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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

When will the roads be clear after the upcoming snowstorm?

Washington State Department of Transportation plow crews work to clear Interstate 90 eastbound into Spokane during a flurry of snow on Dec. 30, 2020.  (Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
By Colin Tiernan and Adam Shanks The Spokesman-Review

Thursday’s snowstorm will create winners and losers.

Kids might rejoice. There are snow days to be had, snow forts to be built and snowball fights to be won.

But many adults won’t be looking forward to snowmen and hot chocolate. They’ll be worried about the roads.

How long it will take Spokane and Spokane County to clear the roads after the storm depends on a host of factors.

Martha Lou Wheatley-Billeter, the county’s public works and information outreach manager, explained that the county first clears the most heavily trafficked and important roads – primary arterials and emergency routes.

During long snowstorms, the county plow drivers find themselves in a Groundhog Day situation. They clear the emergency routes and primary arterials again, and again, and again as the snow keeps falling, and they’re never able to move on to residential streets.

When the storm stops, the plow drivers can move on to the three other tiers of county roads in descending order of significance: secondary streets, hilly residential areas and flat residential areas.

“Getting to the residential areas, that is dependent on how close together the storms are,” Wheatley-Billeter said.

If another storm comes a few days after the first, the plow drivers might have to continue focusing on the highest-priority routes, without getting around to neighborhood streets. Frequent snowfall this winter has already prevented the county from getting to residential areas, although Spokane was able to clear all of the city’s streets over New Year’s weekend.

Wheatley-Billeter also noted snow type influences the county’s plowing speed.

Heavy, wet snow can break tree limbs, which in turn can bring down power lines. That can slow down snow removal in the northern portions of the county.

In southwestern Spokane County, winds can blow dry, sand-like snow into drifts. If a plow driver clears a road, the wind can dump snow right back on top of it.

Some snowstorms aren’t even safe for plow drivers, Wheatley-Billeter said. She noted that during the winter of 2008-09, there was a blizzard that created whiteout conditions.

“We had to pull back our folks; they couldn’t see the roads,” Wheatley-Billeter said, adding that the Sheriff’s Office closed the roads in the southwestern quadrant of the county during that whiteout.

When the county does turn its attention to plowing residential streets, one issue can cause some homeowners to see red: the creation of snow berms that block driveways.

Gordon Smith, who represents more than 1,000 of Spokane County’s unionized employees, said snowplow and grader drivers want residents to understand there are limitations when it comes to leaving the piles of snow at the end of peoples’ driveways.

Right now, the county owns 16 gates, or boots, which can be attached to graders.

The driver can raise and lower the gate and avoid putting snow in front of peoples’ driveways.

But only two of the county’s graders are fitted with the gates, Spokane County Public Works Director Chad Coles said. Instead, the county’s graders are wearing a different attachment called a wing, an extension that allows the grader to clear a wider stretch of road.

“They’re working out in the rural part of the county where the wings are very effective and give us a little more bang for our buck,” Coles said.

When the county is able to get to the residential areas, the wings will be switched out for gates, Coles said.

Smith said county plow drivers want residents to know that they won’t always be able to avoid leaving snow at the end of driveways, and also emphasized that when gates are in use, they slow drivers down considerably – a sentiment Wheatley-Billeter echoed.

“This could set an unrealistic expectation and might heighten the tensions,” Smith said, adding that residents have sometimes threatened plow drivers with violence after leaving berms in driveways.

Spokane began equipping its snow removal fleet with gates during Mayor David Condon’s administration. The city now has 17 gates, and Spokane Public Works Director Marlene Feist said fewer people are experiencing berms.

“We used to have this standard stream of, ‘You plowed me in and I just shoveled my driveway,’ ” Feist said.

S-R reporter Adam Shanks contributed to this story.