This winter, for the first time in recent memory, residential roads will be on Ada County Highway District’s list of snow removal priorities.
The district, which controls public roads throughout the county, has taken that step and others to improve snow removal following a winter so difficult that “Snowpocalypse” became part of the local lexicon. The district bought an additional 11 plows to hook on to its trucks, a nearly $240,000 investment that increases the number of plows at its disposal to 49, spokeswoman Nicole Du Bois said. The district also signed agreements with more private contractors who can help clear snow when the job is too big for the district’s crews.
Cities are responding to the memory of Snowpocalypse, too. The city of Boise will deploy Parks and Recreation staff to shovel Downtown sidewalks immediately in case of snowfall like we saw last winter, spokesman Mike Journee said. In normal circumstances, the Downtown Boise Association is responsible for maintaining the sidewalks but was overwhelmed by near record snowfall, he said.
The city of Meridian expects to meet with leaders of the highway district, West Ada School District and other groups to make sure everyone knows who is responsible for which tasks and when roads will be plowed, said Robert Simison, Mayor Tammy de Weerd’s chief of staff.
Finally, there’s a symbolic — and colorful — gesture. The highway district is adding blue dye to salt it puts on the roads to melt ice and snow. Last winter, phone calls flooded the district’s offices with complaints that the district wasn’t salting the roads, highway district commission President Paul Woods said. Often, the district had salted the very roads callers were complaining about, Woods said. The blue dye should help end any confusion.
All in all, the highway district has “made tremendous progress,” said state Rep. John Gannon, a Boise Democrat who was irked last winter when the district initially didn’t clear residential roads and plowed snow from roads onto sidewalks. At his request, the Idaho Attorney General’s Office early this year researched who is responsible for clearing snow from sidewalks and concluded it is ACHD. The district disputed that, and both sides let the matter drop.
“When somebody does something right, you know, they should be applauded for doing that,” Gannon said Tuesday of ACHD. “And they have done something right. They’ve studied the problem. They’ve addressed the problem. And I think they’ve come up with a reasonable solution.”
Just how likely is a winter like last one?
Not very, if you look strictly at history. The total amount of snow that fell from December to February reached 38.8 inches, good for fifth place in the National Weather Service’s record books. Snowfall in December and January, at 35.5 inches, easily eclipsed the old record for the same two-month period, set in 1983-84. By any measure, 2016-17 was an unusual winter.
On the other hand, The Old Farmer’s Almanac predicts a cold winter with heavy snowfall in Idaho. That’s half-right, says the National Weather Service. Its most likely scenario for this winter is above normal temperatures combined with above normal precipitation, meteorologist Elizabeth Padian said.
That doesn’t mean a warm, wet winter is guaranteed, Padian said. Those conditions are simply a little more likely than the alternatives, she said.
A middling La Niña pattern, which tends to correlate with cold, wet weather in the Northwest, is the reason forecasters say South Idaho could get more snow than normal this winter. But this La Niña isn’t very strong, so nothing’s certain, Padian said.
If another severe winter comes along, the city of Boise wants the highway district to pay more attention to plowing residential roads, Journee said.
Last year, the district originally planned to leave snow on side streets until it melted. Later, with hundreds of miles of those roads all but impassable, the district sent plows into the neighborhoods.
“The let-it-melt model just didn’t work,” Journee said. “That was an unusual situation, but there’s nothing to say it won’t happen again.”
Having 11 new plows should help the highway district tend to residential roads if heavy snows come. The plows cost $7,527 apiece, and attaching them to trucks the district already owns will cost $14,121 each, Du Bois said.
Major roads like Vista Avenue and State Street, as well as crucial infrastructure like bridges, fire stations and hospitals, are at the top of the district’s plowing priorities. Next come school routes and pockets of seniors and other county residents who depend on public transportation, Du Bois said.
Residential roads are the last priority and will only get attention if the first two priorities are taken care of, Du Bois said. The district will plow them if significant snow accumulates and either freezing temperatures persist or more snow is on the way, she said.
“That’s the way it should be,” Gannon said. “Obviously you have to have your main roads.”
A bigger stable of private contractors also should help the district keep up with snow removal. Last year, the district had agreements with six contractors to clear snow in extreme situations. This year nine such agreements are in place, maintenance manager Tim Nicholson said.
Mostly, the contractors are in excavation and heavy construction businesses, Nicholson said. Many of them plow for private companies like HP that have big parking lots. Their agreements don’t require them to work when the district calls. But Nicholson said he tries to notify them that the district will need their help before a storm rolls in. That increases the chances they’ll be available to help the district, he said, because whoever calls them first is most likely to get their services.
“I like to think that our existing working relationship with a lot of these folks that we have over all these years, and the fact that they do a lot of work for us in the summer, carries a significant amount of weight,” Nicholson said. “Not that we’re not going to give them a job if they don’t come plow snow for us.”
During one particularly heavy winter in the mid-1980s, the highway district used far more contractors than it has recently, Gannon said. In conversations with district staff and members of its governing board, he said he recommended increasing the number of contractors on call.
“I think they realize that they do have this duty to take care of the residential areas, at least get the snow off the roads,” Gannon said. “I think they’ve made tremendous progress on that.”
The district leaves decisions on when to plow roads up to the drivers who do the work, Nicholson said.
The county is divided into 33 zones — two more than last year, Nicholson said. The highway district rearranged the zones after last winter in hopes of improving snow-clearing efforts, Du Bois said.
Two drivers are assigned to each zone.
“If they think they need to plow, then they plow,” Nicholson said. “Because what’s happening down in Kuna may not necessarily be what’s happening in Meridian.”
The city of Boise also wants the highway district to plow snow into the middle of roads where it’s practical instead of to the sides, Journee said. That way, plowed snow doesn’t clog storm drains and sidewalks.
Meridian wants to work out a better system for communicating with the public to let people know what help is available and what they can do in their own neighborhoods to help, Simison said. The city hopes to have these plans in place before snow flies. That would allow work to begin as soon as it’s needed, instead of days or weeks later, as occurred last winter.