Preplanned priorities determine where snow gets plowed first

Published: Saturday, Dec. 21 2013 4:46 p.m. MST

Snowplows work Monday, Jan. 28, 2013, to clear streets in Salt Lake City following a snowstorm.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Jen Santoro has lived for five years in Cottonwood Heights, which has received flak recently for poor snow removal. As of Friday afternoon, her street off Creek Road hadn’t been plowed since the big snowstorm Thursday.

Santoro estimated that about 50 houses are cut off, and people without four-wheel drive are simply out of luck because of the hilly terrain. Neighbors have had to help each other get unstuck and have even gone to the grocery story for those residents who can’t get out because of the snow.

“We’re surprised by the fact we didn’t get plowed. … We have quite a few inches of slushy stuff,” Santoro said Friday. “This morning it looks like they’ve done a lot of the side streets and other dead ends.”

Recent snowstorms have kept Utah’s snowplows busy clearing streets and spreading salt, but some say it’s not enough.

“We had service we loved, nobody complained. Somebody changed it and now people are complaining,” Santoro said of the city’s recent switch to a private contractor.

Cities can privately contract snow removal, and it’s not an uncommon practice, according to Utah Department of Transportation spokesman Adan Carrillo.

With the exception of certain condominium and townhouse communities, interstates and some state roadways, each city is in charge of getting its own streets plowed. The counties are in charge of unincorporated areas, such as Kearns and Millcreek in Salt Lake County.

UDOT handles the interstates and some roadways in downtown Salt Lake City like parts of 600 South, 400 South, Victory Road, State Street, 700 East and some roads near the state Capitol.

About 12 UDOT employees cover those downtown areas, usually six during the day and six at night, Carillo said. Nearly 500 full-time plow drivers cover the entire state using UDOT’s 508 snowplow trucks.

Each year UDOT uses 1.8 million gallons of salt brine to pre-treat state roads and 236,000 tons of salt during storms.

“Obviously the interstates are a priority because they handle the largest amount of vehicles at a given point of time, and then once they make progress, they’ll plow some of the arterial roads,” Carrillo said.

It’s not just about pushing snow. The workers also pre-treat roads, fix potholes, repair snowplows, replace barriers and put signs back up. According to the department’s website, UDOT has a budget of $22.7 million for the winter, with operations costing about $1 million per storm.

“There’s a lot of people providing these services out there, and it’s not a cheap service, that’s for sure. It’s something that’s very valuable,” Carrillo said. “We sure don’t take it lightly. We take a lot of pride in what we do.”

Eventually every street in Salt Lake City should be plowed within 36 hours of the storm stopping, according to Rick Graham, Salt Lake City's director of public services.

He said the snowplow process for Salt Lake City is divided into four priorities. The first is arterial streets, which are major roadways that lead to health care facilities, go to the University of Utah, have major bus routes or are steep slopes up to residential areas.

The second priority is collector streets that connect residential neighborhoods to major streets.

After those are taken care of, snowplows head to residential areas, which are split into three districts that have equal distribution of equipment and workers. Graham said no residential area is given more preference over another.

The last priority is cul-de-sacs, or small roads with only one way in and out. However, if another storm comes, the city starts over with first priority roads.

“Our full deployment is 45 plows and we run a 24-hour operation, so we have 90 employees that keep those 45 vehicles and salting machines out on a constant basis if we need it,” Graham said.

Salt Lake City has 1,865 lane miles of roadway to plow, and about 600 tons of salt are used during a typical storm like Thursday’s.

“We go through this every year,” Graham said, “but generally I think our public understands that we live in these conditions, and that’s just the nature of life here.”

Twitter: @madeleine6

Email: madbrown@deseretnews.com

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