It’s just before 2 a.m. the morning after a snowfall, and Crystal Public Works employees are gearing up in layers and in reflective fluorescent suits so they can clear the roads for residents, many of whom are at that same moment tucked into warm beds, serenely detached from the frozen world outside their windows.
Depending on the snow depth, the equipment plow drivers will use ranges from pickups equipped with front end plows, to a fleet of dump trucks plus a massive John Deere, which requires ascending a steel ladder into the cab using a “three-point contact” safety technique to ensure at least three hands or feet are on deck at a time. Climbing into the cab of one of the larger trucks feels like venturing into the belly of a beast, and whether in that steel cockpit or the cab of a slightly less intimidating pickup fitted with a plow, these workers will endure icy roads and darkness while navigating stray garbage cans and the occasional car to help make sure the morning commute is as smooth as possible.
It’s a service that is rife with misconceptions and high expectations, yet it often gets taken for granted. The individuals orchestrating the clear roadways are tasked with a rather complicated system of planning and a multitude of challenges.
“There’s way more that goes into it than people are aware,” said Bill Bowman, Crystal streets superintendent, who plowed streets in Golden Valley for 13 years. “There’s snow-covered roads, then they wake up and they’re clear. But it’s a days-long process.”
Bowman and Public Works director Mark Ray explained what goes on in those days leading up to a snow event. It’s a matter of striking balance in the face of numerous variables including how much snow is expected, when the snow falls, what day of the week it is, how many vehicles will be on the roads and the possibility that the forecast will change significantly.
“We use the National Weather Service for all of our information for a variety of reasons,” Ray said.
The weather service forecasting provides hourly charts over the span of three days, providing details for the “Crystal polygon,” i.e. the city’s specific service area. Although they’re more detailed than other weather sources for planning purposes, weather service updates are at 4 a.m. and 4 p.m., meaning there’s a wide swath of time where uncertainty lies. With the snowfall on Sunday, Jan. 14 into the early morning hours of Monday, Jan. 15, the city opted to wait until the Sunday morning forecast to lock in the plowing plan and solidify the routes and times for drivers.
“We’re mobilizing so many people once we set that into motion, so it’s difficult to adjust that a lot,” he said.
Ray said 15 of the staff of 24 people are sent out onto the city’s streets and parking lots during a full plowing operation. The trucks can be tracked in real time using a color-coordinated GPS mapping system that displays icons of each truck and a virtual trail mapping their routes. The route typically takes around eight hours to complete, since the routes are planned to start at different streets so no single neighborhood always gets served first.
The major streets are the highest priority, then plow drivers work their way to the smaller residential streets with lower traffic volumes.
“For most residential streets that are under 1,000 cars a day, we’re just looking to plow this and get the bulk of it off. You’re gonna see a snow-covered road, but you can get to where you need to go,” Ray said.
Ray said that lower volume main roads are plowed with the knowledge that strips of tire tracks exposing bare pavement down the middle of each lane will begin to form, even on streets with around 700 cars per day. For larger roads, however, fully bare pavement is the priority. For instance, 36th Avenue is the highest volume road in the city, according to Ray, and that street “gets a lot of attention,” he said.
Still, people are critical and highly analytical of the job the city does clearing snow.
“Unfortunately, we’re compared to MnDOT a lot, which does bare pavement as far as you can see because people want to drive 70 (mph) in a 55 zone as soon as possible. For us, we don’t do that for a number of reasons: for one, we can’t run 24/7 like MnDOT. We basically have one shot with the staff we have to go after it. If it was a really bad storm, we might go in it twice in a 12-14 hour period, but that would be pushing it,” he explained.
In the years that Bowman plowed the streets of Golden Valley, he saw his share of challenges.
“It’s the ice storms that are the worst. Hold on and hope for the best,” he said. “The trucks don’t have four-wheel drive, so they slide around easily because they’re carrying a lot of weight ... There are a lot of times where you have to turn around and back up a hill because you can’t go up it, or you can’t go up it because your tires will start spinning. Once you start sliding, there’s nothing you can do.”
“The way that truck operates is it looks like a giant cruise ship, and it basically turns like one, too,” Ray added.
While nature’s elements make plowing tricky, some of the obstacles are preventable with a bit of cooperation and understanding among residents. Trash cans, for example, are sometimes left in the roads, which prevents snow plows from getting closer to the curb and requires arduous navigation around them. Cars are also sometimes left parked on the roads, in which case plow drivers will tip off police, who will ticket the vehicle if it’s violating the snow emergency or overnight parking ordinances.
A snow emergency is declared when at least 1.5 inches of snow accumulates, in which case parking is prohibited on the roads and alleys until after they are plowed. In Crystal, parking is prohibited from 2-5 a.m. year round, an ordinance that Ray said helps reinforce the importance of not parking on roadways that need plowing.
“It kind of builds the muscle memory of, ‘hey, you can’t park on that street at night.’ If we’re going to get three inches of snow overnight, hopefully they already knew they can’t park there,” Ray said.
Ward 4 Councilmember Julie Deshler tagged along for the Jan. 15 snowfall’s early morning plowing route in her ward as part of the city’s “Plow Along” program, which is open to any resident ages 18 and older. Deshler said she wanted to get a better idea of what it’s like at the ground level to help her better field her constituents’ questions and concerns about plowing.
“I’ve always wanted to see how much time it takes to actually plow the roads curb-to-curb, what kinds of obstacles they encounter when they’re out on their job, what kinds of things slow them down to finish the job, because most of the resident complaints I get that have to do with plowing are ‘Why isn’t it done quicker, why is it curb-to-curb?’ I just wanted to see firsthand what it’s like to live in their world,” she said.
Deshler observed most of the typical challenges that morning.
“There’s a lot of obstacles in the road that I can see are pretty challenging for the snowplow drivers,” she said. “The different turns and the cul-de-sacs, garbage cans in the road, litter, debris, cars parked on the streets in the middle of the night ... The plow driver I rode along with, his big concern is the cars that get too close to the plow blades. They’re always watching out. They’ve got to watch every angle of that plow to make sure they don’t hit something, or somebody doesn’t hit them. I can see where it would be stressful.”
Bowman said that for plow drivers, while the night comes with its own set of challenges, namely in the form of ice, it tends to be easier than rush hour, when cars, children getting home from school, and people are out and about.
“In the evening at rush hour, it’s a different animal,” he said. Although plow times ultimately depend on when the snow falls, there are measures in place to help streamline rush hour travel, including starting at 2 a.m. in Crystal, a timeframe Deshler said the city council and the public works department established about two years ago. Robbinsdale Public Works director Richard McCoy said that while the city’s start time is set at 4 a.m., “... this practice is being reviewed in light of providing better service to the residents.”
“Once rush hour hits, you just can’t do it effectively because there’s so many cars on the road, so going out at 2 in the morning, they get a lot of it cleaned up and out of the way before people actually get on the road for rush hour,” Deshler said.
Deshler rode with a plow driver for the 2 a.m. route, taking in all of the details of the process.
“I watched them go through a pre-plow check. It’s kind of like an airplane pilot – they check all of their equipment and see if it’s operational before they go out on the roads,” she said.
The plow-along experience was daunting at first, but a fascinating experience.
“You’re tired and it’s cold outside, and you’re wondering, ‘is this the smartest decision I’ve ever made?’” she laughed. “But once up and out on the road, it’s kind of eerily quiet at 2 in the morning, and it’s almost kind of peaceful to be out there plowing when you don’t have all the other obstacles that you would at, say, 4 or 5 in the morning ... It was kind of surreal in a way. It was very pretty with the snow coming down a little bit, and you’re riding really high, so you can see all sorts of things. It’s loud, but it’s peaceful at the same time in the middle of the night when it’s so quiet out there.”
Only one car was ticketed during her four-hour excursion, but Deshler said it was eye-opening seeing how parked cars impede a snow plow.
“It just leaves a mess for the neighborhood for the rest of the winter, so it’s really important that people move their cars off the streets so the plows can do a clean sweep,” she said.
She also pointed out that while garbage cans can be difficult to place near enough to the curb without going in the street, she learned from her snow plow driver that they can be set up to 5 feet back in a driveway for garbage trucks to still reach them.
“There’s no reason to put them on the street. In fact, they shouldn’t be on the street,” she said.
Another component of the whole process is salt. Deshler said it’s a balancing act to be mindful of the environment while reducing slippery conditions at intersections.
“The salts are getting into our streams and waterways, and it’s really a long-term harmful effect for the environment. So you want to balance safety, but we want to protect our environment for the future as well,” she said. “That’s an interesting component to public works too, is they’re trying to come up with a solutions that are effective without using as much salt so we’re more protective of our lakes and streams.”
According to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, salts contain chloride, a water pollutant, excessive amounts of which damage water quality. Excessive salts also damages the actual roadways, corroding steel reinforcers, scaling roadways, damaging bridges, and impacting the lifespan of motor vehicles.
Crystal’s Public Works department mitigates these issues by mixing salt with water to help spread more of a brine solution rather than pure concentrated salt, in turn reducing the amount of salt required on the roads.
Ultimately, the critical role public works staff plays in a community should not be taken for granted. Deshler said she was grateful for the experience she had.
“It was nice to get out there and live in their world for a snapshot of time, and have a better understanding of what challenges they face. They do a wonderful job, and I’m really pleased with the caliber of staff we have in our public works department.”
Bowman expressed hope that people might recognize the caliber of the job with patience and cooperation with ordinances.
“We’re committed to getting the job done, and we realize it’s frustrating, and we realize there are expectations, but at the end of the day, we want people to get home safely and to get to where they need to go safely,” he said.
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