Looking at Snow Removal Differently

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In the upper Midwest, dealing with the snow each year is just a necessary inconvenience. Snow removal activities are costly, labor-intensive efforts for every rural community in the northern states. But are there better ways to handle the issue?

Brief History of Snow Removal

Although the first patent for a snowplow was filed in 1840, their use wasn’t widespread until the later 1800s’. But the snowplow grew in popularity as people understood the importance of the snowplow on the safety and livability of cities. Those who previously had problems getting out of their dwellings for firewood and food now had better access after snow events.

However, snow removal procedures were still relatively ad hoc until the impacts of the Blizzard of 1888. This massive storm dropped 2-4 feet of snow in the Northeast and overwhelmed snow removal operations in many communities. Cities understood that they needed a more organized method of snow removal. Cities were divided into sections and assigned to plow drivers. Adjustments to everything from infrastructure installation to trolley routes were affected.

The advent of the automobile of course changed snow removal as well. Dump trucks, tractors with snow blades, and steam shovels started to make their impact on operations. But as removal was made easier by the advent of these machines, the expectations grew as well. Plows were covering sidewalks and blocking pathways from local streets in order to keep the main streets open. Crews have had to adjust to ever-changing technology and expectations to deal with the snow each year.

The National Snow and Ice Data Center has a very thorough history of snow removal. It is a good read if you have the time.

Shared Facilities

There are a number of shared salt and sand facilities throughout the United States already. With the right agreement in place, these facilities can cut costs through bulk purchases and shared operations costs.

One example of these facilities is the one shared by La Vista and Papillion, Nebraska. Proximity is of course a key factor in their agreement as when the City of Papillion chose to construct a new Public Works facility, the chosen site sat immediately across the street from La Vista’s Public Works facility. The two cities share the same salt, sand, and brine facilities, as well as a fueling center for their trucks.

There’s even a large new facility in Waukesha County, Wisconsin, that takes the shared arrangement to another level. Although it is mainly a facility for the State and the County to store the salt and brine used in their operations, the salt will also be sold off to at least ten other municipalities in the County.

Papillion Salt Facility

Papillion Salt Facility

Take to Social Media

Of course, there is a dividing line where municipal snow removal operations and private areas divide. Often the elderly and the disabled are in a precarious situation when heavy snows impact their ways of egress. These individuals also often have limited incomes to hire a commercial contractor to remove the snow for them.

Why not set up a Facebook page dedicated to help make connections between these individuals and volunteers willing to help. Yes, the technological limitations of many seniors may make this method tough to catch on. However, with some flyers or word of mouth, elderly residents can be given a phone number to call that links them to a volunteer to add them to a posting within the Facebook page.

Contract it Out

Plows aren’t cheap. A single-axle Freightliner plow truck can run upwards of $200,000 to purchase. Even with the right equipment, having enough staff to effectively remove snow in an acceptable amount of time is tough. Winter is typically a downtime as far as staffing for public works departments. The seasonal help from the warmer months is no longer around. Many times there’s not enough activity between snow events to occupy the amount of staff necessary to run an appropriate snow removal effort.

Cities like Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Omaha, Nebraska, are contracting out snow plowing services. Many cities, like Omaha, utilize contractors to work on the local residential streets only. This allows the city to concentrate on keeping the arterial and collector roads open and safe for travel.

Bring In The Dragon!

Want to get rid of snow fast? Bring in the Snow Dragon!!! This example is more about ending the article with a little fun.

Sure, many rural communities cannot afford to purchase one of these units. They currently cost nearly $600,000 to purchase new, although used ones can be found on government auction sites for way less. But it is a unique way of handling snow. Especially in downtown areas where there may not be a good location to store the large piles of snow and it is typically hauled out. The video below discusses how the Snow Dragon is actually cost-effective in some areas.

More on the Horizon

Interestingly enough, there’s plenty of technology on the horizon that will help snow removal operations. There’s already interactive snow plow tracking software in operation. Some of the software available has a web interface that allows residents to see a map that displays the last time a snowplow went down their street.

There’s even the concept of autonomous snowplows. The Institute of Navigation holds an annual Autonomous Snow Plow Competition in Minnesota. Students and members of the public are encouraged each year to submit their own self-driving snow removal machine. Although the designs have improved over the years, nothing is imminent yet to hit the market and change the plowing world.

Both of these new technologies would be outside of the budgets of many rural communities. But as with any technology, the prices come down over time.

Whatever ideas you use to help snow removal efforts in your community, it is important to keep an open mind. There’s always room for improvement.

Christopher Solberg

About Chris Solberg

Though Christopher Solberg (AICP) works in a suburb of a metropolitan area, his roots are in Red Oak, Iowa, a community of 5,500 persons southeast of Omaha. He has spent a significant amount of his career helping small towns. Through his time working for a regional planning association and for a private consultant Chris has helped numerous small towns throughout Iowa and Nebraska. Chris is also currently the President of the Nebraska Planning and Zoning Association (NPZA) and a member of the NE APA Nebraska Board.