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December Storm Shows Problems Remain With Snow Clearance

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Kristen Koscinski
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90.5 WESA
Whited Street in District 4's Brookline neighborhood during a January snowfall. Residents say Whited Street is a relatively busy street with several hills.

Like a lot of residents of Pittsburgh’s City Council District 4, Krista Bradley says her neighborhood of Brookline gets too little attention from snowplows – although sometimes she says it gets too much.

 

 

During the snowstorm that hit Pittsburgh in late December, she recalled, “We got home from running a quick errand and lo and behold there was a giant pile, like a snow bank, in the middle of the street blocking us off from our driveway.” It was moved the next day – but after 31 years of living in the neighborhood, Bradley said that too is unusual.

Bradley lives towards the end of Elmbank Street, which “doesn't get very much attention generally,” Bradley said. “We have a lot of hills over here and sometimes it impedes our abilities to get out of our house.”

Snow removal is a perennial concern throughout the region, but for years the complaints have been especially loud in South Hills neighborhoods like Brookline and neighboring Beechview. And they have been for years.

District 4 City Councilor Anthony Coghill said he and the office of Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto have been working to address the problems. “The mayor and I don’t share the same views on everything, but when it comes down to something as serious as this, he’s always there for me,” Coghill said.

Still, after years of complaints, he’s cautious. As to whether the city will be more ready for the next snowfall, Coghill said he’s “confident, but not overly confident” that it will be.  

'They're in the district, but not showing up'

When Peduto campaigned for mayor in 2013, he proposed as one remedy a tracker app that identified the locations of snow blows in real time. “Between the natural knowledge and instincts of our drivers and the GPS programmed route information we can find the best routes,” a statement said on his campaign website.

But for residents the tracker may make the situation appear worse than it is, because trucks don’t always appear on it. 

“Any time I’ve looked at the snow plow tracker, there’s maybe one or two trucks in [the South Hills], and loads of them on the East End,” Bradley said.

“The trucks are in the district, but they’re just not showing up” on the app, agreed Coghill, who says at times he’s seen only one truck on the app even though he knew others were on the roads. “If it works, I’m great with it, but it’s got to be consistent, it’s got to be accurate, otherwise what good is it?”

In a press release earlier this month, Peduto’s office said the technological problems have been addressed and trucks will show up on the app, though“not all plowing vehicles may be visible on the map when activated.” 

The city says trucks sometimes don’t show up on the app because “occasionally the technology that tracks the trucks goes down.”

“[I]t is sensitive equipment attached to heavy equipment that gets battered in storms,” the statement added. “We work to get them fixed as soon as possible ... but if the truck can still plow or spread salt during the storm we prioritize using the vehicle to treat the streets over getting the technology to work perfectly for the tracker.” 

Coghill said snow-clearing is also complicated by the closure of a Public Works facility on Bausman Street, which provided a salt dome and storage for equipment and vehicles. The facility was closed in late 2017 due to unsafe conditions and “potential life safety hazards” according to the city. 

At the time, the city said, “Snowplowing, salting, street cleaning, pothole patching and other services ... will not be impacted.”

While the city has earmarked $900,000 in the 2020 capital budget to go towards reopening a new facility in the area this fall, Coghill said that problems persist.  “As it stands now, our trucks are coming from the West End and they're coming from the Strip District to service my streets,” he said -- and the extra travel means further delays.

But the city said drivers can pick up salt at the existing DPW facility on Saw Mill Run Boulevard at Seldom Seen Greenway on the border of Council District 4 and Council District 2. DPW also leaves temporary piles of salt in sites across the city “where drivers can pick up additional resources if necessary.”

 

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Credit Jake Savitz / 90.5 WESA
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90.5 WESA
Snowfall in 2017.

  

'Not a sexy issue'

Coghill, who has been in office since 2018, blames some of the problems on his predecessor, Natalia Rudiak.

“The former councilwoman did not get a commitment to build a new [DPW facility] or to build a new one while we're moving out of that one,” Coghill said. “I would have kept them there, toughed it out another year and built a new one right there.”

However, Rudiak said that Coghill is “uninformed and derelict of his duty to place blame on me.”

“I literally wrote the report on snow removal in 2010 after public works did not adequately clear the snow in 2010,” Rudiak said. “I highly suggest the councilman read the report.” 

The 275-page report made suggestions on how to improve major snowfalls in Pittsburgh. Rudiak said the city did implement some of the recommendations, like creating emergency snow routes and adding GPS to the snow trucks.

Rudiak agreed the shutdown of the Bausman Street facility has added to problems, but said that she got a commitment from former Public Works Director Rob Kaczorowski to replace it.  Coghill could have pushed harder for it to be built as well, she said. 

Rudiak said that the district’s treacherous hills play a part: “As much as people make fun of it, the topography is truly a challenge here. If cars can’t go up and down a street where there’s snow, imagine what can happen with a heavy truck.” And she said that the city simply ignored the problem when the snow wasn’t actually falling -- by which point it is too late. 

“I really think it’s helpful to talk to the people on the ground, she said. “We need to talk to the snow plow runners because they’re doing the hard work. It’s not a sexy issue or a priority… it’s easier to sweep it under the rug four times a year instead of saying ‘we’re going to have these issues.’” 

Coghill, like Peduto, is up for re-election this year, and he is facing a challenge from Bethani Cameron, a former Rudiak aide. 

For her part, Cameron said she was unable to leave her house in Overbrook on Christmas Day and it took three days for her street to get plowed. She says the city’s promises in the wake of that storm are similar to those it made nearly a year ago, when  the Peduto administration told the Tribune-Review that the city had improved callout procedures for overtime, salt usage, and its plow tracking system. 

That’s why Cameron says she has doubts about the city’s solutions this time.

As for the tracker app, she said, “It’s great to know where the plows are -- if they’re coming towards you.”