Drifting a challenge for road crews, budgets

Managing Editor

A minivan and snowplow collided Feb. 9 just outside of Stanford when the minivan attempted to pass in a no-passing zone.

Photo courtesy of MDT

Snow in Central Montana – there’s nothing unusual about that. What has been unusual this year is the amount of drifting snow, which, in turn, has challenged crews tasked with keeping the roads open and passable.

“Our storms the past two months have been coming straight down out of Alaska and across Canada,” explained Meteorologist Scott Coulston with the National Weather Service in Great Falls. “The storms’ cores are passing just a little to the east of us, so we are getting more northwest winds that are a little stronger. The wind is coming off the Rockies, downslope wind, with gusts in the 30-40 mph range rather than the more normal 20-30 mph range. It’s also been colder longer this year, so the snow isn’t melting and forming a crust in between storms. You get a good amount of snow, stronger winds and snow piles and you get drifting.”

And it’s that drifting that’s created issues for the road crews.

“We have around 1,500 miles of road to plow county-wide,” said John Anderson, supervisor of the county’s Road and Bridge Department. “That’s 3,000 lane miles. Usually we just have certain areas that need more attention than others, but not this years. This year all the roads are bad.”


Setting priorities

If all the roads are bad, how do plow operators know where to start? Snow removal priorities are set by the responsible party, be that city, county or state.

Anderson said the county tries to take care of bus routes and missile roads first, and then other roads.

“We have routes we plow that let us get to all the roads in an area, so we’re not skipping around so much,” Anderson said.

In town, priority roads are designated as snow routes, according to City Manager Holly Phelps,

“Snow routes are our first priority,” Phelps said. “They are our higher traffic streets, and get you to schools and hospitals.”

At the state level, road priorities depend on traffic counts and conditions, according to MDT’s Bud Pederson, maintenance Chief for the Lewistown Division.

“MDT uses traffic data to prioritize our roads,” Pederson said. “The highest traffic counts will be our first priorities along with plowing within a three-mile radius of urban areas. We have more routes than we do plow trucks, so we use the Average Daily Traffic numbers to determine what routes get plowed first, second and so on.”

Of course, priorities may change if there is an emergency or conditions shift. City, county and state road crews will “take requests” whenever possible.

“We always have at least one employee available to do requests all the time, day or night,” Phelps explained. Phelps said the City Commission sets the snow routes, but routes are reviewed each year and can be adjusted as needed for the next year.

“We make exceptions and try to accommodate the public as much as is reasonable,” Anderson said of the county’s approach. “I visit with the district men in the morning to see what they have heard needs to be plowed, or I can tell them if someone has called in and a certain road needs plowed.”


Extra snowy winter taxing road budgets

With the extra work needed this winter to keep roads cleared, all departments say their budgets, and their operators, are under some stress.

“In the last two week pay period, my operators each averaged 16 hours of overtime each week. The only days in February we didn’t plow is when it was drifting and blowing so hard we can’t see. The guys are getting tired. Plowing in these conditions is exhausting,” Anderson said, adding, “We are using between 1,000 and 1,2000 gallons of diesel a day.”

Lewistown’s city crews are in the same boat.

“This winter has been taxing on both men and equipment,” Phelps said. “Our street department has worked a lot of overtime and we’ve pulled employees from other departments to help with snow removal. The overtime budget in the street department was used up in February. Fuel and maintenance costs are increased because we are running equipment between 12 and 18 hours a day. We’ve also used a lot of sanding material.”

Budgets are strained on the state side, too.

“MDT’s maintenance forces have worked many hours of overtime and we have used a lot of our winter budget but we will still do what is needed to maintain the roads,” Pederson said.


How you can help

Road crews get tired, just like anyone else.

“Our snow plow operators are out there 10 or more hours a day,” Anderson said. “The conditions are difficult. Running the equipment in these conditions is tiring. We ask motorists to please slow down and use caution when meeting or trying to pass our equipment.”

Both Pederson and Phelps echoed Anderson’s request.

“We’ve had 37 plows hit this winter across the state,” Pederson said. “We are trying to get the word out to not crowd the plows and to give us room to work.”

“In the City, if you see crews working, see if you can turn up a different street and avoid the area so our operators can do their jobs as quickly and safely as possible,” Phelps said. “Also, if you are parked in the street in residential areas, move your vehicle often so our plows can clear the parking lane and ensure drainage, to prevent ice build up.”

Even with state, county or city roads cleared, many residents this winter struggle to keep private roads and driveways free of snow. While necessary, sometimes the very act of plowing out a driveway creates problems on an adjacent public roadway.

“The snow we remove from county roads goes into the county ditches,” Anderson said. “This year there’s a lot of snow. If we don’t try and keep the snow pushed back, pretty soon the roads are so narrow cars can’t meet. We’re asking residents in the county not to plow their snow into the county ditches. These large piles of snow create bigger drifts and are hard on our plows when we have to try to move them. It takes time to move them, so we get fewer miles of roads covered. We get calls almost daily from the public concerned about the hazards these piles cause.”

Despite the long hours and dwindling budgets, all three managers agree their crews will continue working to keep roads cleared as long as winter persists.

“We’ll do everything we can to keep our roads maintained and safe for the traveling public,” Pederson said.



When do you think the snow will finally be melted in Lewistown?