Ever since Mayor Michael Bilandic lost reelection to Jane Byrne after the great blizzard of 1979 paralyzed Chicago, snowplowing has been a highly political matter in our city.
Richard M. Daley had announced his intention to step down months before the 2011 Snowpocalypse hit in early February. Had he been running again, outrage over the hundreds of half-buried cars and buses that were stuck on Lake Shore Drive for more than 24 hours during that weather event would have been a major problem for him in the election, which took place later that month.
The failure to make Chicago’s snowplows run on time is political suicide nowadays, and as a consequence the city generally does a great, if somewhat obsessive, job of clearing major roads for bus passengers and car drivers. (Not so much for winter bike riders—cyclists have complained that the city’s curbside protected bike lanes, which are plowed by the Chicago Department of Transportation, are often impassable for several days after a snowfall.)
For example, when a storm dumped 8.3 inches on Chicago on the morning of November 26, 1,254 flights were grounded at O’Hare and all Metra commuter rail lines saw delays. But commuters reported that the city’s arterials were in good shape for buses and motorists just a few hours into the workday.
Here at the Reader we were curious about exactly how the city manages to clear the major streets so efficiently after a major snow event. So I checked in with Commissioner John Tully of the Department of Streets and Sanitation, which spearheads plowing efforts on a route system of more than 9,400 lane miles, to get the skinny. Tully started with the department 24 years ago and moved up the ranks until he made department chief a year ago.
Joining us for the conversation were deputy commissioners Cole Stallard and Ray Laureano. As you might expect of seasoned Streets and San workers, all three men talked with a textbook “Bill Swerski’s Superfans”-style Northern Cities Vowel Shift.
According to Tully, preparation for a storm like last month’s starts around July, when reps from Streets and San meet with their counterparts at sister agencies, including the departments of Fleet and Facility Management (F2M), Water, and Transportation, as well as the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications, to strategize.
The city classifies weather events of varying levels of severity by “phases,” and responds with a predetermined number of plows and salt spreaders, Stallard said. He added that determining the phase of a storm isn’t based on hard-and-fast rules, but rather it’s a more qualitative judgement that weighs factors like temperature, precipitation level, and wind speed.
During a mild Phase I event, such as the light snowfall that occured two days after last month’s major storm, 75 to 100 full-sized trucks are dispatched to make sure bridges and overpasses (which freeze and collect snow before surface streets), arterials, and Lake Shore Drive all stay clear.
The early-morning November 26 storm was initially pegged as a Phase II event based on weather forecasts the evening prior, so Streets and San responded by sending out the predetermined 211 trucks. (In addition to tracking storms via Doppler radar and checking in with meteorologists, sensors embedded in roads near eleven Chicago bridges provide data on ground and air temperatures in key locations.)
Later that evening, when more severe weather was predicted, the storm was upgraded to Phase III, with 287 large trucks put on the street, plus 26 pickup trucks for plowing narrow side streets. During more intense Phase IV storms, workers from F2M, Water, and Transportation pitch in with plowing efforts. “It’s an all-hands-on-deck situation,” Stallard said.
A Phase V event—the type of severe snowmageddon that has occurred only a few times in the past 20 years, including the 2011 blizzard and major storms in 1999 and 2014— forces the city to hire private contractors for reinforcements.
Streets and San mostly uses old-fashioned sodium chloride road salt. During the polar vortex of early 2014, the region’s salt shortages and price spikes were made worse by frozen waterways that blocked shipments. But Tully said the city later locked in a multiyear price for salt and is getting more deliveries by rail nowadays.
The department also keeps roughly 100,000 gallons of a more environmentally friendly brine-and-beet-juice cocktail on hand to spray on bridges and overpasses. This helps prevent freezing during late fall and early spring, when temperatures often hover around 32 degrees.
Streets and San leads the city’s responses to major storms from “Snow Command” at OEMC’s headquarters, 1411 West Madison. “Each department has a desk, so instead of having to make phone calls to coordinate, [staffers are] sitting right there,” Tully said.
For a plow driver’s eye view, he referred me to Laureano, who worked on snow clearance for 20 years. “I call him ‘Glum,’ if you remember Gulliver’s Travels,” Tully said, referring to the pessimistic Lilliputian from the Jonathan Swift novel. “I’m a positive person, but he always gives me the worst-case scenario for the storm, so I have both ends of it.”
Contrary to his nickname, Laureano spoke glowingly of the job. “As a snowplow driver, there’s a sense of accomplishment when you see a street where people just can’t get through, and when you’re done traffic is flowing like nothing happened.”
However, Tully admitted that the 2011 LSD debacle was not his department’s finest hour. “It was a combination of heavy snow and an accordion bus that got stuck, blocking two lanes.” He added that the problem was exacerbated because the walls between the northbound and southbound lanes prevented the removal of stalled vehicles; nowadays the barriers are removable.
Also embarrassing for Streets and San was a 2015 Chicago Sun-Times investigation of the city’s Plow Tracker data, generated by GPS devices installed on snow trucks, that found that the block where powerful southwest side alderman Ed Burke lives was cleared multiple times after a heavy snowfall, while nearby streets resembled arctic tundra. (On November 29, FBI agents conducted a presumably unrelated raid on Burke’s offices, but as of press time no charges had been filed.)
“I don’t think the whole story’s been told,” Tully said, referring to the plowing scandal. He noted that in recent years a new high school and elementary school opened a few blocks east of Burke’s house on 51st Street, and argued that plow drivers may have been using the street as a turnaround. “I don’t think we had anything to hide there.”
But Tully acknowledged that snowplowing—or, in Bilandic’s case, the lack of it—has political ramifications. “Residents hold their elected officials accountable,” he said. “Most of the time it’s for things that inconvenience them. . . . But I think that if [Streets and San workers] worry about public safety, which is our main concern, the rest will take care of itself.” v
John Greenfield edits the transportation news website Streetsblog Chicago.