Meet RTD’s snow removal team: ‘Every day, we’re thinking about snow’

Snowstorms are a reality for those of us who make our home in Colorado. Some of us love to play in it while others prefer to watch it fall while remaining inside. Regardless, the potential for snow influences travel plans, the materials we throw in the back of our cars, and the clothes we choose on frigid days.

Customers who rely on an RTD bus or train on a snowy day expect the roads, tracks and stations to be ready for their arrival. Much work behind the scenes goes into preparingstations and stops, bringingthe sheen of a salted sidewalk or a platform that has been cleared of snow.

Customers may be unaware of the massive crew of RTD staff and contractors who are mobilized during inclement weather to make sure commutes go as smooth as possible. Hundreds of people are deployed to remove snow and ice at approximately 675 locations, including 330 bus shelters,106 Park-n-Rides, and commuter and light rail stations. This workforce includes represented and non-represented staff as well as contracted resources. (A lesser-known fact is that about 97% of RTD’s 9,400 or so bus stops are to be maintained by the municipalities or companies that own a bus stop shelter with advertising or the adjacent property owner, rather than the agency.)

Facilities maintenance manager Tom Garza, who oversees the public facilities team that takes care of the bus ramps along U.S. 36, several Park-n-Ride locations and bus and rail stops throughout the district, said he thinks that people do not know the sheer volume of RTD’s responsibilities.

“If there’s a little snow that’s been pushed up onto a curb, they may ask: ‘Doesn’t anybody clean the snow here?’,” Garza said. “We do, but we can’t be on site at every location every minute of the day while that storm is hitting, and even for the cleanup and stuff that comes afterward.”

Planning 24 hours before a predicted storm

Planning for a storm begins 24 hours ahead of time, when RTD facilities maintenance manager Ron Posey checks the weather reports issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He asks each of three facilities groups to outline a plan for snow removal. Over and above this coordination, the work itself can take several days: moving snow during the actual event, then patrolling and treating areas afterward as the freeze-thaw cycle sets in. It is not uncommon for the freeze-thaw cycle to extend two or three days after a snowstorm.

“We always stafff or the worst possible case, because meteorology is like magic: We don’t know what’s going to come,” said Posey, who carries arguably one of RTD’s coolest titles: “Snow Captain”, which means he is responsible for the entire snow removal operation.

“I like the storms that are going to be a storm for sure,” said Mike Riker, a facilities maintenance supervisor. “I don’t like these forecasts where there’s a 50% chance of snow, and anywhere from zero to 12 inches. Those are hard to staff.”

“We plan to bring in everybody,” Riker said, “and we follow the weather report right up until the snow starts flying.”

Planning for morning commutes

When there is a middle-of-the-night storm that threatens the morning commute, the team gears up for snow removal when most people are asleep. In accordance with a snow and ice management plan, RTD employees can begin this work up to an hour before they are expected to be deployed and are to be given enough time to complete the work prior to the beginning of the morning and afternoon peak periods: 6-9 a.m. and 4-7 p.m. Contracted employees – who make up the bulk of the snow-removal workforce – can be sent to RTD sites about two hours before the peak period.

These guidelines are for snowstorms with no more than 2 inches of expected accumulation, or for those with a forecast of more than 2 inches and an expectation that the work can be completed before the peak period begins. For storms that could bring 2 or more inches of snow just prior to or during the peak period, the weather conditions guide how many employees are deployed.

“We know that Colorado is unpredictable, and it could snow at any time,” said facilities maintenance manager Sean Moran, who has oversight of all contracted snow removal services. “We expect the major pedestrian pathways and vehicle areas to be clear prior to peak periods. Even before it’s snowing, we require that contractors have somebody out roaming from station to station and monitoring the conditions, and then dispatching people as necessary.

When snow accumulates, staff are at work

Work with our contractors “requires that as soon as snow starts accumulating, they need to be on site, actively removing, and they need to stay on site until all of the vehicle and pedestrian surfaces have been cleared,” Moran said. Contractors have found it effective, he added, to pre-treat a lot of surfaces the day before a storm with material like ice melt.

Storms are moving targets, with variation in snow accumulation and weather conditions across the district. When the wind leads snow to drift in open areas, RTD will assign extra crews and equipment to the areas to help. Another challenge is when the state plows under an area where crews already worked, keeping RTD crews busy with another cleanup.

Response for 6” or more snow

When 6 or more inches of accumulation is expected, municipalities do what they can to help, the facilities managers said. Such a storm can also lead RTD to make changes in its operations, such as the types of vehicles put out on the street. Longer, articulated buses can experience more trouble maneuvering in snow, so those buses may be taken off a route and replaced with shorter vehicles typically assigned to city routes. This decision is made, in part, so that if snow starts falling fast, employees aren’t having to recover vehicles that are stuck.

Response for 8” or more snow

“We can’t be everywhere at one time, so when the snow starts flying, you try to be proactive,” Posey said. “When it’s a certain amount, like 8 inches, it becomes very reactive for us. We end up becoming that firefighter, basically: There’s a fire here, there’s a fire there, we’ve got to put that fire out.”

“Even when that snow is beyond limits that people are out and about, we still need to get in there,get it started, and keep it moving,” added Garza. “Because if we don’t address it, it’s going to freeze and be much worse to clean up afterwards. We don’t let it go.”

The “ideal” winter storm

The types of storms the group prefers to manage, Garza said, are the “one-and-dones” that come early and begin melting when the sun rises. “Those are easier than the ones that drop a couple inches and then stop, and then start again and stop,” he said. “Those are really hard to maintain because you’ve got to stretch your manpower out so much just to keep it covered.”

It will be no surprise to any Colorado resident that springtime storms can be harder to manage than fall and winter events because the wet, heavy snow is harder on snow removal equipment and the temperatures can swing more widely between overnight and daytime. Snow that falls early in the season is drier.

Considering snow year ‘round

The team collects a lot of detail on each storm they manage, and they agree that these insights are helpful as they look ahead to the next one. And yet, outside of individual events, itis important to understand that this team is always thinking about snow. Itis discussed in the summer, when pricing on slicer – a mixture of sandy soil and salt used for traction – is negotiated. Trucks, plows and snowblowers must be brought in for maintenance and repaired as needed. Before the snow season begins, RTD’s team meets with municipalities like Boulder and Denver to discuss their own snow plans and review the equipment they have available.

“Three hundred and sixty-five days a year we’re thinking about snow, because in the summer we have to address the areas that have been damaged, the areas that we know were concerns, and we have to fix those things from the year before,” Garza said. “In construction projects, we have to look at those that are coming up and go, where can we put snow? We’ve got to make sure that everybody is thinking about it, to make sure that when it does snow, everybody is ready for it.”

Riker, who has been managing snow removal for about four years, wryly notes that he used to enjoy weekend snowstorms, when he could watch them through a window with a hot cup of coffee in hand. Given all that he has learned, he said, “I think of them a lot differently now.”

By RTD Staff

Snowplows in action