We've lived in Helena for eight winters on a residential street, considered by the Helena Street Division to be the third and last priority for snow removal, so we've learned to be patient. And they informed us last winter there was no way to know in advance when they might get to us. Though the National Weather Service stated December 2016 experienced more snowfall than this December, this winter has been far and away the worst for lack of adequate snow/ice maintenance, plowing and sanding. I thank Ruth McArdle for her Jan. 21 letter to the IR for bringing up this issue.
Sparing all the gory details of the last few weeks of snowy/icy street challenges in our neighborhood, I feel Helena's “Snow & Ice Removal Plan” has failed us this winter in four major ways:
- Plowing doesn't happen nearly soon enough, nor deep enough, allowing the snow to transform into ice, making graveling much less effective, as well as ice ruts that form even on flat city arterials, creating very risky driving.
- Streets are not plowed wide enough -- the official plan calls for snowplow berms two feet from the curb. With one exception, all our local streets have been plowed with berms six to 14 feet from the curbs, effectively creating one-laners, leaving parked cars at risk and forcing people to stagger over large piles of snow and ice.
- I called 447-1566, the “Any questions or concerns about snow removal” phone number, seven times in a 17-day period, leaving a detailed message regarding each day's questions and the specific snow challenges we faced. I never got through to anyone, and never got even one promised return call! The official plan states all phone calls are logged to establish a record -- so my detailed concerns are all recorded, but to what purpose?
- Streets are not graveled nearly often enough, and only minimally, so the gravel melts into the too-deep layers of snow/ice, and no longer provides traction for tires or shoes.
Starting Dec. 4, I measured 35 inches of snowfall at my home, ending Dec. 30, leaving 17 inches of packed snow. Although once early on it had been partially sanded, it was not plowed on my steep street until Jan. 12, a full 13 days after the end of the major snowfall. It is now 10 days since that single plowing/graveling, the street is slick, solid ice and desperately needs gravel.
During this period I've seen new 4WD trucks, a city bus, and a big city truck with chains unable to even start up our hill. Twice, including Jan. 22, we had to vacate our street of all vehicles to watch a UPS truck, and a FedEx truck (both with chains) first slide slowly sideways, then recover, creeping slowly to the bottom of the hill. Recently a friend slid sideways, but also recovered, and in my 4WD Subaru Forester with good winter tires I started slowly sliding down the hill, and had to repeatedly turn into the snowplow berm to stop the sliding until I reached our parking spot. I had done my duty digging large blocks of ice out of the berm to create this spot, as well as sand the street all around our vehicle so we could safely walk on the street to access it.
There are 11 residences, at least four with families having young children, that depend on our street for driving, as well as all the necessary service vehicles. The current city snow and ice removal program is failing to provide safe and reliable streets in Helena, which is simply unacceptable for our urban state capital. We have no reason to believe this is due to staff incompetence. Rather I suspect it is because of seriously inadequate funding, understaffing, and insufficient resources. I call on our new mayor and the city commissioners to review street maintenance programs and keep our streets safe and effective in the winter, even if it means a large boost in funding and increasing taxes.