It has been a messy, snowy pre-winter season in Spokane, with more than 25 inches of snow falling in November. Even though we haven't seen snow for almost a week, the signs of that snowy November remain in downtown Spokane, in the form of snow berms. The city says it has been "berming" snow in Spokane for years, but we questioned the logic behind the berms - and, how long we'll have to live with them.
The snow started piling up the day after Thanksgiving, when Spokane was hit with an onslaught of snow that seemed to go on for days. The snow has since stopped, but you wouldn't know it by looking at the downtown streets. Once fluffy snow is now icy and gray, clumping in piles where traffic used to flow.
"This is about 25 inches of snow in two weeks time, three weeks time - you have to put the snow somewhere," says City of Spokane spokesperson Marlene Feist.
But, why does that have to be in the middle of some of our busiest streets?
"If you plow to the sides downtown, you cover all the parking bays and there's no on-street parking." Feist explained. "For the merchants, the priority is for people to have a place to park. So we racked to the middle because otherwise the only other snow storage location is in the parking bays."
That makes perfect sense; clear the parking spots so downtown business doesn't melt away. But, why is the snow still sitting there, nearly a week after the snow stopped falling?
"It's very expensive to haul the snow out of there," Feist said. "Plus when we do this, we're usually in the middle of moving a lot of snow. So we move them to create the center berms. We're going to have to deal with them eventually, but right now our focus is getting the residential streets passable for folks.
But, the city can't deny what many drivers see every day. Cars are nearly crashing because the intersection is the only place to change lanes. It seems illogical, really, but the city insists: the berms aren't a Spokane phenomenon.
"I think when we have young reporters coming from Florida, then I think we have a challenge," Feist said. "Because they aren't used to snow conditions."
(For the record, I grew up in Montana and spent four snowy winters in Milwaukee. Snow berms were new to me when I moved to Spokane. The same goes for our producer from Alaska, our reporter from Denver and our news director from Detroit.)
"We've been berming downtown for as long as anybody can remember. That's what people do in downtowns - this is not unique to Spokane," Feist explained.
But, that's not really true. Today, I called snowy cities around the country and found only one that berms snow in the middle of downtown streets. Milwaukee and Madison, Wisconsin; Syracuse, New York and Cleveland, Ohio say they don't berm because it's too dangerous and it slows traffic. Fargo, North Dakota sometimes piles up snow in parking spots, but that snow has to be removed within 24 hours. Missoula, Montana was the only city I called that admits to creating downtown berms that can stay for days or weeks in the city's downtown.
Despite telling us Friday it would take an industrial snow blower and a dump truck to destroy and remove the berms, the city Monday said it has found a more cost-effective way to remove the berms. Feist emailed kxly and said temperatures this week will help them break down the berms. Their plan: spread out the berms, hit them with de-icer and melt them away. The city hopes to make significant progress on the berms by the weekend.