Monday, March 17, 2014


Happy Saint Patrick's Day!  And to celebrate, Four Corners is cleaning from yet another snowfall.

This winter had been a rough one for the D.C. area.  While we have not gotten the same volume of snow as 2010/2011, the number and frequency of snowstorms this season has been greater than any other in recent memory.  This mean tons (literally) of salt, sand, and brine have been distributed onto local roads almost a dozen times this winter.  After reading about how Montgomery County spent $25 million on snow removal and road treatment this winter (greatly surpassing the $9.1 million set aside in the budget), I asked the following question: was all of that really necessary?

The streets are full of salt and sand from the multiple snowstorms this winter.  The sand that is not washed into local streams will be swept up in April.  Photo by the author.    

I've always found snow removal to be puzzling.  Governments and businesses spend millions on it, and it is so unpredictable (in an area like ours) that it is almost impossible to accurately budget for.  The odd part is that a ton of money gets spent on something that will disappear within a couple days anyways.  I'm not saying we should have no snow removal whatsoever, but I've wondered if it is worth the amount of money it costs, and if it is a prudent use of limited funds.

The main reason for getting streets cleared promptly is to enable people to get to their jobs and school.  But is getting that one day of work or school worth all of the money spent to achieve it?

In an area like Four Corners, where most people have office-type jobs that could be done from home if absolutely necessary, is it that important to get the streets cleared right away?

Say you run the Montgomery County Department of Transportation.  You have to spend a lot of money to perform a major snow clearing operation, including mobilizing 175 vehicles and 200 employees.
You have to pay for the salt, sand, and brine, all of which can't be cheap.  You have to pay for the fuel in the trucks, and the wear and tear caused by driving them around in cold weather (cold weather and mechanized vehicles do not mix well).  The biggest cost, however, is the personnel costs associated with the operation.  Employees have to be paid overtime, which is usually more than they are normally paid.  Working the longer shifts during storms is bad for employee health and morale, and fatigue may result in mistakes getting made, which can cause injuries.  This all costs millions of dollars, and this year it happened to cost at least $25 million.

So from the county's standpoint, was it worth it?  Was the tax revenue generated by clearing the snow equal to the cost of doing so?  Could the cost of not clearing the snow; lost commerce, loss of school day(s), etc, actually be less than the cost of removing it?  These questions probably have complex answers, but they are interesting questions to ask.



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