Statewide snowplow driver shortage leads to uncertainty for Grand County roads this winter | SkyHiNews.com

Statewide snowplow driver shortage leads to uncertainty for Grand County roads this winter

A snowplow machine on interstate 70 Thursday, May 3, 2018. The Colorado Department of Transportation is looking to address a lack of snowplow drivers this season by offering new incentives to potential employees.

Keeping snow off Colorado's mountain highways is a monumental task made more difficult by the state's annual struggle to fill snowplow driver positions, and Grand County is no exception.

"This is not new for us," Tracy Trulove, spokesperson for Colorado's Department of Transportation, or CDOT, said. "Some areas of the state are really a challenge to get drivers."

Grand County's local CDOT maintenance crew covers a vast swath of the state's highways. Their area of responsibility stretches from the top of Berthoud Pass to the far side of Rabbit Ears Pass with routes extending into both Routt and Jackson counties in areas. For Grand County, the state maintains a year-round maintenance crew of 38 employees and looks to add around nine temporary winter drivers. Snowplow drivers for CDOT operate on 12-hour shifts to provide 24-hour continuous plowing coverage of our local highways.

Despite those numbers, CDOT's Middle Park snowplow crew is still significantly understaffed. Each year, beginning in the fall, CDOT looks to expand the local crew of maintenance employees by adding multiple temporary snowplow drivers. According to Trulove, the local team is still looking to fill at least eight more positions this winter including five temporary positions, two full time roles and one permanent part time position for a plow operator on Rabbit Ears Pass.

To, hopefully, help entice prospective employees the state has upped its hourly rate for temporary drivers from $19 an hour to $22 per hour. The state also provides housing stipends to full time employees in Grand County and other communities across the state where housing can be difficult to find. Even with the increased pay figures those Trulove said that, anecdotally, she believes the 2018-19 winter is the worst she has seen in terms of labor shortages in the state's northwest region.

"I would say this winter, so far at least, appears to be worse," Trulove said. "We have more openings than normal."

Trulove was quick to add that shortages for snowplow drivers complicate, but do not prevent, CDOTs efforts to keep the highways clear of snow.

"People hear 'shortage' and they think we will not be able to take care of the highways," Trulove said. "But we often surge resources or shift them as needed."

Colorado's DOT breaks the state down into five separate regions. Each region is further broken down into separate sections, with multiple sub-sections within a given section. Each subsection includes multiple plowing corridors, or maintenance patrol areas that are plowed by local snowplow drivers.

For example, Grand County is in CDOT's Region 3, which includes the entire northwest portion of the state as well as parts of the San Juans. Grand County is also a part of maintenance section 6 within Region 3, which includes Grand, Jackson, Routt, Moffat and Rio Blanco counties. Grand County is within a maintenance subsection that includes both Grand and Jackson counties.

Within Grand County there are five separate plowing corridors, or maintenance patrols. Grand County's southernmost maintenance patrol oversees plowing operations from the top of Berthoud Pass to Winter Park Resort. Another maintenance team handles plowing operations from Winter Park Resort up to Grand Lake. A third maintenance patrol handles plowing operations from Parshall to the top of Willow Creek Pass, north of Granby on the border with Jackson County.

A separate maintenance patrol covers almost all of western Grand County stretching from Highway 9, on the county line between Grand and Summit, north through Kremmling to a point several miles south of Muddy Pass. That same crew also handles plowing operations From Parshall to Gore Pass on Highway 14. A fifth and final maintenance crew is responsible for operations on Rabbit Ears Pass. While plow drivers for CDOT typically focus on a specific plowing corridor though the state regularly shifts plow drivers to different areas as needed.

According to Trulove problems related to a shortage of snowplow drivers have been a recurring issue for many years. Trulove said she believes the current situation, this winter, is worse than previous years though, at least in the northwest region of the state that is her jurisdiction.

State officials are pointing fingers at the strong economy and low unemployment figures as precipitating factors that have made the problem more acute in 2018-19.

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