Steamboat snowplow drivers worked more in January than any month in the last 3 years

The city has spent $100,000 more on plowing this season than all of last winter

A snowplow clears streets in downtown Steamboat Springs. Money spent on plowing in the city this year has already surpassed all of last winter.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today.

Snow piling up on Mt. Werner is a welcome sign in Ski Town, USA, but it is also leading to increased work for Steamboat Springs snowplow drivers trying to keep up with the plentiful powder.

Steamboat’s streets crew worked more hours in January than any month in the last three years, with almost all of that time going toward winter maintenance. Streets Superintendent David Van Winkle said his crew was somewhat relieved the latest storm didn’t produce as initially advertised.

“This last storm not packing the punch that they were predicting helped out,” Van Winkle said. “Mother Nature did lighten up on us a little bit and we’ve been able to get out and start taking care of some of the visibility issues, some of the roads that were narrowing.”

Van Winkle said his staff has to use large snow blowers to help broaden streets that have narrowed because of increasingly high snow piles, including hauling it out of neighborhoods that lack adequate snow storage. So far this season, Steamboat’s crews have moved about 80,000 cubic yards or 5,000 tons of snow.

All that comes with a cost, too. The city budgets for snowfall on an annual basis, so the budget for winter maintenance just renewed at the start of the year. Still, it’s about halfway gone after a month and a half.

For plowing last winter, from October 2021 to September 2022, the city spent about $575,000, Van Winkle said. This year he has already exceeded that figure by $100,000.

“With at least two months to go and possibly some of our heavier months,” he added.

This graph shows hours worked in Steamboat Springs Streets division since January 2020. Last month saw more hours worked than any month in the last three years, with almost all of that work put toward clearing roads of snow.
City of Steamboat Springs/Courtesy photo

Van Winkle said he looks at the recent five years when trying to form a snowplowing budget, but a larger year like this one — where Steamboat has seen 170 inches of snow in town — may require more.

“It looks like we may have to do that this year,” Van Winkle said. “We are about 47% to 50% of our budget within the first month and a half. I’ve got five and a half more months of winter in 2023 for the other 50% of my budget.”

If things keep going this way, Van Winkle anticipated he may need a supplemental budget request, though he will probably be able to hold off until this fall for that.

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Things are slightly different for the county though, and Routt County Manager Jay Harrington said their operations are more consistent routes when it snows, rather than needing to respond at all hours like city plows.

Rather than hitting streets multiple times during a storm, Harrington said the county sends plows on long routes to cover the roughly 650 miles of county roads at least once, with some high traffic areas getting more frequent attention. Some routes for county plows extend to and cross over the Wyoming border.

“We take that big piece of equipment and just go for 12 hours straight through a route,” Harrington said. “I think there was a point this year where we were behind on pushing snow back and opening up intersections but this period has let us catch up on that.”

The county doesn’t maintain a specific budget for snowplowing, rather it is included in various parts of the Department of Public Works budget. Fuel costs are up this year, as they were last year, but the county did anticipate that during the budget process.

All the snowplowing equipment is owned as well, and the county sets aside money for repairing and replacing it each year so costs don’t sneak up later. Some of the equipment converts for use in the summer months as well.

The county also doesn’t hire any seasonal snowplow drivers. Instead, each are full-time, year-round public works employees who are serving other roles like grading gravel roads in the summer months.

“Those crews that are plowing snow will move to road maintenance,” Harrington said. “All those motor graders get switched out to grade roads. They’re working in the same areas, just doing other work once it stops snowing.”

The county also allows for employees to accrue time off rather than paying overtime, and many of the plow drivers take that option, which can help to keep things in budget as well.

Harrington said he wouldn’t be surprised if costs do end up over budget toward the end of the year, as the county also clears snow around various county buildings and at the airport. Still, he didn’t think it would be too significant in the end.

“Our guys have been working a lot of hours,” Harrington said. “650 miles is a long way.”

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