Pittsburgh City Controller audit warned about snow removal technology

Pittsburgh City Controller audit warned about snow removal technology

PITTSBURGH — Following a winter that entered the Top 10 record snowfalls for the area, many Pittsburgh residents have expressed concerns about the city’s capability of handling snow removal, and Pittsburgh City Controller Michael Lamb’s office said a 2020 audit raised those same concerns.

Last week’s latest storm series in Pittsburgh created more frustration for city residents, given that many city streets were missed entirely by the city’s snow removal trucks, according to a news release from Lamb’s office.

Impassable roads seem especially common in hillier neighborhoods, which creates significant public safety issues. A performance audit previously released by the Controller Office in June of 2020 raised concerns about the Department of Public Works’ GPS-based snow removal system.

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“Our audit found issues with the technology installed by the contractors and subcontractors responsible for making this system work,” Lamb said in the release. “We were told by Public Works that the fixes would be in place by now, and clearly that isn’t the case.”

Tested in January of 2015 and relaunched in 2019, the GPS Snow Plow Tracker system was intended to optimize routes taken by snow plow drivers, control the amount of salt spread over streets, and allow the public to track the location of city plow trucks during winter storms. Pittsburgh’s 1,200 miles of paved roads have seen double the amount of snow this year than in a normal winter, and the flaws with the system’s implementation have started to show, the release states.

“They assured us that it would be done in time for snow season and that didn’t happen. And that’s frustrating,” Lamb told Channel 11 News. “People seem to think that new technology is some kind of silver bullet and it’s not, it’s all about how you implement that technology, how you operate that new equipment and that’s really where the city, on the execution side of this is where the city has really failed.”

The Controller’s audit found that the contractors and subcontractors tasked with technology implementation failed to consult with on-the-ground Public Works employees who had years of familiarity with routes. The optimized routes planned by the system were either inefficient or hazardous to drivers. The audit recommended that DPW hold A&H Equipment, the contractor that installed the GPS and salt-spreading technology, be held responsible for fixes, and rebate the city for hours spent by city mechanics attempting to solve salt spreader issues.

“The City had a pass last winter with very few snow days, and even this winter, there are fewer people on the road due to COVID-related teleworking. We are in our seventh winter with this expensive technology. We should have this new system fully functional by now,” Lamb said in the release.

Target 11 exposed similar issues even before the audit - among them automated spreaders that don’t drop enough salt especially on hilly terrain and spreaders that often delay restarting after stopping, leaving intersections partially untreated.

The audit also stressed the frustrations of DPW drivers, who said that the new routes were one to two hours longer than those previously used, and felt as though the system was designed for a flat, grid-based city.

In response, the Mayor’s spokesman said the city canceled a contract with the navigation vendor last summer and has been testing and installing replacement route software on salt truck tablets.

It’s not that hard, you know people want to walk out their door look right and look left and see that everything’s okay and right now we’re failing on that simple measure,” Lamb said.

Lamb is now calling on the Department of Public Works to implement the recommendations in the audit as soon as possible and ensure that snow removal crews are included in the process.

“Our drivers knew this system was not working as intended. Pittsburgh has a unique terrain and relying solely on mapping software isn’t going to cut it,” Lamb said in the release. “DPW needs to go back to the drawing board with the system’s contractors and implement the feedback of drivers who know these routes better than any software can.”

The audit also said the city should hold the contractors responsible for all the time and money the city spent attempting to fix the systems and Lamb urged the city to go back to the drawing board and come up with something that works.

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