Seattle's News Elixir

Now that Snowpocalypse 2010 is underway and people are officially FREAKING OUT (fourteen stories about snow, Seattle Times?), I'd like to suggest something heretical: Maybe the city's snow-response policy shouldn't be focused entirely on making it as easy as possible for people to drive to work.

Metro learned the right lesson from its mistakes in 2008: Reduce service, improve communications, and lower expectations. The city, in contrast, has gone into overdrive to clear not just bus routes, but roads to schools, universities, and "major employers" down to "bare pavement." At a city council briefing this morning, SDOT operations director Steve Pratt told council members the department has already deployed 90 percent of its 30 available trucks to pour salt brine on streets around the city. Once snow starts to accumulate, which it's expected to do today, the trucks will switch to rock salt. All told, the city has 46,000 gallons of salt brine and 2,200 tons of salt at the ready.

Throwing salt at the problem is bad public policy for a couple of reasons: It's bad for the environment, and---at a time when Seattle faces multi-year budget shortfalls in the hundreds of millions---it's hardly the best use of limited resources. (The irony can't be lost on Mayor Mike McGinn: In order to avoid the political trouncing then-mayor Greg Nickels took when he refused to use salt two years ago, the city's green mayor is now the city's most visible advocate for an environmentally harmful policy).

Until last year, the city didn't use salt because of the danger to aquatic life once the snow melts and all that salty water flows into Puget Sound and other local waterways, including freshwater creeks that feed into the Sound. Although the city has dismissed the environmental concerns that guided that policy---saying, essentially, that salt isn't as bad as they thought---other cities and states are moving in the opposite direction, reducing the amount of salt they use on roads or eliminating its use entirely. (Other chemicals, such as calcium chloride and magnesium chloride, are less harmful but more expensive.)

The reasons are twofold: First, the price of rock salt has doubled since 2006, to about $70 a ton. Second, cities have started to see the effects of years of using salt on their roads, as salt has contaminated groundwater, killed plants and fish, disrupted animals' reproductive systems, and, perhaps most persuasively, corroded people's cars. (And, to quote myself from two years ago: "Salt is not a panacea, as people who've lived in the Northeast and Midwest will readily tell you.")

The solution isn't to do nothing, of course---even the most strident car opponent knows that buses and emergency vehicles use the roads too. But perhaps instead of going into panic mode at the first sign of snow (according to the most recent forecast, temperatures should be back in the 40s by Wednesday), the city should focus on keeping a few arterials clear for buses, lower people's expectations (no, the city is not obligated to clear your cul-de-sac), and suggest that everybody relax---it'll all be over soon.
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