The great Elk Avenue snowbank debate returns to CB council

Safety, greenhouse gases, labor and aesthetics part of the debate

By Mark Reaman

Those that enjoy picturesque snowbanks on Elk Avenue might have a reason to celebrate this coming ski season. With any luck of a good snow season, the snowbanks along Elk Avenue will be bigger and hang around longer than they have the last several winters. 

Citing a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and labor costs, the Crested Butte town council on Monday instructed the town staff to use its discretion but attempt to cut back on the number of times the public works department does a major plow and hauls away the snowbanks in the coming winter.

It has been the recent town policy to keep snowbanks along Elk from the week before Christmas until the week after New Year’s, and then haul them away as quickly as possible between snowstorms the rest of the season. The primary motivator for the elimination of the snowbanks has been safety as large snowbanks narrow the street, impede visibility and result in icy areas and slippery sidewalks. 

Crested Butte public works department director Shea Earley informed the council in a memo that removing snowbanks between each snow event results in between 20 and 30 snow removals a season depending on the snowfall. Last winter topped the 30-haul mark. He projected that if removing the snowbanks was triggered only after they begin to encroach into the roadway or sidewalks, that number would go down to between five and 10 times a season. He said removing the snowbanks is a labor-intensive effort that also produces about 743 kg of CO2 each time. 

Earley indicated that safety of pedestrians and drivers on Elk was a prime concern, so he suggested staying with the current policy. “I think the safety issues are valid and important and the better visibility is a major factor. There are a lot of pedestrians on Elk Avenue in the winter,” he said. 

Councilmember Mallika Magner said one safety issue is that pedestrians don’t confine their Elk Avenue street crossings to the crosswalks, and as a driver, that can be disconcerting on a snowy or slippery street. “Wouldn’t having snowbanks eliminate some of that,” she asked.

“It’s more the visibility issues that are a safety concern for me,” said Earley. 

“I suppose when the snowbanks encroach onto Elk it creates traffic calming to a degree,” said Earley.

“We have parklets and flower boxes on Elk in the summer so removing the snowbanks is counterintuitive to me,” added councilmember Beth Goldstone. “I understand it impacts the buses, but I see them as traffic calming.”

Parks, Recreation, Open Space and Trails department director Janna Hansen said, “the snowbanks also create slippery situations for pedestrians the more we have those banks.” She also described the dilemma when a person parks a car and the passenger has little room to move when leaving a vehicle if a snowbank is blocking the exit area. She said it is not unusual to field a complaint in the winter about someone trying to maneuver in such a situation and slipping under the vehicle.

“We hear every year about people having bad encounters with snowbanks,” agreed Earley. 

“People not figuring out to let the passenger get out before moving into a tight parking spot seems like operator error to me,” said councilmember Gabi Prochaska. 

“It depends on the amount of snow we get, obviously, but I am interested in aiming to do 10 to 15 (snowbank) plows on Elk in the winter versus 20 to 30,” said councilmember Anna Fenerty.

“The snowbank discussion used to fill the council room and there were heated discussions over what to do with them,” recalled councilmember Chris Haver. “That hasn’t been the case recently. It seems to be working. I’m not so concerned with greenhouse gas emissions with this one, but for me the safety issues outweigh going back and reopening Pandora’s Box.”

“I disagree and I am concerned with the greenhouse gas emissions, labor and equipment costs associated with it,” said Magner. “I’m with Anna [Fenerty] and think we should pull back some on the hauling away of the snowbanks. Let’s not get rid of them after every storm.”

Councilmember Jason MacMillan said he has struggled with the issue and while he appreciated the aesthetics of what snowbanks look like on Elk Avenue, “maybe we need the middle ground—not quite 30 but I’d follow staff’s advice.”

“I think there is a traffic calming element to them, and we should consider that aspect as well,” said Prochaska. “People drive more carefully when there is less visibility. And less emissions and lower labor costs are important to consider going into the future.”

Earley said the volume of snow on the street at any given time impacts the time it takes to remove the snowbanks from Elk Avenue, so while there would likely be some reduction in labor costs, there are other costs, such as dump truck operations, that remain steady.

Mayor Ian Billick did not opine on the topic but noted he counted at least four councilmembers giving direction to reduce the number of times Elk Avenue snowbanks should be hauled away next winter. “The council seems on board with the middle way, and while giving discretion to the staff, the direction is to pull back on hauling away the banks. Given that, I would say we can expect there will be fewer than 30 such plows this season.”

Unless of course we get another monster snow winter like last season!

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