Applying Problem-Solving Techniques to Snow Removal

Using a Systemic Approach and Community Partnership to Make a Growing Region Feel Like a Small Town

By Pamela Kondé, Executive Director, Sosne Kondé Policy Solutions, PLLC

A month has passed since “Jonas Blizzard” or “Snowzilla” fell on January 22-23, 2016, covering northern Virginia with about 30” of snow. Yesterday, Fairfax County government held a “Snow Summit 2016” to review the challenges and find solutions for future snowstorms.

Kudos to Fairfax County and State leaders for their tireless efforts of snow removal, evaluation, and problem solving. Hopefully, they will include some of these recommendations in their work plan.

The Issue – Undue Delays to Plow Neighborhoods

The snow plowing system has improved with every major snowstorm in the Capital region, especially compared to the major snowstorms of 1996 and 2010. Even though more than 95% of its snow removal equipment is privately contracted, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) assures residents that highways and secondary roads will be plowed immediately, and then neighborhoods will be plowed out within 48 hours after each snowstorm ends, at most. Due to earlier mobilization, increased number of plowing equipment, and electronic monitoring, VDOT is generally able to meet those objectives. Despite yeoman’s efforts by VDOT and its private contractors, however, it still took almost 96 hours after the snow ended in January 2016 to create one passable lane on every street in northern Virginia. This is double the amount of time VDOT itself plans after a heavy snowstorm, and days after other states had plowed out completely and returned to full normalcy. Furthermore, some secondary roads were still barely passable a week later, because plows had never returned to plow more than one narrow lane.

As a result, schools around the region were closed for seven days, including a full week after the storm ended. When students did return to school, nine days later, Fairfax County Public Schools were forced to declare a late start. Teachers could not park anywhere, because with only one lane plowed, no curbs were available for street parking near overcrowded schools. Children could not walk safely on sidewalks, even where they were shoveled, because of 5’ piles of icy snow on the corners and bus stops.

There is a meme going around for Virginia when it snows – Keep Calm and Cancel Everything. Is that really the best way to resolve a problem that occurs every single year, albeit at different levels of severity? Northern Virginia is the home of Congress Members, top federal leaders, and their staff. As for the private sector, Tysons Corner’s technology sector contributes to its ranking as the 12th largest employment center in the country (with the 10th largest mall too). The largest suburban school district in the country, Fairfax County Public Schools send almost 190,000 students to school. Due to the January 2016 snow storm, FCPS students missed seven days of school.  Arlington, Alexandria, and Loudoun counties missed similar amounts of school. On average, Fairfax students have missed over eight days of school every year from snow events, enough to qualify them for a state waiver from the “Kings Dominion” law, a law which the Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association asserts would cost $369 million dollars to the state if it were repealed and students could start school earlier in August.

Underlying Problem – Haphazard Plowing System

Critics have contended that the mid-Atlantic region just doesn’t get sufficient snow to justify owning resources and training staff. See January 28, 2016 New York Times article. VDOT has acknowledged that 97% of the 4500 snow removal vehicles it used were private contractors, generally driving landscape trucks fitted with VDOT-approved plows.  Should the Commonwealth of Virginia expend resources for its own equipment that may not be used annually? Wouldn’t that be a wasted cost and a fiscal nightmare in a southern state that rarely gets storms with 2’ of snow?

Alternatively, what if the real, underlying problem was NOT solely about resources, but about how resources were implemented? Evidence suggests that, despite their best efforts, VDOT’s contracted drivers were inexperienced, unsupervised, and failed to follow a systemic approach as they plowed each neighborhood in deep snow.

The Plan:  VDOT’s Northern Virginia Region has delineated its neighborhoods into 650 “snow maps,” with about 350 of them in Fairfax County alone. In a normal snow event, VDOT methodically assigns their VDOT contractors three to five snow map “Neighborhoods” (itemized by number, i.e. Neighborhood #25, with a corresponding map of streets). The contractors are instructed to complete each neighborhood “snow map” and indicate when it is complete. At that point, VDOT inspectors drive to the neighborhood to spot check, ensuring that no streets are missed.

The Implementation:  However, these contractors generally only own the smaller pickup trucks, the ones capable of handling 10”- 12” of snow (maybe 18”). They drive to a neighborhood, provide a “passable” lane on the subdivision’s main thoroughfares, and ignore the more challenging streets (those “hot spots,” such as cul-de-sacs and hills). Often, they haphazardly attempt certain streets or parts of streets, only to get stuck and need time-intensive help from other contractors. Finally, those same contractors drive around and around the same “main thoroughfare” roads, the ones that are already plowed. This repeated plowing could serve a purpose, such as expanding the one lane into curb-to-curb access, but often that did not occur despite repeated passes on that street.

Neighborhood Data:  Using one Fairfax neighborhood of seventeen streets as an example, the neighbors watched the snow plows carefully and reported what they saw.

  • Haphazard Approach: For six days, from January 22nd to January 27th, VDOT contractors returned to the same neighborhood repeatedly, plowed the same three “main subdivision streets,” inconsistently plowed three or four other streets (often different ones each time), and missed about half the neighborhood entirely (which remained covered in 2’ feet of snow). Curiously, contractors even plowed some of the smaller streets and cul-de-sacs, while ignoring others with the same incline levels.
  • Repeated Plowing Added No Value: Despite repeated plowing on the main neighborhood roads, those roads were still only barely passable with one lane plowed. In fact, neighbors described individually removing messy piles of snow that had been left in the middle of busy intersections from those over-plowed streets. Notably, one of the main access points to the neighborhood, the road that passed in front of a large elementary school, still only had one lane plowed nine days after the storm – the day before school was scheduled to re-open.
  • Stuck in Snow: A number of times throughout the week, three snow plows remained in the neighborhood all day, often with the third contractor helping plow out the other two that were stuck in the snow. Few drivers had shovels, other resources for handling snow, or knowledge about what to do when stuck. Often a driver would get stuck, get freed, promise to return, and then fail to be seen for days.
  • Unhelpful Tracking: Even VDOT’s new GPS system, which was a significant improvement, had inaccuracies and created more anxiety for some residents snowbound in their homes. Residents watched on the GPS snow plow system for trucks that weren’t actually there, and because half the streets remained unplowed, the neighborhood was labeled “in progress” the entire week. This lead to numerous contacts to VDOT and Fairfax leaders, when their time could have been used more constructively.

Northern Virginia residents recognize that subdivision roads are the last priority, and that a heavy snowstorm can take significant time to plow. However, haphazard plowing by VDOT contractors caused significant inefficiencies, unnecessary delays, and undue costs. Complaints noted on the VDOT website indicate that this haphazard process was replicated throughout the entire Northern Virginia region of 16,000 neighborhood streets. Consider the exponential impact of these inefficiencies.

VDOT paid those contractors to repeatedly plow a limited number of roads, with no added benefit, instead of using those valuable resources elsewhere. Using a more efficient approach, after they completed the “standard” neighborhood streets, drivers of those smaller plows could have:

  • moved to complete the next neighborhood;
  • driven home, saving the extra funds for more appropriate, heavy equipment on the challenging roads; or
  • been reallocated to transform “passable” one-lane roads into curb-to-curb passageways, especially at unsafe intersections or near schools.

With the same cost, this could have helped alleviate traffic and open schools earlier.

Based on this underlying reason for delays in plowing neighborhoods in a timely manner, we propose the following outside-the-box alternatives that would be fiscally responsible and also satisfy some other governmental objectives.

Proposed SolutionMethodical Approach, Oversight, and Partnership with Community Leaders  

VDOT has already laid out a system for handling snow removal in the Northern Virginia region. Neighborhoods are separated into 350 “snow maps,” each one including between 20-30 neighborhood streets. Each VDOT contractor is generally assigned between three to five snow maps. However, there are low-cost ways for VDOT to set up a more methodical plowing process and oversight of these contractors. A systemic and goal-oriented approach to plowing neighborhoods, specific instructions, and partnership with community leaders can help. Here are some constructive suggestions:


  1. Evaluation & AnalysisEvery year, VDOT officials meet with County Supervisors and update the snow maps, highlighting the “hot spots” – roads or sections of road that were particularly difficult or previously neglected – e.g. hills, cul-de-sacs, and/or roads not listed on the state maps. This spring, when VDOT leaders conduct this analysis, they should include community leaders in the meeting, encouraging participation from state representatives from northern Virginia, Fairfax County leaders, School Board members, and staff. Using the new AVL Plow Tracking systems, they should be able to evaluate which neighborhood streets provided significant challenges, and where VDOT contractors got stuck the most often. For subsequent storms, these streets should be clearly delineated for each contractor as “standard” or “in need of extra support”. Using this past data and evidence, VDOT can better calculate its needs for future storms. This process will also help VDOT to apply community cooperation and operational logistics, making out growing region feel more like the “small town,” where our leaders know enough about our community to provide help efficiently.


  1. Days Before the Storm:  VDOT can use its evidence-based system to calculate its needs, coordinate its contractors, and request outside assistance from other jurisdictions in a timely manner, especially when more heavy equipment is needed earlier in the process.


  1. Training and Readiness:  Currently, VDOT trains the companies with whom it has contracted, but not the drivers themselves. VDOT should strengthen its training of drivers regarding snow readiness and handling (perhaps through a required video – something that can be watched the day before the snow event). During the snow removal process itself, VDOT supervisors already give neighborhood snow maps to the contractors. Simultaneously, VDOT should confirm that all drivers have appropriately-sized snow shovels and other resources in case they get stuck in the snow.


  1. Methodical Process During the Storm: Experienced VDOT supervisors should review each neighborhood snow map (about 350 in Fairfax County alone), to set up a methodical system for their VDOT contractors.
    • As noted on their maps, smaller VDOT contractors should know, in advance, which streets to plow and which to avoid. They should make ONE PASS in a neighborhood and complete those “standard” streets one time.
    • Larger trucks, bobcats, bulldozers, etc. should be allocated to go directly to the more challenging neighborhood streets and complete each neighborhood or snow map COMPLETELY.
    • Then VDOT can mark that entire snow map on the NOVA Snow Plowing system as PLOWED. This reduces inefficiencies, saves time and money, and minimizes residents’ anxieties.
    • “Standard” trucks and “Extra support” trucks could even be marked differently on the Northern Virginia snow map.


  1. VDOT Directions, Communications, and Oversight: VDOT should meet regularly with its crews.  If not in person, they have a conference call(s) daily.  Every driver should have access through mobile phones or other appropriate communication devices. VDOT contractors should be making notes as they move through neighborhoods. There should be effective, frequent communications with the VDOT contractors, directions of which neighborhoods to start next, and performance evaluations on whether they plowed the street in a time-efficient manner.


  1. Systemic Approach & Transparency: Within 48 hours after the storm, a contractor should have made at least one pass into every neighborhood and every subdivision.  There should be a clear list of streets that have been plowed (“passable”), and ones that have been missed, either by accident or because they “need support” (like the Town of Vienna announced on Monday, January 25th).


  1. Community Partnership Approach:  If VDOT needs more “VDOT supervisors” to oversee plowing of neighborhoods, County Supervisors and State representatives each know their communities very well, and they should have relationships with the HOA and civic association leaders (who can also help with information).  With 350 “Snow Maps” in Fairfax County, that equals about 35 “snow maps” per County Supervisor, for example, providing useful information, methodically evaluating the process, and connecting with the community.  It’s important that these calls are not just “informative,” that the Supervisors review their respective snow maps and provide specific directions. “That hill is particularly challenging; plows always get stuck on there, get a bigger truck for that one.”  “That’s a cul-de-sac, but there is a place at the end to dump the snow, so it’ll be easier than the contractor expected…” These discussions should occur now, when there is time to review in great detail (as noted above). They should occur again, in the days BEFORE the storm, and on a daily basis during the storm.


  1. School Board Members: The School Board Members should join those calls with their District county counterparts.  Their focus would be the 196 schools, of course, but also the surrounding neighborhoods.  Again, who knows their neighborhoods better than our elected officials who have walked them, toured them, and represented them?  The School Board Members should also have their District’s snow maps in hand during these calls.  They are providing instructions as partners, not just being given the standard “everyone is working hard” line.  Efficiency and effectiveness is the goal – get schools open, and provide safe routes for walkers, drivers, and buses.  Make informed decisions based on detailed, neighborhood information.


  1. Neighborhood Leaders:  Finally, County leaders should partner directly with community leaders during a major snow event.  Let the local neighborhood leaders act as liaisons, providing on-the-ground information and acting as liaisons to VDOT or other “volunteer” overseers (i.e. County Supervisors or School Board members).  Fairfax County maintains List of civic associations.  It should be updated with contact information annually.  See also the Fairfax Federation of Citizens Associations. PTA leaders can serve a similar purpose, and can also get out the message earlier to recruit neighbors to plow sidewalks near a school too or provide information about the status of the roads in front of the school and/or leading to the school.  The Fairfax County Council of PTAs updates its list annually.  Fairfax County residents are do-ers.  Get them involved in the process in a constructive, pro-active way during a major snowstorm.


Example:  For example, a model community partnership would include County leaders, school principals, PTA leaders, and community leaders all working together:

  • Working with the Community to Gather Information:  After the snow storm, lead community members could send the principal pictures of the school and its surroundings so the principal can evaluate the school’s plowing needs – even before the custodial staff arrives to shovel.  How is the bus access lane?  If the school is overcapacity, are there curb-to-curb areas for teachers to park?  Are sidewalks shoveled for students to walk to school?  Are bus stops in the community piled high with snow?
  • Collaborating with VDOT to Act on This Information:  Based on this data compiled between VDOT monitors, County and community leaders, and school administrators, VDOT can instruct its contractors to do additional work to prepare schools for re-opening, such as making a “passable” road with curb-to-curb access to provide teacher parking space or allow for a safe Kiss-and-Ride line.  Similar instructions can be given to widen lanes on crowded streets that lead to schools.

These constructive suggestions should help VDOT and Fairfax County partner with community leaders to better prepare and more efficiently handle the next storm. Because there will be one.  It snows, even a little bit, every single year.  In fact, I hear it’s going to snow tomorrow… Really.

Any questions or comments, please contact Sosne Kondé Policy Solutions.