Even as a fresh winter storm blew into town Tuesday afternoon, Bill Kemp was talking about cleaning up after the freezing rain, heavy snows and high winds of last week.
Kemp, superintendent of the Streets and Traffic Division of the city's Public Works Department, said the freezing rain that fell Dec. 2, followed by lots of snow and severe cold, put a thick layer of ice and packed snow on most city streets.
Also, Kemp said, "traffic had enough time to pound it down pretty hard."
Kemp said he had an average of 15 trucks out plowing, sanding and picking up snow from last Monday through Friday morning, staffed by two crews working 12-hour shifts.
They mostly plowed snow for the first couple of days, in addition to putting down sand, then started picking up snow that had been pushed to the curbs. That happened mostly on arterial streets like Grand, Broadwater and Central avenues and in the downtown core, where property owners pay extra taxes for extra services.
City policy is not to plow most residential streets, but sand mixed with 10 to 12 percent salt is put down on hills, curves, school crosswalks and controlled intersections. The salt is mixed in to keep the sand from freezing.
The city also puts down calcium chloride, a liquid de-icer, but the recent cold snap meant it was barely used until warmer temperatures arrived Tuesday.
The manufacturer says the de-icer is ineffective at minus 6 degrees, Kemp said, but even at 10 to 15 degrees above it loses its effectiveness and the city starts cutting back on its use.
Most of the de-icer that was used was concentrated downtown, where sand creates too big a mess for merchants, Kemp said.
The cold snap was also rough on city trucks. There were breakdowns throughout the week, Kemp said, and many of the trucks were having problems with balky hydraulic systems.
When things finally got warmer Tuesday, crews were out plowing slushy snow off some major streets, Kemp said. Crews were hesitant to start plowing some roads again, since most people had shoveled their sidewalks and driveways by Tuesday.
"We're very cognizant of that, and we want to keep what we plow off the road to a minimum," he said.
So far this winter, the division has used about 800 tons of sand. Dave Mumford, director of Public Works, said the sand and salt pose problems of their own in terms of street cleaning later and impacts on the environment.
"There's a balance to that," he said of spreading sand and salt. "That liquid de-icer is mostly salt, and unfortunately it all flows to the river."
Mumford said the city's snow removal budget for this year is $827,000. That number is an estimate and is part of the annual budget for street maintenance. If winter is long and harsh, that could mean reduced spending on spring and summer road maintenance work, as has happened in the past.
City policy for years has been to plow only priority 1 and 2 streets, amounting to only a little more than a quarter of all roadways in Billings. Since 2011, the state Department of Transportation has been responsible for plowing snow on state routes in Billings.
Those include some major streets, like much of Laurel Road, Main Street in the Heights, north and south 27th streets, and First Avenue North from Main Street to Division Street.