Time to think creatively about road maintenance

Another snowstorm in the nation’s Snow Belt; another blizzard of complaints from residents about impassable roads, especially in the neighborhoods; and another postmortem by government officials.

Welcome to winter in the Mahoning Valley.

We conducted an archive search of recent snowstorms and found that the extensive news coverage of last weekend’s 10- to 12-inch dump was no different from those of years past.

Indeed, the complaints about the thoroughfares not being cleared quickly enough and side streets being snow covered for days on end had a familiar ring.

And, the explanations from government officials for why street crews were overwhelmed when they had so much advance notice was no different from those given by past administrations.

In other words, last weekend’s snowstorm served to reinforce our belief that many communities in the Mahoning Valley will continue to fight a losing battle if they cling to the old ways of doing things.

Why? Simply put: Money woes.

As the region continues to be hit with negative economic news – the idling of the GM Lordstown plant in March means the loss of more than 4,000 good-paying jobs – local governments are finding it increasingly difficult to provide even the most basic services.

In addition, the public’s aversion to taxes makes it all the more difficult for governments to respond in times of emergencies.

Warren City Councilman John Brown summed up the situation succinctly when he talked about the income-tax increase voters recently approved to pay for roads and safety services:

“If they turn that income tax down, we are in a world of hurt.”

Warren received about 10 inches of snow, while other parts of the Valley were hit with 12 inches.

In Youngstown, Kevin Flinn, the city’s building and grounds commissioner, had this to say about crews working 12-hour shifts and yet being unable to complete plowing the entire city until Tuesday morning:

“It speaks volumes about what the guys in the street department do. They persevere. They’re working with old equipment and doing the best they can.”

Lack of manpower

Aging equipment and the lack of manpower are the two main reasons given by officials in just about every community in the Valley for the slow response during the storm.

In Warren, operations Superintendent Frank Tempesta echoed the sentiments of his colleagues in the area when he said, “It would be ideal if we could maybe get into a program where we get two new trucks a year for maybe three years.”

But the ideal is beyond reach – given the economic challenges confronting this Valley.

Hence we believe it’s time for some creative thinking on the issue of road maintenance.

Youngstown commissioner Flinn has asked Youngstown State University’s department of mathematics and statistics to study the city’s snow and ice routes, which have not been updated in more than 30 years.

We applaud Flinn for seeking expert advice, but we have a question: Could YSU’s math department expand the study to include other communities interested in updating their data?

There’s a reason for our query: Armed with such information, YSU’s statisticians could crunch the numbers to see if a regional approach to road maintenance is feasible.

Indeed, given that the Ohio Department of Transportation takes care of nonlocal routes in the Valley, is a state-local partnership realistic?

Here’s our thinking: It would be cheaper for a community to maintain its roads if it were part of a regional effort. The cost could be calculated on a per-mile basis, while the need for new or upgraded equipment could be met through cooperative purchasing.

We have long argued that regionalization is the only answer to the Valley’s economic woes. The days when communities could make it on their own are long gone.

With state and federal dollars for local governments harder to come by, and with residents pushing back against tax increases, the reality of shrinking budgets can no longer be ignored.

When the snowstorm hit last week, Youngstown came face-to-face with what the future holds unless drastic action is taken.

But let us be clear: When it comes to maintaining its roads, Youngstown is the rule, not the exception.

YSU’s department of mathematics and statistics should be asked to think outside the box of parochialism.

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