Snow Woes

Cars left parked on the street create obstacles for city snowplows — and for the drivers that later have to negotiate the narrowed space between those ridges. (Photo/Russ Hanson)

Nancy Edmonds Hanson

December and January weather has battered Moorhead and its neighbors – most of all those whose job it is to keep our streets and schools open. As the region enjoys a brief respite, two decision-makers reflect on the challenges that come with a Minnesota winter and a city full of residents who want to be on their way.

Clearing the Way

Be patient. That’s Public Works director Steve Iverson’s advice – and his plea – when snow and wind combine to clog Moorhead’s 500 lane-miles of city streets, 240 cul-de-sacs and 24 alleys.

With 16 employees and an equal number of motor graders, trucks and payloaders, the department’s crews typically require from 10 to 12 hours to clear both primary and residential roadways after an average storm. The big ones? Up to 16. Crews set out between 2 and 4 a.m. on snow days. With a limited number of drivers and rigs available, Moorhead does not have the capability of running around the clock.

“Our first priority is keeping our emergency snow routes open, followed by the secondary routes,” he explains. When the snow stops, crews tackle the residential areas, moving through ten districts across town. As one is completed, drivers and equipment move on to the next.

“We make one pass throughout the whole city after the snow event,” Iverson explains. “Then crews come back on the neighborhood’s regular street-maintenance days to clean it up and widen the driving lanes.”

Cars left parked at the curb during snow events are the bane of the crews’ existence. “If you have a place to put it when the snow is coming down, don’t park in the street,” he admonishes. “We’re going to plow. If your car is in the way, it’s going to get buried.” Worse, even after it has been dug out, the ridge of snow that surrounded it will remain until the next scheduled maintenance run, narrowing the driving path for everyone who comes along.

As new areas spring up in Moorhead, two of the practices favored by developers cause headaches for the drivers who push snow out of the lanes: Cul-de-sacs and the parallel trend toward wider driveways and narrower yards, especially in twinhome areas.

“If we were doing it now, you’d never see another cul de sac,” Iverson asserts. “There’s nowhere for the snow to go except into yards. The boulevards are for storing snow, but in a lot of areas there’s just not enough room there.” After especially heavy snowfall, the department sometimes is forced to pile snow in the center of the cul de sac – a measure that hasn’t been necessary so far this winter. Bringing in payloaders to haul it away is a pricey process best avoided. Contract hauling runs up a bill of $150,000 per event.

Phones usually ring off the hook (and testy social media posts abound) when residents wake up to the sight of snowdrifts in the street – and again when they face the ridges plows leave behind in their driveways. “It’s human nature. Everybody is in a rush to get going,” the director concedes. He dismisses the frequent call for adding snow gates to city equipment, as Bismarck and Sioux Falls have tried. “They don’t work like people think they do,” he explains. “For one thing, they’re only good for snowfall of 4 inches or less.” The expensive add-ons also double the manpower and the time required to clear the city.

Nor is cleaning sidewalks and the windrows that pile up at crosswalks the city’s responsibility. That belongs to homeowners whose property is adjacent to the corners. City personnel might come to clear the concrete of snow and ice if you fail to do your duty by 9 p.m … but you will be charged for the services.

No matter what the weather delivers, another Public Works responsibility – garbage collection – keeps to the same days it follows in sunnier times. “We get calls about that, too, and we tell them: Put out your solid waste when you normally would,” he advises. “We keep it as normal as we can.

“As we like to say, the city of Moorhead never closes. It may be more of a challenge these days, but unless the sky falls, the city will be open for business.”

Close, Delay or Stay the Course?

In days of yore, families gathered around the TV before the crack of dawn to watch the crawlers across the bottom of the screen that announced school delays and (best news for youngsters) snow days, when the classroom doors wouldn’t open at all.

No more. The Moorhead School District now determines the course of tomorrow’s events by the 10 p.m. newscasts. Even quicker, when the decision has been made, it’s whisked to parents’ and students’ smartphones via text messages and the district’s app, as well as its website. “Some parents have told us they’re grateful for the early announcements,” director of operations Steve Moore reports. “It gives them a chance to figure out what they’re going to do in the morning.”

Moore explains the decision-making process that leads up to that announcement. “Our main consideration is, ‘Are our kids and staff going to be safe?’” he says. “Then we look at our heating systems’ operation and whether we’ll have reliable transportation.”

Social media exploded last week when Fargo and West Fargo canceled school because of Arctic temperatures, but Moorhead carried on, albeit two hours late. “We all have different situations and capabilities,” Moore explains. “Fargo can push snow 24 hours a day; Moorhead can’t. Also, our buses cover 75 routes, including many out in the country. Conditions can be very different out there.”

A third factor, he adds, is the road-worthiness of Moorhead’s fleet of diesel equipment. All of the 25 buses operated by the district itself are stored in the new district operations center on 30th Avenue South, eliminating the problems diesel-powered engines face when temperatures dip to the extremes. Three contractors operate the other 50 buses, including Richards Transportation, Schuck Bus Service and Red River Trails; they, too, park their equipment inside or keep it warm with block heaters. Too, the buses are fueled at the same pumps as the city’s plows. The diesel mixture is a special cold-weather blend that doesn’t gel up at extremely low temperature.

Moorhead’s buses pick up about 1,000 students – almost 15% of enrollment – in rural areas north and south of the city. To gauge whether those routes and in-town streets are safe to drive, transportation supervisor Mike Steffen heads out to experience them himself at 3 a.m. He also communicates with the contractors to insure that no one has concerns about the day’s drive.

When storms and frigidity are in the forecast, Moore and other school leaders join their local counterparts in a Zoom call with North Dakota State University’s climatology experts. They discuss the situation among themselves before making their decisions. That doesn’t mean they are unanimous; since they and their cities operate under different limitations, their thinking may diverge, as it did last week.

Moorhead’s choice of a late start last week, Moore says, offered the schools some benefits while insuring another day of instruction. “It gave Public Works more time to get the streets open. Our snow removal contractors had another couple hours to clear out the parking lots, and maintenance workers could shovel out the sidewalks.”

When temperatures slide down to near-catastrophic levels, as they did last week, the schools have another concern – their heating plants. The district’s buildings are normally heated with natural gas. “But when it’s going to get extremely cold, we get an alert from Xcel Energy to cut back use,” Moore reports. That’s the signal to go to every building’s fuel-oil back-up system. “We had topped off all the tanks in advance of the snow event, so we were fine.”

When school is late or canceled, he says, the ensuing torrent of calls from parents is generally split down the middle, pro or con: “That’s a given. But when we make these decisions, they’re never based on the public’s reaction. We look at what’s best for the kids and staff. School is always the best place for them to be … when we can do it safely.”

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