First, let me make something clear: I have no intention of telling anybody how to do their job. I have absolutely no clue how to operate a snowplow, much less coordinate the Flathead County road department. But this time of year, the road department, specifically the winter maintenance team, comes under a lot of scrutiny from valley residents due to unplowed and icy road conditions. Of course, this is inevitable: With a limited number of snowplows and personnel and manymiles of road in the valley, some roads are going to remain unmaintained for a while. We’re Montanans; we’ll complain but we have snow tires and we can deal with this. My primary difficulty with the winter conditions is the unpredictability, and I think others have this problem as well. The current unpredictability of road maintenance makes it difficult to plan transportation ahead of time and choose the safest options for travel.
For example, as a Kalispell resident, there are a few different routes I can take to work. I can take Meridian, Center, or the bypass. My preferred route is the bypass, but if one of the first two has already been plowed or sanded and is therefore safer, I will change my routine and take the other. However, I have no way of knowing which roads have already been plowed, short of calling residents of these areas and asking. Possible, since Kalispell is a small town and I probably know people on all of these streets, but difficult, especially when considering an easier solution: The Internet.
If the road department posted their plowing progress, predicted scheduling, and current maintenance priorities online, planning travel – predicting delays, finding safe streets, and choosing departure times – would be significantly easier. On an icy day, I would usually try to leave the house before 8 a.m., but if I knew that the road was tentatively going to be sanded at 8:30 a.m., I would probably delay leaving until then because it will be safer.
My suggestion for easy formatting of maintenance information is a color coded road map of the valley, with roads one of five colors: Green for completed roads, orange for roads where maintenance is in progress, red for high-priority incomplete roads, yellow for mid-priority incomplete roads, blue for low-priority incomplete roads, and black for any road whose conditions necessitate emergency travel only until further maintenance. Estimated completion times would be available by clicking on each road; obviously this would be more accurate the higher the road priority. Additionally, snowplows, sand trucks, and other such vehicles could be tracked via GPS and appear as different colored dots on the map. There are similar websites used for highway and mountain pass conditions throughout Montana, but none of them go into enough detail for route selection on daily commutes.
My neighborhood was not designed and planned for easy winter driving, and there are times when my neighbors and I just stare at each other and ask, “What is the road department up to?” A map would add transparency to the road department, and with that transparency will come a much-needed understanding of and sympathy toward the maintenance crew, as well as valuable community feedback. Maybe neighborhood A could stand to be plowed a half-hour later if main thoroughfare B nearby gets plowed first. Maybe some neighborhoods actually would appreciate later plowing when everybody’s at work and there are no cars in the way, resulting in better snow removal.
The lack of communication currently characterizing the road department causes a lot of unnecessary anger toward the winter maintenance crew. In my mind, my street should be their No. 1 priority, and if they’re not up plowing it at 5 a.m., I want to exact revenge by writing a biting editorial. But if I was aware the maintenance team was hard at work clearing the streets surrounding schools, the major highways, and the hospital complex, I would be a lot more understanding. And one thing I know for sure – it’s not just me.