City considers private snowplows

September 4, 2009 (CHICAGO) The city has been working on this in earnest since early May. It is not a trial balloon. The commissioner of Streets and San says, if the price is right, Chicago will turn over the business of plowing side streets to the private sector.

When the first snows fell last year, the city held back on side street plowing, largely because of budgetary concerns. That tactic went over like a lead balloon. The cost of plowing what the public demands keeps going up, so the city now wants to turn side street plowing over to the private sector.

"It's cost effective for us to see if we can't get a bid to come in to do side streets that would be more efficient and do them together and tandemly and come up with a better product," said Tom Byrne, Streets & Sanitation commissioner.

The requests for proposal went out Friday. It would be a one-year contract to handle side streets at either a flat or hourly rate. The idea is that that allows the city to avoid the lion's share of overtime costs.

"Currently, the majority of times we pull the snow program now is an overtime situation, at 2, 3, 4 in the morning when they're already on overtime, so we'll eliminate that overtime issue by bringing these people in where they'd start off at a flat rate," said Byrne.

Byrne said going private would not mean layoffs. It would, however, mean fewer dollars for city workers who man the plows.

Critics have long suggested that going private would merely enrich private contractors, and again raise questions about favoritism and accountability. Byrne said the contract provides for layers of oversight.

"It's gonna be a big ordeal in regards to equipment and manpower, but also, we're mandating that there's GPS units put on those vehicles, and they have supervision, and we will have a project manager assigned to it on the city's side to make sure that all that process works very well," said Byrne.

The bids are to be in by October 5, and the city will decide then whether they meet expectations. If they don't add up to savings, then it won't happen, but Byrne says the city wouldn't have invited the bids if it didn't think they would come back with significant savings for the city -- likely in the millions. He won't be more specific than that.

There could be multiple companies handling the side streets. The city has put out for bids in five different Streets and San districts.

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