December 12, 2009 9:10 AM
I struggled home Thursday night down the snow and ice-caked streets. My normal 15 minute commute took more than twice as long even long after rush hour. And when I got home I found my property tax bill, including a letter from myself, in the mail. I've had better evenings.
Look, it's no secret that the arterial streets of Madison are in bad shape right now and I take responsibility for it. I made a conscious decision during the height of the storm about mid-day Wednesday to trade improved arterial streets for faster plowing of the residential streets. Here's why I made that choice.
As we managed the response to the storm from the Emergency Operations Center late Wednesday morning, we had to make a decision. We could pull 30 pieces of equipment from our general plowing operation and move them to salting operations on the arterials. We had to make the decision quickly because salt doesn't work below about 15 degrees, and we knew the temperature would plummet later in the afternoon. After consulting with managers around the table I decided to stay with the full general plowing operation. My reasoning was that the arterials were good enough for emergency vehicles to get through while the residential streets, where people who need our help live, were still clogged. We were getting many reports of chest pains and injuries from snowblowers, and there were tree limbs and power lines down in multiple locations. It seemed to me that getting all the streets to a passable condition was more important than getting the arterials down to bare pavement for the next morning's commute. Another consideration was the windrows at the bottom of your driveway. If we had plowed later in the day the windrows would have frozen up before many residents could clear them, leaving a pile of jagged concrete snow to be removed by jackhammer or dynamite.
As it turned out, while we expected slippery conditions on the arterials the next day, they were much worse than I expected. That's probably because the temperature was warmer during the snowfall and the snow was wetter than expected so when it froze, it bound to the pavement. Sand and the Ice Slicer product that was supposed to work down to zero degrees didn't perform as hoped.
I should point out that the condition of the arterials has nothing to do with our salt reduction policy. The arterials are always salted. Salt just doesn't work at these low temperatures. Our only hope was to get salt on the streets early enough on Wednesday while the temperatures were warm enough. We didn't do that because of my decision to get the residential streets done as quickly as possible instead.
So, it's a hard lesson learned that we'll keep in mind for the next storm. In the meantime, warmer temperatures and sun will allow us to salt with good results this weekend. By later today or Sunday things should be much better.
As for me, as is always the case after big storms, I got dozens of calls and emails to my office (many using the language of passion and enthusiasm) reminding me that Michael Bilandic lost an election as mayor of Chicago because of a snow storm. Many callers actually get it wrong, citing Jane Byrne instead. But it was Byrne who defeated Bilandic over the issue, and she turned out to be a pretty mediocre mayor herself.
But Bilandic wasn't a bad guy or a bad mayor. During his term he brought peace to a number of union disputes, expanded Chicago's recreational trail system and created ChicagoFest and the Chicago Marathon. He even ran the marathon and finished in four hours, which is a very respectable time. After he was defeated as mayor, he went on to get elected to the Illinois Supreme Court where he finished his career as Chief Justice. But his name has now become synonymous with a politician's defeat over a single issue or misstep. I can only take comfort with the thought that "Cieslewiczed" is just not likely to catch on.