With the snow storms that we received in December, we have seen an increase in calls related to snow removal. Some of the specific concerns residents have had are on street parking, plowing in cul-de-sacs, when and how much salt we use, and packed down snow turning to ice on neighborhood streets. I hope that this blog post will help to illuminate some of the behind the scene details of our snow removal operations.
First, here are some of the numbers for those who are interested. In the month of December, our plow drivers spent 306.72 hours removing snow. Our drivers put 5,254 miles on the trucks, and spread 822.25 tons of salt. We replaced blades on three trucks.
The day before Christmas Eve, we took 58 hours clearing the streets and spreading over 150 tons of salt. On Christmas Day our drivers worked over 100 hours, drove over 1000 miles and put down just shy of 200 tons of salt. By my calculations, our plow drivers likely listened to approximately 1,731 Christmas songs on the radio.
If your street is like mine, you may be wondering why there is still snow on the street if our plow drivers worked so many hours and put down so much salt. I hope further details of how our efforts are organized and managed will answer those questions for you. We have three crews of up to five plow drivers, though we tailor the number of crews and the size of the crews based on what the weather forecast calls for. If we know we will have a prolonged snow event, we may run all three crews on a rotation so that they don’t spend too many hours in the plows.
Before I go further with details of our operations, I’d like to put the task of clearing streets in context more understandable to the average homeowner. In many ways clearing streets is not much different from clearing your driveway. One inch of snow can be cleared easily with one pass of the shovel and a little salt. When it snows seven to nine inches however, it may take three passes or more to shovel. If it is snowing, freshly shoveled driveway may have a fresh blanket of snow on it by the time you get to the end. Sometimes salt can take care of that snow, but it isn’t always enough. Have you ever had a spouse, child or roommate drive in and out of the driveway before the snow was removed? As you know the compressed snow is much more difficult to remove because it bonds to the surface of the driveway. Often times, compacted snow can take a week or more of salting and shoveling to remove if the temperatures are cold. If the temperatures are warmer and the sun comes out after the storm, removing the snow/ice comes up easier, especially when salt is put down and given time to work.
Of course City Streets aren’t exactly the same as a driveway. We can’t ask people to not use the streets until we get a chance to plow and salt. We certainly can’t ask people to refrain from driving on the streets until the sun comes out and the blacktop is visible. There are 138 linear miles of road in Eagle Mountain, 119 of which are paved. This number is deceptively low. There are far more miles of road if we count each lane of road heading in each direction. Trails, City owned sidewalks, and alleyways all increase the ground the City must cover.
With those concepts in mind, you may be interested in some of the internal details of our operations. We have three pick-up plow trucks which haul about 1.5 tons of salt. We have three six wheel dump/plow trucks with spreaders that haul about 9 tons of salt, and one ten wheel dump/plow truck that hauls about 14 and 16 tons. The fully loaded gross vehicle weight of these trucks is 56,800 lbs. to 60,800 lbs. Needless to say, operating these plows, especially the larger plows, is a task which takes concentration and care. They are capable of doing much damage if not operated in a safe and controlled manner. Just imagine what it is like to operate these trucks around sharp curves and down steep hills when obstacles such as mailboxes, landscaping, and vehicles may exist.
Each plow truck has a log book which includes amongst other things, a log sheet for the driver to fill out, a list of the drivers and their contact information for communication during the shift, and sheets which identify each of the four zones the city is broken down into, the priorities of those zones, and maps to help our employees if they are new or if they are covering a new route and are unfamiliar with the area. We have four zones to cover. While I could go into details I don’t know how interesting that would be to you. I’m happy to address this in the comments if anyone has questions. Instead, I’ll tell you that we have organized the zones with many specific variables in mind. First is the proximity to the salt pile which is in the yard behind our wastewater treatment plant south of City Hall. Because our drivers must frequently reload salt for spreading, we tend to use the large trucks for the northern areas of the city and for arterial roads. This allows us to be more efficient with our time as the trucks can operate longer before making the long trip back to the salt pile. The further south we get, we tend to use our pickup trucks equipped with plows. They must reload their hoppers much more frequently so we try to keep them close to the salt piles. We often use the smaller trucks for spot cleanup and tight areas within residential streets where our larger trucks can’t go.
Some zones have multiple drivers and other zones have one driver. The zones with larger lots like Cedar Pass Ranch, North Ranch, etc. can generally be plowed quickly by a single large truck, where narrower residential streets take more time, caution, and often requires a smaller plow. As you are aware, we focus on our arterial roads such as Pony Express, Ranches Parkway, and Eagle Mountain Boulevard. We then move to our collector roads and streets with steep inclines/sharp curves. These priorities are all determined by the safety risk they present to the public. After arterials and collectors we work our way out from the center into the residential areas. If snow is accumulating quickly while we are plowing, we sometimes can’t move on to the residential streets before needing to re-plow the arterials, collectors, and steep streets and curves. Luckily, it isn’t often that Eagle Mountain experiences a large snow event. We tend to see storms with only an inch or so, and with larger events maybe three to four inches. With these types of snow events, our plowing efforts usually result in relatively clear streets, and a little sun after the storm typically takes care of the rest. While every street may not be perfectly cleared, and some residents may be inconvenienced by snow on the roads, there isn’t often significant areas where people can’t travel due to the snow. I do realize that there is greater impact with larger snow events.
Now that you know a little about our plowing operations, I’ll ask and answer the question directly. What should our standard of service be, and how much money should we allocate to achieve that standard?
In asking myself that question, my answer is that we should do two things. First, our standard should reasonably satisfy public safety concerns. As a secondary priority, we should provide travel convenience as we are able and these efforts should be determined by the associated cost of providing them.
In checking how effective we have been in addressing the safety concerns, I asked for the incident reports from our Sheriff’s office and found that the entire month of December generated only three weather related incidents. None of those incidents resulted in injury, only one of those incidents involved two vehicles. None of the incidents occurred on December 25th. With each of the incidents, I can’t conclude that greater investment in plowing operations would have reduced or eliminated those accidents.
Concerning the matter of convenience and cost, there are steps we can take to become even more effective and I will share those momentarily. First, I want to address street parking and the question of why we don’t plow curb-to-curb.
I acknowledge that there are areas where street parking appears to have gotten out of hand, and we will be working on addressing this issue in the problem areas. However, I don’t want to set the expectation that every street will be plowed curb-to-curb. That is neither possible, nor prudent. There is a law of diminishing returns with most anything and if we were to plow from curb-to-curb, we would need to spend an absurd amount of money on additional staff, equipment, and salt. I would consider that to be a waste of taxpayer funds, especially when considering our historically light snowfall in Eagle Mountain.
We can make improvements however, and those improvements will be realized by providing our plow drivers with the tools they need to do the job more efficiently. In short, we will be submitting requests this budget session to build covered salt storage, and covered parking for the plow trucks. The reason for this is that as snow falls on our salt piles and in the truck beds and salt hoppers, an ice crust forms which must be cleared away before loose salt can be loaded. In some instances, this takes a significant amount of time for our guys to do and results in less time plowing and more time preparing to plow. While that won’t solve all of our problems, it will increase the time we spend in the plow trucks with every shift. Additionally, our plow drivers will be reviewing their routes periodically, to make sure there aren’t any areas that are getting missed. Whether we clear the snow while it is snowing or if we make a pass after the snow event has ended, we do try to get to everything. Sometimes it just takes time.