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St. Paul turns to philosopher to rethink snow plowing

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Snow plows
Snow plows keep roads in downtown St. Paul mostly clear, Nov. 10, 2014.
Jennifer Simonson / MPR News

Battered by criticism over the poor state of city roads last winter, city officials in St. Paul are rethinking how they handle snow plowing.

  But instead of turning to a civil engineer for help, they've turned to a philosopher and computer scientist.

Dave MacCallum
Dave MacCallum, executive director of Civic Consulting Minnesota, appeared before the St. Paul City Council Wednesday, November 19, 2014.
Curtis Gilbert / MPR News

  Dave MacCallum, executive director of Civil Consulting Minnesota, aims to help the city use data to measure its performance when it comes to plowing snow.

  "When you start collecting that data, then I think in a substantive way you can start answering these questions in a way that matters, and also directing the resources of Public Works in the right sort of way," MacCallum told the City Council on Wednesday.

• Dec. 2013: St. Paul to get new plows, leaders to help with snow removal

  Mayor Chris Coleman, who has taken a lot of criticism over the condition of the city's streets in recent years — from spring pot holes to stubborn ruts of ice during winter — turned to MacCallum's company, Civic Consulting Minnesota, to dig him out of a jam.

  The fledgling nonprofit is based on a model pioneered in Chicago 25 years ago. Funded by a $100,000 grant from the Bush Foundation, the organization aims to apply private-sector expertise to the problems of government. It has landed St. Paul as its first client, and the city will receive the services free-of-charge.

  MacCallum, who has PhDs in philosophy and computer science, is a former Carleton College professor and dean who recently worked as a business consultant, providing advice to industries ranging from banking to higher education.

  His work in St. Paul is a little closer to the ground.

  A preliminary goal is plowing down to bare pavement on 90 percent of major streets within 20 hours after the end of a snow emergency. The city also plans to track mass transit and school bus delays, response time for citizen complaints and the condition of the city's sidewalks.

  Civic Consulting also recommends a more robust communication strategy run out of the mayor's office. It includes monitoring social media to identify areas of the city that need special attention.

  But in terms of the city's overall approach to managing snow, MacCallum said he'll suggest small changes, not a major overhaul.

  "By and large I'll tell you right now, the city of St. Paul Public Works Department is sort of right in the pocket. I mean it has a good, solid snow plan," he said. "And so the review of the snow plan is one where we're looking at exactly those things — what are the new ideas we can try out and what in the snow plan can be tweaked."

  Some of those tweaks are already being implemented.

  The Public Works Department is trying to be more proactive in responding to the weather forecast, Assistant City Engineer Joe Spah said.

  "If we're anticipating some complicating issues such as ice, that we get out in front of it, and continue to stay out in front of it, which means staying on task and continuing to keep crews on the streets," said Spah, who oversees street maintenance. "I think we've learned a very valuable lesson there that that is critical."

  Other changes St. Paul officials are considering include clearing the snow from some high-priority street corners to make the city easier for pedestrians to navigate. That's something Minneapolis plans to do this winter as well.

  Civic Consulting also will look at whether St. Paul needs to adjust the financial incentives it gives tow truck companies to remove illegally parked vehicles during snow emergencies. That would make a difference, Council Member Chris Tolbert said.

  "It's my understanding that the neighborhoods that are closest to the tow lots, for financial reasons, are the ones that are getting picked up the most," Tolbert said. "It's not necessarily fair to those neighborhoods, but it's also not fair to the neighborhoods who are not having those cars lifted out of there, so that we can finish the plowing."