Jeramey Jannene
City Hall

Is The City Ready to Plow Snow?

City has 28,405 tons of salt and 414 pieces of equipment ready to clear 1,472 miles of city streets.

By - Oct 2nd, 2019 03:06 pm
City of Milwaukee garbage truck with attached snow plow trying to clear the street. Photo taken February 12th, 2019 by Jeramey Jannene.

City of Milwaukee garbage truck with attached snow plow trying to clear the street. Photo taken February 12th, 2019 by Jeramey Jannene.

With the potential for snow growing by the day, Department of Public Works (DPW) officials appeared before the Common Council’s Public Works Committee to update the council on the city’s readiness for plowing and shoveling.

The committee had grilled DPW leadership in February over the department’s performance during a string of snowstorms. And a series of press releases went out in March further blasting the snow removal efforts.

“It really is never ending. It’s a year-long planning effort,” said DPW Commissioner Jeff Polenske. But the department believes its better positioned this year to respond due to changes made since the last time snow fell.

“We went through and did a whole house cleaning on routes,” said DPW director of operations Laura Daniels. She said that included shortening a number of plowing routes and reconfiguring others so time wasn’t wasted on overlapping trips down border streets. “We’re up for the task.”

Spread over the 96-square-mile city, DPW is responsible for clearing 1,472 miles of streets and 7,000 lane miles. Along the way it encounters approximately 42,000 intersections and 89,000 driveways said Daniels. Over 28,405 tons of salt stand ready in city storage.

“Anti-icing is really where we’re making great strides and improvement,” said Daniels. DPW managed two passes down residential streets last year and she hopes for more this year. Last year DPW had 20 trucks with anti-icing construction equipment and Daniels said seven more will be available this year. “Anti-icing is going to be our future in developing better ice control.”

The anti-icing process relies on spreading salt brine on city streets that melts a light dusting of snow and prevents snow and freezing rain from bonding with the pavement. The department uses 277,280 gallons of brine two winters ago, 640,277 gallons last winter and expects to use even more this winter.

Daniels said training has also been improved. In February she told the council that inexperience, alongside aging equipment and a staffing shortage, were the primary causes of the city’s lackluster plowing efforts. “It’s a dedicated bunch,” said Daniels of the city’s 360 plow operators. Hundreds more city employees and contractors support the plowing effort through vehicle maintenance, area inspections, shoveling and other support functions.

“If there’s anything that hampers us on many streets it’s the parking,” said Daniels. The city is working to streamline its rules and messaging around parking rules and plowing notifications. Ald. Nik Kovac said it now boils down to: “if we are plowing, alternate sides, and if you don’t you will get a ticket.” The alderman said that’s an improvement over the confusing messaging regarding snow emergencies, plowing operations and other parking regulations. Residents can sign-up for the city’s e-notify text message service to get alerts when a plowing operation is underway.

Ald. Cavalier Johnson suggested one thing the department could do to increase resident satisifaction with plowing and snow removal is to offer a database of independent contractors that could perform alley clearing services. The city has over 500 miles of alleys that it does not plow.

Replacing Aging Equipment

The city relies on a fleet of “packers,” garbage trucks outfitted with snow plows, to clear the side streets. The growing age and breakdown frequency of the fleet was cited by Daniels and Polenske last year as a reason the plowing performance was suffering.

Daniels said help was on the way via Mayor Tom Barrett‘s 2020 budget proposal that includes replacing nine garbage trucks over the standard four. But that didn’t please Ald. Robert Bauman.

“If they’re not already on hand, what difference does it make?” asked Bauman. “It doesn’t,” responded Daniels, but Polenske interjected that it’s about improving the situation over the long term.

“We’re worried about December this year,” said Bauman. “Right up until April 7th.” Bauman’s comment, a reference to the mayoral and council elections, drew laughter from the audience.

“Do we have any disabled vehicles right now?” asked Ald. Mark Borkowski.

“Oh, I’m sure we do. We have a big fleet,” said Daniels. “When I say we have 154 packers, I take into account that we could have 30 out of service at any time.” Daniels fleet report shows 120 packers, 113 salt trucks, six brine trucks, 20 hybrid salt and brine trucks, 29 miscellaneous plows, 33 sidewalk tractors and eight end loaders. An additional 67 end loaders and “12-18” plows were listed as under contract from private operators.

“Here we are October 2nd, vehicles shouldn’t be disabled,” said Borkowski. But Polenske pointed out that the vehicles are used year-round for garbage pickup and other DPW operations.

Daniels said 38 salt trucks are mounted and ready to go, with nine more city trucks converted from general use to salt spreading every week.

“If it seems like guys like me and Alderman Bauman are micromanaging so be it,” said Borkowski. “I am begging you guys to come to us and say you need $100,000 so we can get six more vehicles out on the street.”

Daniels said the department has the equipment and staffing it needs right now.

Retired Drivers

A new city program to bring back retired DPW drivers to plow snow will go into effect this winter. Of the 52 eligible retired drivers, Daniels said five have expressed interest in coming back to plow.

They will be paid approximately $26 per hour, plus overtime when applicable. With overtime kicking in after eight hours of work, their pay would rise to $39 per hour.

“I might do that,” interjected Bauman to laughter from the audience.

The alderman introduced a program in March that requested the department hire retired drivers. The council unanimously approved its creation.

To qualify retirees need to live within 15 miles of the city and have retired within the last three years.


“The sidewalk program is totally inadequate,” said Bauman early in the meeting. The alderman criticized the department last year for not complying with snow removal standards it requires of its citizens.

“We used to be car centric,” said Daniels. But she said things are changing. She said the department is training a B team, which would give it two shifts of workers to clear city sidewalks, protected bike lanes and other spaces. “We should cut in half the amount of time it takes us to get sidewalks done,” said Daniels.

“Our goal is to be in compliance the same as we require a citizen,” said Daniels.

Arterials vs Side Streets

Daniels said the department has an explicit focus on making sure the arterial streets are cleared first before working to clear the residential side streets. But Bauman, Borkowski and Ald. Russell W. Stamper, II have repeatedly said side streets are being missed.

“That’s not true that the resident has been missed,” said Daniels. “Time, temperature and traffic make a big difference.”

“It doesn’t do us any good if you can’t get to the main road,” said Borkowski. Stamper pushed for DPW to get to side streets after doing a first pass on arterials.

“I’ve been around 16 years, they’ll tell you anything at the committee table,” said Bauman during a meeting that featured multiple confrontations with administration officials. He said he would consider legislation to direct the department’s strategy.

“Can we get to the residential streets after the arterials?” asked Stamper. “Laura, if you don’t say ‘yes’ I’m going to go with Bauman.”

Before Daniels could respond, Polenske interjected. “Just because it’s snowing doesn’t mean we’re going to approach it the same way every single time,” said the commissioner. He noted that the weight of the snow and timing of it have a big influence on the plowing strategy.

After nearly an hour of debate, the committee held the file for future review.

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Related Legislation: File 190954

Categories: City Hall, Politics

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