Snow removal in Vail: It’s a big job, and it’s only getting bigger
January 30, 2017
VAIL — When the flakes keep falling every day, the town's snow removal crews focus first on simply keeping the roads passable. The fine tuning comes later.
Longtime town of Vail employee Charlie Turnbull has seen the progression of Vail's snow removal system as it grew more and more sophisticated over the years. Turnbull remembers plowing Bridge Street and the Vail Village core back in the '80s, before the days of heated streets. It was an uncomfortable endeavor.
"When I was plowing in there I'd be looking up at the windows seeing if people were turning lights on," he said. "You wonder who you're waking up."
While snowmelt streets have made the duty of removing snow from roads simpler in some parts of Vail, higher standards and less available storage space in the non-snowmelt areas have made the process much more complex in other parts of town. Snow removal on the streets of Vail was once a lot like what you'll find today in snow removal on the driveways of Vail: A skid bucket on the front of a truck would scoop and deposit the snow somewhere nearby.
Over the years, Turnbull came to realize there was a much better way of doing it. You yourself may have come to this same realization trying to remove snow from your driveway.
"It's so much more proficient with a blower," Turnbull said. "By loading the snow with a blower, we're taking the air out of the snow, so we're getting probably twice as much snow into the truck than if we were to load it with a bucket."
Recommended Stories For You
BIG STORMS TAKE WEEKS
Take the image of your common driveway snowblower, enlarge it to about 10 times its size and move the user from behind the device to inside a cockpit, and you have a town of Vail street snow blower.
Exactly where those blowers send the snow is of critical importance as the town can't simply blow snow anywhere it pleases. So crews blow the snow into a dump truck and haul it to a snow storage site.
With the dump truck moving slowly alongside the snow blower as it loads and blows the snow, both lanes of traffic are often impacted. That's why Turnbull is so conscientious of the time it takes.
"We gotta try to keep one lane open all the time so traffic can get through," he said. "It takes less than two minutes to blow 30 cubic yards of snow."
While he's dealing with the major issues of removing hundreds of cubic yards of snow from the streets, Turnbull is also looking into much smaller details, like icy spots on town pathways. You may think the brunt of the workload happens during snowy weeks like we've seen in January, but what comes next can actually be the more crucial part of the job.
"Once it stops snowing, we gotta get the snowpack off the road because it thaws and freezes and makes it even harder to get off," Turnbull said. "Then the roads get really rough."
The town manages 11 lane miles of frontage roads for the Colorado Department of Transportation and maintains 32 lane miles of Vail roadway. There are 44 cul-de-sacs that require special attention and the town also has to keep the parking lots plowed at three fire stations, public areas like Donovan Park, and numerous park and trailhead parking areas like Buffehr Creek and Sandstone.
It can take weeks to get the roads cut and back to normal after big storms like we've seen in January.
"On any given storm we've got 14 operators out plowing the streets during the day on a normal storm, and then we got four guys that work nights," Turnbull said. "As soon as that storm is over, we start making room for more snow. We make sure the frontage roads are widened back up so cars can park, and from there we start working all the secondary roads. Some years we're not jumping from road to road, and other years we're just trying to get caught up after 3 feet of snow. Each year is a little different, so doing what we do, you have to anticipate the difference in temperature."
In addition to changing temperatures, the job itself changes from year to year.
The addition of skier parking along the North Frontage Road in West Vail added a new level of importance to that section of roadway. The new fire station in West Vail is also a newer high priority area. Changes to the town core like the construction of the Solaris and the Four Seasons developments have created new demands on snow removal on the frontage roads sections in front of those buildings, as well.
"They added islands along the Frontage Road, which we can't just plow over," Turnbull said. "We have to load it out."
The next big change will be the addition of two new roundabouts and a freeway underpass in Vail between the Cascade Village and Sandstone neighborhoods.
"How that's going to impact us right now, we don't know, but I know it's going to take another operator or two and another piece of plow equipment to maintain that," Turnbull said. "It will increase our snow removal for sure."
The Vail Town Council, town manager and town maintenance department have been so supportive of Vail's snow removal needs over the years, says Turnbull, and there has never been any concern over the typical staffing issues and equipment challenges that plague other towns where snowfall is heavy.
Turnbull said the biggest area of support comes from the fleet maintenance crew.
"I believe there's a total of 12 people on that crew," he said. "They're keeping our equipment serviced, and if we get breakdowns they're taking care of it."
Vail Communications Director Suzanne Silverthorn says the town takes great pride in their snow removal, and it shows through Turnbull's dedicate in his nearly 40 years of service in Vail.
"Snow removal is one of our highest rated services in the community survey," she said.
To view Vail's 2016 Community Survey or learn more about town services, visit vailgov.com.