What it takes to plow 600 miles of Routt County roads
February 16, 2019
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Anyone who has spent a winter in Ski Town USA knows waking up to a foot of snow hardly derails the day's events. People still drive to jobs, school buses take kids to class and the lucky ones escape to the mountains to enjoy some pre-work powder runs.
The Routt County Public Works department plays a big role in making all of that transportation possible.
A battalion of 26 equipment operators, split between three districts across the county, rises early to scrape more than 600 miles of paved and gravel roads, according to Ray DuBois, Routt County's Public Works director.
DuBois, who oversees all of the county's road and bridge maintenance, said those 26 operators, as well as six supervising foremen, are seasoned veterans of snow plowing. They each have an average of 16 years of experience in snow removal and operating heavy machinery.
For a place like Steamboat Springs, having such expertise is not only convenient — it's necessary.
Routt County had received almost 117 inches of snow at the end of January, according to the National Weather Service. This week’s storms brought another 20 inches to the area.
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"Having that kind of experience in our department makes it a lot easier when you have these types of winters," DuBois said.
DuBois celebrated six months as the county's public works director at the end of January. It's not an easy position to fill or work. It requires extensive experience with heavy machinery and communication to ensure operations run smoothly. The last director, Rick Harrah, left the job after seven months.
DuBois, a longtime resident of the Yampa Valley, knew what he was getting into. He has worked for several mines in the area reconstructing county and state roads and was recently city manager for Cripple Creek in Teller County. He has toiled through blizzards and managed government operations.
His new job amalgamates those experiences.
One of the hardest parts of the position is maintaining those 600 miles of county roads with a limited amount of resources.
“When you're spread out as far as we far, we are only staffed up for one shift,” DuBois said.
That means recruiting and keeping a crew of operators and foremen who can plow all those miles of roads in a single, eight- to nine-hour shift.
One of those talented crew members is Pete Koler. He works as the foreman in Oak Creek, overseeing winter maintenance on roads from the Flat Tops Wilderness Area to Stagecoach to Milner.
Koler’s job is to wake up before everyone else, around 2 a.m. if he expects a storm, and see how much snow has fallen to determine how many operators to send out.
"If we get 3 inches or more, we are calling everyone out," he said.
This winter, which Koler described as one of the biggest for snowfall in the past six years, has demanded a lot of early mornings.
Operators usually hit the road by 3 a.m. They prioritize the school bus routes, then the paved roads before moving on to the most heavily trafficked gravel roads.
"I like getting the guys out early before traffic hits," Koler said.
He has worked with the county for 12 years, before which he operated heavy machinery for coal mines for another 30 years.
"Experience is the biggest thing for this job," he said.
Managing crew members who also have years of plowing under their belt makes the work days go smoothly.
"It's a well-oiled machine," he said of his district's operations. "Everybody has their own routes and they know where they're going."
The work does not come without its challenges.
Koler said the biggest issue is the misconception among everyday drivers that operators have a better view of the road from their plow trucks.
"We can't see any better than a Subaru going down the road," Koler said.
Plow drivers also have issues with people tailgating their trucks or speeding around them in a rush to get to work.
DuBois said when people are driving near the plows, taking caution can save lives.
"If a plow is coming at you, people need to slow down and pull over," he said. "It's just as difficult for them to drive on the road as anybody else."
He advised the public to allot extra time to commute if snow has accumulated on the roads. Following a plow truck, though slower, can prevent crashes.
"One of the safest places to be is behind the plow," DuBois said.
DuBois added, for people who moved to Steamboat in the past couple of years, this winter may seem particularly bad. Despite the challenges such heavy snowfall presents to maintaining the roads, he stays optimistic.
"The way I think about it, this is a good winter," DuBois said. "It's why we're here."