- The Washington Times - Monday, January 31, 2000

Sometimes you've got to lose. That was the case Tuesday when a snowstorm shut down the region, costing the state of Virginia alone as much as $169.4 million for a single day, according to Standard & Poor's DRI.

Nothing draws attention to the power of a humming economy quite like bringing it to a halt. That is what happened when the storm of 2000 dumped up to 16 inches of snow on the region.

Employees stayed home, restaurants remained closed and the stores that opened were empty except for skeleton staffs and a few brave souls who ventured out for junk food and batteries.

Of course, bad news usually presents a public relations opportunity for someone. In this case, the Salt Institute was poised to, if you will, rub salt into the wounds of economic injury.

The institute saw the storm as an opportunity to get the word out about the benefits of salt and snowplowing equipment. A 1998 study the institute commissioned from Standard & Poor's DRI provided some relatively fresh economic data that was extrapolated to conclude that the storm's impact on the East Coast over two days amounted to more than $5 billion.

One of the states studied was Virginia, where the cost comes in the form of lost wages of $93.2 million, state and local taxes of $8.7 million, federal taxes of $23.9 million and retail sales of $43.5 million.

"Winter storms like the one we just went through may be unpredictable and unique, but investments in professional snowfighting can keep snow- and ice-storms from paralyzing local economies, keeping children home from school and preventing emergency vehicles from making their lifesaving trips," said Richard Hanneman, president of the Salt Institute.

It went without saying that the industry trade group thinks having plenty of salt on hand is a good idea too.

In the Washington area, where paralyzing snow storms usually hit less than once a year, it does not make sense for governments to buy enough equipment to avoid ever closing the city down.

In Vermont, which saw 11 inches of snowfall on Tuesday and five inches Wednesday, businesses remained open although about half of the schools took a snow day off. Burlington International Airport was able to remain open, for all the good it did; there was nowhere to fly to or from because nearly every other airport on the East Coast was closed.

Vermont's state and local governments are equipped with some serious snow-fighting equipment. Cars tend to have snow tires, or at least all-season radials that are inspected annually for tread. Residents are generally not timid about venturing out into a storm. In a state where about a half-dozen potentially paralyzing storms hit in an average year, that is as it should be.

For the rest of us, there's a fine line between having enough equipment to dig out from a snowstorm in a reasonable period of time and spending a fortune on equipment that is going to sit idle almost all the time.

"If you're buying enough equipment so you never have to have a shutdown, you probably have too much equipment," said David Wyss, chief economist for Standard & Poor's DRI.

He added, however, that in most cases multipurpose trucks can be adapted with plows to handle snowstorms. It's not like governments have to buy trucks and let them sit idle most of the year, only plows.

Wisely, local governments are turning to private contractors as their primary snowfighting force. As The Washington Times reported this week, 70 percent of Northern Virginia's state-organized snowplowing is done by independent contractors. In Prince George's and Montgomery counties, 269 of 392 official plows on the roads are owned by private companies. The District had 196 independent contractors augmenting 139 of its own trucks.

"I think it's very cost effective," Mr. Wyss said. Where he lives in the Boston area, much like Washington, landscape architects install plows on their pickup trucks and go to work for governments on side streets. Independently owned dump trucks hit the main roads along with state- and locally-owned trucks.

By most accounts, the plows did pretty well during this snowstorm. It was not a repeat of the blizzard of 1996, which became a political liability for then-Mayor Marion Barry when the city simply failed to plow its streets.

Regardless of the economic impact, the Washington area was best off closing down on Tuesday. An argument could be made that keeping the city closed on Wednesday, a sunny day largely devoted to digging out, was overdone.

Montgomery County, which closed its schools on Wednesday as it opened government offices and declared an emergency to keep cars off the road, just couldn't make up its mind on how to handle this storm.

On the other hand, there are some advantages to keeping the region closed down. The federal government, with its local work force of more than 331,000, is usually among the first to shut down.

Having federal workers off the job certainly eased traffic. Though Standard & Poor's DRI was surely correct that governments lost tax revenue, the bright side is that the region's residents got to keep some of that money in their pockets.

Notwithstanding the Salt Institute's case for more spending, and the enlightening data from Standard & Poor's DRI, the region will surely survive a day or two per year taken at a somewhat slower pace.

Bernard Dagenais, business editor of The Washington Times, can be reached at 202/636-3173.

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