While I was interviewing sources for a story on keeping snow off the roads in Truckee/North Tahoe (read the online exclusive State of the Snowplows), the topic of snow berms came up — those piles of snow lining roads that are pushed aside by plows. I decided to get the scoop from Matt Randall, road maintenance division manager for Placer County, on the why behind berm buildups.
How are snow berms formed, and what’s the protocol for keeping them away from residences and businesses?
Unfortunately, some sort of berm is inevitable. In fact, Caltrans leaves snow berms in front of our local roads, all the roads that connect with the state highway. So we’re not strangers to having to deal with berms. We’re responsible for the public roads and not private roads. We’re funded with gas taxes and so we need to use the gas taxes on the public roads and not on private driveways. Those are the residents’ responsibility to deal with the berms. Some of our plows have berm gates that we try to use, and when there’s a little bit of snow and we can keep up with things, the berm gates work.
But when it snows a lot all at once, like [early January] when we got, gosh, it was like 18 inches or 24 inches within 24 hours — the berm gates don’t work when there’s a lot of snow falling fast; they’re just not as effective. That’s our experience. Some people tell us that we should use them, and we try but they don’t always work very well.
Berms stink for everybody. Sometimes folks will say “You guys are doing this on purpose.” The truth is, if the operators could make it so there was no berm, I’m sure they would.
But the way that the snow operations go is that we’re going to leave a berm. People have asked us to change our operations to minimize berms. It just is a tricky thing because we don’t want to leave a berm. We want to get all the roads open and the motor graders are the best way to get the roads open fast. [Editor’s note: Motor graders are heavy equipment vehicles with a long blade between the front and rear wheels, used to create flat surfaces on roads.]
People have accused us of [purposely creating berms right in front of people’s driveways], but I can tell you, it doesn’t happen. I’m the boss. If I heard that that was happening, that person would be in trouble. We don’t give people special berms, even though that’s a joke that people say. We couldn’t even if we wanted to. [Sometimes] people wait for [snow operators] outside and some people are super cooperative and they’re waving and giving [us] a thumbs up and then they take care of their driveways. And then we’ve had some interactions with the public that are pretty negative where our operators have gotten yelled at because they think that we’re leaving berms on purpose and we just don’t.
~ Matt Randall, Placer County road maintenance division manager