Duluth to revamp broken snow emergency system

Recent paralyzing storm instills greater sense of urgency

A vehicle crosses the centerline of Fourth Street near 22nd Avenue East to clear a car parked along the snow-narrowed road Friday. Fourth Street is one of Duluth’s would-be snow emergency routes. (Steve Kuchera /

Well before the recent post-Thanksgiving blizzard struck, freezing travel for days, city leaders realized they had a problem: Duluth's snow emergency system is so confusing and ineffective that it's essentially useless.

In fact, Jim Benning, Duluth's director of public works and utilities, has never declared a snow emergency in all his 13 years on the job. What's more, no city staff could recall ever calling a snow emergency, even during the Halloween blizzard of 1991, which dumped more than 3 feet of snow on parts of Duluth.

Noah Schuchman, Duluth's chief administrative officer, said many of the city's intended snow emergency routes remain unmarked.

"So people would not know if they were on a snow emergency route, which would make it more complicated. And that's frankly why we didn't implement it this year, is that we ran out of time in the summer to get the signs installed. Our goal would be to make sure that people have the information they need so that they move their vehicle when and if that's appropriate," he said.

With the exception of Fourth Street, which was recently reconstructed by St. Louis County, most of Duluth's would-be snow emergency routes lack any signs.


Benning estimates it will take about 2,800 signs to properly mark the 120 miles of roads to be designated as snow emergency routes.

Clear communication can be a challenge as well in the midst of a major storm, noted Mayor Emily Larson.

"We were concerned about the capacity when it comes to a snow emergency like this. There's just a lot of cars. There's a lot of people. There's a lot of roads, and we're a regional center. So, we have a lot more activation than just our residents," she said.

But Benning is confident the city will be in a better position by the time next winter rolls around, thanks in part to an ordinance the Duluth City Council passed this fall and pending plans to install signs this summer.

Under recently adopted rules, the city would have authority to declare a snow emergency by no later than 4 p.m., providing people with at least five hours of time to remove all vehicles from snow emergency routes before enforcement kicks in at 9 p.m. Any vehicles still on the street after that time could be ticketed and towed.

Benning said he hopes the threat of ticketing will be sufficient to bring about compliance, explaining that the city doesn't have a large impound lot and therefore lacks the capacity to have large numbers of vehicles towed away.

People should be able to sign up to receive automatic alerts when the new system goes into effect.

Benning acknowledged that finding places for displaced vehicles to park during snow emergencies could pose a challenge in some areas and said the city intends to explore whether owners of private lots would be willing to provide temporary accommodations.


People could return to their parking spots on the street as soon as plows finish their work.

"You don't have to wait until the snow emergency is done. You just need to wait until the street has been cleared," Benning explained.

If declaring a snow emergency had been a viable option, Benning said he would have gladly exercised it during last weekend's storm.

"The big benefit is those routes can be plowed from curb to curb without having to go around parked cars, so you're not plowing in car, and you don't have to come back and reclear that particular street," he said.

Benning believes an effective snow emergency would have improved the city's response to the recent post-Thanksgiving storm, enabling it to tackle residential streets and alleys in a more timely fashion. Some residential roads in Duluth remained blocked until Wednesday — four days after the storm.

While the ability to call a snow emergency would have helped, Benning doesn't oversell it. He acknowledged it still would have taken city crews days to deal with the nearly 2 feet of snow the recent storm threw at Duluth.

"It's not a silver bullet. It was never intended to be a silver bullet. But it's designed to make snow removal operations quicker and more efficient," he said.

The results of the cleanup effort also would improve, Benning said.


He pointed to Fourth Street, a snow emergency route that runs through Duluth's Hillside neighborhoods, as an example.

"As you can see now, the road has been cleared, but it's very narrow. We couldn't go curb to curb, because there were cars parked there. We did punch through, but there's a lot of unused space between where the cars are parked and where the curb is," Benning said.

"In this particular case — some time when there's a break in the action — we're going to have to have a snow train up there and post that 'no parking,' and remove the snow, which is an inconvenience and is a pretty expensive endeavor to come back after the fact and truck that out of there," he said.

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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