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Lack of Snow Plows Left Columbus Streets Covered, Spark Complaints

Columbus city officials have been getting an earful in the past week. More than 1,000 people called Columbus' 311 line complaining about the city's snow removal efforts after last week's storm.

WOSU examines why Columbus streets were in such bad shape days after the snow stopped falling. Last week's storm was significant for central Ohio, Columbus got between five and seven inches of snow and a little bit of ice. But as many suburban streets were clear about 12 hours after the storm, most in Columbus were still snow covered - even main roads.

MORE: All Sides with Ann Fisher examines the issue.

Cathy Hall, of Clintonville, pumped gas as she watched cars inch down the unplowed Olentangy River Road Thursday morning, 38 hours after the storm.

It's one of the main arteries to get to Ohio State and everything so I was a little surprised that it wasn't in better condition.

In some cases, it took city crews 40 hours to clear main roads. Unplowed residential streets forced Columbus City Schools to cancel classes for a third day while other districts returned to class after missing one. Over on Maize Road, in North Linden, Keith Russell noted the snow on the busy street. "You'd think as much traffic is on it, they'd keep it more clear because it is a busy road," Russell said. "I mean, I think they ought to hit the side roads a little bit, but I guess they're doing the best as they can do, I don't know."?

So why does it take so long? First let's look at the number of plows. In last week's storm the city used 78 plows to clear all of the city's 6,300 lane miles. That's fewer plows than in comparable cities. Take Kansas City, Missouri for example: same number lane miles, same average snowfall as Columbus. Kansas City put 240 plows on the street last week, more than triple what Columbus used. And Kansas City does not have to plow state highways, which Columbus has to. Sean Demory speaks for Kansas City Public Works department. He said their crews stick to city streets. "It definitely gives us some more flexibility as far as what sort of coverage we can provide, and it allows us to meet the needs of our city a little more effectively,"he said. Demory said two days after the storm all of the city's streets were clear of the eight to 10 inches of snow they received.

As for why Columbus, and not the Ohio Department of Transportation, has to plow state Routes 315 and 23 and 33, state law mandates local municipalities take care of them if they're inside city limits. The city's Public Service Planning and Operations administrator Patti Austin said Columbus and ODOT share some outlying plowing routes. "It makes us more efficient. So, it's not that we contract with ODOT and we do a bunch of their work and they don't do a bunch of ours," she said. "We trade back and forth based on who is most logical to complete that route based on whether they are out there anyway." It used to be worse. Columbus plows used to have to clear I-670, 70 and 71 within city limits. Columbus did have some bad luck. For one thing, the brutal winter has depleted the city's supply of salt, so crews are spreading it judiciously. And Columbus was supposed to have another 27 plows by now, but Austin said a bid issue stalled the purchase. "They would have helped immensely, I'm going to be very honest. You know, if we had those 27 extra we would have been able to get our arterial streets done more quickly and then get into the residential streets more quickly." But despite the complaints, despite the loss of two additional school days, don't look for Columbus to match Kansas City's plowing fleet. Austin said it would be cost prohibitive. "I am in no way dismissing the frustration of not being able to get out of your driveway, if that is the case, or if your street needs plowed...but we're talking about an event in Columbus, this kind of a snowfall, that maybe happens once or twice a year. So for once or twice a year to invest that kind of money into equipment and personnel is not a good return on our investment," she said. If you're counting, Columbus' 43 inches of snow this winter is double our average amount. And snow is in the forecast for Thursday.