I’ve been thinking about road conditions here in Great Falls. Winter brings out the worst in driving conditions around the world. However, in many other places, equally as populated, there are clearer roads even after a snow storm. I am here to tell you that Great Falls is not doing nearly enough in terms of snow removal, and I will prove to you that they are not even following their own snow removal plan!
Being an outsider inside of Great Falls gives me a unique perspective. I grew up in a small town inside of the huge metropolis of Chicago. I have seen what can be for even a micropolis such as the Great Falls area.
If you go into the city itself, say a neighborhood similar to one here, many residential streets are in fact plowed. Many of those residents vehicles may have been kinda buried by the plow…you know what they do? They dig themselves out throwing the snow into the yards. Then they call their DIBS, usually by placing a piece of lawn furniture after they pull their car out, but sometimes it can be more extensive and even comical.
No one messes with DIBS. It becomes your own personal parking space that not even the most sociopathic member of your neighborhood would consider messing with. This is something that can be a fun way to bring our own community together so long as we can speak out and make the city change how they handle our roads in the winter.
I am not saying that they need to go all out like in bigger cities and repave the streets with heat elements under them (they are pretty awesome btw, I’ve lived that…). And while many streets here need to be repaved to begin with, that is not what I am here to discuss.
According to the City of Great Falls website, there are just over 300 miles of road within the city limits. If we exclude the stretches that are maintained by the Montana Department Of Transportation, we are looking at closer to 270 miles that are actually maintained by the city.
The city has 20 full time employees in the street division, and currently has access to 20 vehicles that can be used in snow removal.
This is according to the most recent revision of the “Snow and Ice Control Plan”, a downloadable PDF you can get from the city website. This plan was originally made effective in January of 1989. 30 years ago! The most recent revision was over 8 years ago. Prior to that, the plan had been revised every 3 to 5 years. This tells us that the plan is definitely outdated, but was a very enlightening read nonetheless. It talks of prioritizing the roadways according to a color system. Red being the most important, then black, and green.
So far, so good… But did you know that according to a map showing this priority set up, unless a school is on a Red or Black street, you won’t be able to ensure the safety of your child should they be walking to school in snowy conditions. Especially when you consider how many [elementary] schools are between uncontrolled intersections with limited, if any crossing guards. Cars aren’t stopping, and those that try, can’t. Now, the plan does say that if a certain street really does need attention, you can call and put in a request…. But do you really think they will follow up on it? Yes… Sorta…
Did you know that sanding the streets has actually been proven to NOT be effective and actually costs more money because of cleanup? It also costs more than most other methods. Currently, one of the most popular is the use of various LIQUID ice melt products. Not only are some of these products cheaper to obtain, some can even be made with natural ingredients for even less money and cause less damage to the streets and our own cars. Plus, they are rated to keep working even in extreme sub-zero temps, which we are all aware happens each winter at one point or another.
Some extra information on clearing winter roads… First and most importantly, plowing. To do it properly, the plow must have its blade lowered all the way down so that it scrapes the road, lifting as much snow and ice as possible. This means that the blades typically need sharpening each year. You can clearly see on the roads that do get plowed that the blades are either dull, or not being lowered all the way resulting the snow not being properly removed. On roads that don’t get plowed, the snow just packs in on itself resulting in safer conditions for a snowmobile or better yet, a Zamboni.
Break out your ice skates folks, because that is gonna be the most fun way to get around town.
The next step in making our roads safer in the winter is controlling the ice/snow pack on the roads that don’t get plowed. Sliding through intersections that are actually controlled is not my idea of a good time.
How the City of Great Falls hasn’t been sued for negligence is beyond me! Do you how many accidents can be prevented just by the city putting more effort into snow removal? While I don’t know the exact number, my guess is about ⅔ of the total winter weather accidents can be prevented within city limits. That number can be reduced even more by reducing visual obstructions such a vehicles being parked too close to the intersection. But that is another story for another day.
Back to sanding… As I mentioned before, it’s been proven to not be effective at providing traction. It only works for the first 8 to 12 cars. At which point it has been blown away by wind, packed into the snow, or inadvertently pushed to the curbs. It will also result in higher costs in the spring for cleanup. If left on clear roads, it becomes like that moment in a cartoon where a character is trying to drive or run across a bunch of marbles that were spilled in his path. You don’t get very far very easily.
I have spent this past week just observing the negligence of the city streets, mostly between Benefis, Great Falls High, and the downtown district, in addition to my own neighborhood near Longfellow and Head Start. What I have discovered is that you can clearly tell where the state stops and the city starts. 10th Ave S, while really only one lane each way is actually cleared, the state did a pretty good job of making the main road in and out of town pretty safe for driving. However, on Monday Feb 10, at around 2:30PM, trying to turn south on 25th St towards the hospital was like trying to jump a curb higher than the curb itself… In a hospital/ambulance zone.
The streets surrounding GFHS are most definitely not safe enough to our young student drivers just trying to get an education. And there are several other school zones that have been neglected, including Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic on 5th Ave S in my own neighborhood.
I will mention again that if you call the the city Streets Division, you can request a plow or sanding be done at specific locations. They even show up within a reasonable time frame.
However, be prepared to only see about 40% effort. On Friday, Feb 15 at around 4:10PM, I requested a plow come to 3rd Ave S and 12th St. Both streets needed serious attention and I mentioned that specifically in my request. By 4:30PM, a plow truck showed up… And only did half of the intersection. Not even the whole intersection. Literally just half.
Between Thursday night on the 14th and Friday morning before the morning commute started for most of us, the city easily could have come out and cleared city lots as well as many streets and avenues that would have made the morning commute much easier on everyone in town. Especially noting that the state maintained areas had been completed before such time. If the city had come out early in the morning, they would have been able to have many extra streets cleared before it became too difficult to plow after cars drive through and packed it down even more.
If you total the amount of wet, heavy snow we have gotten over the last few weeks, you will notice that it’s been over 24 inches that no amount of wind can help pick up. When you pack down that much of that kind of snow, you get some of the most dangerous driving around (are we allowed to drive snowmobiles through town?) 12 inches of packed down ice and snow is definitely not acceptable for driving… Let alone the 24 we currently have.
If the City of Great Falls actually cared about the safety of its residents, they would and should ensure that as many streets and avenues were cleared in a timely fashion with 100% effort. This is an easy thing to do if they just worked mixed shifts Including overnights (this can be done without overtime, btw…) to ensure that snow is cleared of the streets as soon as the snow stops and before too much traffic makes it impossible to clear. They can also step up the effort by backtracking and re-plowing the main roads during active snowfall instead of waiting for it to stop. After the snow stops, side streets and other non-priority streets would actually be able to get done by using this type of system.
Back to the City’s Snow and Ice Control Plan… It states that in addition to the sand they use, they are supposed to include a 5% salt mix so that the sand doesn’t become the useless mess that is currently is. Several of the private plowing companies here are using a 15% liquid or granular solution to control ice in the parking lots they are contracted to manage.
After everything I have pointed out, do you think that the City of Great Falls is following their own plan and regulations? Definitely NOT! At this time, I invite every reader to write to the streets division expressing your dissatisfaction in how Great Falls manages the streets in the winter months. There is no reason for our city to be this uncaring and neglectful to our safety.
As of Saturday February 16, Great Falls has become impassable. It’s time for our city to step up and take care of us. Federal holidays do not stop weather and should therefore not stop road crews from being prepared and taking steps to ensure that our roads are safe. IMO, they should have known that more snow was coming and should have been on standby or on call so that roads were safe for travel throughout the day and even overnight. I myself got stuck 2 times just trying to get to work today, and the second time I was left with no option but to call 911 because the streets divisions well as the non emergency desk we not working today. Totally inexcusable and unacceptable.
I do have a very strong personal reason why the city needs to do more. In January 2005, I lost one of my best friends just weeks before her 20th birthday. She was still just a teenager. Someone I consider to be a sister. Her loss could have been prevented if a specific road that was supposed to have been a priority 2 road had been cleared when priority 3 had already been done Instead. The investigation showed that she lost control turning a corner at about 5 miles an hour and wrapped her car around a fire hydrant on the driver side. Her internal injuries were just too great. This is something that i wish to never see happen to anyone, friend or foe. But I fear that without change happening, this can and will happen here if it hasn’t already.