As snow fell at a rate of more than an inch an hour last Thursday evening, Robert Fogg climbed behind the wheel of a 13-ton plow truck to navigate the narrow streets of Portland’s Munjoy Hill – streets made even narrower by parked cars and encroaching snowbanks.
“A lot of times, these guys are just threading a needle,” said Eric Labelle, assistant director of the city’s Public Services Department.
Most East End residents had heeded the city’s parking ban and got their cars off the street early, leaving Fogg to deal more often with pedestrians walking in the middle of the road despite the reduced visibility, and with vehicles darting in front of the plow blades.
Fogg found several cars still parked on Howard Street. At one point, he was unable to squeeze between cars parked on both sides of the street and had to back out, leaving a mound of snow blocking the road. District 1 Supervisor Marvin Hamilton swooped in with a smaller plow attached to a pickup truck to clean up the mess.
“I’d rather have them be safe than be in an accident,” Hamilton said.
But accidents do happen.
Every year, municipalities across Maine pay out thousands of dollars in damages stemming from snow removal operations. This year, the costs of collateral damage are mounting at a time when snow removal budgets are stretched thin or already exceeded by the unusually stormy weather.
Most often, plow trucks take out mailboxes and graze parked cars. Occasionally, they slide into buildings or clip utility poles. In rare cases, accidents result in heavily damaged vehicles or injured motorists.
The Portland Press Herald last month requested all accident claims related to snow removal operations from seven of the state’s largest communities, covering 2010 to 2013. Only Biddeford was unable to respond by press time.
Since 2010, Portland’s snow plowing operations caused roughly $85,650 in damage. That number could increase, since several claims from 2013 are still under investigation.
Deputy City Manager Sheila Hill-Christian said the amount of claims against the city can typically rise along with the number of storms and total snowfall.
“It is important to note the city crews clear approximately 560 lane miles of pavement in the city, and just under 100 miles of sidewalk during snow and ice events, and the (incidence) of accidents is actually quite low in comparison to that very large responsibility,” Hill-Christian said in an email.
Danielle West-Chuhta, Portland’s corporation counsel, said the city allotted $240,000 in the current budget for all claims against the city. With the exception of 2012, snowplow accidents account for a small portion of that budget, ranging from $3,500 in 2011 to $3,829 in 2010.
Most of Portland’s damages stem from an accident in 2012 in which a plow driver struck a 2011 Ford Taurus while crossing an intersection, injuring an occupant of the vehicle. The city paid $52,200 to the individual and an additional $20,000 for the vehicle, according to a loss report from the city’s insurer, the Maine Municipal Association.
South Portland has paid out more than $58,600 in claims since 2010, according to a heavily redacted loss report from MMA. The largest claim was $11,727 paid to the owner of a 2004 Toyota SUV that was hit by a plow in 2011. In December, a plow truck slid backward down a hill and hit a 2008 Hyundai, causing $8,600 in damage. Six utility poles were hit during the three-year period.
Lewiston paid out more than $42,000 in claims over the past four years, including an $11,800 claim in 2010 when a plow truck slid into a driveway. The plow hit two parked cars – a 2008 Sonata and a 1991 Toyota Supra – and struck the corner of a garage, moving it 4 inches. Last February, a plow truck hit a parked bus, causing $6,000 in damage.
Meanwhile, Auburn plows caused roughly $18,400 in damage over the past four years and Augusta’s caused roughly $14,000 in damage.
Westbrook, which provided information for 2011 through 2013, caused $27,500 in plowing damage.
Westbrook’s largest loss came on April 1, 2011, when a road grader was struck by a car traveling west on Main Street, damaging the front bumper and hood and injuring the driver. The road grader’s driver was faulted for not yielding. The city paid more than $12,600 in damages. Other accidents included plow blades nicking rear taillights, side mirrors and doors.
It can be very difficult for people to prove their claims, which cities handle through insurance carriers.
Most municipalities did not provide enough information to identify the people making the claims. The owner of one Portland restaurant, which sustained plow damage to its handicapped ramp, declined to be interviewed for this story.
In Portland, 15 people have claimed city plow trucks caused damage to their parked vehicles since 2010, but the city’s insurer paid only eight of those claims, which ranged from $87 in damages to a 2010 Volkswagen GTI to $1,976 for a Dodge Neon.
Another 15 people claimed their mailboxes were damaged by plows, but the city’s insurer paid only six of those claims, with payments ranging from $37 to $326.
In Bangor, there were 11 claims made against the city over the past four years. It’s unclear from city records how many of those claims have been resolved and how much money the city has paid out.
However, Bangor’s records do provide a glimpse into how difficult it can be to prove a claim against the city, especially if no one witnessed the plow truck striking a vehicle or if the plow driver doesn’t admit fault.
In one claim filed this year, a resident who was not identified in the records reported a hit-and-run of a 2001 Chevy SUV that was legally parked on Kossuth Street during a freezing-rain storm.
The responding police officer concluded the vehicle had been struck by a “large commercial-size plow.”
An official in Bangor’s risk management office said in an email to the city’s insurer, Traveler Indemnity Co., that, based on the police officer’s assessment, the plow seemed to be the city’s.
However, the insurer pointed out that there were no witnesses and the city employee did not recall hitting anything. “There is still no direct evidence to confirm it was a city of Bangor plow,” claims representative Melissa Gallagher wrote.
The claim was ultimately denied.
Back in Portland, plowing the challenging city streets is a point of pride for Fogg, who said he has never had any accidents during his six years behind the wheel of a plow truck. He credits experience, annual training and remaining sharp behind the wheel despite 16-hour shifts during storms.
“It becomes second nature, but you can’t become complacent,” Fogg said.
During the summer, Fogg works on Munjoy Hill cutting grass, trimming trees and maintaining sidewalks. He said he has gotten to know the residents, and he sympathizes with people who get upset when his plow pushes fresh piles of snow in the end of a freshly shoveled driveway.
“I always feel so bad,” he said.
But when it comes to sheer skill, bragging rights belong to Fogg’s supervisor, Marvin Hamilton.
In 2006, Hamilton and a fellow plow operator were the state’s top driving team during the annual Snow Plow Roadeo, a competition that tests the skills of plow truck operators. The duo placed ninth overall in the national competition held in Colorado.
Hamilton hung the plaque on an office wall in the basement of the public services building at 55 Portland St., where it has become the source of friendly ribbing among the crew.
“They all want pointers,” Hamilton said.
Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: