SALT LAKE CITY — Commuters faced slushy, snowpacked roads Monday morning after another winter storm that blasted much of Utah.
The plows were out, but that didn't help some drivers who faced tolerable conditions in some areas and more challenging ones in others.
A lot of that had to do with both the resources available to the city you were driving in and what roads its snowplow priority list includes.
A cash consideration
Snowplows have been running around the clock in Salt Lake for days, but it hasn't been enough to clear the 1,800 miles of roads within city limits.
"We are probably behind because we just weren't expecting this," said Rick Graham, Salt Lake's director of public services. "This" being the number of winter storms in a relatively short amount of time.
Perhaps the best question is, why aren't cities prepared?
We haven't seen storms of this nature, continuous like this, for several years.
–Rick Graham, SLC public services
"We haven't seen storms of this nature, continuous like this, for several years," Graham said.
In Cottonwood Heights, an area that has been pounded by snowfall this month, Mayor Kelvyn Cullimore said it's a challenge for 10 plows to clear 300 lane miles of road — not only physically, but financially as well.
"You just know that some years you are going to go way over budget, and some years you are going to come in under budget," Cullimore said.
He anticipates exceeding the annual $400,000 snow removal budget by the end of this month.
"With the storms that have occurred already in January, we're probably pressing pretty close to the limit," the mayor said.
But before you invest in a personal snowplow, know that both Salt Lake City's and Cottonwood Heights' public works departments have contingency plans. They will maintain snow removal service and find other ways within the budget to make up for the overage.
They'll also hope the snow stops falling soon.
"We're running a 24-hour shift, and so the plows will get there," Graham said. "We just ask our citizens to be patient."
Snowplow priority roads
Another factor in determining how quickly plows make it to your street is has to do with how the city and county categorizes roads.
In Salt Lake City, priority routes for its 49 plow and salt spreader trucks also include other major routes and streets that access essential services, like hospitals. That's the case in Salt Lake County too.
"Basically we do the main travel routes first, and then get them so people can obviously use them," explained Mike Russell, a snowplow driver for Salt Lake County. "The second to the last thing would be the side streets, and then the circles."
Like snowplow drivers for other cities and the state, Russell worked a long shift Sunday night into Monday — about 16 hours. He said this storm was different because of slick conditions under the new snow.
"It is the policy of UDOT to provide an appropriate level of service on state routes based on available resources, roadway functional classification (maps available for viewing at www.udot.utah.gov), importance to emergency services, importance to school bus routes, and importance to commerce. Each road is assigned a priority based on these factors."
"We have heavy snow last night, and then people drove on it so that packed it down; so now we've got a layer of ice and then a pack of snow," Russell said.
Commuters noticed. West Jordan resident Karen Little had a messy morning commute to Salt Lake on I-15, near Midvale.
"It was really bad. The roads were just icy. I spun out probably three times on my way on I-15," Little said.
The Utah Department of Transportation's plows were out, taking care of the major thoroughfares first — like I-15, I-215, State Street and 700 East. But UDOT representatives said when the snow falls so fast, it can be difficult to keep up; and plows will often have to go over the same spots more than once.
Orem resident Heather Butler said her drive from Utah County to Salt Lake wasn't bad because the plows kept up.
"(It was) slushy, but the speed limit was lower than normal but nothing too out of the normal. I've seen worse," Butler said.
UDOT plow drivers had a briefing Monday afternoon to plan for the next storm. The agency has its own meteorologists that help pinpoint areas that could be impacted the most, and that's where they'll send the plows.