In January 2016 Winter Storm Jonas dumped 17.81 inches of snow on Washington D.C., effectively shutting down the city for three days. A foot and a half is not a massive quantity, but it was an amount the city was unprepared for. Even with crews working around the clock a shortage of plowing and deicing equipment made it impossible to keep side streets and residential areas open to vehicle traffic.
The District of Columbia Department of Transportation (DDOT) is accustomed to dealing with moderate amounts of snow. Snowfalls of one to three inches are relatively common during winter months. But in recent years “outlier” storms that wreck havoc have become more common and have stretched historically sufficient resources beyond capacity. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration the northeastern United States experienced twice as many extreme snowstorms during the second half of the twentieth century compared to the first half.2 Five of the ten worst blizzards in D.C.’s 225 year history have occurred since 1980. All ten have occurred since the industrial revolution.3 Washington D.C. is not alone; a recent study by MIT climatologists showed a clear increase in the frequency of major snowfall events in eight large northeast cities over the last century.4
So, what does all this snow have to do with climate change? Isn’t global warming about raising temperatures and melting ice caps? As it turns out, the laws of physics establish a simple connection between a warming climate and extreme weather. A warmer atmosphere holds more moisture, and when a storm from moves through that moisture is released as precipitation.4 In sub-zero temperatures, that precipitation is snow.
An increase in severe winter storms creates significant challenges for Washington’s DDOT. If blizzards were more frequent the snowplows and deicing equipment used to remove the snow would have high utilization rates that would justify the large capital investment required to purchase a large snow-removal fleet. At present the system is characterized by a low volume of snow-removal equipment that is underutilized most of the year but experiences unpredictable demand surges at infrequent intervals.
This inefficiency comes at a high cost: the $55 million bill for Jonas was more than the combined total of the District’s snow-removal budgets for the past seven years.5 The steep cost was mainly attributed to out-of-state contractors hired to help clean up the mess during a time of high demand across the east coast. Without adequate budgetary resources to pay the bill, city officials made over $24 million in illegal credit card payments before J.P. Morgan turned off the city’s credit.5 Adding to the District’s budget woes is an estimated $32.8 million in lost tax revenue for the week. i,6
How can such a vexing problem be solved? With more heavy snowfall expected this winter, is DDOT’s resource allocation as efficient as it can be? DDOT’s current strategy is to own limited resources and to hire surge contractors as needed. The current resource pool (recently expanded by 20 units) includes 330 pieces of equipment and 750 DDOT-employed personnel.7 This number is clearly insufficient for the largest storms: Jonas required the hiring of 3,500 additional pieces of equipment from contractors as far away as Florida.5
This year’s snow removal budget is $6.2 million and provides for DDOT ownership and operation of 330 pieces of heavy equipment. That means each DDOT-owned plow costs approximately $19,375 annually to own, maintain and operate. During Jonas it cost $55 million to rent 3,500 piece of equipment for less than a week. That’s approximately $15,714 per plow, per week. Clearly renting heavy equipment during surging prices is an expensive proposition. Owned equipment is far cheaper to field, but what about the acquisition cost? Exact prices vary significantly based on the age, condition, and size of the desired piece of equipment, but $100,000 each is a reasonable estimate. At this price 3,500 pieces of equipment would cost $350 million to purchase and $67.8 million annually to operate.ii No wonder city officials have opted to roll the dice again this winter and hope for the best.
In reality the equipment could have other uses. Front end loaders and salt trucks could spend non-winter months contributing to other infrastructure projects or leased to construction companies. Still, there are no easy answers. Voters always balk at a tax increase, and the only alternative would be to cut city funding for other programs. If winter storm frequency continues to increase the decision point will continue to shift. One thing is clear: if the city council does not commit more resources to building up DDOT’s fleet the city will continue to pay millions of dollars in rental bills while leaving millions in sales tax revenue on the table.
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i. Calculated based on $570 Million in lost sales revenue from D.C. area businesses and a sales tax of 5.75%.
ii. 3,500 pieces of heavy equipment purchased at an acquisition cost of $100,000, with an annual operating cost of $19,375.
- Weather.com. “Winter Storm Jonas: Where Does it Rank Historically?” Published 28 April 2016. Accessed 2 November 2016. https://weather.com/storms/winter/news/winter-storm-jonas-rank-in-history
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. “Climate Change and Extreme Snow in the U.S.” Published 25 January 2016. Accessed 2 November 2016. https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/news/climate-change-and-extreme-snow-us
- Ambrose, Kevin and Wes Junker. “Where Snowzilla fits into D.C.’s top 10 snowstorms.” The Washington Post. Published 23 January 2016. Accessed 2 Nov 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/capital-weather-gang/wp/2016/01/23/where-snowzilla-fits-into-d-c-s-top-10-snowstorms/
- Cohen, Judah and Jason Furtado. “How climate change may be producing more blockbuster snowstorms”. The Washington Post. Published 9 March 2015. Accessed 2 November 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/capital-weather-gang/wp/2015/03/09/how-climate-change-may-be-producing-more-blockbuster-snowstorms/
- Davis, Aaron. “D.C. spent record amounts on snow removal, prompting emergency actions to pay creditors.” The Washington Post. Published 3 May 2016. Accessed 3 November 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/dc-politics/dc-spent-record-amount-on-snow-removal-prompting-emergency-actions-to-pay-creditors/2016/05/03/48b04986-10b2-11e6-81b4-581a5c4c42df_story.html
- Morphy, Erika. “Winter Storm Jonas Cost DC Area $570M” GlobeSt.com. Published 27 January 2016. Accessed 3 Nov 2016. http://www.globest.com/sites/globest/2016/01/27/winter-storm-jonas-costs-dc-area-570m/?slreturn=20161004122312
- “District of Columbia Winter Snow and Ice Plan.” District Department of Transportation. Accessed 3 Nov 2016. http://ddot.dc.gov/page/district-columbia-winter-snow-and-ice-plan