Snow piles up outside the Mt Jumbo gym building in Douglas on Dec. 28. (Dana Zigmund/Juneau Empire)

Snow removal debate sparks a flurry of comments

Resident asks city crews to stop blocking driveways

This story has been updated to clarify the cost of removing snow berms within 48 hours.

An online petition about snow removal and driveway berms caused by city plowing crews has sparked a flurry of debate, attracted more than 400 signatures and sparked hundreds of comments on social media this week.

City officials say that removing driveway snow berms could cost the city millions of dollars.

Petition organizer Ed King told the Empire he hopes the signature drive leads to a more robust funding discussion.

King said he started the petition on change.org about three weeks ago to ask the City and Borough of Juneau to adjust snow removal tactics to prevent snow from blocking private driveways.

“I was just a little frustrated with it and dealing with it. I was talking to some neighbors, and we agreed it’s a big burden,” King said in a phone interview Tuesday morning, as the petition was trending on the Juneau Community Collective Facebook page.

King said that snow removal is a problem every year but that heavy snowfalls this season have exacerbated the situation and prompted him to draft the petition.

The petition reads: “The city road crews clear the snow from the public roads and sidewalks differently between the districts. In the downtown district, the snow is pushed to the center of the road and removed from the area. However, in the Mendenhall Valley district, the snow is pushed into private driveways. Consequently, Valley district taxpayers are blocked into their homes by large berms across their driveway.”

City officials did not immediately respond to messages from the Empire about the petition. However, earlier this month, they said that the city’s snow removal policy is the same for the Mendenhall Valley and downtown areas.

Early last week, Katie Koester, director of the CBJ Engineering and Public Works Department, told the Public Works and Facilities Committee members that several factors make snow removal efforts challenging but that the city works hard to clear snow quickly and safely.

“Operators are working around the clock during snow events to keep roads open,” she said.

King said he was aware of Koester’s presentation but missed it because the Zoom link was not working that day. He said that he’s exchanged emails with a few members of the City Assembly but has not talked directly with anyone from the city’s Engineering and Public Works department.

During the presentation, Koester said that some of the strategies employed downtown, such as stacking snow into a center berm, don’t lend themselves to the terrain in the valley.

“While center berm plowing appears to be an effective practice, we don’t have room on most CBJ streets to push snow to the middle of the road,” Koester said in her memo. “It also provides for awkward and dangerous traffic flow if there are no breaks in the berm for driveways. Center berm plowing, in the Mendenhall Valley area, in particular, can create problems for emergency vehicle access.”

City crews remove snow near 4th and E Streets in Douglas on Monday, Dec. 20. (Dana Zigmund/Juneau Empire)

City crews remove snow near 4th and E Streets in Douglas on Monday, Dec. 20. (Dana Zigmund/Juneau Empire)

King said using different strategies leads to different outcomes. His petition continues:

“This is inequitable treatment among taxpayers and causes physical and financial harm. It disenfranchises people with disabilities, the elderly, and those without the means to pay for private plowing services. Residents are unduly burdened with the laborious and time-consuming task of clearing the city’s responsibilities that are shifted onto the private property – regularly blocking access to public roads and causing economic damage to people trying to get to work.”

King said that in retrospect, he “worded the petition poorly” and was not trying to imply that city plow drivers aren’t doing their jobs or treat different areas of the city differently purposefully.

“I was just trying to point out that for those of us in areas that don’t get that service, part of our tax dollars are supporting a service we don’t get,” he said, adding that once the petition started to circulate, he was not able to update the wording for greater clarity.

“I hope nobody thinks I’m accusing anyone of not doing the job or doing something poorly,” he said.

King added that many people face physical issues that make snow removal more difficult or don’t have the financial means to pay a private party to remove driveway snow.

[Snow many issues]

Labor woes

During the presentation, Koester pointed to labor availability as one of the city’s primary challenges to remove snow. She said crews are smaller than they were a decade ago because a series of budget cuts have trimmed staff numbers.

Koester said that a crew of 32 people was available to help with snow removal 10 years ago. Now, the crew includes 19 people. She said many of the staff cuts affected seasonal workers.

Koester told committee members that the city’s goal is to remove snow and clear berms within 48 hours. But, significant snowfalls on consecutive days make the task difficult.

King said he’s sympathetic to the labor issue but the city needs to revisit the topic to see if labor can be increased.

“It gets confused on social media,” King said. “No one is asking the city to plow our driveway. We just want them to stop moving it into our driveway and that’s something for the government to decide. To have everyone do it individually is not cost-free.”

Clearing driveways

In a memo to the committee before the meeting, Koester said that preliminary calculations to clear driveway berms show the job is an enormous undertaking–costing the city “upwards of $1.9 million annually for labor plus a substantial investment in additional equipment.” She said the estimate did not include costs for fleet maintenance or factor other costs into the calculation.

She said the entire annual streets budget is about $5.8 million.

“Many Juneau driveways are spaced so closely, there is very little room to put the snow (which is why homeowners are asked to shovel their snow onto their yard and not back into the right of way). These tight quarters make snow removal time-consuming,” she said in the memo.

She said that city staff members estimate that CBJ has about 5,000 driveways adjacent to city streets and that assuming it takes 10 minutes to clear each driveway berm, it would total 835 hours of work. She said that with two 8‐hour shifts per day, it would take eight operators working 13 days to clear all the driveway berms.

“Obviously, it is not useful to wait days to have your berm cleared,” she said. “In order to clear the berms from every driveway within 48 hours, assuming there isn’t another snow event, a separate crew of 36 operators and 18 additional pieces of equipment would be needed.”

[Volunteers help birds soar again]

More discussion needed

“The real issue is in the budget. They need more resources for better service and the community needs to decide if they want to pay for better service,” King said, noting that he’d like to see the finance committee discuss the streets budget to decide if more funds should be added.

“I’d like them to have a meaningful conversation,” King said. “I fully appreciate the work that people out there plowing do, and I don’t want to suggest anything otherwise.”

After Koester’s presentation to the committee, Assembly member Carole Triem, who chairs the finance committee, agreed to examine the manner during the city’s upcoming budget discussions.

More snow expected

Juneau-based National Weather Service Meteorologist Nicole Ferrin said that forecasts for the weekend are still being refined. But, she said current models predict a significant snow event starting Friday and continuing into Saturday.

“We already have significant snow on the ground,” she said, noting that adding more snow will likely make driveway snow removal more difficult because places to put the snow are limited.

She said that record cold air will follow the storm and that no thawing events appear in the current forecast.

Contact reporter Dana Zigmund at dana.zigmund@juneauempire.com or 907-308-4891.

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