When at least four inches of snow accumulate in Minneapolis, residents move their cars off the street and out of the way of snowplows. In the battle against snow and ice, Minneapolis does not mess around.

As heavy snow begins, the city alerts the media that it has declared a “snow emergency” and sends trucks out to clear the most heavily used streets. Tagging and towing are carefully coordinated with plowing to move vehicles that do not obey snow emergency parking regulations. Within 12 hours, all major roads and alleys will be clear, and crews will be on duty to keep them that way.

Controlling snow and ice on roads is well planned in Minneapolis, which averages more than 45 inches of snowfall annually. However, there, as in other communities, a proper snow strategy is a precarious balancing act that is managed by setting and following performance and operating standards that consider costs, materials and the environment.

Great expectations

Performance standards vary widely depending on local agency resources, environmental concerns and public expectations. The West Des Moines, Iowa, Public Works Department, for example, is responsible for clearing snow and ice from more than 580 miles of streets. With more than 50 employees and 26 vehicles, West Des Moines relies on rock salt, sand, salt brine, calcium and magnesium chloride to do the job.

Public Works Superintendent Bret Hodne updates and revises the agency's snow and ice control standards each year and publishes them in a manual, available on the West Des Moines Web site. It covers everything from operating practices, schedules and shifts. “It's the agency's bible as far as what we do in winter maintenance, and it covers us from a liability standpoint — that's something every agency should be concerned about,” he says. “Whether you don't do much of anything or you do a lot, you should really have your operating practices down.”

The standards for removing snow and ice from Minneapolis' 1,100 miles of roads and 400 miles of alleys are not formal and cannot be found in any manual. But, for all snowfalls, the goal on primary streets is to plow the driving lanes to bare pavement and treat with salt. Parking lanes may remain in a snow-packed condition with a layer of hard-packed snow and ice that cannot be removed until temperatures rise. Crews plow streets and alleys to a snow-packed condition, and treat hills, curves and intersections with a sand/salt mix.

The end result varies depending on timing, intensity and duration of each snowfall. Minneapolis crews do not have a set time in which they must finish plowing — except for alleys. “With alleys, we do have a performance standard, and that is that we will plow all of the alleys [to a snow-pack condition, at a minimum] within 12-hours from when we start,” says Mike Kennedy, director of transportation, maintenance and repair for the Department of Public Works' Street Division. “Part of the reason we plow the alleys is so that people can move their cars off the streets and get to their garages.”

The McHenry County, Ill., Division of Transportation is responsible for a 600-square-mile area and about 550 lane miles, all of which are highways with a 45-mile-per-hour minimum speed. Superintendent of Operations Mark DeVries annually reviews the county's performance standards and operating procedures, which are detailed in a manual. “Our performance standard is bare pavement as soon as possible following an event, using the least amount of materials possible,” he says.

In any case, clearing highways quickly is a critical job. “Each agency is going to have to determine what their performance standards are going to be based on [the] kind of traffic, speeds of traffic, volumes of traffic,” he says. “The performance standard for a road that's 25 miles per hour is probably going to be different than a performance standard for an expressway that is 65 miles per hour because of what people are expecting in the first place.”

A balancing act

The level to which roads are cleared, and how quickly, depends on the amount of money agencies can spend on materials and labor, and the types of materials used. That balancing act is one of the biggest challenges of the job, Hodne says. “A lot of times you're dealing with a limited amount of funding. You're dealing with some people that have high service-level expectations, but yet you're also dealing with the fact that we are stewards of the environment and we really need to be monitoring and being responsible for how much chemical deicers and sand that we're actually using because they impact the environment,” he says.

Foremost among Kennedy's environmental concerns is the Shingle Creek Watershed, the first stream in Minnesota to be designated as “impaired” by excess chloride, which Kennedy says was from road salt. His agency is working with others to identify practices that will reduce chloride loadings to the water. “You always have people who are going to say, ‘We don't want any salt’ or ‘Put less salt on there,’ and you have other people saying, ‘More salt, because we want public safety,’” he says. “We have to balance that concept between environmental concerns and safety.”

Minneapolis has tested the effects of pre-treating roads with liquid salt brine and using alternative deicers, such as magnesium-chloride-treated salt. The city also has begun pre-wetting the salt and replacing conventional, manual spreader fleet vehicles with ground-speed-controlled, spread-smart technology that measures how much salt is released and moderates it with the speed of the truck. “Hopefully, by doing all that, you can put out less salt but still get the same effect,” Kennedy says. “You save money on salt, and you save the amount of salt going into the environment.”

To balance safe transportation with environmental and budgetary concerns, McHenry County has begun blending chemicals in-house and experimenting with agricultural products, such as sugar beet. McHenry County's blended product, “Super Mix,” consists of salt water (85 percent), calcium chloride (5 percent) and a sugar beet product (10 percent). The county has found that the mix sticks longer on the roadways than other materials it has used and does not require re-treatment. “I wouldn't want to go out on a limb and say [the ingredients in the mix are] environmentally friendly, but they're certainly not chloride,” DeVries says. “We think [it] has been very beneficial both for keeping the materials on the road and reducing the chlorides that we're using.”

Blending the product in-house costs the county 27 cents a gallon, as opposed to more than the $1 a gallon it would cost retail, DeVries says. As a result, the agency has reduced its salt use while cutting costs for the past three years.

Informing the public and pols

During winter storms, elected officials and the public pay close attention to snow and ice removal activities, and the success of those activities often depends on some help from the public. In West Des Moines, Hodne sends all elected officials and city leaders a copy of the agency's snow and ice manual annually and invites them into his department's facilities to discuss plans and goals.

To supplement its online manual, West Des Moines publishes a lengthy article about the agency's winter plans and procedures in a city magazine that is mailed to all households. Hodne also presents winter maintenance information in a 30-minute presentation on the local cable channel and distributes flyers with water bills when necessary.

Minneapolis' Public Works Communications Department uses an automated phone hotline (348-SNOW), a Web site with information in seven languages, brochures and e-mail alerts to inform about snow emergencies. When public works officials declare such an emergency, they notify the media, other communications outlets and the city's 311 agents. “We very aggressively enforce our parking restrictions; we tow a couple thousand cars per snow emergency,” Kennedy says.

Measuring success

As long as agencies have performance and operations standards, managers can measure success in several forms. “It starts with your staff. If they don't know what's expected of them, how do you expect them to get a job done?” Hodne says. “An agency needs to know what it's trying to accomplish.”

West Des Moines distributes annual customer satisfaction surveys to residents to gauge their opinions of all city services, including snow and ice removal. The Public Works Department also surveys city employees after every significant storm to find out how other departments — including police, fire and EMS — rate its performance. The agency tracks and documents its procedures and performance in every storm, including when it began, the conditions and when the pavement was returned to normal. Such records can reap benefits at budgeting time when public works agencies have to compete for funds, Hodne says.

DeVries gauges his county's success by evaluating the year's accident data, overtime totals and total salt use, and comparing those to other years. In a storm, the agency compares data from each truck and then compares each driver's statistics, spurring competition among employees. Adding wings to the county's trucks, computerizing the trucks' dispensing systems to distribute exact amounts of materials, and using anti-icers have contributed to the county's successful snow management program.

In Minneapolis, measuring success is simpler. “Did we get all the streets plowed during the snow emergency? That's really all that matters,” Kennedy says. “If the streets are clear and we're not getting complaints, then we've done a good job.”

In the end, the level of success any department achieves will depend on the goals it sets for itself before the first snowfall of the season. “What you have to be really careful of is that you don't set the bar too high,” Hodne says. “As you start raising the bar for levels of service, a lot of times peoples' expectations will follow. If people are fairly satisfied with levels of service, and you think that you're using deicers responsibly and staying within your budget guidelines, you probably have a pretty good secret for success.”

Nikki Swartz is a Kansas City, Mo.-based freelance writer.