Snowplow operator shortage mixed with heavy storms hits roads across Grand County
A winter epidemic infecting the nation’s northern states is causing headaches for many public works officials.
A super-abundance of snow — 125% over normal in some Grand County locations — has combined with too few snowplow operators, producing a perfect storm of travel issues for motorists.
Experts advise: if it takes a longer to get from point A to point B this winter, slow down and be wary of those car-sucking ditches along the road.
“I ask our residents and visitors to be patient,” Grand County Road Superintendent Chris Baer said recently in an interview with Sky-Hi News.
The nationwide crisis involves a shortage of snowplow drivers stretching from Oregon to Rhode Island. Snow magnets like Grand County lay at ground zero when it comes to keeping roads open in winter.
In Granby, Town Manager Ted Cherry said his public works department, which includes snowplow drivers, has been lucky to avoid the kind of staffing problems facing the county and state. All streets have remained open this winter thanks to the town’s public works employees.
“With the increased sizes of the recent snowstorms, it was difficult to keep up with the snow,” Cherry said. “The (drivers) did a great job of keeping the town open for normal operations of all services needing to be provided.”
Winter Park’s public works director reflected those sentiments.
“The challenges have been staffing and scheduling during the peak periods of snow with an ever-watchful eye on the pandemic,” Public Works Director Gerry Vernon said.
Locally, recent storms have Baer scrambling just to keep all 780 miles of county roads open to motorists, school buses and emergency vehicles. Where he once employed 40 drivers to plow roads and spread a sand/salt mix, he makes do this winter with only 24 drivers who work 10-12 hour shifts during bad weather. Even snowplows have gotten stuck in drifts.
County roads that used to be cleared three times a day now may see a snowplow only once depending on weather. Grand County’s snowplowing crew has gradually decreased in recent years to a 60% rate of attrition.
“The level of service is going to deteriorate now that we’re short-staffed,” Baer said.
He noted that other county departments also face staffing shortages for local economic reasons such as the lack of affordable housing.
A dearth of snowplow drivers poses such a serious problem statewide that the Colorado Department of Transportation offered $2,000 bonuses to recruit new hires and boosted drivers’ wages to $40,000 a year.
In Grand County, CDOT is responsible for plowing 100 miles of US Highway 40 from Berthoud Pass to Rabbit Ears pass.
To address the driver shortage, CDOT shifted snowplow crews from the Front Range up into the high country. CDOT spokesman Matt Inzeo said CDOT’s strategy is designed to compensate for a 20% drop in its labor force of snowplow operators, which is twice as much as normal, to clear 23,000 miles of Colorado highways.
Currently, CDOT has assigned four snowplows to Grand County with crews working 12-hour shifts.
“Mountain communities have been a challenge for the last several years,” Inzeo said, but due to strategic planning the frequency of plowing US 40 has not changed.
Grand County’s short-staffed team works seven days a week, hitting the roads at 6 a.m. and plowing sometimes until 9 p.m. To pitch in, Baer occasionally jumps behind the wheel of a snowplow.
“Right now most of our (drivers) are still cleaning up from past storms,” Baer said on Jan. 18.
Some states blame competition for the shortage, saying private enterprise such as trucking firms can make more lucrative offers to lure snowplow drivers away from their public works jobs. An aging workforce coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic has created a perfect storm of sorts.
But not in Grand County. Superintendent Baer cites a unique thorn in the side of mountain communities: lack of affordable housing.
“That’s the primary reason,” he said. “Our wages are competitive (with private industry).”
Local communities in Grand County, however, operate their own smaller fleets of snowplows. With far fewer miles of streets to clear, town managers report no significant driver shortages. So far, they have weathered heavy storms without serious incidents.
Fraser has three equipment operator vacancies currently, according to Town Manager Ed Cannon. He said other town employees have stepped up to help with snow removal operations.
When it comes to plowing, Grand Lake is somewhat of an outlier. The town’s fully staffed fleet clear roads only so much. That’s because snowmobiles share those roads with other traffic.
“Grand Lake tries to keep snow on our roads,” Town Manager John Crone said.
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