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Costa says Pittsburgh plow drivers 'let the phone ring' during weekend snowstorm

Bob Bauder
| Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2018, 4:18 p.m.
A city of Pittsburgh Public Works plow removes snow along North Avenue in the North Side on Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
A city of Pittsburgh Public Works plow removes snow along North Avenue in the North Side on Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014.

A top Pittsburgh official blamed the city's failure to clear streets of snow and ice on a lack of snowplow drivers, but a union official said it's the city's fault for not calling out drivers to work overtime.

Chief Operations Officer Guy Costa infuriated union representatives by criticizing drivers who did not report for work over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend. He said they slowed down efforts to remove snow and ice from streets.

More than 1,000 people called the city's 311 service line to complain that streets remained covered with ice and snow for days after a Friday evening storm dumped freezing rain and more than 5 inches of snow on streets.

Pittsburgh City Council offices reported receiving hundreds of complaints.

“We took offense to them saying the reason the streets aren't clear is because we called off,” said Paul Kapetanovich, recording secretary for Teamsters Local Union 249, which represents about 60 city snowplow drivers. “They're blaming the drivers for it. Meanwhile, I got drivers calling me and telling me they aren't being called out for overtime.”

Costa on Wednesday said the Department of Public Works called every driver for overtime shifts, but some failed to answer the phone and others refused to work.

DPW truck drivers vary in pay grades, but the lowest paid makes $21.32 per hour, according to the city budget. They receive triple their standard rate for working a holiday and double time for working a seventh day in a row. Monday was a holiday for city employees.

“If they were Teamster drivers, they were called to work overtime,” Costa said. “They let the phone ring, or they didn't answer it, so we might not have talked to them, but we did reach out and call them.”

Dan Gilman, Mayor Bill Peduto's chief of staff, said the city plans to give drivers more advance notice of work schedule changes during snowstorms, change a call-out procedure to add more drivers during major storms and talk with unions about making work rules more flexible.

“Starting today, we have changed the process, and it will be better documented so I can show you the exact minute we called everyone, what number we called and what the response was,” Gilman said, adding that the city had equipment standing idle with no drivers.

He said the city had about 60 trucks out during peak hours, but the number fluctuated over the weekend. He estimated the city needs to have 85 to 90 trucks working during major weather events.

“It's having enough drivers to use that equipment, and more importantly, are we hitting the routes efficiently and what are we putting on the streets,” he said. “Our drivers did incredible work. We didn't give them tools to succeed.”

Gilman said officials are considering changing a chemical mixture for deicing streets during frigid temperatures. Rock salt becomes ineffective when temperatures drop below 20 degrees, according to city officials.

“We need to change the material that we're laying down,” Gilman said. “We're studying other cities and what they use and how they pre-treat streets.”

Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith of Westwood and Councilman Anthony Coghill of Beechview said they received hundreds of calls from residents complaining about icy streets. Both said they suspect the closure of the city's Division 4 street maintenance headquarters in Knoxville contributed to problems.

The city condemned the building that housed Division 4 because of structural problems.

Peduto's office confirmed the city would rebuild the headquarters. It intends to announce a new location by July. Cost estimates were unavailable, but the mayor's office said it has $1 million in unspent capital funding from prior years for the project.

Gilman said his immediate focus is doing a better job during the next storm. He said streets should be clear within 24 hours.

He also addressed Kail-Smith's concerns about the city's Snow Plow Tracker , an online application that indicates when a plow has been on a specific street. Kail-Smith said residents have sent time-stamped photographs and videos of streets that haven't been cleared after the app indicates they have.

Gilman said the city would upgrade the app to indicate when a truck is plowing or salting as opposed to driving en route to somewhere else.

Bob Bauder is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-765-2312, or via Twitter @bobbauder.

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