It’s Snowing — And The Government Shuts Down

Yesterday, there was an inch of snow, and the President’s motorcade got stuck on the road.  Literally stuck.  Literally on the road.  One inch.

Tomorrow, there’s two feet of snow due.  Will the Federal government shut down?

It’s a serious concern.  During the winter of ’09-’10, not one but two similar storms knocked out power for tens of thousands of Federal employees, shut down city metro and bus systems, and prevented many essential employees from making it in to work for nearly a week each time.  The second of these, in February of 2010, was dubbed “Snowmageddon” by President Obama, and involved a foot and a half of snow.

I live in the DC area.  As I write this, the cleanup from yesterday’s light dusting of snow has finally finished, and the area is bracing for a major storm again tomorrow.  Supermarkets are being raided; folks are gassing up their cars; emergency generators are being refueled.  Snow shovels are sold out at the local Lowe’s; some bright spark has moved the feed scoops to the front of the store.

Tomorrow is a Friday.  The storm is due at 3pm, and a quarter of the population has decided to stay home from work.  Many of the rest are eagerly checking the government’s Office of Personnel Management website, hoping (or dreading) tomorrow’s snow day.  But some will go out anyway, either not knowing or not caring that the forecast predicts they’ll be stranded in the nation’s capitol over the weekend.

I’m from Maine, and I must confess, the thought of the government being forced to shut down by a couple of feet of snow is laughable.  Back home, we’d stay indoors through the worst of it, but by morning the roads would be clear and we’d go out to work or off to school or out shopping, and we wouldn’t worry about it.  Everyone knew how to drive in snow or on ice, and those who didn’t soon learned.

By contrast, yesterday, there were over 150 accidents reported in Virginia during the evening commute.  Remember:  That was with one inch of snow.

So What’s The Difference?

Well, in Maine, there’s a vast armada of state-owned snowplows that runs through the winter.  Hundreds of drivers are kept on standby alert whenever snow threatens, and when the call comes they go in and start plowing.  They work in shifts through every storm, keeping the 303-mile-long I-95 clear — plus all the exits and another hundred miles of spur highway.  State roads that run from town to town through unbroken forest are kept clear.  Local towns have their own trucks for side roads, and there’s dozens of entrepreneurs with pickup and plow that clear parking lots and driveways wholesale.

By contrast, Germantown, Maryland owns three total trucks with plows, one dating from the 1950s.  Germantown is a typical suburban community, with a population of 90,000 or so, mostly living in subdivisions and ant-farm condo complexes.  Unemployment there is common and homelessness is not unheard of, but there’s very little local government.  That’s normal for Maryland; most places never incorporate as independent cities, choosing instead to rely on powerful county and state governments to perform their vital functions.

But big snowstorms only happen here about one year in every six, and some winters are almost entirely without snow.  As a result, county and state governments would find it very difficult to justify the expense of maintaining the fleet of plows and all the drivers that would be sitting idle for the majority of five sixths of years.  Makes sense, right?

But–

But if nobody from northern Virginia and eastern Maryland can get to work, the government won’t be able to function.  While some would argue that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it should be remembered that people will still be paid; most agency employees are salaried.  This means that they’ll be paid for not working.

The end result is not a savings of money, but rather that the government will suddenly become vastly inefficient.  Err… more vastly inefficient.  The estimated loss for a week-long shutdown is somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 million in salary alone.  Other costs are difficult to estimate, but we can safely assume it’s about five times that amount when the government stops working.

And that number, while significant, fails entirely to take into account the expense that would be incurred if, for example, a major terror attack on our infrastructure were to take place during such an event.  Or if there were a military event overseas, or a natural disaster, or… well, you get the idea.

My point is that the cost would be enormous, and that it’s preventable.

The budget of the entire state of Maine to remove snow all winter every winter is somewhere in the neighborhood of $80 million — which includes all the major municipalities.  While there are significant differences between Maine and the DC metro area, it seems unlikely that establishing an active reserve system for use during major storms would cost more.

Perhaps I’m oversimplifying.  Perhaps the expense would be too high.

On the other hand, perhaps a decent investment in equipment and personnel would justify itself even in the not-infrequent inch of snow.  Because preventing hundreds of car accidents can’t be a bad thing, and we can’t have let the President keep getting stuck.  That’s just embarrassing.

UPDATE:

It is now one week after the storm began; it stopped falling late Saturday night.  Today, snow is still blocking half of non-urban roads; vast piles clog parking lots, subdivision streets, and condo complexes.  The federal government has given almost a week’s paid leave to a hundred thousand ‘nonessential’ employees, and the area’s public transportation system is functioning at about 50% of its normal level.  (I should mention that approximately three times that number of NGO and non-federal agency employees, paid by tax dollars at federal rates, are also on paid leave at this time.)

Accident numbers are extremely high; the cost to the public has been enormous, and the cost to taxpayers in terms of wage paid without work received is in the millions of dollars.

Throughout the northern states, construction workers are laid off at the time of the first big freeze every year.  Several states prevent seasonal workers like these from collecting Unemployment Insurance benefits; others pay and gladly.  This pool of skilled labor includes bulldozer and loader operators (whose equipment stands idle for months), laborers, truck drivers, flaggers, vehicle maintenance crews, and many more.

I see no good reason why some of these people, stuck without work for months of the year, can’t be employed on a contingency basis through the winter, and placed on-call for massive snow events like the one we just experienced.  Municipal, county, state, and federal budgets should be forced to include line items to fund programs to do exactly this:  to transport, house, feed, and employ skilled labor on an emergency basis, and to keep them on call in times when snow removal isn’t a problem.

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