Driving up Grand Avenue in Wausau Monday morning, we came upon a weird little localized snowstorm on our way downtown. Visibility was low, the roadway was getting slick and it was something that I’d seen before. When conditions in the atmosphere and the wind direction are just right, the snow cannons operating on the Granite Peak ski area can end up dropping snow miles away from the slopes.
On our way back, we saw a significant two-car accident on Grand Avenue in the 1700 block. I have no idea what all of the contributing factors were, but I can tell you that if I had been in one of the cars, I would have appreciated far better pavement conditions for braking than what they had. One car had done a 180 and the impact was likely far greater as a result of the slick roadway. (One can only imagine how dramatic things could become if someone happens to lose control on one of those new flyover bridges at the I-39/Highway 51/Highway 29 interchange.)
This isn’t just some theory. It happens and a lot of people know it. On one occasion a couple of years back, I saw people out with their snowblowers in one part of town while the skies were blue a few dozen blocks away. People need to understand that snowmaking on the ski hill is a huge operation involving hundreds of units and many thousands of gallons of water – enough to create a small snowstorm, because that’s exactly what they do. Most of the time, the weather conditions are such that it’s not much of an issue.
Since it’s not that tough to take a look, that’s what we did earlier this week. I also served for years on the Marathon County Highway Committee and we learned of the impact that snowmaking sometimes has on the roadways in the area, so this wasn’t some new discovery. It’s not just the highways that are of concern. Every roadway in the area impacted offers the potential for property damage and personal injury. Every sidewalk can become more hazardous and generally has to be cleared or treated to restore a safe condition. In short, thousands of people are impacted to greater or lesser degrees.
This is a classic case of what economists call an externality. It’s a cost that is not picked up by the parties to the transaction. There are lots of externalities in the economy. You don’t have to pay for Middle East security forces every time you fill up your gas tank, for example – but if you think the cost of our military posture would be exactly the same over there if the principle product was Jerusalem artichokes instead of petroleum, well, that’s one of us. And what of the cost to the environment? Do I really want my cocktails to reflect the total cost of alcohol consumption to our society? The list goes on — cheaper goods at the expense of looking the other way on the issue of sweat shops; lower priced commodies at the expense of environmental degradation; the toll of second-hand smoke, etc. It’s a slippery slope.
The reasoning for not including externalities includes that they can be notoriously difficult to accurately quantify and there are offsetting public benefits to consider, too. There is also the matter of politics. In the case of the ski hill, there is no question that it is a boon to the local hospitality industry during the winter months. It’s a multi-million dollar generator of tourism dollars and that money spreads through the local economy in the form of retail sales, tax revenues and economic activity.
The problem is that the people who are incurring the costs of externalities are often not the same people who are most directly and substantially enjoying the economic benefit of the activity. If you’ve got a 45-minute wait for tables at your skier-swelled restaurant, then your perspective is likely to be a bit different than the injured person sitting in a mangled vehicle waiting for emergency responders.
By Wednesday, after two days of oddball snowfalls, the local media were on it. It was front-page news in the Wausau Daily Herald:
The often-raucous discussion among readers took the typical twists and turns, weighing the importance of the ski hill as an economic engine vs. the right of taxpayers to recover costs of service, the overall environment for business, whether the hill could fairly be fingered and everything else.
The story in the paper provides a good starting point for a discussion:
Stu Kulpinski, who oversees snowmaking at Granite Peak, said some snow from the snow-making guns goes into the sky and the low cloud cover and wind in recent days has pushed snow into Wausau. When the clouds dissipated, the snow that went into the air evaporated, he said. When complaints were made, the snow cannons were pointed in a different direction to address the problem, Kulpinski said. “We’ve run over 30 days of snowmaking and only three or four times had problems,” Kulpinski said.
What this tells me is that the company knows there’s a problem and even admits that it could be occurring up to 10 percent of the time. (Personally, I think it’s a lot less than that, but 30 days of snowmaking with problems “three or four times” is not insignificant.) So, instead of proactively evaluating conditions like wind direction, barometric pressure, temperature and humidity to find a pattern, they wait for complaints and THEN they modify their operations to mitigate it. That’s backwards — and it’s the kind of thing that makes people hate corporations.
Granite Peak needs to evaluate and identify the conditions that lead to the complaints and then do their level best to proactively adjust their operations to mitigate the issues. They need to communicate their concern for public safety and their willingness to do everything that they can be reasonably expected to do to prevent problems before they occur, while having a rapid response system to address those times when their improved approach may fall short. This makes good business sense. Trial lawyers have a way of bringing things like this into focus and turning externalities into dollars and cents when folks are oblivious. Almost nothing makes public officials more schizophrenic than some vague concept of potential liability hanging over them like a darkening cloud and the solutions they come up with can sometimes be worse than the problem.
The ski hill is a premier asset to the community and its remarkable improvements over the past dozen years have been a huge success. Few would be interested in making things less successful for them. On the other hand, Granite Peak isn’t moving to China and the current approach to the externalities of snowmaking is proving inadequate. There’s no particular reason to believe that things can’t be improved, with a little resolve toward doing that. Absent that commitment, local governments could be pressured to address the matter by adopting a more aggressive regulatory approach, so working together toward a better situation is really in everyone’s best interests.
And nearly two years later —
SPECIAL WEATHER STATEMENT
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE GREEN BAY WI
928 AM CST WED DEC 19 2012
…SLICK ROADS THIS MORNING IN WAUSAU…
MAN MADE SNOW ON THE SKI HILLS CONTINUED TO FALL IN THE CITY OF
WAUSAU AND RIB MOUNTAIN THIS MORNING. THE LIGHT SNOW HAS CAUSED
SOME ACCIDENTS IN THE RIB MOUNTAIN AND WAUSAUAREA. IN
ADDITION…FREEZING DRIZZLE AND PATCHY FOG WAS MAKING TRAVEL
DIFFICULT ON THE NORTH SIDE OF THE SKI HILL. TRAVELERS CAN
EXPECT SLIPPERY ROADS IN THE CITY OF WAUSAU AND NEAR RIB MOUNTAIN
THIS MORNING THROUGH THE EARLY AFTERNOON DUE TO THE MAN MADE SNOW
AND FOG. PLEASE USE CAUTION TRAVELING IN THIS AREA.