Saco Public Works: A long and difficult winter

(from Maine Townsman, April 2005)
By Lee Burnett, Freelance Writer

Winter is finally leaving Saco by the bucket and dump truck load. And it won’t be soon enough for snowplow driver Steve Demers.

“If we don’t get another snow, I won’t be sad,” said Demers, a stocky man wearing shirtsleeves and dark glasses on this warmish overcast day in late March. Demers is directing traffic away from a side street in the downtown area and talking above the full-throated roar of the snow removal operation going on behind him. The waist-high snowbanks are being scooped up and deposited in dump trucks faster than leftover wedding cake gets tossed in the trash can. “If we don’t take the snow away, these streets would get real narrow.”

It was a difficult winter for Saco Public Works crews. A succession of big snowstorms blew holes in the budgets for overtime pay and road salt. Along with all the snow, the breakdown of a sidewalk plow slowed the usual cleanup times. The circumstances should have earned the department some leeway, but a citizenry grown accustomed to good service was cutting the department no slack.

“It seemed like we just went through two winters,” said Mike Bolduc, Saco’s public works director. The satisfaction that comes from keeping the roads open was undercut by complaints that the job just wasn’t done quick enough.

“The thrill is gone,” said Bolduc. “The level of complaints wears on you.”

Nowadays, snow removal is as much about meeting rising expectations as it is with keeping up with the storm. In the last two decades, Saco has expanded its snow plowing fleet by 50 percent, expanded snow removal responsibilities in the downtown, and increased the sophistication of its road treatment. And yet, the public is ever more intolerant of the inconveniences of snow.

“People’s expectations are higher,” said Bolduc, former manager of the city’s wastewater treatment plant who took over the top public works job three years ago. “There’s been an incremental evolution. It’s partly us. We say, ‘let’s go out and do a better job’ and then people get to expect that. And they don’t [understand] when we get a bad storm or an equipment breakdown and we can’t deliver service as quickly.”

“Most of the complaints are sidewalks”, Bolduc says. “We just can’t keep up.”

With snowbanks still waist high in late March, the dimensions of the winter are still being tabulated. All told, the city got more than a 100 inches of snow. The plows were sent out at least 14 times. (Bolduc said he has lost exact count.) Six times, storms forced the cancellation of school — once more than budgeted into the school calendar. Surf Street on Camp Ellis, an ocean-front road that perennially washes out, washed out again in early March. Twice, storms qualified the city for federal disaster aid reimbursement.

And in spite of all the weather forecasts at their disposal, winter still found a way to deliver a sneak punch. “We got caught one Friday night,” explained Bolduc. “They were forecasting just a dusting and we got three inches in an hour and a half. I’d gone into Portland for supper and came back and was waiting in traffic on the turnpike. It was just a local storm - Saco, Scarborough, Biddeford.”

The hoods were lifted on a couple of idle dump trucks and a sidewalk plow was partly disassembled, waiting for parts. “If a storm were coming (by nightfall), this place would be hopping by noon,” said Doug Howard, operations manager. “Sanders would be (hitched) back on trucks, as well as wings and plows. They’d be checking brakes and the cutting edge on their plows. This place would be very busy.” Howard and Bolduc had already consulted a slew of forecasts and concluded the storm would miss southern Maine.

On the day the TOWNSMAN visited, a crew was taking down the snowbanks on a downtown street. Out at Camp Ellis, a Shaw Brothers’ crew with a large bucket loader was rebuilding Surf Street. Mechanic Walden Charette obliged a photographer looking for activity by pretending to squirt oil to find a hydraulic oil leak on the sidewalk plow.

The efficiency of Saco’s snow clearing operation is a far cry from what it was as recently as 20 years ago, says Saco Mayor Mark Johnston. “First of all, employees are no longer guys who came out of the bar.” (Public works managers, according to Johnston, would literally go into local barrooms and offer patrons temporary jobs).

“Our employees are better educated, and they have to be. They’re responsible for quarter of a million dollar machines,” said Johnston. Snowplow drivers are now full-time public works employees. Where once routes were divvied up informally, now they are assigned to particular drivers who get trained on them. For example: “He’ll know if a certain mailbox doesn’t meet federal regulations, he’ll try to pull his blade closer in so he doesn’t hit it.”

As recently as the mid-1980s, it would take a week to clear sidewalks. “When I was a kid — I grew up downtown — we had snow on the sidewalks from one storm to the next. Now, they expect sidewalks to be immediately plowed, which is not possible,” said Johnston. “No ice, no snow, down to bare brick.”

Snowbanks used to crowd the streets all winter long, impairing visibility and safety, but now they’re removed not just from the main downtown arteries, but sidestreets as well.

Removing the snowbanks coincided with elimination of the night-time parking ban, explained Johnston. “We changed policy to allow on-street parking at night. More and more people were living downtown, more and more autos. People expect to be able to get out of their autos on both sides, which means you can’t have snowbanks.”

The public works department’s mission has expanded over time, partly from additional responsibility for new roads. Construction of new subdivisions, the ending of contract plowing by private drivers in the rural section of North Saco, and the transfer of authority for state roads to locals have all added new mileage to plow routes. The city now plows 120 miles of roads - which includes state roads Route 1, Route 5 and Route 112. (State roads were turned over to “urban compact” communities in exchange for a reimbursement schedule that Bolduc said doesn’t pay the full cost).

But the city’s fleet of equipment has expanded even faster than new road responsibilities and is probably 50 percent larger than 20 years ago, according to Johnston. Saco deploys up to 26 employees during storms — driving 11 trucks, three loaders, three one-ton trucks, and two sidewalk plows.

The city has no formal policy on how much snow merits plowing, though a forecast of even an inch and a half of snow is enough to get the plows out most times. It depends on how much melting is expected after snow falls.

“In the middle of winter and inch and a half will get packed right down if it doesn’t get scraped off,” said Howard. “If the temperatures stay warm the next few days and we get under two inches, we wouldn’t scrape it.” Storms don’t always hit Saco uniformly. “It could be raining at Camp Ellis and in north Saco, it’s snowing to beat the band,” said Bolduc.

Curious about how other parts of the country handle snow, Bolduc checked policies in Wisconsin and Minnesota and was surprised at their more laid back approach. “They don’t get the trucks out until there’s two inches on the ground,” said Bolduc. “You’d get hung if you even tried that here.”

By labor contract, the city requires no more than 32 continuous hours behind the wheel. “They can volunteer to stay out longer,” said Howard. “We try to give them breaks, especially between 1 and 3 a.m. when traffic has died down. The guys are good about staying up with the storm. We like them to do their route once before they take a coffee break.”

He said a macho ethic is not embraced by all. “It varies, some handle the hours better than others.” The city’s approach has grown more systematized and sophisticated, beginning with its use of weather forecasts.

Not only does the department receive by e-mail a targeted forecast from Precision Weather Service in Portland, but the city subscribes to Meteorologics, a satellite weather service that provides radar glimpses of a storm’s approach every five minutes. “We use that to time the beginning and the end of the storm,” said Howard.

City crews use more salt and less sand than previously, particularly where traffic is heavier in the downtown area. “In north Saco, we use more sand. You need traffic to work the salt,” said Howard. “Environmentally, there are ups and downs. The less sand you put down, the less you have to pick up.”

The city also has begun to wet the salt before application. “It prevents the salt from bouncing into the gutters,” said Bolduc.

The city is also experimenting with a magnesium chloride solution to pre-treat the roads in advance of a storm. “It helps prevent the snow from sticking. And gets you down to black pavement quicker,” said Bolduc. But the jury is still out in Saco. “It’s kind of up in the air. Some of the crews don’t think it works at all. Others think it’s a great thing. You need a good road to start with and you apply it four to eight hours before the storm. It’s a little bit expensive.” At 99 cents per gallon, it runs to about $600 for each treatment. “Next year, we plan to work with different application rates. I’m not sure we were putting out enough to make a noticeable difference,” said Bolduc.

By far the most vexing challenge for the department is dealing with an ever more demanding public. The department tries to head off complaints by publishing its priorities for snow removal on the city’s website. But every storm brings its share of complaints about mailboxes getting knocked down or sidewalks not plowed. Howard is usually the first to hear.

“I monitor radio traffic and take complaints at the shop. I’m usually there throughout the storm... If a truck goes down, we’ll shift routes around.”

Every complaint gets a response, said Howard. “I’ve gotten calls: ‘I’ve got a doctor’s appointment, can you make sure my road’s plowed?’ I’ll call the driver and see if the road’s passable or when he’ll be through there again. Certainly, if we get rescue calls we try to do the best we can.”

Nowadays, more complaints are registered about sidewalks than roads. The department has 28 miles of sidewalks and tries to plow all within a mile of a school.

Not everyone feels obliged to hunker down at home to wait out the storm. “There is a segment of the population that wants to be able to get out even during a storm,” said Bolduc.

His patience was sorely tested this winter by the memorable cellphone call from a morning commuter stuck behind two plows on Route One. It’s policy for two trucks to plow in tandem on four-lane Route One so the snow gets all the way to the edge of the road. “ The caller complained: ‘I can’t believe you’re causing me a delay in my commute’. I tried to explain that we’ve got to plow in tandem for safety reasons. I think I told him we’re trying to schedule the storms around his commute.”

Bolduc also gets pressure from downtown merchants and the US Postal Service about sidewalks. “We’re out there during the storm, but it may take the sidewalk plows two or three days to get all the sidewalks open.”

“For the time being, if it’s snowing, I’ve gotta plow. The finances, we worry about later.”

There was some re-evaluation of priorities as a result of the debate over last year’s referendum on a statewide property tax cap. “We talked about how we’d cut back service [if Palesky had passed]. Maybe we’d have to change, maybe we’d only do arterials during the storm and get to the other roads after. There’s a cost to that [high level of service].” But the defeat of the referendum confirmed to Bolduc that people prefer high service to lower taxes. “Certainly, the public - at least right now — is willing to pay. May be a time in the future when they’ll want to cut taxes.” Until then, Bolduc won’t change his high-level-of-service approach. “It’s safe to say, we can’t change what we’re doing unless there’s momentum from the public to constrain finances,” said Bolduc.

Right now, the quality of service is an entirely subjective thing, and town-by-town comparisons are very difficult. But Bolduc envisions the day when snow plowing can be objectively measured. “We’re looking into performance measures,” said Bolduc.

It has begun with computerized application of road salt. It costs $4,000 to $5,000 to retrofit a truck, but the savings in reduced waste is substantial. “It allows us to more carefully meter out the salt,” said Bolduc. Bolduc expects all trucks will be retrofitted within a half dozen years.

The department can also measure plowing costs per lane mile. Eventually, other performance measures will be developed, Bolduc said. “I’m not saying it would be easy (to compare communities). But if you could come up with a standard, it would be good.”

For now, there’s still this winter to get through. The catch basins are full of sand and spring cleanup looms. “There’s lawns to repair and mailboxes to replace. I’ve got a long list,” said Howard.