Commentary

Kirk Ross: Let’s get better at winter

March 21, 2014 

The drive from Hillsborough to Chapel Hill was slow, but steady. I was in my old Volvo station wagon, a rear-wheel drive vehicle that would not be my first choice in a winter storm, but is entirely adequate since it has roughly the same curb weight as a fully-loaded 737.

I’d gone up to the county seat as the snow started falling and stuck around too long, trying to rescue a buddy stranded out on Orange Grove Road. In a scene that was to be repeated a few times that night, I got as far as the first major hill only to be blocked by someone trying to defy the laws of physics using a motoring technique known as “mashing the gas.”

After abandoning the mission, I headed home, first along a relatively clear I-40, which was heavily patrolled by DOT plows and brine spreaders. After turning onto to MLK, things looked pretty good before the next big hill came into view. It was covered with sliding cars and looked impassible.

To get home to the south side of town, a quick left on Estes Drive was the only option. That took weaving past several abandoned, snow-covered vehicles along one barely traversable travel lane.

The route proved successful. The bypass and 15-501 south were fairly clear and there was only one close call as a sweet, early 70s Oldsmobile slid past me backwards near the light at Southern Village.

That year, the town was shut down for days and the sledding was splendid. And like most years, when the snow melted away, so too did thoughts that we could maybe do better in dealing with such weather.

It seems that as an organized society we’re pretty good here at shutting things down and complaining. That’s not a bad short-term strategy anywhere for the first hours of a major storm. But there are other places where the long-term strategy is a little more proactive than waiting for warmer weather. And that’s something we need to think about, because, let’s face it, we’re terrible at winter.

The Triangle as a whole and our little corner of it especially needs to be able to function when its cold and wet outside. We can’t let 2 inches of snow or the threat of ice pellets take down a major driver of the state’s economy.

This is not meant as a slight to the crews clearing roads and spreading brine. On the contrary, their numbers need to be increased and the amount of equipment and supplies necessary to deal with a prolonged series of storms stepped up.

The reason we need to get better at it here in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro metroplex is pretty simple: Our community, which you may recall is known for its excellent schools, is roughly 80 percent residential. That means a lot of families, a lot of commuters and a lot of consequences when the schools shut down. Some days it seems like the right call, but some days you have to wonder why, considering this is one of the most compact school districts in the state, where most kids live less than a couple of miles from their school.

Keep in mind that the impacts of shutting down the towns and waiting for warm weather are not equal. Hourly workers and people who have to be on site to do their job get hit harder. Many have to get here from elsewhere. The hospital and university employ a huge number of hourly workers who rely on us to keep our roads clear so that they get to their jobs.

Getting this fixed will take more than just additional plows and sand and brine. It’ll take being smarter about how we deal with a winter event with better coordination between the schools, the DOT, the county and the towns.

Nobody wants to send people out on to unsafe roads, but with better planning, smarter policies and more resources we can deal with this winter thing. Because, I hate to break it to you, but it happens every year.

Kirk Ross is a longtime North Carolina journalist, musician and public-policy enthusiast. Contact him at kmr@rossalmanac.com 

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