How crews clear the snow that makes Steamboat so famous
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — For those plowing streets across Routt County, mornings like Tuesday start early.
The 5 inches of snow overnight prompted both the city of Steamboat Springs and the county to put their full snow-moving resources into action as early as 2 a.m.
Everything within the city limits, roughly 160 lane miles, is the responsibility of the city to plow. The rest, nearly 600 lane miles, is the responsibility of the county to clear.
David Van Winkle, street superintendent for the city, said he puts the plowing operation locally up against any other resort community.
“Not to toot my own horn, but I think the community has a good thing going here,” Van Winkle said. “I think if you can get out of your driveway, you can pretty much get everywhere.”
Troy Wertenberger, foreman for Routt County who is based in Hayden, said they just call out the plow trucks with sand for a dusting of light snow. If there is more snow, they activate the gravel crew, which consists of motor graders to plow the gravel roads in the county.
For his area, depending on the depth of the snow and wind, it takes about eight to 10 hours to complete a route. The paved roads are done by the plow trucks, which are not as effective at plowing the gravel roads.
Both the city and the county prioritize high traffic roads, as well as those used by Steamboat Springs Transit and school buses.
Steamboat keeps its snowplow drivers on call all season, not allowing them to leave town from Nov. 1 until April 1. There is always someone monitoring the weather to call plows in when it starts snowing, and shifts are staggered between 13 full-time employees and four seasonal hires.
The city has five motor graders with wings, allowing them to plow closer to the edge of the road. The fleet also includes two loaders, mainly used for parking lots, as well as five sand trucks to plow tighter areas and put down their traction product.
The advantage of the grader is that it can apply downward pressure to scrape the packed snow off the road, something the more nimble sand trucks can’t do.
“This cuts the pack off of the road and keeps it cut down to almost bare pavement all the time,” said Van Winkle, who has been plowing for the city for 25 years. “The sand trucks, the advantage to them is they can get around and plow more area, but they are just floating.”
He said if the snow is not scraped off the road and is instead packed down as cars continue to drive on it, the product they apply to the road to improve traction is not as effective.
The wing on the grader — an additional plow on the right side of the machine — allows drivers to better reach the edges of the road and push back piles to allow space for new snow.
If the snow is allowed to build up too much on the sides of the road, then the new snow has no place to go.
“The further we can get it back then the less that goes in the driveways,” Van Winkle said. “Once the snow storage gets filled up, it goes to the first hole available, whether that is a driveway or a fire hydrant.”
Van Winkle also said it is safer to use the grader for this as opposed to the sand trucks.
“If you are just trying to do it in a sand truck, you are running a very fine line of whether you are going in the ditch or not,” he said. “With a grader, we can cover a span nearly 20 feet or so.”
The city tries to limit the amount of salt used on the road to keep runoff out of the Yampa River. Salt is used on corners or shaded areas, but it is not used as a control product. Instead, the city uses scoria, an igneous rock that has lots of cavities in it.
He said the rock is crushed down to about three-quarters of an inch, and because it is so porous, the rock floats on top of packed snow better than sand. While it does break down over time, it is crushed into sand, which also helps with traction.
“Cars get a lot better traction with it,” Van Winkle said. “We’ve had much better luck with it than with sand.”
When the roads dry out, the city also deploys street sweepers to clean up any extra sand or salt to keep it out of the river.
After city crews are done plowing the roads, the same crew turns its attention to parking around Lincoln Avenue and other areas around town. Persistent storms like Steamboat has seen recently often lead to parking difficulties on the street.
The city hauls the snow to a storage lot near the Public Works building. Last year, the city brought more than 70,000 cubic yards to the lot. The pile of snow often does not melt fully by the time the next season has started.
When driving behind a plow, both Van Winkle and Wertenberger advise drivers not to try to pass it.
“We can see them coming around, but they won’t be able to see us because we got a lot of snow fog from the snow coming off the wings and front plows, so it is like driving through a cloud,” Wertenberger said. “They’ll have a hard time making sure it is safe to pass in a lot of cases.”
When a plow is on the other side of the road, Wertenberger suggested people get as far over as possible, maybe even stopping to allow it to pass.
“These are big pieces of equipment; they don’t stop on a dime,” Van Winkle said.
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.
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