Aug. 2, 2010

The city of Elgin is a vibrant, diverse community nestled in the Fox River valley approximately 40 miles northwest of Chicago.

While located at the fringes of Chicago suburbia, Elgin considers itself a city and provides a full spectrum of public services to the community. Elgin’s population is greater during the day than at night, which means many people come to work in Elgin every day. Elgin has a population of approximately 105,000 and is one of the fastest-growing communities in Illinois.

The city of Elgin is a vibrant, diverse community nestled in the Fox River valley approximately 40 miles northwest of Chicago.

While located at the fringes of Chicago suburbia, Elgin considers itself a city and provides a full spectrum of public services to the community. Elgin’s population is greater during the day than at night, which means many people come to work in Elgin every day. Elgin has a population of approximately 105,000 and is one of the fastest-growing communities in Illinois.

The Elgin Public Works Department has an employee base of approximately 100. The department provides all of the basic services of a typical public-works operation, including streets, water, sewer, traffic, fleet, parks maintenance, solid waste collection and, of course, snow and ice control.

The following is the mission statement for the Elgin Public Works Department snow- and ice-control operation: It is the mission of the Department of Public Works to provide safe streets through efficient and timely snow and ice control. This is accomplished by being properly equipped with the latest advancements in snow-fighting equipment, technology and materials, utilizing a well-trained staff and being well-organized and prepared for any winter storm event.

As the worldwide economic downturn began hitting communities across the country, many local governments were faced with declining revenues and were unable to sustain usual and expected levels of service. Elgin certainly was not immune to these challenges, but while many communities cut staffing resources and associated services, Elgin’s Public Works Department faced an additional challenge.

Prior to the economic downturn, an aggressive political atmosphere was created during Elgin’s biennial city council election. The highly charged campaigns of many candidates chose to target those services the Elgin Public Works Department provided. Many of the highly visible services such as paving, pothole patching, street sweeping, leaf collection and snow and ice control became scrutinized. The political challenges were not without foundation.

The Elgin Public Works Department had become complacent with respect to service delivery and performance. Three basic causes became evident. First, there was a lack of recognition of the changing expectations from the community. Second, the operations performed by the department were not well-managed. Lastly, there was a significant resource gap both in terms of allocation and sufficient staff and equipment to perform operations as they were then prescribed.

So while many communities faced the challenge of reducing staff and services, the Elgin Public Works Department faced an additional challenge. Public works had to improve its operations while reducing its resources. For the sake of this examination, I will focus only on the improvements to the snow- and ice-control operation.

Snow to plow

Elgin covers an area of approximately 40 sq miles and is located within the Snow Belt. Elgin enjoys an average annual accumulation of 40 in. of the lovely white stuff per year. There are 325 centerline miles of roadways (940 lane-miles) and 320 cul-de-sacs. Elgin’s average annual salt usage is 7,500 tons, and the former snow- and ice-control plan prescribed calcium chloride for all of the prewetting needs. There were 17 routes across the city, with an average length of 55 miles each. The time to drive each of the routes once was over eight hours. In addition, there were 13 cul-de-sac routes, which took up to 12 hours to clear.

Two trucks were assigned to concurrently plow each route: a lead truck to plow the center and a follow truck to plow to the road edge. Each route contained high-, medium- and low-priority streets. Drivers were directed to maintain the high-priority streets until the snow ceased. At that time, they could begin to plow the medium- and low-priority streets. Cul-de-sac drivers were not dispatched until snow had ceased. So while all of the main routes were being well-maintained, residential streets were not plowed at all until many hours after snow had stopped. This was the single highest source of complaints from the citizens.

Examination of the former snow- and ice-control plan with respect to the community expectations revealed a simple fact. The Elgin Public Works Department was not being responsive enough to the needs of the largest segment of the community, that being the residential neighborhoods. The challenge for public works was to develop a plan that balanced the need to keep traffic moving along many corridors and through retail, commercial and manufacturing areas while at the same time providing an immediate response to the residential neighborhoods. The Elgin Public Works Department had to accomplish this while also losing resources.

Response time

Public-works staff performed a thorough review of every element of the operation and solicited input from the community and all staff within the department. What was ultimately created was a plan that maintained all of the high-priority routes at the former performance standard, provided an immediate response to the residential neighborhoods and reduced route size and response time by half. The Elgin Public Works Department accomplished this while reducing staff by 37 workers within the department in the last two years during the economic downturn.

How was this accomplished? Seventeen routes were expanded to 22 routes. Three of the 22 routes were designated as “super routes.” The three super routes contained all of the former main routes. Two trucks were assigned to each of the super routes, since many of the main routes are multilane roadways. The remaining 19 routes were essentially residential routes. These routes had one driver assigned to each. During an ongoing snow event, the residential routes would only have the street centers plowed. It is not until after the storm had stopped that drivers would begin plowing back to the curb. The last change was to the cul-de-sac route plan. Recognizing the need for drivers, the department decided to contract the plowing of all of the city’s cul-de-sacs. The cost to plow our cul-de-sacs for a typical snow season is equal to the cost of four full-time staff. As a result of all of the above changes, there was an immediate presence in the residential neighborhoods.

The former plan required a commitment of 47 drivers and trucks for one 12-hour shift, or 84 over a two-shift, 24-hour period. The new plan required a commitment of 25 drivers and trucks, or 50 over a two-shift, 24-hour period. This results in a reduction of 34 drivers needed per 24-hour period. While it may seem like the department now had a surplus of drivers, the “cushion” provided a redundancy that did not exist with the former plan. The redundancy covers the loss of drivers to sick, personal or vacation days. At any given time, 20% of drivers are unavailable.

Elgin public works also provides sidewalk snow and ice clearing for the central business district. Redundant staff are used for this operation, with assistance from the community restitution unit, which consists of individuals sentenced by the court to provide community service in lieu of monetary remuneration. This unit had been assigned to the police department for many years. The recognition that this unit could provide a much-needed resource to the Public Works Department prompted reassignment of the unit to public works. Under the direction of public works, the unit has grown and provides a significant and much-needed resource as other staffing resources are shrinking.

Controlling costs

Up to this point, I have evaluated the staffing resources of the Public Works Department with respect to snow and ice operations. Staffing is but one aspect of a public-works operating budget. Within a snow- and ice-control budget, there also is salt, liquids, equipment maintenance and storage for both materials and equipment. While staffing is a significant cost element of the operation, there are opportunities to reduce costs within these other areas as well. The Elgin Public Works Department chose not to compromise equipment maintenance and storage, as these two elements are too important to vehicle condition and viability, given a limited fleet and no opportunity to replace fleet equipment.

This left salt and liquids as opportunities to reduce costs. Salt usage in Elgin was not well-managed under the former plan. Given the more recent dynamic nature of the salt market in the Midwest, there were opportunities to save significant costs in terms of salt use. Staff were poorly trained on proper salting techniques, and while liquids were used, there was poor control with their use. An annual training program was implemented to improve driver understanding of salt use and the benefits of liquids.

From this training, a couple of areas emerged that could benefit Elgin’s operation. First, develop a prescribed salt application rate, including a proper prewetting application. Second, evaluate on-street salting policies and look for efficiencies. It was found that drivers salted continuously while plowing their routes even while it was still snowing and made little use of the spreaders’ application controls.

The new plan stipulates that drivers on the super routes salt continuously while plowing at set prescribed rates. Within the residential routes, only hills and trouble spots are salted while it is snowing. As residential routes are being plowed, and after the snow has ceased, drivers only salt the intersections and at mid block. The resulting savings are significant. Elgin spends an average of $600,000 per year on salt and liquids. What the department realized was a reduction of 20% of its typical salt usage, or a savings of $120,000.

Better use of liquids meant the department also was using more liquids. Public-works staff evaluated the ability to produce its own brine and mix its own blend of salt brine, beet juice and calcium chloride. Taking the lead from the McHenry County, Ill., Transportation Department, the “super mix” consists of 85% brine, 10% beet juice and 5% calcium chloride. The super mix is as effective as calcium chloride, costs less and has an environmentally friendly element. There was an up-front cost of $50,000 to construct the brine-making station. The annual savings realized over the direct purchase of the liquids is $100,000.

Steeling pavement

The final significant change to the operation was to the plow blades. The former plan identified rubber blades to be used on all front plows. Steel blades were used on all undercarriage plows. As the lack of response to the residential areas was the larger problem of the operation, it also was recognized that the ability to adequately plow down to pavement was lacking. Research showed that many area public-works agencies used steel blades exclusively on their plows. Reasons for this included better street clearing, streets were less likely to develop a hard snow pack on the pavement and steel blades lasted longer.

Elgin made the change to use steel blades exclusively in conjunction with the new plan. Use of the steel blades has proven to more effectively remove snow and ice from the pavement. There was and remains some apprehension toward the value of the steel blades. Negative consequences include less comfort for the drivers. While steel blades last longer, they break more frequently, and pavement markings take a beating. The Elgin Public Works Department continues to work on this aspect of the operation and is trying different types of rubber, plastic, polyurethane and segmented blades to learn which will be most effective from both the standpoint of cost and operational success.

Elgin public works has learned what can happen if you allow yourself and your operation to become complacent and to take the public for granted. The department has learned that an effective operation requires input for the entire community and all staff to be effective. The department has learned that it needs to be adaptable to changing expectations and to changing resource allocations, and that it must continue to evaluate and seek out new and better solutions to perform operations. The department also has learned that training is important to educate staff so that they will have the knowledge to provide input and gain their buy-in to the operation. Without buy-in from the community and from staff, no public-works operation can succeed.

About The Author: Lawry is public services director for the city of Elgin, Ill.

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