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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Snowgates Demonstrate Practical Wisdom of Public Services

Mr. Ehrisman's passionate advocacy of snowgates and our weekend winter wonderland got me wondering why Madison's public works department doesn't use snowgates. My dad, a font of local wisdom, tells me that Madison once upon a time did install snowgates. The innovation came at the urging of Harvey Rhoden, who worked for the city.

Personal digression: I knew Harvey as "Grampa Rhoden," not because he was kin, but because he and his wife babysat me when my mom worked at the college. Grampa Rhoden was a big, round man whom I remember as deeply tanned from being outdoors running heavy equipment all the time. His cigar habit may have imprinted on me a fondness for the aroma.
Harvey's snowgates worked great, Dad says. But the city didn't like them, because they slowed down the work. The snowplow drivers were on the streets longer, and the city had to pay them more. So, says Dad, the snowgates didn't last.

Dad and I had this conversation as we towed his skidsteer from one of his rental units to another to clear the snow ridges from the driveways. We saw plenty of other people applying their own shovels and snowblowers to the hard, chunky walls of snow sculpted across their driveways by the city plows. Madison only had three inches of fluffy snow, so clearing steps and sidewalks was a breeze. The skidsteer made clearing the driveway a snap as well... if you consider gassing up, loading and unloading, and maintaining personal heavy equipment all year long a snap. Without the skidsteer, I guesstimate clearing a typical snowplow driveway ridge might take ten minutes with a good metal scoop shovel. And that's a light snow.

Now multiply that effort by a couple thousand households. Calculate a GDP equivalent. Say a couple thousand people expend that effort. 2000 people × 10 minutes × $10/hour (your time is worth at least that much, isn't it?) = $3333. Add in a few dozen broken plastic shovels, gas for snowblowers, the investment in skidsteers and trailers made by a few wildmen like my dad....

Compare that with the cost of centralizing that snow removal as a function of local government. I'm totally speculating here, but suppose six snowplow operators have to spend three more hours lifting and lowering snowgates to keep our driveways and sidewalk egresses clear. Suppose we pay them twenty—heck, thirty bucks an hour (that's cold, crappy work). That's $540 above current costs. Add equipment and maintenance....

Snowgates remind me of the discussion we had last year about closing drivers license stations last year. When government spends less on certain services, it often shifts costs to individuals. We pay less in taxes but more in personal resources, and more folks are left out. Dad has a skidsteer and truck and trailer to haul, but the old lady down the block has felt boots and a plastic shovel. I suppose if we had some Christmas spirit, we'd have just run the skidsteer dry clearing every driveway we could for free... but what kind of socialism is that?

Even Dakota War College agrees: we'd be snowed without good government services. Government can provide some centralized services more efficiently than private efforts can.

Now, about that single-payer health care system....


  1. As someone who had to get out early on Sunday morning, I can tell you that the Sioux Falls roads were in amazing shape.

    I hope the new attachments to the plows are effective. What I heard was that the snowfall was too deep this time and still tumbled over them to leave berms in driveways. But I am very, very glad they are being tested and hope that in the normal, non-blizzard situations they will save wear and tear on residents!

  2. What kind of socialism is that? I'd say it's related to libertarian socialism or left-anarchism (take your pick of designations).


  3. Brett, I'll take the former, since it sounds like the slogan for the Paul-Kucinich 2012 ticket.

    Tim, keep shoveling! :-)

  4. http://m.rapidcityjournal.com/news/article_2522d2ce-e780-11df-b43e-001cc4c002e0.html

    Not advocating...just pointing this out as an FYI. This was an actual petition voted on by residents making it illegal for the City to deposit snow in driveways.

  5. It might make sense to have a combination blower and rotary broom setup to move snow off streets as soon as it starts falling instead of waiting until traffic converts it to ice. A few pickup trucks with such a setup that start moving as soon as snow starts falling might make streets safer and actually reduce costs. Just a guess however after watching years of city snow removal here in Winner that always seems 24 hours late.


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