The City of Philadelphia is determined to tackle those tiny side streets. That is, should the city ever see a significant amount of snowfall this winter.
The Streets Department added to its arsenal about 14 Bobcat skid-steers, or compact loaders that can be used for a variety of jobs year-round, such as by its sanitation division, but whose primary function is snow removal on streets 10 feet wide or less.
They’re called “Snowcats,” said Steve Lorenz, chief highway engineer. They have a price tag of $65,000 each, and were first used last year to improve the quality of jobs done on smaller streets — as in Center City, South Philly, Manayunk, Chestnut Hill, Germantown, and Mount Airy — where finding the right equipment can be a challenge.
“Now, good and bad — good is we haven’t had too many major storms since we bought these things, to actually exercise them and to use them in that fashion,” Lorenz said. “... Bad thing is we haven’t had many storms to exercise them, use them to see how well they work and whatnot.”
There have been snow squalls and harsh temperature drops so far this season, with a more significant taste of winter rolling through the region last Saturday. But just barely a taste.
Philadelphia saw less than an inch of snow, according to the National Weather Service, with hardly a trace left behind the next day. It was the kind of storm — those that call for maybe an inch or two — that the Streets Department mobilizes for but that might not need to deploy crews.
A full deployment, when there’s more than five inches of snow, could prompt the response of 450 to 500 total pieces of equipment, ranging from a dump truck to a backhoe. There’s a commitment to plow every street during major events, Lorenz said.
The routes are predetermined, with a responsibility to plow 2,525 miles of street within the city, he said. The desire to add the “Snowcats” came after the Philadelphia Parking Authority lent a helping hand with the small streets, which proved to work better than time-consuming tactics such as small salt trucks or workers pushing snowblowers.
“This is unusual that we’re in the middle of January, and we haven’t had any snow yet,” Lorenz said.
Sarah Johnson, a meteorologist at the NWS’s Mount Holly office, said the season has gotten off to a slow start.
“By no means are we completely done with winter yet,” Johnson said. “We can still get coastal storms by February and March, even into April, so we are below normal so far this winter, but still have potential there for the next few months.”
It’s been about four years since Philadelphia saw one of its most significant snowfalls when a whopping 22.4 inches fell in January 2016. During that time, the city got more than 3,000 salt and plow requests through Philly 311, city spokesperson Kelly Cofrancisco said.
“I’ve been running the snow operation for the City of Philadelphia for 11 years,” Lorenz said, “and after every snow event, if it’s a minor one, major one, somebody will say, ‘My street has never been plowed.’ ”
Proof is easy to find on Twitter, where residents shared photos of mounting snow from Manayunk to South Philly, with claims of never having seen assistance during the 2016 dump that left the city buried.
Could the days of wondering when streets will be plowed soon be put behind residents? An online tool called StreetSmartPHL that lets residents track permit and paving information will eventually include details on plowing by way of a PlowPHL feature.
But not yet. They’re waiting for snow to be able to test out the feature and iron out any bugs before it’s ready for its public debut.
“In my opinion, if we go ahead live with it right now and things don’t work,” Lorenz said, “I think we’ll get a bigger black eye vs. not having it.”