Thursday, December 25, 2008

Snow in Seattle

It snowed this week in Seattle. Nestled, as we are, between two sets of snowy mountains it is probably hard for non-Seattlites to believe that this is a rare event. Nonetheless, snow itself is unusual in the city; for snow to fall and stay on the ground past noon is almost unheard of.

The last time there was a significant snow dump here, the storm gave us 31 inches in 1996. This time around we were blessed with about 9 inches, and it disrupted the city quite a bit. The disruptions lasted about a week.

I'm all for shutting things down at times like this, but I admit to be being a little tired of walking slowly over ice to get anywhere. And 4 inches of slush and compact snow on some main arterials doesn't make me so happy either. When people complain about the inconvenience the day it snows I think they need to lighten up; when people are mad at slippery roads a week later I'm a touch more sympathetic.

Thus has arisen a debate in the city as to whether our government should have done more to mitigate the effects of the storm.

One irate caller to a radio show explained that he has lived in Rochester, Concord, and Milwaukee; and that those cities remove snow from the roads immediately. The Seattle response, he said, was grossly incompetent.

But one of these things is not like the others. Rochester, Concord, and Milwaukee receive yearly average snowfall (in inches) of 92.3, 63.8, and 47. In Seattle our average is 7.3. I'll give this guy the benefit of doubt and assume he has not lived here long enough to understand that snow is unusual.

So this is not a question of whether roads should be plowed or not; it is a question about the role of government. It makes perfect sense for a citizen of Rochester, NY to expect his government to do a good job at snow removal. But in Seattle we do not elect people, at any level of government, to be competent snow removers. Nor should we. To do so would be to sacrifice some other, more relevant issue.

The average cost of removing snow in Rochester is much lower than it is in Seattle. Since the cost is high we choose to forego the service.

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