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City delivers report on failed response to Christmas weekend storm to Pittsfield city council

A stone building with a colonnade sits below a grey sky amid snowdrifts.
Josh Landes

The city of Pittsfield, Massachusetts delivered a report to the city council last night on its response to the snowstorm that wreaked havoc on roads over Christmas weekend last month.

After the storm that overtook the region starting on December 23rd led to over 40 minor collisions across the long holiday weekend, Pittsfield was inundated by complaints from residents about icy conditions and unplowed roads. This week’s city council meeting saw city leaders offer an explanation – and apology – for what went wrong.

“Government's greatest responsibility is to ensure the safety of our citizens and to ensure that our community is safe and we take that seriously. For the past seven years, Pittsfield has successfully managed many storm events. But the circumstances surrounding the December 23rd snowstorm tested our best practices and we missed the mark. I am very sorry for all the distress that was caused throughout our community over those three days. To rebuild confidence, it is necessary that we provide answers and improve performance," said Mayor Linda Tyer. “As all of you know beginning on December 23rd, Pittsfield and the surrounding communities experienced a significant drop in temperature after a period of heavy rain and high winds, prompting a sudden transition to heavy snowfall with temperature staying below 15 degrees for two days. These factors among others that we will review in detail, including the types of materials we currently use, contributed to road conditions that did not meet our standards or community expectations.”

Department of Public Utilities Commissioner Ricardo Morales shared the findings of a 13-page, six-part report on the city’s unsuccessful efforts to battle the storm.

“We are here to show the public and this body that despite us being there and putting forward our best method of attack and best practices, we were not able to succeed in maintaining the streets free of ice,” he told the council.

Morales said that the city was expecting to receive just two inches of snow based on weather reports, and rallied its employees to begin a response to the storm at 2 p.m. that Friday.

“We made the decision based on the predicted weather, two inches of snow and lots of rain before the snow, lots of runoff, we made the decision not to treat with rock salt before it before it turned into snow, precipitation turned into snow," said the commissioner. "So that's where, around four o'clock, we saw that snow started to fall. So, precipitation turned, switched. We went out to start treating our mains and we started calling soon after – because we started noticing the precipitation was overpowering, it was coming down around three inches per hour – so we started calling the contractors in as we had anticipated to call them but not so early. In the first two hours, we saw six inches of snow and then there was another inch or so in the next hour.”

As the largest community in Berkshire County by a significant margin, Pittsfield has a road network to maintain that far exceeds that of neighboring municipalities.

“We have approximately 450 lane miles," said Morales. "We have six main routes, 158 lane miles in those mains. We have 32 neighborhood street quadrants with 292 lane miles.”

Morales says the city had all eight of its trucks operating during the storm as well as upwards of 40 private contractors in what proved to be a futile effort to keep the roads clear. The commissioner said that one lesson learned was about the materials Pittsfield uses to respond to snowy roads and how to deploy them.

“We have used magnesium chloride last year," he said. "We bought it the year before in very low quantities. We use it on treating spots like bridges and places that we expect to be very slippery. We do also use calcium chloride, and that's what we used in the during the storm onset or right after the storm on Saturday. Again, that comes in liquid form, and we have to pre-mix it. And not having anticipated the amount of snow that we would get and the hardpack that would that create, we were not, we did not premix that. So, we have another thing we're doing now, is truck tanks for liquid magnesium chloride. We are retrofitting the trucks with tanks that would allow us to respond and change our approach to a storm when needed.”

Morales said it will cost the city $32,000 to upgrade its trucks. He also explained that the state routes that run through Pittsfield are under its purview, which is why there was a sharp disparity between the condition of roads between municipalities surrounding the city.

“We've been talking with the state to add the, continue Route 7 through Pittsfield into Lanesborough, continue Route 9 into Merrill Road and Route 20 west into New York," said Morales. "Another thing we've been discussing, and this is already for the last couple of years, it's been in our capital improvement plan, is the acquisition of two new trucks. This comes at a price at the moment of about $720,000.”

The commissioner also suggested that his department bolster staffing.

“With additional staff, we could provide one more vehicle to each shift, increasing the amount of coverage reducing the amount of miles that each truck has to cover,” Morales told the council.

You can read the report for yourself here.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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