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Heavy snow taxes snow plow drivers in metro; officials stress patience

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Vicky Stich
City of Minneapolis truck driver Vicky Stich talked with snow plow crew members in the Bryn Mawr neighborhood of Minneapolis, Minn. Monday, Dec. 13, 2010. Stich, who has been driving truck with the city for 34 years, said the storm over the weekend was worse she had ever seen.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Minnesota's record-setting weekend storm created big challenges for cities trying to clear all that snow. In the state's two largest cities, officials stressed that Minneapolis and St. Paul snow plow drivers have been working round the clock to make the streets passable. 

MINNEAPOLIS  

Mayor R. T. Rybak and city officials gathered in the foyer of the public works building downtown to announce a second snow emergency on Monday. Rybak called the work of residents and public employees "heroic," but said a second pass was necessary to finish the job.

"We have been through most of the streets and alleys in the city but it is nowhere in the condition that we need it to be in," Rybak said.

The sheer volume of snow, more than 17 inches across the city, has made it difficult for cars to get off the plow routes, and for plows to find a place to shove all that snow. City officials are concerned that some streets are still too narrow for emergency vehicles. 

Talking with crew members
Ciy of Minneapolis operator Paul Yanzer talks with a fellow snow removal crew member in Minneapolis, Minn. Monday, Dec. 13, 2010. A second snow emergency was declared in Minneapolis Monday.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Rybak asked for the public's help moving cars once again. The city towed about 400 cars over the weekend, fewer than during a typical snow emergency. City leaders decided over the weekend to waive towing fees, but Rybak said they didn't publicize the amnesty because they wanted residents to make an effort to move their cars.

"One of the challenges this time was that residents couldn't always comply because they couldn't get out of those streets. We understand that," Rybak said. "That's one of the reasons why we waived all towing fees in the first three days of that incident. We will be imposing those fees now."

Minneapolis hasn't put a price tag on the double-snow emergency. A typical snow emergency costs the city $300,00 to $500,000. The mayor says the city will have to dip into its contingency fund to cover this, the fifth largest snowfall in city history.

ST. PAUL

In St. Paul, some snowplow drivers have been clocking in up to 24-hour shifts ever since the blizzard struck.

By Monday afternoon, only half of the east-west side streets had been plowed. And Mayor Chris Coleman, speaking at a city public-works garage, asked residents for patience. 

"They should know that we are not being patient. We are working very, very hard," Coleman said. "But we ask people to understand the magnitude of the snowstorm that we have seen."

Plowing the streets
Snow plow crews worked to clear streets in the Bryn Mawr neighborhood of Minneapolis, Minn. Monday, Dec. 13, 2010. A second snow emergency was declared in Minneapolis Monday.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

City Engineer John Maczko said city workers share the public's frustration. 

"We're living it, too. We can't provide what we would like to do," Maczko said. "And when things are going slower than what we anticipated, it's frustrating for us also, because it's our job to get the snow off the street."

Maczko said that despite the grueling hours that some drivers have put in, no accidents have been reported related to driver fatigue.   "They're getting worn out and stressed by working around the clock, and our folks have to go home and tend to their normal home duties," he said. "We've got people who haven't plowed out their own places yet."

St. Paul had to beef up its equipment arsenal, borrowing plow trucks from the Minnesota Department of Transportation and Ramsey County. Last night, crews began a massive snow-moving operation in downtown. During yesterday's afternoon rush hour, slippery roads and reduced driving lanes from giant snow banks caused traffic jams.

On Sunday night, St. Paul declared its second snow emergency in two days. The city ticketed and towed only about 100 drivers over the weekend for being parked in what officials called essential areas. Unlike Minneapolis, St. Paul did not waive towing fees, but Mayor Coleman said officials were lenient.

"We're going to continue to be as tolerant and patient as we can be, but at some point, we need to clear the streets," he said.

Coleman said it could be 10 days or more before driving conditions return to normal.

After this weekend, St. Paul exceeded its number of budgeted snow emergencies, but Coleman said it has enough money in reserves to get by until the end of the year -- barring another crippling snowstorm.