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In an ordinary winter, Portland can let most snowfall take care of itself with a quick thaw. This has been no ordinary winter. Snow and ice storms have pummeled Portland, shutting down the metro area and closing schools for days at a time. The unusually relentless...

Relentless winter prompts soul-searching on how Portland handles snow

In an ordinary winter, Portland can let most snowfall take care of itself with a quick thaw. This has been no ordinary winter. Snow and ice storms have pummeled Portland, shutting down the metro area and closing schools for days at a time. The unusually relentless...

Relentless winter prompts soul-searching on how Portland handles snow

In an ordinary winter, Portland can let most snowfall take care of itself with a quick thaw.

This has been no ordinary winter. Snow and ice storms have pummeled Portland, shutting down the metro area and closing schools for days at a time.

The unusually relentless cold weather is prompting officials to examine whether it's time to start taking winter a little more seriously.

"It's a fair question to ask ourselves: Is this a new normal, in terms of frequency and magnitude of winter events?" said Portland Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who oversees the city's transportation bureau. "I think that's something we have to look closely at."

This year, extreme conditions prompted the state's transportation agencies to take extraordinary measures. In a break with longstanding policy, they used road salt in the Portland area and called in help from the city of Seattle.

Nevertheless, poor road conditions have slowed the movement of freight through the region, and icy thoroughfares left businesses without customers and goods to sell. Social service agencies, meanwhile, have found it more difficult to reach clients, and the storms strained the resources of hospitals and medical centers.

The Oregon Department of Transportation said it had applied more deicer to roads in six weeks than it had in each of the last three winters. Its overnight reversal on rock salt also spoke to the severity of conditions.

"We didn't really use any of those tools last year," ODOT spokesman Don Hamilton said. "We didn't really have any snow or ice events to speak of -- at least, nothing like this."

That's what planners grapple with. Do they prepare for a typical winter or gear up, expensively, for unusual events?

Last year's mild winter speaks to more typical conditions. In most years, the region's moderate climate often ensures all evidence of a snowstorm will melt away, usually the very next morning.

This year's storms left drivers stranded on the side of the road as snow was falling, and they've been followed up by extended cold snaps, ensuring that the ice lingers for days.

Portland's transportation bureau budgets $300,000 a year for materials to respond to winter storms, including the deicer magnesium chloride and the gravel the city spreads on roads. Some years, it uses only $10,000 of that fund, transportation bureau spokesman John Brady said.

Each agency is walking a fine line, said Dale Keep, a Walla Walla snow and ice removal consultant who works with city and state transportation departments. Portland, he said, doesn't typically have to deal with weather like that seen in the last two months.

"The bottom line here is, as a taxpayer, what are you willing to pay for an abnormal year?" Keep said. "Are you willing to pay for the extra labor, equipment and material?"

Portland's 55 snowplows and $300,000 budget is trifling compared with that of Kansas City, Missouri, which has 180 snow plows and a $2.75 million. (Kansas City has fewer residents but more lane-miles of road. It gets an average annual snowfall of 18.8 inches, compared with Portland's 4.5 inches.)

Portland also lacks experience in dealing with snow, Keep said, and there's no easy solution.

Take Tuesday's storm, which brought more snowfall than Portland has seen in 20 years.

"Experience comes into play in everything," Keep said. "Theoretically, you have people working in the Portland area who have worked with the state, the city or the county who have been there for 18 years and never experienced something like this."

One debate is sure to continue through the winter months: the use of rock salt to clear roads.

The city and state long ago decided not to use salt over concerns it could contaminate groundwater and corrode roads and vehicles. The agencies' preferred deicer, a solution of magnesium chloride with an anti-rust agent, is believed to be less prone to lingering in groundwater.

But it's less effective at melting snow or ice already on the roadway. It also has a tendency to seep into bridge decks and corrode them from within, according to a study commissioned ODOT.

The Oregon transportation department, having settled on a policy of at least limited salt use, will need to figure out where to buy and store the product.

And in Portland, the City Council will likely weigh whether to follow suit. On Thursday, it used road salt trucked in from Seattle on several Portland roads in what Saltzman said was a one-off test.

Portland transportation officials weren't impressed with their first applications of road salt, saying it was about as effective as the magnesium chloride solution they've used for years.

Road crews applied the salt side-by-side with magnesium chloride and said they found little difference in performance. But the bureau said it would look for other opportunities to test its use in the future.

He said any proposal to adopt regular use of road salt would have to go to the rest of the City Council for approval.

Meanwhile, the transportation bureau will begin to weigh whether it needs to have more plows and personnel available when snow and ice arrive.

"Portlanders aren't expecting us to have the same degree or the resources to respond as Chicago or Minneapolis," he said. "But if we believe we're going to be seeing more, I think there is an expectation that we learn from our experiences and adapt within the confines of our budget."

-- Elliot Njus

enjus@oregonian.com
503-294-5034
@enjus

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