Snow and floods: How cities can prepare roads and bridges
Tuesday, March 21, 2017
Winter arrived late for the Northeast this year, as Winter Storm Stella dropped roughly 3 to 5 feet of snow on parts of the region last week. While many cities were spared the worst of the storm, others felt the full brunt, proving how preparation for major storms can make all the difference between a city that is still operable and one that is totally incapacitated.
People who live in the icy regions of northern and Midwestern states may scoff at the "dangers" of snow, but roads, bridges and therefore mass transit can all be extremely hindered by winter blasts. The effects on a city depend heavily on how prepared it is for such an event.
In 2014, Atlanta became famous for its comical inability to handle just a few inches of the white stuff. But the problems go much deeper than Southerners simply being unfamiliar with snow. In reality, the problem begins with the Atlanta's infrastructure.
According to an Alex Davies article with Business Insider, "Asked how the situation in Atlanta got so bad, Hibbett Neal, the international president of the Institute of Traffic Engineers, noted 'the traffic's bad anyway.'"
When infrastructure is bad under normal circumstances, bad weather will only make things worse. Atlanta's traffic is ranked seventh worst among U.S. major metropolitan areas, according to the 2012 Annual Urban Mobility Report from the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.
It is therefore important that cities and municipalities prioritize and address crumbling infrastructure, as well as any long-overdue road and bridge projects before unforeseen disasters strike. Continuing to ignore such issues is a recipe for trouble, especially when a dash of traffic congestion is added to the already chaotic porridge of a winter storm.
Preparation is key
Having foresight and addressing problems before they happen is important. At the time of the 2012 snow storm, Atlanta's roads were treated with sand for snowstorms. Unlike salt, which dissolves ice, sand only helps with traction.
Still, sand is cheaper to store for long periods, which is important for areas that see snow infrequently — which is why it was the easy choice for a city such as Atlanta.
Unfortunately, easy choices may not always be the best as sand can quickly become useless when it's dispersed by multiple vehicle tires. This turned out to be the case for the city when multiple drivers found their vehicles trapped in snow-logged, gridlocked highways. Many were forced to abandon their cars, adding to the chaos in the city's streets.
Conversely, the Washington, D.C., area treated its roads and bridges with a salt brine mixture in preparation for Stella. Michigan, which has decidedly more snow than most, uses an average of 3,493 tons of salt and 30,000 gallons of brine, as well as 2,200 tons of sand and 4,665 tons of slag to help with traction when preparing for snow.
The preparation doesn't have to start at the onset of a storm. According to the North Carolina DOT, "Maintenance crews across the state begin preparing for winter storms as early as fall by cleaning, repairing and testing equipment, reviewing snow removal routes and stocking up on necessary supplies, such as salt and sand. ... If conditions are good up to 48 hours prior to a storm, crews will pretreat roadways with a saltwater mixture called brine to help keep ice from bonding to the pavement."
Lessons from Katrina
Snow isn't the only doomsday event that can attack a city's infrastructure and transit systems. Hurricane storms and flooding can also wreak havoc.
Few examples are more memorable than what Hurricane Katrina did to New Orleans in 2005. That year, the giant storm hit the eastern side of the city, causing massive flooding when the city's levees were compromised. This proved especially dangerous — and sadly, in many cases, fatal — for the citizens of New Orleans because the city lacked any real mass transit alternatives for the poor and underprivileged.
According to Ben Adler of grist.org, "In New Orleans, thousands of people stayed behind in the city instead of evacuating. It wasn't just individual stubbornness. ... in many cases, they didn't have a car or any other means by which to leave."
Adler continues: "Many New Orleans households — 19 percent, as opposed to 9 percent nationally — do not have access to a car. This is not because New Orleans is so well-connected by mass transit. There is no subway system. There is no rail service within the city except for a limited streetcar system. Buses exist, but you might have to wait around a long time for one to come — if you can stand being out in the oppressive heat and humidity that blanket the city from June through September."
And while the city has improved its evacuation plan for the poor, mass transit options and usage have actually declined since the storm. With many of the city's buses and street cars damaged during Katrina, along with so many citizens leaving, the resulting shock to the mass transit system has been devastating.
According to a 2015 study by RIDE, a New Orleans transit advocacy organization, "New Orleans still has significantly less transit service available 10 years after Katrina. Before Katrina, NORTA buses and streetcars made more than 17,000 trips each week. By 2015, that number had fallen to just 7,813. This represents a 55 percent decline in available transit service."
When municipalities invest in some sort of reliable mass transit for the poor and underprivileged, they are investing in the safety and security of those who may not have access to roads and bridges on their own, no matter how well they are prepared.
So while disasters such as what happened in New Orleans may not be entirely avoidable, but they can be alleviated.
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