Hell hath no fury like a Spokane County homeowner after a plow pushes a pile of snow in front of their driveway.
Sometimes snow berms inspire residents to throw shovels at plows. In 2020, a man in northern Spokane County stood in the middle of the road, blocked a grader and challenged the driver to a fight. The year before that, a man near Mead lept onto a grader, screamed obscenities at the driver and tried to rip open the door to the cab – while conspicuously carrying a holstered handgun.
Snow berms in front of driveways are about as popular as taxes, but Spokane County officials say they’re going to become a lot less common.
During the county’s annual snow plow news conference Wednesday, public works Director Kyle Twohig announced the county has outfitted 24 of its 36 graders with hydraulic “gates” that allow drivers to catch snow that would otherwise end up in front of a driveway.
Putting a gate on the end of a plow isn’t a novel concept. Spokane County used to have six gates, although they didn’t draw rave reviews.
“They just didn’t work,” said Dave Smith, a foreman with the public works department. “We spent countless hours fixing them.”
The new gates do work, thanks to the ingenuity and skill of a handful of public works employees.
Spokane County’s snow gate renaissance began earlier this year when Smith was looking at buying new gates on the open market. The gates he found retailed for about $10,000 without including installation costs. In addition to the high price tag, they appeared to have the same issues the county’s original gates had.
Spending tens of thousands of dollars on something that wouldn’t work seemed like a bad idea. Building custom gates, on the other hand, had promise.
Around June, welder and fabricator Marv Davis drew up a design for a custom boot tailored for the county’s graders. Smith helped him tweak the concept, and the crew presented the idea to department leaders soon after. They got the go-ahead to make the concept a reality.
Davis and fellow welder Brian Naccarato in August began the monthslong gate construction process. In Smith’s words, it took “a lot of time, and a lot of welding, and a lot of bending, and a lot of heat.”
Jake Osborn and Josh Sharp built and installed the custom hydraulic systems that allow the grader drivers to raise and lower the gates from the cab.
Each gate is a black, boogie-board sized plate of reinforced steel mounted on a steel frame.
They cost about half as much as the old gates. Twohig estimated the county saved about $200,000 by making them in-house. They’re also shorter and easier to use, compared with the old, long gates that interfered with the graders’ front wheels.
Smith said installation and removal is easier with the hand-made gates and only takes about 15 minutes.
The new gates have the edge in durability, too. Davis’ design includes a removable rubber attachment where the gate touches the ground. Using rubber, instead of more steel, protects both the gate and the road.
The gates aren’t just for wintertime, either. County road crews can use them in other seasons while working on gravel road projects.
Despite all their advantages, the new gates have one weakness – although it’s a weakness they share with their predecessors: They can’t help with snow berms in rural areas.
Two factors cause the urban-rural snow berm divide.
First, rural driveways tend to be wider. That means more snow lies in front of them, and it’s often too much for the gates to hold.
Second, Spokane County uses a separate plowing strategy on rural roads. When clearing rural areas, county grader drivers extend an additional plow blade, known as a “wing.” The wing allows drivers to clear more snow in one pass, but it also means the gate is offset from the road’s edge. When the wing is out, the gate is mostly useless.
Smith said the gate project is one of the biggest and most creative the county has undertaken during his 16 years with the public works department.
“It makes us want to do some more of this stuff,” he said. “We’ve got some ideas we’re going over in our heads.”
Spokane County Commissioner Al French praised the public works staff for going “above and beyond the call of duty” with the gate project.
“Job well done, gentlemen,” he said. “Thank you very much.”
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