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Originally published Wednesday, January 7, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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City never responded to Metro's request to plow routes, bus chief says

A chaotic command center and poor communication with Seattle road crews kept so many buses out of service that Metro's emergency snow plan was all but useless during the Christmas snowstorm that stranded thousands of riders, a Metro official said Tuesday.

Seattle Times staff reporter

A chaotic command center and poor communication with Seattle road crews kept so many buses out of service that Metro's emergency snow plan was all but useless during the Christmas snowstorm that stranded thousands of riders, a Metro official said Tuesday.

King County Metro General Manager Kevin Desmond told the City Council that when his agency called the city's Department of Transportation to ask that routes be plowed, their calls were never returned, so they had no idea if their requests were granted.

"The lesson learned is that to have much more aggressive, ongoing communication between the different levels would have been helpful," Desmond said.

During the 3 ½-hour hearing, which included rants from angry members of the public, the council resumed grilling SDOT Director Grace Crunican about why Seattle's streets were impassable days after the storm.

They questioned her decision not to hire more private contractors to help plow — only two extra plows worked the streets during the storm — and asked why she didn't use the city's emergency supply of salt on icy streets.

Crunican said her department did not have a plan for such a severe storm.

"We plowed the streets, and that wasn't enough. So what do we do then?"

Council President Richard Conlin said the storm response revealed the emergency plans used by city departments were not flexible enough as conditions changed and the storm worsened.

The council will meet again Friday to discuss changes that should be made, then put in place an action plan by the end of February.

Metro's emergency snow plan called for 80 percent of its buses to be operating. But with all of its articulated buses and electric trolleys out of service, the agency couldn't implement the plan.

At the command center, employees were working 12-hour shifts and conditions became tense and chaotic, Desmond said.

"The repeated snow events over the next several days frustrated our ability to provide predictable service," Desmond said.

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Riders were left waiting at stops for buses that would never come, and in many cases, Metro's radio signals were so jammed that the agency didn't even know where its buses were.

Phone lines were overloaded, Desmond said, and Metro's Web site offered little useful information.

Desmond said two upcoming projects will improve communication, including adding GPS locaters to buses by 2010.

During future storms, Metro also will have a liaison at the city's main operations center to improve communication and help make sure bus routes are cleared.

When it came to using salt to help clear ice and snow from the streets, Crunican said she didn't believe it was an option. The city hasn't used salt to de-ice streets since the late 1990s, when it stopped the practice because of environmental concerns.

Last week, Mayor Greg Nickels announced the city would reverse directions and use it under certain circumstances.

Crunican seemed more willing to admit mistakes Tuesday than she had been Monday, when she defended her agency's response.

"I can see in hindsight, believe me: I'm not immune to the fact that we didn't get the job done for the public and for their expectations," she said.

Conlin said the city doesn't deserve the "B" grade Nickels gave it Christmas Eve for its storm response.

"I feel the grade is 'needs improvement,' " Conlin said. And after two days of questions, he said, city department heads are starting to acknowledge that, too.

"I'm hearing now some recognition that there does need to be improvement."

Nickels spokesman Alex Fryer said a B grade leaves room for improvement. He defended Crunican, who was out of town for two days during the storm.

"There's no one that can point to a single decision that was compromised because she was gone for that brief period of time," Fryer said.

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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