Winter crews say they work hard to keep roads clear of snow and ice

Photo courtesy of the City of Idaho Falls

Photo courtesy of the City of Idaho Falls

Kendra Evensen, kevensen@journalnet.com

A Bingham County man is already frustrated with the condition of roads in East Idaho this winter — and it’s likely to get worse in the days ahead. Officials with the National Weather Service forecast office in Pocatello have issued a winter storm watch because of a significant amount of snowfall that could make travel difficult Friday through Christmas.

Ted Huff, who has lived in the Riverside area of Bingham County for many years, hopes crews will be out working to keep roads as clear as possible.

“I would like to see snow plows running,” he said, adding that bad roads can not only cause significant delays, but even more importantly, they can also lead to serious accidents.

Huff says it recently took him 20 minutes to travel six miles because of bad road conditions, and his wife’s commute to American Falls can often take twice as long as it’s supposed to.

Huff, who has traveled throughout the country as a truck driver, said many other states have plows waiting in the median at midnight or later when a storm is coming. That’s why he becomes frustrated when he sees snow plows here parked during snowstorms, like he did in Bingham County on Saturday.

“I would like to see the snow plows running,” he said, adding that the bad roads can not only delay people, but even more importantly, they can also lead to serious accidents.

Still, area officials say keeping the roads clear can be a difficult task.

Crews have to plow hundreds of miles of roads — focusing first on those that are priorities — and often have to work around traffic, equipment breakdowns and uncertain weather conditions. They may also have to send fewer people out at a time to keep plows working round the clock during long storms.

Randy Ghezzi, public works director in Bingham County, says plows there go out each day during normal business hours when there is snow and ice on the road. They can also go out after hours if they are dispatched by his office or the sheriff’s office.

“We respond during and after storms and usually after a large wind event to remove snow drifts,” he wrote in an email response to the Journal.

Still, the county’s website states: “During severe winter storms with high winds and/or minimal visibility, no equipment is mobilized until conditions improve to the point that snow removal operations don’t endanger the operators, equipment or the public.”

Although Huff saw multiple plows parked in a county yard when he drove by on Saturday afternoon, Ghezzi says they did have crews out working for nine hours that day.

Bingham County has nine motor graders, 12 plow trucks and six trucks with sanders that can work around the clock if needed.

“The county will always keep in mind the safety of the motoring public,” Ghezzi wrote in an email. “Bingham County employees are dedicated to maintain the roads to the best of their abilities during adverse weather conditions.”

He encourages anyone with questions or concerns to contact the Bingham County Public Works Department at 208-782-3865.

In Idaho Falls, crews go out when more than 2 inches of snow accumulate on the road, and they may work around the clock, Kerry Hammon, public information officer for the city. wrote in an email response to the Journal. They also apply salt brine to priority streets prior to storms to aid in snow removal.

“One of the biggest challenges we are faced with is getting the public to move vehicles off the roadways to allow room for the plows,” Hammon wrote. “This makes it challenging for not only the snow plows but for the police department as they work to get the vehicles moved — all while managing increased calls regarding accidents.”

The city has expanded its communication tools — text alerts, social media messages, etc. — to keep in better contact with the public. Still, Hammon reminds people to do their part to stay informed and be patient while they’re on the roads this winter.

“A snow event such as the one our communities just experienced can be challenging and frustrating for many,” she wrote. “We encourage people to plan ahead; know your community’s policies on snow removal so you are not caught off guard; stay tuned to media stations for updates; and have patience with your neighbors, fellow citizens and snow removal crews.”

For their own safety, Hammon also asks people to stay at least 100 feet behind trucks and plows, which have blind spots and may have to back up.

Pocatello crews also pre-treat roads ahead of storms, says Michael Jaglowski, Pocatello’s public works director, adding that officials in the Street Operations Department have twice-weekly video conference calls with meteorologists so they can make appropriate plans.

“Our goal is to ensure that you only have to travel a few blocks before reaching a cleared road,” Jaglowski wrote in an email, but added that they have to prioritize when it comes to snow removal. “Crews treat Pocatello’s arterial, emergency, and school bus routes first. These are roads like Yellowstone, Clark, Center, Pocatello Creek, Fourth Avenue, Fifth Avenue, Gwen, Arthur, and Main. Emergency routes are the priority here in that if an incident, accident, or some other emergency happens, first responders can still get to the scene relatively quickly using these routes.”

Roads that collect traffic from residential neighborhoods and feed into arterial streets are next, followed by residential roads, he wrote.

“Like any municipality, a large volume of snow in a short period of time is our biggest challenge,” Jaglowski wrote. “Pocatello’s geography also plays a role with the valley floor possibly experiencing different weather than what is occurring on the benches.”

Crews with the Idaho Transportation Department also experience challenges when it comes to weather conditions.

Steve Gertonson, operations manager for ITD’s District 5 office in Pocatello, says the storm that came in on Dec. 16 started as rain and then changed to snow as temperatures dropped below zero.

“The rain made any effort to do a pretreatment of the roadway, applying what we call a bond breaker (salt brine), not feasible since it would be washed off. This was also an extended duration storm, which cuts the crew size in half that are available to work on the storm,” he wrote in an email.

In addition, Gertonson noted that while they use salt brine and solid salt to melt snow and ice, the melting capability decreases as temperatures drop below 20 degrees. Even salt brine will freeze when it reaches roughly 6 degrees below zero.

Still, ITD tries to do everything it can to keep roads clear.

“Safety is one of the transportation department’s central priorities,” Gertonson wrote. “The department is continually evaluating how it manages its highway routes during the winter season.”

As more snow is expected to fall in the area, Gertonson encourages people to call 5-1-1 from a cellphone or visit the 511 Traveler Services webpage for the latest road conditions on Idaho highways. He also reminds people to give themselves extra time to reach their destinations during storms, and tell someone where they’re going in case of an emergency.

“Let a friend, relative or colleague know where you’re going if you’re taking an extended road trip. Let them know which route you will be driving on, and call them when you arrive so they know you reached your destination safely,” he wrote.