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City vows to weather winter storms a lot better

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More money requested by city budget office recommends against it, setting up potential funding fight at the City Council.

PORTLAND TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Portland residents frequently struggled during the winter storms to reach those streets that were plowed. Most weren't.Twenty more snow plows. Designating hundreds of additional lane miles for de-icing and plowing. Using salt to melt ice and snow during storms.

Portland transportation officials insist that they learned these and other valuable lessons from the winter storms that repeatedly shut down much of the city in recent months. They say changes already have been made, and more are being considered that will improve the city's response to such storms in the future.

"We can do better, and it's my job to see that we do," says Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who is in charge of the Portland Bureau of Transportation.

To prove it, PBOT is requesting $1.2 million in general fund dollars to buy equipment and supplies to help enact the changes in next year's budget, plus $1.6 million in ongoing funding to hire additional employees for weather responses, among other things.

Saltzman is prepared to fight for the additional funds. The City Budget Office has recommended against the requests, saying Portland only averages one storm a year. But Saltzman argues the climate may be changing for the worse.

"I think severe weather events are increasing, and that's what we experienced this winter. We need to be ready for them next time," Saltzman says.

Mayor Ted Wheeler now must decide whether to include the request in the budget he will propose to the full City Council. The budget already faces a $1.8 million shortfall, in part because of spending increases for affordable housing, homeless services and the police contract approved by the last council.

PORTLAND TRIBUNE FILE PHOTOS - The Oregon Department of Transportation struggled to keep freeway traffic moving during the winter storms.The new storm policies and procedures are summarized in a Feb. 15 memo to Saltzman from PBOT Director Leah Treat. Wheeler asked Saltzman to oversee PBOT in early January. That was in the middle of seven snow, ice and rain storms that hit between Dec. 4 and Feb. 3, repeatedly shutting down the city and contributing to landslides that continued to cause road problems for weeks.

According to the memo, the storms were an unprecedented test for PBOT.

"These events presented PBOT with multifaceted operational, planning and communications challenges. At the same time, the events were also occasions for PBOT leadership and staff to adapt bureau procedures as they learned new lessons after each weather event," Treat wrote.

Some of the operational changes were made during and between the storms. Others grew out of meetings between leaders of various departments within PBOT after the storms.

PORTLAND TRIBUNE FILE PHOTOS - Hundreds of potholes caused by the winter storms are still waiting to be filled across the region when the rain stops. Major changes that have taken place and are being proposed include:

• Expanding PBOT's storm response capacity. PBOT already has 55 plows, but is requesting funds to buy 20 more that would be attached to Portland Water Bureau trucks during storms. PBOT also has begun negotiating a mutual aid agreement with the Seattle Department of Transportation for snow-clearing assistance during storms. And it has issued a Request for Proposal for private companies to provide additional assistance during storms.

• Increasing the miles of streets prioritized for de-icing and plowing. Until now, PBOT has only prioritized 1,120 lane miles of emergency routes for de-icing and plowing. During the storms, it added the downtown business core. Now it is studying including all Portland Public Schools bus routes, an additional 340 lane miles. Including all roads within one-quarter mile of public schools would add another 1,740 lane miles.

• Opening the city's Emergency Coordination Center during storms. PBOT is negotiating with the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management to activate the center during snow and ice storms to better coordinate the regional response.

• Testing new road treatment options. Road salt has long been banned to melt snow and ice because of environmental risks and damage to vehicles. But comparison tests conducted during the storms showed it can be more effective than the de-icer PBOT has been using in certain circumstances. While the final decision to permanently include road salt as an option rests with the City Council, PBOT will continue to deploy road salt on a temporary basis, as needed. It also will explore using the crystalized version of its current de-icer — magnesium chloride — as an alternative to sand and gravel, which is costly to clean up.

• Staging plowing equipment on plow routes in advance of storms. This change was made after many snow plows were stuck in the traffic gridlock that affected large sections of the city during the Dec. 14-15 storm. It helped PBOT plow more roads faster during subsequent storms.

• Expanding parking amnesties to include SmartPark garages. PBOT initiated a parking-meter amnesty during the Dec. 14-15 storm to encourage drivers to take transit home. It proved popular and has been added as a regular response. Now PBOT is considering expanding it to include city-owned downtown parking garages.

• Expediting the removal of downed trees. The Urban Forestry department of Portland Parks & Recreation helped clear downed trees blocking streets during the storms. PBOT is working with the department to increase its response, in part by better sharing of information on the location of downed trees.

• Continuing to require chains and traction tires on West Burnside Street and Southwest Sam Jackson Park Road. Despite warnings about the approaching Dec. 14 storm, hundreds of vehicles were left stranded along these two major westside routes. The number dropped considerably after the Portland Police Bureau began requiring vehicles to be chained or have snow or studded tires when traveling on them in later storms.

Historic storms hit the city

The Portland Bureau of Transportation and other agencies responded to the following snow, ice and rain storms during the winter of 2016-2017:

Dec. 4-5: Snow in downtown Portland, with more at high-elevation areas.

Dec. 8-10: Ice and 1-3 inches of snow with more than 200 locations of downed trees. Landslides included one that closed Northwest Cornell Road for about a week.

Dec. 14-15: Snow accumulation during Wednesday evening rush hour, with commuters experiencing major delays and hundreds of cars abandoned in the right-of-way.

Dec. 31: Light snowfall and icy conditions overnight on New Year's Eve.

Jan. 7-8: Snow accumulation 1-4 inches, followed by widespread freezing rain.

Jan. 10-17: Heavy snow accumulation across the region, followed by several days of record-low temperatures and finally freezing rain. Seattle Department of Transportation assisted Portland with road salt, plowing and downed-tree clearing.

Jan. 18-20: Multiple landslides, including a moderate slide that closed West Burnside for two days.

Feb. 2-3: Snow and freezing rain. PBOT's first use of road salt.

Feb. 5-6: Heavy rain that contributed to a significant number of landslides, including a large one that closed Southwest Skyline for three days.

Feb. 8-9: Heavy rain and landslides, including a closure of Northwest Germantown Road and Bridge Avenue for two days.

Where the money would go

Portland Bureau of Transportation's one-time $1.2 million General Fund request for winter storms includes:

• $342,000 for a grader to allow PBOT crews to clear hard-packed snow from the pavement on critical public safety routes. Current plows remove snow only 1 inch above road surfaces to avoid damaging them.

• $200,000 for eight drop-in sanders/salters to expand de-icing and sanding capacity.

• $150,000 for two additional storage tanks for anti-icing liquid.

• $150,000 for six new plow blades to attach to de-icing trucks.

• $120,000 for eight portable, electronic message signs to better communicate traveling conditions to the public.

• $100,000 for four fixed, electronic message signs to better communicate traveling conditions to the public.

• $50,000 to convert two six-yard dump trucks into de-icing vehicles.

• $45,000 for a fixed camera on West Burnside for timely notification of travel hazards, including traction-tire requirements.

• $45,000 for three covered storage units for different de-icing materials such as road salt.

• $12,000 for two aerial drones for use in evaluating landslides and floods.

In addition, PBOT is requesting $1.6 million in ongoing funds to increase its storm response capacity by adding five additional full-time-equivalent positions to operate Portland Water Bureau trucks as snow plows, purchase and store larger supplies of de-icing materials, and maintain the equipment.