Winter storm wreaked havoc on roads, and on budgets

As far as winter storms go, this latest one — though not as destructive as some — proved trickier to combat than most.

Two weeks of sub-freezing temperatures only intensified problems created by the recurring blasts of ice and snow, and keeping local roads clear of frozen — sometimes treacherous — precipitation turned out to be a prolonged endeavor for San Juan County’s road crews.

Ditto for the town of Friday Harbor.

“We managed to stay on top of it pretty well, but we had just cleaned up from that first shot of snow and then the next one came,” said Mike Wilks, town utilities superintendent. “We had to start all over again.”

Over at county Public Works, there’s a battle plan in place — as well as two separate accounts totalling roughly $250,000 in 2008 — which road crews rely on when strong winds knock down trees or roads become unnavigable due to ice or snow.

Though the removal of ice, snow and fallen trees is fairly routine, Road Operations Manager Russ Harvey said that having to do so for two weeks in a row — in 15-degree temperatures and sometimes less — exceeds the norm.

“It was fun the first day,” Harvey said. “After that, it was just work.”

Furthermore, though driving conditions and weather patterns have returned to normal on the islands, there’s still cleanup work to be done, he said. Roughly three million pounds of sand were laid down to help provide traction on the most heavily traveled roads on the four ferry-served islands. That’s about 1,000 cubic yards, or 1,500 tons, of sand. If combined, that amount would just about fit into the Public Works maintenance shop on Guard Street, which is 75 feet long, 45 feet wide and 15 feet tall.

“We’re not done with this one, though,” Harvey said. “Now we’re cleaning up all that sand.”

County road crews maintain about 200 miles of paved roads on the four ferry-served islands, and another 56 miles of gravel roads. Priority routes on Public Works’ emergency winter-maintenance plan of attack include those that lead to and from the ferry terminals, medical centers, fire stations and main school-bus routes.

Harvey said the department exhausted its 2008 winter snow-removal account Thanks to a relatively calm late fall and early winter, Public Works had a “cushion” in its wind-debris removal account to help cover the cost of keeping roads clear as days of snow, ice and freezing temperatures dragged on.

The bill for the town, which dumped about 120 cubic yards of sand on its roads, totaled about $26,000, which, according to Wilks, extinguished the amount set aside for winter-related road maintenance in 2008.

The town and county may be able to recoup those costs should the state be declared a disaster area by the federal government, according to Brendan Cowan, director of the county and town’s Department of Emergency Management.

Given the challenges and abnormal circumstances, both Harvey and Wilks said they’re pleased with the performance of their respective road crews. Both said the timing of the second snow storm worked to their advantage. It hit just after local schools began their respective two-week winter breaks and fewer cars were on the road as a result.

Wilks said treacherous road conditions on the mainland may have also lessened the amount of traffic that the town normally experiences on Christmas week.

“It probably slowed people from coming because they couldn’t get here from the other side,” he said.

Still, Harvey notes there were no school closures because of hazardous road conditions, only a series of two-hour delays, after the first storm hit the week before winter break. He noted that sub-freezing temperatures and back-to-back snow storms caused difficulties on the mainland that made the problems islanders had to deal with, in general, seem more like inconveniences at best.

“I’m just happy I’m not doing this in Spokane,” he said.

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