When heavy snow falls in the City of Kenai, the city’s Streets Department is ready to roll out. Armed with a fleet of graders, sanders, loaders and snowblowers, the five-man crew is tasked with plowing and treating about 80 miles of city streets.
At the helm of the Streets Department, which operates under the city’s Public Works Department, is foreman Curt Wagoner. He’s been employed at the City of Kenai for 18 years and oversees Kenai’s snow removal equipment and the employees who run it.
That equipment includes graders, which plow snow and roll it off the side of the roads; sanders, which are equipped with 12-foot blades that move snow from the centerline to the edge of the roads; and snowblowers, which clear residual snow left by the other city equipment.
It is Wagoner’s department that is deployed throughout the City of Kenai during major weather events, like in late October when 8 to 14 inches of snow were dumped on the central peninsula.
Wagoner said Wednesday that the Oct. 26 snowfall was one of the biggest the city has seen at the beginning of winter, meaning when there was no snow already on the ground. He said he was fortunate to have a seasoned crew that could navigate and plow city streets without being able to see city curbs and sidewalks.
Still, Kenai City Manager Paul Ostrander told Kenai City Council members at the group’s Nov. 2 meeting that, between Oct. 26 and 27, the city’s Public Works Department fielded 74 calls from people unhappy with the city’s snow removal. Residents, Ostrander said, should expect to wait longer for snow removal during severe weather events and when the department is down staff.
“I think that the expectation should be, when we have an event like this, there’s going to be snow, and it’s not going to be perfect and you’re going to have to work around it,” Ostrander said. “I mean, that’s the reality.”
Kenai Public Works Director Scott Curtin said during the same city council meeting that the city has to strategize how to most effectively use its fleet of vehicles and limited staff. Because city crews can work upward of 14 hours per day clearing city streets, he has to make sure they don’t burn out.
“The other issue that I run into is, you know, my guys — they’re not machines,” Curtin said. “They can only stay awake so many hours safely and operate equipment. I still have to allow them to go home, sleep and come back in.”
Normally, Wagoner said the Streets Department operates with five staff members, including himself. Recently, he said, the department has sometimes operated with three staff members. One employee has been on leave, bringing the employee pool down to four. If anyone calls in sick, they’re down to three.
The City of Kenai for more than a month has advertised for a temporary equipment operator to lighten the load on the Streets Department. Like other employers, though, Wagoner said the city has struggled to fill the position. According to the city’s job page, the temporary equipment operator would help run graders, loaders, sanders and blowers to help with snow and ice control in the city. The job pays $28.20 per hour.
In all, Wagoner said operators are responsible for treating roughly 80 miles of roads throughout Kenai, but it’s not unusual for any one city vehicle to travel more than 250 miles each day. That’s because roads cannot always be plowed in one pass. By the time a road has been plowed, city graders, sanders, loaders and blowers have traveled its length multiple times.
City crews often must work around obstacles to successfully get a road plowed.
The City of Kenai doesn’t allow residents to push the snow on their property onto a sidewalk or into roads. When a resident rolls snow onto the edge of a city street, that clump of snow can harden and freeze. When an operator hits a frozen clump of snow, it can damage the equipment and send it veering into the opposite lane of traffic.
Additionally, from Oct. 1 to May 1 of the following year, vehicles may not be left unattended on City of Kenai streets from 4-8 a.m. That’s because operators are unable to do a clean sweep of the road, instead having to navigate around cars obstructing the roadway.
Kenai’s city streets are located in rights of way, which bump up against the boundaries of other land parcels, such as those owned by residents. Wagoner said operators try to be mindful of things residents put in the right of way, such as lawn ornaments, which can also harm city equipment if struck.
City snow berms created within the right of way are often a point of contention between the city and residents. Though city operators are able to lift the “wing” of the graders when they reach driveways to avoid actively dumping snow there, it isn’t guaranteed driveways will always be free of residual berms.
The city Streets Department is not responsible for maintaining every road located in Kenai city limits. The Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities, for example, is responsible for maintaining the Kenai Spur Highway even when it goes through town. The Kenaitze Indian Tribe is similarly tasked with snow removal at tribal facilities.
Those overlapping responsibilities sometimes mean things fall through the cracks. When the State of Alaska’s crews out of Nikiski plow the Kenai Spur Highway, for example, that displaced snow can be moved onto sidewalks that were previously cleared by City of Kenai operators.
In determining what roads the city’s streets department plows first, Wagoner said priority is given to public safety, like the Kenai Fire and Police departments, and to schools. The City of Kenai’s “Priority 1” streets include Main Street Loop, Beaver Loop, Forest Avenue, Redoubt Avenue, Willow Street and Airport Way, among others.
Wagoner said he’s always keeping an eye on the weather and constantly making and remaking plans of attack for Kenai’s street crews. It’s not always possible, though, to outrun Mother Nature, he said.
“If it’s snowing hard, it’s really tough to try to stay out to go do a plow because everything you do, you’re going to turn back and spend that much more money to do it over again,” Wagoner said. “We kind of just mainly focus on our main arteries downtown.”
To people who complain to him about the way the city is removing snow, Wagoner said he tells them that his operators are working hard and take pride in their job.
“We’re doing the best we can,” Wagoner said. “That’s all you can do.”
To help streamline the city’s snow plowing efforts, the Public Works Department recommends removing vehicles and other items from the right of way to allow operators to move through streets efficiently. Residents are also asked to avoid placing snow near driveway entrances, as the space may be needed for snow events later in the season. Patience during the first 48 hours of a snow event, the department says, is appreciated.
Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at firstname.lastname@example.org.