Despite criticism from many residents, Durango city officials say crews are doing their best to clear snow from streets as overnight temperatures continue to hover near single digits.
"We've had a lot of complaints, and I understand people are unhappy they have to drive on snowpacked streets, and we'll continue to do everything we can to keep them free of snow and ice," said Jack Rogers, Durango's director of public works.
The city's snow-removal budget was increased from $540,000 last year to $600,000 for 2009, but Rogers said it is the amount of snow and consistently low temperatures, not money, that is the biggest challenge facing his department.
Durango received 42 inches of snow in December, which is nearly three times the historical average, and the temperature has only inched above freezing a handful of times in the last three weeks. So far this winter, snowpack levels in the Animas River Basin are 135 percent of their annual average.
Rogers said each of the city's 12 full-size plows, which cost about $125,000 each when outfitted with plowing and sanding equipment, have been running nearly 24 hours a day since Christmas week. Also, drivers have averaged 20 hours of overtime per week. Each driver must have a commercial driver's license and is limited to a 12-hour shift. Employees of the water and sewer department have driven plows to augment the regular crews.
City Manager Ron LeBlanc said much of the work is contracted out because it is not economically feasible to maintain the staff and equipment year-round that is used for only a few days or weeks each year.
Downtown shoveling and snow-blowing is contracted to Grasshoppers landscaping, and much of the snow that is removed from city streets is hauled to Cundiff Park by dump trucks owned by McKnight's Towing.
Last year, $35,000 was budgeted for contracted hauling, but Rogers said the actual cost ballooned to more than $280,000 as the winter of 2007-08 dropped unexpected and continuous storms. December's snowfall also was included in the 2008 budget. The situation required an additional funding appropriation from City Council last summer, and Councilor Doug Lyon said that will happen again, if needed.
"We will find the money to keep the snowplows moving," Lyon said at the council's Tuesday night meeting.
Rogers and LeBlanc said snow removal in Durango is a unique challenge. Unlike La Plata County and Colorado Department of Transportation operations, the snow simply cannot be plowed from the street to the shoulder. Plow drivers encounter steep, winding roads, narrow streets, parked cars and, in many neighborhoods, a driveway every 55 feet.
"The topography in Durango is as difficult as you will find in terms of snow removal," Le-Blanc said.
The Central Business District presents even more problems, because regular business hours and the late-night bar crowd limit when the work can be performed.
"Jack's crews have to be ready to haul it, and they do all this between 1 and 6 a.m. after they've worked all day - it's an unforgiving lifestyle," he said.