Three months after a historic winter storm, Deputy Town Manager Keith Markel this week delivered to the Leesburg Town Council a final report on the oft-discussed snow removal efforts.
The town was criticized for its snow removal efforts after 34 inches dumped on Leesburg during January’s Winter Storm Jonas.
“Leesburg and Loudoun County were really the bullseye of this Mid-Atlantic East Coast storm,” Markel said, noting the snow totals recorded over the Jan. 22-23 snowfall made it the largest snow event in the past 30 years.
Town crews were fully mobilized before the first flakes of the storm fell at mid-day on Friday, Jan. 22, Markel said, and continued working 12-hour shifts for seven straight days, resulting in 175 continuous hours. This was in addition to support of contractors, he said.
Snow removal efforts were focused on clearing primary roads on Saturday, Sunday and Monday following the storm, Markel said. Equipment started in neighborhoods on Monday afternoon and downtown street clearing began on Tuesday.
“All of the town’s 255 lane miles had at least one pass by Wednesday,” Markel said, noting that the town streets were cleared ahead of VDOT’s schedule.
One of the major criticisms levied at the town government by Leesburg residents was the attention to primary roads, with many housebound for several days waiting for their streets to be cleared. While Markel and other town staff members in attendance for Monday’s work session seemed content with keeping that strategy in place for future storms, Markel did say one key takeaway from the storm’s aftermath was setting better expectations for residents.
“We have to balance what’s financially responsible [in terms of budgeting for snow clean-up and using additional resources] with what’s a reasonable amount of time to wait to be plowed out,” he said.
The town staff will be looking into possibly adding more snow emergency routes throughout town to keep more streets clear, and Markel said residents can do their part by removing obstructions – cars, trailers, basketball hoops, to name a few – from the streets so roads can be more expeditiously cleared. In some cases, Markel said, snow plows and trucks were too wide to fit down neighborhood streets because of on-street obstructions, and the streets needed to wait for smaller equipment to come in to be cleared. Or, to avoid damaging cars and other things parked on the side of the road, trucks were only able to do a single pass on the road and then needed to return later.
Another “lesson learned” was the need for written contracts for the contractors used by the town for snow removal, Renee LaFollette, director of the Capital Projects and Public Works Department, said. For Winter Storm Jonas, the town had two contractors who verbally committed to aiding in snow removal but they never showed up, she said. Another idea tossed around by the staff has been getting more staff members involved in clean-up efforts, either by helping to man the call center or by using them as drivers if they are licensed to operate tractors or trucks used in snow removal efforts.
While there were certainly areas to improve, Markel said upon evaluation of the storm’s aftermath there were several things the town did well.
The creation of a “snow boss” – one staff member charged with dispatching drivers and coordinating the effort among town staff and contractors on snow removal – worked well, along with the creation of a GIS-based snow map that logged areas of concern. The debut of the snow hotline, allowing residents to call in with questions or to report areas that needed plowing, was also successful, but was so popular more staffers will be needed to man it in future storms, he said.
The availability of trash collection sites when trash and recycling pick-ups were not possible on some streets was also praised.
And throughout the storm there was no disruption to utility or public safety services. Ida Lee Park Recreation Center was able to open to the public two days after the storm ended, with the Leesburg Executive Airport open for business the following day. Town Manager Kaj Dentler emphasized that Leesburg did as well, if not better, than VDOT and other parts of Northern Virginia in terms of clearing snow, but said for some reason it appeared the town “seemed to be the spotlight in terms of media coverage that was not positive.”
“If we want to do significantly better than that then we’ll have to make a financial investment that may not be required or necessary. That’s why we have not rushed to the table and said we need these things,” he said to council members.
Dentler said town staff would continue to look at the possibility of adding more equipment and/or manpower to its snow fleet. LaFollette said she is also exploring the possibility of long-term rentals or partnerships for utilizing more heavy equipment.
“We will develop a plan that will meet your expectations and costs and resources identified for that,” Dentler said.
With council members commending staff on the clear effort made in snow removal efforts, not all were pleased with how clean-up efforts were handled. Councilman Tom Dunn said his issue was with how long it took streets to be cleared and, even in cases where one lane was cleared on a road, there were significant line of sight and driveability problems.
“As good a job as we did, we did fall short on this,” he said.
Dunn said it appeared there was an attitude of “letting nature take its case,” waiting for snow to melt or to be cleared in a future forecasted winter storm that ended up not happening.
Mayor David Butler, a native of upstate New York, said he was not convinced that the strategy the town employed of focusing solely on primary roads for the first three days of snow removal efforts was the right one.
“I’d love you to prove to me that it’s the right strategy. I know this was a really large storm but we used the same strategy on all the other storms,” he said. “I just feel that having people trapped in their houses for five days … we have to figure out how to make that not happen. It’s just not acceptable.”
But Councilman Bruce Gemmill said he saw nothing wrong with how the town deployed its snow removal team.
“I think your priorities were straight. There would be complaints,” about residents being stuck in their homes, he said. “But fortunately that’s all it was—inconvenience.”