CAPITAL REGION — Highway officials for cities, towns and counties in the area say they’re confident in their ability to keep roads clear of snow this winter, even with a national shortage of plow drivers and a backlog on vehicle repair parts.
The official start of winter is Dec. 21, and so far the region has experienced a handful of “nuisance” storms of just an inch or two.
On a yearly basis, the Albany area averages just shy of 60 inches of snow a year from October to April, including 13.3 inches in December, 15.6 inches in January, 13.7 inches in February and 12 inches in March, according to National Weather Service meteorologist Michael Main.
In Glens Falls, winters are a bit snowier, he said.
Elsewhere, the nationwide shortage of snowplow drivers is profound, with one Massachusetts community saying it will pay up to $310 an hour for drivers with specialized equipment, according to reports.
Schenectady plowing along
In Schenectady, which faced back-to-back years of criticism regarding the city’s response to big storms, Commissioner of General Services Paul LaFond said the Electric City is as “prepared as we can be” for the 2021-2022 winter, even with about 10 open positions for plow truck drivers.
The city has about 30 plow truck drivers at its disposal, including some from the sewer department, LaFond said.
As of the week of Nov. 28, Schenectady had activated a skeleton crew to add a third shift from 3 a.m. to 11 a.m. for snow and salting operations to prepare city motorists for the morning commute, LaFond said.
The city also adopted a union contract that increases motor equipment operators’ pay by $3 per hour, to $20.90 in January.
In addition, LaFond said, “we’ve retained some private contractors this year, and they have their machines already mobilized in different parts of the city so they have their routes to do. They have been assigned certain routes in the city as in previous years. We have a few extra machines on this year.”
The Capital Region was blanketed with nearly three feet of snow this time last year, resulting in a prolonged snow removal effort by Schenectady that had side streets still covered days after the storm.
“Last year was a tough year,” LaFond acknowledged. “Nobody expected 31 inches of snowfall. We’re going to go out and do the best we can. With the additional contractors and equipment on site at different areas of the city, I think this year we’re going to be as well prepared as we can be.”
The state Department of Transportation is also looking for drivers. It has signage on state highways beckoning workers to “come plow with us.”
However, DOT spokesman Bryan Viggiani said the state has enough drivers in the Capital Region to get through the winter.
Every year prior to snow and ice season, the DOT makes what Viggiani said is a strong, concerted effort to ensure it has the necessary staff to handle everything that Mother Nature has in store.
“This year has been challenging as drivers everywhere are in demand,” he said, “but we will absolutely have the necessary staff and resources in the Capital Region and we are ready to fulfill our mission this winter.”
The agency has been “recruiting hard since the summer, getting the word out via booths at county fairs, electronic variable message boards along roadways, signs at our maintenance facilities and via traditional and social media.”
For the first time ever, Viggiani said, the state has recently been advertising for snowplow drivers using billboards in key locations.
Viggiani added: ”We’ve also gotten very good at sharing staffing and equipment resources statewide from region to region — and even within our specific region — over the years to make sure that particular areas are adequately equipped to deal with snow and ice events in real-time.”
“While we are adequately staffed with operators and supervisors for the upcoming snow and ice season, we are always looking to add a few more for the winter months,” he said.
Anyone interested in joining the DOT’s team of drivers should stop by a local DOT residency facility or apply online at ny.gov/dotjobs.
Rotterdam seeks workers
Rotterdam, which has 12 snow plow trucks, will have driver shortages this winter, according to highway superintendent Larry Lamora. But it’s less about the availability of drivers than it is budgeting, Lamora said, adding the department has 26 workers, three fewer than it needs.
Rotterdam has 12 snow plow trucks, and it wants to put a driver and wingman in each vehicle because of the town’s abundance of residential streets and cul-de-sacs.
“The town hasn’t really allocated enough money for us to hire the guys we need to fill our trucks,” said Lamora, who has been in an ongoing disagreement with town officials about budgeting.
“I see there’s a little bit of money added to our budget for laborers, and it’s looking like they’re supplying one more person for us,” he said late last week. “We have a new administration coming in on January 1 in town here. I’m hoping we can reach out to them and see if there’s a way we can allocate money to fully fund the highway department for employees.”
Clifton Park concerned about parts
In Clifton Park, the town was doing OK with regard to its full-time drivers for 23 snow plow trucks, said Highway Superintendent Dahn Bull.
The real issue, Bull said, is the backlog on parts and equipment for snowplow vehicles.
“The turnaround time for parts and equipment is very long right now,” he said. “We could be having some situations, if we have two or three plow trucks go down for serious reasons, three to six weeks before we’re seeing those parts. That could put us in a bad spot.”
Last year at this time, the typical turnaround was just a day or two depending on the part, he said.
“I think that all stems from when COVID started, and they started shutting down plants,” he said.
Because of that, the department has ramped up its ongoing maintenance of the trucks, Bull said.
“You’ve got to check your air pressure, check your gas, check your oil,” he said. “Every day we take our trucks out we bring them back and do a full check — to have them regrease bearings, regrease the bed chains, regrease the spinners — and try to do our best to keep those going.”
The town could be in trouble in the event of the need for a major repair, Bull indicated.
“If we have a transmission break or a rear differential break — that’s when we’re really starting to talk about lag time on parts, and that’s when we could have an issue of a truck being down for a long time,” he said.
“The good news on that, though, is the way we have our routes set up,” Bull said. “We have to make sure that every neighboring route knows their neighbor. That way, if one of these situations does occur, our neighboring routes can step in and help clean up the one that has the truck down.”
Saratoga County prepared
Saratoga County, which budgeted approximately $3.4 million for snow and ice controls, says it is also ready for the winter. It has 24 active snow plow routes with spare plow trucks in the event of mechanical breakdowns. It has two shifts per day with a total of 48 active plow drivers and helpers, county spokeswoman Christine Rush said.
“Saratoga County DPW has the ability to pivot as necessary to meet the demands placed on the department during the winter while adapting to COVID or other safety measures and/or restrictions,” Rush said in a statement.
“Saratoga County DPW maintains a contingent of talented CDL operators in addition to the active plow drivers to address any personnel shortages that may arise. And while snowplows are normally staffed with two individuals, the Saratoga County DPW has a one-person plow program, which trains all drivers to safely operate the plow individually should the need arise.”
Town of Amsterdam ready
In the town of Amsterdam, highway superintendent Bart Tessiero said the town is “prepared for whatever the weather gives us.”
It has five plow trucks and a spare, and six full-time employees and five part-timers, he said.
They tend to put two workers in a truck, with a salt truck controlled by just its driver.
“Lately with these nuisance storms we’ve been sending out three trucks,” Tessiero said. “Maybe twice I’ve sent out four trucks so far.”
“If it’s snowing an inch an hour we send out five trucks and that’s worked fairly well. We’ve been fortunate that we’ve been pretty much on target with calling our employees in and getting the roads taken care of.”
Contact reporter Brian Lee at [email protected] or 518-419-9766.
Clarification 12/14 10:50 a.m.: An earlier version of this story omitted the full name of the town of Amsterdam.