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Denver explains why residential plows didn’t run after last winter storm

After the city was criticized for lack of preparation after a winter storm that hit on Dec. 28, plows will clear main roads and residential streets this time around.

DENVER — Insisting the city isn’t responding to an outcry from the public after residential streets weren’t plowed during a wet December storm, a spokeswoman for Denver's Department of Transportation and Infrastructure (DOTI) said Tuesday the city would run the smaller plows for an incoming winter storm.

“We approach every storm the same way, which is we study multiple forecasts. We look at what time of day is it coming in, what time is it coming in, what are the temperatures before, what are the temperatures after, what are the road temperatures, what’s happening with the wind,” DOTI spokesperson Nancy Kuhn said.

DOTI was harshly criticized for weeks when plows didn’t run after a Dec. 28 storm, leading to icy streets. One mayoral candidate suggested his administration would “plow the damn roads.”

“The last storm on Dec. 28, we were looking at a forecast of 1 to 5 inches of snow coming in as rain with a warm-up in temperatures,” Kuhn said. “This time we’re looking at 6-11 inches of snow, significant accumulation, and prolonged cold temperatures afterward. This is the type of snow these trucks are very helpful with. They can make a difference.”

Kuhn said during the last storm, by the time the city realized the forecast they were relying on was wrong, snow on most roads was already packed down. She said the city sent out residential plows the two days following that storm, but they didn’t improve the situation much.

In the incoming storm, Denver will send out its large street plows to clear main roads. These plows can carry deicer. The big plows will work until the main roads are clear.

Residential plows will make one pass down the center of neighborhood streets. The blades on these plows won’t be able to clear the pavement completely, but should create a path out to the main roads. The residential plows don’t carry deicer.

The most recent criticism of Denver’s snow management program is by no means the first. Residents have long complained about the entire region’s snow removal protocols, which rely heavily on sunshine to melt falling snow.

But that plan dates back decades and has a reason, according to Jim Charlier, a transportation planner who’s been working in the Front Range for years.

After mayoral candidate Chris Hansen tweeted the suggestion to “plow the damn roads,” Charlier tweeted a thread explaining why the issue is far more complicated than simply plowing.

“The brown cloud used to be bad – especially after a storm in the winter when it was cold,” Charlier said. “We’d get an inversion, you wouldn’t be looking at a blue sky here. It was a big rug that just kind of covered the city.”

Not only was it an air quality issue, it was also an economic issue.

“You know, our brand in Colorado is robin-egg-blue skies and crystalline white snow and the beautiful mountains, and you couldn’t even see the mountains from Denver,” he said.

Charlier said he and other transportation planners at the time looked at ways to reduce particulate emissions and found adapting snow management plans could help.

“Part of that was plowing less mileage of streets. Part of that was street sweeping. Part of it was using less sand,” he said. “Public works departments sort of saw the potential to modify their snow management practices and save money.”

Charlier said with climate changing and storms now bringing wetter snow during months when the sun angles may not allow melting, it may be time to revisit the issue as a region. He said the issue is far more complex than a simple suggestion to plow the roads more.

“It’s a good time for us to reassess what we’re doing and are we doing the right thing and what does it cost and should we change it?” he said.

Charlier said any new discussion of plans to manage snow should also include clearing sidewalks for pedestrians and routes for cyclists.

“I would say that in Denver for the last couple of weeks, we’ve all been able to drive anywhere we need to, but walking has been more of a challenge, so I think we need to broaden our perspective a little bit,” he said.



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