Meet RTD's snow removal team: '365 days a year, we're thinking about snow'

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Snowstorms are a reality for those of us who make our home in Colorado. Some of us love to play in it; others prefer to watch it fall while remaining inside. Regardless, the potential for snow influences the materials we throw in the back of our cars, the preparations we make to our homes and the clothes we choose on frigid days. Life doesn’t stop in the face of a gathering storm.

That includes accessing the places that are essential during inclement weather. For those of us who rely on an RTD bus or train on a snowy day, we expect the roads, tracks and stations to be ready for our arrival. When we stand at a stop to catch a ride, we don’t give a second thought to the sheen of a salted sidewalk or a platform that has been cleared of snow.

Making our commutes a nonissue is a massive crew of employees whom RTD customers seldom see – hundreds of people who mobilize when the weather calls for it and fan out across the eight counties that constitute the agency’s 2,342-square-mile service district. The combined represented, non-represented and contracted resources RTD brings to a storm oversee snow and ice removal at approximately 675 locations, including 330 bus shelters and 106 Park-n-Rides and light rail stations. (A lesser-known fact: About 97% of RTD’s 9,720 or so bus stops are to be maintained by the adjacent property owner or companies that own a bus stop shelter with advertising, not 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 don’t grasp the sheer volume of RTD’s responsibilities.

“If they go by and there’s a little snow that’s been pushed up onto a curb, you get that question: ‘Well, gee, doesn’t anybody clean the snow here?’,” Garza said. “Yeah, 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.”

People expect maintenance crews to catch the snow before it hits the ground, the team noted. But snow must hit the ground before it can be moved. When the storm is over, they emphasized, facilities will be clean.

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 and asks each of three facilities groups to outline a plan for snow removal. Not counting 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’s not uncommon for the latter type of work to extend two or three days after a snowstorm.

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

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“I like the storms that are going to be a storm for sure,” said Posey’s colleague 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 man.”

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

For a middle-of-the-night storm that threatens the morning commute, the team gearing up for snow removal begins 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, defined as 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 employees are deployed.

“We wrote the contract knowing 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.

“The contract 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 surfaces and all of the 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 literally moving targets, with variation in snow accumulation and weather conditions across the district. Boulder tends to get more snow than other places, and that city has its own crews and contracts. In the event of a storm that blankets the whole region, everyone assigned to the storm is busy as they work to keep up. When the wind leads snow to drift in open areas, extra crews and equipment are sent there to help out.

When 6 or more inches of accumulation is expected, municipalities do what they can to help out, 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.

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“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 and get it started, and we still need to 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 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.”

As will be no surprise to any Colorado resident, 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. And snow that falls early in the season is drier.

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, it’s important to understand that this team is always thinking about snow. It’s 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 summertime 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, what about snow? 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, now in his fourth season managing snow removal, 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.”

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