Battling the berms: Heavy February snowfall raises plowing issues, safety concerns
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Heavy snowfall from the past two weekends has been both a blessing and a curse for many Routt County residents.
After this latest storm, a snow monitoring site northeast of Steamboat Springs recorded the state’s largest accumulation over the weekend with almost 40 inches of fresh snow in the hardest-hit areas. That meant dream-come-true powder for skiers and riders but traveling nightmares for everyone else.
Even the plows had trouble maneuvering the harsh road conditions.
“In one instance, we had to hire a heavy wrecker to come in and retrieve one of our plow trucks,” said Ray Dubois, director of Routt County’s Public Works Department.
The recent storms have sparked discussions on better ways to alert the public about road conditions and possible changes to improve services during storms. Ever-larger piles of plowed snow accumulating on the roadsides also pose safety concerns, with officials urging drivers to be cautious around blind corners.
Looking back on the past two weekends, DuBois commended the hard work of his plowing crew. Drivers started work at 3 a.m. on the worst mornings and worked 12- to 17-hour shifts to try to keep up with the snow so the public could be safer on the roads.
“That means we are putting ourselves at risk,” DuBois said.
During the latest storm, some machines ran out of gas trying to get the roads drivable.
People continued to travel, despite the poor conditions, and sometimes, confronted impassable areas. In South Routt, among the hardest-hit parts of the county, one plow driver had to help a dozen drivers get unstuck just so he could plow the rest of the road, Dubois said. In the future, he wants to improve public communication during especially bad storms to alert people about hazards and closures.
“We, as a county, could have done a better job trying to get the word out,” DuBois said.
He also has discussed the possibility of expanding plowing operations in the county. Unlike the city of Steamboat Springs and the Colorado Department of Transportation, Routt County does not have 24/7 plowing. Crews must complete their work in a single shift, meaning there are no plows on the road at night.
The issue, according to Routt County Commissioner Tim Corrigan, comes down to funding and manpower.
“The cost of adding, say, an entire additional shift of workers to expand snow plowing would be cost prohibitive,” Corrigan said.
When it comes to prioritizing the county’s funding, he said it does not necessarily make sense to expand plowing operations when major storms are more anomalies than the norm. Corrigan would rather prioritize additional funding to help emergency services respond to calls during particularly bad storms.
During the Board of Routt County Commissioners meeting Tuesday, Sheriff Garret Wiggins said his deputies were not able to immediately answer some calls, because they could not maneuver the roads. He expressed a need for better snowmobiles that can provide access when normal patrol vehicles cannot.
In the city, drivers also have logged long workweeks this month, according to Public Works Director Jon Snyder. While he worries about their safety when working such strenuous shifts, there is not enough money currently available to hire additional staff.
On a more positive note, Snyder applauded the community’s efforts to help Steamboat’s plow drivers during this month’s storms. Residents have, for the most part, abided by overnight parking restrictions on city roads to allow plows to do their duties.
“Everyone seems to be doing their part to make this work,” Snyder said.
More snow means higher snow berms on the roadside. That has caused some safety concerns for drivers and pedestrians.
Commander Annette Dopplick with the Steamboat Springs Police Department urges drivers to be patient and considerate when maneuvering blind corners.
“Those snow berms are often now above the driver’s sightline,” Dopplick said. “That can reduce your reaction time.”
She also encouraged people to drive defensively, part of which means being cognizant of hazardous conditions and reacting to bad drivers.
As Dopplick said, “It is more important to be safe than to be right.”
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