rain. In a press conference that day, President Obama had some very sharp criticism for the region's handling of the inclement weather. The president said, "My children's school was canceled today. Because of, what? Some ice. As my children pointed out, in Chicago, school is never canceled. In fact, my seven-year-old pointed out that you'd go outside for recess. You wouldn't even stay indoors. So, I don't know. We're going to have to try to apply some flinty Chicago toughness."

I do have a soft spot for flinty Chicago toughness, as I am married to it, and would love to see President Obama impart that toughness on the managers and officials of D.C. and the surrounding Metro area; but what we really need are more plows and salt trucks to improve, for example, Alexandria's stated 72-hour response time, and get to clearing the streets more quickly. According to John Berry, director of the United States Office of Personnel Management, a one-day closure of the federal government in Washington, D.C., region costs $100 million in productivity and opportunity costs. A heavy-duty 4x4 truck with a plow costs approximately $50,000. You can buy 2,000 plows for the cost of one federal "snow day." The federal government should buy plows and the fleet can either be dispersed among the smaller municipalities in Maryland and Virginia, or be managed like the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (the Metro system), where representatives from D.C., Maryland and Virginia manage the agency. Since the region usually gets hit with at least one storm per year that forces the federal government to shut down (not including Hurricane Newt Gingrich in the winter of 1995-96), the new resources would pay for themselves after the first storm.

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