Plowing after a big snowstorm has been a political issue in Denver dating back decades.
Longtime mayor Bill McNichols’s re-election loss to Frederico Peña in 1983 has often been linked to his administration’s mishandling of the blizzard in 1982. Peña later faced an unsuccessful recall over snow removal.
In 2023, there is no incumbent scrambling to overcome mounds of icy snow to remain in office. Mayor Michael Hancock is term-limited. But one of the candidates running to succeed him, state Sen. Chris Hansen, is aiming to make political hay out of the more than 7 inches of wet, heavy snow that coated Denver overnight Dec. 28 into Dec. 29.
With the remnants of that storm still lingering on slick roads and sidewalks across the city, Hansen took to Twitter to vow that if he is elected this spring he will “plow the damn roads.”
There are more than two dozen other mayoral candidates competing with Hansen as the city’s April 4 municipal election approaches. Among a handful of that crop of would-be mayors that The Denver Post talked to about the topic, viewpoints about the city’s snow removal policies varied. Most agree things could be better. Hansen has taken the strongest pro-plowing stance.
“We need to have a better approach to side streets,” Hansen said. “I would say we need to update and revamp how we are approaching snow removal based on the new climate conditions.”
The city’s snow removal policy is focused on main streets, or most of those roadways with painted striping, according to the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure. Relying on a fleet of 70 large plows capable of dumping dry and liquid deicing materials and 36 smaller trucks without that deicing ability, the city’s approach is designed to be “efficient, effective and fiscally responsible.” That means residential side streets not located near schools only get a visit from city plows in special circumstances.
Denver’s residential snow plow program was launched in the winter of 2006-2007, according to the city’s snow removal webpage. That season, back-to-back blizzards around the holidays turned neighborhood streets into deeply rutted skating rinks with compacted, icy snow remaining a hazard for weeks.
After that episode, the city began deploying smaller plows during large snowstorms and in emergencies. Starting in the 2017-2018 season, with extra staff on board, the city expanded that effort further but COVID-19-related budget cutbacks and staffing challenges have since taken a bite out of that ability, city officials say.
Following the December storm, the city deployed 10 or 11 small plows to hit trouble spots in residential areas, DOTI spokeswoman Nancy Kuhn said, but by then much of the heavy wet snow had already been packed down. The small plows do not clear streets down to bare pavement, just remove enough snow to make roads passable, Kuhn emphasized.
“COVID put us in budget reduction mode, but as our city recovers, there may be opportunities in upcoming budget cycles to reignite discussions about service level expansions that the administration and elected officials want to fund,” Kuhn said of the city’s snow removal efforts.
Pinning down exactly how much plowing costs, Denver each is a challenge because drivers do other work and may be paid overtime depending on the timing of storms. Vehicle purchases and upkeep also vary. One line item that is specific to plowing in the city’s 2023 budget is $3 million for deicing materials but that could go up in the event of a heavy snow season, Kuhn said.
Hansen said that if he is elected his first budget would reflect snow removal as a higher priority, even if it means redirecting from other services.
“The short answer is yes. I think it’s an area that we are going to have to increase investments,” He said. “I think it’s clear that our planning is also going to need adjustments.”
Mayoral candidate Kelly Brough remembers the blizzards of 2006-2007 well. She was chief of staff for then-Mayor John Hickenlooper at the time. Brough also previously had a commercial vehicle license and did spot duty as a plow driver at Denver’s Stapleton International Airport.
As a matter of practicality, plowing every street in every storm isn’t feasible, Brough said. She is open to discussing snow removal policies in greater depth.
“I understand the frustration when we have moments like this,” Brough said. “But I think you have to consider the trade-offs. And this isn’t a city of unlimited resources. I’d say I understand the concern, but I don’t think you want the city to spend the resources, what it takes, to plow those side streets, all those neighborhood streets. It’s really challenging and it’s extremely expensive.”
Leslie Herod, who worked with Hansen on the Colorado Legislature’s joint budget committee before both jumped in the mayor’s race, also said the city doesn’t have the resources to plow every street. She and other mayoral hopefuls focused not just on streets but sidewalks and bike paths as areas where the city should improve snow removal.
The city has staff and equipment dedicated to clearing pedestrian bridges and protected bike lanes though transportation advocates say those services leave much to be desired.
“Our priorities as a city should be getting from point A to point B,” Herod said. “That means making sure that snow is not piled up in places like pedestrian walkways and crosswalks and right-of-ways forcing people to walk in the street to get to their cars or businesses … That is unsafe and unacceptable.”
At the launch party for his campaign, finance professional turned mayoral candidate Trinidad Rodriguez said Denver will always have unique weather challenges but better snow removal service could start with better communication, particularly for people who don’t have the luxury of working from home.
“We have to be communicating about our limitations,” Rodriguez said. “Denver should better communicate where we will be out plowing, what the plowing looks like, what the weather event looks like so people can better plan their commutes.”
The city’s snow removal website does have a section dedicated to storm response plans and DOTI’s Twitter account does address plowing but the reach of those communication channels is unclear.
Jim Charlier, a longtime transportation planning consultant in the Denver metro area, wrote a Twitter thread examing the implications of Hansen’s “plow the damn roads” promise and looking back at the history of snow removal in Denver.
Charlier noted that the city’s notorious “brown cloud” of pollution, often visible after snowstorms because of atmospheric conditions, was linked by studies in the 1980s, in part, to the large amounts of sand transportation agencies were laying down on metro area streets to provide traction after snowstorms. Cities including Denver would drop sand, vehicles would then drive over the sand and throw it and other bits of debris including tire dust up into the atmosphere contributing to particulate pollution and creating a public health hazard.
The city’s efforts to reduce the use of dry deicing agents in central Denver with an increased focus on post-storm sweeping has led to a 64% decrease in air pollution attributed to snow removal compared to a baseline created in 1989, DOTI’s Kuhn said.
Charlier said the reason he zeroed in on Hansen’s campaign promise was to make the point that the condition of the city’s streets after the big storm was not the result of malfeasance on the part of the city but years of research and debate leading to policy decisions that focused on public health.
“As far as ‘Are we doing the right amount (of plowing) or not?’ that’s a political question,” Charlier said. “It has air quality implications and it has climate implications.”
Even leaving the use of sand off the table, plowing more side streets will likely require more trucks and more drivers at a time when many agencies in the city and state are hurting for those workers, Charlier said.
Hansen, who has a background in energy consulting, has also pledged to be Denver’s greenest mayor and focus on sustainability if elected.
He said doing additional plowing on side streets ahead of time would mean less use of gritty, sandy dicing agents.
“The side roads in Denver are still really in tough shape,” he said.
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