February 17

When Maine’s snowplows get in a scrape

Collateral damage to vehicles and property during storm cleanup costs cities thousands of dollars.

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

click image to enlarge

Impeded by parked cars, city of Portland plow truck driver Robert Fogg couldn’t make it any farther on this Munjoy Hill street while clearing snow Thursday. Rather than risking damage to the vehicles, he backed out and let the driver of a smaller truck do the work.

Photos by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

City of Portland plow truck driver Robert Fogg looks to navigate Portland's narrow streets during a winter storm on Thursday.

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“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.

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