CBS 58 Investigates: Poorly plowed roads blamed on old equipment

CBS 58 Investigates: Poorly plowed roads blamed on old equipment

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- Snow continued to fall this week and it’s a headache for many, especially in the city of Milwaukee where residents and city officials are frustrated with plow operations.

After backlash last winter, the department of public works promised to do a better job plowing, adding more drivers and improving training, but Alderman Mark Borkowski says so far this year things are worse than ever.

One of the big challenges the Milwaukee Department of Public Works faces is an aging snow plow fleet.

The Department of Public Works is under a microscope this winter after poor plowing operations last winter left aldermen inundated with angry calls.

“It’s every district,” Ald. Borkowski said. “Everybody has a complaint and they’re not nice phone calls. And I get it.”

A year ago the city’s Public Works Committee called on DPW officials to explain what happened. Laura Daniels, the director of operations, told aldermen part of the problem is the snow equipment is old.

“Our fleet is not always sustainable,” Daniels said during the February 2019 meeting. 

Daniels added that the city got 38 inches of snow between Jan. 18, 2019 and Feb. 18, 2019, which took a toll on the already struggling equipment.

Sifting through thousands of maintenance records, CBS 58 Investigates found during that 32 day period there were 624 work orders. Problems included everything from wiper replacements to trucks not starting to plows not working. Those repair costs topped $240,000. And about 70 percent of the broken down equipment was 12 years or older.

Fleet services manager Jeff Tews says the older equipment not only needs repair more often, it also takes longer to fix. 

“You’re fighting with rust and bolts and lines that are snapping, so you wind up spending more to maintain an older fleet,” Tews said.

The breakdowns add up. 58 Investigates found that between Nov. of 2018 and August of 2019 repairs cost nearly $1.5 million.

“It’s a continual climbing graph of our breakdowns, and you know, we asked for $14 million just to keep the fleet from aging, and we have $6.8 million,” Daniels told committee members in February of last year.

Tews says it’s not uncommon to spend $100,000 or even $200,000 on repairs during the lifespan of one of the big trucks because replacing it costs even more. A new salt truck is about $200,000 and a garbage packer, which is also used to plow, is about $320,000.

“In our case we keep equipment long, a long time,” Tews said. “Other cities may replace them every 8 years, we may replace them every 16 years.”

Ald. Mark Borkowski says aging equipment is a problem across city government.

“We haven’t been willing, in essence, to put the money in to repair,” Ald. Borkowski said. “We have to wait until it breaks or it’s totally damaged and then we replace. How smart is that strategy? Not that smart.”

To actually replace all the old equipment will take years.

“We have to say that if it’s five or 10 trucks each year for the next five years, come heck or high water, that’s the way it’s gotta be,” Ald. Borkowski said.

Ald. Borkowski tells CBS 58 Investigates DPW officials are being called before the Public Works Committee again next week to answer questions about why plowing is still such a big problem.

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