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Snow woes challenge Ocean State

Municipal snow removal budgets, school schedules struggle to keep up with weekly snowstorms

As more than 40 inches of snow have blanketed the Ocean State in just the past month, municipalities are struggling to deal with quickly evaporating winter budgets and limited space to store snow.

Significant winter storms, which began occurring on a near-weekly basis in mid-January, have made driving difficult and affected the routine operations of public services such as the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority. The storms have incurred regular delays for RIPTA as a result of icy patches, narrow roads and steep hills that have not been thoroughly cleared.

“Since the first major storm hit, we daily update our riders on detours, and I don’t think we’ve had a day without at least one detour,” said Barbara Polichetti, director of public affairs for RIPTA. Riders have complained in particular of inaccessible stops, Polichetti said, adding, “Sometimes the bus stops are banked in by snow … but our drivers are trying to let people off at the stop, or near the stop whenever possible, where there’s a cut in the snow bank.”

Each additional storm makes school cancelation decisions increasingly difficult, as schools must have a minimum of 180 days of instruction per year. So far, there has been one statewide emergency school closure and two other “very significant school closures,” said Elliot Krieger, executive assistant for communications at the Rhode Island Department of Education.

“They can’t schedule (make-up days) during state holidays, so they could cut into vacation schedules … or Saturdays, or they could add days at the end of the school year” if severe storms cause more cancelations, he added.

Though winter is not yet over, many cities in Rhode Island are running low on available snow-removal funds. While only $300,000 remains of Providence’s $1.6 million budget, the city remains “optimistic that (it) will receive federal reimbursement for the first storm,” said Evan England, press secretary to Mayor Jorge Elorza.

Juno, which was the fourth-heaviest snowstorm on record in Providence according to the Weather Channel, cost the city about $750,000. Safety is the top priority, England said, adding that exhausting the snow budget would not prevent the city from handling future storms.

Other cities in Rhode Island face similar concerns. Pawtucket, for example, set aside a snow budget of $550,000 to fund overtime pay for city workers, private plow drivers and supplies such as salt and sand. But if money spent on outside equipment such as loaders and dump trucks is factored in, Pawtucket has already far exceeded that figure.

Though the winter management budget is a minor piece of Pawtucket’s overall budget, “we have to keep (the streets) safe and passable for our city residents … and especially public safety vehicles,” said Dylan Zelazo, chief of staff to the city’s mayor, Don Grebien. “We will certainly continue to clear the streets and we will find the money elsewhere.”

This year’s snow woes include more than just heightened expenses: Rhode Island is also running out of space to dump snow, forcing local municipalities to consider alternatives with potentially negative environmental consequences. Snow is currently being brought to parks and beach parking lots, but if locations away from water become occupied, dumping snow into bodies of water such as the Narragansett Bay would be a last-resort option, said Angelo Liberti, chief of surface water protection at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.

Since snow plowed from the roads often is polluted by gasoline or hydrocarbon contaminants, cities must ensure that only clean snow is dumped into local waters when this measure is deemed necessary, Liberti said.

“If (the cities) really have no alternative left, they can call and discuss their situation” with the Department of Environmental Management, he said, adding that the state has “some guidance for being careful where they dump it to make sure that they’re not eroding the shoreline or causing any problems for navigation.”


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