The Wyoming Department of Transportation did not escape the governor’s budget cuts this summer, but the agency says it will do all it can to keep the roads as clear as crews have in years prior.
“We have a limited amount of funds and we’re going to try to keep under-budget,” said WYDOT spokesperson Cody Beers. “We’re going to try to do as much as we can and try to make it look the same as it has in the past. We’re not going to be out in the middle of the night cleaning up after a storm.”
Beers said WYDOT’s top priority will be to keep school-bus routes open during the winter, with a special emphasis on the Powell and Meeteetse highways, two of the busier roads in the area during the winter. Beers also said WYDOT would still maintain roads up the North and South forks, but like many roads in the area, they would be maintained less than others.
“During a storm, we’ll hit the driving lanes, then come back once the storm’s over,” Beers said. “Instead of working 24/7, we’re going to do what we have to do to keep the roads open, then come back during regular work hours during the day to clean it up.”
Beers said budget cuts have not affected stores of sand and salt for the roads, but said drivers would have to increase their personal responsibility to get where they’re going safely.
“If it’s snowing and blowing in Wyoming, maybe it’s okay to get to your appointment another day,” he said. “Can you leave earlier in the day? Can you drive slower? It’s probably going to require a lot more care on drivers’ parts ... WYDOT will be out there as much as possible, but we may need to plan extra time to safely make those trips.”
One of the challenges with road maintenance and snow clearing, Beers said, is the money has to come from the state, not the federal government. Wyoming’s recent financial struggles have been well-documented.
“If you see a yellow truck out there on the road, you can bet that’s state money being spent to maintain the road or maintain fences and keep that road open for traveling public,” Beers said.
A more temperate start to the winter has already helped the department’s budget, Beers said, saving them money on overtime and equipment costs.
Another challenge for WYDOT is one that every agency and business in the state is facing: COVID-19.
“We try to keep crews at full strength,” Beers said. “When we’re down a couple guys it’s more difficult to battle those storms.”
In the city
In the city limits, snow removal crews aren’t in as tight a financial position.
“Right now, we are fully budgeted for what we would expect in a normal or average year,” said public works director Phillip Bowman.
Fortunately for city residents, the snow removal efforts in the city limits are not affected by cuts to WYDOT, as the money for operations comes from local sources, not the state.
“We get some funding from WYDOT, but we as a city do not apply that funding to our operations,” Bowman said. “We do not have the ability to utilize WYDOT funding in operations.”
State funding is used for major capital improvement projects and for things like use studies, Bowman said.
Though money is not as much of a problem for the city, the crews still follow strict rules on when the plows hit the roads. The tipping point to get plows on the streets is either 3 inches of snowfall or city police reporting dangerous conditions on the many hills in town.
“That triggers on-call staff if it’s after hours or our streets crew if it’s normal hours,” Bowman said. “That triggers getting us out and starting to plow, starting to sand or salt.”
Once the city staff are roused to action, they have a specific clearing plan – approved by city council – to follow that places the priority on ensuring easy access to emergency services, schools and the “major arterial routes,” Bowman said.
“Another high Priority 1 is the hills,” said streets superintendent Rob Kramer. “When we lose traction there, cars start to get stuck on them.”
Some of the Priority 1 routes are the major streets such as Sheridan, Yellowstone, and Big Horn avenues, but also include school access routes like Beck and Cougar avenues.
Priority 2 routes are less traveled streets, like Blackburn Avenue and 29th Street. Priority 3 routes are the side residential streets, which get the least attention from snow crews.
“In most storm events, we’re not getting to Priority 3 routes,” Bowman said. “It has to be a pretty heavy event or multiple days of snowfall.”
Though this year the snow removal budget is in line with years past, that could change in the future as the city looks to trim the budget. Bowman said there has been talk of relaxing the triggers to 4 or 5 inches of snowfall, which could save the city night and weekend hours.
Though the budget is set for a standard year of snow removal, if this winter ends up dropping a thicker blanket of snow, a budget amendment would need to be passed to keep the streets clear and remove the piles of snow that would otherwise collect in the roadways.
“It’s always a risk every year that we have a big year,” Bowman said.
If there is excessive snowfall, the city will take the snow to a lot near the city to melt, safely out of the way of motorists and pedestrians, while the meltwater is also far enough away from any buildings to avoid damaging them.
“I feel like our crew does a great job,” Bowman said. “I think all of us living through the winter probably aren’t as conscious of it as we could be, the work that they do to keep us traveling.”