Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Snowstorm Chronicles - Unplowed Roads Commentary

I was listening to WTOP on my way into work this morning, and a woman from Bowie's Sherwood Manor neighborhood called in. She said that her neighborhood streets had still not been plowed as of Tuesday morning, and she had to walk through high snow to get out to meet a friend. She contacted the City of Bowie about the condition of her street, and the City "pointed the finger" at Prince George's County. She called the County, and a rude person on the other end of the phone hung up on her. She felt frustrated and helpless. It had been about 65 hours since the snow stopped falling in Bowie, and her street was still not plowed.

I felt bad for the caller, but I was confused by the negative tone that she took regarding the response by the City of Bowie. Sherwood Manor is not within the City of Bowie municipal limits. The residents do not vote in City of Bowie elections, and they do not pay the extra taxes that City of Bowie residents pay for City of Bowie services. Although the caller implied that the City was shirking a responsibility, the City properly informed the woman that Prince George's County is responsible for clearing the snow from her street. I'm not sure what else she expected the City to do.

The City published an alert on its Web site Monday morning that included the following text:

Plowing services are only provided to those residents who live within the municipal limits of Bowie. Neighborhoods such as Fairwood, Camelot and Sherwood Manor are not in the City limits. Your services are provided by Prince George's County. You can reach them at 301-350-0500 or email custsvcs@co.pg.md.us

A short time later, WTOP followed up that story by interviewing Susan Hubbard, the Public Information Officer for the Prince George's County Department of Public Works and Transportation. I was really turned off by the interview, and I thought it was a terrible public relations effort.

Local government must practice a delicate balancing act during weather emergencies. The reality is that there may be thousands of "squeaky wheels" wanting to be greased, but operations can't be redirected every time a citizen calls with a complaint or a request. On the other hand, feedback from the public must be taken seriously, and the people need to know that the government respects them and is working toward a resolution to their problems.

By coming on WTOP, Hubbard's goals should have been to show that she understood the issues facing the snowbound residents, set expectations for when roads would be cleared and provide some transparency into the effort the County is making to clear the streets so that the public could be assured that progress was being made. It was an opportunity for her to reach out to some Prince George's County residents and to possibly reduce the call volume on the Department of Public Works and Transportation hotline.

One of the WTOP interviewer first asked Hubbard how Prince George's County's snow removal efforts were coming along. She replied that the crews were doing a "phenomenal job". If her goal was to connect with the people who couldn't get out of their driveways and people that were concerned about the treacherous conditions on Race Track Road, phenomenal was not the word to use. It is true that the snowplowing crews should be given praise for their long hours and huge efforts, but I thought Hubbard lost credibility with the people that knew that the driving condition on the County roads truly sucked.

Later in the interview, Hubbard said that there is no need to let the County know about streets that aren't plowed. She said that the County already knows which streets are plowed and which streets aren't plowed. In other words, please stop bothering the County with your calls. I suppose it's impossible for the over-tired plow operators to lose track or make a mistake. Contrast Hubbard's statement with the following excerpt from a City of Bowie alert released last Sunday.

Throughout the storm we have had city officials out assessing the progress and directing crews to problem areas or to streets that have not seen a plow since Friday night. We will continue to do that, but you can help us by letting us know of areas that have not been plowed.

Please email snow@cityofbowie.org. You can just put your street name and "not plowed" in the subject line. Feel free to add other details in the body of the message.

Given the record amounts of snow that fell from the sky in Bowie and Prince George's County over the last week, it's reasonable to expect that the road conditions will be bad until at least next week. It's also reasonable to expect local government that works with you.

Old Chapel Road on Tuesday morning. The snow cover left by the plows has been packed down by traffic. It's extremely bumpy, and traffic is forced to go slow.


  1. Well said Bowie Mike. I guess Hubbard wasn't taking any phone calls from listeners?! Once I finally got out, I too was surprised at the road conditions a little positive PR would have been a nice touch!

  2. Anonymous, no, there were no questions from callers. I recall them saying, "vee vill ask ze questions!"

    Seriously, I don't have an issue with the fact that the roads aren't in good shape. That was an unusually heavy snowfall for this region, and I expect it's going to take some time to clean up the roads. I just take exception to the message coming from the County, and I have appreciation for how the situation is being handled in the City of Bowie.

    Based on feedback from our friends and neighbors in Bowie, I believe that our street was one of the last streets to become passable within the Bowie city limits. Our street remained untouched until 4:30pm on Sunday, but it was made passable that evening and additional cleanup was performed on Monday. Kudos to the City of Bowie for their performance and the way that they handle the storm - both on the roads and in their interaction with residents.

  3. You guys have an insane amount of snow... Wow! Hang in there.

  4. Intrepid, no mud slides or earthquakes, but still a little exciting!