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Salt Sufficient, Ald. Says, but Communication Lacking on Snowy Streets

By Ted Cox | January 10, 2014 2:41pm | Updated on January 10, 2014 4:28pm
 Residents across the city are complaining about unplowed streets in their neighborhood.
Residents Complain of Unplowed Streets
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CITY HALL — An aldermen pulled back on charges of a citywide salt shortage Friday, but blamed communication problems for the confusion.

"The flow of information about what was going on to aldermen was grossly insufficient," said Brian Sleet, chief of staff for Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th). "It's just working out the kinks, but it put aldermen in a very tough position."

Sawyer hasn't been the only alderman complaining about the city's response to the week-long battle against the snow and cold on city streets, but he took the lead Thursday, suggesting the city was facing a salt shortage.

That was in response to the Department of Streets and Sanitation limiting snow plows to one load of salt a shift, which led to fears of a shortage. Aldermen drew the obvious conclusions about a quota being imposed, Sleet said.

Yet, according to Sleet, Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Charles Williams called Sawyer late Thursday to explain that the salt quota was imposed "because it was going to be ineffective" with the low temperatures, even with the "beet juice" the department adds to salt as an antifreeze.

"The city says that they have enough salt. We believe that they have enough salt," Sleet said Friday. "Our issue was that they were restricting it and not giving us the ability to have ... a bit more say in taking care of our neighborhood.

"The aldermen's offices are the people bearing the brunt of the complaints," Sleet added. "We're being slammed in the office with calls." He said there was "no heads-up at all from Streets and San or anyone else on what was going on."

Sleet blamed "centralized decisions that may or may not be communicated to the alderman's office."

Streets and Sanitation responded Friday by deploying 200 plows to residential streets. A city spokeswoman on Thursday said the city had 100,000 tons of salt.

"Frozen snow that remains on the street is softening as temperatures rise to around 40 degrees, and salt is working more effectively, which is enabling plows to more easily remove any remaining snow from the streets," according to a department statement. "Drivers are focused on removing the remaining snow from the side streets and pushing snow back from the curbs and sewer catch basins."

Problems were aggravated in the 6th Ward, Sleet said, because plows in the area are assigned to keep South Lake Shore Drive clear, then couldn't get to side streets before they froze up later in the storm. "People are driving on compacted ice," he said.

"It's an operational challenge that we're having here," Sleet said, especially as this was "the first big snowstorm in a fully operational Emanuel era."

The last major snowstorm, the so-called "snowpocalypse" of Groundhog Day 2011, took place during the campaign to replace Mayor Richard M. Daley, when Mayor Rahm Emanuel was a candidate.

Mayoral spokesman Bill McCaffrey countered Friday that the city has spent $11.2 million battling the 23 inches of snow that began New Year's Eve and the ensuing "polar vortex" cold snap that has seen the city labeled "Chiberia." According to McCaffrey, the $1 million spent on New Year's Eve wiped out the $20.3 million budget for snow removal last year, and the city has now spent $10.2 million of the $20.3 million budgeted for this year. Combined for the entire storm, that includes $7.2 million for salt, $2.5 million for labor and $1.5 million for equipment.

"Throughout the storms, winds and subzero temperature, DSS crews kept the main streets clear and the side streets passable, and crews continue their efforts to clear side streets today," McCaffrey said.

McCaffrey said Williams and Streets and Sanitation staff, including ward superintendents, are "always available" to aldermen, and he didn't expect any major changes in the line of communications going forward.

Sleet said he expected aldermen to vent frustrations over the storm response next week, leading up to the City Council meeting on Wednesday, and he also expected the lines of communication to improve in future storms because of the harsh lessons taught this week. But for now, they're seeing signs of progress with the continued efforts to clear streets and the improving weather.

"The temperature's up. I think that we've made enough noise that people are going to be working with us," Sleet said. "There's definitely been an improvement overnight."