After enduring Central Oregon’s worst winter in decades, the city of Bend is preparing for snowy streets with more staff, new equipment and possible plans to restrict parking and to salt particularly icy roundabouts, steep hills and railroad crossings.
The city added two additional road workers this year, bringing the number of full-time equivalent employees who can operate a snow plow to 30. Together with an additional three or four seasonal employees and private contractors who can be called on during emergencies, these employees are responsible for keeping 850 lane miles drivable.
How well that will work depends on a number of variables, including just how many bad storms Bend gets, Streets and Operations Department Director David Abbas said. Bend typically gets between 20 and 30 inches of snow each winter, but a series of heavy storms last winter dumped nearly 60 inches.
The city increased its overall winter operations budget by about 38 percent: $1.65 million compared to $1.2 million last year. That includes more money for private contractors who help plow residential roads during heavy storms. But the streets department didn’t base its budget request on last winter’s storms, Abbas said.
“It’s not reasonable to budget or buy equipment or budget staff for a once-in-a-25-year storm event,” he said.
The department will change employees’ work schedules to have two overlapping eight-hour shifts each day instead of three. That means between 15 and 30 employees can be out in plows, sander trucks or de-icer trucks at any hour between 4 a.m. and 9 p.m. In emergencies, the department can shift to two 12-hour shifts, having plows on the road 24 hours a day.
In addition, seasonal employees without commercial driver licenses can use snowblowers in areas, including roundabouts, alleys and pedestrian refuges in medians. They also can respond to citizen service requests: While Bend property owners are responsible for clearing their own sidewalks and driveways, elderly homeowners, or those with disabilities who can’t physically shovel out their driveways, can receive help from the city.
“Compared to last year, we’re adjusting our crew shifts to be more efficient,” Abbas said. “The hope is that with the increase in efficiency we will be able to do more.”
The city also added several new pieces of equipment, including GPS equipment to track routes and a Bob-Cat Utility vehicle with attachments to blow, plow and sweep snow. It also replaced three old work trucks that had snow plow attachments with newer ones.
The city’s also looking for help from residents, who in addition to clearing the sidewalks in front of their houses should park their cars off-street during plowing.
“If folks can keep vehicles and garbage cans off the road, that makes snowplowing more effective,” Abbas said.
And in some cases, drivers may have to keep their cars off the road or risk being towed. The street department is seeking City Council approval to designate snow emergency routes, where cars can’t park during a snow emergency declared by the city manager. These would typically take effect when snow reaches 6 inches with more snow expected — last winter would have had five such snow emergencies and previous years had about two a year.
Suggested snow emergency routes would include Wall, Bond and Broadway streets; Chandler, Conners and Tumalo avenues and Portland Avenue between 11th Street and College Way. If the city declares a snow emergency, the Bend Park & Recreation District, Oregon State University-Cascades and Deschutes County are willing to open their large parking lots, City Manager Eric King said.
At Wednesday’s Bend City Council work session, Councilor Barb Campbell suggested restricting on-street parking to alternate sides of the road during snowplowing periods. On odd days, residents could not park on odd-numbered sides of the street.
“Because we already have every other day watering in the summer, I thought if we did the same schedule as that, we at least have some point of reference for people,” she said.
Many Midwestern and Northeastern cities use such methods, but Abbas said that might be something to work toward next winter.
The city also re-evaluated its priority routes, or areas that get plowed first. Priority 1 streets are main arterial or collector roads. Priority 2 streets are other arterials and collectors that are necessary to get to the main roads but have less traffic, and most residential streets are Priority 3. Residential streets typically aren’t cleared until at least 6 inches of snow have accumulated, and major storms can keep the city’s plows on only the high-priority streets.
“There could be days where it just snows all day long, and in those cases, we may be on Priority 1 streets all day long,” Abbas said. “When a driver gets to the end of their Priority 1 section, there may be 5 inches of snow at the beginning and they’ll have to go back.”
In re-evaluating priority routes, the city worked with Cascades East Transit to add primary bus routes. Clearing snow from bus routes quickly means Cascades East Transit can spend less time on snow schedules, when buses run once an hour and drive slower, spokesman Derek Hofbauer said.
“If the city prioritizes clearing off our transit routes, it allows us to have better service,” he said. “When the city plows our streets, it helps us to run on time.”
Jordan Ohlde, a Bend resident born with cerebral palsy who uses a motorized wheelchair to get around, missed work several days last winter because snow accumulation kept him from being able to get his van out of his driveway or reach a nearby bus stop. He said hearing that the city would prioritize public transit routes for snow removal is a start, but he still hopes the city considers forming a committee focusing only on dealing with snow.
“We don’t need a replay of last winter,” he said.
The city is considering using salt in targeted areas of town, such as railroad crossings, roundabouts and steep hilly areas where ice can build up. Most councilors supported the idea.
“There’s some critical areas where that could make the difference between someone being seriously injured or not,” Councilor Bill Moseley said during Wednesday’s work session.
But Councilor Nathan Boddie said he wouldn’t support using salt because it rusts the undersides of cars. In areas of the country that see a lot of snow and regularly salt roads, cars often develop tell-tale rust marks, but those effects can be minimized by a trip through a car wash once roads are clear.
“I think we can do a pretty good job with plowing and our current operations and with cinders, but that would certainly be something to run by the community because that’s property damage potentially,” he said at Wednesday’s work session.
Bend also needs to be careful about letting salt drain into the Deschutes River, Boddie said. Generally speaking, most snowmelt, icemelt and rain in Bend ends up in the river, said Ryan Houston, executive director of the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council.
“Salt can certainly change conditions of water quality,” he said. “It’s something that could have negative effects on fish and on plants.”
Several stormwater drains in Bend lead directly to the river, while others are filtered through drywells. Wendy Edde, the city’s stormwater program manager, said Bend’s stormwater advisory group can work with Abbas and the streets department on the best ways to keep rock salt out of the river. The city already trains employees on how best to use magnesium chloride, another de-icing material.
Abbas expects to return to the City Council with more information on targeted salt use at some point in November.
The Oregon Department of Transportation, which is responsible for state Highway 372 and other outlying state highways as well as U.S. highways 20 and 97, is also gearing up for winter by ordering magnesium chloride and preparing a “huge mountain of cinders,” department spokesman Peter Murphy said.
“We’ve had this little taste of winter, so we’re getting into winter mode,” he said.
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