Snow gates come with pros and cons
FARGO -- Anyone who had to shovel a driveway following the recent holiday blizzard probably wondered if there wasn't a way to prevent snow block caused by city plows.
Turns out, there is. And a number of cities in the region use it. But the device, called a snow gate, carries pros and cons, officials say.
Following snowy winters in the late 1990s, residents in Bismarck decided they were tired of digging out driveways every time a snowplow went by.
So, they passed a referendum requiring city crews to make sure driveways remain passable while snow gets cleared from city streets.
To achieve that, the city purchased snow gates, which attach to the end of plows used on motor graders and front-end loaders.
Operators can drop the gates when approaching driveways or crossing streets and essentially prevent snow from leaving the plow until the gate is lifted again.
No heavy lifting
Snow gates have been used in Bismarck since the early 2000s and work well at preventing ridges from forming across driveways - except in heavy snow, said Jeff Heintz, Bismarck's director of public works.
"The funny thing was, after that ordinance was passed in 2000, we really didn't have a snow event that was of a magnitude to test the snow gates," Heintz said.
"We'd get little dusters - 2 or 3 inches - and they (the gates) worked great. It was always a question: What was going to happen when we got the big heavy snows?" Heintz said.
The answer came last winter, when about 17 inches of wet, heavy snow fell on Bismarck.
"We weren't able to push that amount of snow with the gate down. It was stopping the equipment," Heintz said.
Another drawback of snow gates, he said, is that plows have to drive slower. That means it takes longer to clear streets and snow doesn't get pushed very far onto berms, which leads to narrowing of streets.
A provision in Bismarck's ordinance allows the driveway rule to be suspended during snow emergencies.
If that wasn't in place, Heintz said it could take five or six days to clear streets following a heavy snowfall.
After going to snow gates, Bismarck hired eight additional workers to help get snow removed within a time period acceptable to residents, Heintz said.
The additional labor and repair costs associated with snow gates amount to about half a million dollars a year, with the expense covered by the city's sales tax, according to Heintz.
Fargo doesn't use snow gates, but the city has looked into the possibility, according to Al Weigel, Fargo's director of operations.
He said cost would be a serious issue if the city adopted the equipment, primarily because snow gates don't work on snowplow trucks, so Fargo's fleet of about 20 plow trucks would have to be replaced with motor graders or loaders.
Add to that the expense of snow gates and Weigel estimated the switch could cost Fargo about $6 million.
Weigel said residents would no doubt like having driveways kept clear, but he said they may not be happy with the narrowing of streets that would likely occur with snow gates, nor the extra time it would take to open streets.
"This weekend, if we get 4 or 5 inches of snow, within a 24-hour period we'll be through the whole city," Weigel said.
"If we had snow gates," he added, "I would say you're talking a minimum of 72 hours to get through."
Barry Johnson, West Fargo public works director, said officials there haven't really talked much about snow gates.
He said because the city uses more plow trucks than motor graders, making a switch could be an expensive proposition.
The same goes for Moorhead, according to Chad Martin, the city's director of operations.
To switch to snow gates, Moorhead would have to replace six plow trucks with at least eight motor graders, at a price of about $230,000 per grader, Martin said, adding that every couple of years city council members bring up the subject of snow gates because a resident has asked about them.
And every time it's the same answer, he said: Snow gates do a nice job of keeping snow out of driveways, but they would require a major investment in vehicles and snow cleaning would take longer.
The city of Jamestown, N.D., has been using snow gates for about 10 years and they work well for light snow, according to Harold Sad, street department foreman.
But, he said, street constriction has been an issue.
"Jamestown had 'em on when we had that Christmas blizzard," Sad said, referring to snow gates and the recent heavy snow over the holidays.
"We're still suffering for that," he added. "Our streets are very narrow now."
The snow gates were taken off just before a recent big snow and they will stay off for the time being, Sad said.
"It really made a difference as far as cleaning," he said.