The city knows this because it keeps accurate statistics of the snowfall in its budget.
For instance, the city’s greatest 24-hour snowfall was 27.5 inches way back in November 1893.
The most snow we ever got in a month was December 1996 with 54.1 inches, and that was also the heaviest year the city ever saw, with 106 inches total. It was also our deepest year, with snow 27 inches deep in some spots.
So we know it snows here.
That’s why I’m always puzzled that the city has such a hard time keeping the streets free of snow.
The side streets are the worst, with some not seeing a plow all year...even on the streets near our schools.
This is unacceptable.
That’s why today I’d like to dig into how the City of Missoula removes our snow, as well as how other cities do it.
Maybe then we can do a better job.
Facts About Missoula Snow Plowing
In Missoula we have 322 miles of city streets. The snow removal policy divides city streets into three categories - Priority 1, 2 and 3.
Each priority area is designated so based on “traffic volumes, steepness of hills, public transit routes, proximity to schools, access to businesses, and low-volume residential streets.”
- 76 miles in Priority 1
- 57 miles in Priority 2
- 57 miles in Priority 3
The city’s goal is to plow both Priority 1 and 2 streets by 7:30 AM and get Priority 3 streets plowed within three working days.
Non-priority streets will only be plowed if 4 inches of snow falls, and if priority streets are completed.
Personally, I don’t think the non-priority streets ever get plowed.
I wonder if we have enough snow plow drivers to get the job done.
And that makes me wonder...how many snow plow drivers does a city of Missoula’s size need?
It’s hard to answer that.
At the state level, we know that the Montana Department of Transportation has 700 employees trained to clear ice and snow and slush off our 25,000 lanes miles of highway.
That amounts to 1 worker for every 35 miles of road.
The Missoula Street Division has 28 employees, or what amounts to 1 worker for every 11.5 miles of road.
Of course, not all the Street Division’s workers are plowing snow. Considering we have just 13 snow plows we know that only 13 people could be doing it at one time, and I highly doubt all the plows are ever in operation all at once.
Oh, yeah...the plows. Let’s get to those.
If you go to page 209 in the city’s 384-page budget you’ll find out how many snow plows the city has, as well as how old they are.
We learn that we have the following:
- 2013 Bonnell snow plow
- 2013 Bonnell snow plow
- 2012 Henke snow plow
- 2009 Henke snow plow
- 2009 Henke snow plow
- 2008 Boss RTE snow plow
- 2007 Schmidt HSP4210 Polly snow plow
- 2006 Schmidt snow plow
- 2004 Schmidt snow plow
- 2004 Schmidt snow plow
- 2002 Schmidt snow plow
- 1996 Schmidt snow plow
- 1986 Schmidt snow plow
In addition to those 13 plows the city also has 7 deicer units.
I was not able to find out what those plows cost to buy - either new or used - or what the deicers cost. There are some repair costs.
The Street Division is expecting the following equipment replacement costs in the future:
- $1.1 million in 2019
- $1.2 million in 2020
- $222,000 in 2021
- $212,000 in 2022
- $764,000 in 2023
There’s also a City Vehicle Maintenance department, but their 2019 equipment replacement costs are just $253,000.
This year the city will replace the 1986 Schmidt snowplow, which is expected to cost $25,000.
I personally feel that’s repair costs, as snow plowing trucks surely cost more than that.
Next year the 1992 model will be replaced for the same amount, and in 2021 nothing needs replacing.
Interestingly, the Parking Commission is set to get a replacement GMC Sierra snow plow this year for $50,000 and another in 2020 for the same amount.
It’s really hard to find prices for new snow plows, like the Schmidt models the city has.
I did find a few used ones online, mostly from Europe. Prices range from $25,000 for used 1980s models up to $50,000 or more for used early-2000s models.
I emailed the company to find out what their prices are, and I hope to hear back.
I also emailed the head of the Missoula Streets Division, asking how many workers actually plow, what the plows cost, and what the total snow plow budget is each year.
Missoula doesn’t have a lot of public information on what it’s snow removal budget is. In fact, the only thing I can find on it goes back to 2014, when the city budgeted $211,000 for deicer but spent $300,000 on it before February was even over.
A few days after I emailed the Streets Division, they got back to me.
I learned that we paid $19,560 last year for a Schmidt snow plow, but this year we'll pay $21,516 for the same make and model, as steel prices have gone up.
I also found out that the Street Division has 27 crew members who operate snow plows, as well as two superintendents and an administrative assistant that don't operate the equipment.
The city's current budget for deicer is $236,000 and sand costs another $64,000.
We won't know what the FY 2020 snow removal budget is for a few more months just yet.
Finally, the Streets Division has some serious replacement costs this year, with big ticket items being replaced. These include a 1982 CAT grader at a cost of $350,000 as well as two sweepers for $250,000 each (2006 and 2009 models). For snow removal, it looks like 7 deicers will be replaced at a cost of $10,000.
How Other Cities Keep Their Streets Plowed of Snow
Now let’s take a moment to explore what other cities are doing to keep their streets plowed.
I’d like to do this because maybe it’ll give us some ideas here in Missoula.
Spokane was having problems plowing its snow back in 2017.
One family with a disabled daughter was getting fed-up with streets that had too much snow for their wheelchair van, which rides nine inches lower than most vehicles.
“So, just to get through these ruts is very difficult,” the dad said. “I get high-centered. Sometimes I can’t even turn and go straight.”
Doctors appointments had to be canceled because of this, and after city officials couldn’t provide answers, the family actually got a sit-down meeting with Spokane’s mayor.
“They said that its budget,” the family reported. “Always about money. About plows, not enough plows.”
The city’s main argument was that they had the same budget year-round to both plow the streets and keep them clean, and therefore couldn’t do both. Snow would just have to pile up and people would have to deal with it.
A local TV news station found out about all this and did some research.
They discovered that Spokane typically takes 4 days to plow a street with six inches of snow on it, though many take a full week.
They also found out that cities of comparable size to Spokane manage to plow their streets in 24 hours.
One city they pointed to was Green Bay, Wisconsin. That city has a median income of just $400 more than Spokane and doesn’t even have a snow removal budget.
Still, they can do in 24 hours what it took Spokane about a week to do.
When confronted with this, city officials provided no rationale and said they didn’t understand what Green Bay was doing, or what made their situation special.
Spokane’s mayor refused to comment on the situation altogether.
Madison, Wisconsin, has a population of about 255,000 people and they set aside $6.2 million for snow removal each year. This year they’ve already gone through $2.8 million of that...with several months of snow to come still.
All in all, Madison expects to spend an extra $5 million this year that it otherwise wouldn’t spend.
Here’s how the local TV news put it:
“Mother Nature may make the ultimate decision, but with every storm that dumps about five inches of snow, it costs Madison roughly $230,000, according to Schmiedicke [Madison’s finance director].
The city will take money from a reserve fund to cover the extra cost, according to Schmiedicke. The reserve fund currently has a balance of $1.9 million. He doesn’t predict the city should need that much, but if it happened another reserve fund would be tapped.”
So you can see that in Wisconsin they expect snow, budget for its removal, and even have reserve funds set aside that they can dip into if it’s a particularly bad snow year.
New York is a city of 8.1 million people with 6,500 linear miles of roads, “or what amounts to 19,000 lane miles.”
When it snows the city has 3,000 snow plow routes.
The city has 29 permanent and 14 seasonal salt storage facilities, which hold over 300,000 tons of salt.
The city had over 500 salt spreaders and snow plows in 2015. In 2017 they budgeted $88 million for snow removal, or what amounts to $1.8 million per inch of roadway.
That came in handy two days before Halloween in 2011 when it snowed three inches, breaking a record.
New York plows like so:
“The plowing begins on a three-tier routing system. The first and prioritized tier is all of the dedicated first-responder routes, which connect hospitals, NYPD and FDNY with major public thoroughfares, bus routes, densely populated areas and the two major airports. Then the focus shifts to the secondary routes — anything off of a major city street. Finally come the tertiary routes, your dead-end roads and limited-access streets.”
Once the streets are plowed the city will focus on piling and hauling the snow that’s been plowed. To aid in this, they have 36 melters that melt 60 tons of snow per hour or more. This melted snow is then drained directly into the sewer feed, where it’ll eventually reach the water treatment plant.
This New Year’s Day in Billings they had a lot of snow.
The city called in 16 people to drive snow plows to get rid of it, and they do this in two 12-hour shifts.
Here’s how the Billings Gazette put it:
“With city crews working the main roads, contractors are tasked with the neighborhoods. Residential plowing is handled by crews from FirstMark Construction, which is two years into its three-year contract with the city. Next year, when the contract ends, FirstMark will have the option to renew for two more years. FirstMark is the new name of CMG Construction.
The city's snow removal budget replenished in July with the start of a new fiscal year. Last year, with a record snowfall, the city spent $2.4 million on plowing, nearly double a normal snowfall year. To cover the extra costs, some road projects planned for the summer were put on hold, Mumford said.”
Billings has the most city roadways in Montana, with 599 miles worth. That means $4,000 is budgeted for each mile of road when it comes to snow removal.
The reason the city has so much more money than other Montana cities is that voters there approved the city’s residential street plowing initiative in 2017 and it took effect last year. That put an extra $455,000 into the city’s hands so they can plow residential streets (it cost $437,000 to plow those residential streets last year).
Removing snow is big business, and businesses small and large realize this. For if snow is clogging their parking lot, people will simply go somewhere else.
That’s why businesses pay top dollar to get rid of that snow right away.
Don’t believe me?
Well, just last week a teenager from Coeur d’Alene made $35,000 doing odd snow plowing jobs in Seattle.
“After Holston posted a Craigslist ad, his phone didn't stop ringing,” ABC Fox Montana reported. “A majority of the calls he received were from businesses and the others were from Seattle-area residents.”
Seattle is a city that isn’t used to having a lot of snow, so what these businesses did is understandable.
Here in Missoula, however, we know it snows and that it snows a lot.
While our local businesses might need to hire enterprising individuals to plow their private parking lots, they shouldn’t have to do the same to keep the public roads clear.
Sadly, it often seems like that’s what they need to do.
I take snow removal in Missoula quite seriously.
I like having clear roads, and I think most Missoula residents feel the same way.
Sadly, I think the city is failing in this department. Here's what we need to do:
Currently we have 13 snow plows and I think we need more. We also need to do a better job listing the annual snow removal budget for the public to see. Billings has more roads than us and they require at least $2 million. Missoula needs to budget the same, if not more. We also need to put together reserve funds for when the budgeted amount runs out, as it often will.
Oh, and we have the money to do all of this.
Here are some things the city decided to spend your tax dollars on last year:
- $6.3 million for a Mullan Road transportation grid
- $1 million from the county for the Mullan Road grid
- $425,000 to expand the bike trail by South & Johnson
- $229,000 for Russell Street water main extensions
- $200,000 to save the new library’s 4th floor
- $146,000 to replace the Uptown Diner with an art gallery
- $93,000 to connect 10 tiny homes to utilities
All of that stuff cost over $8 million.
I personally feel that most Missoula residents would rather spend money to keep their streets free of snow than on the 7 items listed above.
The city’s priorities are askew. They spend money on wish-list items while things from the needs-list go unfilled.
I mean…$146,000 for an art gallery? The town has a ton of those, but we desperately need more snow plows!
I really have to shake my head at our city council and what they think the city’s priorities are.
During the winter we have serious issues with getting our streets plowed. The bottom line is that the city isn’t doing as good of a job as they could.
Other cities can do better, so why can’t we?
I think we can do better and that we should.