Every time a major snow storm sweeps over the Glove Cities region, residents will post to social media, wondering whether the snow plowing crews are doing the job to the best of their abilities.
Gloversville Department of Public Works Director Kevin Jones and Johnstown City Engineer Chandra Cotter spoke this week about what really is happening behind the scenes and the challenges each storm presents.
Both said the challenges can vary on a variety of levels, from the storm's timing, temperature and total accumulation, to the resources on hand to battle the road conditions-staffing, equipment and schedule of available man hours.
A Gloversville snow plow plows snow on Wooster Street in Gloversville on Wednesday.
Photo by Bill Trojan/The Leader-Herald
In the past several years, Cotter and Jones said, the work force has grown smaller despite the services provided and the area covered growing larger.
However, each of the department heads stressed the Glove Cities plowing crews are doing the best job they can with the staff, resources and weather predictions available to them.
Planning for the storm
Both department heads said between the local TV news channels and phone apps, they try to get a good idea of when the storm is supposed to start and how long it will last.
They said then it's usually a waiting game until the weather actually rolls in and they can see what it's really doing.
If they know there will be icy road conditions, the departments will sometimes hit the roads with salt and sand before the temperature drops to delay the formation of ice on the roads, they said.
"Whether it's icy road conditions or a straight snow storm, I work very closely with the Johnstown Police Department in determining when to send the trucks out," Cotter said.
Both departments said if the storm is supposed to last 12-plus hours, it's not an effective use of time or budget to "chase" the storm for 12 hours. Neither of the departments have multiple plow crews, so once the crew is called out and the storm continues on past eight-to-10 hours, there isn't another crew coming in right after to finish the job. Neither Cotter or Jones like to keep their crew on for longer than eight-to-10 hours.
Cotter said the plow trucks in her department are responsible for all city streets within the city limits of Johnstown - approximately 100 lane miles.
She said in Johnstown the state plows Route 30A within the city limits and Route 29 from the city line to Route 30A.
She also said the city has a shared services agreement with the county where Johnstown will plow Glebe Street Extension from the city line to the county line, and in return the county plows Maple Avenue from the city line to North Perry Street.
Jones said his DPW crew is responsible for cleaning more than 250 miles of road, which includes multiple passes on roads.
It takes approximately four hours for Johnstown and about six hours for Gloversville to clear the city streets once, the departments said.
Both departments also clear all public parking lots and parking lots associated with city-owned buildings, which isn't factored into the time above.
Equipment and staffing
The city of Johnstown currently has five plow trucks in service, which unlike Gloversville drop sand and salt as they plow. Cotter said four are used when the plow crew is called in.
The city of Gloversville has seven plow trucks in service but only six are used during a typical storm. The city has four separate salt trucks.
Both cities keep one plow in service to be used as a backup in case an issue arises with one of the regular plow trucks and mechanics need time to address it.
In Johnstown when a storm comes and just salting is required, four employees are brought in with one person assigned to each truck. When plowing is required, eight employees are brought in with two per truck.
Gloversville has 18 employees that will routinely take care of snow maintenance throughout the city and 12 of those are used to operate the six available plows.
Each said the storms that hit at night are more manageable than the all-day storms. If everything goes as planned the crews in both cities usually work a night shift that starts at 11 p.m. and goes until 7 a.m.
It is done this way because the no parking ban is in effect and the crews can clean the streets to the shoulders. The day storms are harder because not only are they trying to plow around parked cars but traffic is heavier during the day, which makes it slower as well.
Both Jones and Cotter estimated the winter months take at least 75 percent of their budgeted time to pay their crew for working longer, but salt is the most expensive resource.
"Man-hour costs are certainly a factor during winter maintenance but salt usage is typically the largest cost in a winter maintenance budget," Cotter said.
Jones estimated the city spends between $150,000 to $200,000 on road salt in a given year depending on how much of it is needed.
Cotter said last year the city spent about $100,000 on salt for the winter months and believes the same amount will be used this year.
Helping the effort
On the city level, the Gloversville Department of Public Works under the recent capital project will buy a new $140,000 plow truck.
Jones said many DPW vehicles are outdated and need replacement but the department has saved the city over $1.3 million by not combining the salting and plowing into one vehicle.
"Salt immediately reduces the life of the truck," Jones said. "No matter what we do to clean them the salt begins an immediate deterioration and it's a lot cheaper to modify a salt truck, which is why we do it this way."
He said a truck that does both functions usually will last about 15 years before needing to be replaced but because the city keeps the two operations separate it has plows that were made in 1969 and 1985 still operating within the fleet. If the city were to have the usual 15-year rotation, the existing fleet would have been supplemented by nine new plows since 1969, which would have cost the city over $1.3 million, Jones said.
"We have good employees who do the best they can with the resources they have," Gloversville Mayor Dayton King said. "There is not a lot of room for improvement unless we hire more people or get more equipment, which unfortunately spends more money. The roads are bad when it snows and I think people will see this happen in any city across the state."
Cotter said from a planning standpoint her department would benefit by hiring more employees, or at least one more employee. She said out of the eight guys on her snow plow crew, three are eligible for retirement in the next five years.
She said she requested an additional employee in her 2014 budget request but was denied.
"It's important for me to fill their spots before they retire," Cotter said. "These guys that are retiring have been doing this job for close to 30 years."
She said bringing new guys in now would allow them to train their replacements, which is really the best way for their replacements to learn.
"I think they do an excellent job and I'm very happy with the work the guys do," Mayor Michael Julius said. "I know everyone is under budget restraints but without talking to the City Treasurer I don't know."
During big storms like the one the area just encountered Wednesday, both Cotter and Jones said, it's important for motorists to heed the warnings about hazardous travel. While travel can't be avoided all together, if it's possible for city residents to wait until the plows have had a chance to at least partially clear the roads that can be very helpful.
"Give us a chance to do our job - snow removal is not immediate in any one section of the city, it takes some time," Cotter said. "If the weather and news channels are telling you that you should not be traveling unless it's an emergency then I would urge you to take their advice."
Jones also added that city plows have to take their time when plowing because unlike the state there are many obstacles very close to the side of the roadway including signs, hydrants, curbs, sidewalks and telephone poles.
City officials also urged property owners not to plow or snow blow snow from their driveway or sidewalk back out onto the roads. Doing so is a direct violation of city code ordinances in both cities and proves to be very frustrating to motorists and plow crews.