Portland will have more salt, more plows to handle winter storms

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PORTLAND — Portland is beefing up its storm arsenal in an effort to avoid a repeat of last winter, when snow and ice throttled the city for days at a time.

The new plan includes more widespread use of road salt, which city transportation officials had until last winter rejected as too environmentally hazardous.

The city’s transportation bureau is buying six new salt spreaders that can be installed on city trucks, and it’s turning to other bureaus and private businesses to get more crews out clearing roads.

“I think we’re much better prepared,” said Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who oversees the transportation bureau. “We’ve learned a lot of lessons from the last winter.”

The new investment falls short of the $1.2 million in new equipment Saltzman and the transportation bureau had sought in the latest city budget.

And the city will still rely on rising temperatures and traffic to clear ice and snow off the many roads and side streets it doesn’t plow at all. It will also count on Mother Nature to clear the last vestiges from the roads it does plow, because plows intentionally leave up to half an inch of snow or ice in place.

Portland’s moderate climate usually comes through. But when it doesn’t, it can cost the city in productivity.

Last winter, Portland Public Schools lost nine days of school due to snow. Businesses, too, were closed for days at a time, and hourly workers lost wages. Mayor Ted Wheeler asked landlords to waive late-rent fees in the wake of the storm.

That was an exceptional winter for Portland. But some forecasts call for a similarly fierce, snowy season ahead thanks to the influence La Nina, a pattern of atmospheric and oceanic cooling.

This year, the city will keep 300 tons of salt on hand, enough to treat between 2,000 and 3,000 lane-miles of roadway. It can also procure and store another 1,000 tons of salt ahead of a big storm.

Portland will still try to limit its use of road salt to a handful of roads that are routinely rendered impassable in snow, and where runoff won’t send salt into rivers and streams. But in severe storms, the city will consider more widespread use, Saltzman said.

The city transportation bureau will also draft drivers and trucks from the city water bureau during storms, and it will hire private contractors to supplement city plows. And it will potentially call on Seattle to send aid, and return the favor if that city is socked in.

As in later storms last season, the city will assign police to enforce tire-chain orders, keeping drivers from trying their luck on hills and getting stuck, blocking traffic and snowplows in the process.

And it will offer parking meter amnesty when storms hit to encourage drivers to take transit rather than risking a trip in their private vehicle.

Saltzman previously sought $1.2 million to buy new snow-clearing equipment and $1.6 million a year to beef up PBOT’s weather-response staff and materials.

Instead, the bureau got $30,000 for the new salt-spreaders, and the city set aside $300,000 in contingency funds to pay for any unforeseen snow removal costs.

“If we do see a major snow or ice event on the level of last year, I won’t be hesitant to ask for more money,” Saltzman said.