The Economics of a New York City Blizzard, at $1.8 Million an Inch
Scraping against the asphalt, one plow after another made its way down New York's busiest intersections overnight, noisily pushing around the snow that coated the city.
In anticipation of the storm, which the National Weather Service had forecast could dump as much as 18 inches on some parts of the northeastern U.S., the New York City Department of Sanitation split its staff into two shifts on Wednesday, each group of 2,400 working 12 hours at a time to clear the city's roughly 6,500 miles of roads.
Clearing a city the size of New York doesn't come cheap. The sanitation department budgeted $88 million solely for snow removal this year. In addition to its full-time employees, the department also takes on emergency snow laborers, who are paid $15 an hour to shovel out places a plow can't reach, like bus stops, and can earn overtime of $22.50 an hour if they work more than 40 hours a week. Last year, the department hired between 2,000 and 3,000 of these laborers in the aftermath of a major January storm.
Coordinating thousands of employees, hundreds of heavy machines, and tons of rock salt, the government faces a daunting task in snow removal. In the past, it got some help plowing the fluffy stuff, contracting out some of those responsibilities in outer boroughs to independent companies. Now, it handles all the plowing on its own, using 689 salt spreaders and 1,600 collection trucks, both fashioned with plows. The trucks are all equipped with GPS so the city can track where they are at any time and, therefore, how much progress they have made.
"The only vendors we have coming in is if we have to haul snow," said Vito Turso, the department's deputy commissioner of public affairs. "If we have to go in there and start melting snow, then we bring in a contractor with dump trucks to haul the snow from certain areas over to the designated melting sites."
Snow removal costs the city an average of $1.8 million an inch, according to a data analysis of costs between 2003 and 2014 conducted by city comptroller Scott Stringer. The cost was calculated when the city still used private contractors for some snow removal; that factors into the price, as well as the cost of equipment, maintenance, and overtime pay.
A snowless winter doesn't mean the city saves money. "No matter how much snow falls, the city must take certain precautions to be ready for any eventuality. The sweet spot of optimal per inch costs lands at approximately 43 inches," the comptroller's January 2015 report said. "However, if snowfall exceeds the band within 24 and 56 inches per season, history shows that costs begin to rise again on a per inch basis due to the sheer scale of the task at hand."
The lowest cost per inch in the time period the comptroller analyzed was $740,000, when it snowed 55.5 inches in 2003. The highest was $4.4 million an inch when it snowed just over half a foot in 2012.
New York isn't the only city paying through the nose when it snows. Washington, D.C., overpaid for snow removal in 2016, according to reports, and during a harsh winter in 2015 Boston was said to have spent about $40 million, more than twice its budget.
No matter how big the storm, all 6,500 miles of snow have got to go.
"It's like driving from New York City to L.A. and back," Turso said. "We have to do that overnight. But New Yorkers expect us to get it done. And generally we do get it done."
(Updates with name of NYC comptroller.)