How the city’s snowplow plan works and when Fort Collins streets will be cleared

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Clearing more than 1,000 miles of city of Fort Collins streets is a daunting task in the best of snows.

Snow the consistency of concrete, like the roughly 20 inches that dumped on the city over the weekend, makes opening up the roads for impatient drivers that much harder and slower for the city’s snowplow drivers.

“We don’t see snow this dense and heavy that often; it packed a real punch,” said Streets Department Superintendent Larry Schneider, while looking over screens providing up-to-the-second road and weather conditions at his office Sunday. “If you’ve tried shoveling this snow at your home, you know how heavy it is. Now just picture a 12-foot plow in front of a truck and add a wing plow on the side and those trucks have to work pretty hard to clear all that snow off the roadway. That means it takes us longer to clear it all.”

Schneider has at his disposal 14 monitors positioned around the city that continuously feed weather and road conditions, including air and pavement temperature, to a computer that displays the data on a large TV-size screen in a room at the Streets Department building.

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Some of the city’s 24 snowplows are equipped with pavement temperature monitoring devices to help drivers know when to apply deicer. The plows are manned in two rotating 12-hour shifts during severe storms.

Private contractors help as needed on roads and sidewalks.

On Sunday afternoon, Bill Barnes was driving the middle plow in a string of three clearing Horsetooth Road, which is an arterial road. These roads are the first priority in the city’s snowplow plan to clear to allow access to medical facilities and emergency services. Others in that category include College Avenue, Prospect Road, Lemay Avenue, Timberline Road, Shields Street and Harmony Road.

The plows clear snow from left to right, with each plow moving it farther along until the the snow is thrown off the right shoulder.

“This is one of the worst storms we’ve had in awhile, not only because of how much snow but because of the weight of it,” Barnes said. “Then you have to work around downed tree branches as well and it goes slower than usual.”

Schneider said as of Monday, the arterial roads had been cleared and crews were working on collector streets, the city’s second priority. These streets feed from neighborhoods to arterial streets and include such streets at Remington Street and Swallow Road.

He said crews started working on clearing collector streets Sunday but the severity of the storm â€” Fort Collins was under a blizzard warning starting around noon Sunday â€” forced plows off those roads to return to clearing main roads that were drifting in.

School bus routes are third on the priority list but Monday marked the first day of spring break for Poudre School District students, allowing Schneider to discuss what to do with residential streets. These are the last priority and often aren’t cleared by the city. When they are, it’s only when snow blocks traffic movement.

Schneider said Tuesday morning that the city started to clear residential streets Monday.

These streets are what generally draw the most complaints to Schneider because they are the last to open and for many people the first streets they encounter before getting to a collector or arterial street. They also number the most miles and are toughest to plow because of the many vehicles parked along the sides of the roads.

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“The big question now will be making some decisions on how we proceed with the residential streets because of the heavy snow and all the downed branches,” Schneider said Monday. “We just ask people to be patient.”

Schneider said at the same time streets are being cleared, sidewalks next to arterial roads are being cleared, though those plows are facing the same problems of clearing dense snow as road plows.

Temperatures are forecast to gradually warm this week and reach the 50s by Friday, which will help melt the snow.

If all goes as planned, Schneider hopes to have all streets mostly cleared in the next several days. But the task of clearing those streets clogged by the worst snowstorm in more than a decade doesn’t put this snowstorm behind him.

Schneider said crews will then focus on removing downtown snow via graders pushing snow into rows where then a large snowblower throws the snow into waiting trucks to be hauled away to a city site. 

Barnes said snowplow drivers, like everyone else, want to clear snow from the roads as quickly as possible because they drive those same roads.

“People complain about the roads not being cleared and we will always have people who complain,” he said. “But we know there are a lot more people out there who appreciate what we do and that’s what keeps us doing what we do.”

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Streets Department information

Overall: fcgov.com/streets

Track the snowplows: The city has a site to track the plows at fcgov.maps.arcgis.com/home/index.html. Scroll down and click on the view gallery to see a map of snowplow operations.

Social media: Get updates on Twitter at twitter.com/fortcollinsgov and on  Facebook at facebook.com/fortcollinsgov.

Reporter Miles Blumhardt looks for stories that impact your life. Be it news, outdoors, sports — you name it, he wants to report it. Have a story idea? Contact him at milesblumhardt@coloradoan.com or on Twitter @MilesBlumhardt. Support his work and that of other Coloradoan journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.