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Here’s what you should know about snow gates, the plowing tool that lowers berms in front of driveways

Feb. 13, 2019 Updated Thu., Feb. 14, 2019 at 2:13 p.m.

A grader that has a snow gate down to prevent a snow berm from forming across a driveway moves snow on 25th Avenue on Spokane’s South Hill on Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019. (Jonathan Brunt / The Spokesman-Review)
A grader that has a snow gate down to prevent a snow berm from forming across a driveway moves snow on 25th Avenue on Spokane’s South Hill on Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019. (Jonathan Brunt / The Spokesman-Review)

Snow gates are “in” this season in the Inland Northwest.

The record snowfall that has fallen over the past several days in the region has kept the big rigs on the road around the clock since Friday. But not all of the city’s equipment is outfitted with the hydraulic-powered lifting arms intended to stop the white stuff from being pushed into driveways.

Here’s what you need to know about those gates.

What are they?

Many cities across the country employ a hydraulically powered “gate” that fits onto the ends of plow blades and can rise or fall at the press of a button. The goal is to keep snow from spilling as it normally would onto the curb as the blade pushes mounds along the street. Operators usually lower the gate to protect the entrances and exits to driveways, the source of many citizen complaints during heavy snow.

The city of Spokane has purchased since the middle of last year at least a half dozen new snowplow gates produced by a firm called Henke Manufacturing, a Kansas-based company that specializes in snow-removal devices. The devices cost about $10,000 each.

Gates are attached only to larger pieces of equipment, such as graders and loaders. They aren’t affixed to smaller dump trucks because of the shape of the blades and the need for drivers to see where the snow is being pushed.

“You’ve got great visibility up there,” said Tim Martin, streets and engineering director for the city of Coeur d’Alene. “You can see them. With a dump truck, you can’t actually see what’s happening.”

How many do we have?

The city of Spokane brought its total number of snow gates to 16 for this snow season, and has typically had between 40 and 50 pieces of equipment out on the roads to deal with this week’s burying snowfall, said Marlene Feist, a city spokeswoman.

Spokane County is piloting two of the gates on its larger pieces of equipment, with the potential to add more if there’s any money left in the $3.5 million pool county commissioners set aside to deal with snowfall this year, said Martha Lou Wheatley-Billeter, a spokeswoman for the county’s Public Works Department.

“It was looking great about a week ago,” Wheatley-Billeter said. Now, workers are racking up overtime as they guide the county’s 90 pieces of equipment across more than 2,500 miles of public roads.

Coeur d’Alene first adopted the gates in the late 1990s, building in-house a loader plow with a gate that was met with “wild success,” Martin said. It now has four loaders with built-in gates that cover the city’s roughly 400 residential street miles and an estimated 38,000 to 40,000 driveways, he said.

Spokane Valley is considering asking its contractors to outfit snow removal graders with gates, but they aren’t in use this snow season.

Where are they?

In Spokane, the city’s 16 gated plows are deployed on all residential streets, Feist said. That may come as no comfort to residents with driveways that open onto minor or secondary arterials – Crestline Street in the northeast, Garland Avenue in the northwest and Bernard Street on the South Hill – who are still being served by dump trucks not outfitted with the hydraulic devices.

“Those people are still getting the berms,” Feist said.

If conditions improve, the city would consider using gated plows on arterial roads, said Gary Kaesemeyer, the city’s streets director.

“It’s dependent on the snow event,” he said. “We’re not going to say that we would never use the gates on an arterial.”

The city’s strategy is to send in a truck to plow the middle of the road, and then follow with a gated loader or grader to clean up areas along the curb, Feist said.

Spokane County’s use of the devices is currently limited to two of the county’s four road districts, in the northern and eastern portions of the county, Wheatley-Billeter said. Even there, crews are limited to urban and residential areas.

“Those are the only places you can use gates,” Wheatley-Billeter said. Those living in rural areas are more likely to continue to see berms.

Coeur d’Alene also endeavors to plow all of its residential streets with gated equipment, a process that can take up to 32 hours, Martin said.

“There’s that fine line of quality and quantity,” Martin said. “When you’ve got a lot of people that haven’t seen a plow in 24 hours, and there are 12 to 14 inches in these residential areas, they’re going to move a little faster.”

What are the downsides?

Roads plowed with gated equipment are often more narrow than those plowed with more traditional equipment. The gates can also potentially slow down crews a bit, but that can be alleviated by practice, said Martin, whose operators have been working with the equipment for nearly 20 years.

“I don’t buy that it takes longer. If you could watch these guys, they’re pretty incredible,” Martin said.

The bigger issue occurs when that gate is lifted up. If your car is parked on the uphill slope after a driveway, or if that’s the location of your mailbox, the snow that tumbles out could leave you with a headache.

“We’re moving it from one place to another,” Feist said. “Hopefully, we’re moving it to a more acceptable place.”

There’s also the initial upfront cost. Both the county and Spokane Valley have estimated that, with parts and labor, the devices cost about $25,000 to install on an existing piece of equipment.

What should I do to help plow drivers?

The city of Spokane asks that you park your car on the odd side of the street throughout the snow season, which (unlikely as it may seem) ends in a little more than a month. That allows plows to move through neighborhoods unimpeded and gives them a place to consistently dump the snow.

Martin said homeowners should strive to shovel the snow on their sidewalks and driveways onto their lawns and not into the streets, where it’s simply picked up and dumped back in driveways.

“I think our biggest challenge is people blow their snow back into the road,” he said. “That’s against our ordinances. It just puts more snow out there.”

Planting flags at either end of a driveway can help plow drivers see where they should lift the gate, especially in the dark, Martin said. Homeowners may consider doing the same in front of fire hydrants.

Feist said the city of Spokane isn’t asking homeowners to flag their driveways, and even if it did, they shouldn’t expect that the berm would be eliminated.

“We haven’t ask for flags, and the drivers seem to be doing just fine without them,” she said. “If people have a big triple-car garage, there may be some snow at the end. Because at some point that snow has to go somewhere, and you may not make it all the way across.”

To limit the amount of snow that would pile up in front of a driveway or in the center of a road, the city recommends homeowners consider shoveling their excess snow to the right as they’re facing the roadway. That will keep the snow from being picked up just before the driver gets to the driveway and potentially overload the blade, spilling snow back into the street.

My driveway still got plowed in. What gives?

If you live within Spokane city limits, check to see if you live on an arterial. Those busier roads are being served by plows without the gate.

You may also live in an area of Spokane County that isn’t part of the pilot project.

Even if a gated plow makes its way to your neighborhood, the devices aren’t perfect, road officials are quick to point out. The blades on the front of plows can only hold a finite amount of snow, and that amount is lessened with warmer temperatures and heavier, wetter precipitation.

“There’s not really a limit, but you can only carry it for maybe 20 feet or 10 feet,” street director Kaesemeyer said. “It’s dependent on the snow event.”

“It’s going to reduce the size of the berm, no matter what you have,” Martin said. “But the gates don’t ever eliminate the berm, you may only get a 1-inch berm in a 5-inch snowstorm.”

With all crews working days full of overtime, it’s also possible that plows just haven’t showed up yet. Most local governments have a snow removal hotline or website residents can visit to get a real-time update on plow locations. Those phone numbers for the Inland Northwest are:

Spokane: 311

Spokane Valley: (509) 720-5000

Spokane County: (509) 477-3600

Coeur d’Alene: (208) 769-2235

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