HELENA – Helena public works leaders say they’re planning a number of changes this year in how the city handles snowy streets.
Public works director Randall Camp said they took lessons from last year, when they dealt with some larger storms than usual.
“Our hope is that, if we can attack the storm in the early hours and get ahead of it, we can prevent the ice formation,” he said. “That was one of the things last year: Last year, the storm got ahead of us, and in a lot of the residential areas it packed to ice, and then our plow blades become ineffective on ice.”
Camp said they will put additional plow drivers on call for any heavy snow events. The city has also purchased two new “mountain plows” – four-wheel-drive plows that will be used in steep parts of Helena.
“If we have a follow-on storm or a drawn-out storm, we can keep attacking it around the clock until we get the town in good shape,” said Camp.
Unlike previous years, Camp said they will start ramping up their response any time the National Weather Service predicts two or more inches of snow. He said that will usually give them two to three days of notice.
“That’s a notice for us to have to be on standby,” he said. “If the storm doesn’t show – and that happened a few times last year – we’ll stand down.”
Public Works has also proposed an ordinance to make more changes to winter streets policies. It would cut back on emergency snow routes – reducing the total number of miles included from about 50 to about 10. It would also prohibit parking on those routes during certain hours on snowy days and give the city the authority to tow vehicles left in those areas.
The Helena City Commission will vote on the proposed ordinance at their meeting Monday night.
Camp said snowplows had so many emergency routes to clear last year that they had to keep going over them.
“We were constantly starting over on the emergency snow routes, never getting into the residential areas,” he said. “That was one of the weaknesses we identified, and we decided to change some tactics.”
If the ordinance passes, the list of emergency routes will include Broadway, Helena Avenue, 6th Avenue, 11th Avenue, Benton Avenue, California Street, Colonial Drive, Hannaford Street, Park Avenue and Rodney Street. That does not include streets like Lyndale, Prospect and Montana Avenues, which are cleared by the Montana Department of Transportation.
On most city emergency snow routes, parking would be prohibited between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. On Benton Avenue near Carroll College and Broadway near St. Peter’s Health, it would instead be closed from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m.
Camp said, during the first snow storm, the city would likely flag vehicles parked in prohibited areas, but that they could be towed after that.
If commissioners approve the ordinance, Camp said the city will have updated signs up on the new emergency snow routes by the middle of November.
Camp said city leaders are hopeful these changes can make a big difference for the road conditions drivers will see around Helena this winter.
“Can we get surprised? Sure, we’re in the mountains, that can happen at any time,” he said. “But we’re going to try and stay on top of it.”