With every snowstorm, Billings public works employees, sometimes with help from other city departments, must plow from Billings to Denver.
Not literally, but by using 17 trucks along with two spares to cover for breakdowns, crews remove snow — often more than once — from 631 lane miles of arterial and collector streets within the city.
Public Works Director David Mumford outlined plowing policies in a memo to the city council posted on the city’s website Friday.
“We very much understand and appreciate our customers’ frustration when driving after a snowstorm,” he wrote. Department supervisors and staff are “continuing to review and improve our snow removal procedures to provide better service to the community.”
One of those improvements — an experiment Mumford wants to try on selected streets this winter — is to try plowing toward the center of the street, rather than pushing the snow to the side. The snow would be stacked up along the center of the road — with periodic breaks in the snow berms — and then picked up later.
“A lot of places are doing that, and we look to try it this winter,” he said. “There’s some efficiency in it, because you’re not handling (the snow) as often.”
In his memo and during a subsequent interview, Mumford highlighted these plowing facts and challenges:
If the city were to start removing snow from residential streets — a service it does not provide — crews wouldn’t be able to start until four or five days after a storm ends. Billings has 323 miles of residential streets, or about twice the 167 miles of arterials and collectors that are plowed. Plowing snow from residential streets would require no parking during snow removal and would entail plowing to the curb, blocking residential driveways. Residential plowing would require hiring private contractors, Mumford said.
City crews are not responsible for snow removal on state roadways, including 27th Street, Montana Avenue, Main Street, Airport Road, First Avenue North and several other roads.
Because roads are increasingly shared by motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians — and because the number of trails has increased within the city — crews are now working to keep bike lanes clear and trails usable all winter long.
“We’re trying to improve our ability to provide for, our customers,” without increasing staff, Mumford said.
Borrowing other city employees during significant snow events “gives us better service without costing a lot of extra money,” he said. The employees who help out during heavy storms, all of whom have a Class A commercial driver’s license, come from the city’s utilities, solid waste and parks and recreation departments.
Once a storm has stopped, the 35 or so public works employees who operate plows need 18 to 24 hours to clear the streets. Crews are scheduled around the clock until snow removal and hauling are done. Once the roadways are cleared of snow, snow hauling begins in the Central Business District and on Grand, Central, Monad and Broadwater avenues. During the hauling period, crews are also sanding roadways, including controlled residential intersections and hills.
The city’s growth has slowed snow removal this winter in at least one way that may not spring to mind: Crews don’t have adequate locations to deposit snow because several places used in past years have been closed due to the encroachment of residential development. Mumford said the department is looking for additional locations to place the snow.
Crews use both a liquid deicer and a sand/salt mixture to improve vehicle traction, but the liquid deicer is not effective when the thermometer drops below 10 degrees.
The department “is very cognizant that liquid deicer is a salt product and during snow melting this substance is drained directly into the Yellowstone River,” Mumford wrote in his memo.
Asked for ways that residents can be helpful when crews are out plowing, Mumford didn’t hesitate: Don’t shovel your snow into the street — unless you own a downtown business.
“Lisa Harmon (executive director of the Downtown Billings Association) tells people when we’ll be out so they can shovel their sidewalks out onto the street, and we haul that out among the first things,” Mumford said.
“She’ll tell people, ‘The plows are coming out tonight, so keep your cars off the road.’ They’re the only ones who can shovel snow out into the street. I tell people, this is a semi-arid area, and so I like to put snow on the lawn.”