Snowplow drivers keep Craig clear
February 7, 2019
Editor’s note: A graphic which appeared in print was incorrect. Moffat County Road and Bridge Department vehicles are dedicated to county roads. Motor graders with the department each plow approximately 96 lane miles of road after every storm for a total of at least 1,500 combined lane miles plowed.
After a thick snowdrift buries Craig on a cold night, you'll hear them — the low, rumbling grinding of heavy trucks along the pavement hours before the sun comes up.
If there's snow on the ground, sleep will have to wait for snowplow drivers in Craig and Moffat County. It's a small army of motor graders, Mac trucks, and Freightliners, pickup plows and backhoes, with drivers in state, county, and city crews all pursuing a single goal: to make the roads safe and snow-free.
"A lot of it is schools, the bus routes, that we get first," said Troy Hampton, an equipment operator for the city of Craig with almost 30 years experience. "We try and get them all opened up before school in the morning. Hospital Loop is one of the first priorities."
A dull thud and a low grinding sound filled the cabin of Hampton's Freightliner Jan. 24 as he pulled a level, dropped the plow, and pressed on the gas up a steep hill at one of the highest points in Craig. Once the roads are mostly plowed, Hampton lays a mixture of sand, salt, and gravel on the steepest roads, at intersections, and at stop signs to help keep cars from falling victim to a snowy slip-and-slide.
As he looked southeast over the city, Hampton has one of the best views in town when the sun rises.
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"Especially when you come out at 4 o'clock in the morning and look out across here," Hampton said. “This is all my area up here. Everyone is assigned to their own area. You get to see everything across there."
"It actually is fun, overall," Hampton said of his job.
But it isn't always fun. There are downsides to driving some six tons of rock, salt, and steel up and down winding, narrow roads, all while avoiding snow-obscured ditches and other hazards. Hampton, with his many years of experience, said even he recently rolled a large snowplow in a snow-covered ditch.
But even when snowplow drivers do everything right, things can go very wrong.
"The biggest thing is always be aware, because your plow will trip," Hampton said of a common plow malfunction. "It flops over after it hits some ice. It flops over and will shoot you across the street. Most of our accidents happen when the plow flops over – when the plow trips. It's not so much potholes. It's mostly the ice."
Hampton said a snowplow's biggest obstacles are parked vehicles on the street and ice build-up from residents who blow snow back onto freshly plowed streets.
"They're throwing the snow back into the street and costing us more time to go back and clean it up," Hampton said. "It's actually a hazard, because the plow could trip when you hit that, and your plow could push you anywhere — into people's yards, into another vehicle. Some of our plow trucks tripped their plow and hit a car. We had one that hit a car three times by the time he stopped just because the plow tripped."
Though many Craig residents Hampton sees are thankful, he said some don't offer a friendly wave.
"A lot of 'em will wave with the one finger," Hampton said.
Many of those angry Craig residents call Tammy Johannes, a parks purchasing clerk for the city of Craig who helps dispatch drivers to snowy areas in need of assistance.
"When we get heavy snow storms like this, most of them are not pleasant," Johannes said of callers. "People are very upset about the amount of snow we get and the way we plow the streets. I understand their frustration. We all live in Craig, too, so we understand their frustration. But I think the thing that surprises me is how long people have lived here and how they should be used to these snow storms, but yet, they're not."
Johannes said she must often maintain her professionalism and courteousness in the face of foul complaints from residents.
"Usually, when it gets to the point when the language comes out and stuff, I usually will not listen to them," Johannes said. "And I'll tell them that right off. I'll listen to them, and I'll take their complaint, but I'll tell them that if they want to talk to me civilly, they can call back, but right now our conversation's over."
Much of the frustration, Johannes said, is from residents whose driveways have been plowed in.
"That's mainly what they're complaining about," Johannes said.
Residents 65 and older can sign up to have the city parks and recreation department shovel driveway snow to help them dig out. Hampton said the list was up to some 300 residents in year's past, but yearly sign-up requirements brought that number down to about 75 elderly Craig residents currently receiving the service. The city has also prioritized snow removal for many downtown businesses on the 400 and 500 blocks of Yampa Avenue, according to a Jan. 24 news release.
Johannes wants Craig residents to know their crew is just trying to make city roads safe.
"I want them to know when we get a big snow storm like this, and we get dumped on, we need them to be patient," Johannes said. "These guys start early in the morning, and they are out there clearing these roads. That is their number-one job, to get these streets clear, so these people can get to work, so school buses can pick these kids up, (and) hospitals, to make it safe. That's their number-one priority – safety."
Contact Clay Thorp at 970-875-1795 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.