Portland Transportation Commissioner Dan Saltzman has promised to conduct a full review of the city’s response to three snow and ice storms that brought Portland to a standstill and closed schools for nine days so far this winter.
He said he will review the city’s policy of not salting roads and not plowing residential streets. Saltzman said he also wants to see if the city can tap into more private-sector resources in the event of major storms.
Saltzman took over the transportation bureau just two weeks ago when Mayor Ted Wheeler took office. Here’s how he answered OPB reporter Amelia Templeton’s questions about the city’s response to the storms:
Q&A with Portland Transportation Commissioner Dan Saltzman
Amelia Templeton: How would you describe the state of the city’s streets?
Dan Saltzman: I think our major arterials are in pretty good shape. Residential streets are still buried in snow.
AT: I’m hearing from people on social media that a number of streets that the city considers arterials — Hawthorne, Division, Sandy — still have a considerable amount of ice on them. Are you aware of that?
DS: We’re hearing from a lot of people about the conditions of our streets. We plow to about an inch. We leave snow on the streets intentionally because I’m told if we scrape to bare pavement and then it rains like it’s doing now, it just becomes a worse problem in terms of black ice.Leaving some amount of snow on the road helps to provide traction. That’s what I’ve been told. I’ve been in charge of the Bureau of Transportation for two weeks now.
Our transportation maintenance workers are working around the clock and are exhausted. They’re still showing up for work, and they’re working 12-hour shifts, around the clock, during these major snow events.
We’re very much in the moment. We’ve had three significant events in the last two weeks. So, there’s probably things we can do better, but I can’t articulate those at the moment.
AT: There is a fair amount of public fury about the state of the roads, but we all recognize that these types of events are rare for the city. Does that create a staffing or equipment issue?
DS: If we were Chicago or Minneapolis, we would have a very different fleet at our disposal for snow or ice events.
One of the things I am openly thinking about is are we going to see more frequent and severe winter related events? If that’s the case, how do we staff up for those major events, without necessary adding significantly to our capacity.
Can we have contacts for private sector plows and ice removal at our disposal, so we can call them in a pinch? We’ve sort of done that in this event, but we haven’t done that on a comprehensive basis. That’s one of the things I’m going to look at: How can we staff up for peak events without necessarily increasing the size of the city government that much.
These events are not isolated to Oregon. It seems like we’re seeing more frequent severe winter events. Climate change, that’s definitely something on my mind.
AT: What would you say is an acceptable time frame for the city to get streets cleared following a major storm?
DS: : Do you mean arterials? We don’t plow residential streets, although that’s something I want to evaluate. Is there a point at which we do turn our resources to certain residential streets? There are a lot of residential streets that come awful close to being an arterial but are not classified as such. That’s one of the things I want to look at.
What is an adequate time frame? We just witnessed a significant snow event that we haven’t seen in decades. We’re working around the clock to keep the roads clear, to keep them sanded and graveled and de-iced. I guess I honestly don’t know what the right time frame is. I just don’t know enough yet to tell you.
AT: School districts make their own decisions about when to close, but what responsibility does the city have for making sure that children have clear routes to school?
DS: To the extent that the clear routes to school constitute arterial streets we have an obligation to get them cleared as open as best we can. It doesn’t include plowing parking lots for schools or property on school grounds themselves.
AT: Do you think the city bears some responsibility for the schools having remained closed for nine days?
DS: I think the weather has responsibility for the schools being closed for nine days. I don’t think the city, per se, is at fault for the schools being closed for this duration. It’s the weather. I realize people are very frustrated and at a boiling point with respect for this weather, but I don’t think pointing fingers at us or at the school district necessarily gets us anywhere.
AT: I want to press you on that. I read the city’s Snow Plan. I read it quickly, but there seemed to be almost no mention of schools in the city’s snow plan. That surprised me.
DS: I haven’t looked at it that closely myself. I’ve looked at it, but I didn’t notice that. It’s a fair question. We need to be working with school districts to make sure that kids can get to schools safely. And as part of our evaluation of what we can do better, that’s a good point.
AT: Have you thought about this as a test run for what would happen in a more serious emergency, like an earthquake?
DS: Yes. It’s a good harbinger of how we need to be more prepared for more specific events than what we see right now. I think the city is evolving in our need to respond to major emergencies. I think one of the reasons we’re getting better is because we’re mobilizing more often.
We need to be training better for future emergency events.
AT: Was there anything, in terms of how the city prepares, for the Cascadia earthquake in particular?
DS: No, other than how helpless we are, how it doesn’t take much to paralyze the city.
With respect to the storm, I do promise that there is going to be a thorough evaluation of our response and what we can do differently.