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Chicago calls in reinforcements to fight the snow that won’t quit

For the first time since the Super Bowl Blizzard of 2015, the city has asked private contractors to help haul snow away from Chicago side streets.

A “No Dogs” sign is buried under snow in Lincoln Park, Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021.
A “No Dogs” sign is buried under snow in Lincoln Park on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

The Chicago Department of Streets and Sanitation is calling in reinforcements — for the first time since the Super Bowl Day blizzard of 2015 — to fight the winter that just won’t quit.

With two feet of snow cover and more on the way, the city has asked private contractors to help move the mountains of snow off Chicago’s overwhelmed residential streets and away from schools, hospitals, senior citizen centers, police and fire stations.

What’s known as Phase Four of Chicago’s snow removal plan — with heavy equipment and drivers provided by a pre-approved list of contractors — was activated on Tuesday and will continue at least through week’s end, and maybe into next week.

“Our drivers are fatigued. We’re trying to pick up garbage. … We’ve tapped into those resources in 2011 and 2015. And in 2015, we saw a pretty good result,” said Deputy Commissioner Cole Stallard.

“We’re basically using every possible city resource that we can. And then, we are filling those gaps where additional needs are with private contractors. … We’re trying to knock down these site lines around these schools, firehouses, police stations, senior centers, hospitals.”

Commissioner John Tully said Operation Side-Street Snow Removal started about 48 hours ago.

“We moved the heavy equipment — which is back-hoes, high-lifts, semi-trucks — to haul out snow. ... We’re focusing around the schools — where their buses pull up — and hospitals,” the commissioner said.

Problems on Lake Shore Drive were avoided thanks to lessons learned from the city’s disastrous handling of a 2011 snowstorm. CTA buses were quickly re-routed. Plows were positioned near the S-curve. A segment of the center median was removed, allowing vehicles to turn around, if need be.

But the sheer volume of snow poses a problem. The city had to figure out where to put it all.

Parking Lot G at Guaranteed Rate Field is one location. The city salt pile at 72nd Street and Cicero Avenue is another. Stallard refused to disclose other locations, except to say, “We won’t run out of room.”

“We’re really trying to keep kids away from those snow piles. What do they love? They love trucks. They love snow piles. ... We can’t have that,” he said.

Piles of snow build up at Guaranteed Rate Field, home of the Chicago White Sox. The city is hauling snow there and also to other locations.
With two-plus feet of snow on the ground, Chicago’s Department of Streets and Sanitation was having a hard time figuring out where to put some of it to make roads passable again. So it is moving loads of snow to several locations, including Guaranteed Rate Field.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Side-street snow removal has been a nightmare in Chicago for decades because of the abundance of cars and the shortage of parking.

This time, removing snow from side streets has been hampered significantly by the coronavirus pandemic and by people who ignored warnings to move their cars to the other side of the street when, as Stallard put it, “temperatures were on our side.”

“We just have so many people working from home right now that are like, ‘I don’t need that car because I have that [other] car that’s sitting in the driveway. It can just sit there” in the street, Stallard said.

“We’ll drive down streets where there’s three cars in the driveway and they’re all clean. And then, the car that’s been sitting out in front of their house — there’s three feet of snow on there. It hasn’t been moved.”

Tully described the condition of Chicago side-streets as “passable,” adding: “If ... certain side streets are not passable, someone needs to let us know. … If we’re not getting word on that, we can’t address it.”

He’s also set up a command post at the city’s 911 emergency center to call aldermen and their ward superintendents and ask, “What do you need?”

“Our intent is to continue through the day today and tomorrow. And if need be, we’ll be back out there next week,” the commissioner said.

“We really can’t put the plows down the alleys because, if you push [snow], it goes to the side and end you end up collapsing these metal and wood [garage] doors. We don’t want to do anything that’s going to cause structural damage. We will track those alleys with our garbage trucks. It’s our intent to work collecting garbage on the weekend and next week. Sometimes, these carts are buried in the alleys.”

As for Chicago’s “dibs” system, it’s not about to end. But Tully plans to call a temporary halt to the time-honored system where motorists lay claim to the parking spaces they have painstakingly shoveled out.

“We don’t want to really have people fighting in the streets. So once we see enough progress on these streets, I will make the call that you have to get your lawn furniture off the street,” he said.

“If it’s not off the streets, what we usually do is tell the ward superintendents to put it on the parkway. If it’s not removed from the parkway after we make that announcement, then we start grabbing it.”

The city is hauling snow from clogged Chicago streets to Guaranteed Rate Field and other locations.
The city is hauling snow from clogged Chicago streets to Guaranteed Rate Field and other locations.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times