There are many challenges when it comes to snow removal

Brendan Heidner
Sunday, November 20, 2022
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The Montana Department of Transportation removes the snow piled in the center of Merrill Avenue on Thursday. Increased fuel costs, available man power and the amount of equipment are all factors that affect the snow removal schedule for both MDT and the City of Glendive. Brendan Heidner photo

When heavy winter storms hit, many people may wonder why the respective agencies are not picking up snow 24/7 until the job is done. However there is much more strategy to snow removal in Glendive than meets the eye.

The City of Glendive and the Montana Department of Transportation are responsible for plowing and removing snow on different streets within the city’s limits. MDT ultimately deals with Merrill Avenue and Towne Street while the City of Glendive handles all other streets.

“We do what we can, we’re trying to get all of the high traffic areas within the limits of our city streets,” Public Works Director Frank Ceane said. “It takes a lot of time and manpower.”

He added that there is a policy for snow removal, which provides a priority list of streets to plow first before moving on to other streets.

“It is the intention of the Public Works Department of the City of Glendive to provide driving conditions as safe as possible within the constraints of budget, equipment and personnel,” the policy reads.

The highest priority for the City of Glendive when clearing snow is to start at areas that emergency vehicles may need to access – such as the Barry underpass – before moving on to call-ins and the regular side streets.

For MDT, the priority list is based on average daily traffic beginning with urban routes with greater than 5,000 ADT as the topmost priority.

“We usually follow these guidelines, but they can change at times due to certain storm events, amount of precipitation received and road conditions,” MDT Glendive Maintenance Chief Mike Skillestad said. “Roads with higher volumes of traffic are meant to be plowed first as there is more potential for crashes due to the higher volume of traffic.”

Ceane noted that the city’s snow removal equipment is somewhat dated and, although it is well maintained, the equipment available limits how quickly and frequently his crews can take care of snow on city streets.

“We’re never going to have the newest snow removal equipment,” he said. “Fortunately for the City of Glendive we don’t get a lot of storms of this magnitude.” “Snow removal, whether it’s in town or plowing highways or opening up roads due to a large storm event, (is) always affected by manpower or equipment needs depending on the size of the storm,” Skillestad noted.

Not only does limited equipment and manpower affect the rate at which MDT and the City of Glendive can remove snow from different routes, but increasing costs for fuel also puts a strain on their budgets.

“We’re paying a lot more for fuel than we did in the past,” Ceane said, noting the cost for fuel is likely double last year’s costs. “Our budget for fuel is a problem.”

When it comes to removing snow from Merrill Avenue, Skillestad added that they first ensure conditions on heavier trafficked routes are safe and will not require much more attention.

“When we blow the snow on (Merrill Avenue), we have to take the plows and sanders off the trucks to haul snow,” he said. “If we know a storm event is predicted, we cannot take the risk of removing the sanders and plows, therefore it may delay the snow removal as it did in the most recent storm event ... There have been times when we are able to remove snow (from Merrill Avenue) within a couple of days, it’s just weather dependent.”

“Basically what we’re doing is making the roads passable so a majority of the traffic can get to where they are going,” Ceane said. “The full removal of snow in the streets just isn’t something that (we can do).”

Additionally, Ceane said parked vehicles and general traffic on streets also create challenges when removing snow.

“The roads aren’t just empty roads with nothing on them but snow,” Ceane said. “There are cars to work around (and) there’s traffic to work around.”

According to Skillestad, MDT decides whether to plow snow to the curb-side of Merrill Avenue or the center of the road based on how much snow fell and how it could affect public parking.

He noted that his crews plow snow to the curb sides if less than three inches of snow falls and to the center line if more than four inches is received.

“This decision is made because too much snow to the curb creates a hazard for vehicles parking in front of businesses,” he said.

Despite all of the planning and strategy that goes into snow removal by MDT and the City of Glendive, both agencies are concerned about the public’s safety and do everything possible to keep roads clear.

“This problem isn’t indigenous to Glendive, it isn’t something where we’re the only small town in Montana that has this problem” Ceane said. “MDT, they have a lot of miles of road to take care of, so they come in and make them passable so people can get down them. Yeah, (the roads) are not 100% perfect, but bear with them, give us a little bit of time and we’ll get them cleaned up.”

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