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Snowstorms don’t need to stop Boston cold

Large plows rapidly blew snow into a convoy of waiting trucks in Montreal in 2009.
Large plows rapidly blew snow into a convoy of waiting trucks in Montreal in 2009.AFP/Getty Images

After three punishing winter storms, Boston has been redoubling its cleanup efforts, borrowing equipment and manpower, and readying itself for yet another blizzard that has been predicted for this weekend. Battening down for the storm itself will be difficult enough — it’s expected to drop a foot or more of fresh snow, whipped along by high winds. But the aftermath will pose an even greater question: Can Boston learn how to win its game of catch-up with the weather?

Despite the current round-the-clock efforts by Department of Public Works staff and contractors, Boston snow removal this season has been inadequate, and the city is paying a price. Compounding problems: The malfunctioning T, which has been beset by equipment failures and closed entirely after one storm this winter. But above and beyond the MBTA, the city's streets and sidewalks have been clogged, inhibiting the flow of cars and pedestrians. Stores, restaurants, theaters, and museums are all feeling the pinch, and so are businesses that depend on commuting employees to get the work done. School closures, meanwhile, are threatening summer vacations.

There are better ways. Hurricane-strength winds are reason to declare emergency conditions, and the past three weeks' snowfall has been unusually heavy. But Boston shouldn't come to a standstill with the first major storm of every season.

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Other cities with much heavier annual snowfall find ways to keep moving. Over the past week, a video of snow removal in Montreal has gone viral among snow-beleaguered Bostonians: A snow-blower vehicle scoops up plowed snow and blows it into trucks lined up in a convoy. The snow-blower convoy is just one part of a comprehensive attack on snow, in a city that gets about 225 centimeters a year (a little over 7 feet, roughly twice Boston's annual snowfall). Montreal begins by spreading abrasives (mixtures of salt, sand, and gravel) on streets and sidewalks when a storm is predicted. Plowing begins when snow reaches 2.5 centimeters. Snow removal begins when it reaches 15 centimeters (about 5 inches). That's right: "removal."

Jacques Lavallee, a spokesperson for Montreal's city government, says that the city — with a $150 million snow-removal budget, compared with Boston's $18.5 million — can generally clear the streets of 20 centimeters of snow in about four days. The snow is dumped in any of about 28 locations throughout the city; water mains transport the meltwater to treatment facilities. For a full-scale operation, the city is cleared neighborhood by neighborhood, with car owners advised to park in any of about 5,700 designated free parking areas listed on the city's website. Up to 5,000 cars are ticketed and towed in a typical snow operation, but, as part of a new pilot program, car owners can plug their car location into an app to find out when the convoy is due to arrive in their neighborhood. "We've mastered the recipe over time," said Lavallee. "But there's always room for improvement."

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Mayor Martin Walsh's office has argued that Boston's narrow streets won't accommodate Montreal's tandem-truck system, but Lavallee points out that Montreal has many streets as narrow as those on Beacon Hill, and that on those streets, car and snow removal is crucial in order to make them passable for emergency vehicles.

Other cities are more aggressive about towing cars to facilitate plowing. Mike Kennedy, the director of transportation, maintenance, and repair in Minneapolis, allows that the current situation in Boston is unique — "That kind of event is going to overwhelm anybody," as Kennedy put it — but that city typically tows between 1,000 and 1,500 cars during three-day snow emergencies. Some 8,000 parking tickets are issued. Boston, by contrast, has removed and ticketed only a fraction of that number of cars in the last three storms combined.

It seems that Boston, working with the state and surrounding communities, can come up with a plan that borrows from both Montreal's vigilant approach to removal and Minneapolis's ticket-and-plow system. A snowstorm can be an emergency without stopping the city cold.

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