Priorities define plow routes

By: 
JENNY GESSAMAN
Reporter

As Central Montana’s unusually mild fall and winter give way to the state’s traditional cold snows, residents are once again wondering, “Where’s my snowplow?” Well, it turns out, it could be a lot of places.

Responsibility for Central Montana roads is divided up among state, county and city departments. While all three have different assignments, staff and equipment, they do share the practice of prioritizing roads for snow removal. Fergus County Road and Bridge Supervisor John Anderson found numbers the best justification for ranking roads.

“The thing people need to realize is there’s 1,700 miles of road [in Fergus County], and we can only cover 50-75 miles a day [per plow],” he said. “With all the snowplows, realistically, we can do 400 miles a day, if it isn’t drifted.”

His staff prioritize roads based on the Fergus County Road and Bridge Standards, which gives missile roads, school bus routes and mail routes precedence unless an emergency occurs. Even these routes get ranked, though, depending on conditions.

“We just do a little phone calling sometimes to see if we need to plow out there,” Anderson explained. “And the public’s really good about calling in.”

Matt Birdwell, superintendent of operations for the City of Lewistown Public Works department, prioritizes city streets using snow or emergency routes.

“Those are pretty much our primary concerns,” he said. “They are the main arteries in town that allow emergency services to get around.”

Birdwell’s staff spends most of their time on those routes, but may find time to plow other streets if there’s a need.

“It’s on an as-needed basis,” he explained. “We can’t go everywhere at once.”

The state’s snow remover, the Montana Department of Transportation, has a similar formula for their prioritization. Lewistown Maintenance Chief Ron Pederson explained rank came down to one thing: the amount of traffic.

“We have to prioritize our busiest roads first,” he said.

The measurement, usually calculated through average annual daily traffic, puts urban areas high on the MDT list, according to Pederson. He said crews usually plow Lewistown first, and then continue east and west on Hwy 87.

Despite ranking routes, all of the snow removal departments are limited by numbers of both staff and equipment.

“We have 10 winter employees, if you count our temps, but with those employees, we run three shifts,” Pederson explained. “Our goal is to keep as many truck out there as needed, but the other thing that people have to realize is that equipment does break.”


Taking stock
The City of Lewistown, Fergus County and the Montana Department of Transportation local office each have their own equipment and staff to tackle winter roads. Here’s a rundown of who has what:

Lewistown
• 3 snowplow trucks, two snowplows capable of applying salt and one smaller truck capable of sanding
• 2 road graders with attachable snow gates, or extensions that keep windrows (those long lines of snow) from forming
• 1 loader that can attach to a bucket, industrial-size snow blower or a v-plow
• 4 drivers in the street department, with three water department staff qualified to drive that can be called in during emergencies

Fergus County
• 7 road graders, with two stationed in Lewistown and one in each of the county’s five outlying towns of Denton, Roy, Winifred, Grass Range and Vaughn
• 1 snowplow (kept in Lewistown)
• 1 industrial snow blower
• 13 drivers

MDT, Lewistown office
• 1 salt truck (kept in Lewistown)
• 7 snowplows, all of which can sand and most of which can salt
• 10 drivers

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