The Science, Changing Weather Challenges Behind Duluth’s Snow Plowing Operations

DULUTH, Minn. — Winter isn’t giving up just yet with impressive snow totals over the weekend. And for Duluth plow crews, that’s meant 16-hour shifts since Saturday working through thousands of intersections, and thousands of miles of roadways.  All of this, as a potential second storm in a week is eying the Northland in just days.

It’s no secret, frustrations around snow removal in the city of Duluth avalanched early this season in December when two liquid-soaked storm systems dumped more than two feet of snow within a week of each other.

Citizen complaints mounted and so did the snow as plows moved in.

FOX 21’s Dan Hanger talked with Geoff Vukelich, the man responsible for strategizing and executing Duluth’s 27-mile-long plowing operations, about the science behind snow removal in an area he calls one of the most challenging landscapes in the country.  Plus, Vukelich talks about how changing weather patterns are not helping.

“We’re having whiplash effects. That’s a climatology term meaning higher highs and lower lows together. We don’t have a nice easy ocean anymore. It’s very peaky,” Vukelich said, Duluth’s street maintenance operations coordinator.

Duluth’s winter storms are becoming increasingly challenging for the city’s plow drivers.

“The climate has changed. Even in the 15 years that I’ve been here, you talk to senior operators who’ve been here for 30 years — It’s just magnified,” Vukelich.

Vukelich says our winters are getting warmer, storms are getting wetter and systems are often arriving closer together.

“I have 46 pieces of equipment, but if I have heavy wet snow, I only have 22. Keep in mind this is still the largest greater fleet in Northern Minnesota,” Vulkelich said.

Vulkelich only has 22 graders during a wet snow event because he says the plows aren’t powerful enough to handle brick-wall-like snow, along with the challenges of navigating through Duluth’s unique neighborhoods, tight layout and steep hills.

“A lot of our streets were constructed in the 20s, 30s and 40s,” Vulkelich explained. “These machines you see behind us — the board underneath is 12 feet. The machine itself is 10. 5 feet wide. A lot of the infrastructure you see in Lincoln park, East Hillside, Central Hillside, they’re a 20-foot wide road, so we’re already taking over half of the road, now you put a snowbank on one side that comes off the curb about a foot, so we only got 9 feet to put a 10.5 or 11-foot machine down, we’re going to struggle,” Vulkelich said.

And that struggle often means the snow will end up back on sidewalks and driveways.

“We don’t like to fill sidewalks, we don’t want to fill your driveways in, but it’s a physics and math problem. It’s got to go somewhere,” Vulkelich said. “People are frustrated. I get it. I’ve had to shovel my driveway way too much already. But that’s also why we live here, because we like the winters.”

Vukelich says planning for winter is a year-long job — always refining and looking for ways to improve. He says he’s proud of his 35 plow drivers, calling their response this season efficient and effective, given the resources available for a city its size.

“I hope they realize when it snows on average, I’d call a 4-inch snowfall average, we have everything plowed out in 24 hours. Places like Minneapolis, St. Paul, they struggle for 2 or 3 days with 6 inches of snow. We did 26 inches of snow in three days.

But that said, Vukelich says if residents want a faster response time, there’s no quick fix. It comes down to budgets and dollars available at City Hall.

“When people say you have the money, you have the resource — each piece of equipment behind us sells for right around 300 to 350 thousand dollars. Every plow truck we have sells for roughly a half-million dollars now,” Vukelich said.

“Our staff in the early or late 90s, early 2000s was 54. And at one point 64 employees. Right now we’re currently at 35. So, we have lost employees over the years. We do have an aging fleet. You see this widely across municipalities. So, could we use help?  110 percent. I think a lot of people could use help,” Vukelich said.

As for those snow mounds and some parts of the city feeling neglected, Vukelich says there’s no reasonable staffing level to handle every mound of snow on every corner.

“It’s such a dynamic issue, but you can’t say I’m going to go fix that snow bank or I’m going to go over there and take care of that, because we have to have a plan, otherwise it gets to be very reactionary. And when we are reactionary, we lose efficiently,” Vukelich said.

There’s a strategic process that starts from clearing emergency routes first before residential and alleys. And if a second storm moves in before that process is complete, it stops and starts all over again.

“So unfortunately somebody is going to be first and somebody’s going to be last. We haven’t forgotten about the last person. You are just as important. But from an efficiency standard and from a public safety standard, we have to work through that process,” Vukelich said.

Another point Vukelich wanted to make involves 911 calls. He says if your street isn’t plowed and you need an ambulance, the city responders coordinate with the plows to lead the way into a neighborhood so no 911 calls are compromised.

And by the way, the 35 plow drivers are the same crew members who fill all those potholes when snow isn’t falling.

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