Nearly a week after a rare foot-plus of snow hit St. Louis, parts of the Missouri city are still largely snowed in. Between the city’s admittedly flawed response, a change in snow plow policy before the storm, and the fact that folks are sitting at home by the computer with nothing better to do, the event has triggered an, ahem, perfect storm of public discussion about how St. Louis handles snow, and to whose benefit.
Tim Logan, a business writer for the Post-Dispatch and occasional Forefront contributor, tweeted about the stakes:
Race. Class. Age. Infrastructure. Muni finance. Transit. Working parents. Social media. Expectations. Bootstraps or Big Gov’t? #snowgate
— Tim Logan (@tlwriter) January 9, 2014
Traditionally, St. Louis has followed a policy of plowing only its main snow routes and leaving residential streets alone. For this storm, the city opted to also treat residential streets with a reported 8,000 tons of salt and 18,000 gallons of liquid calcium. That diverted crews and resources from main roads. To boot, the weather refused to cooperate — temperatures stayed too cold for the salt and chemicals to work effectively. Jeff Rainford, Mayor Francis Slay’s chief of staff , has come out and said of the ad hoc policy change, “in retrospect, it was not wise.”
But on local station KMOX, Rainford explained that changing demographics — in particular, a seeming reversal of the flight of young people out of St. Louis — prompted the city to rethink a policy that, he joked, went “back to the Model T”:
We recognize that, you know, people’s expectations are changing. That’s one of the reasons why we diverted crews away from the snow routes and started throwing salt down on the side streets.
It is a policy that’s gone back a long time. And really, you know, people who have lived in this city for…like me, old-timers, we sort of got used to it, understood it, and may have, you know, figured out how to get out of our streets and onto the main thoroughfares.
But there are a lot of new residents of this city, younger residents of this city, who are [saying], “Are you out of your cotton-pickin’ mind? You mean you’re not going to plow my street?” And we work for the people. And if the citizens of St. Louis want us to plow the side streets, we’re going to do it.
The city has traditionally begged off plowing side roads out of, among other things, a concern that it would bury cars parked along the road. That has some people asking whether, for one, people should be expected to shovel out their own cars, and, for another, if the city focuses too much on the needs of the car-owning public, and not those of bikers and walkers.
In the storm’s aftermath, city officials have said that the snow removal policy needs some rethinking. That led the local CBS Station to run a story called, “Outrage from Millennials Prompts St. Louis to Reconsider Snow Removal Policy.” This, in turn, inspired a commenter to write, “Ah yes, St. Louis — the gateway to the worst. And what in God’s name is a ‘millennial’?
Antonio French, a St. Louis alderman, has posted photos on Facebook that show clear streets where the county has snow removal responsibilities — the same streets that abruptly clog with snow where the city picks up its duties. He’s argued on Twitter that city officials need to pay attention to the needs of all St. Louisians:
Hey, Millennials. Since the mayor listens to u, if not anyone else, PLEASE vote on behalf of our elderly neighbors: https://t.co/U2LH7mU2iW
— 21st Ward (@21stWard) January 9, 2014
Slay’s office put up an online poll asking people for feedback on the policy. For his part, Rainford tweeted that a policy accepted for so long in St. Louis has rightly become a topic of popular debate:
Plowing the side streets in STL is complex with strong pros and cons. We will have a public conversation about the costs and benefits.
— Jeff Rainford (@jeffrainford) January 8, 2014
That conversation will happen after the winter season, Rainford has said. You know, when people can actually get to it.
Nancy Scola is a Washington, DC-based journalist whose work tends to focus on the intersections of technology, politics, and public policy. Shortly after returning from Havana she started as a tech reporter at POLITICO.