Snow blowing on North 27th Street

Montana Department of Transportation crews use a snow blower and auger to clear roadside snow piles along North 27th Street Friday morning. 

LARRY MAYER, Gazette Staff

Motorists along North 27th Street Friday may have noticed something different on a section of the major route that runs through downtown Billings from Interstate 90 to the airport – less snow.

For the last two mornings, Montana Department of Transportation crews have been running a snow blower up and down a portion of North 27th and hauling away the snow drifts.

“We just had way too much snow downtown. We’re trying to make room for some more snow,” said Randy Roth, MDOT’s maintenance chief of the Billings district, on Friday morning.

“We’re just running out of room,” he said.

MDOT is preparing for another blast of snow from a powerful Western U.S. storm system that is expected to bring moisture to Montana and Wyoming.

The National Weather Service is forecasting more snow beginning on Sunday. The next round of storms comes after last month’s total snowfall of 30.4 inches in Billings, making it the town's snowiest December on record.

Snow drifts had narrowed 12-foot lanes on North 27th down to about seven or eight feet, Roth said. That’s why the state decided to “get as much done as we could,” he added.

“It was deep by the Gazette,” which is located on North 27th at Fourth Avenue North, Roth said. “We just had nowhere else to go with snow coming,” he added.

Snow clearing has been happening on the northern section, from about Third Avenue North to Montana State University Billings in the early morning hours, when traffic is light and conditions are safer.

“We don’t want to interrupt traffic. We started yesterday morning at about 4 a.m.,” Roth said.

On Friday, crews started at 2 a.m. and returned to the maintenance yard at about 8 a.m. “We had one blower out this morning,” he said, of the three snow blowers in the district’s arsenal.

The snow blower attaches to the front of a loader, while an auger breaks up the snow and a fan blows it into the back of trucks that drive in front. The trucks dump their snow loads in an area the department has near the South Billings Boulevard interchange.

On Friday morning, the MDOT had 10 trucks, the blower and another loader working North 27th, Roth said.

“We hauled a lot of snow,” he said.

Roth estimated MDOT has hauled “a couple hundred loads” in the last two days.

The plan is to continue snow clearing on North 27th from Third Avenue North south to the Interstate, but Roth said he doesn’t have the time and equipment to get the job done this week. Maybe next week, he said.

That is because the employees who clear and haul snowdrifts are also the ones who drive snow plows, and they use the same trucks for both tasks.

After hauling snow, the trucks return to the shop where mechanics reattach the plows and sanding equipment.

The Billings District is responsible for the interstates along with other roadways in an area that includes Big Timber, Columbus, Red Lodge, Bridger, Laurel, Hardin, Lodge Grass, Busby and Custer.

So far, the winter season has been tough on the district. Eight of its trucks have been hit by motorists including one truck that got totaled, Roth said.

At one point, Roth said, he heard that 13 MDOT trucks statewide had been hit and eight of them were in his district.

The trucks usually get rear-ended, Roth said. The crashes can tear out the sanders and cause other damage.

Such wrecks knock the trucks out of commission while shop mechanics and welders make repairs, Roth said.

In one crash, a driver hit a truck, lost control and tore off the plow, he said.

And in early December, a snowplow was totaled after it got rear-ended by a semi-tractor trailer that was hauling cattle on Interstate 90 near the Montana-Wyoming border. The crash caused the snowplow to roll one and a half times, Roth said. Neither the snowplow driver nor semi driver was injured. The cattle also appeared to be unhurt.

Snowplows travel at about 35 mph to 40 mph, while other drivers are going “60 mph or better,” Roth said. He urged motorists to slow down.

The agency has installed white lights on the back of its plows to try to make them more visible, he said. Wind and blowing snow also can reduce visibility.

The busy season also means long days and nights for employees.

“The guys are getting just a touch tired. I don’t have a lot of guys to do what we do. All of us are on call 24-7,” he said.

Earlier in the season, Roth said he had employees who worked 19 days straight.

To help on the North 27th project, Roth called in trucks from Laurel to assist the two Billings crews.

To help reduce overtime, Roth said he splits shifts but that budgeting is not his primary issue. He is focused on providing service to the public.

“We have to do what we have to do,” he said.

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Federal court and county reporter for The Billings Gazette.