Weather is unpredictable. When it comes to dealing with its impacts, flexibility is a must.
Gunnison city leaders are making adjustments after the first “real winter” has tested their snow-removal plan, adopted just more than two years ago.
While changes have been made to how snow plowing is implemented and the levels of snow which determine the need for plowing, one thing hasn’t changed. Crews need assistance from community members to provide the most effective snow removal measures.
The need for the snow-removal policy became evident following significant snowfall in the winter of 2016-17. Public Works Director David Gardner — who was hired months after snow plows were put away for the season — was tasked creating a written policy.
That winter, crews worked in 12-hour shifts to keep up with the snowfall that lasted more than a week. Finance Director Ben Cowan reported 22 employees from both the Public Works and Parks and Recreation departments were needed to keep streets cleared.
In 13 days, 613 hours of overtime were accrued, averaging 28 hours per employee. Some employees, Cowan reported, worked 142 hours in a two-week period.
Additionally, problems arose with “windrows” blocking the view of motorists. Windrowing is the process of plowing snow to the center of a street until it can be removed later. The snow-removal plan eliminated windrowing on some streets.
Additionally, snow removal was prioritized on specific streets. Main Street (Hwy. 135), Tomichi Avenue (Hwy. 50) and emergency routes are plowed first. The emergency routes are North Colorado Street to Spencer Avenue, East Denver Avenue, East Spencer Avenue and North Taylor Street.
School bus routes also are considered a first priority and should be plowed by 7 a.m. when possible, the policy states.
After the top priorities are plowed, crews then move to main arterials and collector streets, which include Gunnison Valley Rural Transportation Authority bus stops. Residential streets and trails will then be plowed. More attention has been given to alleys as well.
Once the policy was adopted, last year’s low snowfall failed to adequately test the new plan. With above-average snowfall in Gunnison so far this year, based on snowpack reports, Gardner said he’s had to make “tweaks” to the plan.
Once two inches of snow accumulates, the plan states, plowing will begin. However, Garder said that threshold has been lowered to one inch on Main Street and Tomichi Avenue, emergency routes and school routes. The remaining routes are plowed when two inches accumulates — which often occurs while the priority routes are being cleared, Gardner said.
Secondly, the method of off-hours communication has been refined.
“There was some confusion on when the Police Department calls and when they don’t, and when Public Works expects a call,” Gardner said.
Gardner said after 5 p.m., police will call dispatch when there is one inch accumulation on priority routes. Dispatch will notify the on-call crew member who will meet the officer to verify an inch of snow has fallen, and that plowing and sanding is required.
One situation occurred this winter in which crews were not called out in time to handle snow. As a result, Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) plowed Main and Tomichi rather than city staff. CDOT plows to the right side of the road rather than windrowing, which led to some confusion on those routes.
Gardner said he has met with CDOT to explain the need for windrowing on the two highways should the state plow again.
Help from the public
Business owners on the main arteries who spoke to the Times this week generally are happy with how the streets are being maintained this winter. Comments from residents on the city’s social media page have been favorable as well.
However, heavy snowfall has revealed typical issues which can occur during the snow-removal process. Cars were plowed in along city streets, leaving a wall of snow around the vehicles. At least one complaint arose on social media when water started pooling due to warmer temperatures after a heavy snowfall.
Gardner said the public can help city crews by moving vehicles. The snow plan relies on a city ordinance which states vehicles parked on city streets must be moved every 24 hours. Reminders have been posted on the city’s social media page as well.
Gardner noted that when cars aren’t moved, they get plowed in. Vehicles also prevent city crews from clearing street gutters which can result in water pooling. Public Works employees, Gardner said, will work during off hours to clear ice — a process which he calls “pulling curbs.” The work is done at night when vehicles are less likely to cause an issue.
“If we’re going to get good at this snow plowing, we have to have the public help,” Gardner said, referring to directives to residents within the snow plan. “We just want people to be patient with us.”
(Chris Rourke can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.)