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Thanksgiving week storm cost Boulder an estimated $400,000 in snow, ice removal

Plowing every residential street would cost additional $1.3 to $1.9 million annually, per estimate

Snow plows work near the Pearl Street Mall on Nov. 26.
Snow plows work near the Pearl Street Mall on Nov. 26.

The massive Thanksgiving week snowstorm is expected to cost Boulder $400,000 in snow and ice removal efforts, pushing the city’s expenses for the activities higher than recent years.

The figure was shared with City Council last week by Interim Transportation Director Bill Cowern, who said that total snow and ice control costs in 2019 will fall between $1.6 million and $1.8 million.

“That will be the most that we’ve spent in quite some time, and we’ll be fortunate if we’re able to cover that in the transportation fund,” Cowern said. “We may need to pursue an adjustment to base budget.”

The city transportation leader commended Public Works staff who worked 12-hour shifts for seven days in a row to help clear the 24 inches of snow dumped in some parts of Boulder over a 24-hour period.

“Every program vehicle was in the field and responding to the storm for seven days straight,” Cowern said. “This was an incredible effort and it was possible only through exceptional leadership and dedicated commitment to public service by our staff. We were hit with a massive storm…”

Several factors complicated the city’s response to the storm, which Cowern said was the biggest Boulder had seen since 1997. He said forecasts for rain and snow-rain mix before the peak of the storm caused officials to decide not to apply deicing materials before the snowfall, and only apply them during and after.

Additionally, he acknowledged that plowing streets in the way Boulder does can leave certain residents frustrated, because it leads to snow being stored temporarily in the bike lane until it can be melted, for example. But the city takes the safest approach, Cowern said.

While the city normally avoids plowing residential roads, it did so in the wake of the storm, but after four days of focusing solely on primary streets.

“We don’t usually plow residential streets,” Cowern said. “We made the call that this storm was so severe it would be desirable to get in there and do it.”

He added concerns often voiced about plowing residential streets include residents’ cars and driveways getting walled in by snow removed from travel lanes.

City Attorney Tom Carr fielded a question from Councilman Adam Swetlik about Boulder’s enforcement mechanism for residents and businesses that fail to clear snow and ice from sidewalks in front of their properties within 24 hours of the last snowfall, which is a frequent gripe of residents.

“There are people who never do it,” Carr said. “It tends to be complaint-based. We can’t possibly control the thousands of sidewalks in the city. It always seems like we are not doing enough enforcement until we enforce against somebody and then we hear we’re doing too much enforcement.”

Councilwoman Rachel Friend said Council heard from many residents who understood the recent storm was abnormally large and presented a difficulty to Public Works staff, but feel snow and ice removal efforts during average storms also are inadequate.

“There are a lot of jobs that are low-paid where you can’t call off, you don’t get a snow day, if you are a direct care staff or working at a hospital,” Friend said. “… When side streets aren’t plowed it’s a safety and equity concern.”

Plowing every residential street in the city during storms is estimated to cost a additional $1.3 million to $1.9 million annually, Cowern told Friend.

“That would probably provide pretty good service during a typical storm. It would be completely overwhelmed in an event like the one we just had,” Cowern said.

Paying city staff or hiring contractors to clear every sidewalk access ramp in the city could cost up to $500,000 in every storm, Cowern estimated.