Change can be good: Snow removal success story in Kansas City

Greg Bolon
Assistant Division Engineer
Public Works Department, Street and Traffic Division
City of Kansas City, Missouri

A big change occurred in 2002 that substantially altered snow removal operations in Kansas City, Missouri. For more than 10 years the Public Works Department, Street and Traffic Division utilized private contractors to perform snow removal. Citizens have not always deemed the performance of the contractors on residential streets acceptable nor has it been affordable with tightened budgets due to the down economy. By making various internal changes, seeking support from other departments and better utilizing existing resources, the City of Kansas City is now performing snow removal using city employees exclusively. The comments received from citizens so far have indicated a high approval of the changed program. And, after the first two snow events, savings have been $250,000.

Kansas City is large geographically with approximately 320 square miles in its limits. The street system is 5,900 lane miles serving a population of 450,000. With a staff of 160 employees, the City's Street Maintenance section could not effectively address its snow removal responsibility. The winter of 2000/2001 is an example of the impact of insufficient resources. It was extremely harsh; the first storm consisted of two to three inches of ice, followed by heavy snow and three weeks of extreme cold weather. The negative publicity received about snow removal after this storm forced a reevaluation of our program.

Prior program and characteristics
In the 2000/2001 year, the Street Maintenance staff of the Public Works Department salted all arterial streets (750 miles) that were not a part of the parkway and boulevard system. Parks and Recreation Department staff salted streets that were under their jurisdiction. As soon as the snow reached a depth of two inches, the arterials including parkways and boulevards were plowed. Staff of the Water Services Department provided additional help.

As in previous years, private contractors were also hired to plow all residential streets and a few arterial streets, but did not apply salt. City forces were assigned to inspect the work of the private contractors and a residential command post supplemented the main command post to take calls from citizens.


  • The snow removal program in Kansas City was geared more towards large storms as the streets were not plowed and contractors were not called in to assist until two inches of snow had accumulated. However, in Kansas City 80 percent of the storms left a snow accumulation of less than two inches.

  • Routes were too long. Trucks were spread out too thin to provide adequate coverage.

  • Parks and Recreation Department and Street and Traffic Division staff were providing similar service next to each other, but did not cross boundary lines.

  • City inspectors examining the work of private contractors were driving the routes only to guarantee compliance.

Review of the snow removal program and its characteristics showed that improvements were necessary and could easily be made. However, it was recognized that in order to provide better services some new equipment would have to be acquired. In 2000/2001, the Street and Traffic Division had a fleet comprised of dump trucks, a few pickups, and older sedans. The old sedans were replaced with ¾-ton 4x4 pickups, which could be equipped with a snowplow and spreader. In addition, some light trucks were upgraded to single-axle or tandem dumps, which were also equipped with wing plows. Similar improvements were made in the vehicle fleets of other departments.

Enhancements of snow removal program in years 2001/2002 and 2002/2003

2001/2002 Program. The city was divided into 27 sections with each section comprising about 40 miles of arterial streets. Each section had three to four trucks assigned to it to provide salting and plowing during a snow event. To achieve the above-described level of service, partnerships were developed with the Water Services and Parks and Recreation Departments and the areas covered by these departments expanded. The Public Works Department provided these departments with needed additional equipment such as plows and spreaders.

The Water Services and Parks and Recreation Departments assumed responsibility for four and three sections respectively. In addition, the Parks and Recreation Department continued to assume responsibility for snow removal along parkways and boulevards south of the Missouri River. The Street and Traffic Division assumed responsibility for the remaining 20 sections that included boulevards and parkways north of the Missouri River. The above-described partnership and shared responsibility resulted in eliminating the use of private contractors in plowing arterial streets. Private contractors were still utilized for residential streets. However, their scope was now changed to provide salting, if possible, and plowing when one inch of snow was expected.

2002/2003 Program. In this year, the snow removal program was further modified. The proposed plan included plowing and salting all arterial and residential streets without the use of private contractors. Furthermore, city inspectors who had previously inspected the contractors' routes/streets were now utilized to plow residential streets using the trucks that had replaced the old sedans.

Thirty-two routes, averaging 40 miles each, were included in the residential program. The city inspectors were trained and served as snowplow operators, and were assigned to a route close to where they lived whenever feasible. Their familiarity with the areas and accountability to their neighborhoods contributed to the success of the program.

The winter experienced this year has allowed us to test our new program. We have been able to mobilize our crews for residential snow removal much more quickly than in the past. The comments from within city government and from the media have been favorable. We continue to review, analyze and modify this new process. In the future, it is anticipated that the residential snowplowing program would have to be expanded to include about 40 to 48 routes. New subdivisions will add to the challenge and additional equipment will have to be purchased.

Not only does the changed program assist in budgetary shortfalls, but it also makes us totally accountable for our performance in snow removal to the citizens of Kansas City, Missouri.

To reach Greg Bolon, call (816) 513-9204 or send e-mail to