Clearing the roads

Staying ahead of a snowstorm can be a daunting task. But changes to the emergency snow route rules this year have made snow removal in Fort Dodge a bit simpler, said Public Works Director Greg Koch.

Not only is it easier to tell when a snow emergency is in effect, the snow routes have also been modified to make plowing more straightforward.

“The routes that were deleted really didn’t meet the criteria for a snow route,” Koch said. “In fact, they inhibited our plow trucks from clearing streets in a uniform fashion. Some of the snow routes that were deleted were actually dead-end streets. … They’d have to hit the dead end and stop and turn around, so there wasn’t a continuous flow for the plow operators.”

When there has been an accumulation of snow or ice of 2 inches or more, a parking prohibition automatically goes into effect on those routes for a period 24 hours.

Last year, a proclamation by the mayor was required in order to initiate the parking ban. The change was made so that a snow ordinance would be easier to communicate, Koch said, hopefully leading to fewer tickets and fewer towed cars.

Ever since these changes were made in November, “it seems like the snow routes have been a little bit easier to manage. There’s been less parking on those streets,” Koch said. “So it’s helped.”

Whenever possible, the city sends out its 12 trucks before snow arrives to treat the streets with an anti-ice liquid made of 85 percent salt brine, 5 percent calcium chloride, and 10 percent of a liquid derived from sugar beets.

“We don’t like to put that down on our streets when temperatures are below 15 degrees like we’ve been seeing, because it can get slippery and gel up,” said Koch.

The solution also is applied to the solid salt that is laid down, even in colder weather.

The city has a total budget of $453,600 for snow operations, including labor, equipment and repair costs, and salt and de-icing materials. The year-to-date amount spent in November was $96,143, Koch said.

“In the two previous years, we’ve been below budget because the winters have been so weak. Right now it’s too early to tell if we’re on track or not,” he said.

Webster County has a budget this year of $500,000 for snow removal and purchase of ice and sand, according to Webster County Engineer Randy Will. That amount doesn’t include equipment operations, repairs and other supplies.

The county has spent about $200,000 so far this year, including about $137,000 spent at the beginning of the season for 1,300 tons of rock salt and 8,000 tons of washed sand.

“We’re probably 40 percent spent, but it’s disproportionate because of the amount of material we have on hand,” Will said. “Hopefully we don’t use it all, and next winter will cost less money.”

The county has 32 plow trucks it sends out to clear 1,179 miles of county roads, including 310 paved miles and 869 miles of granular roads.

Two road foremen are responsible for monitoring the roads and calling out the plows when needed. The snowplows can run from 4 a.m. to 6 p.m.

“We are not like the state. We do not work around the clock,” Will said. “We just don’t have the resources to do that.”

“As per our policy, our initial effort is to get the paved roads open to two lanes, and then the unpaved roads to one lane as soon as possible,” he said.

The department has found ways to save money over the last few years. There are fewer workers than there once were, as retiring employees were not replaced.

“We’ve tried to get more lean. And I think we’re about as lean as we want to get,” said Will.

The department has also designated about 73 miles of granular roads for no snow removal.

“There’ s no one living on those miles, or they don’t have to travel those miles,” said Will. “Number one, to do a better job on the other miles that we need to keep open, and I think we do cut our costs down,” he said.

There are some challenging roads in the county, including dead-ends near the Des Moines River, according to Will.

“On the other end of it we have several high-traffic paved roads, primarily that funnel into Fort Dodge, and those require constant attention,” Will said, noting that Webster County has the fifth highest vehicle miles traveled per day in Iowa.

Every snowstorm is different, he added. Sometimes blowing snow continually closes up roads after they’ve been plowed.

“In a normal snow event, if there’s 2 to 6 inches, we should be able to get everything done in a workday,” said Will. “If there’s 2 or 3 inches and it doesn’t continue to blow and drift, we can do all the paved roads in two hours, and then we can go to the other routes if necessary.”