Beginning Tuesday, snow plow drivers will — for the first time — be plowing residential streets in Billings.
It will only last two days, and it’s expected to be a one-time-only experiment.
The Billings City Council approved a request from Public Works Director David Mumford Monday to have crews spend about 48 hours plowing residential streets. City crews will perform the residential plowing, but will not remove the snow.
“We need to get started in the next 24 hours,” Mumford told the council. “Otherwise, the snow will get packed down.”
The reason for the experiment, he said, is the sheer amount of snow piling up on streets around town. Rutted streets in residential neighborhoods are difficult for residents to traverse and potentially dangerous for emergency responders.
Snow left on the streets can also be hard on the asphalt in years to come.
Mumford said the snow will not be plowed as far as the sidewalks, but he did acknowledge that residential plowing will affect some mail delivery and will require some residents to dig their cars out after the street’s been plowed.
The snow taken from residential streets will be pushed into parking lanes. There’s no decision yet on which streets to plow first, but Mumford said crews will concentrate on busy streets and on streets that lead to arterials, such as Santa Fe Drive.
With record snows having accumulated in Billings this winter, crews were out Monday night plowing out schools, Mumford said. That’s not usually done, because most School District 2 schools are located in residential neighborhoods.
There are no traffic studies to indicate which residential streets have the highest traffic count. Mumford said crews will concentrate on clearing residential streets that aren’t crowded with on-street parking.
It will help crews, he said, if people can find other places to park on Tuesday and Wednesday.
“I’d like to get the word out for people to get their cars off the roads if they can, starting (Tuesday) night,” Mumford said.
Mumford noted that a Thursday storm is expected to dump 4-6 inches of snow in Billings. Two more storms are in the forecast for next week.
“It’s been a long winter, and everyone is frustrated,” said Councilman Denis Pitman. “I think this will teach us a lot. It’s a bad situation, and we’re not going to make it too much worse (by experimenting with residential plowing).”
Plowing residential streets will require some overtime for plowing crews, Mumford told the council, “but it is not excessive.” To date snow crews have worked 9,000 more hours than they did last year. Plowing efforts to date have exceeded last year’s total by $800,000.
Mumford said the department’s $1 million reserves will have to be tapped before the end of the plowing season. Some roadwork planned for the next two years will have to be cut back to replenish those reserves, he said.
Councilman Shaun Brown, who represents Ward 5, said his biggest concern is that a “significant number” of people won’t be able to get their cars off the road to allow crews to clear their streets. “How high will we bury those cars?” he asked Mumford.
Mumford replied that “there will definitely be some digging out,” but that narrow streets, including Wyoming and Custer avenues, will see only a swath plowed down the middle, while wider streets will have two lanes cleared.
“There is no answer to this,” he said, “that is going to make everyone happy.”
Councilwoman Becky Bird of Ward 3 said she believes the city “needs to not be afraid to take a risk” to plow residential streets. “If this weren’t a concern,” she said, “we wouldn’t be hearing from Dave tonight.”
“This is an unusual situation,” said Councilman Ken Crouch of Ward 5. “I think it’s worth letting people know we are making hard decisions.”
In other business, the council unanimously accepted two offers totaling $767,090 for retail and office space at the Empire Garage, which is still under construction.
Asian Sea Grill Shorelong and Kelly Donovan of First Montana Title made the offers. Two other companies have the right of first refusal on a portion of the space.
Mayor Tom Hanel thanked the two companies for making offers on the space. The offers exceeded city estimates by more than $200,000.
“They are lucrative offers for premium space in a very fine building,” he said. “We’re honored to have them as downtown businesses.”
The council also voted 9-1, with Pitman casting the lone no vote, to forgive a $102.50 weed assessment for Cheryl Lenhardt, 3209 Rimrock Road.
Lenhardt wrote a letter to the city stating that a part of her property runs along the Cove Ditch right of way. While she’s responsible for mowing up to the right of way, she said that city crews used to mow the area in question — steep ground that backs up to Flora Avenue — but no longer do. Lenhardt wrote that she has health issues and is unable to mow that portion of her property.
“We will in the future work more closely with Ms. Lenhardt,” said Candi Millar, planning and community services director.