Snow job

Sam Smith, 2003 – This is issue is coming to you from the emergency center of the Progressive Review, just six blocks from the U.S. Capitol, where – more than two days after the snow started falling – the major arterial of East Capitol Street has yet to be plowed.

Your editor has spent much of this holiday weekend searching in vain for the “massive snow storm” promised him by Channel 5. In fact, the best I could come up with – absent cheating by measuring drifts – was a moderately impressive 13″ in my back yard.

Anyway, the problem with snow in Washington is not the precipitation but the difficulty in removing it. Some years back, when Marion Barry was mayor and I was not yet on the Washington Post’s blacklist, I was asked by the paper to write an Outlook section piece about a recent storm. I decided to compare Washington’s snow removal with that of another town I knew well, Freeport, Maine. As it turned out, Freeport had one percent of Washington’s population but ten percent of its road mileage. If memory serves, Freeport did the job with five trucks while it took 150 in DC – or three times as many per mile.

In the most recent storm the figure for DC was up to 300 trucks with plows although the city’s geography hasn’t expanded in the interval. This would mean that it now takes six times as many trucks per mile to clean a Washington street than it took to clean a Freeport road a decade ago.

Admittedly things are a bit simpler in Freeport and there are not as many cars parked where they shouldn’t be. Further the pace is decidedly slower. I once got a call from the local highway director who wanted a meeting. I invited him over for coffee and after a half hour of discussing the interesting irrelevancies of day he laid out his problem: would I mind if he cut a few alders that were blocking the view around a curve?

Still, a road is a road and snow is snow whether they’re in Washington or Maine. Something else has definitely happened over both time and space to make it much harder to plow a path – and it isn’t the weather.

My suspicion is that snowplowing, like everything else in this fair city, is being over-managed. That would explain a snow plow going down a street with a supervisor’s pickup truck ahead or three plows moving ad seriatim down an already well plowed street. Fortunately, however, the mayor was in Puerto Rico when the storm broke so he didn’t have time for his normal response to crisis: which would have been to call a ‘town meeting’ to seek input on outputting the snow.

There is at least six degrees of separation between DC’s winter practices and the small town plowers given 20 or 30 miles to clear and not to come back until it’s done. It is not that the latter are more competent, it is just that their local governments have more trust in their competency so the whole operation is much simpler.

As in public education and other government matters, we are spending enormous sums to make sure nothing goes wrong but in fact are just increasing the number of people able to screw things up.

There are certain jobs that do not lend themselves to the bureaucratic pyramid – they are jobs in which employees carry most of the capacity for good or evil in their own skill, judgment and ethical standards. Jobs like teaching school, patrolling a beat, or plowing a street. Training makes them better; bureaucratic systems rarely do.

It is something that Washington doesn’t understand at all, which is why I will remain in the Review’s emergency center save for an occasional visit to the Congress Market or Jimmy T’s grill until it all blows over.

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