FARGO — The ever-expanding footprint of the metro area translates into more miles of streets and that means more miles of driving lanes plow crews must clear after a snowfall.
Take Fargo, for example. The city has 733 miles of residential streets, snow emergency routes and alleys to plow, plus 178 cul-de-sacs. But the number of driving lane miles that must be cleared of snow is almost three times larger, approximately 2,100 miles.
The city has added 511 lane miles since 2010. Snow removal operator staffing during that period has increased from 40 to 48, according to city figures.
To keep up with the growth in lane miles, some city plows now are equipped with wing plows to augment the traditional front plow blades, enabling crews to clear more with each pass.
“That’s how we handle our growth,” Ben Dow, the city of Fargo’s public works operations director, said Monday, Dec. 9. The wing plows mean two plows can do what it used to take three to accomplish.
For light snowfalls, such as the 2.8 inches that fell overnight Sunday and early Monday morning, Fargo plowing crews can clear the entire city in 12 to 15 hours, once it has stopped snowing, Dow said.
But when faced with heavy snow, such as the 9.3 inches of wet snow that fell last weekend, it takes 18 to 24 hours to clear, once it has stopped snowing, he said.
The city of Fargo’s goal is to clear all the streets within 24 hours.
At full staff, the city of Fargo can put 48 plow and sand truck drivers on the streets, working in two shifts, Dow said. Now, however, the city is down three drivers because of a vacant position and three out on medical leave.
Although it is difficult to tally what Fargo spends on snow removal, since several budget categories are involved, the city's spending for ice-control applications for city streets has more than doubled since 2010, increasing from $254,500 to $602,000 this year, he said.
Fargo leaders will decide whether to approve a proposed $150 fine for cars left parked on streets after the mayor has declared a snow emergency, a possible step intended to help plow crews do their work more quickly and thoroughly.
In Moorhead, lane miles have grown from 490 in 2010 to 550, or an increase of 12%, said Steve Moore, public works director for the city of Moorhead, a position he’s held for 5½ years.
“Over the past 5½ years I’ve seen our average to plow the entire city grow from about 9 to 10 hours to consistently 12 to 14 hours,” he said, depending upon snow accumulation, temperature and other variables. “But it has definitely been increasing.”
Moorhead plow crews must contend with 240 cul-de-sacs, which are less efficient to clear and usually require crews to return to haul away snow piles, Moore said. Public works officials are working with city planners and developers to limit cul-de-sacs, or at least allow space for snow piles, he said.
Growth south of Interstate 94 has been dramatic over the past 14 years in West Fargo, when Dan Birnbaum, the city’s street foreman, came on board. He estimates the city has added 20 neighborhoods of varying size south of the interstate.
Because Birnbaum was reached off-duty, after working the overnight shift early Monday to clear snow, he didn’t have comparative figures readily at hand. But he said West Fargo’s significant growth in recent years means the city now has 13 snow emergency routes, up from four or five 15 years ago, and should add another route in the next year or two.
“The routes have more than doubled,” Birnbaum said.
In all three cities, plow crews first concentrate on opening the snow emergency routes, then fan out to clear residential streets.
“The sooner the residential streets are cleared, the better,” Birnbaum said.
But as the cities get larger, that takes more time, or more plows and more plow operators.