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D.C. mayor blasted for woes of slow snowplowing

Gil Leisher with Maryland Parking digs out a snowed-in car in a parking lot at Baltimore's airport Thursday.
Gil Leisher with Maryland Parking digs out a snowed-in car in a parking lot at Baltimore's airport Thursday.
Rob Carr, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The mayor of the nation's capital and other politicians are feeling the heat for not moving faster to clear the streets of snow after the historic back-to-back blizzards that slammed the East Coast.

"Right now I'm miserable. We still can't get out," said Carolyn Ward, who serves on a neighborhood commission in Washington. "If they had a plan, it wasn't a good one."

In Washington, which was blanketed with about 18 inches of snow over the weekend and 10 more on Tuesday and Wednesday, residents complained that snow removal by Mayor Adrian Fenty's administration seemed arbitrary, with some streets plowed numerous times, others not at all. At one point, 25 percent of the city's snowplows were out of commission, having broken down on the hard snow, officials said.

Politicians heard similar complaints about slow or haphazard snow removal in Pittsburgh, Baltimore and outlying areas of Maryland.

How quickly the elected officials get rid of the stuff could determine their political futures, a hard lesson learned over the years by some big-city mayors.

"Snow, politically, in Washington — in most places — is a very high-stake poker game," said former Washington Mayor Marion Barry, now a city councilman. He was heavily criticized in 1987 for vacationing in California during the Super Bowl as snowstorms paralyzed his city for five days. "People are very emotional about snow."

A Washington Examiner editorial Thursday declared, "Mayor Fenty fails the snow test," noting that stores and other businesses that rely on private snow removal services cleared their property more quickly than the city did.

Some of the City Council's 13 members have been critical as well, saying they will hold a hearing to examine the city's response. Councilman Phil Mendelson criticized the mayor's numerous news conferences, saying the plows that were employed to clear his route could have been put to better use.

The mayor, whose job approval rating was already in the 40s in a Washington Post poll in January, told The Hill newspaper that he will try to improve snow removal by expanding agreements with private contractors and keeping equipment better maintained.

"I'd say give us another 24 hours. You'll probably see a lot of normal operations of government. Then we have a nice, long weekend and the city should be back on its feet by Tuesday," the mayor said on CBS' "Early Show."

Some politicians took responsibility for the problems but also emphasized the historic nature of the snowstorms. This is now the snowiest winter on record in Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia.

"This would overwhelm any city, anywhere, in terms of residential streets," said Washington Councilman Jim Graham.

In Pittsburgh, which received close to 2 1/2 feet of snow from the two storms, some people complained that poorly plowed roads had kept them stuck inside for days. Mayor Luke Ravenstahl admitted the city could have dealt better with its 2,000 miles of roads.

"We'll analyze the work that we did and we'll see what we can change next time," Ravenstahl said. "But next time might be another 10 or 15 years."

Others took a less conciliatory tone.

"Stop already with the 'scrape my street down to the pavement,'" a frustrated Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley said Wednesday, noting that crews could not instantly clear away 3 feet of snow.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who took office just a week ago and has been dealing with storms ever since, announced via Twitter on Monday that 72 percent of the city's secondary roads had been plowed at least once. That prompted a flurry of incredulous retweets.

"Being a public servant means taking criticism, both positive and negative. I try to glean from all of it some constructive points and keep moving forward," Rawlings-Blake said Thursday. Baltimore got a total of nearly 3 feet of snow.

Lauren Ciurca, a law student at the University of Maryland, lives on a narrow side street in a Baltimore neighborhood that had not been plowed Thursday afternoon, but she said the city was doing a good job overall.

"I wouldn't fault or herald the mayor either way," he said.

But Rayseen Woodland, a computer project manager who lives in Washington, complained that the nation's capital did not seem to have a strategy or proper equipment. She gave the mayor a C-plus.

"On my street, they tend to come up here and get stuck," she said. "Then they don't come back for a while."

Politicians are facing the added challenge of finding the money to pay for it all. Many snow removal budgets were tapped even before the second blizzard hit.

Eleanor Holmes Norton, Washington's representative in Congress, asked the federal government to help the city cover its costs.

The political stakes could be high for some public officials.

In Chicago, Michael Bilandic's botched handling of a 1979 blizzard gave political neophyte Jane Byrne ammunition for a surprise victory in the Democratic primary. And Denver Mayor William McNichols was ousted after a slow response to a storm that brought 2 feet of snow to his city in 1982. Some streets were blocked for days.

"Snowstorms scare mayors for good reason," Norton said. But she added: "They probably get a pass this time because no one is able to measure them against anything we've ever experienced."