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Clearing Columbia curb to curb

Plow operators endure long hours, slow drivers and abandoned cars along Columbia’s roadways.
Sunday, December 3, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 4:42 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 5, 2008

[photo]

Robert Merritt of Wilcoxson Construction and Excavating helps in the block-by-block clearing of snow from Broadway on Friday. The city hired private construction vehicles and personnel to assist city workers in the cleanup. (ADAM WISNESKI/Missourian)

Tim Delgman’s 12-ton snow plow passed abandoned cars as it bumped down a slippery Stadium Boulevard late Friday afternoon at 5 miles per hour, tripping on patches of ice and tightly packed snow. Above the roar of the truck’s engine, the CB radio squawked and crackled. Country music played in the background.

Stay at home, the radio station’s announcer said. Don’t leave unless you have to.

Despite the warnings, cars pushed slowly ahead of the plow’s curved blade.

Delgman gripped the steering wheel, visibly annoyed with the cars out on the road.

“I just get frustrated with all these people,” the rookie driver said. “It takes longer for us to get it done.”

Delgman, 25, of Columbia, was one of 17 drivers plowing Columbia roads Friday after Thursday’s snowfall. This season is his first as a plowman.

It was hour nine of his 12-hour shift, and he was getting restless. Because he’d chosen to skip his lunch hour, he hadn’t had a break since starting work at 8 a.m., and the monotony of plowing was taking its toll. The pack-a-day smoker was already on his second pack of Marlboro Lights.

“I don’t mind it really,” he said of his job. “It just gets old after a while.”

At intersections and hills, Delgman pulled the second of three levers between the cab’s two seats to open the spreader that dispenses cinders and salt. These are the most challenging places for drivers, so crew’s focus their efforts on these trouble spots, said Delgman’s supervisor, Melissa Kelpe.

Delgman and another driver worked District 3 — an area that covered Ash Street, West Boulevard, Broadway and other roadways the city has mapped as its first priorities. The two trucks plowed from the center line to the curb, going back and forth, each time edging farther to the right.

“We’ll keep doing that until it’s (cleared) curb to curb,” Kelpe said.

First priority roads are the areas with the heaviest traffic or that are considered “critical areas” carrying bus routes, Kelpe said. Second priorities are significant side streets within the city limits.

Drivers spent all day Friday plowing first priority roads, before night-shift drivers took over on second priority routes. The night shift started at 8 p.m. and lasted until 8 a.m. Saturday, when the trucks were handed back over to Delgman and the rest of the day-shift workers to start clearing the city’s subdivisions.

“We have a full crew going around the clock,” Kelpe said. She said the crews would continue to work in 12-hour shifts until the roads were cleared.

For some, it wasn’t fast enough. Kelpe said her phone rang all day Friday with callers complaining about the trucks plowing in their driveways or asking when their subdivisions would be cleared.

“I don’t know what to tell them,” Kelpe said. “It’s just a mess. It really is.”

Major highways, such as Interstate 70, U.S. 63, Providence Road and Stadium Boulevard, are under the state’s jurisdiction, Kelpe said. By Saturday, however, state, county and city officials said road crews had joined together in a “cooperative effort” to plow roads, “no matter what jurisdiction maintains the roadway.”

Officials urged drivers to stay off the roads — both as a safety precaution for the drivers themselves and to leave the roads open for plows trying to clear them. Although crews have made considerable progress, “travelers and stalled vehicles continue to hamper the efforts,” according to a press release from Columbia and Boone County officials.

Handling a plow isn’t easy. Drivers have to keep their truck from slipping too much on the ice, while constantly looking out for pedestrians in the street and slow-moving cars all around.

“It does take a lot of concentration,” Delgman said. “You never know what (the other drivers) are going to do.”

And then there are the snow-covered parked and abandoned cars, which force plow drivers to weave in and out of the obstacles. On Stadium Boulevard alone, there were at least a dozen abandoned vehicles stuck in odd positions in the middle and along the side of the road on Friday.

Delgman had a close call, he said, when his wheels lost traction on a patch of ice as he descended a hill. He was able to gain control of his truck, but he barely missed two abandoned cars along the shoulder.

But it’s not all tough going. As the sun set toward the end of Delgman’s shift Friday, the purple sky reflected off of the untouched snow layered on tree branches.

“That’s one of the bonuses,” Delgman said, nodding to the view ahead. “It’s just nice.”


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