By Chris Reinoos
Earlier this month, Punxsutawney Phil was brought out of his burrow and did not see his shadow, a traditional sign of an early spring.
After a long winter of snowfall and icy conditions, Eau Claire residents would certainly be happy if the famous groundhog’s prognostication came true.
The numerous storms have left many of the city’s roads in rough shape. Street Maintenance Manager Steve Thompson, in his fourth winter on the job, said the city prioritizes main roads when snowplowing or clearing ice.
“The ice control routes, which are our main arterials, are divided up into 12 different routes,” Thompson said. “Those are the streets that everything feeds to.”
For maintenance purposes, Eau Claire is divided into three major classifications, each with a different priority: ice control routes (first priority), secondary plow routes (second) and residential routes (third). Thompson said the secondary routes are generally those around schools and churches.
Thompson said limited finances are the reason the city must be divided into priorities. The city has thirty maintenance drivers who are not allowed to work more than 16 hours in one shift. That limitation, coupled with the fact that Thompson said full residential plowing requires about 35 equipment vehicles, makes for some tough decisions.
The Eau Claire City Council set the standard for plowing on residential roads at a minimum of three inches of accumulated snowfall. Third district representative Kathy Mitchell, who is in her second year on the council, said budget cutbacks drove that initial decision.
“We have had to decrease the size of the city’s staff, and that included staff in the public works department,” Mitchell said. “While it would be great to be able to plow everything every time it snowed, we simply don’t have the funds to do that.”
Prioritizing the routes means residential and side roads often have snow and ice on them from the time of the first storms through the remainder of the winter. But Thompson said the primary routes suffer a different kind of wear and tear during the winter months.
“The problem with starting to scrape streets dry is you start to damage pavement, damage manholes,” Thompson said. “It does get ruddy and chewed up.”
Mitchell said she hears more complaints from people in her district about the condition of the sidewalks than the roads. In fact, Mitchell said she has never received a call about residential road conditions during her two years on the council.
Both Thompson and Mitchell said people “understand” not all roads can be plowed or salted equally and that there will be some tough conditions in the secondary and especially the third priority areas. Thompson also said the main ice control routes are set up so as to limit travel time to them from the different residential areas in the city.
But Roger Schulz, an Eau Claire resident who has lived in the Randall Park district the past four years, said the road conditions are unacceptable. He said he has suffered damage to his vehicle driving in residential areas and does not feel the roads are safe.
Schulz said the amount of tickets written in residential areas, which he believes are so cars are clear for plows to come through, should lead to increased maintenance.
“The reason that you’re giving the tickets is to clear for the plow,” Schulz said. “It would be nice to actually have a plow run down.”
Thompson said the city has about 1500 tons of salt left for the rest of the season for the main arterial roads. With potentially a month left of inclement weather, Thompson said the city’s salt is getting tight.
Schulz said prioritizing the main streets is necessary and understandable. But he also said more care should be taken to maintain the residential roads.
“There’s no reason you can’t run a plow down the side streets and get some of (the snow and ice) off before it becomes an absolute ice skating rink of potholes,” he said.
Hopefully for Schulz and others upset with road conditions, Punxsutawney Phil’s prediction will come true.