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Report rekindles snowplowing debate
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House Minority Leader Matt Entenza of St. Paul, right, has been critical of MnDOT's snowplowing policy ever since the first heavy snowfall last winter. DFLer Steve Murphy of Red Wing, left, says he heard from many angry snowplow drivers who said there were hardly any drivers working the night shift. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
The snow has melted, but the debate over last winter's snowplowing continues. State transportation officials on Wednesday released a report showing the state Department of Transportation met its snowplowing goals over the winter. But they say it took longer to remove snow and ice from the roads because this winter was snowier than the year before. DFL legislative leaders who criticized MnDOT all winter say the agency is putting a positive spin on its poor plowing performance.

St. Paul, Minn. — MnDOT's snow report gives ammunition to both critics and supporters. Drivers who sensed it took longer to plow the roads after snowstorms are right, and MnDOT defenders who said snow plow drivers were trying to keep up with heavy snowfalls are also correct.

MnDOT's state maintenance engineer, Mark Wikelius, says it took longer to clear the roads because Minnesota had more snow this winter compared to last.

"Thirty-five inches versus 66 inches of snow, a much warmer winter last year. The warmer the winter, the better chemicals work, the quicker snow melts," he said.

Wikelius says snow plow drivers met MnDOT's goals for clearing the roads to bare lanes. For example, on heavily traveled roads like Interstates 494 and 694, MnDOT's goal is bare lane one to three hours after the snow stops falling. The average snow-removal time on those roads last winter was a little more than two hours. But the average times were longer than a year ago, when the state had less snow, and also longer than two years ago, when snowfall was about the same as this year. And while MnDOT met its goals statewide, it failed to meet its plowing goals in the Brainerd area during the month of January, and in the Rochester area in February.

DFL legislative leaders say MnDOT has no reason to celebrate. House Minority Leader Matt Entenza of St. Paul has been critical of MnDOT's snowplowing policy ever since the first heavy snowfall last winter.

"Minnesota drivers know that they spent longer in traffic, that there were more accidents, and that they were put in jeopardy, all because of the Pawlenty/Molnau administration budget cuts," Entenza said.

MnDOT is trying to save money in the snowplow budget to help pay for Gov. Pawlenty's transportation plan, which borrows money to pay for road projects. But MnDOT ended up spending more money on snow removal this winter than it did the year before -- about $45 million. At the same time, the agency made changes in its snowplow driver schedule that saved about a million dollars in overtime costs. Instead of two 12-hour shifts, drivers worked three eight-hour shifts. The change meant only 20 percent of drivers were on the roads during the overnight shift, instead of about half of them.

The chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, DFLer Steve Murphy of Red Wing, says he heard from many angry snowplow drivers who said there were hardly any drivers working the night shift.

"The first two shifts are pretty close to having a full complement of snowplow drivers. Unfortunately the third shift didn't have anybody, and that's when the work needs to get done, in those wee hours of the early morning so that when the commuters hit the road, the roads are cleaned up and that just wasn't happening," he said.

MnDOT officials say the agency tried to rein in overtime costs, but sometimes switched drivers to two 12-hour shifts during a particularly heavy snowfall.

Gov. Pawlenty says Democrats can't continue to attack MnDOT when the agency is meeting its snowplow goals and did not cut snow removal funding this winter.

"It is a matter of fact that the amount of money spent on snowplowing matches or exceeds the preceeding year. And so, when somebody gets up and says, or somebody writes, it was cut, it ain't true. And eventually, facts matter," Pawlenty said.

Pawlenty's lieutenant governor and transportation commissioner, Carol Molnau, wasn't available to comment on the latest snowplow data. Molnau is in China for an international road safety conference.

Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Murphy says Molnau shouldn't have left the state, particularly when her confirmation is pending before the full Senate. Murphy and most other Democrats on the Transportation Committee voted to recommend that Molnau not be confirmed.

Murphy says the snowplow report doesn't sway his vote, and he still doesn't believe Molnau should be confirmed.

Gov. Pawlenty has strongly defended his lieutenant governor, saying she's a highly qualified transportation expert who has reformed the agency.

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