A school-bus rollover on the Missoula County line this winter brought attention to the issue of road plowing on bus routes, but the quandary, said county roads superintendant Dave Ohnstad, is not an easy one to solve.
While the road department calls out plow drivers whenever there is a need, certain weather events occurring at certain times of the morning can not be mitigated in time for bus drivers to have clear driving.
How weather will impact certain areas of the county at certain times can't really be predicted, Ohnstad said; the freezing rain that led to the winter bus crash occurred between 5 a.m. and 5:30 a.m. - just an hour before busses roll and without enough warning to let plow drivers hit the problem areas first. And on the morning it occurred, while the freezing rain was serious, it was not occurring everywhere.
Ohnstad said at his house in Charlos Heights at 4 a.m. that morning, everything was dry.
"We can't treat a road for an event which has not occurred," Ohnstad said.
Ohnstad met with county commissioners and school officials Thursday in a meeting requested by the schools, who say in recent years they've found more problem spots on county roads as buses go to fetch children in the early morning. Officials discussed the problem and possible solutions. For now, those solutions include:
• Schools will supply the roads department with a full bus schedule, including bus stops.
• Schools will also note traditional problem areas.
• Routes and problem areas will be integrated into plowing schedules.
• The roads department will analyze the communication process between dispatch and the roads department and find ways to smooth the flow of information.
School officials had a long list of grievances they aired at the meeting.
"The trucks used to roll ahead of the busses," said Buck Stanhope, a Darby schools worker who sometimes plows and sands school routes in the early morning. "I haven't seen that happen lately, and it's been going on for several years."
Mike Krout, from Majestic Bus Service, which runs 33 busses every morning and afternoon, said there's no way for drivers to predict which roads will be plowed and sanded, and in what order.
"It's the great unknown," he said. "You don't know what you are going to get."
Several times this winter busses went out but had to stop in the middle of a route, Krout said, so chains could be put on.
"Sometimes the maintenance is there and sometimes it's not," he said.
If roads need plowing or sanding, school officials are supposed to call dispatch, which in turn contacts the roads department so plows can be sent out.
That happens frequently, school officials say, but does not always result in clear roads.
And it won't, Ohnstad said. It takes at least half an hour from the time a plow driver is called until the time the plow is on the road, and longer yet to get to the problem areas. The county has hundreds of miles of roads but just nine plows - one in Conner, one in Stevensville, and seven in Hamilton. Unless the county wants to radically increase the number of plows it has, there is no way every road can be plowed and sanded during a snowstorm which starts in the early morning hours.
"In mathematics, it's impossible," said Mike Nichols, the county's on-call winter supervisor.
One idea - to let individual school bus drivers contact individual plow drivers via radio - was dismissed. Plow drivers are piloting a 30-ton truck with sand coming out one end and a 14-foot plow on the other, Nichols said. There's no way they can plow roads, avoid wrecks, and talk on the radio with bus drivers all at the same time.
A second idea - to have a sort of early response team which could run out and hit problem areas as they develop - was also dismissed as being impractical.
Commissioner J.R. Iman said timing was key in getting roads clear in time for busses to head out.
"The timing for the road department can't be the same as it is for the users," he said. "The problem needs to get to the road department by 4:30 a.m. or 5 a.m. They need to get the word out in time for them to do something about it."
And simply having plow drivers start their shift at, say, 4 a.m., said Commission Chairman Greg Chilcott, is no solution - especially when the issue comes up only a half-dozen times a year.
"Pre-emptive sanding doesn't work, and I'm not being cute," he said. "If you have freezing that happens at 5 or 5:30 a.m., you can't address it by 7."
Reporter Jeff Schmerker can be reached at 363-3300 or email@example.com.
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