Crews gird for snow removal before flakes start to fall

November 27, 2012

By Warren Kagarise

The mercury dips a little lower as November turns to December, winter starts in mere weeks, and the agencies responsible for ensuring roads remain passable in ice and snow readied removal plans for the months ahead.

Issaquah, King County and the state prepare detailed ice and snow response plans long before the flakes start to fall. The agencies face challenges in Issaquah and the surrounding area due to steep terrain, narrow roads and limited funding.

Still, officials said motorists should expect a robust response to ice and snow once the mercury sinks and the precipitation falls.

On the Web

Learn more about Issaquah winter weather plans, and find snowplow routes at www.ci.issaquah.wa.us/winterweather. Find local forecasts and alerts at the National Weather Service, www.nws.noaa.gov.

By the numbers

Officials at the King County Department of Transportation’s Road Services Division start planning for winter by staging ice and snow removal materials throughout the county:

  • 12,000 — cubic yards of sand
  • 38,000 — gallons of anti-icing material
  • 50 — pieces of snow removal equipment, including 28 trucks equipped for sanding and plowing

The county also disperses ice and snow removal equipment to focus on specific areas. For unincorporated areas outside Issaquah, planners readied:

  • 1 – 5-yard truck with snowplow and sander
  • 5 – 10-yard trucks with snowplows and sanders
  • 2 – 750-gallon anti-icing chemical applicators
  • 2 – pre-wetters
  • 2 – road graders

Source: King County Department of Transportation Roads Division

If snow materializes, emergency planners from the city, county and state dispatch crews to plow and sand slushy roadways. The agencies also stage equipment near major roadways if snow seems certain in the forecast.

“As long as it safe to be out, we’ll be out keeping the roads clear,” said Bret Heath, city Public Works Operations and emergency management director.

Meanwhile, emergency planners alert Issaquah residents to hazards through the city radio station, 1700-AM, emergency information phone line and the municipal website.

The process to forecast winter weather in the Issaquah area is tricky. Lake Sammamish, mountains and valleys complicate the picture and create challenges for meteorologists and emergency planners.

Heath said preparedness is critical, because conditions can change quickly, or vary among the different elevations in the Issaquah area.

Snow might blanket Forest Rim — Squak Mountain’s highest-elevation neighborhood inside city limits — even as the lowlands remain bare. Other neighborhoods at higher elevations, such as the Issaquah Highlands and Talus, also require additional scrutiny from road crews.

“We’ve got three mountains here in Issaquah, and trying to up and down those mountains without proper tires or chains is just asking to get yourself or others into trouble,” Heath said.

Learning from past events

The most recent major snowstorm to hit the region dropped 3 to 6 inches across the Issaquah area Jan. 18, but more difficult challenges started the next day, as a rare ice storm led to widespread power outages and caused trees to drop ice- and snow-laden branches.

Snow is expected to start in higher elevations soon. Officials said the January storms offered lessons to prepare for upcoming inclement weather.

“We’ve made some minor tweaks here and there, some adjustments on the routes to try and refine things,” Heath said.

The city, county and state stockpiled salt, sand and anti-icing agents at locations throughout Issaquah and the surrounding area. Crews readied plows and sanders, and crews started to receive road-clearing assignments before Thanksgiving.

Issaquah officials divide streets into priority levels for snow removal.

City snowplows initially focus on Priority 1 routes — important arteries and access to hillside communities, such as Squak Mountain and the highlands. Crews then address side streets as conditions allow.

King County faces the added challenge of winter weather response on a declining budget. Officials said the limited funds and reduced staffing mean some roads could undergo plowing and sanding less often, depending on a storm’s severity.

The county is responsible for 1,300 miles of roadway under the local government’s snow response plan. The document includes important arteries in the Issaquah area, such as Issaquah-Hobart Road Southeast and Southeast May Valley Road.

Know before you go

City and King County emergency planners offer tips for drivers in snowy conditions:

  • Never drive around road-closure signs. Call 206-296-8100 to report problems on roads in unincorporated King County.
  • Allow ample time to reach your destination.
  • Equip your vehicle with all-season tires and carry tire chains.
  • If you must abandon your vehicle, park clear of travel lanes to allow snow equipment to pass. (The city tows vehicles left abandoned in travel lanes. Call the Issaquah Police Department nonemergency line, 837-3200, to locate vehicles after a snowstorm.)
  • Dress for the weather in case you become stranded and have to walk.
  • Use caution and maintain several car lengths’ distance behind a snowplow or sander.
  • Warn children about the dangers of sledding on hilly streets.

King County Metro Transit is prepared for winter. The agency asks bus riders to make preparations for winter bus travel, too.

Metro Transit riders can receive up-to-date information about route changes at the Transit Alerts website, http://1.usa.gov/5c064v.

Metro Transit assigns every bus route to at least one of seven geographic areas in King County. Check the status at the agency’s winter weather website, http://1.usa.gov/129vj.

The agency displays the service status of each area on a color-coded snow map:

  • Green indicates buses operating on normal routes.
  • Yellow indicates some, but not all, routes in the area operating on reroutes.
  • Red indicates all bus routes in a designated area operating on reroutes.
  • Blue indicates all buses operating on emergency routes.

County crews focus on major thoroughfares to connect densely populated areas, smaller roadways leading to arterial roads and other commuter routes.

In localized snow events, planners shift crews from unaffected areas to trouble spots to keep roads clear, but during a major regional snowstorm, shifting county forces might not be possible.

County priorities for snow and ice removal also include routes used by King County Metro Transit buses.

Conditions affect roads, transit routes

Inclement conditions can disrupt the Metro Transit network, so officials start planning early for winter. The process starts at preparation, progresses to rerouting buses, and — under the harshest conditions — calls for drastic reductions in service.

If weather creates dangerous driving conditions, Metro Transit plans to reduce service to 52 core routes in the Emergency Service Network. The system is designed to remain reliable in the worst weather or during a prolonged storm period.

Given the potential for reduced clearing on county roads, motorists should prepare for delays and develop backup plans if snow prevents travel.

State Department of Transportation crews focus initial ice and snow removal efforts on risky areas, such as bridges, curves, hills, interchanges and ramps.

City crews toil around the clock in 12-hour shifts to remove snow from the roadway and, if necessary, drop sand and de-icing fluid onto the roadway.

The county also puts crews on 12-hour shifts during significant snowstorms to provide around-the-clock response in unincorporated areas. County officials said six road workers plan to work overnight shifts to respond to snow, ice and other road problems.

Officials encourage drivers to monitor the latest weather forecasts and prepare for winter driving conditions.

Motorists should pay special attention to bridges and overpasses, because both freeze more easily during late night and early morning hours. Drivers should be on the lookout for black ice, as well as snow.

Or, as county officials suggested, motorists can consider other alternatives to remain off roads, such as working a flexible schedule, telecommuting or postponing trips if possible.

Not all ice and snow response efforts involve a snowplow or sander.

The city adjusts traffic signals on Southeast Issaquah-Fall City Road to accommodate motorists using the steep hill in treacherous conditions.

“We do retime the lights to try and give the lights the maximum amount of green that we can, so we’re not stopping people when we don’t have to,” Heath said.

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